Columbo: Swan Song (TV)

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

Originally broadcast March 3, 1974

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

Plot Summary

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

Famous Faces

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

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbo: Mind Over Mayhem (TV)

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

Originally broadcast Febuary 18, 1974

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

Plot Summary

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

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

Familiar Faces

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

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

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

My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbo: Publish or Perish (TV)

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

Originally broadcast January 18, 1974

Written by Peter S. Fischer
Directed by Robert Butler

Plot Summary

When his bestselling author makes a deal to switch to a new publisher, Riley Greenleaf decides to hire a hitman to kill him. Knowing that he will be a prime suspect, Riley decides to lean into that fact while also establishing what seems to be a cast iron alibi. Unfortunately for the punitive publisher, Lt. Columbo is assigned to the case…

Familiar Faces

There are lots of familiar faces on Columbo with genre credits but this episode stands out for casting a crime writer. Mickey Spillane (shown to the left) was one of the giants of hard-boiled crime fiction in the mid-to-late twentieth century. While the author may not have found success with the critics, he certainly built a huge audience. His Mike Hammer series, which started with I, the Jury, would sell hundreds of millions of copies.

Jack Cassidy makes the second of his three appearances in the series, this time playing publisher Riley Greenleaf. The actor and singer had achieved broadway success, winning a Tony award, before appearing in a string of guest appearances on the small screen in a variety of shows including Cannon, Barnaby Jones and Banyon.

My Thoughts

There is lots that interested and amused me about this episode but top of the list is the decision to cast Mickey Spillane as the victim. It’s not simply a matter of the novelty of putting a mystery writer on screen but I love the way that his character plays off the author’s own personality and image. Allen Mallory, like Spillane, writes supposedly low-brow potboilers that are leaving him creatively unfulfilled. It’s playful and it serves as a sort of shorthand, helping us get to grips with his character in just a handful of scenes.

The episode itself follows a pretty typical Columbo structure of following the killer as they set up the elements of their plan. Often we are left completely in the dark about what will happen, the episode teasing us with those details of the crime to come as we wonder how the elements will fit together. This episode approaches things a little differently.

Right from the start it is clear who the target is and the reason for their murder. We also know the means the killer intends to use and while we may wonder about the involvement of a third party, viewers will quickly realize that the killer intends to establish an alibi for themselves. The exact nature of that alibi will be a secret but rest assured it’s pretty amusing and I do consider it to be a pretty good one.

The sequence in which the murder is carried out is one of the more engaging ones I have encountered up to this point, enhanced by a little creative editing, a highly entertaining rampage from Riley and a rather striking death moment from the victim. At the point at which Columbo enters the story it does seem that Greenleaf has set things up rather nicely and you can imagine he would feel quite safe.

So, let’s talk Riley Greenleaf as I think the success of this episode really hinges on this character and the performance from Jack Cassidy. Rather unusually for a Columbo killer, it seems to me that Greenleaf is not so much acting from a rational motive but rather out of pure vindictiveness. Sure, there’s a mention of a million dollar life insurance policy at one point but as there’s never any discussion of that motive again it feels like it’s just mentioned to give a better excuse than “I can’t have him so you can’t either”.

Cassidy’s performance feels larger than life, veering wildly from moments of suave, seemingly sincere calm to sharp expressions of antagonism. That could so easily feel cartoonish and inconsistent but here I think it fits in well with some other aspects of a character who often seems incredibly unstable, at times treating Columbo’s investigation quite flippantly. It feels different from the vast majority of Columbo killers we have seen up to this point and much more satisfying than the nearest performance I can think of, Roddy McDowall’s in the first season’s Short Fuse.

Given that Riley is not one of the more ingenious killers, it is perhaps not surprising that the structure of this story is not overly complicated. After carefully setting up the details and tidying up a loose end after the murder, there are no major twists or surprises to change our perception of those details. Nor does it feel like Columbo has to work particularly hard to extract the information needed to bust this case open. In fact, it ‘s honestly quite surprising that Greenleaf sustains his act as long as he does given some of the risks he takes both in the planning and execution of his scheme.

