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.

Columbo: Greenhouse Jungle (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast October 15, 1972

Season Two, Episode Two
Preceded by Étude in Black
Followed by The Most Crucial Game

Written by Jonathan Latimer
Directed by Boris Segal

Key Guest Cast

Ray Milland won Best Actor for 1945’s The Lost Weekend. Thriller fans may be most familiar with him from Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder.

Trekkies might recognize Arlene Martel and Sandra Smith from episodes of Star Trek. Martel had a particularly memorable role as T’Pring, Spock’s fiancée in the story Amok Time.

The Verdict

Certainly entertaining, even if it is close to impossible to imagine Jarvis’ actually being convicted on the limited evidence Columbo finds.


My Thoughts

Spendthrift playboy Tony Goodman lives off payments from a trust fund but is unable to touch the capital. Frustrated and hoping to use the money to pay his wife’s young lover to skip town, he concocts a plan with his Uncle Jarvis to fake a kidnapping and use his trust fund to pay his own ransom.

The first act of this episode is unusual in that Columbo is on the case prior to an actual crime being committed. Tony’s car has been found in a ditch with signs of a gun having been fired at it leaving a bullet embedded in the driver’s seat. We will be almost halfway into the episode before Columbo begins to investigate a murder.

There are shades of Ransom for a Dead Man here but I think there are more problems with the concept here. Essentially the viewer has to believe that Tony is an absolute idiot. Now, this has been established pretty well by things his wife and uncle have told us but even then it is hard to believe that someone could be so naive and trusting as he is here. Jarvis exudes contempt for him and clearly has no sense of duty so why does Tony trust him so easily?

What’s more I think the idea that they are colluding raises awkward questions about just how that came about. Clearly this plan is Jarvis’ idea in the details and yet the situation that brings it about seems more Tony’s doing. Jarvis doesn’t seem pressed for cash, even if collecting orchids is an expensive hobby as Columbo points out, so he is putting himself at a lot of risk – particularly as he clearly has no faith in his nephew’s abilities.

Let’s talk a little about Jarvis because he’s a character that I have somewhat mixed feelings about. Like Eddie Albert in Dead Weight, Jarvis is often quite entertaining – particularly as he gives out some stinging remarks (Columbophile actually dubs him “the king of Columbo put-downs”). However the difference between the characters is that he doesn’t have a second level or personality to contrast that with, making the character feel a little one-note.

While Tony may be an idiot, Jarvis’ plan is relatively sound but the flaws are in his delivery. He makes a conscious choice to engage with the police prior to the murder taking place which exposes him and leads to Columbo being on his tail right from the start. He does a good job of staying calm under pressure but does enough to let Columbo know that he is on the right track – particularly based on his conduct immediately after the money drop.

I alluded to how Jarvis really has no clear motive for the crime and I think that represents a problem. Is it a disgust at Tony’s weakness or his feelings for his wife, anger at being passed over or some cash flow issues that aren’t obvious? We lack an understanding of why he would do this which I think the character probably needed to give Ray Milland’s performance a little more focus. For what it’s worth, my best guess is that he simply hates Tony but if I am left searching for a motive at the end of a story then it really hasn’t been communicated well enough.

Happily even if the foundations of the case are a little weak, the episode is frequently very entertaining. There probably aren’t enough scenes where Milland and Falk play directly opposite each other but what we get is fun. Columbo has the measure of him from pretty much the start and while it isn’t spelled out why at first, I think the reasons he has to feel suspicious make a lot of sense.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this episode for me was that Columbo is assigned a young officer to assist him. This officer, Sergeant Wilson, is extremely enthusiastic about the latest methods and technologies which produces a fun, indirect competition between the pair as Wilson seeks to show off those new methods.

While Jarvis ought to be the focus of this story, I think it is this rivalry with Wilson is the aspect of the story I enjoyed most. I found myself wishing that the character would have come back for further stories as I think that tension helps to really bring Columbo’s own approach into focus.

