Jonathan Creek: Danse Macabre (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 24, 1998

Season Two, Episode One
Preceded by The House of Monkeys (Season One)
Followed by Time Waits for Norman

Written by David Renwick
Directed by Sandy Johnson

Key Guest Cast

Peter Davison is one of the most familiar faces on British television first becoming known for his role in All Creatures Great and Small before replacing Tom Baker in Doctor Who. He has also been a frequent face in genre productions, memorably playing Margery Allingham’s Campion, Peter Lovesey’s DC Davies and making several appearances as Inspector Christmas in The Mrs Bradley Mysteries.

The Verdict

This story was one of my favorites on original broadcast and remains my go-to pick when I am wanting to revisit the show. Great concept, explained well.

My Thoughts

As much as I enjoyed revisiting the first season of Jonathan Creek, my strongest memories of the show lie in its second season. I remember several of the stories in this season quite vividly and, of those, none sticks in my memory more than Danse Macabre.

The episode begins with Maddy receiving a visit from Stephen Claithorne, a priest who wants her help to understand a strange event that took place at his home. His mother-in-law, the famous horror novelist Emma Lazarus, was visiting along with her husband and bodyguard and while he had to attend a meeting, the rest of the family took part in a fancy dress party. They return to the house where an intruder takes her husband’s skeleton costume and shoots Lazarus dead in her bedroom.

Her daughter Lorna runs to the bedroom where she is knocked unconscious. Caught by surprise as the household stirs, the disguised figure picks up Lorna and carries her to the garage where she uses her unconscious body as a human shield, closing the garage door as the police pull up and surround the building. When they open the garage door they find Lorna stirring but no sign of the skeleton figure at all. This begs the question – who was in the skeleton costume and how did they escape?

This central problem fascinated me at fourteen and even now, knowing the solution, I continue to find it very appealing. Certainly a big part of that lies in the horror trappings, both literal – as in the corny costumes the characters are wearing for the party – but also the idea of the home invasion and a vanishing act that seems to suggest the figure was a ghost or spirit. I think the real reason though that this continues to delight me is that when you revisit it with an awareness of the solution you can admire just how effectively the trick has been worked.

One of the things that struck me watching this again was that had I paused frequently and made notes, I could have solved several aspects of the case early on. In a sense the episode acknowledges this by having Jonathan solve many aspects of the question of how it was worked without him ever setting foot in the house. Assuming that the camera is not lying to us, we should have a pretty good idea of who is in that garage as it closes. The reason I think it works is that this action plays out with a considerable sense of pace, never really allowing the viewer the time to pause and think the problem through.

How clever is the solution to what happened in that garage? Well, I think it is rather ingenious and explained quite effectively. Like many impossibilities you can see how it could all have gone horribly wrong and yet you can also understand exactly how the vanishing was achieved and appreciate the audacity of the idea.

The episode even includes a second mysterious and rather gruesome mystery concerning the disappearance of something from within a coffin. Here I feel the episode perhaps leans into its horror theming a little too much, particularly given its somewhat hokey explanation, though it does add an additional layer of complication at a moment in the story where everything might otherwise seem to be getting a little clearer.

The performances from the guest cast are fine with Peter Davison standing out as Claithorne from the moment he first appears. He not only recounts the strange events well, he also has to serve a sort of moral role in this episode as the one figure who is definitely outside of the whole affair. While Claithorne is a rather dry individual, Davison does at least draw out a little humor in his reactions to the characters around him and injects a role that might otherwise have seemed quite flat with life.

In addition to the main mystery plot, Jonathan is having to deal with the demands of his irresponsible, egotistical boss. This is the story that brings Adam Klaus back, now played by Stuart Milligan, and I was struck by some of the differences in the portrayal compared with Anthony Stewart Head’s performance. Where Head came off as cocky and suave, Milligan shows him as rather more inept and bragadocious. Still a pig, certainly, but one we can count on usually ending up on bottom when difficult situations arise.

His storyline here makes for a solid reintroduction to the character and while his bedroom behavior is hardly unexpected, those elements of the story are executed pretty well. It is hard to imagine how he thinks he can get away with it all however and it is nice to see another character really put him on the ropes in an episode.

Overall I am happy to say that this first episode of Season Two lived up to both my expectations and my memory. The answer as to how the trick is worked is really quite clever and visually I still find this to be one of the most convincing stories in the series. Do I entirely buy the motivations for what happens? Probably not though I think that reflects the imagination of the crime itself which is, in my opinion, this case’s biggest draw and one of the reasons this remains one of my favorite episodes.

Luther: Series One

Series Details

Originally broadcast May 4, 2010 to June 8, 2010
Starring Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Saskia Reeves, Indira Varma and Paul McGann.
All episodes written by Neil Cross.

The Blurb

Luther is a near-genius murder detective whose brilliant mind can’t always save him from the dangerous violence of his passions.

The Verdict

Dark and gritty inverted crime stories. Some plots appealed to me more than others but this series boasts some excellent performances from both the regulars and guest cast

My Thoughts

When I first became interested in inverted crime stories I did a little research. There were two television shows that were recommended to me as the best examples of the subgenre on the screen. The first was Columbo which I have been working my way through quite steadily over the past few months and will return to again soon. The other was Luther, a much darker and grittier show that I had been aware of but avoided watching out of concern that it might be a little too grim for my tastes.

Have I suddenly become less squeamish? Absolutely not. In fact, I will freely admit that the two serial killer episodes definitely were a bit much for me. Still, I wanted to watch them because it is one of the most prominent examples of the subgenre and I do want to cover as wide a variety of examples of this subgenre as possible.

The premise of the show is pretty simple – John Luther is a Detective Chief Inspector working for the Serious Crime Unit. When we meet him he is chasing down Henry Madsen, a kidnapper and serial killer who has hidden a victim away somewhere. This is the result of months of hard work and Luther’s obsession with catching Madsen has led to his separation from his wife. Luther confronts him and Madsen ends up hanging from a ledge. Desperate Madsen gives up the location of the victim but Luther chooses not to help him up, allowing him to fall several stories. The impact is sufficiently strong to put him in a coma and Luther, suffering a breakdown, ends up on suspension.

After this prologue we jump forward to the point where Luther is told he can resume duties. We follow him as he attempts to catch criminals whose identitites will be known to the viewer from near the beginning of most episodes and typically Luther is hot on their trail. Most of the episodes can be categorized as howcatchem stories with Luther using psychology and manipulation to try and expose a criminal’s guilt.

Luther is portrayed by Idris Elba who really delves into the character’s complexities and contradictions, making him someone who cares a lot about justice but perhaps not about following the letter of the rules. He is brilliant but emotionally unstable, reflecting both his sense of guilt about Madsen and also his frustrations about the state of his marriage. He reads people really well, noticing inconsistencies and behaviors that do not quite match the situation.

I know that the emotional detective is a trope that some have tired of but where I think Luther sets himself apart from some other misanthropic sleuths is that he seems to have hope, even if it is lodged in an idea that seems impossible. He also manages to maintain some pretty positive work relationships and I think it is telling that several other characters seem to go out of their way to support him and help him work his way back and cover for him when he does cross the line.

The show has a good recurring cast with Elba receiving excellent support from Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Paul McGann and Saskia Reeves. It is a great ensemble and even though some characters get more to do than others, I felt that each have moments in which they shine – particularly Wilson.

Overall I have to say that I enjoyed the series, even if there were a few moments that were a little intense for my own taste. Some cases interested me more than others though even the lesser cases benefit from being cast well.

While each episode does present its own case or scenario (with the exception of the finale which picks up on events from the preceding story), the series as a whole does have a strong character arc that means you really should watch them in order. For that reason I decided I would not write individual episode reviews but rather make specific comments about each story below.

Please note that while the episode-specific comments below do not spoil subsequent episodes, they will contain spoilers for some of the preceding stories!

