Holmes on Film: Murder by Decree (1979)

Recently I started a new series of posts in which I look at film and television works that use the character of Sherlock Holmes, either directly or indirectly. I kicked the series off with a look at two very early shorts – Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) and A Canine Sherlock (1912), each of which I would describe as Holmes-adjacent works, using the idea of Holmes but little else about the character.

The subject of today’s post, while also not an adaptation of a canonical Holmes story, sees the character – and Dr. Watson – fully represented. I watched it for the first time in preparation for this post and found it interesting enough that I decided to give it a second viewing later that day. Indeed, I think it may well feature my favorite rendering of one of Doyle’s characters.

Now, on with the movie…

Murder by Decree Blu Ray cover

Murder by Decree

Murder by Decree was not the Great Detective’s first run-in with Jack the Ripper. A little more than a decade earlier James Hill had made A Study in Terror which had starred John Neville as Sherlock Holmes which I have seen but am yet to review on this blog. Interestingly two actors from that production also appear in this – Anthony Quayle and Frank Finlay, the latter reprising the same role as Inspector Lestrade.

The first thing to note about Murder by Decree is the intensity of violence represented on screen. Each of the murders that we see feel vicious, with that sense being enhanced by the repeated use of steady-cam sequences in which we seem to be seeing those scenes as the killer. This is where watching the film for a second time however gave me a little extra clarity – that choice helps to imply violence that we do not directly see, adding to the sense of horror while also allowing the director to hold back a little.

On the topic of the violence, let’s also take a moment to reflect on how this (and other works that use the Whitechapel Murders) treats the fact that it is using some real historical figures. There is a school of thought, actually voiced here by Watson in one scene, that the victims can just be turned into props and their worth as individuals can be lost.

The popular conception of the Ripper is examined and explored. We are reminded that class insulated some from the panic that was a part of people’s daily lives for a while. For example, one character comments on how the wealthy seem to revel in exploring the back alleys of the East End where the murders have taken place.

I also appreciate that the film tries to emphasize that the five women murdered were people rather than just victims. The poverty in the East End is represented very effectively, helping to demonstrate the difficulty of the lives of many in the area, and there is an effort to explore their individual circumstances and give at least a couple of them more proactive roles in the story. Yet it’s hard to escape that this is still ultimately fictionalizing real people and that our focus is still ultimately on the question of who the Ripper was. I think it is more tastefully handled than some other fictional explorations of the murders but I can understand those who have trouble with the idea.

Let’s turn then to the characters tasked with solving this mystery – Holmes and Watson. Christopher Plummer had appeared as Sherlock Holmes a short while earlier in a production of Silver Blaze but this is not a continuation of that portrayal which the actor had been less than satisfied with.

I really like a lot about Plummer’s performance here. His Holmes has moments where he appears detached or reluctant to engage, most notably in a scene near the start where he engages with a group of men seeking to hire him. Once the case begins in earnest however it is striking how emotional he becomes, working himself in a fury at several points in the story. Since watching the film I have read a fair bit of criticism of this aspect of his portrayal and I can certainly understand that what we see here isn’t often reflected in the Holmes canon. I think though it is not in itself inconsistent – Holmes’ reluctance to ally himself with the rich and powerful is an undercurrent in several stories and so, by extension, is the idea that he might be appalled by the injustices that he witnesses in this adventure. Those moments and, at points, tears feel earned by the extremity of the situation that he has become involved in and later, by his feeling of culpability in at least a couple of the women’s fates.

There is perhaps a little more truth to the suggestion that his Holmes intuits more than he detects. Like many of the Holmes stories, this is structured more as an adventure than a detective story – at least as far as Holmes is concerned. Many of his actions here are directly following up on ideas of leads suggested to him and the few scenes in which we see our heroes thinking through the case, the ideas being discussed belong to Watson. Holmes it turns out is thinking things through internally rather than voicing them to the viewer. Still, for the viewer however there is an opportunity to play detective as they are provided clues as to the motives behind everything in good time before Holmes reveals the solution (and some unseen legwork he has done to prove the things the viewer could only suspect).

