Months after playing a howling-mad psycho in the telefilm Pray for the Wildcats, Andy Griffith took more subdued approach to playing a killer in another telefilm, Savages. Slight but unnerving, Savages was based upon a novel by Robb White, and it tells the threadbare story of a hunter who accidentally kills an innocent man, then tries to frame his guide for the crime. Since the story lacks the element of mystery—viewers never doubt whether Griffith’s character was responsible—the vibe is more pressure cooker than whodunit, so the material might have worked better as, say, a one-hour episode of Night Gallery. Even though Savages runs just 74 minutes, it feels padded, especially during the long, long sequences of the guide struggling to survive in the desert while the hunter plays cat-and-mouse games. Extending the story to full telefilm length also exposes some iffy narrative mechanics to scrutiny. The trick for telling stories about villains toying with victims involves providing a persuasive explanation for why the villain doesn’t simply kill his or her adversary, and Savages never does that. As a result, Savages is merely disposable escapism.
Griffith plays Horton Madec, a big-city lawyer with a bum leg. After using is influence to get a license for killing a big-horn sheep, he travels to the California desert only to find that the guide he originally hired is unavailable. Lucky for Horton, Ben Campbell (Sam Bottoms) has time on his hands. A young animal enthusiast who strikes locals as eccentric because of his fixation on vultures and other desert critters, he knows the land but doesn’t groove on killing protected animals, no matter the circumstances. Yet Horton twists his arm with cash, so off they go. The minute Horton spots a ram on a hilltop, he gets carried away and fires blindly, hitting and killing an old hermit. When Ben refuses to help cover up the death, Horton forces Ben to flee at gunpoint, the idea being that Ben will die of exposure before reaching civilization, allowing Horton to spin a yarn about Ben committing the murder and going crazy afterward. As directed by the experienced Lee H. Katzin, Savages is workmanlike at best, with some sequences suffering for lack of narrative excitement and visual creativity. However, the picture starts well and ends well, its third act effectively complicating the storyline. Better still, Bottoms complements Griffith’s restrained villainy with sweet vulnerability, so watching Savages conjures images of Sheriff Andy Taylor torturing Opie. Sometimes, casting against type works wonders.