One of the most intriguing risks is John Chandler’s turn as an explosives-obsessed Vietnam veteran who dreams of publishing his own book. The performance is certainly colorful and his introduction is a memorable one, lobbing home-crafted explosives into a testing zone. While the performance is a broad one at times, I think it does help to convince that he might really put his trust in someone like Greenleaf. I will say though that I found it much harder to believe that the publisher would be willing to trust that he would be able to pull the action off in the first place.

As for Falk’s Columbo, it’s a solid enough outing though while I enjoyed the performance, little of it is particularly memorable. One bit that is however and which lands really well is a bit of business in a restaurant. While I anticipated the sort of punchline that scene would have, I think it is delivered beautifully.

The gotcha moment is fine enough. I certainly buy the logic of it but felt that given the episode seemed to be quite short, I was a little bit underwhelmed. Still, I am happy to say that I had a pretty good time with this one overall and while I much prefer the similarly-themed Murder by the Book, there’s little denying that he fit the part nicely.

The Verdict: An entertaining episode that seemed to move rather quickly but which delivered a fun performance as the villain from Jack Cassidy and one of the most memorable corpses in the show’s history!

Columbo: Double Exposure (TV)

Season Three, Episode Four
Preceded by Candidate for Crime
Followed by Publish or Perish

Originally broadcast December 16, 1973

Written by Stephen J. Cannell
Directed by Richard Quine

Plot Summary

Dr. Bart Kepple has been on the cutting edge of advertising research for years after publishing several highly regarded books about techniques. Among the secrets to his success is a lucrative blackmail business. When one of his subjects threatens to stand up to him rather than pay, Kepple decides he must act to eliminate them. He has what seems to be an unbreakable alibi for the time of the murder – a room full of people can say he was on stage narrating a film at the time. Unfortunately for the advertising guru, Lt. Columbo just isn’t buying it…

Robert Culp NBC publicity photo
Image credit: NBC Television, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Familiar Faces

Robert Culp (left) had already featured as a killer twice before in Columbo, once in each of the first two seasons. This would be his final appearance in the show’s initial run though he would return for one last outing as Columbo Goes to College in 1990. He did however also make an appearance in the pilot for Mrs. Columbo in the meantime.

Louise Latham is perhaps most widely remembered for a role in the 1964 Hitchcock movie Marnie but she also has a number of other genre credits to her name on television. These include appearances in Perry Mason, Ironside, Kojak and Murder, She Wrote.

One familiar face making an early television appearance is George Wyner as the film editor consulted later in the episode. Wyner is still active in Hollywood today appearing in shows like The Umbrella Academy and Grace and Frankie. Genre credits include Boston Legal, Bones and several episodes of Murder, She Wrote and Quincy.

My Thoughts

There is a line in this episode where Lt. Columbo says that one of the reasons he loves his job is that he gets to come into contact with interesting people. On a related note, I think that this episode really drove home to me the idea that we love Columbo the show for similar reasons – part of the thrill, at least for this viewer, lies in discovering what background or career path the next antagonist will come from. In the case of Double Exposure we get our first encounter with the world of marketing as Dr. Kepple specializes in the field of ‘motivation research’.

In a recent post I referenced the idea that most of Columbo‘s antagonists share some common characteristics. They are often quite elitist, looking down on the scruffy police lieutenant because of his slovenly dress, clumsy manners and personal habits. Many equate those qualities with a lack of intelligence and so underestimate him, not putting up their guard soon enough.

Dr. Kepple certainly possesses those qualities as well but what strikes me as interesting about this character is that he seems far less wary than most. He is a man who believes his own hype – that his ability to read a consumer and predict their behavior will also lead to him having the upper hand when dealing with the police.

For the role of Dr. Kepple we get the third and final appearance of Robert Culp as a Columbo killer, though he would appear in another part when the show came back in the nineties. He proves an excellent fit for the part, seeming comfortable with the technical requirements of the part (cutting film, repositioning cameras, working the technology, etc) and the dialogue about his character’s profession while also driving home the man’s arrogance and sense of complacency in all of his dealings with Columbo. It is, in my opinion, the best of Culp’s three turns as the killer.

Part of what I appreciate is that Kepple is a distinctly different creation from the previous two killers Culp portrayed. This man is a planner who treats his murder like he is writing the script for one of his promotional films. He intends to create an evidence trail that will tell a story and encourage the police to interpret the crime scene in a particular way. It’s a pretty brazen plan and certainly unusual among the Columbo killers up until this point, marking the character out as a little different. Equally interesting to me though is that I think this is the reason Columbo comes to suspect him in the first place. The story he attempts to present to Columbo is simply too neat and tidy.