I also really enjoyed the lighter moments Plummer gets, whether demonstrating that he is not completely defenseless when rejecting a revolver from Watson or sharing a carriage ride with him. While the tone of this story does not allow for many overtly humorous scenes, when we do get one it helps provide a bit of tonal balance and reminds us that Holmes is invigorated by the act of investigation. What I like most about the performance though is the sense of affection for Watson that is present throughout the picture.

James Mason’s take on the character of Watson is of an inherently noble, if somewhat stuffy, figure. That stuffiness is not necessarily intended to be ridiculous however, rather perhaps a little naïve. Several of the situations and conclusions reached in this story, for instance, defy his imagination and appall him. At one point in the story he puts himself in trouble, in part because he does not perceive the danger someone might pose to him. Yet while he may err at points or suggest a painfully straightforward solution to a complex problem, he is no buffoon. Instead he is a moral champion, urging Holmes to get involved in the case in the first place, and a good friend – throwing himself into danger to save him.

It is a splendid rendering of the character that I think may well be my favorite take on the part I have come across so far (which is all the more impressive given some of the others to have played the role). I found myself wishing that there had been further films with Plummer and Mason given how well the pair worked together.

As for the rest of the cast, quality abounds. This is a strikingly starry picture with familiar faces throughout. From the stars like Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings, and Genevieve Bujold to even the smaller parts such as June Brown’s appearance as Annie Chapman. While some performances attract the attention more than others (Bujold is superb and while the material doesn’t do much to test John Gielgud, he is dazzling in his brief appearance), I felt there was no weak link or obviously miscast character.

Where I do have complaints is with some aspects of the direction and editing. To be clear, there are some wonderful moments that I think show skill and imagination in how they are constructed. I already referenced the effectiveness of the steady-cam photography and there are similarly effective shots in the lengthy carriage ride Holmes and Watson take and in the dockland scenes (particularly one in which Holmes talks with an unseen informant). There are also some really effective attempts to recreate some locations, most notably the location of the final murder.

Yet there are some moments that feel very awkward. Sudden cuts in the sound as one scene feeds into another such as the lead into the first murder we witness or the choice to shoot some scenes in such a way that we get a very good look at a shadowy individual’s very distinctive features. This coupled with some curiously relaxed pacing, particularly in its talky denouement, soft and smeary cinematography, and the gallery of stars post-credits sequence (admittedly a very unimportant feature of the film), often makes it feel more TV than movie in its style and scope.

While I think the pace of the piece could have been a bit sharper at points, when the film is working it goes marvelously. The performances from the two leads are terrific, their chemistry among the best of any Holmes and Watson, and the solution can be reasoned out – even if it takes some unseen evidence gathered by Holmes to prove his case. It certainly ranks among the better Holmes films I have seen and I am glad that taking on this project prompted me to go ahead and finally watch my copy.

Holmes on Film: Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900) & A Canine Sherlock – Movie (1912)

In early January 2021 I started work on preparing a series of posts in which I would explore some Holmes-related and Holmes-adjacent films. Over the course of about five days I binge-watched close to a dozen movies, making some loose notes. Before I actually got around to doing the hard part (the writing of blog posts) the political events of that moment had grabbed my attention. By the time I could turn my attention back to the project my vacation time was over and the movies had all merged together in my memory. I would have to begin from scratch.

Whoops.

Rather than picking a full-length feature to start with, I decided to pick on some of the very short works I haven’t seen before. Both of the short films I will be writing about today can be found in the US on the Flicker Alley Blu Ray release of the 1916 William Gillette movie (of which more at a later date).

So, with that preamble out of the way – let’s talk movies!


Sherlock Holmes Baffled (1900)

Why didn’t this film get its own post? Well, it’s less than a minute long and it is clearly intended to be just a novelty that has some fun with some trick photography.

