"Just one more thing...": Rewatching Columbo

Mel O'Drama

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Preface





On my last watch of the complete series - perhaps a decade ago - I made the mistake of beginning with the first disc in the DVD set which featured Season One, Episode One. It was only later that I discovered the Telefilm and the follow-up Pilot hidden on the final disc of the First Season. While it didn’t ruin my viewing experience, I’m glad of the opportunity to rectify the chronology this time round and start with the Telefilm.

Assuming I watch them all, this will be only the second time I’ve watched the series in full, though in my younger days I did enjoy watching earlier films as they were occasionally repeated on TV (usually on a Sunday afternoon). It was the first UK airing of the late-Eighties revival films that made a regular Columbo viewer out of me. I loved them at the time, little knowing that what had come before was even better. I’m looking forward to revisiting all thirty five years’ worth of episodes.

Feel free to join me in my journey from Prescription: Murder to Columbo Loves The Nightlife.





 

Mel O'Drama

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Telefilm (1968)








Prescription: Murder






Starting here, it comes across strongly that this wasn’t intended to go beyond a one-off film. In fact there’s a unique history here: a TV film version of a stage play, which itself was based on an episode of an earlier anthology TV series. This means that Peter Falk in this Telefilm is actually the third actor to play Columbo: the first two being Bert Freed and Thomas Mitchell.

The opening credits are very Sixties spy thriller, and rather Bondian. With the killer being a psychiatrist it's a stroke of creative genius to have them in the style of Rorschach tests (which also get a mention in dialogue). The understated and no-fuss American Typewriter font used for the opening and closing credits fits this series like a glove and, of course, look suitably cold and clinical.

Dave Grusin’s score is very nice, too. It feels quite experimental and “alternative” at times, while never becoming distractingly so.

Sets in this film are really impressive. From the beginning of the first scene, that apartment set reminded me of the one in Hitchcock’s Rope (though, it has to be said, the Columbo apartment looks more opulent and impressive in scope). Even the hospital set - used only briefly - was very spacious and sumptuous (I’d guess perhaps that was making use of a set from another Universal production). And the final scenes were shot at the Stahl House in the Hollywood Hills. Even though I did find myself wondering how on earth a bit-part actress - even one with a comfortably off Sugar Daddy - could possibly afford such a grand home with swimming pool and panoramic views of Los Angeles.

I loved the leisurely pacing, and the fact that the first act with the murder is its own unique little play. The story takes the time to really get into the psyche of the characters, raising the stakes and getting complete investment from the audience. The strangling didn’t occur until some twenty plus minutes into the episode, and we didn’t meet Lt. Columbo until a third of the way into the ninety five minute film. And it didn’t become a murder investigation until later still. When we’ve watched the perfect murder play out, only for the returning “killer” to be told his wife isn’t dead, we know it’s going to be quite a ride.

With this not meant to go beyond a one-off, there’s a lot of ground covered. What would become the typical Columbo game of cat and mouse is (if memory serves) heightened here. As always, Columbo is brilliantly bumbling and apparently absent-minded here, with some of his familiar quirks and catchphrases: the cigars; the raincoat; the “one more thing”s; the references to his wife. But he shows his hand as a sharp-minded detective who has things worked out earlier in the piece than I’d expected. My memory is that he generally lowered the boom only in the very final scene with the killler. In Prescription: Murder he’s pretty upfront about his knowledge for most of the final act.

Indeed, the Columbo-isms make so strong an impression that they’re cast into the light and well and truly explored. Even going so far as to have his faux-bumbling persona exposed and critiqued by the killer.

The anti-mystery “howcatchem” theme - with the audience being in on the killer’s identity from the beginning - is present here. This, too, is explored, with Gene Barry’s Dr Ray Flemming who breaks every rule in the whodunnit book by boasting to Columbo about his perfect crime and the fact that he can’t be caught (under the guise of a hypothesis) and going so far as to use his District Attorney friend (future Amos Krebbs and Dr Seth Hazlitt actor William Windom) to request Columbo’s removal from the case owing to his dogged harassment of the doctor.












continued...
 

