Columbo: Death Lends A Hand (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast October 6, 1971

Season 1, Episode 2
Preceded by Murder by the Book
Followed by Dead Weight

Written by Richard Levinson & William Link
Directed by Bernard Kowalski

Key Guest Cast

Robert Culp had come to prominence in the late 50s playing the lead in the Western TV show Trackdown. He found his greatest success playing a CIA secret agent in the mid-60s on the show I Spy opposite Bill Cosby for which he earned three Emmy nominations.

Ray Milland had a long and successful career that saw him win an Oscar for The Long Weekend and twice-nominated for Golden Globes. He is very good here in the role of the deceased’s husband.

The Verdict

A solid if rather simple murder story is elevated by a fine performance by Robert Culp.


My Thoughts

A private investigator, Brimmer, has been hired by a newspaper publisher to check to see if his wife has been having an affair. He discovers proof of her guilt but tells the husband that she was innocent, intending to blackmail her into using her proximity to power to help his business. When she refuses he gets angry, killing her by mistake with a slap when she stumbles and hits her head.

This was the first Columbo story that didn’t show a premeditated murder but rather a crime committed in the heat of the moment. My feelings about this choice are a little mixed. I do think that the idea of varying the type of crime makes some sense and it does result in this case feeling distinct from those that came before. The trade-off for this though is that the antagonist’s motives feel pretty weak and as there isn’t much of a plan, there isn’t much for Columbo to unpack.

Fortunately for the episode, these deficiencies are masked by a strong piece of casting in Robert Culp. His Brimmer is not as strong or sneering a personality as Cassidy’s Franklin and recognizes Columbo’s observational skills pretty quickly. This produces a slightly different dynamic for the scenes he shares with Columbo as he nearly always takes him seriously as a threat, utilizing different strategies to try to stay ahead.

I enjoyed the dynamic between the two actors a lot, even if his attempts to manipulate Columbo are a little brazen. I also appreciated that Brimmer is pretty much the antithesis of Columbo – he is put together, organized and corporate yet he doesn’t read the person Columbo is or his values at all.

As I suggest above though there are two problems in the character and scenario the episode struggles to overcome. The first is that his motivation for killing is weak. This is a man with few personal ties to the deceased at all. This could represent a significant challenge for Columbo yet instead he hones in immediately on the killer for what strikes me as a pretty weak reason related to a piece of physical evidence on the body.

I think this is unfortunate because there is plenty of other behavioral evidence that should put him onto that track too that I think would make greater sense. Instead Columbo’s hunch, while correct, seems to just not be based on much of anything.

The other issue is that because of the nature of the crime and the cover-up there isn’t any loose thread or logical flaw for Columbo to grab hold of. Instead the guilt must be proved another way. The resolution is perfectly fine and does show Columbo’s guile but I do prefer those stories where he catches a killer on some small logical detail or inconsistency.

Still, while I don’t love every aspect of the plot, I did find the episode entertaining as a whole. The performances from the small cast are good and there are some fun moments including a lovely exchange near the end.

Columbo: Murder by the Book (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast September 15, 1971.

Season One, Episode One
Preceded by Ransom for a Dead Man (TV Movie)
Followed by Death Lends a Hand

Written by Steven Bochco

Directed by Steven Spielberg (Yes, it is that Steven Spielberg at an early point in his career)

Key Guest Cast

Jack Cassidy was a popular singer and actor who had been nominated for multiple Tony awards, winning in 1964 for his role in She Loves Me, and for two Emmys.

Martin Milner, who plays his writing partner (the victim), was another well-established actor who was starring in the police drama Adam-12 that had begun in 1968.

The Verdict

Rightly judged a classic, this episode combines a great murder plot with a truly brilliant performance from Jack Cassidy.


My Thoughts

Ken Franklin is part of a writing team responsible for the best-selling Mrs. Melville mystery series. When his partner declares his intention to split up their partnership to pursue more serious work, Franklin devises a plan to murder him while giving himself an alibi of being several hours away at the time.