Episode One

Ruth Wilson plays Alice Morgan, a brilliant astrophyicist who calls the police to report that she found her parents and their dog murdered in their home. Alice appears to have an alibi as she was seen buying groceries only minutes before placing the call and no gun is found anywhere on the property. Luther quickly comes to suspect that Alice is responsible, he just needs to work out how it was done and how she was able to dispose of the murder weapon.

As the first episode of the series, this has a lot of ground to cover in just an hour. It establishes Luther’s character, his situation with his suspension following his breakdown during another case, his estrangement from his wife and the feelings about members of his department towards him. With so much ground to cover, the case he looks into is relatively contained with a single suspect and not much physical evidence to consider.

Instead much of the episode is made up of psychological games between Luther and Alice. Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson are both quite compelling in these scenes and I was fascinated to see the power in their relationship shift thoroughout the episode. There are a few really memorable confrontations, particularly the one on the bridge, and I thought that the episode ending was surprising and sent an interesting message about what to expect from the series.

Episode Two

A man calls the police to report a body in an underpass. When two officers arrive on the scene he jumps up, shooting them both. This is the first in a series of a number of police killings across the city, each with increasingly high body-counts. While Luther is able to identify a likely suspect, the police struggle with how to catch him when he always seems to be one step ahead of them.

After giving us a relatively contained first episode, this second story significantly widens the scope to present us with a criminal who will keep killing until they achieve their goal. This creates quite a bit of tension which is only elevated by the secondary plot involving threats to Luther’s wife. This storyline feels equally important as the case itself and I felt added depth to her relationship with Luther and gave us a greater understanding of exactly how that marriage came to fall apart.

The episode touches on some interesting discussions about the challenges many servicemen face returning to civilian life though the person responsible is ultimately not very sympathetic, although played very well by one of my favorite actors. The action sequences are shot very well, particularly a fight near the end. I would however have liked a moment with the villain following that fight to provide a fuller sense of closure to that story.

Episode Three

Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys) kidnaps a young mother, leaving messages daubed on the walls of her house in the blood of a woman he had murdered a decade earlier. He had been suspected of that crime but successfully sued the police for damages after an undercover officer used brutality against him, using the funds to set himself up with an occult bookshop. The police do not doubt he is responsible but, keen to avoid another press fiasco, have to make certain they can prove it before they approach him.

I have mentioned before that I find serial killer stories hard so the opening of this episode was quite uncomfortable for me. Suffice it to say Rhys’ portrayal of Burgess is suitably repulsive and what he does to his victim here left me squirming. Adding to the complications Luther faces is that he is under investigation by internal affairs after he is accused of hiring a group of girls to beat up Mark outside his home.

While I may have struggled a little with the start to the episode, I felt that this story was the most compelling so far. There was a clear element of a race against time which causes Luther to go over the line on several occasions. While the previous stories do establish that idea, here we follow Luther through that entire process. This generates some interesting conflict between the characters – particularly with DS Ripley (Warren Brown) who gets more to do in this episode than in either of the two previous ones.

The most successful part of the episode though are those scenes shared with Elba and Rhys. When I first read about the series I had seen some people compare it to Columbo and while there were moments in the first episode particularly that reminded me of that, I think that comparison is much clearer here. This is a genuine cat and mouse game complete with elements of mental trickery that parallel moments in that series. Certainly the subject matter and tone is much, much darker (famously Columbo never shows blood which is definitely not the case here) but I think what appeals most about that series – the idea of pitting two really compelling actors opposite each other for these two-hander scenes – is also present here.

Episode Four

A serial killer has been targeting young women walking home alone at night and the attacks seem to be escalating. At the most recent killing the killer removes a necklace from the body which he presents to his wife as a birthday present. Luther soon identifies a suspect but realizes he will need the wife’s cooperation to catch the husband. Meanwhile news that Henry Madsen, the serial killer who Luther allowed to fall, wakes up from his coma…

Much like the last episode this one had me squirming although those moments all occur in one incredibly tense sequence towards the end. The characters here all feel credible with Rob Jarvis giving a really intense performance towards the end while Nicola Walker is really emotive, connecting powerfully to this character and making you feel their discomfort and pain.

Interestingly there really are no moments shared between Elba and Jarvis which gives this episode a rather different feel than each of the ones that precede it. Instead Luther focuses on connecting with and manipulating his wife, a different sort of tactic than we have seen him use so far. This certainly leads to a powerful conclusion but I do wonder if the script really has an opinion on whether he did the right thing or not by doing that. I personally feel Luther is rather responsible for much of the damage done in the last third of the episode and yet there is no picking apart of what happens after the fact.

The secondary plot with Mark and Zoe is well acted as always – both Indira Varma and Paul McGann are superb performers and play their scenes with sincerity – but I do feel that they are being quite passive in their reactions to Alice’s manipulations. Given how freely Mark has reported incidents to the police so far and her threats in the previous episodes, it seems strange we haven’t had a moment where the characters really address the question of how to protect themselves from her.

Though it generates quite a bit of suspense, particularly in the end, I did find this episode to be the least enjoyable up until this point. That may just be my inherent squeamishness and it may just reflect how much I was creeped out by Jarvis’ performance.

Episode Five

An art dealer is about to leave the country with his wife but before they can leave they are attacked by a group of gangsters who demand a set of valuable diamonds. They cut his wife’s tongue out and tell him that they will kill her if he cannot produce them by a deadline. He heads to the police looking for help saying that he cannot produce them, leading Luther to devise a plan that he hopes can save her life or at least keep her alive long enough for them to track down her location.

With both this and the final episode it is really difficult to discuss much of the episode without spoiling them. Suffice it to say that this story takes a turn, pushing Luther into some new territory. There are two really significant developments in this episode. What I will say is that the first reveal confirmed suspicions I had from the beginning of the show and felt properly set up as a moment. The second much less so, feeling rather sudden and designed to spin a finale rather than because it offered a satisfying end to that particular storyline.

The case itself though makes for a needed change of pace from the serial killer stories that feel like they have dominated this first series. This storyline once again taps into the question about whether it is acceptable for police to operate outside rules and regulations to save someone’s life and incorporates some surveillance work – an aspect of policing we haven’t really seen depicted up until this point.

Ultimately though it is those longer term developments that will have the most impact on the viewer and the episode has to be judged by those. Whatever my misgivings about the way the episode ends, I do appreciate that it does set up a really powerful premise for a season finale.

Episode Six

Just another reminder that I will spoil the ending of episode five. If you haven’t already watched this show I would strongly suggest skipping this until you do so.

The final episode of the season picks up right after the end of the previous one with Luther on the run accused of murder with the real killer orchestrating the police campaign to capture him. It is a compelling situation in which everything seems to be stacked against him but he uses his wits to not only stay one step ahead of them but to attempt to bring that person to justice. The reality of the chase lives up to its promise and builds to a powerful conclusion, even if I could predict how the episode was likely to end.

The performances in this last episode are uniformly excellent. The pace steps up to match the tension of the situation with everyone acting with a sense of urgency. I particularly liked that this episode really forces everyone to make a decision about whether or not they trust Luther which feels like it is paying off episodes of steady build-up.

I don’t have much else to say about this except that I think it delivered a really solid conclusion to the themes of the season and left Luther in another really interesting situation. I am really interested to see where the character is headed in the second season (which I have not watched yet at the time of writing).

Perry Mason: Season One (TV)

Series Details

Originally Broadcast 2020
Starring Matthew Rhys, Juliet Rylance, Chris Chalk, Shea Whigham, Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow, Gayle Rankin
Available on HBO Go

The Blurb

An infant boy is kidnapped and an exchange is set up. The parents will provide a $100,000 ransom to get their son back. They make the drop and rush to their son only to find him dead.

