The perfect crime. No need for an alibi. A man comes home, can’t get into the house, decides to use the French windows where his sister is supposed to be sleeping, trips the alarm she says has been switched off, and she shoots him. The perfect excuse: she thought he was a burglar.
That’s the fantasy. The reality is very different. Nothing goes according to plan for downtrodden rich girl Beth Chadwick, but she shoots her brother anyway. BANG BANG BANG!
This is probably the first time the viewers feel almost entirely sympathetic towards the murderer (it won’t last). Her brother is a monster, stopping her from having any say in the running of the family business, controlling every aspect of her life, ending her relationships with blackmail, and then telling her that men are only interested in her because of her money. A thoroughly nasty piece of work. The motive is clear: his death means her freedom.
I wasn’t too keen on the wavy, distorted picture, which went on for far too long, but that part of the episode was necessary to show how Beth planned to kill her brother. Then we see the actual murder, and her plans fall apart. Her brother finds a spare key, and just turns up in her room. In the heat of the moment (let’s face it, she could have waited for another opportunity), she shoots him anyway, and then trips the alarm and still tries to frame it as an accident. With her boyfriend Peter just arriving unannounced, it’s a race against time to set the scene.
The whole thing is a mistake, let’s face it. Within seconds Beth has to get rid of a key that shouldn’t be there, so she just throws it in the shrubbery. There’s a newspaper left on a hallway table that her brother brought in, and it has no right to be in the house if he came in by the French windows (she has been in all day and it’s the late edition anyway). She ordered a flashy car before the murder, indicating that she “knew in advance that you were going to change your style”. The grass was mown on the day of the murder, and yet there was no grass on the victim’s shoes. But the real clincher is Peter’s clear memory of the events of the evening. The gunshots came before the alarm.
He shouts Peter lunch, and chooses a drive-through burger place – a man of good taste right there. Proving that he really is absent minded in real life and it is more than just an act, he tries to drive off with the tray still balanced on his window. He later tells Peter that his wife gave him the lightbulb moment he needed with one of her proverbs (“My wife, she’s got a proverb for every situation.”): “you’re putting the cart before the horse”. He says that happened during an argument. It’s hard to imagine Columbo arguing with his wife!
Just One More Thing
This episode was a revelation of things we don’t have in the UK and I am extraordinarily jealous about them. A drive through place where a waitress balances a tray with a burger and chips on your car window? I want that! But most of all, the stroke of absolute genius, a ladies’ fashion shop that also has a bar, and a pool table. The answer to every bored husband’s prayers, right there.
The crime itself is a piece of cake, and it would have actually been much more interesting if the murder had gone according to Beth’s plans, as it would have been a really tricky one for Columbo. Instead, her story is full of holes and it’s just a matter of gathering enough evidence and finding the one key piece of information Columbo knows will put the conviction beyond doubt.
It’s fascinating to watch the journey of Beth from downtrodden victim of her monstrous brother and thoroughly nasty mother (who greets her with a slap), to… well, a bitch, let’s face it. In a way, it’s a really unfortunate aspect of this that she loses our sympathy, and I can’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that it’s all a cynical piece of misogyny from the writers, whose script actually proves the brother right in his opinions of his sister. Yuck. Other than that, this is huge fun, benefiting from a great performance from Leslie Nielsen as Peter. There’s more to his talents than comedy, that’s for sure. Peter’s a great character as well, probably the first person in the series to really understand Columbo’s modus operandi.
“Why are you hounding Beth?”
“Hounding? Who, me?”
He’s got Columbo weighed up, even describing him as “devious”. He’s quite right, but we wouldn’t have him any other way. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Short Fuse