Right from the start of the episode you see a marked improvement in the management of expectations and building of tension. There are several moments in which we might assume that the murder will go one way and then things take a different direction beginning with the moment when Ken Franklin, played by Jack Cassidy, meets his victim. This, to me, is the most thrilling part of Columbo – those moments where the show toys with our deductive skills and makes us wonder what loose ends or small inconsistencies Columbo will pick up on.

The game of wits between Franklin and Columbo is superb and it is elevated by a development part way through the episode that changes the dynamics considerably. Cassidy and Falk spark brilliantly off each other which is presumably one of the reasons Cassidy would return several times in later episodes in different roles.

Franklin’s background as a writer of mysteries feels hugely appropriate and is used well throughout the story. He thinks of the crime as a mystery plot he is concocting and thinks he knows the tricks well enough to throw Columbo off his tracks. I appreciated that while Franklin is very confident throughout much of the story, there are times where he comes under pressure and clearly wonders if Columbo is onto him in a way that neither of the two previous killers did.

There is also a very noticeable quality to the direction over the previous story with the use of interesting camera angles and some excellent cuts, particularly at the moment of the murder. I knew nothing about the episode prior to watching it so it was a nice surprise to me to learn that this was directed by Steven Spielberg very early in his career. The whole episode feels very well planned out and tells its story with energy and efficiency, enhancing what was an already great story.

The decision to use several distinctive locations also works strongly to the benefit of this story, giving it a sense of scope both in place but also in terms of timing. Clearly this had been something the previous episode had also attempted to do with its lengthy flying sequences but oddly it felt very static with characters spending much of the episode rooted in place. Here you get movement and also a question of timing in terms of the alibi which is really quite clever.

One of my favorite aspects of the episode is a moment that takes place near the end in which Franklin reflects on his crime. It is not only a great character moment that Cassidy plays really well, it is an unexpected story beat and I think it ties everything together beautifully.

Columbo: Ransom for a Dead Man (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast March 1, 1971.

Preceded by Prescription: Murder
Followed by Murder by the Book

Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Dean Hargrove

This was a pilot episode for the series which began in September 1971.

Key Guest Cast

Lee Grant had only recently began getting film and television work after spending over a decade blacklisted by the industry during the McCarthy period. She won an Emmy for her work on Peyton Place, a prime-time soap opera, in 1966 and a year prior to this Columbo episode had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Landlord.

The Verdict

Kudos to Lee Grant for a very good performance but the flying sequences are long and tedious.


My Thoughts

A lawyer murders her husband and then makes it appear that he has been kidnapped, all with the help of a handy electrical gadget. When the body is found it is assumed that the kidnappers never intended to return him but Columbo pursues a hunch that it was murder rather than kidnap gone wrong…

Okay, so there’s a fair amount to talk about here and unfortunately very little of it is good. To say that Ransom for a Dead Man is a step down from the first movie would be an understatement. Quite a few of its problems stem from the fact that this is a story that has been written with television in mind with a lot of reliance on visuals rather than character conflict and story.

The murder takes place over the opening credits and while this makes for a pretty arresting start to the film I am not fond of the execution. The shooting is shown in an awkward series of jump cuts between stills with a trippy musical score in the background and then there are fades galore with so much lens flaring going on you’d think J. J. Abrams had directed it (the worst of these is when flaring lights are overlaid on the killer’s eyes after she dumps the body into the ocean). It all looks rather cheap and cheesy.

The sequences in which we follow the FBI (and Columbo) as they wait for the kidnappers’ call and respond are quite well done and I did enjoy Lee Grant’s performance as Leslie Williams as she offers to make food for the agents and clearly comes to think that Columbo is a bumbling fool. The trick with the electronic gadget and bag are both quite fun and at this point I was feeling quite engaged. And then she gets in her plane…

This then initiates some long and frankly rather boring sequences in which we watch her and the FBI agents fly their planes around to prepare for the drop. I imagine that the intention was to blow us away with action or possibly build up the tension as we wait to see what Williams has planned and yet these sequences feel static and seem to go on forever. Night filming can sometimes look quite glamorous but the sky is so dark that there is little you can make out (which is kind of the point story-wise but it is tedious to spend so long panning over dark landscapes) and I found myself wishing that we could get a move on with the story.