Perry Mason is an investigator working for a lawyer defending one of the parents against claims that they orchestrated the affair for their own personal gain. With the media spotlight falling heavily on the case and a District Attorney keen to use the case as a springboard to higher office, the odds seem to be firmly stacked against their efforts…

The Verdict

Though it starts slow, the show hits its groove by midseason. The casting is excellent and the characters’ journeys are compelling.

My Thoughts

While millions of viewers will have grown up watching episodes of the long-running Raymond Burr series on television, my encounters with the character to date have been confined to the printed page. I have read and blogged about five of his earliest adventures on this site, finding them to be highly entertaining and engaging stories.

For those who haven’t read the Mason books of that era, our hero is less a courtroom performer than a scrappy, backroom lawyer. He is smart, resourceful and has principles though he is perfectly willing to cross the line and behave in ways that might well get him disbarred in the search for justice for his clients. This series leans heavily on this rough-around-the-edges interpretation of the character but is set several years earlier, exploring how he became that man.

Mason begins the series as a washed up shell of a man and he is not a qualified lawyer. Instead he is working as an investigator for the lawyer E. B. Jonathan, struggling to deal with the effects of his broken marriage and his harrowing experiences during the war. While I know that it was a shock to some that Mason isn’t even a lawyer at the start of the show, this first season does explore the way that he transitions from being in this washed-up state to becoming a lawyer himself. Think of it as Perry Mason Begins with us getting to see the pieces falling into place and how some of the things he has experienced cause him to practice law differently than many of the other lawyers around him.

Matthew Rhys is well suited to portraying this character at every stage of that evolution. His face is enormously expressive, allowing us to see what he is feeling and he seems to physically shift throughout the series, appearing more confident and powerful by the end. It is an impressive and nuanced performance, emphasizing the character’s humanity and the ways the details of this particular case come to affect him.

The case in question is that of the kidnapping of Charlie Dodson, an infant boy who was kidnapped from his parents’ home. A ransom demand was made for $100,000 which Matthew Dodson, the boy’s father, was able to get from his own father, the enormously wealthy Herman Baggerly. The parents follow the kidnappers’ instructions but when they rush to their son they find him dead with his eyes stitched open.

This tragic death is the starting point for the series as Mason is engaged as an investigator to look into the matter by the lawyer E. B. Jonathan who is working for Baggerly. The nature of the case is so shocking that it stirs up an enormous press and public interest. Maynard Barnes, the district attorney sees the case as a springboard he can use to launch his campaign to become Mayor of Los Angeles. E. B. Jonathan and, by extension, Mason sit on the other side of the case, defending those who are suspected to be guilty of orchestrating the crime for their own benefit.

The first few episodes are rather slow and ponderous, focusing on establishing each of the characters, their relationships to each other and building our understanding of exactly what the case against E. B.’s client will be. It probably doesn’t help that Mason can feel rather peripheral to the main story, particularly in the first episode which contains a rather tedious subplot where he and a colleague try to catch Chubby Carmichael, a prominent comedy film star, in flagrante.

I felt that the story became significantly more engaging following the conclusion to the series’ third episode. This is not a twist but rather a moment that heightens the tensions and serves to make E. B. Jonathan’s job all the harder. The episode that followed seemed to find a sharper focus than those up until that point, binding the different plot strands together much more closely and clearly.

While I am keen to avoid spoiling the various developments in the case, I can say that I found the final explanation of who orchestrated the kidnapping and why it went wrong to be both effective and convincing. Like the legal process itself, the case is sometimes rather slow-moving but that reflects both the workings of the court system and also that our focus is as much on the way the characters are affected by that process and how they interact with each other as it is the details of the case itself. I felt like each character was thoughtfully developed with several lingering in interesting gray areas.

One of the most interesting characters to me was Sister Alice played by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black). She is a preacher who leads the Radiant Assembly of God, whose meetings are rather reminiscent of those run by Sister Aimee during the 1920s and 30s incorporating lavish theatricals and acts of faith healing. Those sequences are gorgeously designed and performed, standing out as really colorful and lively, drawing an effective contrast with the otherwise quite muted color palette we see in Depression-era Los Angeles.

Her motivations for her actions throughout the season are often quite ambiguous and one of the biggest questions I had while watching was what her motivations were for interfering in the case. Maslany leans into that ambiguity very effectively, at times appearing quite helpful and sincere while at others her actions only seem to muddy the waters and make it harder for Mason to defend the client. While ambiguity can sometimes be frustrating in a mystery, here I felt it was used very effectively and I felt that by the final episode I had a strong handle on her character and the reasons for her various choices thoroughout the season.

I was similarly very impressed by Gayle Rankin, an actor who I had previously admired in Netflix’s GLOW (she plays Sheila the She-Wolf in that show). I felt she did a superb job of bringing to life the various conflicted feelings that Emily would feel as Charlie’s mother as she struggles to cope both with her grief and also her feelings of guilt that her own actions may have made the kidnapping possible. Rankin is able to portray different facets of each of those feelings, creating a character that feels both dimensional and credible even when we don’t agree with her actions, making her more than simply a victim.

John Lithgow is rightly being celebrated for his performance as E. B. Jonathan, a lawyer at the end of his career who is frustrated by his inability to protect his client. He really draws out the character’s humanity, creating a character whose frustrations we feel and share. Equally deserving of praise is Stephen Root as Barnes, the District Attorney who sees an opportunity to engage with voters’ sympathies and ruthlessly pursues it. I really enjoyed seeing these two actors playing off each other, particularly in the scenes that take place in court.

Finally I have to give praise to Juliet Rylance and Chris Chalk, the actors playing Della Street and Paul Drake. Where all the other series characters have to shift to fill their eventual roles, Della is essentially in place at the start of the series working as a legal secretary, albeit for E. B. rather than Perry Mason. This role is enormously important to the series however as she is ultimately responsible for the really inexperienced Perry stepping into a courtroom and helping him through that process. She also gets to make several important contributions to the shaping of the case.

One alteration that is made to the character is that she is portrayed as a lesbian, living secretly with her girlfriend in a boarding house. This does not sit entirely with the flirtations and jealousies towards Perry we see Della engage in during these early books, particularly in The Case of the Velvet Claws, though I am personally not too worried about that sort of continuity. The core of the character, particularly her values, her comptence and her willingness to tell Perry what she thinks are all present and correct and I am excited to see how the character continues to develop in the second season.

I was more familiar with Chris Chalk who had appeared as Lucius Fox in Gotham, the Batman prequel series. Paul Drake begins the series as a uniformed cop who is told that he will never make detective in spite of his aptitude for the job because of his race. Like Mason, Drake has to find his place and realize what he values and who he wants to be. I thought that the character had an interesting journey and that Chalk plays well off Rhys once their paths cross. I am looking forward to seeing him take a more central role in future seasons.

The final aspect of the show that I want to mention is its visual style. It is an impressive evocation of the era and place in which it is set. Depression-era Los Angeles is brought to life with plenty of atmosphere and period detail. As I previously alluded to, the color palette tends towards black, gray and sepia tones which feels appropriate both to the setting and the tone of the piece. It also means that when you do see splashes of color they stand out all the more.

Between the cinematography and costuming, the characters and performances I found a lot to like in this first season and I am glad that it has already been renewed for a second. It does get off to a slow start but I felt it found its groove by the fourth episode, finishing strongly with compelling seventh and eighth episodes. I think the core elements put in place here are strong and bode well for future seasons. The one thing I’d love to see is for the show to mimic the way Gardner would setup the next case at the end of last, giving us an image or idea to hook our interest in that next client.

Confession of Murder (Film)

Film Details

Originally released in 2012 as 내가 살인범이다
Released as Confession of Murder in English translation in 2013

Written by Jeong Byeong-gil and Hong Won-Chan
Directed by Jeong Byeong-gil
Starring Jeong Jae-yeong, Park Shi-hoo, Jung Hae-Kyun, Kim Yeong-ae, Choi Won-young, Kim Jong-goo

The Blurb

He’s a killer. He didn’t get caught. And he’s about to be famous.

