Columbo: Dagger of the Mind (TV)
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
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.
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.
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…
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.