Some parts of Kepple’s plan are admittedly very clever and I love that while the episode shows us all of his preparations and actions, the meaning of some of his actions are not instantly apparent. To give one of the strongest examples of this, the means by which the murder weapon is made to appear not to have been used is shown to the viewer yet some (such as myself) may not initially grasp the significance of what we have seen or what it means.

Kepple’s plan here is to construct a seeming unbreakable alibi by creating a situation in which a group of people will all appear to witness him standing behind a curtain on the stage narrating in perfect time to a film reel. This boils down to a variation on an old trick and I think that there are some issues with the plan that would make it impractical in reality (ROT-13: Gurer jvyy or n irel abgvprnoyr fuvsg va fbhaq dhnyvgl orgjrra n crefba fcrnxvat yvir naq n erpbeqvat cynlvat bire n fcrnxre, abg gb zragvba gur zvpebcubar pbhyq jryy cvpx hc ba gur juveyvat bs gur gncr jvguva gur znpuvar). In spite of that however, I appreciated the basic idea and enjoyed how smoothly the character pulls off his murder before returning to the stage without breaking a sweat.

The most interesting aspect of the case however relates quite specifically to the skills and background of the killer and it struck me as quite a novel way of pulling off his plan. It’s one of those situations where I wondered if a viewer in 1973 might have had a different experience from a viewer today as I wonder how well known the technique shown was at the time while the meaning of what Kepple seemed quite obvious to me from the start. Still, I appreciated the originality of that as a method and I appreciated that the script and filmmakers do not try to oversell the idea of how effective that could be. Instead they go for something that feels much more limited in scope but still clearly of enormous importance to his plan.

There are a number of excellent hints dropped about how Columbo will end up putting this case together, helped with some strong foreshadowing. The episode did a good job of drawing attention to each of these clues while keeping the relevance of them hidden until late in the episode, giving the sense of a sudden rush of discovery as we near the point where Columbo can prove his case.

My favorite of these hints relates to an object that Columbo finds as Kepple expected. What struck me as really clever is that while Kepple reads many aspects of the crime scene effectively, doing a fine job of steering Columbo away from the truth with his storytelling, he overlooks something very simple and logical. Watching Falk as he slowly comes back to the significance of that clue and tries to work through every possible explanation is both agonizing and compelling – a little like seeing a bar of soap slip repeatedly from hand to hand. Kepple keeps thinking he’s finally convinced Columbo that he’s on the wrong track only to be told that there is another practical reason why his explanation for the inconsistency simply doesn’t work. It’s great television that shows off how well these two actors could play off one another.

There are other things I love such as the wonderfully seventies banana yellow jacket Culp wears which you can marvel at yourself in the screenshot above or the descriptions of what Kepple’s work actually entails. It is the interplay between Falk and Culp though that I think is the core reason this episode works so well. Each actor anticipates and plays off the other brilliantly, creating a wonderfully antagonistic relationship between them.

While I still feel a little underwhelmed by the idea of an actor returning to play other killers, I do understand why the filmmakers brought Culp back. He got better with each appearance and my only regret is that we won’t see him again in that role. Of course, he wouldn’t be the last Columbo killer to make repeat appearances as we will see next time…

The Verdict: A fun story which pulls a few interesting tricks, not least with regard the murder weapon. Featuring some entertaining antagonistic banter and wonderful performances from the leads, I consider this the best of the Culp as murderer episodes.

Columbo: Candidate for Crime (TV)

Season Three, Episode Three
Preceded by Any Old Port in a Storm
Followed by Double Exposure

Originally broadcast November 4, 1973

Teleplay by Irv Pearlberg, Alvin R. Friedman and Ronald Kibbee
Directed by Boris Sagal

Plot Summary

Nelson Hayward is running for US senator in a special election and appears to be well-positioned to win when he starts to receive threats against his life from the mob, prompting him to receive police protection. His campaign manager is determined to protect his candidate’s chances so when he becomes aware that Nelson is having an affair with a campaign staffer, he steps in to pressure her to quit.

