57 plus 38: Ten [More] Columbo episodes I like…

Posted: 24 September 2021 in 57 plus, television, ten things
Tags: , , ,

Preface: OK, this was fairly inevitable, wasn’t it? As I was preparing last week’s final ‘tv themes’ post, I knew I’d need a new Ten Things post for this week, and I received quite a few ‘but how could you miss out…?’ Comments after I did my first Columbo Ten Things.

As I said last time, though, there are so many good, so many bloody good, episodes to choose from, that throwing ten darts at a list of the almost 70 Columbo episodes produced? You’re gonna hit 8 or 9 good ones and 3 or four that would make most people’s lists.

As with last time, I’m going to limit it to two of each in the entirely arbitrary categories I’ve chosen to use. So, two [more] clever murders, two [more]wonderful baddies, two [more] lovely relationship pieces, two [more] ‘lightbulb moments’ and two [more] reveals.

Again, as before, however, I’m going to inevitably neglect some wonderful episodes, maybe your favourite. Sorry.

I’ll stick the previous entry’s pics in italics under the category title, just in case you’re reading this post first and wondering why the hell I missed out the obvious – to you – episode.

WARNING: Many, many, MANY spoilers below. If you don’t want to see them, best look away now.

And the usual Ten Things reminder… they’re not the objectively considered best, nor necessarily personal favourites. They’re just Ten Things/Subjects I like… at the time of writing. (And why.)

OK, preface over, blog begins.


 

*** TWO [MORE] CLEVER MURDERS
[Earlier post: Publish Or Perish and Short Fuse]

How To Dial A Murder (1978)
When the question comes up, as it often does, who would you cast as a baddie in Columbo, I’m not entirely sure what whoever-suggested-Nicol-Williamson was drinking, but it was a mark of genius. Williamson excels in the role, while seemingly effortlessly not actually taking it too seriously. I’m sure he did, by the way, but he’s not exactly perfectly suited for the show. What he is perfectly suited for, however, is the type of murder that his character – Eric Mason – commits: murder at a distance, while Mason remains entirely secure and safe elsewhere.

The sheer… satisfaction as he hears the murder being committed is odd to watch, to be honest.; he’s trained his dogs to attack on hearing a word that Mason manipulates his victim into saying. But again, it fits the character perfectly.

What’s ‘nice’ about this episode, apart from the murder and the reveal (although I’m not as big a fan of it as others seem to be, and the ‘eureka moment’ is a bit too coincidental for me) is how much Columbo and Mason just plain dislike each other as people. Columbo’s faux ‘just trying to find out what happened’ attitude rankles Mason more than usual and once Columbo realises that, he seems, very subtly, to increase the edginess of it.


 
 

Double Exposure (1973)
I go back and forth on how much this episode has dated. Honestly. One day I’ll think it’s too obvious, given what we now know about subliminal triggers, and yet another I’ll be convinced it could still work as a murder mystery if the trigger was more cleverly hidden, more up to date. I dunno.

What I do know is that Robert Culp excels – as he always did – in the roles of baddie. There’s an inherent arrogance in all of Culp’s baddies in the show that fairly invites Columbo to puncture it. Never pompous in the way that Shatner’s were, never quietly confident as others were. It’s sheer, unfettered, arrogance. He knows he’s smarter than Columbo; hell, he knows he’s probably the smartest person in any room into which he walks. And that definitely applies here to Dr Bart Keppel, a master of motivational research.

The very idea that he could be outsmarted doesn’t even occur to Keppel.

I’m not sure how novel the ‘I’ll step out of the way of the projector so you can enjoy the pictures [and I’ll switch to a tape so no one knows I’m off murdering someone]” was at the time, but I’ve seen it done any number of times since. But how it’s done is clever. As is the murder itself, which is equal parts simplicity and elegance; brutally simple, elegantly executed. While helming a presentation, Culp’s character shows a video into which is cut subliminal shots of cool drinks aimed at his victim, and shots telling the shortly-to-be-victim how thirsty he is. This after he’s fed him salty caviar. At the same time, the room is warmed.

