First broadcast February 11, 1973
Season Two, Episode Six
Preceded by Requiem for a Falling Star
Followed by The Most Dangerous Match
Written by Shirl Hendryx
Directed by Hy Averback
Key Guest Cast
Leonard Nimoy was already famous around the world for his portrayal of Mr. Spock, the Enterprise’s Vulcan first officer on the TV show Star Trek by this point, which would return that same year as a short-lived animated series. If there was anyone watching who did not recognize him from his role as Spock, they might also have known him for his performances on Mission: Impossible.
Boasts some great ideas and a solid performance from Nimoy as the killer, the only thing that underwhelms here is the rather flat direction of the action scenes.
For the most part I have been watching these Columbo stories for the first time but this is one of a handful of episodes I had actually seen before. Back when I was a teen (it feels like a very long time ago) I was a huge Star Trek fan and eagerly sought out anything featuring actors who had been in the show and so I happened to see this story. The reason that this is important to mention is that once the episode began the various twists came back to me so it will be a little hard to gauge how surprising some of those moments are.
Leonard Nimoy plays Dr. Barry Mayfield, an arrogant, ambitious surgeon who is determined to make his name on an exciting new research project. Unfortunately for him, the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Hidemann (Will Greer) is determined to take a cautious approach and insists on a further year of tests before they go public with the results. This frustrates Mayfield but he puts on an understanding face and agrees to perform heart surgery on his colleague.
Before the surgery Nurse Martin (Anne Francis) voiced her suspicions of Dr. Mayfield to Hidemann and following the surgery she seems to be acting suspiciously. That evening she is followed by Mayfield who brutally murders her in a car park, staging a burglary. Columbo is assigned the case but while he suspects Dr. Mayfield he cannot see the motive.
There are lots of things to talk about with this episode but probably the best place to start would be the cast. Nimoy’s performance was obviously the chief appeal to me when I first saw this about fifteen years ago and I had pretty fond memories of it. Looking at it again I think he does a good job, though I would suggest he has been cast to play a rather cold, emotionless figure – not exactly a huge jump from the Spock persona. He does a good job of his scenes with Falk, seeming to recognize the danger that Columbo represents from the very start of the investigation. His performance is more muted than say Cassidy or Culp, but I think he does convey a certain his character’s ruthless streak very well.
And what a ruthless streak! Unlike some of the other Columbo killers up until this point, his decision to kill is not born in a moment of passion or fear, nor is it a desperate act. Instead it comes out of his enormous sense of personal ambition and each of the crimes he commits, and there are more than one, feels really quite brutal given his choices of victim. This is particularly true of something he does near the end of the episode that is coldblooded and cruel and yet he walks away from it showing no signs of being affected at all.
While this episode does not feature a huge cast, there are several other strong performances. I really enjoyed the warmth and humanity of Will Greer’s performance as the older doctor. He has a rather charming introduction in which he conducts a diagnosis on his own condition and his fussing at his nurses for insisting on a sterile environment is amusing and characterful. Similarly I appreciate Anne Francis’ turn as Nurse Martin, the victim. She doesn’t get much to do before she is murdered but she does convey her deep distrust of Dr. Mayfield well.
Though I do not think of this as a particularly comedic outing, there are a couple of scenes that I found very funny. The best of these comes very early in the episode as Columbo is stuck interviewing Nurse Martin’s very talkative roommate. Falk’s reactions are priceless during the conversation. Several of the things she blurts out are amusing but I appreciate that the scene isn’t just funny but it also does help to flesh out the victim’s character.
I also really enjoyed a sequence in which Columbo pays a visit to a party being thrown by Dr. Mayfield. There is lots to entertain here from some humorous exchanges about the hors d’eurve to some fun displays of Seventies fashion. Nimoy’s pants are perhaps a little less tight than Roddy McDowall’s were in Short Fuse but it’s close enough to be worthy of comment and he has quite a nice line in ties.
I thought that the investigation itself was interesting and appreciated that it represents another slight twist on the Columbo formula. Indeed I thought pretty hard about whether I ought to outline as much of the episode as I did above because I imagine that for viewers on original broadcast the murder victim may well have come as a surprise. Certainly it seems to run against what the first few scenes set up, but I think the shift is handled very effectively and creates a much more interesting scenario for Columbo to solve.
The scenes between Nimoy and Falk are excellent. I could understand how and why Columbo was able to get under Mayfield’s skin and yet Nimoy always comes off as being in control. It is interesting to watch Mayfield as he tries to steer Columbo’s investigation – this something we have seen other killers on the show do before but the difference is that Mayfield is far more alert to the dangers the investigator poses than most who try it.
Martin’s murder however feels rather flat and disappointing. We see the swing of a weapon but it seems to hang still for far too long right before the death, making it look curiously lacking in energy. Yes, cold and dispassionate are part of Mayfield’s persona but the editing on that moment just looks wrong to me. A later murder is handled better though it is still shot in a way that seems to minimize the action rather than getting in close on that moment. It is as though the director is working to undercut any of the violence in the episode.
There is one aspect of the plot that is utterly brilliant however as an idea, even though it does require some specialist knowledge. The script acknowledges this problem, providing the information directly to the viewer in a way that is easy to understand, but because they have to go into detail to explain how an idea works, it does draw attention to it which rather undermines its reveal. That idea though is brilliant though – a really good and as far as I know pretty unique concept for a murder story.
I had a pretty positive memory of this story and I am happy to say that on the whole it held up to my memories of the story. Its faults are mostly issues with the direction and editing – the thing feels far too slow and ponderous in the scenes that ought to have the most impact – but the core ideas are clever and Nimoy’s performance as Mayfield is good.