Nelson however plans to have it all and has a plan to rid himself of his meddling manager using the police protection to give himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately for him, Lieutenant Columbo is on the case…

Familiar Faces

Jackie Cooper (shown to the left) had been a Hollywood child star, becoming the youngest performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for the movie Skippy. Unlike many child stars, Cooper successfully transitioned to adult roles and had a career as an actor and director that continued until the mid-80s.

Cooper is perhaps best known to audiences today for his recurring role as Perry White in the Superman movies. His other genre credits include episodes of Kojak and Murder, She Wrote while he also directed an episode of Magnum, P. I.

Joanne Linville was instantly recognizable to me for her role as a Romulan Commander in an early episode of Star Trek but she has other mystery genre credits to her name. These include episodes of The Further Adventures of Ellery Queen, Kojak, Barnaby Jones and, yes, Mrs. Columbo.

Tisha Sterling was less recognizable to me but also has plenty of mystery credits. These include episodes of Ironside, The New Perry Mason and she appeared opposite Stacy Keach in the 1976 film adaptation of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me.

One other familiar face in a minor part is Katey Sagal (shown above), daughter of the episode’s director, who would later star in the hit sitcom Married with Children.

My Thoughts

The third season of Columbo had got off to a rather unremarkable start with its first two episodes. Both featured elements I enjoyed quite a lot but each also had flaws. One was that both episodes’ crimes were unplanned, spur of the moment affairs that saw businesspeople on the verge of losing their empires lash out and then engage in a hasty, contrived cover up. Thankfully Candidate for Crime offers a change of pace and style, giving Columbo a carefully planned, premeditated murder to investigate.

My appreciation for this episode begins with its initial setup with the politician Nelson Hayward receiving police protection because death threats have been made against his life. There is a lot to love about this as a setup, not least that it means that Columbo is already involved in the case before the murder even takes place streamlining that awkward part of the episode where he gets to know characters we already met.

What I like most about it is that it sets up expectations for the viewer and for the other characters. While longtime Columbo viewers may expect Hayward to be the killer, the suggestion that he might be the victim could give pause for thought. Is this going to be a story about how a killer gets past security? That thought would be partly correct, though Hayward will be the one to give them the slip in order to carry out the murder.

The episode has some fun with these expectations, having Columbo turn up at the crime scene convinced that Hayward himself must be dead. So often when we see him looking frazzled in episodes, I feel Falk is playing it as though Columbo is putting on an act so it’s interesting to see him genuinely lost and confused. If anything it makes the contrast with those other moments more pronounced, inviting the viewer to compare them and see the careful thought the character is putting into his attempts to seem careless.

Jackie Cooper plays Hayward and is very credible in the part. He is slick and confident and though I did not find the character particularly likable, I could see him charming and convincing the people around him. There is no attempt made though to have the audience sympathize with him – Nelson Hayward is as cold and ruthless a killer as we have come across so far in the show.

I also appreciate that Nelson’s plan is a pretty neat one. He has planned ahead and done a pretty good job of it, carrying out a murder pretty close to flawlessly and setting himself up with what appears to be an unbreakable alibi. The means by which he sets up the murder is quite cunning and I love that he takes what might be the biggest barrier to his achieving his goal, the police protection, and ends up using it to his advantage. It’s a ballsy sort of killing given how things might have gone wrong but the type I could absolutely believe that a man of his type could commit.

If there is an issue with the setup, it is that I think the motivation to kill is not spelled out quite as clearly as in some other stories. Given how much the man has to lose, it seems crazy to think that Nelson would risk it all, no matter how much he loves the young woman he is having an affair with. I think though this is a case where the real reason may not be directly expressed but can be inferred – this is as much about maintaining his independence and control politically as it is maintaining that affair.

I enjoy the interactions between Cooper and Falk and appreciate that the dynamic here feels a little different than the stories that came immediately before it. Cooper is not as colorful a figure as Pleasance’s Carsini and unlike other killers who aim to befriend the detective, he is rather prickly and aloof from the start. It seems he is confident he has thought everything through and it is only when Columbo starts to ask some difficult questions that he begins to pay much attention to him.