I love that Columbo isn’t openly antagonistic but rather gives Wilson space to demonstrate and use those ideas, confident that his tried and tested techniques will get him results. I also appreciate that Wilson isn’t presented as an idiot but a thorough and diligent officer. For an example of that, look at the way he handles the search for a firearm late in the story. His only disadvantage is that he lacks the sense of people gained through experience that Columbo has and takes them largely on face value.

Judged purely on the merits of the case, I think this falls short. The situation seems too contrived – I simply could not imagine how the plan comes about and Jarvis’ lack of a clear motive feels messy. It is the business around the case – the discussion of orchid care, the tension with Wilson and the bizarre detail that Trust Fund Tony gives all the women in his life signed headshots of himself as gifts – that make this story entertaining.

Columbo: Étude in Black (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast September 17, 1972

Preceded by Blueprint for Murder
Followed by The Greenhouse Jungle

Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Steven Bochco

Key Guest Cast

The obvious person to highlight is John Cassavetes who plays our murderer. He was not only a prominent actor but also a screenwriter and director. He had directed and performed in Faces with Peter Falk just a couple of years before making this episode.

Myrna Loy plays his mother-in-law. Loy had been a star in the 1930s and may be most familiar to mystery fans for her portrayals of Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies.

Also, keep an eye open for Pat Morita (Happy Days and The Karate Kid) in a small part credited as house boy and future Lt. Brock (in the 80s and 90s Perry Mason TV films) James McEachin.

The Verdict

This feels noticeably slower than the episodes around it – reflecting its expanded running time. Though I enjoy the Falk and Cassavetes interplay, it is far too clear how Columbo will triumph.


My Thoughts

And… we’re off.

Welcome back for a second run of Columbo episode discussions. Expect weekly posts each Saturday for about the next two months. Do feel free to play along – I love to read what others make of these stories!

Étude in Black introduces us to Alex Benedict – the conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. We follow his movements as he prepares for a big, televised concert and also to commit a murder, though the victim is only revealed right before that murder takes place. A murder which intends to mask as a suicide.

The problem is that Columbo who has been assigned to the case cannot square the idea of suicide with the woman he sees in her photo albums. Now, I have some issue with the idea that people who appear happy externally would never commit suicide and I think Columbo’s assessment of her feels pretty superficial – the phrase “bedroom eyes” crops up for instance. It does however prompt a rather wonderful Peter Falk speech that I think is a great expression of his character’s outlook and values.

John Cassavetes, a friend of Falk, plays Alex Benedict as somewhat aloof and pompous. While many of the earliest Columbo villains seemed to find some point in common with the detective and even enjoy the game, Benedict is irritable and frustrated. Think of him as more Ross Martin (Suitable for Framing) than Jack Cassidy (Murder by the Book). He is the sort of killer you really want to see brought to justice!

I enjoyed the pairing of the two actors though and, in particular, the way Columbo manages to get so far under his skin. This is often a favorite part of an episode for me but this episode gives us several great moments along those lines. Perhaps my favorite of those is a moment in which we see Columbo playing the piano badly, just to grab his attention, although his interactions with Benedict’s car are pretty fun too.

I also really enjoyed this story’s sense of scale. This episode seemed to have more locations than most including the famous Hollywood Bowl and the gorgeous house used for the Benedicts’ home. You definitely get a feel for the sort of lifestyle Benedict is enjoying, helping us to understand the character even better.

There is even a secondary plot strand of sorts with a peripheral character being dragged into the case. This only happens in one or two of the stories from the first season so it made for a welcome change to the usual story structure, even though it doesn’t last for long. Once again though, this is a useful reminder that while Columbo tends to focus in on the killer from the start, he will be looking at other leads “off screen”.

Finally this episode introduces us to Columbo’s faithful hound and there is a fun subplot in which he tries to work out what he will call the dog. Unfortunately that didn’t end in quite the punch I had hoped for but it is a nice bit of business and leads to a couple of funny lines.

Having mentioned several of the episode’s most successful elements, I do need to take a minute to acknowledge a few of its weaknesses. These begin with the pacing of the story which feels much slower than any of the Columbo episodes that precede it.

The issues with pacing arise out of the expanded running time of the episode as this works out about fifteen minutes longer than the standard running time. Unfortunately this expansion does not seem to have been a reflection of the complexities of the plot but rather the episode was expanded to fill a timeslot. There is plenty of padding – some of it enjoyable, some dull – but the investigation seemed to drag for me as a result.