Still, while it may not be a substantial work it is nevertheless an important film because it represents the earliest known appearance of a character called Sherlock Holmes on screen. I do use that wording deliberately – the name is used to convey intelligence so the viewer will be even more astonished at the visual trickery but that is the extent of the characterization.

The story, such as it is, is that Holmes is in his flat when a burglar appears to take his silver. This figure is able to suddenly appear and then vanish with the aid of some stop tricks, then a very recent development in film, producing the titular bafflement in the Great Detective.

It’s cute enough, if obviously very slight, but what interested me was that it uses Holmes in the first place. This was an American production, made a year before Doyle returned to the character with The Hound of the Baskervilles, and I think that the use of the name illustrates how widely known the character was. Of course that popularity, and the character’s association with film, would only increase in the years to come…

A Canine Sherlock (1912)

The first thing to note is that A Canine Sherlock is not really a Sherlock Holmes film as the name is really being used as a synonym for a master detective. It is about fifteen minutes long and offers something of a plot as the detective will have to find and capture a gang of villains who have robbed a bank. As the title suggests, the gag in this lightly comic adventure is that it is the dog rather than his master, the detective Hawkshaw, who will ultimately solve the case and save the day.

In an opening scene we learn that their plan hinges on the use of a poisoned coin that will render the person who touches it unconscious. It’s not a bad trick and it suits the generally silly tone of the piece, though it doesn’t really stand up to much scrutiny. The poisoning, while dramatic, does absolutely nothing to advance their scheme which hinges on them producing guns and threatening to blow up the bank if anyone tries to stop them.

After getting away Hawkshaw arrives with his canine helper in tow who sets about investigating while his master mostly just stands there. Getting the scent, he then sets off to track down the villains at their lair, finds evidence, and then brings his master to pull off the arrest. It’s all pretty silly but it can be very entertaining, particularly as the dog pulls a trick to get admission to the house and then riffles through some papers. I suggest that you don’t think about it too hard or look for credibility and instead just enjoy the cuteness.

It is, as noted, still a slight work and there’s no detection really worth speaking of but it’s cute nonetheless. Are there any actual Holmesian touches? Not really, beyond the trickery used to gain admission to the house in the first place and the detective’s expertise at fighting. The latter is actually the most ludicrous part of the film as we see the detective holding a hardened criminal in place by crossing his ankles, but in the build-up we do see him anticipate the villain’s moves, dodging attacks even when his back is turned.

Still, I was entertained and pleasantly surprised at how quickly the fifteen minutes passed. What’s more, it looks pretty amazing as presented on the Blu Ray release with a very sharp image. Of course that’s not always to the film’s benefit – the set paintings in the bank look pretty dodgy when seen in high definition – but while its staginess is evident, the rather cartoonish approach to the fireplace in the villain’s lair looks pretty striking and added a little interest for me.

As Holmes-adjacent works go, this is pretty cute and while I wouldn’t buy the Gillette movie Blu Ray for it alone, I was very pleased that it was available as an extra.


The plan for this occasional series is to for it to be an occasional effort, like my Detection Club project, rather than a weekly endeavor (there will be more Columbo soon, honest!). There will be more whenever I have the time and inclination but be prepared for me to jump around rather than to try to watch things in any sort of structure or order!

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.

Columbo: Negative Reaction (TV)

Season Four, Episode Two
Preceded by An Exercise in Fatality
Followed by By Dawn’s Early Light

Originally broadcast October 15, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Alf Kjellin

Plot Summary

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…

My Thoughts

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!

Columbo: An Exercise in Fatality (TV)

Season Four, Episode One
Preceded by A Friend in Deed
Followed by Negative Reaction

Originally broadcast September 15, 1974

Teleplay by Peter S. Fischer from a story by Larry Cohen
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Plot Summary

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…

My Thoughts

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.

Columbo: A Friend in Deed (TV)

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

Plot Summary

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…


My Thoughts

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.

