It is about two months since I launched this weekly feature in which I look in depth at episodes of Columbo. Well, this post concludes the first season and so I plan on taking a short break from the good lieutenant’s adventures. I do plan on resuming after Summer with a look at the eight episodes from Season Two.
Oh, – just, one more thing… Tune in next weekend for a look at something quite different.
First broadcast on February 9, 1972
Season One, Episode Seven
Preceded by Short Fuse
Followed by Étude in Black (Season Two)
Story by William Kelley
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Directed by Peter Falk
Key Guest Cast
Forrest Tucker appeared in multiple movies and television shows but would have been best known to viewers at the time for his role in F Troop.
A solid, if unexciting, finale to the first season. The idea behind the hiding place for the body is clever though.
Elliot Markham is a shady property developer who has a plan to develop an enormous and very lucrative construction project. He is going to call it Williamson City after Bo Williamson, the Texan millionaire who will be funding it. The problem is that the arrangements have been made in his absence by his impressionable young wife and when Williamson arrives back in the United States he is furious about the deal, driving to the construction site to confront Markham.
Williamson tells Markham that he will not pay for the construction despite his protests that it is already too far advanced to stop. Set to lose a fortune and see his big project collapse Markham plots to murder Williamson and then hide the body to ensure that construction go ahead. Unfortunately for him, Williamson’s ex-wife contacts the Police to alert them to his disappearance and they send Lt. Columbo to investigate.
I have been really struck by the sheer variety of cases on offer in this first season of Columbo and Blueprint for Murder similarly presents us with a fresh variation on the murder mystery. In this case we have a murder without a corpse. Now, we have seen something along these lines in Dead Weight as Columbo begins that case before a body has surfaced but even there we had a witness to a crime, even if their account appeared hazy and didn’t give him much to go on. Here he has even less to go on.
That is not to say that there aren’t signs that things are wrong. In fact, one of the problems I have with this case is that some loose ends are left bafflingly open by our killer. Take for instance the various employees who witnessed the fight – all of whom quite willingly share those stories with Columbo. He may not be able to prove murder but he can certainly show that Markham isn’t telling the truth about how that confrontation ended, even if some of that information is very easily come by.
Still, I do appreciate that it is once again a little detail about the one piece of physical evidence he has – the abandoned car – that sets Columbo on the track to finding out that something is wrong. The observation that gets made proves absolutely nothing and yet seems so suggestive, particularly in the context of those things Columbo learns and observes at Markham’s office and the construction site.
Patrick O’Neal plays Markham as steely cool while showing an dismissive, elitist mindset. For instance, during the argument with Williamson he refers to him as a philistine for not wanting to invest in his project. Pretty standard for your Columbo villain but here it is used to contrast not only with the detective’s personality but also plays an important role in the plot.
I cannot say that I found the performance to be particularly memorable however. He gets no great witticism or moment where he might try to dominate Columbo, nor does he have a particularly interesting personality. While I may not have loved McDowall’s character in the previous story, he was at least entertaining. O’Neal is perfectly fine – just bland in a story that already felt a little lacking in personality.
Perhaps the one aspect of this episode that does feel bold is the characterization of Bo Williamson, portrayed by veteran actor Forrest Tucker. I think it would be fair to call this a performance as large as his almost comically wide hat and it certainly is not particularly subtle. I would also say that it provides us with another instance of May-December relationship in Columbo although perhaps the answer to what attracted Jennifer to multi-millionaire Bo Williamson is a little easier to answer than some others.
I would also add that while it is only a small part, Janis Paige does a good job portraying Goldie – Bo’s first wife. Her most memorable moment comes when Columbo first interviews her, finding her in a state of undress which predictably flusters him.
Perhaps the final thing to reflect on is that this story was directed by star Peter Falk. I will say that I am always curious when I see an actor step behind the camera to see how they handle that job. If I were to summarize his effort here, I would call it solid and workmanlike.
The sound design on the sequence in which we see the murder happen and the coverup orchestrated is perhaps the most impressive part of the episode. In terms of the camera, shots are relatively simple but tell the story effectively enough, making it easy to follow the action.
Falk’s focus falls more on the performers, leaving the camera on them to give them the time and space to act without any flashy camera tricks or establishing shots. I do think though that this feels more like an episode of television than any of the preceding episodes, each of which felt more like films – albeit ones created on a restricted budget.
Like every other aspect of this episode, it is solid enough to do the job but lacks anything truly special to make it stand out. It is not the worst episode of this first season of Columbo but where those sometimes failed in colorful ways, this story’s blandness makes it one I can’t imagine revisiting any time soon.