One of the reasons for that is that the answer to how Columbo will catch the killer strikes me as really very clear from the moment the murder is committed. If you happened to miss the clear visual indicator of that or an earlier verbal clue, the director – Nicholas Colasanto who is best known as Coach from the earliest seasons of Cheers – highlights the pertinent clue all over again in a later sequence, spoiling any sense of mystery in the plot. It is really clunky and criminally undercuts one of the episode’s most entertaining moments in which another promising clue fails to come to fruition.

I have to say that the direction in general struck me as pretty underwhelming given the fantastic locations they had to work with. Shots are routinely long and a little shaky and every development seems to be telegraphed to the viewer. Even a sequence that mimics one of the most memorable from an earlier episode disappoints, not only because it feels somewhat derivative but because it feels so limiting, signalling so clearly where this story is headed.

Which brings us back to the end. In one sense I don’t think the end is all that bad. Certainly it is pleasingly visual and gives me exactly what I want with this type of killer – a moment where we see their inflated ego pop. Had it not been so clearly flagged over and over again it might even have made for a fun surprise.

There is little tension in that scene because there is no question of what will happen, what Columbo will point out or how Benedict will respond. Instead of making Columbo look really smart, I think it makes him look somewhat hapless – particularly when he tells us that the existence of a piece of evidence had never occurred to him (made all the worst by the bizarre and rather forced circumstances given for bringing it to his attention).

I have to say that of the various Columbo stories I have watched so far this is easily the most frustrating. There is a good idea here and had this been trimmed to be about twenty minutes shorter it could have been easily one of the strongest stories, even with some heavy-handed hints. Instead it just dragged for me, leaving me feeling all too ready for those end titles.

Columbo: Blueprint for Murder (TV)

It is about two months since I launched this weekly feature in which I look in depth at episodes of Columbo. Well, this post concludes the first season and so I plan on taking a short break from the good lieutenant’s adventures. I do plan on resuming after Summer with a look at the eight episodes from Season Two.

Oh, – just, one more thing… Tune in next weekend for a look at something quite different.


Episode Details

First broadcast on February 9, 1972

Season One, Episode Seven
Preceded by Short Fuse
Followed by Étude in Black (Season Two)

Story by William Kelley
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Directed by Peter Falk

Key Guest Cast

Forrest Tucker appeared in multiple movies and television shows but would have been best known to viewers at the time for his role in F Troop.

The Verdict

A solid, if unexciting, finale to the first season. The idea behind the hiding place for the body is clever though.


My Thoughts

Elliot Markham is a shady property developer who has a plan to develop an enormous and very lucrative construction project. He is going to call it Williamson City after Bo Williamson, the Texan millionaire who will be funding it. The problem is that the arrangements have been made in his absence by his impressionable young wife and when Williamson arrives back in the United States he is furious about the deal, driving to the construction site to confront Markham.

Williamson tells Markham that he will not pay for the construction despite his protests that it is already too far advanced to stop. Set to lose a fortune and see his big project collapse Markham plots to murder Williamson and then hide the body to ensure that construction go ahead. Unfortunately for him, Williamson’s ex-wife contacts the Police to alert them to his disappearance and they send Lt. Columbo to investigate.

I have been really struck by the sheer variety of cases on offer in this first season of Columbo and Blueprint for Murder similarly presents us with a fresh variation on the murder mystery. In this case we have a murder without a corpse. Now, we have seen something along these lines in Dead Weight as Columbo begins that case before a body has surfaced but even there we had a witness to a crime, even if their account appeared hazy and didn’t give him much to go on. Here he has even less to go on.

That is not to say that there aren’t signs that things are wrong. In fact, one of the problems I have with this case is that some loose ends are left bafflingly open by our killer. Take for instance the various employees who witnessed the fight – all of whom quite willingly share those stories with Columbo. He may not be able to prove murder but he can certainly show that Markham isn’t telling the truth about how that confrontation ended, even if some of that information is very easily come by.