One game I always enjoy playing while watching these episodes is trying to figure out the moment at which Columbo decides that he knows who the killer is. Often it is close to instant with the detective appearing to notice some immediate tell that prompts his interest. In this case however the background to the situation complicates things and there is a sense, at least in his first couple of interactions with Nelson, that he is not yet thinking of him as an adversary. I think it is only when he starts to think through the physical evidence of the crime scene and talking over it with Haywood that he begins to find himself looking at him more closely.

Rather than hinging on just one detail, Columbo’s cat and mouse game with Nelson has a number of steps. My favorite is also the most comedic in which the detective finds himself trying to get some information out of a tailor at a very high-end establishment, in large part because of the very entertaining performance from Vito Scotti. I love too that this isn’t just an exercise in comedy (like an earlier bit with Columbo’s car getting inspected) but that it has a serious implication for the case.

Beyond the two leads, I also ought to draw attention to the performances of the two actresses who play the women in Nelson’s life. Joanne Linville’s portrait of a wife who has long suspected her husband of infidelity and has perhaps taken to drink is compelling and surprisingly subtle. She is always interesting to watch, particularly in those little moments in her performance where she reacts to Nelson, appearing to wonder if she has misjudged him as well as those others where she notices oddities in his behavior.

Tisha Sterling’s Linda gets a little less screen time and is a more credulous figure. Nonetheless, I liked the earnest sincerity she brings to the part and found the few moments where the two women interact to be interesting to watch.

The episode’s conclusion is really entertaining and does a great job of making sure that the viewer is aware of the movements of both men. We know what Nelson is planning and we can see what Columbo is doing, even if we are not entirely sure what he has in mind. It then plays out and resolves quite quickly, delivering a very satisfying moment of deflation as the killer, certain that they have won, suddenly sees that he has been outsmarted.

I should also note that while I sometimes query whether Columbo could make an accusation stick, in this story the evidence that is assembled by the end seems conclusive. This is a story that really demonstrates Columbo’s ability to construct a really tight case and reminds us that he can think through a case too.

That satisfying conclusion brings to an end an episode that I regard as the first classic of the show’s third season. While Cooper is not the one of the flashiest or most colorful villains, I think he fits his part well and, as a cat and mouse detective game, I think this has to rank among the very best I have seen up to this point. It leaves me excited to see what else this season has in store…

The Verdict: An excellent case from setup to conclusion offering a clever scenario and showcasing Columbo’s brilliance at piecing the truth together.

Columbo: Any Old Port in a Storm (TV)

Any Old Port in a Storm title card

Any Old Port in a Storm

Season Three, Episode Two
Preceded by Lovely but Lethal
Followed by Candidate for Crime

Originally broadcast October 7, 1973

Teleplay by Stanley Ralph Ross
Story by Larry Cohen
Directed by Leo Penn

Plot Summary

Adrian Carsini is a wine connoisseur who enjoys impressing other enthusiasts from the Wine Society both with bottles from the vineyard he runs on behalf of his brother and those he collects. He is horrified when his brother tells him that he intends to sell the property to a mass-market winery and instinctively strikes out at his brother. He quickly devises a plan to stage an accident while giving himself a seemingly unbreakable alibi. Unfortunately he didn’t count on Lt. Columbo being assigned the case…

Familiar Faces

Donald Pleasance (shown to the left) had a lengthy and varied career on stage and screen, both big and small. His quiet, offbeat and sometimes understated performing style helped made him a memorable villain. He is perhaps best known for his performance as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice and as Loomis in the earliest Halloween movies. Though prolific, he is not an actor I particularly associate with the mystery genre but he did apparently appear in an episode of Mrs. Columbo which I will, no doubt, get to in time…

Julie Harris was a five-time Tony Award-winner and also won an Emmy, a Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar. She was best known for her stage work but she had starred opposite James Dean in East of Eden and had starred in the horror film, The Haunting, which adapted Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

Peter Falk and Donald Pleasance

My Thoughts

Every episode of Columbo ultimately lives and dies based on the quality of its killer. Good plots have been derailed by a performance that misses the mark while sometimes a poorer story can get a lift by strong casting.

Adrian Carsini is not a particularly extraordinary character as written. He is a snob but then most Columbo killers (at least in the episodes I’ve seen) would seem to fit that label. His backstory of resenting his brother who is going to take his pride and joy to pay for yet another marriage is certainly understandable but it’s also pretty rushed, being covered in just a couple of scenes early in the episode. Yet in spite of being a pretty run-of-the-mill villain on the page, Carsini as realized on screen is anything but. The reason is Donald Pleasance.