The victim steps out (in the dark so no one’s sure he’s left at first) to get a drink… and is shot by Culp, who everyone else there will swear blind was narrating the video presentation at the time. Nicely done, Dr Keppel.


 

 
 
** TWO [MORE] WONDERFUL BADDIES
[Earlier post: Dr Ray Flemming – Prescription: Murder and Wade Anders – Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health]

Note that I’m saving the ‘wonderful baddies because they’re fun to watch with Columbo’ for a moment’s time. These two are just out and out wonderfully evil.

I tried to resist doing what I’m about to do, but couldn’t… as I kept coming back to these two characters. Again and again.

The Great Santini – Now You See Him (1976)
Someone once described Santini as “the nazi you’ll enjoy watching’ and I kind of get what they mean. Yeah, he’s a nazi SS guard who escaped after the war, got to America and set himself up as a stage magician… who becomes very very famous. the owner of the club knows it and blackmails Santini who greets a demand for more money with delight, as you can imagine. In fairly quick order, he uses a few magic tricks (including one that utterly fascinated me as a kid when I saw it) to kill the club opener while everyone in the audience is convinced that Santini is suspended inside a locked glass tank filled with water, trying to, y’know, escape from said locked glass tank filled with water.

Santini commits the murder, then ‘escapes’ and is on stage at the moment the body is discovered.

Santini takes an obvious dislike to Columbo, apparently semi-convinced that the cop is just there to steal secrets… and Santini values secrets. Any and all secrets… alibi? Well, obviously I was on stage. “But it’s a trick.” “Of course.” “How’s it done?” “Not telling!”

When Columbo does the reveal, there’s a moment, just the faintest moment, though, when Santini loses his arrogance. He’s stunned by the step by step that Columbo has done, topped off by a bit of magic of his own. But you know, you just know, that the moment Santini leaves the room, his arrogance and assured confidence will return.

(I wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up running the prison he’s put into, given his talent with locks and magic and experience, shall we say, with blackmail.)


 
 
Ken Franklin – Murder By The Book (1971)
The first of the Columbo episodes proper, broadcast almost exactly 50 years ago, in September 1971. After two pilots, this was the one the producers decided would be the episode to demonstrate to the viewing audience what the show was all about. And they nailed it.

From the opening scene, one hell of an establishing shot by a young director named, what was it? Oh yeah, Steven Spielberg.

And what a baddie. Ken Franklin. A womanising, smart, clever, utterly amoral, wholly selfish writer who kills his ‘Mrs Melville’ writing partner who wants to dissolve the partnership so he can publish his own work; understandable, really, since the partner does pretty much all of the writing anyway. From the moment he kills the partner, things start to go sideways as a) Columbo starts to nose around, and is pretty sure from the first moment that Franklin’s involved and b) Franklin himself has to do more and more to cover up and explains mistakes he made.

Another murder follows, and I really like how Franklin reacts to the reveal. His sureness punctured, his plans in a mess, everything’s gone wrong and it’s only at that point that you sympathise at all with him, when he almost but not quite boasts that the first murder was tghe only decent idea for a murder he ever had.

It’s a stunning reversal and unlike Santini, you wonder whether he’ll ever be sure of his own rightness ever again.


 

** TWO [MORE] LOVELY RELATIONSHIPS
[Earlier post: Adrian Carsini – Any Old Port in a Storm and ]

Tommy Brown – Swan Song (1974)
I’ve seen this episode any number of times and I’m damned if I can say why Tommy Brown isn’t utterly detested as a character by everyone involved, including Columbo and including the viewers. I mean, it can’t just be down to Johnny Cash as a person, let alone his portrayal, can it? I suspect the answer to that is, well, yeah.

Because there’s no reason why Columbo shouldn’t loathe him. And yet, the scenes between them are glorious and there’s a definite grudging admiration for how Brown came out of ‘nothing’ and sang like he did.