Mel O'Drama

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Prescription: Murder


continued






The fact that Flemming - like many Columbo murderers - is a middle-class professional (we first meet him hosting a refined party for friends and showing off his intellectual prowess during a particularly highbrow game of Botticelli) makes him seem somehow more cold-blooded and calculating. He kills not out of any kind of desperation, but because it suits him to dispose of his wife and he feels entitled to do so. When he reminds his mistress there’s no other choice, such is his entitlement that he’s entirely convincing.

He proves far smarter than your typical whodunnit murderer, crossing every “t” and dotting every “i”. There’s a great moment just after strangling his wife where he hands his mistress the telephone receiver and it looks as though she’s about to get her prints on it. At the last moment he snatches it away, covers the receiver with his handkerchief and she makes his call. They both leave, but eagle-eyed viewers will have spotted he didn’t retrieve the handkerchief. The camera pans slowly across to the telephone, hanky and all. But as it gets into a close-up, a hand removes the handkerchief: Flemming has remembered and returned. Everything - from his alibi to the disposal-at-sea of the items he’s taken to make the murder look like robbery - seems to make him untouchable. Which makes the howcatchem element more gripping.

As you may expect, it's hubris that proves Flemming's undoing. But win or lose it's the battle of wits that proved most engaging. Katherine Justice is perfect as the mistress-stroke-accomplice. Her redheaded voluptuousness feels very late-Sixties. There's also a Marilyn Monroe thing going on where she plays up the adorably ditzy airhead role but actually there's a lot more under the surface. There's an implicit (to quote Adam West's Batman of the same era) "poor, deluded girl" thing to the latter part of her journey where she shows regret and comes right. But that doesn't stop Columbo giving her as hard a time as he does Flemming, and the consequences for her character are ambiguous enough for justice to have been served all round.

The final twist - the film's second "she's not actually dead" reveal - comes very close to being too much - and is certainly Columbo overstepping the mark. But the payoff is so satisfying it's easily forgiven.

Richard Irving's direction is great. For the era it's very creative, but not in a showy, psychedelic, Dutch angle kind of way. Instead, there's a genuine sense of it being viewed cinematically and considered in a slightly arty light. An example that springs to mind is the dissolve from the killer's hands as he tries on his gloves to his bare hands at the beginning of the scene leading up to the strangulation. Or the cutaways to Flemming's impassive face in close-up as he does the dirty deed. There's also the very final shot of the film which has the carefully placed vertical line of a doorway between the killer in the foreground and the confession taking place in the background as the credits play out. The clean linear angles reinforce Flemming's entrapment, even though he is the one outdoors in the sunlight. Now there is a hard border between he and his mistress. And with the lines no longer blurred, Columbo wins out.

While many beats from the Telefilm’s format would, of course, go on to become the trademark of the series, it is interesting to consider this film in the context in which it was originally made. I’ve never seen Enough Rope, the 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show which first aired this story. Nor could I possibly have seen the original stage version of Prescription: Murder. I would hazard a guess that Richard Levinson and William Link came up with a really clever story in 1960 which was then perfected in its stage run, with that perfected version being brought back to TV with a bigger budget and different cast in order to be seen by a wider audience. Hindsight taints objectivity, but I can easily imagine how unlikely it might have seemed in 1968 that this film would spin off to become a series. There’s much detail here, and the format is exploited well, with twist after twist. One might easily have felt it had been “done”, and would be difficult to reprise - especially on an ongoing basis - and retain any kind of quality. All of which is true. But I’m certainly glad they took the risk.
 

Angela Channing

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I really like this review. Prescription Murder was a really strong "pilot" for the later Columbo series. Gene Barry was a great murderer and the way that the lieutenant used the same impersonation trick that the doctor did to provide his alibi as Columbo's means to get a crucial admission from the murderer was very satisfying.
Feel free to join me in my journey from Prescription: Murder to Columbo Loves The Nightlife.
Looking forward to this.
 