Still, I do appreciate that it is once again a little detail about the one piece of physical evidence he has – the abandoned car – that sets Columbo on the track to finding out that something is wrong. The observation that gets made proves absolutely nothing and yet seems so suggestive, particularly in the context of those things Columbo learns and observes at Markham’s office and the construction site.

Patrick O’Neal plays Markham as steely cool while showing an dismissive, elitist mindset. For instance, during the argument with Williamson he refers to him as a philistine for not wanting to invest in his project. Pretty standard for your Columbo villain but here it is used to contrast not only with the detective’s personality but also plays an important role in the plot.

I cannot say that I found the performance to be particularly memorable however. He gets no great witticism or moment where he might try to dominate Columbo, nor does he have a particularly interesting personality. While I may not have loved McDowall’s character in the previous story, he was at least entertaining. O’Neal is perfectly fine – just bland in a story that already felt a little lacking in personality.

Perhaps the one aspect of this episode that does feel bold is the characterization of Bo Williamson, portrayed by veteran actor Forrest Tucker. I think it would be fair to call this a performance as large as his almost comically wide hat and it certainly is not particularly subtle. I would also say that it provides us with another instance of May-December relationship in Columbo although perhaps the answer to what attracted Jennifer to multi-millionaire Bo Williamson is a little easier to answer than some others.

I would also add that while it is only a small part, Janis Paige does a good job portraying Goldie – Bo’s first wife. Her most memorable moment comes when Columbo first interviews her, finding her in a state of undress which predictably flusters him.

Perhaps the final thing to reflect on is that this story was directed by star Peter Falk. I will say that I am always curious when I see an actor step behind the camera to see how they handle that job. If I were to summarize his effort here, I would call it solid and workmanlike.

The sound design on the sequence in which we see the murder happen and the coverup orchestrated is perhaps the most impressive part of the episode. In terms of the camera, shots are relatively simple but tell the story effectively enough, making it easy to follow the action.

Falk’s focus falls more on the performers, leaving the camera on them to give them the time and space to act without any flashy camera tricks or establishing shots. I do think though that this feels more like an episode of television than any of the preceding episodes, each of which felt more like films – albeit ones created on a restricted budget.

Like every other aspect of this episode, it is solid enough to do the job but lacks anything truly special to make it stand out. It is not the worst episode of this first season of Columbo but where those sometimes failed in colorful ways, this story’s blandness makes it one I can’t imagine revisiting any time soon.

Columbo: Short Fuse (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast on January 19, 1972

Season One, Episode Six
Preceded by Lady in Waiting
Followed by Blueprint for Murder

Story by Lester Pine, Tina Pine & Jackson Gillis
Teleplay by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Edward M. Abroms

Key Guest Cast

Roddy McDowall had a long list of movie credits already by this point including as Octavian in Cleopatra and had recently had a career-defining role in the Planet of the Apes movies.

Ida Lupino would be a familiar face to many viewers and had also found success as a director, becoming the first woman to direct a film noir with 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker.

The Verdict

This episode has a magnificent ending but much of what precedes that is messy and frankly rather dull.


My Thoughts

Roger Stanford is the playboy son of the founders of a chemicals company with multiple advanced degrees and a talent for chemistry and engineering. After his parents die in an explosion his uncle takes over the firm and starts preparing to sell the business to a conglomerate. When Roger tries to stoke up opposition to the sale among the workers, the uncle pressures him to resign from the company. Instead Roger plots to kill him and take over the company for himself. This involves him using his chemical and engineering skills to create a bomb in a cigars case that will detonate once it is opened.

Previously episodes have shown us murderers who exhibit some signs of instability but usually that begins to become apparent after the murder as Columbo puts them under strain. A good example would be in the previous story, Lady in Waiting, where we see the killer start to relive and imagine things right as Columbo prepares to arrest her. Here however it is clear that Roddy McDowall’s Roger is clearly unstable from the moment he first appears on screen and the results are, quite frankly, not great.

The issue is that we have a performance that lacks nuance or subtlety. As he begins in a heightened and also visibly eccentric state, not only in terms of his performance but also his styling (the peasant blouse shown above is just one of his many costumes, accompanied by some of the tightest trousers you will ever see), he has nowhere to go with his performance once the deed is complete. This not only results in a rather one-note characterization, it also is pretty unbelievable – would anyone really trust Roger to run anything or view him as a desirable romantic partner?

