Originally broadcast November 4, 1973
Teleplay by Irv Pearlberg, Alvin R. Friedman and Ronald Kibbee
Directed by Boris Sagal
Nelson Hayward is running for US senator in a special election and appears to be well-positioned to win when he starts to receive threats against his life from the mob, prompting him to receive police protection. His campaign manager is determined to protect his candidate’s chances so when he becomes aware that Nelson is having an affair with a campaign staffer, he steps in to pressure her to quit.
Nelson however plans to have it all and has a plan to rid himself of his meddling manager using the police protection to give himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately for him, Lieutenant Columbo is on the case…
Jackie Cooper (shown to the left) had been a Hollywood child star, becoming the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for the movie Skippy. Unlike many child stars, Cooper successfully transitioned to adult roles and had a career as an actor and director that continued until the mid-80s.
Cooper is perhaps best known to audiences today for his recurring role as Perry White in the Superman movies. His other genre credits include episodes of Kojak and Murder, She Wrote while he also directed an episode of Magnum, P. I.
Joanne Linville was instantly recognizable to me for her role as a Romulan Commander in an early episode of Star Trek but she has other mystery genre credits to her name. These include episodes of The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, Kojak, Barnaby Jones and, yes, Mrs. Columbo.
Tisha Sterling was less recognizable to me but also has plenty of mystery credits. These include episodes of Ironside, The New Perry Mason and she appeared opposite Stacy Keach in the 1976 film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.
The third season of Columbo had got off to a rather unremarkable start with its first two episodes. Both featured elements I enjoyed quite a lot but each also had flaws. One was that both episodes’ crimes were unplanned, spur of the moment affairs that saw businesspeople on the verge of losing their empires lash out and then engage in a hasty, contrived cover up. Thankfully Candidate for Crime offers a change of pace and style, giving Columbo a carefully planned, premeditated murder to investigate.
My appreciation for this episode begins with its initial setup with the politician Nelson Hayward receiving police protection because death threats have been made against his life. There is a lot to love about this as a setup, not least that it means that Columbo is already involved in the case before the murder even takes place streamlining that awkward part of the episode where he gets to know characters we already met.
What I like most about it is that it sets up expectations for the viewer and for the other characters. While longtime Columbo viewers may expect Hayward to be the killer, the suggestion that he might be the victim could give pause for thought. Is this going to be a story about how a killer gets past security? That thought would be partly correct, though Hayward will be the one to give them the slip in order to carry out the murder.
The episode has some fun with these expectations, having Columbo turn up at the crime scene convinced that Hayward himself must be dead. So often when we see him looking frazzled in episodes, I feel Falk is playing it as though Columbo is putting on an act so it’s interesting to see him genuinely lost and confused. If anything it makes the contrast with those other moments more pronounced, inviting the viewer to compare them and see the careful thought the character is putting into his attempts to seem careless.
Jackie Cooper plays Hayward and is very credible in the part. He is slick and confident and though I did not find the character particularly likable, I could see him charming and convincing the people around him. There is no attempt made though to have the audience sympathize with him – Nelson Hayward is as cold and ruthless a killer as we have come across so far in the show.
I also appreciate that Nelson’s plan is a pretty neat one. He has planned ahead and done a pretty good job of it, carrying out a murder pretty close to flawlessly and setting himself up with what appears to be an unbreakable alibi. The means by which he sets up the murder is quite cunning and I love that he takes what might be the biggest barrier to his achieving his goal, the police protection, and ends up using it to his advantage. It’s a ballsy sort of killing given how things might have gone wrong but the type I could absolutely believe that a man of his type could commit.
If there is an issue with the setup, it is that I think the motivation to kill is not spelled out quite as clearly as in some other stories. Given how much the man has to lose, it seems crazy to think that Nelson would risk it all, no matter how much he loves the young woman he is having an affair with. I think though this is a case where the real reason may not be directly expressed but can be inferred – this is as much about maintaining his independence and control politically as it is maintaining that affair.
I enjoy the interactions between Cooper and Falk and appreciate that the dynamic here feels a little different than the stories that came immediately before it. Cooper is not as colorful a figure as Pleasance’s Carsini and unlike other killers who aim to befriend the detective, he is rather prickly and aloof from the start. It seems he is confident he has thought everything through and it is only when Columbo starts to ask some difficult questions that he begins to pay much attention to him.
One game I always enjoy playing while watching these episodes is trying to figure out the moment at which Columbo decides that he knows who the killer is. Often it is close to instant with the detective appearing to notice some immediate tell that prompts his interest. In this case however the background to the situation complicates things and there is a sense, at least in his first couple of interactions with Nelson, that he is not yet thinking of him as an adversary. I think it is only when he starts to think through the physical evidence of the crime scene and talking over it with Haywood that he begins to find himself looking at him more closely.
Rather than hinging on just one detail, Columbo’s cat and mouse game with Nelson has a number of steps. My favorite is also the most comedic in which the detective finds himself trying to get some information out of a tailor at a very high-end establishment, in large part because of the very entertaining performance from Vito Scotti. I love too that this isn’t just an exercise in comedy (like an earlier bit with Columbo’s car getting inspected) but that it has a serious implication for the case.
Beyond the two leads, I also ought to draw attention to the performances of the two actresses who play the women in Nelson’s life. Joanne Linville’s portrait of a wife who has long suspected her husband of infidelity and has perhaps taken to drink is compelling and surprisingly subtle. She is always interesting to watch, particularly in those little moments in her performance where she reacts to Nelson, appearing to wonder if she has misjudged him as well as those others where she notices oddities in his behavior.
Tisha Sterling’s Linda gets a little less screen time and is a more credulous figure. Nonetheless, I liked the earnest sincerity she brings to the part and found the few moments where the two women interact to be interesting to watch.
The episode’s conclusion is really entertaining and does a great job of making sure that the viewer is aware of the movements of both men. We know what Nelson is planning and we can see what Columbo is doing, even if we are not entirely sure what he has in mind. It then plays out and resolves quite quickly, delivering a very satisfying moment of deflation as the killer, certain that they have won, suddenly sees that he has been outsmarted.
I should also note that while I sometimes query whether Columbo could make an accusation stick, in this story the evidence that is assembled by the end seems conclusive. This is a story that really demonstrates Columbo’s ability to construct a really tight case and reminds us that he can think through a case too.
That satisfying conclusion brings to an end an episode that I regard as the first classic of the show’s third season. While Cooper is not the one of the flashiest or most colorful villains, I think he fits his part well and, as a cat and mouse detective game, I think this has to rank among the very best I have seen up to this point. It leaves me excited to see what else this season has in store…
The Verdict: An excellent case from setup to conclusion offering a clever scenario and showcasing Columbo’s brilliance at piecing the truth together.