Julia's Gun

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I'm a fan of the original run too. Be interested to hear what you think of 'last salute to the Commodore'...
 

Mel O'Drama

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Gene Barry was a great murderer

He was great. So slick and full of overconfidence. The sparring between Flemming and Columbo was brilliant. I especially liked the scene where the two of them ended up sitting down and toasting one another with whiskey.


and the way that the lieutenant used the same impersonation trick that the doctor did to provide his alibi as Columbo's means to get a crucial admission from the murderer was very satisfying.

Yes indeed. It was all very karmic.


Looking forward to this.

Great. Especially since you helped plant the seed for this rewatch when we discussed Columbo in the Sixties character round.



I'm a fan of the original run too. Be interested to hear what you think of 'last salute to the Commodore'...

Ooh - that's intriguing. Now I'm wondering why that episode in particular is a standout for you. Perhaps it'll be obvious when I reach it.
 

Angela Channing

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Ooh - that's intriguing. Now I'm wondering why that episode in particular is a standout for you. Perhaps it'll be obvious when I reach it.
It's one of my least favourite episodes although it does have some good moments.

My favourite episodes are the one when Ruth Gordon is the murderer because she gives such an energetic and engaging performance and the one when Donald Pleasance is the murderer because he makes his character quite sad and sympathetic. In fact just typing that sentence makes me think of a few more episodes that stand out in my memory.

Like I said, I'm looking forward to read your comments on each episode and I'll share my thoughts on the episodes that I remember.
 

Mel O'Drama

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My favourite episodes are the one when Ruth Gordon is the murderer because she gives such an energetic and engaging performance and the one when Donald Pleasance is the murderer because he makes his character quite sad and sympathetic. In fact just typing that sentence makes me think of a few more episodes that stand out in my memory.

They ring vague bells for me, but the blessing with having a hopeless memory is that the details of most episodes have long since been forgotten. I'm sure a lot of the episodes will feel new for me. Even watching the Telemovie last night, it was surprising how little came back to me, so the ending was a surprise.

One episode I do remember wowing me last time was the first regular episode, Murder By The Book (written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg). I'm very much looking forward to revisiting that one in the coming days.



Like I said, I'm looking forward to read your comments on each episode and I'll share my thoughts on the episodes that I remember.

You seem to have a good knowledge of a number of the episodes - certainly far more than me - so it'll be great to get your insight and memories of them as we go.
 

Angela Channing

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You seem to have a good knowledge of a number of the episodes - certainly far more than me - so it'll be great to get your insight and memories of them as we go.
During the 90s and the 00s they repeated them regularly on both BBC and ITV and on some of the other Freeview/cable channels and I always watched them when they came on. I rember one Saturday when they repeated an episode at around 9am on ITV, another at around 2pm on BBC2 and in the evening they broadcast an episode billed as "New Columbo" which was the rebooted series. I watched all 3 episodes. Every time I watch an episode, I pick up on something new that I hadn't previously noticed.

I sometimes wonder whether I've seen every episode or if there are some that have eluded me. I just think they are brilliant and some of the best television I've ever watched and almost a half century after they were first made they don't seem dated at all.
 

Mel O'Drama

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I rember one Saturday when they repeated an episode at around 9am on ITV, another at around 2pm on BBC2 and in the evening they broadcast an episode billed as "New Columbo" which was the rebooted series. I watched all 3 episodes.

Happy days. Yes, I can remember the late Eighties series being billed as New Columbo. I think it was the title that partly grabbed my attention enough for me to watch.


I sometimes wonder whether I've seen every episode or if there are some that have eluded me.

Part of me hopes there are a couple you haven't seen and you can get to enjoy a previously unseen Columbo episode.


