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.

Columbo: Ransom for a Dead Man (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast March 1, 1971.

Preceded by Prescription: Murder
Followed by Murder by the Book

Story by Richard Levinson & William Link
Teleplay by Dean Hargrove

This was a pilot episode for the series which began in September 1971.

Key Guest Cast

Lee Grant had only recently began getting film and television work after spending over a decade blacklisted by the industry during the McCarthy period. She won an Emmy for her work on Peyton Place, a prime-time soap opera, in 1966 and a year prior to this Columbo episode had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for The Landlord.

The Verdict

Kudos to Lee Grant for a very good performance but the flying sequences are long and tedious.


My Thoughts

A lawyer murders her husband and then makes it appear that he has been kidnapped, all with the help of a handy electrical gadget. When the body is found it is assumed that the kidnappers never intended to return him but Columbo pursues a hunch that it was murder rather than kidnap gone wrong…

Okay, so there’s a fair amount to talk about here and unfortunately very little of it is good. To say that Ransom for a Dead Man is a step down from the first movie would be an understatement. Quite a few of its problems stem from the fact that this is a story that has been written with television in mind with a lot of reliance on visuals rather than character conflict and story.

The murder takes place over the opening credits and while this makes for a pretty arresting start to the film I am not fond of the execution. The shooting is shown in an awkward series of jump cuts between stills with a trippy musical score in the background and then there are fades galore with so much lens flaring going on you’d think J. J. Abrams had directed it (the worst of these is when flaring lights are overlaid on the killer’s eyes after she dumps the body into the ocean). It all looks rather cheap and cheesy.

The sequences in which we follow the FBI (and Columbo) as they wait for the kidnappers’ call and respond are quite well done and I did enjoy Lee Grant’s performance as Leslie Williams as she offers to make food for the agents and clearly comes to think that Columbo is a bumbling fool. The trick with the electronic gadget and bag are both quite fun and at this point I was feeling quite engaged. And then she gets in her plane…

This then initiates some long and frankly rather boring sequences in which we watch her and the FBI agents fly their planes around to prepare for the drop. I imagine that the intention was to blow us away with action or possibly build up the tension as we wait to see what Williams has planned and yet these sequences feel static and seem to go on forever. Night filming can sometimes look quite glamorous but the sky is so dark that there is little you can make out (which is kind of the point story-wise but it is tedious to spend so long panning over dark landscapes) and I found myself wishing that we could get a move on with the story.

While I enjoyed Falk and Grant’s interactions prior to the flight, their subsequent interactions felt flat and, once again, surprisingly static. Columbo doesn’t really have to work to find out many of the details – he instantly spots the aforementioned gadget and she even explains exactly how it works to him. The only question is how he will prove it.

Here the film once again presents us with a fluffed ending but whereas I think it could be excused by the situation in Prescription: Murder, it feels like the wrong approach here. For one thing, I am pretty sure that the way Columbo gets to that conclusion would not be admissible in court and for another, Falk isn’t present on screen for most of that sequence so that reveal loses much of its impact.

And that doesn’t even touch on the misogyny in Columbo saying to a junior lawyer at Williams’ firm that he doesn’t know how he could work for a woman. If the character he was talking to was more important to the story I might be able to class that as a piece of manipulation designed but it feels so incidental to the story that I read it as a statement of the character’s own opinions. Eurgh…

As you can probably tell I was pretty unimpressed by this one. Happily it seemed to work for the network executives as the show was picked up and better things would be right around the corner. Join me next weekend to read what I make of Murder by the Book.

Columbo: Prescription Murder (TV)

Given my love of inverted mysteries it was inevitable I would eventually get around to writing about Columbo. It is, after all, easily the most recognized instance of the form and it is my go-to example whenever I am asked to explain what I mean by the term ‘inverted mystery’ or ‘howcatchem’.

For those unfamiliar with the term it refers to a story in which the reader is told the killer’s identity and the questions relate to another aspect of the case such as the motive or identity of the victim. Episodes of Columbo follow that basic format, opening with a short depiction of the murder before switching to homicide detective Columbo’s perspective.

The show provided popular and long-lasting, retaining a strong following to this day. This is my first time watching the series properly (although I am ahead of the episode I am posting about and saw a few isolated episodes for the Star Trek connection as a teen).

Over the next few weekends I plan on writing about the first nine Columbo stories. This will cover the two pilot stories take us to the end of the first season. The next four posts are already written and scheduled so I might even have a good chance of sticking to that schedule!


Episode Details

First broadcast February 20 1968.

Followed by Ransom for a Dead Man.

Written by Richard Levinson and William Link.

Directed by Richard Irving.

Prescription Murder was a television movie based on a hit stage play that was itself based on an earlier television movie (from 1960). It was not intended as a pilot for a series although that would follow several years later.

Key Guest Cast

Gene Barry had become famous through his television work, playing the leads in shows like the western Bat Masterson and the crime drama Burke’s Law. Here he plays the killer, Dr. Fleming.

The Verdict

A pretty gripping piece of television. Columbo is still developing as a character but Falk is absolutely terrific, as is Gene Barry as the killer.


My Thoughts

Dr. Fleming, a psychiatrist married to a rich woman, decides to kill her and stage an alibi with the help of his mistress, an actress who will impersonate her for a short time.

The first twenty five minutes of the episode introduce us to the victim, her killer and his accomplice and follow the action as the plan is conceived and executed. The murder sequence itself is superb and quite unsettling as Dr. Fleming strangles his wife during an embrace, her hand crashing down on the keys of a piano as she falls to the ground.

The sequence also builds tension superbly, giving us lots of moments where the viewer may wonder if the killer has given himself away. It appears however that Dr. Fleming has thought of everything and there are no loose ends at all but Lt. Columbo manages to spot a few loose ends which he doggedly pursues.

Though this pilot was filmed in 1968 it reworks a story that had been a television movie in 1960 and later a stage play. As a result of this long gestation process the story feels really quite polished and tight. This production makes the most of the scale of the production, giving us a lavish penthouse, psychiatrist’s office and the set of a Roman historical movie, but the core of the piece are the confrontations between Gene Barry (as Fleming) and Peter Falk (Columbo), both of whom are superb.

What this story does more than anything is help define Columbo as a man in a brilliant sequence in which Dr. Fleming provides his professional evaluation of him, summing up the character superby. While Columbo is a little more ruffled and seemingly absent-minded in later stories, that statement really gets at the core of who he is and will become in later episodes. Who knows, perhaps Fleming inspires the character to play up those attributes more?

I enjoyed this story a lot, particularly for Barry’s performance as the overly confident killer. If there is a weak point I think it is that the trap aspect of the ending strikes me as a little bit of a lazy way out of having designed an apparently perfect murder but that is hardly unique to this story. I also think you can argue that Columbo does at least work out how the crime was done and assesses where the weakness is in Fleming’s plan so the trap serves to provide evidence for the thing he already is certain of.

One thing is for sure – it is clear from watching this episode that Falk was inspired casting as Columbo. He is always captivating to watch, even when he is not speaking. No wonder the character would return the following year for what would be a pilot for an ongoing television series.