Originally broadcast October 6, 1971
Season 1, Episode 2
Preceded by Murder by the Book
Followed by Dead Weight
Written by Richard Levinson & William Link
Directed by Bernard Kowalski
Key Guest Cast
Robert Culp had come to prominence in the late 50s playing the lead in the Western TV show Trackdown. He found his greatest success playing a CIA secret agent in the mid-60s on the show I Spy opposite Bill Cosby for which he earned three Emmy nominations.
Ray Milland had a long and successful career that saw him win an Oscar for The Long Weekend and twice-nominated for Golden Globes. He is very good here in the role of the deceased’s husband.
A solid if rather simple murder story is elevated by a fine performance by Robert Culp.
A private investigator, Brimmer, has been hired by a newspaper publisher to check to see if his wife has been having an affair. He discovers proof of her guilt but tells the husband that she was innocent, intending to blackmail her into using her proximity to power to help his business. When she refuses he gets angry, killing her by mistake with a slap when she stumbles and hits her head.
This was the first Columbo story that didn’t show a premeditated murder but rather a crime committed in the heat of the moment. My feelings about this choice are a little mixed. I do think that the idea of varying the type of crime makes some sense and it does result in this case feeling distinct from those that came before. The trade-off for this though is that the antagonist’s motives feel pretty weak and as there isn’t much of a plan, there isn’t much for Columbo to unpack.
Fortunately for the episode, these deficiencies are masked by a strong piece of casting in Robert Culp. His Brimmer is not as strong or sneering a personality as Cassidy’s Franklin and recognizes Columbo’s observational skills pretty quickly. This produces a slightly different dynamic for the scenes he shares with Columbo as he nearly always takes him seriously as a threat, utilizing different strategies to try to stay ahead.
I enjoyed the dynamic between the two actors a lot, even if his attempts to manipulate Columbo are a little brazen. I also appreciated that Brimmer is pretty much the antithesis of Columbo – he is put together, organized and corporate yet he doesn’t read the person Columbo is or his values at all.
As I suggest above though there are two problems in the character and scenario the episode struggles to overcome. The first is that his motivation for killing is weak. This is a man with few personal ties to the deceased at all. This could represent a significant challenge for Columbo yet instead he hones in immediately on the killer for what strikes me as a pretty weak reason related to a piece of physical evidence on the body.
I think this is unfortunate because there is plenty of other behavioral evidence that should put him onto that track too that I think would make greater sense. Instead Columbo’s hunch, while correct, seems to just not be based on much of anything.
The other issue is that because of the nature of the crime and the cover-up there isn’t any loose thread or logical flaw for Columbo to grab hold of. Instead the guilt must be proved another way. The resolution is perfectly fine and does show Columbo’s guile but I do prefer those stories where he catches a killer on some small logical detail or inconsistency.
Still, while I don’t love every aspect of the plot, I did find the episode entertaining as a whole. The performances from the small cast are good and there are some fun moments including a lovely exchange near the end.
2 thoughts on “Columbo: Death Lends A Hand (TV)”
I believe this and Prescription: Murder were the only Columbo cases written solely by the team that created him. I find it interesting that both of them run into the same problem at the end – our hero has to ensnare the murderer by setting a pretty obvious trap. Other contributors were better at coming up with clever endings.
I also had trouble believing that Brimmer would tell Kennicut his wife had a “clean bill of health” without first ensuring that she was willing to play along with his blackmail scheme.
I did find the sequence where we see the coverup scheme play out in the lenses of Brimmer’s glasses a memorable one (the music helped a lot).
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You make a great point about the issues with the endings in those two stories. That the Culp character falls for this one is particularly bizarre given how weak that case would be against him based on the supposed evidence alone. Still, I think it is at least shown throughout this episode that he is far too controlling – if he had just not got involved at all there is basically no way that murder gets tied to him.
Totally agree about the direction of the glasses. So striking!
With regards the clean bill of health comment, I think he could always suggest there was a loose end after the fact that lo and behold led to something. I do agree though that it is there really to surprise the viewer and introduce us to Kennicut more than because it makes sense for that character.
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