Pleasance is a perfect fit for many aspects of Carsini’s personality. His performance suggests he is frequently forcing himself to restrain his temper and sense of control. Clearly there are points in this story where he fails to do that and, when he does, the shift of temper feels as credible as it is sudden. Composure is quickly reasserted and he once again exudes an easy sort of charm.

It is an unpredictable performance, sometimes playing slightly off the material and taking it in unexpected directions. This makes him the perfect foil for Peter Falk’s Columbo whose own approach can be similarly playful and when the two share the screen they spark wonderfully off one another. Their relationship isn’t as directly antagonistic as some others but rather focuses on how Columbo has unsettled his quarry – most memorably in the episode’s excellent dinner sequence.

The murder sequence itself offers little visual or even dramatic interest as it seems to happen so quickly and, as with the previous episode, boils down to a sudden bludgeoning. What interests me, though it is underplayed, is that while Carsini injures his brother badly he is not instantly dead. He chooses instead to set his brother up to not be found for several days and die. What added interest for me was that Carsini, being in the middle of entertaining several guests, immediately resumes his activities and goes back to the gathering. That coldness and quick-thinking sets him a little apart from some of the other killers that Columbo has matched his wits with.

Carsini’s plan is to create confusion by giving himself what seems to be an unbreakable alibi both by his behavior with his wine society friends and later by taking a trip out of state to attend an auction. The challenge for the viewer is to figure out exactly what Carsini has done to disguise the time of death and spot how Columbo might be able to break it.

The best Columbo resolutions work as a moment of sudden deflation as a killer, full of confidence, suddenly realizes that they have given the whole game away. This episode contains a superb example of that as it is perfectly constructed to feed into and play off the background and personality of the killer. It makes for a splendid moment as Carsini seems to not be taking in the significance of what had just happened, his reaction being slightly delayed. As gotcha moments go, this is one of the most entertaining.

Were I quibbling, I might suggest that making Carsini’s confession stand up later in court could be tricky – it would certainly have bothered me in other stories. Here though I think it makes sense given what we know of Carsini’s character and it does lead to one of the most enjoyable scenes in the whole episode.

Looking beyond Pleasance and Falk, the rest of the episode is quite competently realized. Julie Harris is very good as Carsini’s secretary but the other cast members struck me as fairly unmemorable. There are no bad performances but nor are there any that really stood out to me.

Thankfully though that doesn’t matter as the central game of wits is so entertaining that it drew and held my attention throughout. Whenever I come to do my ranking of Columbo killers (which will either be when I reach the end of the original run or the series overall including the later specials), I feel pretty confident that Pleasance’s Carsini will be somewhere near the top. This will not reflect so much on the character as written but rather the quality of the performance which really serves to elevate the material taking this from a pretty standard premise to being one of the more memorable episodes of the series.

My Thoughts

A triumph of good casting, this episode works as well as it does thanks to the wonderful performance from Donald Pleasance and a very clever resolution that perfectly plays into that character’s personality.

Columbo: Lovely but Lethal (TV)

Lovely But Lethal

Season Three, Episode One
Preceded by Double Shock (Season Two)
Followed by Any Old Port in a Storm

Originally broadcast September 23, 1973

Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Story by Myrna Bercovici
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

Plot Summary

Viveca Scott’s cosmetics company Beauty Spot is facing increasing financial difficulties. Keen to turn her company’s fortunes, Scott has pinned a lot of hope on a promising new anti-wrinkle cream after an early, successful trial but when later tests prove disastrous she learns that a young chemist has stolen the formula and is planning to sell it to her greatest rival, David Lang.

She calls on Karl Lessing, that young chemist, at his home but when he refuses to sell the formula to her at any price and taunts her, she grabs a nearby microscope and strikes him on the head, killing him instantly. Unfortunately for Viveca, Columbo is assigned to the case…

film screenshot (Allied Artists), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Familiar Faces

Vera Miles is probably best known for her performance as Lila in Hitchcock’s Psycho. Other genre credits include three episodes of Murder She Wrote, the Hitchcock docudrama The Wrong Man, Cannon and Ellery Queen.

