Season Three, Episode Eight
Preceded by Swan Song
Followed by An Exercise in Fatality (Season Four)
Originally broadcast May 5, 1974
Teleplay by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Ben Gazzara
When Hugh Caldwell kills his wife in the middle of a fight he turns to his friend Mark for help. That assistance takes the form of giving him an alibi while staging the crime scene to tell a different story – that of a murder by an unknown intruder. What Hugh does not realize however is that Mark’s help will come at a price…
Columbo‘s third season is, in the opinion of this viewer, a bit of a mixed bag. There were some real highs such as Any Old Port in a Storm or Publish or Perish but it also gave us an episode in Mind over Mayhem which is the story I have enjoyed least so far in the series by quite some way. Perhaps it is fitting then that I found the season finale, A Friend in Deed, to be a similarly inconsistent effort with some moments of pure inspiration but a couple of elements that just didn’t work for me.
The best place to begin with this story is its central concept: the cover-up of a murder by a friend of the killer. When this idea is initially introduced I will admit to thinking it was a bit weak and I struggled to accept that Mark would willingly put their freedom in jeopardy by getting involved in a murder cover-up that didn’t benefit him at all. That is partly explained by the idea referenced by several characters that the victim had tormented Hugh which makes his sympathy understandable but had his actions hinged solely on that empathy I think the episode would have been in a lot of trouble. Fortunately Peter S. Fischer has a much cleverer concept in mind that he presents part way into the episode.
That idea is not wholly original but it works nicely because of a structural choice he makes earlier in the episode. The initial setup is so ordinary and simple that it seems inconceivable that the situation as first presented could sustain a whole ninety-five minutes of drama. In what amounts to a nice piece of misdirection, Fischer knows we will be looking for that extra something and gives it to us before then providing an additional reveal that takes the story in an entirely different direction. What’s more it’s at this point that the relationship between Columbo and our criminal mastermind really comes into focus and the games that are being played become more interesting.
The early reveal relates to an aspect of Mark’s background that will not only drive his conflict with Columbo but also give it a rather unique character. I’ll be discussing that further in my spoiler section below but the short version is that I appreciate the intention and while I have some questions about the consequences of that reveal, I do like that it does make this episode and its villain feel a bit different.
Mark is played by Richard Kiley whose portrayal emphasizes the character’s seedy, entitled side. When we are first introduced to him for instance we see him in a gambling establishment enjoying the company of some women who are not his wife and he gives off a rather nonchalant air. The character’s scheme for orchestrating the cover-up is not particularly complex, nor is it all that audacious. That partly reflects that further reveals are to come at that point in the story but also the character’s supreme confidence in himself. It’s a simple and familiar trick but the execution is solid enough.
There are parts of Kiley’s performance I quite enjoy but I do think one of the weaknesses of the script is how ridiculously over-the-top and villainous he can appear. Moments like his snarling down the phone to Hugh to get him to say a particular phrase necessary for their plan or his introduction in that gambling den seem rather silly and cartoonish. On the other hand, there are some wonderful moments, particularly when he is playing off Columbo, and his performance in the crucial gotchya scene is one of the best so far.
Opposite him, Michael McGuire’s Hugh is understandably a bag of nerves. It is his view we initially get of the crime and we follow him as he approaches Mark for help. Given how tightly wound this character becomes as a consquence of what happens, I was sure that we would witness him disintegrate further under pressure as the story goes on but instead I was surprised at how quickly he drops from the story and how our focus falls almost entirely on Mark.
So, what is Mark’s plan? He plans to suggest that the murder happened as a result of a break-in at Hugh’s home by the Bel-Air Burglar – a character all over the news. Once again, a simple enough idea but it’s a solid enough premise for a cover-up. Unfortunately though this takes us to a dive bar setting that I think misses the mark.
Those scenes are clearly intended to be gritty and realistic from the way they are scripted but I think they are let down by some costuming and tonal choices. One of the most striking things about this episode is that while there are some lines of dialogue that I think feel a little silly and playful, there is less of a focus on the comedy content than in many of the episodes in this season with Columbo himself seeming more restrained.
The exception is the business with Artie and Thelma. These scenes in which the two bicker feel like they are intended to be comical yet I felt they came off as silly, perhaps in part because Thelma’s costume seems ridiculous. This in turn makes it harder to take the pair seriously. Matters are not helped by their dialogue which just didn’t ring true to me. Fortunately while I think the manner of Artie’s introduction is poor, I did like the way he is utilized in some of the later scenes in the episode.
Which brings me to that gotchya moment I referenced before. The goal here is that I like to be surprised and, ideally, when that happens to end up frustrated with myself that I overlooked something obvious. The manner of the conclusion here certainly accomplishes that, giving us one of the show’s best gotchya moments since Suitable for Framing. I enjoyed the brazeness of Columbo’s plan, I appreciate the psychology behind that moment and, most importantly, I think those last few minutes of the episode made for some really gripping TV.
The episode does end on a high then but I am left uncertain as to how I feel about this one overall. On a conceptual level I think this is a very clever story and I think it lands its ending but I don’t think it has a consistent tone with some moments coming off as silly rather than amusing.
The Verdict: I feel that a very clever concept is marred a little by some inconsistency of tone. Throw in an uneven performance from the actor playing the episode’s antagonist and you have a recipe for an episode that, while good, doesn’t entirely deliver on its promise.
Aidan Spoils Everything
ROT-13: V jnf jngpuvat guvf rcvfbqr jvgu zl jvsr jub vf ol ab zrnaf n zlfgrel sna naq jnf pbzcyrgryl arj gb gur fubj ohg jura vg jnf erirnyrq gung Znex jnf Pbyhzob’f obff, ure erfcbafr jnf gb nfx jul ab bar va uvf qrcnegzrag engrf uvf fxvyyf jura ur fbyirf vaperqvoyl gevpxl pnfrf rnpu jrrx. Zl svefg erfcbafr jnf gb fhttrfg gung znlor uvf fhcrevbef qba’g erpbtavmr uvf pbagevohgvba be uvf fznegf orpnhfr bs gur crefban ur nqbcgf ohg gur rcvfbqr qverpgyl pbagenqvpgf guvf, znxvat vg pyrne gung uvf fxvyyf ner irel pyrneyl engrq.
Fb jul ba rnegu qbrf Znex pnyy sbe uvz naq gura, bapr ur’f vaibyirq, bcg gb xrrc uvz urnqvat hc gur pnfr. Pbyhzob pyrneyl vfa’g tbvat gb sbyybj gur yvar Znex vf nffvtavat uvz fb jul qbrf ur xrrc uvz ba gur pnfr ng nyy? Vg znxrf irel yvggyr frafr gb zr.
Fvzvyneyl, juvyr gurer’f ab pbfg gb vg, V pna’g trg zl urnq nebhaq Znex yrnivat gur trzf nyy arngyl jenccrq hc va uvf tnentr jura ur pbzzvgf uvf zheqre, xabjvat gur pbcf jvyy or fjnezvat nyy bire gur ubhfr. Creuncf jr’er zrnag gb gnxr gung nf n fvta bs gur zna’f gbgny neebtnapr ohg vg frrzf dhvgr fvyyl.