First broadcast March 1, 1971.
Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Dean Hargrove
This was a pilot episode for the series which began in September 1971.
Key Guest Cast
Lee Grant had only recently began getting film and television work after spending over a decade blacklisted by the industry during the McCarthy period. She won an Emmy for her work on Peyton Place, a prime-time soap opera, in 1966 and a year prior to this Columbo episode had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Landlord.
Kudos to Lee Grant for a very good performance but the flying sequences are long and tedious.
A lawyer murders her husband and then makes it appear that he has been kidnapped, all with the help of a handy electrical gadget. When the body is found it is assumed that the kidnappers never intended to return him but Columbo pursues a hunch that it was murder rather than kidnap gone wrong…
Okay, so there’s a fair amount to talk about here and unfortunately very little of it is good. To say that Ransom for a Dead Man is a step down from the first movie would be an understatement. Quite a few of its problems stem from the fact that this is a story that has been written with television in mind with a lot of reliance on visuals rather than character conflict and story.
The murder takes place over the opening credits and while this makes for a pretty arresting start to the film I am not fond of the execution. The shooting is shown in an awkward series of jump cuts between stills with a trippy musical score in the background and then there are fades galore with so much lens flaring going on you’d think J. J. Abrams had directed it (the worst of these is when flaring lights are overlaid on the killer’s eyes after she dumps the body into the ocean). It all looks rather cheap and cheesy.
The sequences in which we follow the FBI (and Columbo) as they wait for the kidnappers’ call and respond are quite well done and I did enjoy Lee Grant’s performance as Leslie Williams as she offers to make food for the agents and clearly comes to think that Columbo is a bumbling fool. The trick with the electronic gadget and bag are both quite fun and at this point I was feeling quite engaged. And then she gets in her plane…
This then initiates some long and frankly rather boring sequences in which we watch her and the FBI agents fly their planes around to prepare for the drop. I imagine that the intention was to blow us away with action or possibly build up the tension as we wait to see what Williams has planned and yet these sequences feel static and seem to go on forever. Night filming can sometimes look quite glamorous but the sky is so dark that there is little you can make out (which is kind of the point story-wise but it is tedious to spend so long panning over dark landscapes) and I found myself wishing that we could get a move on with the story.
While I enjoyed Falk and Grant’s interactions prior to the flight, their subsequent interactions felt flat and, once again, surprisingly static. Columbo doesn’t really have to work to find out many of the details – he instantly spots the aforementioned gadget and she even explains exactly how it works to him. The only question is how he will prove it.
Here the film once again presents us with a fluffed ending but whereas I think it could be excused by the situation in Prescription: Murder, it feels like the wrong approach here. For one thing, I am pretty sure that the way Columbo gets to that conclusion would not be admissible in court and for another, Falk isn’t present on screen for most of that sequence so that reveal loses much of its impact.
And that doesn’t even touch on the misogyny in Columbo saying to a junior lawyer at Williams’ firm that he doesn’t know how he could work for a woman. If the character he was talking to was more important to the story I might be able to class that as a piece of manipulation designed but it feels so incidental to the story that I read it as a statement of the character’s own opinions. Eurgh…
As you can probably tell I was pretty unimpressed by this one. Happily it seemed to work for the network executives as the show was picked up and better things would be right around the corner. Join me next weekend to read what I make of Murder by the Book.