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Columbo: Swan Song (TV)

Season Three, Episode Seven
Preceded by Mind Over Mayhem
Followed by A Friend in Deed

Originally broadcast March 3, 1974

Teleplay by David Rayfiel from a story by Stanley Ralph Ross
Directed by Nicholas Colasanto

Plot Summary

Gospel singer Tommy Brown is one of the most popular musical artists in America but he is frustrated that he cannot enjoy the benefits of his fame. His wife, Edna, has a hold over him and is keeping him performing for a pittance with a threat of blackmail. Tommy decides to dispose of his wife by staging an elaborate accident but unfortunately for him Lieutenant Columbo is assigned to the case.

Famous Faces

The part of Tommy Brown was written for country music star Johnny Cash (left) who had already been active as a recording artist for close to two decades when this was filmed.

Ida Lupino plays Tommy’s wife, Edna. She had previously appeared in an earlier episode, Short Fuse, and she had starred in the 1939 Basil Rathbone movie The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.


My Thoughts

The plot is one of the simpler ones from this season of Columbo. As is often the case with the show, we spend quite a bit of time following the killer as he plans and executes his murder. In this case we watch Johnny Cash’s Tommy as he finishes up a concert and prepares to travel to LA. I think his target will be pretty evident to viewers along with his motive but the question in those early scenes is just how does he plan of disposing of them.

It quickly becomes clear that Tommy is not one of the world’s great thinkers and his plan is somewhat reflective of that. Compared to the other plots from this season, the crime is messy. Most Columbo criminals try to assemble an undetectable crime or an unbreakable alibi – Tommy opts instead to try to mask his crime with its sheer audacity. It makes no sense that anyone would choose the method he uses, therefore the explanation for what happened must surely be something more logical.

Tommy’s plan does rather strain the resources of a network television show in this period – I think particularly of a sequence in which there is an attempt to suggest some movement with camera shaking and lighting that looks a little clumsy and unconvincing. In spite of those faults however I really appreciate how different it feels and I like some of the messiness of the crime.

More than anything though I just like how Tommy feels so different from the blend of technocrats and sneering business types who are the show’s usual picks to be murderers. His artistic temperament and folksiness mean that many of the typical episode beats – the confrontations and the deflections – play a little differently. Tommy is annoyed by the detective’s repeated questions, sure, but he doesn’t think himself above him. Once again it makes for a nice contrast with the more typical villain.

Johnny Cash is interesting casting in this part. We quickly learn that Tommy is a pretty bad guy all round and the part plays so much off aspects of Cash’s own persona that I was a little surprised he was willing to take on the role. Still, there is something authentic and well-observed in the way the character is created and the episode takes full advantage of his musical talents, having him perform at several points.

Falk plays off Cash superbly and I was interested to see the character takes a slightly different, less adversarial take in his line of questioning. The badgering is there, sure, but it gets blamed on the suits not signing off on things until he answers every little point and I like that both characters mirror each other, each putting on a false show of warmth. It’s a nice touch and, once again, feels a bit different.

I noted earlier that the plot is one of the simplest ones the show attempted in this season which is mirrored in the investigation. As is often the case in these stories, Columbo arrives a little late to the crime scene after much of the preliminary investigation is done and a theory as to what happened has already been reached. A huge part of the fun of Columbo is anticipating which small details at the scene he will point to as not quite making sense. The problem here though is that the mistakes feel too glaring and so he is unlikely to surprise the viewer with his deductions. It feels just a little underwhelming.

What the episode misses is that second act twist that complicates a case, taking it in a different direction. Instead we get unnecessary plodding detail, following Columbo into meetings with Tommy’s former commanding officer and a very talkative worker. The scenes themselves are fine and each have some entertaining moments but they don’t really move anything forward or contribute enough to our understanding of the crime or Tommy’s character.

