Any Old Port in a Storm
Originally broadcast October 7, 1973
Teleplay by Stanley Ralph Ross
Story by Larry Cohen
Directed by Leo Penn
Adrian Carsini is a wine connoisseur who enjoys impressing other enthusiasts from the Wine Society both with bottles from the vineyard he runs on behalf of his brother and those he collects. He is horrified when his brother tells him that he intends to sell the property to a mass-market winery and instinctively strikes out at his brother. He quickly devises a plan to stage an accident while giving himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately he didn’t count on Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…
Donald Pleasance (shown to the left) had a lengthy and varied career on stage and screen, both big and small. His quiet, offbeat and sometimes understated performing style helped made him a memorable villain. He is perhaps best known for his performance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice and as Loomis in the earliest Halloween movies. Though prolific, he is not an actor I particularly associate with the mystery genre but he did apparently appear in an episode of Mrs. Columbo which I will, no doubt, get to in time…
Julie Harris was a five-time Tony Award-winner and also won an Emmy, a Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar. She was best known for her stage work but she had starred opposite James Dean in East of Eden and had starred in the horror film, The Haunting, which adapted Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.
Every episode of Columbo ultimately lives and dies based on the quality of its killer. Good plots have been derailed by a performance that misses the mark while sometimes a poorer story can get a lift by strong casting.
Adrian Carsini is not a particularly extraordinary character as written. He is a snob but then most Columbo killers (at least in the episodes I’ve seen) would seem to fit that label. His backstory of resenting his brother who is going to take his pride and joy to pay for yet another marriage is certainly understandable but it’s also pretty rushed, being covered in just a couple of scenes early in the episode. Yet in spite of being a pretty run-of-the-mill villain on the page, Carsini as realized on screen is anything but. The reason is Donald Pleasance.
Pleasance is a perfect fit for many aspects of Carsini’s personality. His performance suggests he is frequently forcing himself to restrain his temper and sense of control. Clearly there are points in this story where he fails to do that and, when he does, the shift of temper feels as credible as it is sudden. Composure is quickly reasserted and he once again exudes an easy sort of charm.
It is an unpredictable performance, sometimes playing slightly off the material and taking it in unexpected directions. This makes him the perfect foil for Peter Falk’s Columbo whose own approach can be similarly playful and when the two share the screen they spark wonderfully off one another. Their relationship isn’t as directly antagonistic as some others but rather focuses on how Columbo has unsettled his quarry – most memorably in the episode’s excellent dinner sequence.
The murder sequence itself offers little visual or even dramatic interest as it seems to happen so quickly and, as with the previous episode, boils down to a sudden bludgeoning. What interests me, though it is underplayed, is that while Carsini injures his brother badly he is not instantly dead. He chooses instead to set his brother up to not be found for several days and die. What added interest for me was that Carsini, being in the middle of entertaining several guests, immediately resumes his activities and goes back to the gathering. That coldness and quick-thinking sets him a little apart from some of the other killers that Columbo has matched his wits with.
Carsini’s plan is to create confusion by giving himself what seems to be an unbreakable alibi both by his behavior with his wine society friends and later by taking a trip out of state to attend an auction. The challenge for the viewer is to figure out exactly what Carsini has done to disguise the time of death and spot how Columbo might be able to break it.
The best Columbo resolutions work as a moment of sudden deflation as a killer, full of confidence, suddenly realizes that they have given the whole game away. This episode contains a superb example of that as it is perfectly constructed to feed into and play off the background and personality of the killer. It makes for a splendid moment as Carsini seems to not be taking in the significance of what had just happened, his reaction being slightly delayed. As gotcha moments go, this is one of the most entertaining.
Were I quibbling, I might suggest that making Carsini’s confession stand up later in court could be tricky – it would certainly have bothered me in other stories. Here though I think it makes sense given what we know of Carsini’s character and it does lead to one of the most enjoyable scenes in the whole episode.
Looking beyond Pleasance and Falk, the rest of the episode is quite competently realized. Julie Harris is very good as Carsini’s secretary but the other cast members struck me as fairly unmemorable. There are no bad performances but nor are there any that really stood out to me.
Thankfully though that doesn’t matter as the central game of wits is so entertaining that it drew and held my attention throughout. Whenever I come to do my ranking of Columbo killers (which will either be when I reach the end of the original run or the series overall including the later specials), I feel pretty confident that Pleasance’s Carsini will be somewhere near the top. This will not reflect so much on the character as written but rather the quality of the performance which really serves to elevate the material taking this from a pretty standard premise to being one of the more memorable episodes of the series.
A triumph of good casting, this episode works as well as it does thanks to the wonderful performance from Donald Pleasance and a very clever resolution that perfectly plays into that character’s personality.