Originally broadcast September 15, 1974
Teleplay by Peter S. Fischer from a story by Larry Cohen
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski
Health club owner Milo Janus has been ripping off his franchisees while bumping up fees and embezzling money with the intention to cut and run. He didn’t anticipate that one of them would catch on and closely scrutinize the books, hoping to report him to the authorities for fraud. Milo decides to murder him before he can prove anything, staging an accident while giving himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately for Milo, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…
An Exercise in Fatality kicks off Columbo‘s shortened fourth season with an engaging case set around a gym franchise. Like many of the more memorable episodes we have seen so far, the idea here is one of contrasts, placing the detective into an environment that he seems ill-suited to. With his fondness for chili, coffee, and smoking cigars, Columbo is anything but a health fanatic which the episode plays with in several comedic scenes. The previous season had briefly played with a similar concept in its season opener, Lovely but Lethal, but the treatment here feels sharper and while there are some weaknesses to address, this is a more successful effort across the board.
One reason that this story works a little better than that previous one is that the killer, Milo Janus, has actually planned their crime rather than acting on the spur on the moment. What we have then isn’t just a cover-up but a clearly premeditated crime with a seemingly unbreakable alibi for Columbo to bust. I’ll address in a moment why that doesn’t work perfectly but it does at least mean that there is more here for our sleuth to piece together, making the detective’s job considerably harder.
Robert Conrad (Wild Wild West) is well cast as that killer who ticks many of the Columbo villain boxes. Instead of class or wealth being the dividing line, Janus’ snobbery is most clearly observed when discussing Columbo’s poor health habits and general appearance. Janus, we are told, is older than Columbo yet looks years younger. His outfits are generally sharp and extremely well-fitted, and the episode delights in pointing out the contrast between the two men – most memorably in a sequence where Columbo tries to keep up with him to ask questions while running on a beach.
Unlike some of the other killers, Janus never really seems to regard Columbo as a threat. He is irritated by his presence, trying to stonewall or exclude him from the business rather than indulging him or trying to lead the investigation. It’s clearly never going to work yet it feels a bit different from the attitudes we’ve seen in cases from the previous season, making this approach feel fresher and distinctive as Columbo is forced to work some slightly different angles to get the information he needs.
What feels particularly new here though is that this is one of the very few cases where we see Columbo voice an anger about the case, bringing it into one of Columbo’s key exchanges with Janus. It feels powerful because it is so unexpected for the character, showing a slightly new side to him while also creating a slightly different dynamic than we have seen before. Typically Columbo gains more and more control over the case as the story goes on – here his outburst threatens to destroy everything he has carefully built up.
Let’s talk unbreakable alibis because I think that this is really the episode’s weakest element. Janus’ plan for the murder requires him to be present so he will not be able to have an alibi for the real time of the murder – instead he has to lead the detectives to think that the crime happened later than it did. The moment we see a certain piece of technology the viewer will guess where things are headed, though the story is somewhat predicated on Janus having a completely unnecessary system in place that he can subsequently exploit. It’s a little contrived but the problem isn’t so much in the concept but that when Columbo finds it there is little excitement or cleverness in how it has been used or how he will prove it. Instead it takes the focus off the slightly more clever observations about some of the other steps in the deception.
The other problem I have with the unbreakable alibi is that the idea Janus has constructed feels so implausible to begin with. One of the key components is that there is some time that has to be accounted for so he makes up a story that is far from convincing and that can be easily checked. While that may not be the point that the episode hinges on, it does make Janus’ plan seem quite sloppy and it keeps this from feeling like a truly ingeniously worked scheme and thus Columbo’s efforts feel a little less impressive as a consequence.
The other problem I have with this episode is that the padding here feels very visible. Some of it, such as the beach run, is amusing enough that it didn’t bother me but there is one lengthy sequence where Columbo goes to get some information from an HR department to help him track down a lead that is dragged out far too long with little comedic payoff. That sequence which comes near the midpoint of the episode just slows everything down, destroying the episode’s momentum which to that point had been quite brisk.
On a more positive note though, while I may not have loved some of the technical elements of the episode, I think the conclusion is powerful and contains a great example of Columbo using his deductive skills to catch Janus in an inconsistency he just cannot explain. It’s not a showy example of the gotcha moment but it feels all the more satisfying for it being one created through the application of logic to the facts of the case, creating a wonderful sense that the killer has unnecessarily trapped themselves with their own cleverness.
It’s a really satisfying moment, in part because I think it is so easy to find ourselves detesting Janus and all he stands for. There is no sense that he is unfortunate or that anything about his situation is unfair and so it is easy to take pleasure in seeing him taken down, particularly given his earlier angry exchange with Columbo.
The Verdict: Some sloppiness with the unbreakable alibi and issues with some very visible padding are a shame because Conrad makes for an excellent Columbo villain.