I just think they are brilliant and some of the best television I've ever watched and almost a half century after they were first made they don't seem dated at all.

Absolutely. Good writing never dates, and I'm really impressed by the craftsmanship behind these from what I've (re)seen so far.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Pilot (1971)




Ransom For A Dead Man








Gone, sadly, are the American Typewriter font and creatively colourful title sequence. In their place comes a clean blocky white sans font over the action already taking place. It’ll look familiar to anyone who’s caught the occasional Columbo here or there. And it feels very much like we’ve already left the Sixties behind.

The murder setup feels much faster paced than Prescription: Murder had conditioned me to expect. It felt like the murder took place pretty much immediately. We didn’t spend any time with the deceased while they were living and so didn’t know who they were or how they interacted with people. This made it quite a different experience to the Telefilm and, on this level, a less satisfying one.

Lt. Columbo himself also arrived very quickly. Just twelve minutes into the episode, in fact. Perhaps this owes something to the fact that - unlike Prescription: Murder - this episode was created specifically as the Pilot for a potential series based around Columbo himself. One can almost hear panicked network executives concerned that time is passing and we still haven’t met our key character. Or perhaps it was the writers’ choice to try it a different way.

Thankfully, the overall tone is reassuringly familiar in all the ways that matter.

As with the Telefilm, it’s not initially a murder investigation. Last time, the victim initially turned out to be still alive. This time, Lee Grant’s character, Leslie Williams, wants people to believe her husband has been kidnapped rather than murdered.

Once again, the murderer is a respected professional. Leslie Williams is a top lawyer. We even briefly see her in court which felt very familiar after being immersed in The Trials Of Rosie O’Neill - right down to the establishing exterior of the Los Angeles County Courthouse. We see her sharp mind at work. At one point she’s holding a whispered conversation with an associate while still knowing exactly when to come in and object to a question from the opposition. In other words, this is someone who can multitask without losing focus. Which makes her dangerous. It’s perhaps also a little telling to hear the advice she gives to her female client: just cry every time she’s asked a question.

The sparring between Columbo and Leslie is enjoyable. Particularly how their relationship changed, with her initially looking down on him and him allowing that situation in order to function below the radar. There’s a great scene when he returns from using the toilet and marvels at the lemon shaped soaps that he didn’t want to use as they’re so perfect. Eyes wide, he asks what happens when one is used and placed on top of the others? How does she stop it from sticking to them? “It’s a problem”, acknowledges Leslie with perplexed amusement.









continued...
 

Mel O'Drama

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Ransom For A Dead Man

continued







It’s established here that Lt. Columbo is afraid of flying. We see him getting nervous in both a helicopter and a light plane. Let’s see if this trait shows up again.

Columbo himself, is more dishevelled and “lived-in” than on his previous outing, and shaping up to be the character that springs to mind when his name is mentioned. The hair is fuller and more tousled. The raincoat practically permanently worn. The green cigar is in hand. Pens are regularly misplaced or fumbled for.

There’s a really nice bit of business when Leslie’s stepdaughter Margaret - convinced of Leslie’s guilt - comes to find him eating chilli at a cafe where he’s evidently a regular and he seems to struggle to divert his attention from his spicy lunch. “The crackers make the dish”, he tells her profoundly as he breaks them and sprinkles them on.

As Margaret, Patricia Mattick is great. Seething with teenage hot-blooded rage. So keen to prove her stepmother’s guilt that she fakes evidence. Something on which she is quickly pulled up by Columbo. The red hair and round granny glasses put me in mind of Batgirl’s alter ego Barbara Gordon in her initial comics appearances. Or perhaps Lucy Ewing’s friend Muriel Willis. But once again it’s the redhead connected to the murderer that proves their undoing when Columbo persuades her to help with a setup. As with the previous episode, the setup seemed very elaborate for a police Lieutenant to arrange. Inappropriate, even. And this time I’m slightly less convinced that Leslie would have fallen for it quite so easily. But all involved sell the idea.