I dunno – definitely not in the Carsini or Mitchell mould, but there’s definitely something when these two are on the screen together. (Although I’m far from convinced by Brown’s final lines to Columbo.)


 
 
Lauren Straton – It’s All In The Game (1993)
Faye Dunaway. What the hell can you say about Faye Dunaway that hasn’t been said before. Fantastic actor – no, truly fantastic, and almost the only suspect on Columbo that… well, let’s just say that his mind wasn’t always on the job.

OK, the usual stuff out of the way: Dunaway’s character and her [secret] daughter discover they both have the same lover; Lauren kills him then the daughter stays with the body, keeping it warm under a blanket. Then when mother and building manager arrive, she fires a shot and escapes.

Long story short, Columbo figures it out, braces Stratton and says the daughter will go down for murder unless… after which Stratton says she’ll confess in full, as long as Columbo lets her take all the blame.

OK, so far, so mundane (apart from Columbo letting a conspirator escape.)

Except that for once, the murder and the solution are almost a side-bar. What makes this episode special is the chemistry between Columbo and Dunaway’s character. The screen… sizzles when they’re both on screen. Columbo of course would never betray Mrs Columbo, but for a moment or two, neither the viewer nor Columbo (as shown) is absolutely sure of that.

Rarely has Dunaway seemed more… vulnerable, yet quietly confident. At no point during the episode is Columbo even aware that the younger woman is Stratton’s daughter until right at the end… and how they get away with that is a demonstration of the writer’s and director’s skill. Oh the writer? One Peter Falk. You may have heard of him.


 

** TWO [MORE] EUREKA MOMENTS
[Earlier post: A Trace of Murder and Uneasy Lies The Crown]

Murder Under Glass (1978)
This is kind of a cheat to include but it’s such a glorious moment when the eureka moment is revealed that I’m not even going to pretend there was any temptation to resist including it.

(Not for nothing, the episode was going to make it in somehow; either here or as Louis Jourdan’s character’s marvellous report with Columbo. Not for once a liking for each other, but a distinct dislike. Still counts, though.)

Jourdan’s plays a restaurant critic, Paul Gerard, who supplements his income by receiving bribes for reviews, poisons the wine of a restauranteur won’t won’t pay for a good review and threatens to expose the critic. He poisons the wine while they’re having dinner together.

Of course Columbo works it out. But for once the eureka moment wasn’t “how did he do it?’ But instead ‘how did Columbo KNOW that Gerard was the murderer?’

That eureka moment? Oh you don’t see the moment itself. Sorry.

No, Columbo tells the murderer what it was… after the reveal.

It was that Gerard didn’t seek medical advice when police informed him that the victim had been poisoned, and instead came immediately to the restaurant to help with enquiries. “That’s the damnedest example of good citizenship I’ve ever seen,” Columbo observes.

 
  
A Matter Of Honor (1976)
This is one of the sweeter reveals, I must admit. And as sometimes happens, the rest of the episode is fairly so-so. I mean, sure Ricardo Montalban is a superb baddie, the shield of his [once deserved] arrogance one moment away from cracking throughout. But the murder itself is fairly pedestrian, the reveal is… ok. And the supporting cast is similarly… ok.

And the eureka moment is… ok, well it’s shoehorned in, but what I like about it is that it’s enough for lots of dominoes to fall for Columbo.,, It’s the single thing that makes everything else make sense for him. He was sure Montalban’s character – a revered bullfighter, now retired but still hugely respected – had murderer the victim.

He was edging towards why but he couldn’t prove it. Until… until… he sees some children playing bullfighting and discovers precisely why they soak the cape. And… eureka.

 
** TWO [MORE] REVEALS
[Earlier post: Suitable for Framing and The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case]

Ransom For A Dead Man (1971)
I hadn’t seen this for ages until – on one of its reruns – I wanted it last week and was blown away. I’d genuinely forgotten his good this was, Whoever came up with the idea of Lee Grant as the follow up baddie to Gene Barry earned their pay that month and how.

