How do you hide a body so that nobody will ever be able to find it? Architect Elliott Markham thinks he has found the answer to that question, but Lieutenant Columbo might have other ideas…
Elliott Markham is thinking big. He doesn’t just want to design and build a building. He wants to build an entire town. The insanely rich Texan Beau Williamson can afford to bankroll his dreams, and his wife Jennifer wants him to do exactly that, but Beau has other ideas. The problem for Elliott is that murdering Beau won’t get him what he wants, because Beau’s will would place most of his money into trust and his wife would only have access to a small amount of it. The solution is that Beau has to go missing so his wife is free to spend his money, but a body must never be found. Oh, and somebody who smashes up a big model of all those lovely little houses surely qualifies for justifiable homicide.
This one is really unusual for a Columbo episode, because we never actually see the murder or the murderer disposing of the body. That’s necessary, to keep us guessing about the location of the body, so that the whole drama about Columbo apparently putting his career on the line to dig up a concrete pile at great expense can play out. What we do see is Elliott appearing rather creepily in the back of Beau’s car, at a racetrack, and then ordering him out of the car at gunpoint. The rest we have to guess.
There are three that lead Columbo to the right man. Two of them would have been hard for Elliott to avoid, if not impossible. He claims that the day Beau saw the plans he said he loved them, but that doesn’t make sense. Ex-wife Goldie knows her husband very well and is immediately dismissive about the idea that he would have bankrolled Elliott’s grand scheme, but more importantly the evidence of the smashed up model is still sitting there for Columbo to discover. The second unavoidable mistake is that Beau fails to turn up for a heart appointment, despite having a pacemaker and the appointment being essential, so it is hard to believe that he has just impulsively gone off abroad. But the big mistake, and the one that could have been avoided, is that “whoever was driving that car must have been listening to classical music”. The big Texan likes his country music. Elliott is the classical fan.
This is a really tough job for Columbo, and he has to play a very clever game, at great expense. It’s a measure of the faith his superiors have in him that he’s able to get the job done, considering the risk if it should all go wrong. We learn that his brother-in-law is an attorney, which is handy for advice about Beau’s will. We also see him looking haunted while the pile is dug up, and this has to be more than an act because it’s not just when he’s in the company of Beau. He presumably realises what he’s risking, and also perhaps feels uneasy at the presence of the reporters. For a man like Columbo, who likes to operate under the radar, this case thrusts him right into the limelight and that’s well out of his comfort zone. Interestingly, he reacts to that by altering his modus operadi significantly. He’s not really playing the bumbling harmless fool he does for many of his cases, in order to lull his opponents into a false sense of security. Instead he’s clearly playing a game with Elliott and both of them know that pretty early on. Columbo seems to be getting some enjoyment out of that, even engaging in a bit of rare wordplay:
“I figure, I gotta come up with something concrete.”
Letting his cleverness show like that to his enemy is really unusual, but he’s dealing with somebody who has put his cards on the table early, in order to get the hiding place searched before he uses it. It’s a very different game to the one Columbo normally has to play.
I love this episode and it was one that I had strong memories of from previous viewings, but there are a few problems with it. The whole plot of the episode relies on Columbo’s assistants being completely incompetent. It would be child’s play to trace Beau’s movements to the racetrack and then search the buildings there, and then Elliott’s whole plan falls apart. Then we have the scene of Columbo dealing with the bureaucratic red tape, having to repeatedly queue up to get permission to dig up the pile, which is admittedly very funny but would surely have been done by somebody else in his department. Finally, we have a misplaced scene near the end, with Elliott getting a flat tyre and being stopped by the police on his way to finally dispose of the body. Again, it’s a great scene and builds the tension really effectively, but it’s a deleted scene from a previous episode that got shoehorned in here to make up the running time, and ultimately it counts for nothing. All that said, I love how much of a different approach this episode takes, keeping us guessing about the location of the body and whether the situation really has gotten the better of Columbo this time, and we don’t discover the truth about that until the final few minutes, so as an exercise in suspense it works brilliantly. Matters are complicated by Goldie’s attempt to plant evidence, muddying the waters and making matters even more difficult, but the way Columbo sees through that so quickly is another example of his amazing mind.
“Ahead of me all the way, weren’t you.”
That’s it for season one, but I think it’s time to correct an omission and watch the pilot episodes next. Let’s see where it really all began… RP