When the statute of limitations expires on a series of high-profile murders, a handsome and mysterious young man emerges with a tell-all book, taking credit for the crimes. As he seduces the media into following him to book signings and televised debates, the officer who hunted him falls deeper into obsession, and the victims’ families plot their own revenge.

The Verdict

A decent action thriller with an entertaining concept and a very good performance from Park Si-hoo.

My Thoughts

Those who have followed this blog know that I am always on the lookout for inverted crime stories so when I stumbled onto a copy of Confession of Murder, a Korean crime film made in 2012, I hoped I was onto a winner. I soon realized that this would actually be more of a cat and mouse style thriller with heavy action elements but I was interested enough with the scenario to stick with it and see how the situation would be resolved.

The film begins in 1990 and introduces us to Choi Hyeong-goo (Jung Jae-yeong), a detective who is trying to catch a serial killer who has already killed ten women and suspected of kidnapping and killing another. After tracking them down a chase ensues across rooftops and through back alleys, leading to an intense fight that leaves the killer with a bullet in their shoulder and Hyeong-goo with a deep scar across one side of his mouth.

We then jump forwards in time to the point at which the statute of limitations on these murders has expired. Hyeong-goo is still working for the police but he cannot move past his failure to solve this case, drinking heavily. He learns that a handsome young man, Lee Doo-seok (Park Si-hoo) has released a memoir I Am The Murderer in which he claims responsibility for the crimes, revealing details that were unknown to the public. He even reveals a scar and a bullet matching those fired from Hyeong-goo’s gun in his shoulder during his televised book launch. This creates a media sensation and he receives plenty of press coverage as he makes public visits to the homes of each of the victims’ families to kneel and beg for forgiveness.

Hyeong-goo refuses to believe Doo-seok’s account, questioning what happened to the abducted and presumably murdered final victim’s body. Doo-seok meanwhile claims that this was carried out by a copycat, only accepting responsibility for the first ten crimes. Did Doo-seok really commit the crimes? If he did not really do the murders, how did he learn those undisclosed details and why is he coming forward?

It was these questions about Doo-seok’s motivations in coming forward and the way he seems to get under the skin of Hyeong-goo in their early interactions that really drew me into the film. While I have seen versions of the serial killer manipulating the detective investigating them before in other films and television series, I was intrigued by the ambiguity as to whether he really believes Doo-seok is telling the truth about the murders – something that is sustained very effectively until the film’s conclusion.

It helps that Park Si-hoo (shown above, right) gives a superb performance that successfully plays on that ambiguity. An example of this comes in an early sequence where he visits the father of one of the victims to beg forgiveness. Both the direction and performance of that scene do a great job of conveying what the media covering the event can capture and what the only man facing him can see in his body language. Moments like this are done very well and help establish him as a compelling antagonist for the detective.

One interesting idea that is hinted at but perhaps underdeveloped is that the media’s discussion of a case and the public’s reaction to it may differ based on the personalities or the physical attributes of the people involved. We do get several glimpses at the media executives who are choosing how to develop and portray their coverage of the incident. There are several points where we see that Doo-seok is treated with surprising sympathy in the interviews he gives with the implication being that he is presented that way in response to his appearance while it is disturbing to see some crowds gathering where people are holding signs and banners expressing their admiration for him, clearly based on the way he looks.

One interesting difference from the usual structure of these sorts of cat and mouse thrillers is that where typically we tend to view these sorts of stories being about two people or groups in opposition to each other, this film introduces a third actor who influence and interfere with the case. Early in the film we are introduced to a group of family members of the victims who have banded together to plan and execute their own plan to kidnap Doo-seok and exact their vengeance on him.

The introduction of this third group adds interest to the setup, often creating complications for both Hyeong-goo and Doo-seok. One of the most memorable set pieces in the film involves all three groups as we see the families try to put their plan into effect only to find that Hyeong-goo accidentally becomes caught up in them when he crosses their path. Though I felt sure I knew how this piece would ultimately end, it did provide some additional excitement and unpredictability along the way.

The abduction sequence is, for me, the most successful of the film’s action set pieces. Firstly, because it presents the action and movements from the perspectives of each of the three groups clearly, making it clear not only what is happening but what each group thinks is happening. While I think some of the elements of their plan are a little wild (specifically involving the use of a group of animals), this does lead to some really striking shot composition while the high speed vehicle chase that follows features some really impressive camera and exciting stunt work, even though the movements shown often strain belief.

The film’s other action sequences offer varying levels of interest and technique. Typically these are well-shot in the sense that you can always follow what is happening in spite of the quick pacing and use of multiple elements but the attempts to add artistic flourishes to some sequences can fall a little flat. There is a repeated use of a camera that follows a crossbow bolt in slow motion towards its target that feels videogamey while some camera movements struck me as unnecessarily convoluted and sometimes unintentionally comical.

While I think that the tone of the piece is dark and moody, there are a few moments that I think represent deliberate attempts at comedy. Most of these are along the lines of seemingly bizarre and unexpected developments as part of a chase or action sequence along the lines of those found in Bond action sequences. There is one overtly comedic sequence though which I feel really doesn’t work where a character is attacked while urinating in a field, in part because of the gross out element but also because the action sequence that follows is one of those that feels particularly overdirected.

Though I think Confession of Murder does a good job of exploring its characters’ feelings around a theme, those characterizations are often quite shallow, particularly beyond the two central characters. This is most clear in the case of the victims’ families who are portrayed with humanity and feeling but are given little development beyond a signature quality or skill they have (animal handling, archery, driving an expensive car, knife skills and having lots of money). This is not unexpected for an action thriller but it is a little disappointing given that these characters should surely have deeper feelings about their experiences and loss. What little we do get is presented retrospectively, suggesting that the storytelling focus here is on the plot rather than character development.

In spite of those complaints, I did find quite a bit I enjoyed about the film. The performances are generally good and I did get caught up in trying to figure out exactly how the story could be resolved. The solution is obvious in retrospect but because of the film’s pace, it is easy to get swept up in the action and miss hints that point to some of the twists and reveals.

While Confession of Murder was perhaps not the film I was expecting, I did find it entertaining and I am curious enough that I may well go and seek out the Japanese (Memoirs of a Murderer) or South Indian (Angels) versions to see how they compare.

Columbo: Double Shock (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast March 25, 1973

Season Two, Episode Eight
Preceded by The Most Dangerous Match
Followed by Lovely But Lethal (Season Three)

Written by Steven Bochco from a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link
Directed by Robert Butler

Key Guest Cast

Martin Landau, playing dual roles here, had appeared in the first three seasons of Mission: Impossible as a master of disguise. Years earlier he had played his first film role as a criminal type in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.

Julie Newmar had made a splash in the first two seasons of the Batman TV series playing Catwoman. Here she plays the young woman set to marry the victim and who has the misfortune of finding the body.

Finally Dabney Coleman, playing a detective here and sporting a gloriously seventies moustache, is most memorable for me in his role as the arrogant, sexist boss Franklin Hart, Jr. in 9 to 5.

The Verdict

This episode breaks with the formula by introducing a whodunnit angle. I am not convinced that works but the performances are a lot of fun.

My Thoughts

Double Shock opens with the murder of an aging, wealthy man on the eve of his wedding. After a fencing session the man retires to take a long soak in the tub. During that soak he is greeted by his nephew (played by Martin Landau) who comes to present him with a wedding present – an electric mixer. What we know but the victim doesn’t is that this mixer has been tampered with to enable it to deliver a fatal electric shock when thrown into the bathtub.

A short while later the bride-to-be arrives at the house to see the victim and discovers his body, now positioned on a moving exercise machine in his home gym. It appears that he had suffered a heart attack while exercising but when Columbo arrives at the house his thoughts soon turn to homicide…

Double Shock was the final episode of the second season of Columbo but it was more than that. It was the first episode that seemed to significantly diverge from the show’s standard formula to incorporate elements of the most traditional whodunnit format.

