Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate Helped Forge the Formula for Murder, She Wrote

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Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate Helped Forge the Formula for Murder, She Wrote

From 1969 to 1975, ABC put out weekly films. They functioned as TV pilots, testing grounds for up-and-coming filmmakers, and places for new and old stars to shine. Every month, Chloe Walker revisits one of these movies. This is Movie of the Week (of the Month).

NB: Let’s clear this up straight away, just to manage expectations: It’s the world of early computer technology that lends 1971 TV movie Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate its intriguingly cumbersome name, not the murder at its center. Sorry to disappoint those looking for a gorier experience…

Sophie T (Helen Hayes), Evelyn (Myrna Loy), Elizabeth (Sylvia Sidney) and Shelby (Mildred Natwick), are four old friends in their 60s and 70s who like to drink cocktails and get up to mischief together. Their latest scheme is a foray into the brave new world of “computer dating.” With varying levels of enthusiasm, they decide to invent a blonde, blue-eyed twentysomething named Rebecca Mead, send her profile to the computer company, and see what kind of response she gets.

Regrettably, Rebecca Mead’s profile finds its way into the hands of Mal (Vince Edwards), a terrifying oddball who becomes obsessed with her. Curious as to who this persistent potential suitor might be, the group arrange a meeting in a restaurant, wanting to have a look at him from afar. They hope that getting stood up will stop his worryingly ardent attempts at wooing their creation. In actuality, they watch as Mal appears and starts talking to a pretty blonde twentysomething he clearly thinks is Rebecca. The two of them leave together. The next day, the front pages proclaim the murder of the woman from the restaurant. Did Mal do it? Sophie T and the gang investigate.

Obviously, most of the pleasure of Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate comes from watching these four acting legends (whose film careers would last a cumulative 229 years!) have a grand old time hanging out together. Ted Post’s movie luxuriates in the chemistry between the four women, and dedicates plenty of space to simply letting us enjoy their company. Although they had crossed professional paths just a handful of times (Loy and Natwick were both in the original Cheaper by the Dozen; Hayes and Loy co-starred in John Ford’s Arrowsmith), they give the impression of a tried and true screen team, bouncing off each other from lived-in, clearly-defined roles: Hayes is the plucky leader, Loy the voice of reason, Sidney the smoky-voiced dipsomaniac and Natwick comically easily shockable (her propensity for fainting becomes a plot point). Their dynamic feels so instantly well-established, when Natwick comments, “This is much more fun than when we registered for the draft!” as they’re filling in the computer dating form, we don’t need a flashback to know exactly how that little adventure would have gone.

The shine does tarnish in the scenes that follow Mal, played with demented gusto by Edwards. For some unearthly reason, the decision was made to accompany these scenes with a breathy stream-of-consciousness voiceover from Mal’s perspective, which yields all manner of unintentional laughs; from the way he narrates things that really do not need narrating (‘I’ll take a shower…”), to his strange manner of punctuating every thought with the word “Yeah” as if it ended with five Hs. As much as there is undeniable comedic value to these strange interludes—his incongruously tortured mental process in the flower shop is laugh-out-loud funny—the longer we spend with him, the more we miss Sophie T and her pals.

And though they are moral beacons compared to Mal, the central awkwardness of Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate is that if it weren’t for their actions, then “Rebecca” would still be alive; the film is less a whodunnit, than an “Oh no, we inadvertently helped him do it, so I guess it’s up to us to catch him!” While there is acknowledgement of their unintentional complicity, the gravity of the crime is not at all commensurate with the level of their regret—to such a degree that it really should have sunk the whole movie.

Yet using some strange, disconcerting tonal alchemy, Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate makes it surprisingly easy to skate past the specter of “Rebecca”’s unnecessary death. Once again, it’s the inimitable charm of the four leads we have to thank; when they pay a trip to the waitress who served them the previous night to verify if the murdered woman was who they think she was, it rings absolutely true that she would not give the proper response (“Umm, how did you complete strangers discover my home address? Please leave, I am scared.”), but answer them without hesitation. They are truly a formidable force. Throughout the movie, other characters’ reactions towards them are almost as funny as the women themselves; if memes had been a thing in 1971, the confounded face of John Beradino’s detective after every encounter with Sophie T and her friends would have been the subject of a fair few.

Indeed, ABC saw they were onto something good with our gang, and decided to bring half of them back for another Movie of the Week the following year, The Snoop Sisters, which also served as a pilot for a short-lived NBC series of the same name. Although it was canceled after only four episodes, the show—which saw Hayes and Natwick as a pair of murder-mystery writing siblings who’d use their sleuthing skills on real-world cases—paved the way for the iconic headline project of another long-lasting legend of classic Hollywood (RIP Angela Lansbury), Murder, She Wrote.

Seeing the bright lights of Hollywood’s golden age in low-wattage TV movies can be a depressing spectacle, but more often it’s an opportunity to watch big stars try something different, or just cut loose and have fun. While the narrative is morally dubious, the chance to hang out with Loy, Sidney, Hayes and Natwick—decades removed from the peaks of their stardoms, but still as delightful to watch as ever—makes Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate a hard film to resist.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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