There is one possible reading of the character that I think could have added some interest and made him into a more compelling villain and it is alluded to in the script. You could argue that he is a cold and calculating mind that is playing the fool specifically to lead others to discount him. That would not only be a justification for his success and ability to plan so well, it would also make for an interesting character comparison with Columbo himself who does that all the time.

The problem is that McDowell never really shows us that until the final scenes of the episode as even when he is alone he still exhibits many of those same eccentric behaviors. As such it is hard to see why anyone would trust him with much of anything. What’s more he actively draws attentions to his connections to the supposed mystery group agitating to stop the sale with antics like the silly string stunt we see at the start of the episode.

His plan to do away with his uncle has at least a few clever points. For one thing, it genuinely appears to be an accident meaning that this is once again a case where Columbo is going out of a limb even suggesting that a crime has taken place at all. This is often where I think Falk connects most meaningfully with the character, conveying his character’s stubborn refusal to let go of the small details of a case that bother him.

Unfortunately I do not think that this approach works as well here as it does in other stories. Part of the reason for this is that there simply does not seem to be much movement in terms of the plot – from the start of the story until very close to the end the official assumption is still that the death was an accident and Columbo gets little evidence or material to go on other than Stanford’s rather suspect behavior. The result is that the middle, investigative phase of the story feels slow-paced with little happening until quite late in the episode.

Mostly we spend this phase of the story following Peter around as he tries to forge and plant evidence pointing to other people’s involvement or to try to distance himself from the crime. Some of the ideas used can be quite clever, not least the manipulation of his uncle’s secretary Miss Bishop, but one issue with all of this activity is he comes dangerously close to being caught quite frequently.

On the topic of his manipulation of Miss Bishop, while I am not convinced of Peter’s appeal as a romantic partner (assuming they don’t have a fetish for silly string), I thought it was at least interesting. One aspect of that relationship is surprisingly brazen for 70s television and I think it was used quite cleverly, advancing the story a little in an unexpected way. Of course later episodes go further along those lines.

Things do however pick up a lot in the final few minutes of the episode. Its best moment is an absolutely gripping cable car journey in which Columbo manipulates his suspect into providing evidence for his case. It is very well done – possibly the best individual scene in the whole first season – and quite necessary here because there would not have been much definitive evidence for their case otherwise.

It is a shame then that it caps off an otherwise pretty dull story. The best I can say about it is that the moments of eccentricity do at least elicit unintended laughter where Ransom for a Dead Man wasn’t even lively or comedic. It’s watchable. Just…

Columbo: Lady in Waiting (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast December 15, 1971

Preceded by Suitable for Framing
Followed by Short Fuse

Story by Barney Slater
Teleplay by Steven Bochco
Directed by Norman Lloyd

Key Guest Cast

Jessie Royce, appearing here in her final television role as the killer’s mother, had worked several times with Hitchcock on To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest.

Richard Anderson, the victim in this story, would have been best known to crime fans for his role as Lt. Drumm in the final season of Perry Mason.

Probably the most recognizable member of the cast to current audiences would be Leslie Nielsen although this was still a decade before he would become a household name with Airplane.

The Verdict

A very enjoyable case with some excellent detection work and a memorable killer.


My Thoughts

Beth Chadwick’s life has been controlled by her autocratic brother Bryce since her parents died and he took over the family business. When he tells her that he has given an ultimatum to one of his employees to stop seeing her or be fired, Beth sets in motion a plan to murder her brother and make it look like an accidental killing.

Perhaps the best place to start is with the character of Beth Chadwick who is played brilliantly by Susan Clark. This is a character who undergoes an almost total metamorphosis during the episode, turning from what imdb dubs a “mousy heiress” into a confident, brash business woman. While the practical details of that transformation may be a little hazy (particularly in relation to the leadership of the corporation), Clark sells the change in attitude perfectly showing us a liberated woman in the very real sense of those words.

