Columbo: Double Shock (TV)
Originally broadcast March 25, 1973
Season Two, Episode Eight
Preceded by The Most Dangerous Match
Followed by Lovely But Lethal (Season Three)
Written by Steven Bochco from a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link
Directed by Robert Butler
Key Guest Cast
Martin Landau, playing dual roles here, had appeared in the first three seasons of Mission: Impossible as a master of disguise. Years earlier he had played his first film role as a criminal type in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest.
Julie Newmar had made a splash in the first two seasons of the Batman TV series playing Catwoman. Here she plays the young woman set to marry the victim and who has the misfortune of finding the body.
Finally Dabney Coleman, playing a detective here and sporting a gloriously seventies moustache, is most memorable for me in his role as the arrogant, sexist boss Franklin Hart, Jr. in 9 to 5.
This episode breaks with the formula by introducing a whodunnit angle. I am not convinced that works but the performances are a lot of fun.
Double Shock opens with the murder of an aging, wealthy man on the eve of his wedding. After a fencing session the man retires to take a long soak in the tub. During that soak he is greeted by his nephew (played by Martin Landau) who comes to present him with a wedding present – an electric mixer. What we know but the victim doesn’t is that this mixer has been tampered with to enable it to deliver a fatal electric shock when thrown into the bathtub.
A short while later the bride-to-be arrives at the house to see the victim and discovers his body, now positioned on a moving exercise machine in his home gym. It appears that he had suffered a heart attack while exercising but when Columbo arrives at the house his thoughts soon turn to homicide…
Double Shock was the final episode of the second season of Columbo but it was more than that. It was the first episode that seemed to significantly diverge from the show’s standard formula to incorporate elements of the most traditional whodunnit format.
Now you may be questioning how this story could possibly be a whodunnit given that we clearly see the murderer perform the fatal act. The reason is that Martin Landau is playing identical twin brothers and so while the victim identifies him as one of the brothers, there is the possibility that the man we see could have been the other. Columbo will only reveal which of the brothers was responsible at the end of the story so the viewer has an opportunity to piece the solution together for themselves.
Let’s start with Landau’s performances because I think the whole piece really relies heavily on them. Landau does a really good job of distinguishing between the two brothers, creating quite distinct personalities for them. Norman is a rather formal, awkward banking type who protests his innocence based on having his own personal wealth. Dexter is a much more relaxed TV chef, irresponsible but rather charming. Even though the brothers may share a face, their posture and manner feels quite different from one another.
We hear how the brothers have not spoken for years and see their mutual disdain for each other come through at frequent points in Columbo’s investigation. Each takes the opportunity to gleefully throw suspicion on the other, revealing their secrets and generally causing trouble. While we have seen other stories where killers have cosied up to Columbo to try and steer his investigation, this does raise the tantalizing possibility that some of what they are saying may actually be true, particularly as they stand to inherit the whole estate if the other gets convicted of murder.
Peter Falk is once again in superb form here, delivering what is probably my favorite of his performances in this second season. One of his best scenes is shared with Landau’s Dexter as he finds himself called on to come and assist with a cooking demonstration on television. This scene is wonderful, feeling very loose and almost improvised in some of the delivery of the lines. This is, of course, a version of the scene in which Columbo gets things slightly wrong to get under the skin of the person he is interacting with but the introduction of a camera and a studio audience proves a really interesting twist and I loved watching Landau to see if there were signs of irritation or frustration showing on his character.
Falk also gets to shine in a series of scenes featuring Jeanette Nolan as the neatnik housekeeper, Mrs. Peck. He initially gets on her bad side when he first arrives at the crime scene, quite understandably based on his behavior. It is the subsequent business involving the television set, which becomes a running gag later in the episode, that really delivers the laughs and I think goes some way to suggest that his clumsiness and buffoonery isn’t all an act. They share a marvellous comedic chemistry together and I do love that in spite of their antagonism, you can see that he is able to appeal to her love of her deceased master and her desire to see his killer brought to justice.
There are a few good twists in the middle of the story, one of which caught me quite off guard and had me wondering just how the killer’s plans might be affected. This in combination with the Lieutenant’s antics with the television set make for a pretty engaging episode that had no difficulty retaining my attention. Which I guess brings me to the crucial question: does the whodunnit work?
I suppose I should start by saying that in one sense it did because I managed to work out the question of who was responsible. While I suspect some would consider my method to be focused more on analysing the story structure rather than any particular piece of evidence, I do think the viewer is given enough information to deduce the key points of the solution. Indeed, if there is a problem with the solution it is that I think that the writing is a little heavy-handed on one point (ROT-13: Nal gvzr lbh ercrngrqyl gryy zr gung crbcyr unira’g gnyxrq va lrnef, V nz tbvat gb fhfcrpg gung V nz orvat znavchyngrq. Abe qbrf vg uryc gung gur zvahgr V frr gjvaf V guvax bs gur cbffvovyvgl bs vqragvgl-fjnccvat).
Given that I expected the conclusion, I cannot really say that I found it to be particularly shocking or amazing. The performances in that scene are excellent though, particularly given Landau is pulling double-duty, and I thought the process by which Columbo shows what happened was worked extremely well. I particularly appreciate that one of the most telling clues is actually allowed to sit in the background for much of that sequence, only being raised to drive home the point Columbo is making.
So, did Columbo miss a trick by not incorporating whodunnit elements more often? I don’t think so. Firstly, this episode rests on the gimmick of having identical twin suspects – clearly not something that could happen every week. Secondly I just don’t think the question of which brother was responsible was all that effective as a whodunnit. While they are distinct personalities, the tension between them is more interesting because they are responsible for it rather than Columbo playing them off against each other. Indeed, while Falk’s performance is really entertaining here he does seem to be playing a more passive role in the investigation than usual.
Still, even if this didn’t work for me as a whodunnit, I still found it to be a highly entertaining hour of television that I consider one of the stronger entries in the show’s second season. As I did when I reached the end of the first season, I plan on taking a few weeks break from the series so expect something quite different next Saturday!