Lee Grant is great in her role. Quite glam but also cool and calculating (visually, she kept reminding me of a number of different people - from Fenella Fielding to Stefanie Powers to Dana Delany). She excels in this kind of role that balances light and dark - Damian: Omen II springs to mind, and makes a worth adversary for Columbo. Once again, there's a scene in which the two share a cosy drink despite their battle, and I loved the respect that came across.

As in the Telefilm, the sets are gorgeous and Richard Irving's direction is superb, with are some truly cinematic moments. The murder itself - with the moment of the gun blast being frozen still in time as the camera moved round - looked incredible. My favourite moment of the entire picture was a dissolve from Leslie’s face to a car driving at night, with the car headlights appearing to shine from her eyes. There’s a lot of work that’s gone into making this look so good.

With the speedy opening act and the slightly convenient denouement I found this a less compelling episode than Prescription: Murder. But it’s certainly still a very good episode, which gives us a Columbo who feels closer to the finished article and some important character details - from the crackers on chilli to the fear of flying - that help set the tone for a terrific series.
 

Angela Channing

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Another great review @Mel O'Drama. I hadn't realised that Ransom For A Dead Man was the first official pilot, for some reason I thought it was an episode in which the murderer was Robert Culp or Jack Cassidy but that's probably due to TV stations showing repeats in a different order or me missing seeing some of them.

However, I can remember this episode well because of the ingenious way that the murderer tried to cover up her crime and unlike most Columbo outings this episode had another interesting dynamic: the one between the mother and her step daughter.

Personally, I liked that not too much time wasn't taken on the background story to set the motive for the murder because most Columbo stories really take off once his investigation starts.

I agree this pilot episode isn't as good and the previous non-pilot episode but I would still rank it as being in the top (or maybe second) tier of great Columbo episodes, not least because Lee Grant created such a cool and callous character.
Once again, the murderer is a respected professional.
Until you posted this I hadn't really thought about it but every Columbo murderer is a middle class professional. You never see him investigate a plumber murdering his wife during a domestic argument or a supermarket cashier stabbing a colleague to death.
My favourite moment of the entire picture was a dissolve from Leslie’s face to a car driving at night, with the car headlights appearing to shine from her eyes. There’s a lot of work that’s gone into making this look so good.
I don't recall that specific scene but so many of the early Columbo had some stunning pieces of cinematography or a particularly eye-catching effect that really stands out. (When you come to reviewing the episode where the murderer is a music conductor, I think it was called Etude In Black, I'll come back to this point).
 

Mel O'Drama

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I hadn't realised that Ransom For A Dead Man was the first official pilot, for some reason I thought it was an episode in which the murderer was Robert Culp or Jack Cassidy but that's probably due to TV stations showing repeats in a different order or me missing seeing some of them.

It's a bit odd that it kind of had two pilots, but I suppose it's understandable they'd need another with three years passing before they were considering the series. Perhaps the powers that be needed convincing that it could work.

I thought Ransom For A Dead Man felt a little more cinematic, with big scenes featuring helicopters and planes. It's the kind of scenes that work better on screen than stage. compared with Prescription: Murder's more intimate settings.



unlike most Columbo outings this episode had another interesting dynamic: the one between the mother and her step daughter.

Yes, it was fascinating. I felt quite edgy during some of their scenes as I kept waiting for Leslie to lose her cool with her step-daughter and show her true colours.

Something I forgot to mention was the scene where Leslie and Margaret are talking over breakfast or lunch and Margaret has the TV on. She's watching Double Indemnity which, of course, has a number of parallels with the plot and motive in this story. Leslie ends up switching it off. It's not explicitly mentioned in dialogue, but I thought it was a really nice touch.



I agree this pilot episode isn't as good and the previous non-pilot episode but I would still rank it as being in the top (or maybe second) tier of great Columbo episodes, not least because Lee Grant created such a cool and callous character.