While I enjoyed Falk and Grant’s interactions prior to the flight, their subsequent interactions felt flat and, once again, surprisingly static. Columbo doesn’t really have to work to find out many of the details – he instantly spots the aforementioned gadget and she even explains exactly how it works to him. The only question is how he will prove it.

Here the film once again presents us with a fluffed ending but whereas I think it could be excused by the situation in Prescription: Murder, it feels like the wrong approach here. For one thing, I am pretty sure that the way Columbo gets to that conclusion would not be admissible in court and for another, Falk isn’t present on screen for most of that sequence so that reveal loses much of its impact.

And that doesn’t even touch on the misogyny in Columbo saying to a junior lawyer at Williams’ firm that he doesn’t know how he could work for a woman. If the character he was talking to was more important to the story I might be able to class that as a piece of manipulation designed but it feels so incidental to the story that I read it as a statement of the character’s own opinions. Eurgh…

As you can probably tell I was pretty unimpressed by this one. Happily it seemed to work for the network executives as the show was picked up and better things would be right around the corner. Join me next weekend to read what I make of Murder by the Book.

Columbo: Prescription Murder (TV)

Given my love of inverted mysteries it was inevitable I would eventually get around to writing about Columbo. It is, after all, easily the most recognized instance of the form and it is my go-to example whenever I am asked to explain what I mean by the term ‘inverted mystery’ or ‘howcatchem’.

For those unfamiliar with the term it refers to a story in which the reader is told the killer’s identity and the questions relate to another aspect of the case such as the motive or identity of the victim. Episodes of Columbo follow that basic format, opening with a short depiction of the murder before switching to homicide detective Columbo’s perspective.

The show provided popular and long-lasting, retaining a strong following to this day. This is my first time watching the series properly (although I am ahead of the episode I am posting about and saw a few isolated episodes for the Star Trek connection as a teen).

Over the next few weekends I plan on writing about the first nine Columbo stories. This will cover the two pilot stories take us to the end of the first season. The next four posts are already written and scheduled so I might even have a good chance of sticking to that schedule!


Episode Details

First broadcast February 20 1968.

Followed by Ransom for a Dead Man.

Written by Richard Levinson and William Link.

Directed by Richard Irving.

Prescription Murder was a television movie based on a hit stage play that was itself based on an earlier television movie (from 1960). It was not intended as a pilot for a series although that would follow several years later.

Key Guest Cast

Gene Barry had become famous through his television work, playing the leads in shows like the western Bat Masterson and the crime drama Burke’s Law. Here he plays the killer, Dr. Fleming.

The Verdict

A pretty gripping piece of television. Columbo is still developing as a character but Falk is absolutely terrific, as is Gene Barry as the killer.


My Thoughts

Dr. Fleming, a psychiatrist married to a rich woman, decides to kill her and stage an alibi with the help of his mistress, an actress who will impersonate her for a short time.

The first twenty five minutes of the episode introduce us to the victim, her killer and his accomplice and follow the action as the plan is conceived and executed. The murder sequence itself is superb and quite unsettling as Dr. Fleming strangles his wife during an embrace, her hand crashing down on the keys of a piano as she falls to the ground.

The sequence also builds tension superbly, giving us lots of moments where the viewer may wonder if the killer has given himself away. It appears however that Dr. Fleming has thought of everything and there are no loose ends at all but Lt. Columbo manages to spot a few loose ends which he doggedly pursues.

Though this pilot was filmed in 1968 it reworks a story that had been a television movie in 1960 and later a stage play. As a result of this long gestation process the story feels really quite polished and tight. This production makes the most of the scale of the production, giving us a lavish penthouse, psychiatrist’s office and the set of a Roman historical movie, but the core of the piece are the confrontations between Gene Barry (as Fleming) and Peter Falk (Columbo), both of whom are superb.

What this story does more than anything is help define Columbo as a man in a brilliant sequence in which Dr. Fleming provides his professional evaluation of him, summing up the character superby. While Columbo is a little more ruffled and seemingly absent-minded in later stories, that statement really gets at the core of who he is and will become in later episodes. Who knows, perhaps Fleming inspires the character to play up those attributes more?

