Columbo: Suitable for Framing (TV)

Story Details

Originally broadcast November 17, 1971

Season One, Episode Three
Preceded by Dead Weight
Followed by Lady in Waiting

Written by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Hy Averback

Key Guest Cast

Typically it is easy to pick one or two cast members to highlight but the entire cast here is distinguished. Three of the most familiar faces for modern viewers play smaller roles here.

Kim Hunter plays the victim’s ex-wife. She is best known for her role as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Don Ameche, a popular film actor of the 30s and 40s, had played a number of leading male roles. Here he plays the deceased’s lawyer in a couple of scenes.

Finally Mary Wickes plays a tiny role of a landlady here but I will always remember her from roles in so many films of the 40s and 50s. Chief among those is her performance as the gossipy Emma Allen in White Christmas.

The Verdict

Superb from start to finish with a fantastic cast of familiar faces and a truly memorable conclusion.

My Thoughts

Art critic Dale Kingston murders his art collecting uncle with the help of an aspiring artist, constructing a tight alibi for himself when he is seen attending an art exhibit.

Were this mystery told in the conventional whodunnit way we would look at Suitable for Framing as an unbreakable alibi story. By reversing it and telling it from the criminal’s perspective however it takes on several additional dimensions, opening up other questions for the viewer to ponder.

The first question the viewer will be struck by is that of Kingston’s motivations. The episode begins moments before the murder takes place and we are not told what their aim is or why they make some seemingly odd choices in carrying out their crime. It takes a long time before the motive behind his actions and what he has in mind become clear. In other words, this is as much as whydunnit as a howcatchem and it does both exceptionally well.

Gillis’ story moves quickly and takes several unexpected turns that I obviously do not wish to spoil for you. What I can say is that I feel that the ultimate destination is really clever and that the way Columbo unpicks the case and catches Kingston is particularly ingenious.

As villains go, Ross Martin’s performance as Kingston is absolutely superb. Not only is his plan very cleverly worked out, I think he embodies the things you look for in a Columbo villain. He is arrogant and smarmy, looking down on everyone involved in the case with a sense of intellectual superiority.

One interesting contrast between Kingston and the previous two killers on the show is that while there is a good case to be made that had Brimmer and Hollister simply waited they would have been fine. It was their action that really pushes Columbo in their direction. Here, it is clear that Kingston needs to act which makes sense of some of the character’s choices, particularly later in the story. As a consequence I feel that Columbo’s successes are earned more here whereas in the previous episodes I feel he sometimes is lucky that the killers choose to do things that draw attention to themselves.

As I note at the top of this post, the casting here is superb and there is quality at every level of this production. It is one of the largest casts in one of these so far and there are several very familiar faces – even to a viewer half a century after it was made. That quality pays off with each part feeling quite distinctive and substantial, even for those cast members who get only a few minutes of screentime such as the fabulous Mary Wickes.

I consider this to be a triumph in every respect and as I work through these episodes in order, perhaps the best one yet. It is a really clever plot, brilliantly directed and performed.

11 thoughts on “Columbo: Suitable for Framing (TV)

  1. In many ways this is the finest episode of Season One, and one of the best overall, but I’m a little less impressed by Ross Martin’s performance than some folks are. I think a great villain has to have a certain amount of charm, particularly if we’re seeing the story from his point of view, and that’s a quality Dale lacks (unlike Ken Franklin or General Hollister). As a result, I found the constant sneering getting a little tiresome by the end.

    And while the way Columbo traps Dale is brilliant, I wish the final sequence had gone on just a little longer. I can’t really fault it, but it was kind of “So that’s it!… oh, we’re done here?” Usually there’s something a little more before the credits roll. Maybe I missed it because this was the last NBC Columbo I saw for the first time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a good point. Thinking about Dale in the context of the other killers he really is the only one who doesn’t attempt to win over anyone. He is testy and objectionable with Columbo right from the start and only is pleasant when he is certain there is nothing that could incriminate him. Still, for me that heightens the fall at the end. I was desperate for that moment when it came and it delivered for me.

      I am curious though – given almost everyone agrees it is a good performance – why Ross Martin wasn’t reused when others reappear within the original run of episodes.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s true, by the end of the episode you’re really eager to see Dale get arrested, or at least punched in the face. Maybe that’s why I would have preferred to see him squirm for another minute or so after Columbo produced his big reveal.

        There are a lot of outstanding single-appearance murderers I would have been happy to see return. It’s hard to know why some didn’t – maybe they wanted to move on, maybe they just weren’t available, maybe they were difficult to get along with and the producers said “Never again!” There certainly were a lot of outstanding performers to choose from… I can only think of a few guest stars from the 70s who did not impress me, and none who were actually bad.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. One of the big frustrations for me in the DVD set is the lack of commentaries or behind the scenes/making of material. I would love to know more about the process by which stories were devised and cast!

        I have yet to see one that I would think of as a terrible performance but there are times I am – underwhelmed. But perhaps we will get to some of those soon. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Fun Fact:

    The duped girlfriend who helps Dale set the scene (and pays dearly for that) is played by Rosanna Huffman – the real-life wife of co-creator Richard Levinson.

    Liked by 1 person

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