Oh yes, absolutely. It's a good and very watchable episode, and of a really good quality. I found myself comparing the two (with Ransom coming out slightly less favourably) as I watched them on two consecutive nights, which is not how they were designed to be viewed. But really they've both got their own strengths, and taken on its own merits, Ransom is classic Columbo.



Until you posted this I hadn't really thought about it but every Columbo murderer is a middle class professional. You never see him investigate a plumber murdering his wife during a domestic argument or a supermarket cashier stabbing a colleague to death.

I do like that it goes against the stereotype of the "criminal classes" that were portrayed in many crime dramas, but I wonder if this was a conscious decision. It seems like it has to have been, but who knows?



(When you come to reviewing the episode where the murderer is a music conductor, I think it was called Etude In Black, I'll come back to this point).

Excellent. I'm looking forward to more visual eye-candy in coming episodes.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Season One (1971-72)





Murder By The Book





Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Steven Bochco and with the lingering memory of the impression this episode left on me, it’s fair to say I had high hopes for this one.

In most ways it delivered, but I have a couple of little gripes as well, so I’ll get them over with.

Firstly, if Ken had previously told Jim about his perfect murder idea and Jim had been taken enough with this to write it down, why didn’t Jim notice the similarities with what Ken was doing? There was also a lot left to chance with the way Ken carried it out. What if Jim had wandered into Lilly’s store to use the toilet or the telephone, or to pick up something? What if he’d decided to tell his wife the truth - that his partner had whisked him away for a couple of hours to see his new cabin - which would surely placate her as much as a lie about him working late at the office? It’s all very convenient. Then there’s the question of how Ken managed to place Jim's body in full view in front of his home without it being seen and without anyone else reporting the body before he did.

That said, I did enjoy that one “what if” angle was well and truly exploited when Lilly saw Jim in the car and decided to blackmail Ken. It was a really interesting angle to take and led to this becoming Columbo’s first double murder.

I also really liked the motive behind Ken wanting Jim dead: his fear that once Jim ended their writing partnership it would become apparent to everyone that Jim was the writing talent and Ken the one who lapped up the credit with appearances on talk shows. Yes, of course it made him a key suspect, but he had that covered with his smokescreen about threats from mobsters due to the expose he claimed Jim wanted to write. The detail about him “accidentally” handing Jim the piece of paper with names on so that his fingerprints would be present to validate Ken’s story later on was a really nice touch.

Casting as always is spot-on. Jack Cassidy - in his first time out as the murderer - makes the perfect foil for Lt. Columbo. He brings great charm paired with an intense vanity to Ken. One feels he’s quite used to getting his own way with a flash of his pearly whites - something to which Columbo is quite immune, and matches with his own bumbling chit chat.

The relationship between Columbo and Jim’s wife Joanna is a convincing one. I loved the scene where he’s chatting away to her while making her an omelette in her kitchen, occasionally asking where he can find a bowl for the eggshells, or a skillet. There’s a sense that he’s genuinely incredibly interested in people, and taking the time to connect with people in order to get the full picture is part of what makes him such a force.








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Mel O'Drama

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Murder By The Book


continued




Lilly La Sanka - a lonely widow who seems to remain an eternal romantic - is possibly the most tragi-comic figure so far. I’m reminded of Miss Lonelyhearts from Rear Window, with a touch of Miss Jones from Rising Damp. She has an animated warmth from her very first moments. Even when she’s delivering her blackmail threat to Ken she remains this vulnerable, slightly pathetic, endearingly likeable creature who is out of her depth. For all the pressure she’s putting on Ken, it never really feels that he’s out of control. By the time she names her price - a rather laughable $15,000 - it’s clear she’s strictly a small-time player. A minnow trying to devour a Great White.

Ransom For A Dead Man’s blackmail scene saw the killer fall for it and pay up, only to find she’s been tricked. Ken is too slick for that. He simply plays along, wines and dines Lilly, shows her the money and then bludgeons her to death before she can consider how to use it. He held everything she wanted in front of her nose and then took it away.