I enjoyed this story a lot, particularly for Barry’s performance as the overly confident killer. If there is a weak point I think it is that the trap aspect of the ending strikes me as a little bit of a lazy way out of having designed an apparently perfect murder but that is hardly unique to this story. I also think you can argue that Columbo does at least work out how the crime was done and assesses where the weakness is in Fleming’s plan so the trap serves to provide evidence for the thing he already is certain of.

One thing is for sure – it is clear from watching this episode that Falk was inspired casting as Columbo. He is always captivating to watch, even when he is not speaking. No wonder the character would return the following year for what would be a pilot for an ongoing television series.

Busted! (TV)

Show Details

범인은 바로 너 (Korean)
Originally Broadcast – 2018-Present
2 series so far
Starring: Yoo Jae-Suk, Ahn Jae-Wook, Kim Jong-Min, Lee Kwang-Soo, Park Min-Young, Oh Se-Hun, Kim Se-Jeong and Lee Seung-Gi
Available on Netflix

The Blurb

Tackling different mysteries in each episode of this game show, seven sleuths get closer to solving the biggest one of all: What happened to Project D?

The Verdict

Chaotic, confusing and frequently hilarious, admittedly Busted! isn’t much of a mystery show but it is enormous fun.


My Thoughts

Busted! (범인은 바로 너) is a comedic show that blends elements of game show, mystery and escape room formats to create something quite unique and often very funny.

The main cast is comprised of seven celebrities, each of whom play fictionalized versions of themselves (several cast members are from the long-running, popular Korean variety show Running Man). They have been experimented on by the mysterious K, injected with the DNA of great detectives to give them their abilities.

Each episode presents the team with a scenario that adapts different mystery tropes. For instance scenarios include a magician vanishing during a stage show, a cold case, several locked rooms and a case with supernatural elements.

It did take me a little while to adjust to the show’s sense of humor and to fully understand the concept but by about halfway through the first episode I was fully on-board. Those who are already familiar with Korean variety shows will not have that issue (I have since become a big fan – this show was my gateway).

Not every case is equally compelling and I will say that some clues will be hard for non-Korean speakers to crack (any involving Korean homophones for instance). Even when a puzzle was beyond me though, the chemistry between the cast remained highly endearing and I appreciated the imagination and creativity on display in creating so many different puzzles.

The majority of the puzzles though are pretty accessible – a few even rely on a knowledge of English – and the best cases are thoroughly entertaining such as The Vanished Magician and Battle of the Detectives.

I should say that for all the mystery-theming this show is first and foremost a comedic variety show with a focus on physical games and location-hopping. The success rate for some of these challenges is quite low and often there is a good dose of luck involved (or waiting for Park Min-Young to solve the problems for the boys) but almost every situation prompts lots of comedic bickering.

More than anything it left me with a tremendous desire to head to an escape room and solve some puzzles for myself and gave me a long list of places I really want to visit in South Korea (top of the list – C-Through Cafe in Seoul’s Yongsan district which produces gorgeous painted coffees and the lava caves on Jeju Island).

The second season debuted a few months ago and I was pleased to find that the quality of the games and puzzles remained high. The episodes do have a stronger connection to each other than in the first season with several characters and elements making repeat appearances. This means that the overarching plot feels more cohesive, particularly in the middle of the season, and I was more engaged in that story.

There is also a casting change that I have mixed feelings about. I enjoy the new cast member’s interactions with the existing group a lot but miss the departing cast member’s willingness to look extremely silly. I would also add that the way the character is written out is not particularly satisfying though I hope that will leave the door open for a return.

Though it may not be much of a real mystery show, I find Busted! to be enormously entertaining. Two seasons in I remain impressed by the creativity of the puzzles and situations and, more than anything, I thoroughly enjoy the interactions of the group.

Season Two ends in a bit of a cliffhanger and, so far, we are still waiting for a third season to be confirmed. Obviously I hope that we get news of that soon!