Now you may be questioning how this story could possibly be a whodunnit given that we clearly see the murderer perform the fatal act. The reason is that Martin Landau is playing identical twin brothers and so while the victim identifies him as one of the brothers, there is the possibility that the man we see could have been the other. Columbo will only reveal which of the brothers was responsible at the end of the story so the viewer has an opportunity to piece the solution together for themselves.

Let’s start with Landau’s performances because I think the whole piece really relies heavily on them. Landau does a really good job of distinguishing between the two brothers, creating quite distinct personalities for them. Norman is a rather formal, awkward banking type who protests his innocence based on having his own personal wealth. Dexter is a much more relaxed TV chef, irresponsible but rather charming. Even though the brothers may share a face, their posture and manner feels quite different from one another.

We hear how the brothers have not spoken for years and see their mutual disdain for each other come through at frequent points in Columbo’s investigation. Each takes the opportunity to gleefully throw suspicion on the other, revealing their secrets and generally causing trouble. While we have seen other stories where killers have cosied up to Columbo to try and steer his investigation, this does raise the tantalizing possibility that some of what they are saying may actually be true, particularly as they stand to inherit the whole estate if the other gets convicted of murder.

Peter Falk is once again in superb form here, delivering what is probably my favorite of his performances in this second season. One of his best scenes is shared with Landau’s Dexter as he finds himself called on to come and assist with a cooking demonstration on television. This scene is wonderful, feeling very loose and almost improvised in some of the delivery of the lines. This is, of course, a version of the scene in which Columbo gets things slightly wrong to get under the skin of the person he is interacting with but the introduction of a camera and a studio audience proves a really interesting twist and I loved watching Landau to see if there were signs of irritation or frustration showing on his character.

Falk also gets to shine in a series of scenes featuring Jeanette Nolan as the neatnik housekeeper, Mrs. Peck. He initially gets on her bad side when he first arrives at the crime scene, quite understandably based on his behavior. It is the subsequent business involving the television set, which becomes a running gag later in the episode, that really delivers the laughs and I think goes some way to suggest that his clumsiness and buffoonery isn’t all an act. They share a marvellous comedic chemistry together and I do love that in spite of their antagonism, you can see that he is able to appeal to her love of her deceased master and her desire to see his killer brought to justice.

There are a few good twists in the middle of the story, one of which caught me quite off guard and had me wondering just how the killer’s plans might be affected. This in combination with the Lieutenant’s antics with the television set make for a pretty engaging episode that had no difficulty retaining my attention. Which I guess brings me to the crucial question: does the whodunnit work?

I suppose I should start by saying that in one sense it did because I managed to work out the question of who was responsible. While I suspect some would consider my method to be focused more on analysing the story structure rather than any particular piece of evidence, I do think the viewer is given enough information to deduce the key points of the solution. Indeed, if there is a problem with the solution it is that I think that the writing is a little heavy-handed on one point (ROT-13: Nal gvzr lbh ercrngrqyl gryy zr gung crbcyr unira’g gnyxrq va lrnef, V nz tbvat gb fhfcrpg gung V nz orvat znavchyngrq. Abe qbrf vg uryc gung gur zvahgr V frr gjvaf V guvax bs gur cbffvovyvgl bs vqragvgl-fjnccvat).

Given that I expected the conclusion, I cannot really say that I found it to be particularly shocking or amazing. The performances in that scene are excellent though, particularly given Landau is pulling double-duty, and I thought the process by which Columbo shows what happened was worked extremely well. I particularly appreciate that one of the most telling clues is actually allowed to sit in the background for much of that sequence, only being raised to drive home the point Columbo is making.

So, did Columbo miss a trick by not incorporating whodunnit elements more often? I don’t think so. Firstly, this episode rests on the gimmick of having identical twin suspects – clearly not something that could happen every week. Secondly I just don’t think the question of which brother was responsible was all that effective as a whodunnit. While they are distinct personalities, the tension between them is more interesting because they are responsible for it rather than Columbo playing them off against each other. Indeed, while Falk’s performance is really entertaining here he does seem to be playing a more passive role in the investigation than usual.

Still, even if this didn’t work for me as a whodunnit, I still found it to be a highly entertaining hour of television that I consider one of the stronger entries in the show’s second season. As I did when I reached the end of the first season, I plan on taking a few weeks break from the series so expect something quite different next Saturday!

Columbo: The Most Dangerous Match

Episode Details

First broadcast March 4, 1973

Season Two, Episode Seven
Preceded by A Stitch in Crime
Followed by Double Shock

Written by Jackson Gillis from a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link
Directed by Edward M. Abroms

Key Cast

Laurence Harvey plays Emmett Clayton, our murderous chess master, in one of his last roles as he would die of cancer later that same year. Among his more famous roles are his appearance in the thriller The Manchurian Candidate.

The Verdict

The chess tournament setting is memorable while the dream sequence that opens this episode is vidid and imaginative. Very good indeed!

The Plot

For the past few years Emmett Clayton has been regarded as the top chess player in the world. Some argue however that his status is only possible because he never faced Tomlin Dudek, a Russian player who had retired from the game some years previously. A match between the pair would seem to offer an opportunity for Clayton to confirm his rank but we see he is having nightmares at the thought that he will be embarrassed by Dudek.

When the pair secretly meet on the eve of the game and play together, Clayton’s worst fears are confirmed. Realizing that he will almost certainly lose if they go ahead with their match, Clayton decides he will stage an accident and kill Dudek.

My Thoughts

This episode opens with a splendid nightmare sequence in which we see a chess board come to life and torment Emmett Clayton. It is a really dramatic and startling opening, beautifully filmed and quite unlike anything we have seen from the series up until this point. It is not just a striking image however, it also gives us a strong indication of Clayton’s mental state and his specific fears that he would never want to voice out loud given his otherwise proud character.

Having established the idea that he is worried about the encounter with Dudek, the episode quickly works to bring them together and reinforce some of the key points. Clayton is intidated by Dudek and recognizes that he is outclassed. While it is not spoken or spelled out in the episode’s dialogue, I think it probably also upsets Clayton that Dudek hardly seems concerned about the game at all or by the idea that Clayton could pose a serious challenge as shown by the casual way he dismantles him during their games in the restaurant and, later, Clayton’s hotel room.

Dudek, played by Jack Kruschen, is a cheery, hearty and avuncular sort of character. He certainly feels like a strong fit for the part, giving him a warmth and a sense of friendly concern that not only makes him likeable but also will be used in an important way to snare him in the killer’s trap.

Clayton is portrayed brilliantly by Laurence Harvey, who projects a sense of pride and also of fear. He exudes intelligence and cool, calm nerve – two essential traits for the Columbo killer. I certainly had no difficulty believing that he would be capable of planning the sorts of activities we see him doing here, nor did I have much problem with the idea that he would be frightened of the game. Both the situation and the performance make it clear how much pride he takes in his ranking and how humiliating it would be for him to find that status diminished in the eyes of others.

If I do have a problem with Clayton as a murderer, it is simply that I do think the episode is less good at spelling out why murder is the answer he comes up with. It certainly seemed a little odd to me that it would be the first thing he would try rather seeing if there was some other way he could secure a postponement of the match. Still, once that decision is made I feel the rest of the story hangs together very well.

So, let’s talk a little bit about the plan. As in several other stories, the order of the day is to create a death that appears to be accidental rather than planned or contrived. In that respect I think the episode does that well and the plan that the killer devises is solid, even if a few things inevitably do not go according to plan.

