Columbo: By Dawn’s Early Light (TV)

Season Four, Episode Three
Preceded by Negative Reaction
Followed by Playback

Originally broadcast October 27, 1974

Written by Howard Berk
Directed by Harvey Hart

Plot Summary

Colonel Rumford is the commandant of a military academy that is struggling to maintain enrollment as fewer young men consider a career in the military. When the chairman informs him that he will push ahead with his plan to make the school into a co-educational university and dismiss him, Rumford kills him, making the death appear to be a tragic accident. Unfortunately for Rumford, he didn’t anticipate Lt. Columbo investigating the case…

My Thoughts

The Prisoner is one of my favorite television shows of all time and it has been one I have often revisited over the years. I hugely enjoy McGoohan’s intensity and charisma in the lead role of Number Six – a former spy who finds himself in a strange village where an antagonist, Number Two, plays games with him to try to learn his secrets. It was a format that really suited McGoohan’s abilities as an actor, typically pitting him one-on-one for intense interactions with other charismatic actors as they each try to break the other’s will.

While Rumford’s status as a killer leads to us wanting him to fail rather than triumph, that intense battle of wills is very much a part of this Columbo story, making McGoohan ideal casting for the part. This would be recognized after the fact with McGoohan picking up an Emmy for his performance. Perhaps the bigger sign of his success though is that he would return several times over the years that followed, not only contributing to the show as an actor and winning another Emmy but also as a writer and director.

It’s curious to think though that this episode could have turned out quite differently. According to Shooting Columbo, the original actor cast to play the role of Colonel Rumford was Ed Asner who dropped out after Peter Falk’s contract dispute led to delays in shooting. While Asner was certainly a fantastic performer, I find it hard to imagine anyone playing the part quite as well as McGoohan – an actor every bit as unpredictable and fascinating as Falk himself.

There’s lots to love about the interactions between these two intense performers. McGoohan’s role requires him at times to act with great force and show his anger but he balances these beautifully with moments in which he tries to ingratiate, placate and gently lead Columbo to the positions he hopes he will take. Those moments could easily have been played with high energy to draw your attention to them but instead McGoohan underplays them, allowing us to see him think and similarly observe how Falk is responding. At other points Falk takes the lead, encouraging us to wonder what lies beneath his questions but also how his counterpart is responding.

The relationship reminded me a little of a waltz with both characters trying to lead while also retaining their sense of grace and poise. McGoohan’s Rumford could so easily have gone into a hammy, over-the-top militarism – and he certainly has moments where we see flashes of that – but he also plays with subtext, allowing us into his character’s head and, in the process, rendering him as a significantly more complex and interesting individual than I think he would have been based on the script alone.

Falk seems to be noticeably engaged with this script and performance turning in an equally restrained and dry performance of his own. There are moments of comedy – hand Falk a map or a couple of bread rolls and he will inevitably make something amusing happen but while those moments can be pretty funny, they feel noticeably scaled back. My feeling is that Falk would often add to the comedic business of an episode when he wasn’t sure if it was working – here he seems to trust that the material will work. Which it does.

One of the ideas I like most about this episode is Columbo’s decision to place himself in the barracks, spontaneously deciding to stay on site. This not only allows the production to make the most of the setting, the striking Citadel campus in Charleston, South Carolina, but it also provides some entertaining moments as a disheveled Columbo is startled awake by the reveille or trying to borrow socks off some of the residents.

I think it also allows us to see a slightly different Columbo than we often see in these episodes as he is so clearly out of his element and comfort zone. This exposure to new pressures provides an opportunity to see some newer sides to this character even after four seasons. On a similar note, I also really enjoyed the character’s interactions with his very frustrated subordinates who clearly are used to the detective’s chaotic methods and just want to go home – we so often focus on Columbo working a case alone that it’s always interesting to get these little moments that give insight into how he is viewed by his colleagues.

In terms of the scripting, I think that the episode is surprisingly tight for a ninety minute story with little sense of any extraneous materiale. While I know from reading David Koenig’s book that a scene was added at McGoohan’s request, I was struck by how integrated it feels to the rest of the production. While it doesn’t necessarily advance the plot much, it does enrich the characters and give us a better understanding both of their dynamic and also some of the workings of the academy itself.

My only qualms about the plot are that I feel that the Colonel doesn’t really have a solid endgame in committing the murder. While I admire the way he anticipates and controls the scene in the lead up to the ‘accident’, I feel there are legitimate questions to be asked about just how things would have unfolded had Columbo never been assigned the case. Would the school have survived with its significantly declining enrollment? Would no one on the board have been aware of what the victim, Haynes, had in mind for the school? What would he have done if Haynes had not responded to his manipulations prior to the murder?

While I think you can ask some questions of the episode’s premise, I do really appreciate the slow build-up to the end. This is not the type of story that has a gotcha moment or some dramatic trick or reveal but rather it is much more like Columbo is operating a slowly tightening noose working its way the killer’s neck, leaving him confused and at a loss for how to get out until it is too late and the evidence seems to utterly incriminate him.

This makes for a splendid and compelling conclusion to a really interesting case. McGoohan proves to be inspired casting as the killer and I really enjoyed the rapport the two lead actors share. It is easy to see why the producers would bring him back several times in the years to come – it’s a great performance.

The Verdict: While not the flashiest or starriest of Columbo stories, this is a compelling and entertaining tale featuring a wonderful performance from Patrick McGoohan.


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