Though the midsection of the episode is a little disappointing in terms of the plotting, I was far more pleased with the way it is resolved. This is one of those stories where we can tell Columbo is certain of the killer’s identity and yet it seems unclear how he will finally catch him. There is an aspect of trap-setting in that resolution to this story which usually frustrates me and yet I absolutely love the clue that finally convinces Columbo he was on the right track after all, enabling him to move in for the capture. Kudos to the episode for delivering an absolutely fair play clue, setting it up both in dialog and visually – I recall noticing it, musing on it and still not recognizing its significance even once the episode more directly draws our attention to it. I love to be fooled and this one did it brilliantly.

My only issue with the ending is that there is what I might describe as a Carsini moment where there is a sympathetic exchange between Columbo and Tommy that doesn’t feel earned or to reflect what has been shown of Tommy’s character throughout the episode. What makes it play even worse, at least for this viewer, is that we know the reasons Tommy had been blackmailed and we have seen evidence that he hasn’t changed much over the years. It may seem a small gripe, particularly given both actors play the scene quite nicely, but it felt a little forced and out of place in an otherwise very tidy conclusion.

Yet in spite of those complaints, I should stress that I think the episode works quite well overall. Part of that is the highly unusual murder means but it mostly reflects that this features a great piece of guest casting with Cash’s portrayal of Tommy being one of the more effective guest turns from the show’s third season.

The Verdict: This solid, if simple, story is enhanced enormously by a great piece of guest casting.

Columbo: Mind Over Mayhem (TV)

Season Three, Episode Six
Preceded by Publish or Perish
Followed by Swan Song

Originally broadcast Febuary 18, 1974

Written by Steven Bochco, Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee
Directed by Alf Kjellin

Plot Summary

When Dr. Cahill, the head of a scientific think tank, learns that a rival intends to expose his son as a plagiarist on the eve of his receiving a major award, he decides that the solution is to murder him before he can blow the whistle…

Movie poster for the film Forbidden Planet which featured Robby the Robot

Familiar Faces

Robby the Robot was a character created for the 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet. His highly iconic appearance and surprising amount of personality gave the character enormous appeal and the costume was reused in other MGM pictures and TV shows. One of the earliest was an episode of The Thin Man named Robot Client.

José Ferrer had won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac. He didn’t have a lot of mystery credits but he did make an appearance of an episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Jessica Walter made a number of appearances in mystery TV shows in the seventies and eighties including Ironside, Magnum P. I. and yes, Murder, She Wrote. I was most familiar with her though for her role as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development and as Mallory Archer in the animated spy comedy show Archer.

My Thoughts

It has been a number of months since I last wrote about Columbo which was quite unplanned. As I seem to be continually noting, there has been a lot going on these past few months and I fell behind in writing up my thoughts about things. This was particularly tragic in the case of this show as it meant that I had to rewatch Mind Over Mayhem to refresh my memory of it – which I think gives a suggestion that you’re not looking at a rave review…

The premise of the episode is fine enough. Dr. Cahill’s motivation to murder, to protect the reputation of his son (and, in the process, his own), is convincing enough and the circumstances meant that a little untidiness in the planning would be understandable given it is set up as a pretty spur-of-the-moment decision.

The writers even build in some interesting conflict with the victim’s wife, a psychiatrist treating Dr. Cahill’s son, being aware of his plagiarism and some other information that will pertain to this story yet being unable to reveal it because it was shared in a therapy session. This makes for an interesting element of the story, even if it feels a little wasted because it never really impacts Columbo’s investigation – only the actions of the other characters involved in the story.

Ferrer is interesting casting as Cahill and he does a pretty good job of showing both the intelligence and also the egotistical and domineering parts of his character’s personality. He is by no means one of the more colorful Columbo murderers and I would not call him a particularly memorable villain but he performs the character as written pretty well.