Not only is this reinvention brilliantly represented in Clark’s performance, it is given a vibrant visualization through the costuming and styling. While I am no great fan of 70s style, Beth’s new looks and other symbols of her new life show as much of an outward reimagining as an internal one. As Columbo puts it, she looks like a ‘new woman’.

One of the tragedies lying beneath the surface of this case is that Beth is arguably a victim. Her brother is controlling rather than just protective and we see in the course of this episode that his assumptions, both about her capabilities and the character of her lover, are unfounded. Had she been trusted and given more freedom she obviously had the capacity to play a role in the business and might have found happiness with her boyfriend Peter.

That boyfriend is played by Leslie Nielsen in his first of two Columbo appearances. It is a solid, if unexciting, performance but what strikes me is that for the third episode in a row we have a romance shown with a pretty significant age gap (made more striking by how he always looked older than he actually was). Now neither this or the previous episode quite match up to the Eddie Albert and Suzanne Pleshette age gap but these episodes do have me wondering if this was a TV thing to pair young, up-and-coming actresses with older character actors or if this is a case of social attitudes changing. Anyway…

Beth’s plan to murder her brother is pretty clever and it is presented to us in a rather unusual way. First we are shown the events as she had imagined them taking place, helping us to understand what she intended to happen, but then we jump back and watch how things actually happened.

The benefit to this approach is that we get to not only appreciate the strengths of the original plan, we also see what parts diverged and present possible risks to her. The previous episodes had either shown killers planning carefully or working to cover up a murder – this case combines both styles and I think it is all the more interesting for that choice.

Perhaps the aspect of this story that I appreciate most is that we see Columbo do some real, details-driven detective work here. From the moment he steps into the crime scene he is noticing the things that seem out of place and using them to undermine Beth’s story.

There is still plenty of psychology involved – he still says and does things to unsettle his suspect – but the difference is that he proves his case without the need to pull off a trick. It is clever and absolutely fair to the viewer – they have everything they need to show how it will be solved from the start – making for a really strong case for those who wish to play armchair detective.

Columbo: Suitable for Framing (TV)

Story Details

Originally broadcast November 17, 1971

Season One, Episode Three
Preceded by Dead Weight
Followed by Lady in Waiting

Written by Jackson Gillis
Directed by Hy Averback

Key Guest Cast

Typically it is easy to pick one or two cast members to highlight but the entire cast here is distinguished. Three of the most familiar faces for modern viewers play smaller roles here.

Kim Hunter plays the victim’s ex-wife. She is best known for her role as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Don Ameche, a popular film actor of the 30s and 40s, had played a number of leading male roles. Here he plays the deceased’s lawyer in a couple of scenes.

Finally Mary Wickes plays a tiny role of a landlady here but I will always remember her from roles in so many films of the 40s and 50s. Chief among those is her performance as the gossipy Emma Allen in White Christmas.

The Verdict

Superb from start to finish with a fantastic cast of familiar faces and a truly memorable conclusion.


My Thoughts

Art critic Dale Kingston murders his art collecting uncle with the help of an aspiring artist, constructing a tight alibi for himself when he is seen attending an art exhibit.

Were this mystery told in the conventional whodunnit way we would look at Suitable for Framing as an unbreakable alibi story. By reversing it and telling it from the criminal’s perspective however it takes on several additional dimensions, opening up other questions for the viewer to ponder.

The first question the viewer will be struck by is that of Kingston’s motivations. The episode begins moments before the murder takes place and we are not told what their aim is or why they make some seemingly odd choices in carrying out their crime. It takes a long time before the motive behind his actions and what he has in mind become clear. In other words, this is as much as whydunnit as a howcatchem and it does both exceptionally well.

Gillis’ story moves quickly and takes several unexpected turns that I obviously do not wish to spoil for you. What I can say is that I feel that the ultimate destination is really clever and that the way Columbo unpicks the case and catches Kingston is particularly ingenious.

As villains go, Ross Martin’s performance as Kingston is absolutely superb. Not only is his plan very cleverly worked out, I think he embodies the things you look for in a Columbo villain. He is arrogant and smarmy, looking down on everyone involved in the case with a sense of intellectual superiority.