Vincent Price (shown to the left) was one of the most famous faces – and voices – in Hollywood during the mid-twentieth century. He is most associated with the horror genre and for collaborating with director Roger Corman on his Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. This blogger however best remembers him for playing Professor Ratigan in The Great Mouse Detective.

Already a familiar figure from television, a month after this episode aired Martin Sheen could be seen in Terrence Malick’s Neo-noir film Badlands. Towards the end of the decade he would star in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The role I first knew him from however was President Bartlet on political drama The West Wing.

My Thoughts

It has taken me far longer than I had intended to get back to writing about Columbo. I had actually watched this episode last year when I was in the middle of my Jonathan Creek project, working under the assumption that I would be alternating seasons of the shows. In the end though I got caught up in the idea that the finish line on that project was in sight and so I never wrote anything about the episodes I watched. Fortunately I was more than happy to rewatch Lovely but Lethal.

My enjoyment of this episode begins with its cast which is wonderful. Columbo episodes often feature familiar faces – in fact one of the biggest challenges with these posts is narrowing down who I want to highlight – but this episode features some favorites.

Vera Miles, wonderful in Hitchcock’s Psycho, is quite compelling as the ruthless beauty queen who is quite content to use everyone around her to get what she wants. Unlike some Columbo killers, she does not act with premeditation but in a moment of fury. It’s a sloppy crime – perhaps not the most intricate puzzle that Detective Columbo will ever have to unpick – and her relationship with him is more battle of wills than battle of wits. Still, the exchanges between them are quite entertainingly sharp and I really enjoy how much he obviously tests her patience. To me, this is one of those cases where the character is elevated through the performance.

Martin Sheen has a much smaller part as the victim, but he is equally entertaining and injects lots of energy and bile into just a handful of scenes. The moment right before his character is murdered in which they mock Viveca is so sharp and unpleasant that you can understand that surge of anger she feels in that moment. In terms of the victims in this show, he is one of the most memorable I have encountered to date.

If you’ve looked at the images I’ve illustrated this post with though I suspect you’ll know which member of the cast I enjoy most of all. Vincent Price is an actor I always enjoy watching but he’s absolutely perfect for the part of the rather smug and sneering rival businessman. His character’s cutting remarks to Viveca can be pretty entertaining and the performances of Price and Miles do a good job of convincing that this is a long-standing rivalry. My only regret here is that he isn’t on screen for longer or more central to the story as he is great fun.

The episode does a good job of setting up its points of conflict in its opening few minutes, quickly pushing forward to the murder scene. That moment, while it works for me in terms of the performances leading up to it, struck me as a little underwhelming visually. Part of that is the choreography and the camera placement as we look at a wide view of the room. This not only seemed to rob that moment of its immediacy, it also emphasizes that the murder involves less physical force than you might think would be needed, no matter how heavy the object. Even with a rare dribble of blood, I am a little unconvinced…

The investigation is the meat of the episode however and I love what this does with the cat and mouse game between killer and detective. While there is nothing particularly revolutionary or even special about those elements, I love that this story handles it with a light touch and has some fun with both characters. The script seems to find a great amount of fun in putting Columbo in an environment he is somewhat uncomfortable in, culminating quite memorably with the opening of a door to comedic effect.

I described the initial crime itself as being rather simple which the episode does attempt to address with a development that occurs later in the episode. This is a smart choice not only because it clarifies the ill-intent of the killer making us all the more pleased to see them captured but because it also adds to a sense that pressure is building around them fast.

Which brings me to the matter of how Columbo will reach his conclusion. Sadly I feel the episode underwhelms a little on that point, not only because it seems rushed but because the explanation for how they are caught seems a little unlikely both to occur but also to lead to any kind of a conviction. I have, of course, leveled that complaint against episodes before but here I feel it is all the more frustrating because a defense feels so obvious.

Still, while I am a little underwhelmed by the conclusion, I still enjoy this episode. The beauty empire setting, coupled with a few strong guest appearances and a very effective performance from Falk, make for an entertaining mix and left me with plenty to enjoy. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend this to a newcomer as the show to sell them on Columbo, I think it has some points of charm for those keen to explore more.

The Verdict:

Lovely but Lethal may not be the most thrilling episode of Columbo but it is often quite entertaining.

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.