In this, the second episode of the first season of Columbo, the brilliant Robert Culp stars as Carl Brimmer, an incredibly wealthy and successful private investigator. It seems that Columbo’s adversaries are going to follow a pattern of wealthy, powerful people.
Brimmer is really looking to make his job easier, when he attempts to blackmail Lenore Kennicut into providing him with information on people he is investigating, sourced from her husband, who runs a media empire. Unfortunately for him, she decides to come clean to her husband about her “indiscretion” rather than giving in to her blackmailer, and that means Arthur Kennicut will find out all about the PI he trusted. He’s a powerful man to make an enemy of. Lenore has to be stopped…
As far as I can recall from watching this series many years ago, this one is unusual because it is a crime of passion. Brimmer panics, strikes out at Lenore, and kills her. Later he claims that he never meant to murder her, and he seems genuine about that. In the heat of the moment, I don’t think he really had a plan at all. He’s making it up as he goes along. Normally this would be a problem for a Columbo episode, because the whole point of these is watching a very clever person commit an ingenious crime, and then seeing how Columbo figures it out. In this instance, the challenge instead becomes the intelligence with which the murderer attempts to cover his tracks, and the power he can wield against Columbo.
Brimmer tries to make it look like a random mugging, but immediately that’s a problem because it’s obvious that the body has been moved. That wouldn’t matter, because there is nothing to lead Columbo to Brimmer, and here is where Columbo really gets a lucky break because Arthur introduces Brimmer into the mix as an extra detective on the case. So unusually we are about 35 minutes into the episode before Columbo is really interacting with the murderer. From there, Columbo is incredibly sneaky, if you look closely at his actions. He knows that Lenore was struck by somebody wearing a ring, and figures out the murderer is left handed. The fact that Brimmer fits that description is not evidence, but sets him on the right track, and he pretends to be interested in palmistry in order to get a feel of the ring. Brimmer clearly makes a tactical error by offering Columbo a job as a PI on triple his wages, because of course the first question Columbo asks is if he will be working on the Kennicut case, so at that point he has confirmation that Brimmer wants him off the case. He also allows his temper to show, but the big mistake is falling into a trap laid by Columbo, who leads him to believe that the murder victim lost a contact lens. Brimmer searching his car and finding a lens is behaviour that cannot be explained away, and the punch-the-air moment is when it turns out that Columbo fabricated the whole story about the loss of the lens.
“Whose was it?”
The script never makes it clear that Columbo planted the lens in the car to be found, and I’m not sure why not, unless he’s pushing up against the boundaries of what a detective is allowed to do, but a contact lens just happening to be in Brimmer’s car is obviously beyond coincidence.
As usual, he acts the fool in order to get him what he wants, including mistaking a closet for a doorway in order to sneak a look inside. The state of his car, causing him to get stopped by the local police, perhaps indicates that being disorganised is a little bit more than just an act. His wife is a useful tool for him again, used as an excuse for taking a close look at Brimmer’s rug (because his wife wants one like that, of course!) and also the person he has to consult before he can decide whether to take the PI job (he clearly isn’t interested, but plays along). She’s a great excuse for just about anything he wants to do. Note how he barks out the order to his subordinate to grab Brimmer’s hand and retrieve the lens. In moments like this, the real Columbo beneath the bumbling exterior allows himself to be seen, briefly.
The moment that will stay with me from this episode is an incredibly clever bit of artistry from the director. After the murder, we zoom in to Brimmer’s haunted face, and then his glasses tell us the tale of how he disposes of the body and covers his tracks. Each lens shows something different. I’ve never seen anything like it before, and it must surely have been enormously technically difficult for 1971.
This episode does lack something for me by being a crime of passion rather than somebody who thinks they have figured out how to commit the perfect murder, which is the usual format for Columbo. But that’s more than made up for by seeing Columbo outwit somebody in the same profession as himself, and at the very top of the tree of that profession. It’s fun to see the mighty fall. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Dead Weight