7 thoughts on “Columbo: Blueprint for Murder (TV)”
I do think, though, that the final scene, with the police cars driving off, is one of the most “movie” moments of the series. I always loved the Gil Melle tune that plays here and in a few other first-season episodes, and it’s a shame it was never used again. If Columbo had not been renewed, this scene would have been a good final note for our hero.
I think this is the first episode that makes a significant departure from the original Columbo formula – specifically, that for the first time we’re not in on every detail of the murderer’s plan – we, as well as our hero, have to try to figure out how he hid the body. And the payoff is a really good one.
I agree that Patrick O’Neal’s performance is a little subdued. It may not be for nothing that he’s probably the least famous of the NBC-era guest stars. The part of Markham would have been a great one for an actor who did sneering arrogance well.
Mark Dawidziak’s book tells the story of how Peter Falk’s initial contract gave him the right to direct one episode. Levinson and Link, who had had some run-ins with him, decided to assign him this one, because they felt it would be the hardest to direct (the construction site was apparently a real one, with real work being done there that the film crew constantly had to work around. And imagine the continuity problems!) In any event, Falk never directed anything else (the IMDB says he (and John Cassavetes) did “uncredited” work on Etude in Black, but I’m not sure what that means – Dawidziak doesn’t mention it.)
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That is a fair point about the ending and the difficulty of even shooting on an active building site.
It is fair to say too that the hiding of the body is done pretty well and is based on a solid idea.
My problems with this mostly rely on Patrick O’Neal and the character of Markham. If McDowall was too much of a character, dominating his episode completely, O’Neal is the opposite here. Your word subdued is a great description. I do think the longer shots Falk uses in scenes doesn’t do him any favors either.
The work Falk and Cassavetes are assumed to have done is to stretch Etude out by an additional 20 minutes when the network asked for the episode to be expanded. Those scenes do stand out a little from the episode imo because they are, once again, longer takes – the conversation about how he sees everyone as a murderer, the first visit where he asks for the autograph and the chat with the wife. I don’t know why they wouldn’t have got the original director to do those though if it was after the initial production and I do wonder if this amounts to a case of the same sort of thing you get with The Third Man where people just assume Orson Welles secretly directed or rewrote big chunks of it because of who he is. That being said, I do think they probably did author or improvise much of those scenes.
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Thanks for the info on the added scenes. I’m going to guess that original director Nicholas Colasanto was off directing something else, they had to get the extra footage shot in a hurry, Cassavetes had already directed several films and was right there, Falk had directed a Columbo a few months before, the two of them were friends who liked working together, so why scramble to find someone new?
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I gather it was that sort of situation. Once again I find myself wishing that commentaries or documentaries had been made for the show while the creative cast were still alive…
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Richard Levinson and William Link’s book STAY TUNED also has something to say about this episode. They fought Falk on his wish to direct (they don’t say anything about it being in his contract, just that he was insistent about it), as the format of the series put Falk in nearly every scene (unlike most series where an actor will occasionally direct). After he took days off with feigned illnesses etc., the studio capitulated, and in retaliation (they say) they gave him one of the hardest scripts to direct.
In their words, “Interestingly, the picture that emerged was well directed. But Falk’s performance was off. The adrenalin that he needed to direct tended to interfere with his acting; he couldn’t calm himself sufficiently as he ran from one side of the camera to the other, and so the lowkey character of Columbo became, in this one instance, almost manic. But the construction site gave us fascinating production values and we were pleased with the film. It was the most expensive of all the COLUMBOs, but the studio was too sheepish to complain about costs. As of this writing, Falk has never directed again.”
By the way, this agrees with what many actors say about directing themselves, on screen or stage. If anything is going to suffer, it’ll be not the directing but the acting. It’s very hard to turn off the part of your brain that is concerned with all the details of how it works as a whole, and think only as your own character.
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That’s interesting – thanks for the summary and the quote. I had read that had affected Dead Weight in particular.
It makes sense that it could affect his performance in that way. I am sure that after fighting so hard for the chance he wanted to make a success of it
Janis Paige is still alive at time of writing this – 99 years old, surely the oldest living Columbo alumni.
Sometimes Columbo episodes fall on one crucial moment, and this one does, I’m afraid. Its the death. The set up the victim as this bolshie dude who can stand up to an army, so the way he just gives up and doesn’t fight back before being murdered – just strikes me as badly done.
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