Originally broadcast October 15, 1974
Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Alf Kjellin
Photographer Frank Galesko is tired of Frances, his ‘domineering, nagging, suffocating’ wife and perhaps a little interested in Lorna, his pretty, young assistant. Determined to be rid of her, he stages her kidnapping and ransom with the aid of an associate and kills her, framing the man who unwittingly helped him pull it off. He seems to have crafted an unbreakable alibi for himself. Unfortunately for Frank, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…
There are some Columbo killers whose names you see on the titles and think to yourself that they were obviously perfect casting for the killer. People like Donald Pleasance and Leonard Nimoy come to mind. It’s not just that they are good at playing menacing but that you can imagine how the back and forth between them and Falk will likely play out. There is a second type of Columbo killer though that can be equally successful when pulled off – the actor who is cast against type. It is this second type of successful antagonist that we find in Negative Reaction.
As much as I enjoy Dick van Dyke as an entertainer, I didn’t have high expectations when I saw that he was the killer in this episode. I think of van Dyke as a charming, urbane and playful performer and so it was hard to imagine him as ruthless or cruel. My expectation was that the production would use his affability as a way to obscure his character’s nature – leaning into his likeability – but the episode actually goes the other way, emphasizing the character’s cruelty in one of the most brutal and calculating murders seen on the show to date (minus the actual killing of course).
There is a certain shock value to seeing loveable family entertainer Dick van Dyke behaving that way which does help make that opening feel all the more arresting but the performance and the setup doesn’t rely on that. Galesko’s plan itself is interesting, seeing the killer recruit an unwitting accomplice to help him pull off his crime. It’s a fascinating structure that helps to stress just how carefully this character has planned his murder, and it does create one of the more intriguing alibi problems that Columbo has encountered to date.
While the sequence in which Galesko sets up a photograph to suggest a false time of death is presented as a centerpiece, the cleverest aspect of the crime to me was the way he plays the kidnapping angle. This is partly because it does help sell the broader story but it’s also because of the way the scene plays out with the character appearing to try to avoid talking about it. So often in these sorts of stories the killer will draw attention to themselves by trying to force a memory onto someone, perhaps by asking them to look at the time, so it feels quite novel to see it play out the other way here. What’s more, I feel that this scene is built upon some pretty accurate psychology – we do tend to pay more attention to those things we are supposed not to notice.
Galesko’s choice of associate is similarly very clever (and also quite cruel). While I think many would question what they were being asked to do, that character’s situation is such that you can understand why they wouldn’t think too much about it and instead just accept it on face value. Here once again I feel Galesko’s cunning and brutality as a killer is really sold and I felt that this part of the plot is paid off well, even if a key moment of violence doesn’t entirely convince in the portrayal of its consequences (though here, again, I love the way it drives home Galesko’s ruthlessness and dedication to his aims).
So that’s close to full marks to this episode and to van Dyke for its portrayal of the murder scheme. This gets things off to a fine start and sets up an intriguing problem for Columbo to try to work through. Firstly, can he see through Galesko and what he has been willing to do in order to appear to be an innocent victim? Second, how can he break his seemingly tight alibi? Then lastly, how will he prove the photographer masterminded the whole thing?
What intrigues me here is that Galesko once again underplays his hand, avoiding excessive displays of grief and not even doing much to cover up his interest in Lorna. This is perhaps a reflection of the character’s arrogance – he believes his alibi is so strong that he believes he cannot be caught. In any case, it is another instance of how van Dyke plays against expectations to create a character who must rank among the least likeable of the villains the show had created up until this point.
Falk has a very solid episode, getting quite a lot of comical material to work with. Much of this is in the familiar but fertile ground of Columbo being judged by his disheveled appearance – in this case there is a misunderstanding with his vehicle and, later in the episode, confusion at a soup kitchen. None of this is unexpected but Falk’s delivery and reactions are good and while I suspect there is some padding there, both scenes are important enough in other regards to keep that from being too evident and they don’t slow the episode down too much either.
On more original ground, there is an amusing sequence in which Columbo tries to question a witness while driving which works very nicely. It is nice to see the show giving Falk something fresh to play with and the scene is pitched at just about the right length, getting a few goes at the gag before moving on.
Columbo’s investigation is similarly well-pitched, delivering several interesting lines of inquiry and interactions with some colorful characters. What really impresses though is that this is one of the strongest cases that our hero has built up against a suspect up to this point in the series. Over the course of the episode we see him pick up on small tells, none of them significant enough in their own right to prove anything but which taken together put him on the right track.
Some of those tells are based on observing Galesko’s behavior which, as I noted earlier, is hardly that of the grieving husband but Columbo is also responsible for generating some of those moments. One of the more memorable examples of this comes with his behavior at the funeral but there are plenty of other examples as well.
All of this builds to a very clever example of a gotcha moment – perhaps the show’s best one since Suitable for Framing. It involves a piece of trickery which I usually don’t love but here the trick is a great one, made better by it operating to incriminate his adversary on several levels. After watching van Dyke’s Galesko comfortably wriggle free of each of Columbo’s attempts to snare him throughout the episode, seeing him trapped so conclusively feels devastating and unlikely some other examples, I don’t see how he can ever talk his way out of it in any kind of a convincing way at trial. It’s a very satisfying way to conclude this case.
I may have been a little apprehensive about what I would get when I started this episode but I am happy to say that I felt all of my expectations were exceeded. This is a very solid case with one of the most detestable killers the show had created, brilliantly realized with an unexpected piece of casting. While it is still a little early for me to be thinking about ranking Columbo episodes, I will be surprised if it isn’t at the upper end of my list whenever I make it.
The Verdict: Far better than I had expected. The investigation is interesting and though it is one of the longer episodes, I was surprised when I realized it was one of the longer ones – the time seemed to fly by!