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 √Čtude 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.

Columbo: Death Lends A Hand (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast October 6, 1971

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

Written by Richard Levinson & William Link
Directed by Bernard Kowalski

Key Guest Cast

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

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

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Columbo: Murder by the Book (TV)

Episode Details

Originally broadcast September 15, 1971.

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

Written by Steven Bochco

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

Key Guest Cast

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

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

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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