Beautifully played by Barbara Colby
*, Lilly is a simple woman on the surface. On face value she’s simply a victim of circumstance. Someone who craved a little attention and played the wrong hand to get it. But she also didn’t hesitate to resort to blackmail and was willing to overlook a murder for the right price. There's a lot about Lilly we'll never know, which I kind of like.

This being a new season, there are a couple of tweaks towards familiarity. The text in the credits is now yellow. Most exciting of all, this episode features the debut of Lt. Columbo’s trademark Peugeot 403 Cabriolet. This time out it has a black vinyl roof, which I'm fairly sure becomes ivory in later episodes. It only appears in one scene, but it’s memorable. In true Columbo style he pulls it up outside Lilly’s store with all the grace of a stock car, riding roughshod over some small rocks and coming perilously close to hitting an iron wheel on display. I love how telling this is about his priorities. The car is to get him from A to B. And if the most direct route is over a pile of rocks, then that’s the route he’ll take. There are no sacred cows. A car isn’t something to be precious over. Like the huge grease stain on the lapel of his raincoat, it’s all about function over form with the Lieutenant. And I wouldn’t have him any other way.




* Just as Jack Cassidy would die in tragic circumstances after his behaviour became dangerously irrational, it’s incredibly sad to know that Barbara Colby would herself be murdered just a few short years after this episode. I was interested to see that she’d been married to Ethel Merman’s son, and was also a good friend of Rosie O’Neill’s Ron Rifkin. Ron was due to have been present in the car park where Barbara and her friend were killed, but his life was saved by him being ill on the day. With no real-life Columbo present, Barbara’s murder remains unsolved.
 

Mel O'Drama

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I've realised I barely mentioned Steven Spielberg in my posts on Murder By The Book. Perhaps because his style isn't overtly showy. But it is, of course, beautifully directed.

Lilly's murder, with its subjective POV shot of her silent scream, is very Hitchcockian. There are also a number of aerial shots: particularly during the opening credits, but also subtler ones throughout the episode, such as Columbo driving his Peugeot up to the store. The direction doesn't slap the viewer round the face by trying to be distractingly clever. Instead there's a classy restraint to the aesthetic. It's apparent that Spielberg took a lot of trouble with his setups, but took care to make them look effortless and natural.

 

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I used to think this was the first episode of Columbo because it's the one that they often start with when they run repeats on TV but I now understand that is because it is the first episode in the Columbo series, excluding the pilots. It's testament to the quality of the writing and the brilliance of Peter Falk that so many of the elements which made the series so good were present from the very start. You watch it and you think it's a perfect murder but over the course of the episode it slowly unravels.

I always thought the conclusion to this episode was a bit disappointing because although Columbo worked out how the murder was carried out he didn't have any hard evidence that would be enough to convict. It's not the only episode that I felt this way about but this is the one that I particularly remember.

But it is, of course, beautifully directed.
I agree and from the very first opening frames of the show. It starts with Jack Cassidy's car driving down a road and the camera pulls back to show more of the road, all done to the soundtrack of typewriter keys banging against a platen. The continuous shot doesn't end there as the camera goes through a window to reveal an office and you eventually see his partner typing a manuscript for a book. Within 30 seconds of the show starting you become aware of who are the key characters without a single word being said and as the camera roams around the office viewers are shown more items which establish the connection between the characters that will become the murderer and his victim. It is one of the best opening shots in any of the Columbo episodes.
 

Mel O'Drama

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I used to think this was the first episode of Columbo because it's the one that they often start with when they run repeats on TV

I wonder if the episode length had anything to do with this being the first shown. The Telefilm and Pilot run around 95 minutes each for a 2 hour slot with adverts. Season One's episodes are 75 minutes to fill a 90 minute slot. Season Two seems to be a mixture of both lengths, as are the following seasons.

