Most episodes of Columbo revolve around a clever pre-meditated murder, committed by somebody highly intelligent and often powerful and/or rich. Although the murderer fits the usual profile (rich and powerful, in this instance a war hero), the murder itself is bizarrely quite simple for Columbo, apart from one key aspect. The murderer, General Hollister, has everything against him from the start, when the murder is witnessed by somebody out on a boat who can see through his window. The interesting thing is the way he tries to manipulate the witness. Helen Stewart is a character you can’t help but feel sorry for. She is a desperate divorcee, lonely, childless, and worn down by her mother’s criticisms. Hollister turns on the charm, hoping to change her mind about the possibility he could be a murderer, and stop her from sticking resolutely to her story.
Hollister is embezzling military funds, with the help of accomplice Colonel Dutton. With an investigation of their activities looming, Dutton wants to leave the country, but Hollister fears he will be found and will spill the beans about Hollister’s involvement. Bang!
You couldn’t really say this is pre-meditated, although Hollister perhaps would have already run through this possibility in his mind. He certainly seems prepared for it, with a nifty rotating door to hide the body (do those things really exist outside of comedy horror spoofs?). What he apparently hasn’t thought about is the problem with shooting somebody in broad daylight, in front of a window.
OK, so Hollister gets a bit of bad luck, with somebody just happening to be looking at his house when he fires the shot. But I’m not sure how anyone would think they could get away with this in the long term. Once he is killed, Dutton is obviously a missing person, failing to catch a flight he had booked. The embezzlement case will eventually link the two of them. Hollister puts all his efforts into changing Helen’s mind, as if he’s in the clear without her testimony, and yet he’s the only possible suspect in the end. He gets a bit of bad luck when the body pops up on the surface of the water (the explanation is that sharks have cut through the ropes tying him to the weight, but this guy makes so many mistakes it wouldn’t surprise me if he just did a bodge job), but returning to the shore at a funny time of day doesn’t help his cause. In fact, he ends up doing everything possible to make himself look suspicious, including tracking down Helen. The mistake that really seals the deal for Columbo, though, is Hollister’s inability to bring himself to part with the murder weapon. Once he’s got that, he’s got his man.
Not a big challenge, this one, although he has to be intuitive enough in the first place to not dismiss Helen’s report as a simple mistake, in the absence of any other evidence at that point. His investigation isn’t helped by getting seasick. Peter Falk does a great job of looking dizzy on the boat, which is very funny and makes you feel sorry for the poor chap. It’s one of the many things I like about Columbo: he’s not a superhero. He’s just an ordinary guy, with plenty of human failings and weaknesses, but a brilliant mind.
Each Columbo episode should really have something unique about it to challenge the Lieutenant, and this one should be a murder committed with military precision, but instead the murderer is frankly a bit of a fool. Instead, what makes this one so compelling is the plight of poor, sad divorcee Helen. It’s heart-warming to see Columbo trying to cheer her up at the end. Nice guy. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Suitable for Framing