Originally broadcast January 18, 1974
Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Robert Butler
When his bestselling author makes a deal to switch to a new publisher, Riley Greenleaf decides to hire a hitman to kill him. Knowing that he will be a prime suspect, Riley decides to lean into that fact while also establishing what seems to be a cast iron alibi. Unfortunately for the punitive publisher, Lt. Columbo is assigned to the case…
There are lots of familiar faces on Columbo with genre credits but this episode stands out for casting a crime writer. Mickey Spillane (shown to the left) was one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction in the mid-to-late twentieth century. While the author may not have found success with the critics, he certainly built a huge audience. His Mike Hammer series, which started with I, the Jury, would sell hundreds of millions of copies.
Jack Cassidy makes the second of his three appearances in the series, this time playing publisher Riley Greenleaf. The actor and singer had achieved broadway success, winning a Tony award, before appearing in a string of guest appearances on the small screen in a variety of shows including Cannon, Barnaby Jones and Banyon.
There is lots that interested and amused me about this episode but top of the list is the decision to cast Mickey Spillane as the victim. It’s not simply a matter of the novelty of putting a mystery writer on screen but I love the way that his character plays off the author’s own personality and image. Allen Mallory, like Spillane, writes supposedly low-brow potboilers that are leaving him creatively unfulfilled. It’s playful and it serves as a sort of shorthand, helping us get to grips with his character in just a handful of scenes.
The episode itself follows a pretty typical Columbo structure of following the killer as they set up the elements of their plan. Often we are left completely in the dark about what will happen, the episode teasing us with those details of the crime to come as we wonder how the elements will fit together. This episode approaches things a little differently.
Right from the start it is clear who the target is and the reason for their murder. We also know the means the killer intends to use and while we may wonder about the involvement of a third party, viewers will quickly realize that the killer intends to establish an alibi for themselves. The exact nature of that alibi will be a secret but rest assured it’s pretty amusing and I do consider it to be a pretty good one.
The sequence in which the murder is carried out is one of the more engaging ones I have encountered up to this point, enhanced by a little creative editing, a highly entertaining rampage from Riley and a rather striking death moment from the victim. At the point at which Columbo enters the story it does seem that Greenleaf has set things up rather nicely and you can imagine he would feel quite safe.
So, let’s talk Riley Greenleaf as I think the success of this episode really hinges on this character and the performance from Jack Cassidy. Rather unusually for a Columbo killer, it seems to me that Greenleaf is not so much acting from a rational motive but rather out of pure vindictiveness. Sure, there’s a mention of a million dollar life insurance policy at one point but as there’s never any discussion of that motive again it feels like it’s just mentioned to give a better excuse than “I can’t have him so you can’t either”.
Cassidy’s performance feels larger than life, veering wildly from moments of suave, seemingly sincere calm to sharp expressions of antagonism. That could so easily feel cartoonish and inconsistent but here I think it fits in well with some other aspects of a character who often seems incredibly unstable, at times treating Columbo’s investigation quite flippantly. It feels different from the vast majority of Columbo killers we have seen up to this point and much more satisfying than the nearest performance I can think of, Roddy McDowall’s in the first season’s Short Fuse.
Given that Riley is not one of the more ingenious killers, it is perhaps not surprising that the structure of this story is not overly complicated. After carefully setting up the details and tidying up a loose end after the murder, there are no major twists or surprises to change our perception of those details. Nor does it feel like Columbo has to work particularly hard to extract the information needed to bust this case open. In fact, it ‘s honestly quite surprising that Greenleaf sustains his act as long as he does given some of the risks he takes both in the planning and execution of his scheme.
One of the most intriguing risks is John Chandler’s turn as an explosives-obsessed Vietnam veteran who dreams of publishing his own book. The performance is certainly colorful and his introduction is a memorable one, lobbing home-crafted explosives into a testing zone. While the performance is a broad one at times, I think it does help to convince that he might really put his trust in someone like Greenleaf. I will say though that I found it much harder to believe that the publisher would be willing to trust that he would be able to pull the action off in the first place.
As for Falk’s Columbo, it’s a solid enough outing though while I enjoyed the performance, little of it is particularly memorable. One bit that is however and which lands really well is a bit of business in a restaurant. While I anticipated the sort of punchline that scene would have, I think it is delivered beautifully.
The gotcha moment is fine enough. I certainly buy the logic of it but felt that given the episode seemed to be quite short, I was a little bit underwhelmed. Still, I am happy to say that I had a pretty good time with this one overall and while I much prefer the similarly-themed Murder by the Book, there’s little denying that he fit the part nicely.
The Verdict: An entertaining episode that seemed to move rather quickly but which delivered a fun performance as the villain from Jack Cassidy and one of the most memorable corpses in the show’s history!