First broadcast on January 19, 1972
Story by Lester Pine, Tina Pine & Jackson Gillis
Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Edward M. Abroms
Key Guest Cast
Roddy McDowall had a long list of movie credits already by this point including as Octavian in Cleopatra and had recently had a career-defining role in the Planet of the Apes movies.
Ida Lupino would be a familiar face to many viewers and had also found success as a director, becoming the first woman to direct a film noir with 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker.
This episode has a magnificent ending but much of what precedes that is messy and frankly rather dull.
Roger Stanford is the playboy son of the founders of a chemicals company with multiple advanced degrees and a talent for chemistry and engineering. After his parents die in an explosion his uncle takes over the firm and starts preparing to sell the business to a conglomerate. When Roger tries to stoke up opposition to the sale among the workers, the uncle pressures him to resign from the company. Instead Roger plots to kill him and take over the company for himself. This involves him using his chemical and engineering skills to create a bomb in a cigars case that will detonate once it is opened.
Previously episodes have shown us murderers who exhibit some signs of instability but usually that begins to become apparent after the murder as Columbo puts them under strain. A good example would be in the previous story, Lady in Waiting, where we see the killer start to relive and imagine things right as Columbo prepares to arrest her. Here however it is clear that Roddy McDowall’s Roger is clearly unstable from the moment he first appears on screen and the results are, quite frankly, not great.
The issue is that we have a performance that lacks nuance or subtlety. As he begins in a heightened and also visibly eccentric state, not only in terms of his performance but also his styling (the peasant blouse shown above is just one of his many costumes, accompanied by some of the tightest trousers you will ever see), he has nowhere to go with his performance once the deed is complete. This not only results in a rather one-note characterization, it also is pretty unbelievable – would anyone really trust Roger to run anything or view him as a desirable romantic partner?
There is one possible reading of the character that I think could have added some interest and made him into a more compelling villain and it is alluded to in the script. You could argue that he is a cold and calculating mind that is playing the fool specifically to lead others to discount him. That would not only be a justification for his success and ability to plan so well, it would also make for an interesting character comparison with Columbo himself who does that all the time.
The problem is that McDowell never really shows us that until the final scenes of the episode as even when he is alone he still exhibits many of those same eccentric behaviors. As such it is hard to see why anyone would trust him with much of anything. What’s more he actively draws attentions to his connections to the supposed mystery group agitating to stop the sale with antics like the silly string stunt we see at the start of the episode.
His plan to do away with his uncle has at least a few clever points. For one thing, it genuinely appears to be an accident meaning that this is once again a case where Columbo is going out of a limb even suggesting that a crime has taken place at all. This is often where I think Falk connects most meaningfully with the character, conveying his character’s stubborn refusal to let go of the small details of a case that bother him.
Unfortunately I do not think that this approach works as well here as it does in other stories. Part of the reason for this is that there simply does not seem to be much movement in terms of the plot – from the start of the story until very close to the end the official assumption is still that the death was an accident and Columbo gets little evidence or material to go on other than Stanford’s rather suspect behavior. The result is that the middle, investigative phase of the story feels slow-paced with little happening until quite late in the episode.
Mostly we spend this phase of the story following Peter around as he tries to forge and plant evidence pointing to other people’s involvement or to try to distance himself from the crime. Some of the ideas used can be quite clever, not least the manipulation of his uncle’s secretary Miss Bishop, but one issue with all of this activity is he comes dangerously close to being caught quite frequently.
On the topic of his manipulation of Miss Bishop, while I am not convinced of Peter’s appeal as a romantic partner (assuming they don’t have a fetish for silly string), I thought it was at least interesting. One aspect of that relationship is surprisingly brazen for 70s television and I think it was used quite cleverly, advancing the story a little in an unexpected way. Of course later episodes go further along those lines.
Things do however pick up a lot in the final few minutes of the episode. Its best moment is an absolutely gripping cable car journey in which Columbo manipulates his suspect into providing evidence for his case. It is very well done – possibly the best individual scene in the whole first season – and quite necessary here because there would not have been much definitive evidence for their case otherwise.
It is a shame then that it caps off an otherwise pretty dull story. The best I can say about it is that the moments of eccentricity do at least elicit unintended laughter where Ransom for a Dead Man wasn’t even lively or comedic. It’s watchable. Just…