Because of this, it must be a difficult show to syndicate in a regular slot of a specific length, sometimes with little room to change the running time. I imagine this means they'd need to skip some episodes.


It's testament to the quality of the writing and the brilliance of Peter Falk that so many of the elements which made the series so good were present from the very start.

Yes, absolutely. There are a few little tweaks as the episodes go on, but it's all essentially there in the first episodes.



I always thought the conclusion to this episode was a bit disappointing because although Columbo worked out how the murder was carried out he didn't have any hard evidence that would be enough to convict. It's not the only episode that I felt this way about but this is the one that I particularly remember.

I know what you mean. There was the note that Jim had made about the method (which Columbo found very easily), but it's all tenuous and nothing that Ken couldn't have tried smooth talking his way out of. Because of the lack of evidence, he had to confess at that moment or there'd be no denouement. But whether someone like Ken actually would have confessed in the face of fairly flimsy evidence is another matter.



I agree and from the very first opening frames of the show. It starts with Jack Cassidy's car driving down a road and the camera pulls back to show more of the road, all done to the soundtrack of typewriter keys banging against a platen. The continuous shot doesn't end there as the camera goes through a window to reveal an office and you eventually see his partner typing a manuscript for a book. Within 30 seconds of the show starting you become aware of who are the key characters without a single word being said and as the camera roams around the office viewers are shown more items which establish the connection between the characters that will become the murderer and his victim. It is one of the best opening shots in any of the Columbo episodes.

Yes, it's an impressive opening and really sticks in the mind. I loved the choice to use the diegetic typewriter sounds as the "music". It worked so well as a soundtrack that I didn't even question how it sounded until I saw the typewriter.
 

Mel O'Drama

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Death Lends A Hand / Dead Weight








Several times over the last few days I’ve considered the option of a running “ranking”: slotting each episode in where it ranks compared with others in terms of quality and enjoyment, so I have a definitive list of favourite episodes by the end.

The more I watch, the more I’m thinking I’d be on a hiding to nothing in doing this. Even with the handful of episodes I’ve watched so far I would genuinely struggle to rank them from favourite to least favourite. They all have their own strengths and their own USPs. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed each one.

As I work through the episodes it really does feel as though each writer set themselves a challenge to create not just a murder that’s difficult to solve or prove but also a killer that’s impossible to catch. Already we’ve had the psychiatrist, the lawyer and the acclaimed writer. These two episodes give us firstly a private detective who - in my favourite irony so far - is recruited to catch the killer (himself), and then a war hero Major.

Death Lends A Hand sees the return of creators Levinson and Link as writers. As ever, they give us a skein that keeps the audience on their toes from the very first scene. We see a mysterious meeting between two men. The one in whose office the meeting is held asks an unseen person to listen carefully.

We pick up the gist of the meeting’s purpose through information worked into dialogue, but only very slowly. A rich, older man - Arthur Kennicut - has recruited a private detective - Carl Brimmer - to pursue the younger wife he believes to be cheating on him. The detective, after much research, assures him that she’s faithful and Kennicut leaves happy. Brimmer then moves to a concealed room next to his office where waits the person he’s asked to listen in: Kennicut’s wife Lenore. We then learn he’s lied to Carl and Lenore has been cheating. Then comes the blackmail: Brimmer won’t tell Arthur the truth if Lenore will become a mole and give him information about her husband’s dealings.

Just minutes in and there’s much cloak and dagger with things not being what they seem. By the time Lenore came to Brimmer’s house to refuse his offer and tell him she’s going to confess to her husband it was obvious that death was imminent. But what wasn’t clear was: whose death? It could have gone either way. But in the end, poor Lenore paid the ultimate price for her indiscretions.

With the murder and the immediate aftermath came the most creative piece of direction yet: the “glasses effect”, in which we see a very tight close up of Robert Culp's spectacles with each lens showing different moving images featuring different stages of Brimmer clearing up and disposing of the body. Fifty years on, it still impresses















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