One of the things that does not go according to plan is that Lt. Columbo is assigned to the case. I find that I often have enjoyed the stories that put Columbo in an unfamiliar setting and while there is nothing inherently glamorous in the casino interior, I feel this is one of those cases that shows how he is able to take something that is unknown to him and yet find a way to understand it through comparing aspects of that world with other ones that he is more familiar with. I certainly had no difficulty at all believing that he might be able to catch the killer out by the end of this story.

The cat and mouse game between Columbo and Clayton is masterful although his questioning style here feels softer than it had in many of the previous stories. I don’t think it is that he thinks Clayton innocent – indeed, I think he picks up on that unusually quickly – but his questions seem designed to expose Clayton’s character or push him into action.

There is also one very good trick that this episode has up its sleeve that makes this a slightly more complicated case, particularly for Clayton. That complication is hardly unique to this episode – indeed, I am pretty sure that we have seen it used in at least one previous episode of Columbo – but it also serves to push events along and encourage the development of that resentment.

So, where are the problems? Well, keeping in mind that I did really love this story and consider it a favorite so far, it may not surprise you to learn that I don’t have many problems with it. I think that the lead performers are generally very good and I had no big issues with any of the supporting cast. There are perhaps a couple of breaks Columbo gets that are not necessarily fair but they are not impossible either.

Reflecting back on the Columbo stories I have watched so far, this has to be in contention as one of the best ones in the first two series. Perhaps it does suffer a little from being very studio-bound rather than doing location filming, The core idea and setting are fabulous however and serve to make this a particularly memorable adventure.

Columbo: A Stitch in Crime (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast February 11, 1973

Season Two, Episode Six
Preceded by Requiem for a Falling Star
Followed by The Most Dangerous Match

Written by Shirl Hendryx
Directed by Hy Averback

Key Guest Cast

Leonard Nimoy was already famous around the world for his portrayal of Mr. Spock, the Enterprise’s Vulcan first officer on the TV show Star Trek by this point, which would return that same year as a short-lived animated series. If there was anyone watching who did not recognize him from his role as Spock, they might also have known him for his performances on Mission: Impossible.

The Verdict

Boasts some great ideas and a solid performance from Nimoy as the killer, the only thing that underwhelms here is the rather flat direction of the action scenes.

My Thoughts

For the most part I have been watching these Columbo stories for the first time but this is one of a handful of episodes I had actually seen before. Back when I was a teen (it feels like a very long time ago) I was a huge Star Trek fan and eagerly sought out anything featuring actors who had been in the show and so I happened to see this story. The reason that this is important to mention is that once the episode began the various twists came back to me so it will be a little hard to gauge how surprising some of those moments are.

Leonard Nimoy plays Dr. Barry Mayfield, an arrogant, ambitious surgeon who is determined to make his name on an exciting new research project. Unfortunately for him, the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Hidemann (Will Greer) is determined to take a cautious approach and insists on a further year of tests before they go public with the results. This frustrates Mayfield but he puts on an understanding face and agrees to perform heart surgery on his colleague.

Before the surgery Nurse Martin (Anne Francis) voiced her suspicions of Dr. Mayfield to Hidemann and following the surgery she seems to be acting suspiciously. That evening she is followed by Mayfield who brutally murders her in a car park, staging a burglary. Columbo is assigned the case but while he suspects Dr. Mayfield he cannot see the motive.

There are lots of things to talk about with this episode but probably the best place to start would be the cast. Nimoy’s performance was obviously the chief appeal to me when I first saw this about fifteen years ago and I had pretty fond memories of it. Looking at it again I think he does a good job, though I would suggest he has been cast to play a rather cold, emotionless figure – not exactly a huge jump from the Spock persona. He does a good job of his scenes with Falk, seeming to recognize the danger that Columbo represents from the very start of the investigation. His performance is more muted than say Cassidy or Culp, but I think he does convey a certain his character’s ruthless streak very well.

And what a ruthless streak! Unlike some of the other Columbo killers up until this point, his decision to kill is not born in a moment of passion or fear, nor is it a desperate act. Instead it comes out of his enormous sense of personal ambition and each of the crimes he commits, and there are more than one, feels really quite brutal given his choices of victim. This is particularly true of something he does near the end of the episode that is coldblooded and cruel and yet he walks away from it showing no signs of being affected at all.

While this episode does not feature a huge cast, there are several other strong performances. I really enjoyed the warmth and humanity of Will Greer’s performance as the older doctor. He has a rather charming introduction in which he conducts a diagnosis on his own condition and his fussing at his nurses for insisting on a sterile environment is amusing and characterful. Similarly I appreciate Anne Francis’ turn as Nurse Martin, the victim. She doesn’t get much to do before she is murdered but she does convey her deep distrust of Dr. Mayfield well.

Though I do not think of this as a particularly comedic outing, there are a couple of scenes that I found very funny. The best of these comes very early in the episode as Columbo is stuck interviewing Nurse Martin’s very talkative roommate. Falk’s reactions are priceless during the conversation. Several of the things she blurts out are amusing but I appreciate that the scene isn’t just funny but it also does help to flesh out the victim’s character.

I also really enjoyed a sequence in which Columbo pays a visit to a party being thrown by Dr. Mayfield. There is lots to entertain here from some humorous exchanges about the hors d’eurve to some fun displays of Seventies fashion. Nimoy’s pants are perhaps a little less tight than Roddy McDowall’s were in Short Fuse but it’s close enough to be worthy of comment and he has quite a nice line in ties.

I thought that the investigation itself was interesting and appreciated that it represents another slight twist on the Columbo formula. Indeed I thought pretty hard about whether I ought to outline as much of the episode as I did above because I imagine that for viewers on original broadcast the murder victim may well have come as a surprise. Certainly it seems to run against what the first few scenes set up, but I think the shift is handled very effectively and creates a much more interesting scenario for Columbo to solve.

The scenes between Nimoy and Falk are excellent. I could understand how and why Columbo was able to get under Mayfield’s skin and yet Nimoy always comes off as being in control. It is interesting to watch Mayfield as he tries to steer Columbo’s investigation – this something we have seen other killers on the show do before but the difference is that Mayfield is far more alert to the dangers the investigator poses than most who try it.

Martin’s murder however feels rather flat and disappointing. We see the swing of a weapon but it seems to hang still for far too long right before the death, making it look curiously lacking in energy. Yes, cold and dispassionate are part of Mayfield’s persona but the editing on that moment just looks wrong to me. A later murder is handled better though it is still shot in a way that seems to minimize the action rather than getting in close on that moment. It is as though the director is working to undercut any of the violence in the episode.

There is one aspect of the plot that is utterly brilliant however as an idea, even though it does require some specialist knowledge. The script acknowledges this problem, providing the information directly to the viewer in a way that is easy to understand, but because they have to go into detail to explain how an idea works, it does draw attention to it which rather undermines its reveal. That idea though is brilliant though – a really good and as far as I know pretty unique concept for a murder story.

I had a pretty positive memory of this story and I am happy to say that on the whole it held up to my memories of the story. Its faults are mostly issues with the direction and editing – the thing feels far too slow and ponderous in the scenes that ought to have the most impact – but the core ideas are clever and Nimoy’s performance as Mayfield is good.

Columbo: Requiem for a Falling Star (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast January 21, 1973

Season Two, Episode Five
Preceded by Dagger of the Mind
Followed by A Stitch in Crime

Written by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Richard Quine

Key Cast

Anne Baxter had played the female lead in Hitchcock’s I Confess, a film in which a priest cannot clear himself of a murder without disclosing information from a confession. I remember her best though as Olga the Queen of the Cossacks, one of the villains in the Adam West Batman series.

The Verdict

A fairly forgettable case though it does have a couple of interesting points and a solid performance from Anne Baxter.

Plot Summary

Nora Chandler was once one of the biggest stars in Hollywood but her career has long been in decline. A tell-all book in the works from gossip journalist Jerry Parks threatens to expose a scandal in her past that would end it. When she confronts Jerry about the book he tries to extort her to make the information he has found go away.

