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
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.
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.
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.