Utterly ruthless, completely amoral, and yet, completely and utterly different from Barry’s character.

And what nails her at the end, what makes the reveal so satisfying, is Columbo’s realisation that Grant’s character has no conscience whatsoever. Her amorality, something she thought of as one of her greatest strengths, was what sunk her.

Grant plays Leslie Williamson, a successful lawyer who’s tired of her elderly husband, so kills him. As you would, when you’re a successful lawyer who’s tired of her elderly husband, obviously.

But She Can Haz Smarts, so she fashions a ransom demand, and keeps the money, (It’s a bit more complicated than that, but not much.)

She buys the step-daughter (who thinks, for some reason, that step-mommy killed daddy) off with much money, so much money that she dips into the ransom money to top up the payoff.

After she sees step-daughter off at the airport, Williamson sees Columbo who’s apparently there for another reason. They go for a drink; she’s quietly confident she’s beaten him, and lets him know it,. He agrees, saying he was sure she had…

…and then a parcel is delivered to them. He opens it and inside is the ransom money Leslie just paid to the step-daughter.

“Mrs. Williams, you have no conscience and that’s your weakness. Did it ever occur to you that there are very few people who would take money to forget about a murder? It didn’t, did it? I knew it wouldn’t.”

Beautifully done.

 

This final one was probably the most requested ‘how could you leave this out?’ I received after the first post. I wasn’t convinced, to be honest, until I rewatched it and saw what everyone else meant. I mean, I still think the two I used in the first post deserved their places, but yeah, so does this one.

Negative Reaction (1974)
Once again, Columbo uses a character’s own self-confidence and sureness in their own mastery of their chosen field… against them.

But for once, Columbo steps over a moral line that he’s not entirely sure leaves him smelling of roses.

Dick Van Dyke’s character – Paul Galesko – kidnaps his own wife, someone he views as a harridan holding him back, snaps a photo to show she’s actually, y’know, been kidnapped, with a clock in the background showing the wrong time. Then kills her.

To ‘get’ him at the end, Columbo creates false evidence, a reversed image of the key photographic evidence, to show Galesko’s alibi is false. He then tells Galesko that while doing so, Columbo accidentally destroyed the original photo…

Galesko then says “ah-ha, but the film of the original photo will still be in the camera!” And immediately picks out the camera in the evidence store used originally for the photo to ‘prove’ his alibi. The problem is that only the murderer the killer could know which camera was used. Oops.

Great reveal, great manipulation. Not taking anything away from that, but yeah, it leaves a slight sourness. Which of course just enhances the scene.


 

** BONUS
 
Patrick McGoohan
It’s a genuine surprise to me, looking back at the twenty episodes I’ve highlighted that none of them involved Patrick McGoohan. I mean, his episodes were flat out marvellous. All were clever murders, all had great scripts and the interaction between his baddies and columbo were never less than fantastic.

It’d be wrong for me, just wrong, not to at least mention him in this post.

So… Patrick McGoohan.

There. I’ve mentioned him.

 


If you enjoyed this Ten Things, I’ve done others… During the last huge blog run, I did a few ‘ten things’ I liked: individual episodes of tv shows, individual comic book issues, and pilots, and two on old movies ,then one on old-ish movies, and a couple about podcasts. And I wrote a series of Doctor Who posts, about each incarnation/regeneration, and my sometimes tenuous relationship with the show.

And in this run, I did one on things I’ve been watching during the various lockdowns plus others…


See you tomorrow, with… something else.

 

 

Fifty-seven more days. Fifty-seven more posts. One fifty-seventh birthday just had.


I’m trying something new with this run. I’ve signed up to ko-fi.com, so if you fancy throwing me a couple of dollars every so often, to keep me in a caffeine-fuelled typing mood, feel free. I’m on https://ko-fi.com/budgiehypoth

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting up from my fifty-seventh birthday on 17th August 2021. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here. (And you can see the posts in the run counting down to the birthday here.)

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