Nora discovers that Jerry has been seeing her personal assistant Jean and has arranged to meet with her that night. Instead Nora plans to keep Jean busy with a slew of pointless errands. Instead Jean skips out on them and the pair arrange a rendezvous later.

Unfortunately that rendezvous never happens as before they can meet Jerry’s car explodes…

My Thoughts

I should probably begin by confessing I am not particularly excited to write about Requiem for a Fallen Star. This is not because it is a particularly terrible episode of Columbo – I have seen worse already since starting this project – but because to discuss its most interesting idea feels like it would be spoiling it. I obviously do not want to do that so this will probably be quite short and vague. My apologies. Hopefully I can convey at least a general sense of what I think of the production.

While the previous episode featured lots of external location filming, Requiem for a Fallen Star feels much more familiar and contained. We had after all seen a film set in several scenes in the very first Columbo story Prescription: Murder and spent a little time in a television studio in Suitable for Framing. In spite of that though it is notable that this is the first time a case has centered on the film industry in spite of that being the business most would associate with LA.

Probably the most logical place to start with discussing the episode is with the character of Nora Chandler, the fallen star. The episode certainly gives us a good sense of the state of her career at this point though her past is a little more vague. We have little sense of what sort of actress she was other than that Columbo was a fan but we do know that much of her success was built around her now-deceased husband’s film studio.

I can imagine this sort of role would have offered considerable opportunities to overplay the character’s diva tendencies or artistic sentiment, giving the character a comical slant. This would have been a mistake, particularly coming just an episode after giving us two pretentious actor killers, so Anne Baxter’s forceful and determined take on the character is welcome and feels well judged. Nora may not be as memorable a character as those played by Susan Clark or Lee Grant but I feel that Baxter’s performance fits the character and helps bring her to life.

I was initially quite skeptical of Nora’s reasons for becoming a murderer, particularly given that the scandal Jerry Parks is threatening to expose feels rather dull. While it would certainly end Nora’s career and association with the studio it is hard to imagine it moving many books. Would the fear of those revelations really lead to murder? Happily Nora’s plan and motives for murder do become clearer as the episode goes on and by the end of the episode I felt convinced.

After a doubtful start, things pick up from the moment at which the car explodes. Unlike some other Columbo stories, we do not follow the killer closely as they set up the murder and so we learn many of the details after the fact. This does allow for a small but satisfying surprise (the one I alluded to earlier) and establishes a pretty interesting set of circumstances for Columbo’s investigation.

That investigation is fine and there are a few interesting discoveries. The problem is that I just didn’t feel particularly interested in the cat and mouse game between Nora and Columbo. The choice to make Columbo a fan of Nora’s feels rather awkward and I quickly grew tired of his fawning over her. I think Columbo tends to be at his best when he is getting under the skin of his quarry and unsettling them but there isn’t much of that here.

While I found the investigation rather dull, the episode does at least have a strong resolution. I often complain about trap endings and this is another example of that but I do feel that in this instance he is using it to confirm something he has already deduced. It is a variation on a classic mystery but it is done pretty well, making for a solid resolution to the story.

Whenever you watch a television show there are always some episodes that stand out because they are either very strong or weak. Requiem for a Falling Star sits right in the middle of the pack, being competently told but lacking a standout character or truly memorable set piece or situation. It is quite watchable and often entertaining but I suspect it will be one I struggle to recall a few months from now.

Columbo: Dagger of the Mind (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast November 26, 1972

Season Two, Episode Four
Preceded by The Most Crucial Game
Followed by Requiem for a Falling Star

Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Story by Richard Levinson and William Link
Directed by Richard Quine

Key Cast

The most familiar face for viewers will likely be Honor Blackman who plays Lillian Stanhope. She appeared in The Avengers as Catherine Gale but is best known for her performance as the definitive Bond girl, Pussy Galore in Goldfinger.

John Williams, playing the victim, Sir Roger Haversham, was best known for his role as Chief Inspector Hubbard in the film, television and stage plays of Dial M for Murder.

Finally I have to make mention of Wilfrid Hyde-White who plays a butler. He was one of those character actors I always enjoyed seeing pop up in British movies in the fifties and sixties but I remember him most fondly as Crabbin in my favorite film of all time, The Third Man. He is perfectly cast here and one of my favorite things about the episode.

The Verdict

Perhaps the most overtly comedic Columbo up until this point though much of it is variations on one idea. The case itself is a little slight but there are several fun moments for Columbo and the cast seem to be enjoying themselves.

Plot Summary

A pair of veteran thespians are thrilled to be back on the stage for a production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. On the eve of the production however their financial backer, Sir Roger Haversham, tells them that he has realized that he is being manipulated by them and has decided to pull the plug on the show.

The altercation between the trio turns violent and the pair end up accidentally killing him when he is hit in the head. Realizing that no one had seen Haversham enter the theater the pair decide to transport his body back to his home and stage an accident.

Columbo happens to be visiting London to learn more about the latest practices at Scotland Yard. His guide, Detective Chief Superintendent Durk, happens to be related to Haversham and brings Columbo with him as he visits the estate. While Durk seems to accept it as an unfortunate accident, Columbo cannot help noticing details pointing to murder…

My Thoughts

Previous episodes of Columbo had often featured comedic characters or subplots but Dagger of the Mind is, to my mind, the first episode to be written and played primarily as comedy.

The main joke running through the episode is that the two thespians, Lillian Stanhope (Honor Blackman) and Nicholas Frame (Richard Basehart), are both terrible hams. This not only is evident in the short clips we see of them on stage but in their conduct off it. Whether talking about treading the boards or giving a teary performance at the funeral in front of Columbo under the impression he is from the press, the pair are often made to look ridiculous and out-of-touch with reality.

The excesses of theatrical types was a familiar comedic theme even back in the early 70s and it is frequently returned to here. I happen to think it is done reasonably well but given most of the comedic moments are variations on this same theme some may feel that particular joke is worn out long before the end of the episode.

Both Blackman and Basehart seem to enjoy getting to play bad actors and both go for it, delivering plenty of ham. For the most part I enjoyed their performances though there are a few moments where I think they go too far. While the character of Stanhope has some quieter, more thoughtful moments, Basehart’s Frame seems to always be performing in some fashion. The unfortunate consequence of that is that the character feels less dimensional than many other Columbo killers.

That may be a reflection of how the pair happen to become murderers. In keeping with the lighter tone of the episode, they are shown to be opportunists rather than villains. They never intended murder but once it happens they have to cover it up to keep their play open.

Prior to this there was only one other Columbo story that features an accidental or entirely unplanned murder – Death Lends a Hand. Unfortunately I think neither case is particularly satisfying and I think it is this lack of planning or intent that has been the problem. In each case, the murderers appear to have no motive to want the victim dead and it seems clear that if they just kept their heads down things would go away. In order to make things happen in each story, the killers have to choose to engage with Columbo and they do it so awkwardly that it only draws his attention to them. I will be curious to see if I feel the same about any later unplanned murder stories.

I was struck by how Columbo seems much less active in this case than usual, both in terms of his own actions but also in screen time. He certainly pushes for the case to be seen as murder, doing so quite cleverly, but there are fewer interactions with the killers and there are fewer of his usual investigative tics and behaviors. He doesn’t, for instance, really press the pair on the points of the case. Perhaps this is meant to suggest he is trying to impress his hosts but it does feel almost out of character for him.

Still, while Columbo the investigator seems a little muted, there are some amusing moments where we can enjoy Columbo the awkward traveller. From the moment he first appears he seems to be even more bumbling than usual and much fun is had in seeing the baffled expressions of those British police he comes into contact with. It is not the strongest material Falk has had to work with but I feel he does so well. It probably helps that he is able to balance those moments with some more serious, crime-solving ones.

At this point we need to talk about the episode’s portrayal of Britain.

