First broadcast December 15, 1971
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.
A very enjoyable case with some excellent detection work and a memorable killer.
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.