First broadcast September 17, 1972
Preceded by Blueprint for Murder
Followed by The Greenhouse Jungle
Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Key Guest Cast
The obvious person to highlight is John Cassavetes who plays our murderer. He was not only a prominent actor but also a screenwriter and director. He had directed and performed in Faces with Peter Falk just a couple of years before making this episode.
Myrna Loy plays his mother-in-law. Loy had been a star in the 1930s and may be most familiar to mystery fans for her portrayals of Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies.
Also, keep an eye open for Pat Morita (Happy Days and The Karate Kid) in a small part credited as house boy and future Lt. Brock (in the 80s and 90s Perry Mason TV films) James McEachin.
This feels noticeably slower than the episodes around it – reflecting its expanded running time. Though I enjoy the Falk and Cassavetes interplay, it is far too clear how Columbo will triumph.
And… we’re off.
Welcome back for a second run of Columbo episode discussions. Expect weekly posts each Saturday for about the next two months. Do feel free to play along – I love to read what others make of these stories!
Étude in Black introduces us to Alex Benedict – the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. We follow his movements as he prepares for a big, televised concert and also to commit a murder, though the victim is only revealed right before that murder takes place. A murder which intends to mask as a suicide.
The problem is that Columbo who has been assigned to the case cannot square the idea of suicide with the woman he sees in her photo albums. Now, I have some issue with the idea that people who appear happy externally would never commit suicide and I think Columbo’s assessment of her feels pretty superficial – the phrase “bedroom eyes” crops up for instance. It does however prompt a rather wonderful Peter Falk speech that I think is a great expression of his character’s outlook and values.
John Cassavetes, a friend of Falk, plays Alex Benedict as somewhat aloof and pompous. While many of the earliest Columbo villains seemed to find some point in common with the detective and even enjoy the game, Benedict is irritable and frustrated. Think of him as more Ross Martin (Suitable for Framing) than Jack Cassidy (Murder by the Book). He is the sort of killer you really want to see brought to justice!
I enjoyed the pairing of the two actors though and, in particular, the way Columbo manages to get so far under his skin. This is often a favorite part of an episode for me but this episode gives us several great moments along those lines. Perhaps my favorite of those is a moment in which we see Columbo playing the piano badly, just to grab his attention, although his interactions with Benedict’s car are pretty fun too.
I also really enjoyed this story’s sense of scale. This episode seemed to have more locations than most including the famous Hollywood Bowl and the gorgeous house used for the Benedicts’ home. You definitely get a feel for the sort of lifestyle Benedict is enjoying, helping us to understand the character even better.
There is even a secondary plot strand of sorts with a peripheral character being dragged into the case. This only happens in one or two of the stories from the first season so it made for a welcome change to the usual story structure, even though it doesn’t last for long. Once again though, this is a useful reminder that while Columbo tends to focus in on the killer from the start, he will be looking at other leads “off screen”.
Finally this episode introduces us to Columbo’s faithful hound and there is a fun subplot in which he tries to work out what he will call the dog. Unfortunately that didn’t end in quite the punch I had hoped for but it is a nice bit of business and leads to a couple of funny lines.
Having mentioned several of the episode’s most successful elements, I do need to take a minute to acknowledge a few of its weaknesses. These begin with the pacing of the story which feels much slower than any of the Columbo episodes that precede it.
The issues with pacing arise out of the expanded running time of the episode as this works out about fifteen minutes longer than the standard running time. Unfortunately this expansion does not seem to have been a reflection of the complexities of the plot but rather the episode was expanded to fill a timeslot. There is plenty of padding – some of it enjoyable, some dull – but the investigation seemed to drag for me as a result.
One of the reasons for that is that the answer to how Columbo will catch the killer strikes me as really very clear from the moment the murder is committed. If you happened to miss the clear visual indicator of that or an earlier verbal clue, the director – Nicholas Colasanto who is best known as Coach from the earliest seasons of Cheers – highlights the pertinent clue all over again in a later sequence, spoiling any sense of mystery in the plot. It is really clunky and criminally undercuts one of the episode’s most entertaining moments in which another promising clue fails to come to fruition.
I have to say that the direction in general struck me as pretty underwhelming given the fantastic locations they had to work with. Shots are routinely long and a little shaky and every development seems to be telegraphed to the viewer. Even a sequence that mimics one of the most memorable from an earlier episode disappoints, not only because it feels somewhat derivative but because it feels so limiting, signalling so clearly where this story is headed.
Which brings us back to the end. In one sense I don’t think the end is all that bad. Certainly it is pleasingly visual and gives me exactly what I want with this type of killer – a moment where we see their inflated ego pop. Had it not been so clearly flagged over and over again it might even have made for a fun surprise.
There is little tension in that scene because there is no question of what will happen, what Columbo will point out or how Benedict will respond. Instead of making Columbo look really smart, I think it makes him look somewhat hapless – particularly when he tells us that the existence of a piece of evidence had never occurred to him (made all the worst by the bizarre and rather forced circumstances given for bringing it to his attention).
I have to say that of the various Columbo stories I have watched so far this is easily the most frustrating. There is a good idea here and had this been trimmed to be about twenty minutes shorter it could have been easily one of the strongest stories, even with some heavy-handed hints. Instead it just dragged for me, leaving me feeling all too ready for those end titles.