Season Three, Episode Four
Preceded by Candidate for Crime
Followed by Publish or Perish
Originally broadcast December 16, 1973
Written by Stephen J. Cannell
Directed by Richard Quine
Dr. Bart Kepple has been on the cutting edge of advertising research for years after publishing several highly regarded books about techniques. Among the secrets to his success is a lucrative blackmail business. When one of his subjects threatens to stand up to him rather than pay, Kepple decides he must act to eliminate them. He has what seems to be an unbreakable alibi for the time of the murder – a room full of people can say he was on stage narrating a film at the time. Unfortunately for the advertising guru, Lt. Columbo just isn’t buying it…
Robert Culp (left) had already featured as a killer twice before in Columbo, once in each of the first two seasons. This would be his final appearance in the show’s initial run though he would return for one last outing as Columbo Goes to College in 1990. He did however also make an appearance in the pilot for Mrs. Columbo in the meantime.
Louise Latham is perhaps most widely remembered for a role in the 1964 Hitchcock movie Marnie but she also has a number of other genre credits to her name on television. These include appearances in Perry Mason, Ironside, Kojak and Murder, She Wrote.
One familiar face making an early television appearance is George Wyner as the film editor consulted later in the episode. Wyner is still active in Hollywood today appearing in shows like The Umbrella Academy and Grace and Frankie. Genre credits include Boston Legal, Bones and several episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Quincy.
There is a line in this episode where Lt. Columbo says that one of the reasons he loves his job is that he gets to come into contact with interesting people. On a related note, I think that this episode really drove home to me the idea that we love Columbo the show for similar reasons – part of the thrill, at least for this viewer, lies in discovering what background or career path the next antagonist will come from. In the case of Double Exposure we get our first encounter with the world of marketing as Dr. Kepple specializes in the field of ‘motivation research’.
In a recent post I referenced the idea that most of Columbo‘s antagonists share some common characteristics. They are often quite elitist, looking down on the scruffy police lieutenant because of his slovenly dress, clumsy manners and personal habits. Many equate those qualities with a lack of intelligence and so underestimate him, not putting up their guard soon enough.
Dr. Kepple certainly possesses those qualities as well but what strikes me as interesting about this character is that he seems far less wary than most. He is a man who believes his own hype – that his ability to read a consumer and predict their behavior will also lead to him having the upper hand when dealing with the police.
For the role of Dr. Kepple we get the third and final appearance of Robert Culp as a Columbo killer, though he would appear in another part when the show came back in the nineties. He proves an excellent fit for the part, seeming comfortable with the technical requirements of the part (cutting film, repositioning cameras, working the technology, etc) and the dialogue about his character’s profession while also driving home the man’s arrogance and sense of complacency in all of his dealings with Columbo. It is, in my opinion, the best of Culp’s three turns as the killer.
Part of what I appreciate is that Kepple is a distinctly different creation from the previous two killers Culp portrayed. This man is a planner who treats his murder like he is writing the script for one of his promotional films. He intends to create an evidence trail that will tell a story and encourage the police to interpret the crime scene in a particular way. It’s a pretty brazen plan and certainly unusual among the Columbo killers up until this point, marking the character out as a little different. Equally interesting to me though is that I think this is the reason Columbo comes to suspect him in the first place. The story he attempts to present to Columbo is simply too neat and tidy.
Some parts of Kepple’s plan are admittedly very clever and I love that while the episode shows us all of his preparations and actions, the meaning of some of his actions are not instantly apparent. To give one of the strongest examples of this, the means by which the murder weapon is made to appear not to have been used is shown to the viewer yet some (such as myself) may not initially grasp the significance of what we have seen or what it means.
Kepple’s plan here is to construct a seeming unbreakable alibi by creating a situation in which a group of people will all appear to witness him standing behind a curtain on the stage narrating in perfect time to a film reel. This boils down to a variation on an old trick and I think that there are some issues with the plan that would make it impractical in reality (ROT-13: Gurer jvyy or n irel abgvprnoyr fuvsg va fbhaq dhnyvgl orgjrra n crefba fcrnxvat yvir naq n erpbeqvat cynlvat bire n fcrnxre, abg gb zragvba gur zvpebcubar pbhyq jryy cvpx hc ba gur juveyvat bs gur gncr jvguva gur znpuvar). In spite of that however, I appreciated the basic idea and enjoyed how smoothly the character pulls off his murder before returning to the stage without breaking a sweat.
The most interesting aspect of the case however relates quite specifically to the skills and background of the killer and it struck me as quite a novel way of pulling off his plan. It’s one of those situations where I wondered if a viewer in 1973 might have had a different experience from a viewer today as I wonder how well known the technique shown was at the time while the meaning of what Kepple seemed quite obvious to me from the start. Still, I appreciated the originality of that as a method and I appreciated that the script and filmmakers do not try to oversell the idea of how effective that could be. Instead they go for something that feels much more limited in scope but still clearly of enormous importance to his plan.
There are a number of excellent hints dropped about how Columbo will end up putting this case together, helped with some strong foreshadowing. The episode did a good job of drawing attention to each of these clues while keeping the relevance of them hidden until late in the episode, giving the sense of a sudden rush of discovery as we near the point where Columbo can prove his case.
My favorite of these hints relates to an object that Columbo finds as Kepple expected. What struck me as really clever is that while Kepple reads many aspects of the crime scene effectively, doing a fine job of steering Columbo away from the truth with his storytelling, he overlooks something very simple and logical. Watching Falk as he slowly comes back to the significance of that clue and tries to work through every possible explanation is both agonizing and compelling – a little like seeing a bar of soap slip repeatedly from hand to hand. Kepple keeps thinking he’s finally convinced Columbo that he’s on the wrong track only to be told that there is another practical reason why his explanation for the inconsistency simply doesn’t work. It’s great television that shows off how well these two actors could play off one another.
There are other things I love such as the wonderfully seventies banana yellow jacket Culp wears which you can marvel at yourself in the screenshot above or the descriptions of what Kepple’s work actually entails. It is the interplay between Falk and Culp though that I think is the core reason this episode works so well. Each actor anticipates and plays off the other brilliantly, creating a wonderfully antagonistic relationship between them.
While I still feel a little underwhelmed by the idea of an actor returning to play other killers, I do understand why the filmmakers brought Culp back. He got better with each appearance and my only regret is that we won’t see him again in that role. Of course, he wouldn’t be the last Columbo killer to make repeat appearances as we will see next time…
The Verdict: A fun story which pulls a few interesting tricks, not least with regard the murder weapon. Featuring some entertaining antagonistic banter and wonderful performances from the leads, I consider this the best of the Culp as murderer episodes.