My Fellow Citizens! (TV)

Show Details

국민 여러분! (Korean)
Originally Broadcast: 2019
36 episodes
Starring: Choi Siwon, Lee Yoo-Young, Kim Min-Young
Available on Viki (US)

The Blurb

A con man, who gets involved with unexpected incidents, marries a police officer and somehow ends up running to become a member of the National Assembly. (Wikipedia)

The Verdict

A lively and amusing comedic drama that sustains its farcical premise surprisingly well.


My Fellow Citizens! (국민 여러분!) is a comedic drama about a con man who discovers on the day of his marriage that his wife is a police officer. If this wasn’t problem enough, a loan shark he scammed catches up with him in search of their money.

Presented as short half hour episodes, this series is at its most successful when Yang Jung-kook (played by the incredibly charming Choi Siwon) is running a con or working to out-maneuver someone. There are several excellent set pieces and a few of the twists in the story are genuinely surprising and quite cleverly constructed.

Siwon’s performance as Jung-kook is very good as he manages to create a character who is simultaneously very charming and yet also often quite frustrating. We know how this character feels about his wife and yet we see that he is unable to find a better path for himself that will remove the barriers to trust in that relationship. We also get a sense of the harm some of his cons can cause which is a bit of a rarity in the con genre which tends to emphasize the style and trickery over its consequences. Still, we also get to see him evolve over the course of the series and while he may not be a good man (at least at the start), we quickly see there are far worse people out there.

Lee Yoo-young is strong and sympathetic as his wife, Kim Mi-young, and she gets to make a truly memorable entrance. I appreciated that she is shown to be passionate and skilled at her work and I particularly enjoyed the way the early episodes play with the idea that she is unwittingly trying to hunt down her own husband. This leads to some brilliant comedic scenes and I was surprised at how well the series sustains this tension.

The show also includes a heavy dose of social commentary, both about the resurgence of populist politics worldwide and about corruption, the influence of money in politics and the decline of civic values. While some of these themes are presented in ways that are quite specific to South Korea and its National Assembly, many are universal and for most of its run the show balances these serious elements well with more lighthearted, comedic moments.

One of the ways it does this is through the character of Kim Joo-Myung, a Member of the National Assembly who has been forced out on corruption charges and who is being blackmailed into helping Yang Jung-kook. This part is played perfectly by Kim Eui-sung who injects a wonderful cynicism and weariness into the character and gets many of the biggest laughs as he tries to keep an unruly political campaign on track only to be frustrated by his independent-minded candidate.

The only disappointment for me was in its ending which shifts the emphasis away from the characters’ relationship problem onto its social and political themes. As a result I felt that some parts of the story were not given quite the degree of attention and resolution that I was looking for. Specifically the resolution of the conflict between Jung-kook and Mi-young feels a little too rushed, which is a shame given the strong build up. Still, overall I found the depiction of their relationship to be enjoyable and really appreciated the way the two actors played off each other.

Finally I have to mention the show’s fantastic musical score. For those unfamiliar with k-dramas, there are typically recurring musical themes and stings that are used pretty frequently at key points in each episode and that is not any different here. This show’s score, which ranges from rap to pop, is brash, lively and often deployed to heighten the humor in the show’s most comedic scenes. In particular, I loved this song which is STILL stuck in my head months after first watching it.

Overall, I enjoyed this series to be consistently entertaining and amusing. If its final few episodes fall a little short of the comedic heights reached in it earliest episodes, the show is still amusing and hits some strong dramatic moments. Fans of heist stories should find enough to enjoy here, particularly if they are open to the series’ romance themes and elements.

Why I Love… How To Steal A Million

After receiving such a positive reaction to my previous Why I Love video post in which I discussed Carol Reed’s The Third Man, I have decided to make this a monthly series. The plan is that I will discuss a crime or mystery-themed film each month and list five reasons that I love that film.

My selection this month is 1966’s How to Steal a Million. If you are unfamiliar with this film directed by William Wyler and starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, it is based around a heist at an art museum though it arguably is more romantic comedy than serious crime film.

Have you seen the film? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts whether you agree with me or not. Feel free to drop suggestions for other comedic heist or mystery films as well!