One interesting contrast between Kingston and the previous two killers on the show is that while there is a good case to be made that had Brimmer and Hollister simply waited they would have been fine. It was their action that really pushes Columbo in their direction. Here, it is clear that Kingston needs to act which makes sense of some of the character’s choices, particularly later in the story. As a consequence I feel that Columbo’s successes are earned more here whereas in the previous episodes I feel he sometimes is lucky that the killers choose to do things that draw attention to themselves.

As I note at the top of this post, the casting here is superb and there is quality at every level of this production. It is one of the largest casts in one of these so far and there are several very familiar faces – even to a viewer half a century after it was made. That quality pays off with each part feeling quite distinctive and substantial, even for those cast members who get only a few minutes of screentime such as the fabulous Mary Wickes.

I consider this to be a triumph in every respect and as I work through these episodes in order, perhaps the best one yet. It is a really clever plot, brilliantly directed and performed.

Columbo: Dead Weight (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast October 27, 1971.

Preceded by Death Lends a Hand
Followed by Suitable for Framing

Written by John T. Dugan
Directed by Jack Smight

Key Guest Cast

Eddie Albert was a well known actor who had been nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Roman Holiday several decades earlier (and would be again for The Heartbreak Kid two years later). He was best known at the time for his lead role in the sitcom Green Acres opposite Eva Gabor.

Suzanne Pleshette had played a supporting role in Hitchcock’s The Birds but would achieve even greater success a year after this episode when she was cast as Bob’s wife in The Bob Newhart Show which ran for six seasons and earned her two Emmy nominations.

The Verdict

An entertaining story that like the previous episode features an unplanned crime.


My Thoughts

Major General Martin Hollister was a Korean war hero who started a construction company after retiring. With the help of Colonel Dutton he secured several military contracts at knockdown prices, then embezzled the overspends. Dutton comes to see him to say that those transactions are now being investigated and that he plans to flee the country. Unwilling to trust in Dutton’s silence, Hollister shoots him and plans to dispose of the body.

Unfortunately for Hollister the shooting was partially seen by Helen Stewart who was sailing on the river at the time and she reports it. Columbo is dispatched to visit the property to see if he can find signs of a shooting or the body.

Like the previous story, Dead Weight features an unplanned crime. Hollister acts in the spur of the moment and is forced to create a plan on the spur of the moment to avoid detection. While I feel the lack of pre-planning created a pretty bland case in that story, the involvement of a witness here and Hollister’s background and strong personality make for a much more interesting scenario.

This story is the first Columbo case to feature a witness and I think it works well here. Not only is the character played brilliantly by Suzanne Pleshette, the inclusion of a witness in the case adds a fresh angle for the killer to address and adds a level of tension and uncertainty as we wonder what might happen to her.

Pleshette’s character, a divorcee who is living with her mother (played by the highly entertaining Kate Reid), is an entertaining and sympathetic one. Her actions are often in response to the nagging and interference from her mother, who firmly believes her daughter made up the shooting, but I also appreciate that she stands up to Columbo and points out the inconsistencies in his treatment of her.

I am less keen on one aspect of how her story develops, in part because I could not believe she would respond to direct interactions with Hollister in the manner shown, no matter how charming the character might be. I do recognize though what this development allows the plot to do and I appreciate the way it contributes to the tension of the piece, even if I don’t find it credible.

As for Hollister, he is a superb creation who combines many of the best attributes of the villains we have seen in the preceding episodes. He is clearly smart and organized, possesses great charm and feels he can handle Columbo’s questions (while being aware of the danger he is in). Like Brimmer in the previous story, you could make a case that he is responsible for building the case against himself but the difference is that there is a much clearer reason for Columbo to suspect him.

There are some great moments and exchanges between Albert and Falk including some particularly enjoyable ones that take place on Hollister’s boat. These are not just beautifully shot, conveying an enormous amount of speed and power (clearly designed to disconcert and throw Columbo off his game), they also prompt some wonderful sparring sessions and mind games between the pair.

While I think it is safe to say that there are a couple of far-fetched plot developments here, a superb villain and excellent performances from the cast make this an enjoyable episode of the series.