Columbo: Death Lends a Hand

Columbo Peter FalkIn 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.

The Motive

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…

The Murder

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.

The Mistakes

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?”
“Who knows.”

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 Verdict

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

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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3 Responses to Columbo: Death Lends a Hand

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Robert Culp was one of Columbo’s best guest stars starting with this one. Thanks, RP.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. scifimike70 says:

    Columbo acting like a fool just to get the murderers to underestimate him is appealing in the sense of how openly humbled he can gladly be. What we can learn from all our most critical reviews for Dr. Who, Star Trek and Babylon 5 is how our heroes are at their best when it’s never just about the heroics of stopping the villains. Their dimensionality is most enhanced by their imperfections and Columbo is quite unique for making imperfections the best dignity in retaining one’s goodness. As for all the rare moments of harshness like when he shouts “Grab his arm!”, they certainly work too for being rare enough, even without being spontaneous. Peter Falk reworked it as continually as it could be in all the Columbo movies until his death. So looking back on how he started it all earns a greater respect for how durable he was as an actor.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. epaddon says:

    What I enjoy about this episode is that it shows Columbo as his creators envisioned him, since this is the only episode after “Prescription Murder” that Levinson and Link wrote together. We see Columbo as a nuanced man with distinctive quirks, but the quirks don’t overwhelm us like they would as the series progressed with the dog, “This Old Man” etc. and even more wonderfully is how restrained Falk is compared to how he slipped more and more into a caricature type performance as the years went by and Columbo became a phenomenon. The best example is when he sweats out the golf pro to find out if he had an affair with Mrs. Kennicutt. If they had done a scene like this five years later where Columbo asks for a lesson we would have seen an extended piece of slapstick in which Columbo would never have taken his raincoat off when trying to take a shot, and he would have likely broken the club or shanked a shot into the woods. But instead Columbo takes his coat off and makes a very good shot and he gets his point across to the golf pro that he should stop BSing him. That kind of subtle underplaying is something we’d never see in later years where everything had to be broader and more quirky. I really would have liked to have seen Columbo stay more like this over the course of the series.

    Liked by 2 people

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