Unfortunately any subtly he was reaching for with his performance is quickly forgotten the moment Robby the Robot wheels forward to present himself. This is one of those cases in which a piece of stunt casting goes wildly awry. It is simply impossible to look at Robby and take him seriously in the role he has been given. This is not helped by pairing him with a boy genius-character who supposedly invented him, nor by the inconsistent manner in which he receives his ‘programming’. When he appears I found it utterly impossible to take him seriously and, what’s worse, I felt that Cahill and Columbo look really silly whenever they are called on to interact with him.

Robby turns out to have a really critical role in the murder sequence which, once again, may seem rather unconvincing. Certainly I think it confuses things as to what degree this crime is supposed to be commited on the spur of the moment as Robby should require considerably more programming than Cahill could surely give him before taking action. This might have been forgiven though had the murder method been more interesting – instead this episode delivers what may be the most underwhelming example of such a sequence since the start of the show.

The best Columbo murders are clever. As a viewer I want to believe that the case is uncrackable. That the killer would get away with it if it wasn’t for our hero’s strange mix of gut instinct and dogged determination. That is clearly not the case here though as the problems with the story Cahill is trying to tell are apparent from the start. What’s more, the plan hinges on an idea that we had seen just a few episodes earlier done far, far better – an unfortunate comparison.

Accordingly there is no wonderfully clever piece of deduction or observation needed to set him on the right track. There’s not even anything approaching a good gotchya moment. It is all rather depressing given how good some of the previous episodes had been and certainly far from the show’s best.

This is a shame because the episode does offer a few entertaining moments, even if they are a bit peripheral to the plot. Falk, for example, is in fine form and has some great bits of business with Dog as well as the recurring gag of his attempting to use a voice recorder to make notes on the case. It’s disappointing he doesn’t have more detection material to work with though as this story hinges on just one or two small observations…

I also quite enjoyed the performance by Jessica Walter as the victim’s wife and thought she was an interesting character but felt that she was ultimately rather wasted in what amounted to a bit role.

Sadly these few bright spots ultimately feel rather inconsequential because the murder plot feels so underwhelming. There is little imaginative or compelling here beyond its ill-advised and ill-fitting guest star turn. The result is an unbalanced, simplistic mess that has little to commend it. It is, in short, by far the worst episode of the show I have seen up to this point which given I have seen Short Fuse is really saying something!

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope by Don Ward

Originally published in 1948
Adapted from the film Rope directed by Alfred Hitchcock which an adaptation of Patrick Hamilton’s stage play.
This novelization is attributed to Don Ward.

This is the story of a murder – committed without apparent motive, accomplished by a piece of rope, in cold blood and without passion. The only motive of its two bright young authors is the desire for the supreme thrill of proving superior to humdrum everyday human beings.
Brandon is brilliant and arrogant, a young egomaniac proudly convinced of his place in a select group of individuals whose acts are above any moral law. Philip is a gifted pianist, but a weakling, influenced by Brandon to try murder.
But the act of murder is not enough. Because Brandon believes that thrills come only from the experience of great danger, the young men arrange for their “guest of honor” to be present at a dinner they are giving for several guests.


The map on the back cover of the Dell paperback
Mapback 262: This map of the apartment is hardly essential but captures the space well, though a crucial object, the trunk, is conspicuous in its absence.

A few years ago I came across my first Dell Mapback which kicked off what has become something of an obsession for me. Like many fans of vintage mysteries, I adore a good map and so this series of paperbacks, accompanied by a lovely color visualization of a crime scene or location, quickly became a focus for my book collecting efforts.

When I learned that one of the series was a novelization of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock film, I naturally wanted to get my hands on a copy. This was not because I expected much from the book on a literary level but purely out of fondness for the source material. I was curious to see what choices the novelist, apparently an uncredited Don Ward, would make in adapting a film which is itself an adaptation of a famous stage play by Patrick Hamilton.

I haven’t really written about Rope here before but certainly do intend to do so in the future, so I hope you’ll forgive me leaving my reasons for loving that film for another day. Those who read me regularly can probably guess many of them anyway. Instead, let me begin by giving you a little background to the story.

