What happens when a psychiatrist, who deeply understands the workings of the human mind, commits a premeditated murder? Can he outfox a clever detective? As Columbo points out, in the field of crime, he’s the professional.
You might consider the suggestion that “maybe we should buy some paintings of soup cans” is grounds for justifiable homicide, but that’s not the motive here. Dr. Ray Flemming is having an affair with a younger woman, his wife has found out and is threatening to divorce him, and in the process to create a scandal that will destroy his psychiatry career.
Fiendishly clever. The murder itself is simply a strangling made to look like a burglary but the really clever bit is getting his girlfriend to pretend to be his wife on a flight and then staging a row before the flight takes off, with his “wife” apparently storming off the plane and back home. Even more clever is the disposal of supposedly stolen items from his home in the sea in Acapulco, where they can never be discovered and linked back to him.
This is all so clever that we even get some red herring mistakes, to show that the plan is apparently foolproof. We see Joan leaving a cloth on the phone receiver and think “aha, that’s how the detective will see through the ruse”, and then seconds later Flemming goes back to remove it. Later when Columbo visits Flemming in his home and Joan is hiding, there are two glasses on the bar, but Flemming realises just in time and hides one. But inevitably there are real mistakes and not just red herrings. Firstly, we have the mistakes that set Columbo off on the right trail, and the first of those is probably this exchange:
“Somebody broke in here and tried to kill her.”
“Tried to kill her?”
The way he says that is not really a normal response to the situation, and at that early stage Columbo probably knows what he’s dealing with. Flemming’s apparently odd behaviour continues when he shows great interest in whether the stewardess on the plane was able to identify his “wife” from a photo, which shouldn’t actually be a concern to him. There are other little details that don’t add up, such as failing to call out to his wife when he gets home, returning with luggage that is considerably lighter than the luggage he left with (I know all too well from holidays that the opposite normally happens!), and trying to fix the problem of his wife’s missing holiday outfit at his home, which should be there if she returned from the airport. His decision to put the gloves back afterwards is clearly never going to get Columbo off his back, because he’s not going to think his colleagues were so sloppy as to simply miss them when they did a search. However, none of this is proof. The one big mistake was the unavoidable one, in terms of the scheme Flemming came up with: he needed an accomplice.
“Dr Flemming made one mistake and you’re it. You’re the weak link, Miss Hudson.”
He doesn’t quite arrive fully formed, but boy does he look young here and this is all quite understandable in terms of a man who is still learning what works for him. For the most part he is the man we will come to know and love, and Flemming actually sums him up perfectly:
“The astonishing thing is you’re likeable… You’re a bag of tricks, Columbo, right down to that prop cigar of yours… You’re an intelligent man, Columbo, but you hide it… You take people by surprise, they underestimate you and that’s where you trip them up.”
But there’s one key difference, and it’s this:
“You’re on your own, Miss Hudson, and I’m going to get to him through you. That’s a promise.”
It’s essential to the plot, but fans of Columbo who watch this after seeing later episodes will likely be shocked at the ruthless way he handles the situation with Joan. He actually shouts her down at one point, which is something I’m pretty certain we will never see again, although I’m still in the very early days of my rewatch.
We get the first mention of Columbo’s wife, but more importantly we get a textbook cards-on-the-table moment, which will come to be a regular feature of the series. This is the moment where Columbo drops all pretence of not realising who the murderer is, and throws down the gauntlet:
“Unless you think I hired somebody to kill her, and the boy who confessed, maybe I paid him to do it?”
“No Doc, you didn’t do that.”
“How do you know?”
“I already asked him.”
The quote above is just one example of the fabulous dialogue in this script, and there are several punch-the-air moments when Columbo is getting one up on his opponent:
“I am on the case. It’s true that somebody tried to pull a few strings, but my superior, he doesn’t like that, he gets thinking…”
Ultimately the crime is a bit too perfect for Columbo to prove his case. Flemming really does do a good job, so the proof has to come by unusual means, and the twist at the end, although fairly predictable, is a classic moment and very neat in the way it uses one of Flemming’s own tricks against him.
Although this was the first ever Columbo episode, it’s not actually accurate to describe this as a pilot episode. There is one of those, and we will take a look at it next week. Instead, this was intended as a one-off television movie, but you can see why network executives would have looked at this and realised the enormous potential of the concept and the main character. This is an incredibly compelling hour-and-a-half of television, which never lost my attention for a second. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Ransom for a Dead Man