First broadcast October 15, 1972
Written by Jonathan Latimer
Directed by Boris Segal
Key Guest Cast
Ray Milland won Best Actor for 1945’s The Lost Weekend. Thriller fans may be most familiar with him from Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.
Trekkies might recognize Arlene Martel and Sandra Smith from episodes of Star Trek. Martel had a particularly memorable role as T’Pring, Spock’s fiancée in the story Amok Time.
Certainly entertaining, even if it is close to impossible to imagine Jarvis’ actually being convicted on the limited evidence Columbo finds.
Spendthrift playboy Tony Goodman lives off payments from a trust fund but is unable to touch the capital. Frustrated and hoping to use the money to pay his wife’s young lover to skip town, he concocts a plan with his Uncle Jarvis to fake a kidnapping and use his trust fund to pay his own ransom.
The first act of this episode is unusual in that Columbo is on the case prior to an actual crime being committed. Tony’s car has been found in a ditch with signs of a gun having been fired at it leaving a bullet embedded in the driver’s seat. We will be almost halfway into the episode before Columbo begins to investigate a murder.
There are shades of Ransom for a Dead Man here but I think there are more problems with the concept here. Essentially the viewer has to believe that Tony is an absolute idiot. Now, this has been established pretty well by things his wife and uncle have told us but even then it is hard to believe that someone could be so naive and trusting as he is here. Jarvis exudes contempt for him and clearly has no sense of duty so why does Tony trust him so easily?
What’s more I think the idea that they are colluding raises awkward questions about just how that came about. Clearly this plan is Jarvis’ idea in the details and yet the situation that brings it about seems more Tony’s doing. Jarvis doesn’t seem pressed for cash, even if collecting orchids is an expensive hobby as Columbo points out, so he is putting himself at a lot of risk – particularly as he clearly has no faith in his nephew’s abilities.
Let’s talk a little about Jarvis because he’s a character that I have somewhat mixed feelings about. Like Eddie Albert in Dead Weight, Jarvis is often quite entertaining – particularly as he gives out some stinging remarks (Columbophile actually dubs him “the king of Columbo put-downs”). However the difference between the characters is that he doesn’t have a second level or personality to contrast that with, making the character feel a little one-note.
While Tony may be an idiot, Jarvis’ plan is relatively sound but the flaws are in his delivery. He makes a conscious choice to engage with the police prior to the murder taking place which exposes him and leads to Columbo being on his tail right from the start. He does a good job of staying calm under pressure but does enough to let Columbo know that he is on the right track – particularly based on his conduct immediately after the money drop.
I alluded to how Jarvis really has no clear motive for the crime and I think that represents a problem. Is it a disgust at Tony’s weakness or his feelings for his wife, anger at being passed over or some cash flow issues that aren’t obvious? We lack an understanding of why he would do this which I think the character probably needed to give Ray Milland’s performance a little more focus. For what it’s worth, my best guess is that he simply hates Tony but if I am left searching for a motive at the end of a story then it really hasn’t been communicated well enough.
Happily even if the foundations of the case are a little weak, the episode is frequently very entertaining. There probably aren’t enough scenes where Milland and Falk play directly opposite each other but what we get is fun. Columbo has the measure of him from pretty much the start and while it isn’t spelled out why at first, I think the reasons he has to feel suspicious make a lot of sense.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of this episode for me was that Columbo is assigned a young officer to assist him. This officer, Sergeant Wilson, is extremely enthusiastic about the latest methods and technologies which produces a fun, indirect competition between the pair as Wilson seeks to show off those new methods.
While Jarvis ought to be the focus of this story, I think it is this rivalry with Wilson is the aspect of the story I enjoyed most. I found myself wishing that the character would have come back for further stories as I think that tension helps to really bring Columbo’s own approach into focus.
I love that Columbo isn’t openly antagonistic but rather gives Wilson space to demonstrate and use those ideas, confident that his tried and tested techniques will get him results. I also appreciate that Wilson isn’t presented as an idiot but a thorough and diligent officer. For an example of that, look at the way he handles the search for a firearm late in the story. His only disadvantage is that he lacks the sense of people gained through experience that Columbo has and takes them largely on face value.
Judged purely on the merits of the case, I think this falls short. The situation seems too contrived – I simply could not imagine how the plan comes about and Jarvis’ lack of a clear motive feels messy. It is the business around the case – the discussion of orchid care, the tension with Wilson and the bizarre detail that Trust Fund Tony gives all the women in his life signed headshots of himself as gifts – that make this story entertaining.