Columbo: Lovely but Lethal (TV)

Lovely But Lethal

Season Three, Episode One
Preceded by Double Shock (Season Two)
Followed by Any Old Port in a Storm

Originally broadcast September 23, 1973

Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Story by Myrna Bercovici
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Plot Summary

Viveca Scott’s cosmetics company Beauty Spot is facing increasing financial difficulties. Keen to turn her company’s fortunes, Scott has pinned a lot of hope on a promising new anti-wrinkle cream after an early, successful trial but when later tests prove disastrous she learns that a young chemist has stolen the formula and is planning to sell it to her greatest rival, David Lang.

She calls on Karl Lessing, that young chemist, at his home but when he refuses to sell the formula to her at any price and taunts her, she grabs a nearby microscope and strikes him on the head, killing him instantly. Unfortunately for Viveca, Columbo is assigned to the case…

film screenshot (Allied Artists), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Familiar Faces

Vera Miles is probably best known for her performance as Lila in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Other genre credits include three episodes of Murder She Wrote, the Hitchcock docudrama The Wrong Man, Cannon and Ellery Queen.

Vincent Price (shown to the left) was one of the most famous faces – and voices – in Hollywood during the mid-twentieth century. He is most associated with the horror genre and for collaborating with director Roger Corman on his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. This blogger however best remembers him for playing Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective.

Already a familiar figure from television, a month after this episode aired Martin Sheen could be seen in Terrence Malick’s Neo-noir film Badlands. Towards the end of the decade he would star in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The role I first knew him from however was President Bartlet on political drama The West Wing.

My Thoughts

It has taken me far longer than I had intended to get back to writing about Columbo. I had actually watched this episode last year when I was in the middle of my Jonathan Creek project, working under the assumption that I would be alternating seasons of the shows. In the end though I got caught up in the idea that the finish line on that project was in sight and so I never wrote anything about the episodes I watched. Fortunately I was more than happy to rewatch Lovely but Lethal.

My enjoyment of this episode begins with its cast which is wonderful. Columbo episodes often feature familiar faces – in fact one of the biggest challenges with these posts is narrowing down who I want to highlight – but this episode features some favorites.

Vera Miles, wonderful in Hitchcock’s Psycho, is quite compelling as the ruthless beauty queen who is quite content to use everyone around her to get what she wants. Unlike some Columbo killers, she does not act with premeditation but in a moment of fury. It’s a sloppy crime – perhaps not the most intricate puzzle that Detective Columbo will ever have to unpick – and her relationship with him is more battle of wills than battle of wits. Still, the exchanges between them are quite entertainingly sharp and I really enjoy how much he obviously tests her patience. To me, this is one of those cases where the character is elevated through the performance.

Martin Sheen has a much smaller part as the victim, but he is equally entertaining and injects lots of energy and bile into just a handful of scenes. The moment right before his character is murdered in which they mock Viveca is so sharp and unpleasant that you can understand that surge of anger she feels in that moment. In terms of the victims in this show, he is one of the most memorable I have encountered to date.

If you’ve looked at the images I’ve illustrated this post with though I suspect you’ll know which member of the cast I enjoy most of all. Vincent Price is an actor I always enjoy watching but he’s absolutely perfect for the part of the rather smug and sneering rival businessman. His character’s cutting remarks to Viveca can be pretty entertaining and the performances of Price and Miles do a good job of convincing that this is a long-standing rivalry. My only regret here is that he isn’t on screen for longer or more central to the story as he is great fun.

The episode does a good job of setting up its points of conflict in its opening few minutes, quickly pushing forward to the murder scene. That moment, while it works for me in terms of the performances leading up to it, struck me as a little underwhelming visually. Part of that is the choreography and the camera placement as we look at a wide view of the room. This not only seemed to rob that moment of its immediacy, it also emphasizes that the murder involves less physical force than you might think would be needed, no matter how heavy the object. Even with a rare dribble of blood, I am a little unconvinced…

The investigation is the meat of the episode however and I love what this does with the cat and mouse game between killer and detective. While there is nothing particularly revolutionary or even special about those elements, I love that this story handles it with a light touch and has some fun with both characters. The script seems to find a great amount of fun in putting Columbo in an environment he is somewhat uncomfortable in, culminating quite memorably with the opening of a door to comedic effect.

I described the initial crime itself as being rather simple which the episode does attempt to address with a development that occurs later in the episode. This is a smart choice not only because it clarifies the ill-intent of the killer making us all the more pleased to see them captured but because it also adds to a sense that pressure is building around them fast.

Which brings me to the matter of how Columbo will reach his conclusion. Sadly I feel the episode underwhelms a little on that point, not only because it seems rushed but because the explanation for how they are caught seems a little unlikely both to occur but also to lead to any kind of a conviction. I have, of course, leveled that complaint against episodes before but here I feel it is all the more frustrating because a defense feels so obvious.

Still, while I am a little underwhelmed by the conclusion, I still enjoy this episode. The beauty empire setting, coupled with a few strong guest appearances and a very effective performance from Falk, make for an entertaining mix and left me with plenty to enjoy. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend this to a newcomer as the show to sell them on Columbo, I think it has some points of charm for those keen to explore more.

The Verdict:

Lovely but Lethal may not be the most thrilling episode of Columbo but it is often quite entertaining.

6 thoughts on “Columbo: Lovely but Lethal (TV)

  1. Glad to see these back! This episode is not one of my favourites (I didn’t find anything to do with the lab or creation of the beauty formula engaging… I don’t think the show ever does science settings very well), but overall I think Season 3 is a really solid season. Looking forward to the rest of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am happy to be getting back to them. An inverted-focused blog needs a good Columbo section!
      I think you make a fair point about science settings – though I enjoyed the medical elements in the Nimoy episode in the previous season. For me some of the best episodes I have seen so far involve more creative settings.
      I am excited to be getting back to these and to work through this season!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Price would make such a good Columbo villain, and the part is so small, that I am left to wonder if he wanted to be in the show but only had one free day to film. (Price being one of the busiest actors of the 60s/70s.) Perhaps it tells you in that book!

        Liked by 2 people

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