Let’s start with the good – there is some lovely location filming with Peter Falk visiting some London landmarks. While much of the episode was filmed in California, these sequences do look good, giving a decent sense of place and they are well integrated with the look of those other scenes. I also appreciate that they are not just filler but they also convey something of Columbo’s character such as when he tries to take photographs.

The portrayal of London however lacks authenticity. I was reminded of my experiences walking around the duty free shops at the airport – it feels like a series of settings and elements people associate with London rather than ones that make sense in the context of this case. In other words, this episode takes place in a perception of London based on books and films rather than attempting to give a true sense of place or time.

The case itself is not particularly complex compared to Columbo’s other cases. The evidence is relatively straightforward and because Columbo’s interactions with the killers are limited, there is relatively little misdirection or use of red herrings. As such, the resolution comes pretty quickly and feels quite simple. Unlike the previous few stories, here there doesn’t seem to be any point of confusion that Columbo needs to work through.

This means that the ending is similarly quite simple though there are some script, setting and performance choices that do make the ending feel a little more colorful. I quite like the location chosen which adds a touch of whimsy but I feel the last few moments of the episode go too far and read as silly, even though they fit the themes of the episode.

Clearly I had some problems with this episode but I must say that I felt this did have some pretty amusing and entertaining moments. I enjoyed several of the performances, particularly Wilfrid Hyde-White as the butler, and I am partial to its theatrical setting. I will never list it, or its pair of murderers, as series highlights but I did at least enjoy watching it.

Columbo: The Most Crucial Game (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast November 5, 1972

Season Two, Episode Three
Preceded by The Greenhouse Jungle
Followed by Dagger of the Mind

Written by John T. Dugan
Directed by Jeremy Kagan

Key Guest Cast

Our victim is played by Dean Stockwell who had been a child star in the late 40s. At the time he may have been best known to crime fans for his performance as Judd Steiner (based on Leopold) in Compulsion. He went on to have a long career and modern viewers may remember him best from Quantum Leap or the revival of Battlestar Galactica.

Valerie Harper makes a small but memorable appearance here and would have been familiar to viewers as Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The Verdict

Often very entertaining, sadly issues with the plotting meant I found it disappointing as a mystery.

My Thoughts

It is game day for the Los Angeles Rockets football team and general manager Paul Hanlon appears in a feisty mood. Shortly before the game he calls the coach, chewing him out, and then he calls the team’s playboy owner to remind him that they will be flying to Canada that night to meet with the owners of a hockey franchise he thinks they should acquire.

As the game kicks off, Hanlon dismisses the attendant in his box and dons a disguise, heading out to commit murder. His plan is to make it appear he was in the stadium the whole time, using a radio to keep track of developments in the game. Hanlon stages the murder to appear to be an accidental drowning but unfortunately Columbo is assigned to the case and he is soon on the killer’s trail.

Today’s episode is a bit of a landmark for the series as it was the first episode to feature an actor reappearing on the show to play a killer for a second time. This was one of the aspects of the series that always puzzled me before I started to watch – why did the show reuse killers when there was such a wealth of acting talent to choose from? Was it a level of comfort with the actor or an issue of availability? How I wish that there were DVD extras with these to explain how those decisions were made…

Robert Culp makes his return having previously been the murderer in Death Lends A Hand – a story that I felt fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. Would I like his second outing more?

Well, that’s actually quite hard to answer. Let’s start with Culp’s own performance. While Brimmer was quite aloof, Hanlon is fiery and combative. That worked well here, leading to several memorable exchanges with Columbo as his frustrations grow and some “tells” start to show in his behavior.

Culp sports a rather bushy moustache that makes him look almost comical at points, particularly during a sequence in which he dons a disguise. Fortunately Culp plays the whole thing straight, managing to retain his dignity while looking pretty silly and obviously is highly competent, making him a pretty interesting adversary for Columbo. In short, while I may not understand the practice of bringing back killers on principle, this particular piece of casting is really good and Culp delivers an even better performance this second time around.

I think the actual mechanism used to commit the murder is really clever (and so I have no wish to spoil it). It is about as tidy a method as it is possible to imagine and the plan is really impressively worked, being shot to appear quick and brutal. Sometimes with these stories you wonder if a person could really be killed so easily – here it makes perfect sense.

Columbo will be presented with a crime scene that is pretty much perfect. To all appearances this was an accidental death and there is very little evidence to disagree with that reading.

Being Columbo however he does find something – a patch of regular water – but honestly, I just don’t buy that being enough to have him thinking murder. For starters I don’t think that puddle should still be there by the time Columbo arrives in the type of weather we see but even if it is, this is a really weak thing to hook the case on.

Though I think that Columbo’s reasons for suspecting murder are weak, the investigation itself is very enjoyable. The central problem of the episode is the idea that Hanlon has an unbreakable alibi. As an example of that type of problem, the story largely delivers. While Hanlon’s plan is very cleverly worked, there are a couple of things that give Columbo enough room to imagine how he could have done it.

The problem though is that at no point are we ever asked why Hanlon commits this murder. Now I will be the first to say that the viewer doesn’t always need to know every aspect of a case for it to be satisfying. In fact I think it can sometimes be interesting for the viewer to infer a motive but here that is rather messy. There are a number of possible explanations but none fully convince.

Is it because the owner doesn’t care about the fate of the sports empire? Well, why would he want to run the risk that a new owner might dismiss him? Was he in danger of being exposed for manipulating the owner? Possibly, but it seems clear that the person keenest to do that has little standing with the family any more. Is he in love with Wagner’s wife and killing him in the hopes of winning her? Maybe, but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in him.

I don’t know if this is a case of a motive having been written and then cut for time (or some other reason) or if there was never any motive specified at all but I found its absence really distracting. Columbo is almost always looking for the motive first as his hook into a character – just think back to Étude in Black for a good example of this where he is floundering until he gets that information. It bothers me that when he makes his accusation he doesn’t even make a suggestion as to why he killed Wagner.

Without having a motive, Columbo’s treatment of Hanlon – a man who seems to have a cast iron alibi – starts to feel like unwarranted harassment. He has absolutely no reason to focus in on him at the point at which he does and, make no mistake, Columbo is clearly looking at him as a suspect from the moment he arrives at the stadium. We typically give him some latitude for this because we know he will be right and because of the type of person he is interested in but Hanlon appears and acts for most of the story as someone acting in the interests of Wagner’s widow.

This was not the only aspect of Columbo’s behavior I found questionable. I was also baffled by the choice to have him appear utterly distracted at the crime scene, listening to the game rather than looking at the body. I get that this helps establish him as a fan but it also makes his inattention feel more a genuine part of his character than an affectation, designed to throw the killer off. I don’t know that I love that interpretation of the character.

Still, Falk’s performance throughout the episode as a whole is really quite wonderful. Take for instance the wonderful way he fixates on wanting a replacement pair of shoes for instance which he apparently ad-libbed when he first meets Walter Cannell. It’s a really funny moment that speaks to his character and methods while it also really disconcerts the person he is talking with.

I also have to really praise the look of the episode. Jeremy Kagan’s direction is striking. It’s not particularly flashy but it tells the story very effectively, giving a strong sense of movement which suits this story well. It is not just the big moments but the little ones, using sound as effectively as the visuals – an example of that would be the child’s voice calling after the ice cream truck Hanlon is driving when he doesn’t stop in the neighborhood.

These aspects of the production, along with Culp’s performance, make it an often very entertaining episode to watch. The interactions between Falk and Culp are quite intense and I think the professional sports setting is used well. There are a lot of elements here that could well have led to this story being a classic.

Unfortunately what holds it back are some basic problems with the setup. Columbo’s decision to think Hanlon a murderer feels incredibly arbitrary, without a foundation of any clear (or even suggestive) evidence. Knowledge that Hanlon is guilty may allow viewers to overlook Columbo’s behavior here but I never really felt comfortable with it and it soured the episode for me as a result.