Rope takes place on a single evening in “real time” during a dinner party. The story begins moments after a pair of young men, Brandon and Philip, have murdered one of their old school friends, shoving his body into a trunk. Their victim, David, was not killed out of malice (though some of what Brandon says may contradict this) or in a heat of passion but rather because the two young men are keen to experience the sensation of murder which they have come to believe is ‘a privilege for the few’.

To heighten their excitement, Brandon has arranged for a small dinner party to take place in their apartment. The guests include the victim’s father, aunt, girlfriend and her ex, as well as their former schoolmaster Rupert Cadell who was responsible for introducing them to the philosophies that fascinate them while in prep school. All of whom will spend their evening just feet away from the body, the dinner being served off the top of the trunk that contains the body.

Tensions build throughout the dinner as Brandon and Philip find themselves reacting quite differently to their actions, one becoming ever more outrageous and daring while the other becomes jumpy and fearful. As the dinner progresses we wait to see how those tensions will develop and if anyone will open that trunk…

Ward sticks pretty closely to the content of the Hitchcock film, albeit with some minor alterations, the most obvious being that Brandon Shaw is instead called Wyndham Brandon, as in the stage play. This is a pretty cosmetic change but I think calling the character by a last name instead of their given name reminds us of those prep school ties that are so important to this story.

The most significant different though is perhaps a consequence in the change of medium. One of the challenges Hitchcock had with bringing Rope from stage to screen was that the play quite overtly depicts the two young men and their mentor as being gay. Hitchcock’s film could not be as direct and so uses more coded language and visual suggestions, particularly in the aftermath of the murder, to allow the viewer to infer it.

A novel like this, written in an authorative third person voice, allows us some direct insight into the thoughts and mentalities of its characters. This means that inevitably the author has to address and define that relationship, opting to eliminate the sexual angle with the relationship characterized as Brandon having ‘an older-brother interest’ in Philip. The dynamic shifts to become that of one very strong voice dominating their weaker, more malleable but entirely platonic friend. While it would certainly be possible to interpret the relationship in the film that way, it does seem to fly in the face of its most obvious reading.

Ward’s text is quite lean, driven largely by the dialogue. Descriptions are usually quite brief and functional, typically used to convey movement in the space or a character’s body language. He clearly understood that the tension here would come from the conversations and the games that the characters are playing with each other and prioritizes keeping their rhythm to allow that tension to build as effectively on the page as it does on the screen.

What keeps me as dismissing this as an entirely functional exercise in converting a screenplay to prose is that there are a few points in the story where Ward does provide us with more, particularly towards the end of the story. These are the moments at which the dialogue slows down and he steps in to fill those moments, capturing the rising tensions quite well. At these points he injects some of his own reading of the story into the book, making it clear what characters know, believe and suspect at key points. Some of those moments may differ at points from the way I had interpreted the scenes but it does show an intention to engage with and interpret that action rather than simply transcribe it, making the work a little more interesting.

It is not enough however for me to suggest that this is a distinct and worthwhile experience in its own right. There are no ways in which this novel is superior to its source material and, at best, it merely reproduces its successes. While the characters are surprisingly vibrant on the page, they still cannot compare with the performances from John Dall or Farley Granger and it does, and I note above, lose some character context and diminishes the complexities of those characters as a consequence.

While I would not recommend reading this ahead of watching the film or experiencing Hamilton’s play (there was an excellent radio version done with Alan Rickman in the Rupert part that is worth a listen if you can track it down), I did find it quite readable and enjoyed it as a supplement to those experiences. Not unlike the experience of reading a Target adaptation of a Doctor Who serial. Hardly essential, but entertaining enough.

Columbo: Publish or Perish (TV)

Season Three, Episode Five
Preceded by Double Exposure
Followed by Mind Over Mayhem

Originally broadcast January 18, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Robert Butler

Plot Summary

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…

Familiar Faces

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.

My Thoughts

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!