Columbo: Ransom for a Dead Man

Columbo Peter FalkWe start with a woman using letters cut out from newspapers to create a ransom letter, while a reel-to-reel tape player sits on the desk beside her. It looks like something from a different world now, but in 1971 this was a picture of a very modern crime, helped by cutting edge technology. Later in the episode, there will be a telephone call from a dead man…

The Motive

The victim hardly even gets a line to speak, so we don’t actually have the motive spelt out for us until around the 70 minute mark. Leslie Williams got bored with her husband, but wanted to keep cohabiting to retain her wealth and status. Her husband didn’t want to live a lie and was threatening to kick her out. So this is a simple one: it’s all about money. Getting revenge on her spoilt step-daughter is a bonus.

The Murder

A simple shooting at home, but with a 22 calibre revolver to avoid leaving a bullet hole in a wall. The clever bit is what comes after that, with Leslie staging a ransom attempt. It helps that she has advanced phone technology in her line of work as a lawyer, which is capable of making a timed phone call using a recording.

The Mistakes

There tends to be a pattern with these. First we get the elements of the case that tip off Columbo, setting him on the right path, while not constituting evidence as such. This tends to be behaviour that isn’t quite what he would expect from somebody in Leslie’s circumstances. She is almost impossibly cool about things, but then falls apart in front of other people in a courtroom when she is told her husband has died. Now this is clearly not a mistake as such, but Columbo is presumably astute enough to recognise an acting performance when he sees one. Slightly more substantial is the position of the seat in the car, which has been moved forward for a woman to drive rather than her tall husband. Columbo also gets a lucky break when he witnesses the hostility between step-mother and step-daughter at the funeral, providing him with a useful ally. But the big mistake is when Leslie drops an empty bag from her plane which is supposed to be the ransom money drop, having already kept the money. As Columbo points out a criminal in a hurry is “not likely to stop, open a bag, take the money out, then run away and leave the bag behind.”


I think we are already learning that he is a mix of deliberate affectations and genuine character quirks, and that is very obvious here. He is bumbling enough to lose his pen, something that I was sure would be an important plot point and then came to nothing. While we’re on that subject, it seems to me to be an oversight on the part of the writers to introduce an element like a friend being roped in to make the fake call to Leslie at a specific time, and then never appearing in the episode again. It would have been a really boring way for Columbo to catch Leslie out, and that’s probably why it’s ignored, but it’s a bit clumsy because there’s a woman out there who can provide Columbo with a very simple statement that proves his case.

There is a scene that is almost identical to an equivalent moment in the first television movie, where the murderer identifies Columbo’s modus operandi:

“You’re almost likeable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it’s the way you come slouching in here with your shop-worn bag of tricks.”
“Me? Tricks?”
“The humility, the seeming absent mindedness, the homey anecdotes about the family, the wife.”

Columbo does indeed mention his family, including his wife as usual, and one of those little anecdotes is the cards-on-the-table moment. There’s nearly always one of those, where Columbo changes tactics from trying to come across as harmless, to letting his prey know that they are being hunted. He equates the victim to his cousin Ralph:

“He was so perfect, there were times I felt like killing him.”

Last week we looked at the first ever Columbo episode, and how his characterisation had not quite arrived fully-formed. I’m not sure we are quite there yet either, because the way he uses the step-daughter is quite troubling when you think about it. The whole ruse is clearly very clever, but he’s putting a teenage girl in a huge amount of danger. Supposing Leslie had decided to bump her off as well, instead of giving in to her blackmail. It seems like a very high-risk strategy, but I suppose it relies on Columbo’s experience of dealing with criminals. He must be pretty certain how she’s going to react. This is actually one of the things that makes Columbo such a great series to watch: he’s a genius when it comes to the psychology of murderers and that nearly always plays into his ability to catch the criminal.

“You have no conscience, and that’s your weakness. Did it ever occur to you that there are very few people that would take money to forget about a murder? It didn’t, did it; I knew it wouldn’t. No conscience, limits your imagination.”

The Verdict

For the early scenes that show us the crime being committed, the director is trying to be far too clever. We get zooms in on still shots, super slow-motion, a shot transition from Leslie’s eyes to car headlights, and the shot flashing back and forth between her face and a clock; far too much messing around. Luckily that all settles down into simply telling a great story.

It’s an interesting one to watch, because one of the “good guys” is the step-daughter, and she’s clearly a spoilt brat, so you kind of half want Leslie to succeed in cutting her off and making her get a job anyway. The interesting thing is trying to figure out how far back Columbo’s and Margaret’s plan goes. This one is worth a rewatch, because one possible interpretation is that the incident where Margaret is apparently trying to frame her step-mother is all part of the set-up, in which case it’s a fiendishly clever plan from Columbo, but even more troubling in terms of endangering a teenager for a significant period of time.

The best part of the episode is when Columbo has to go up in a plane to have a chat with Leslie, who disorientates him by doing loop-the-loops. His reaction is very funny.

“I’d appreciate it if we didn’t talk for a while.”

It’s not difficult to see why this pilot went to a series. Who wouldn’t want to see more of this self-professed “strange guy”?  RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Murder by the Book

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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4 Responses to Columbo: Ransom for a Dead Man

  1. scifimike70 says:

    For the first murderess in Columbo, Lee Grant gives a most hauntingly charming performance as a woman who, as Columbo can see, has no conscience which clearly does her in. It’s interesting how shows like Columbo show that the cleverest of murders are usually the ones who can ultimately be caught, thanks in great part to the sleuth’s main talent for just keeping his wits about him. Thanks, RP, for all your Columbo reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. epaddon says:

    “While we’re on that subject, it seems to me to be an oversight on the part of the writers to introduce an element like a friend being roped in to make the fake call to Leslie at a specific time, and then never appearing in the episode again. It would have been a really boring way for Columbo to catch Leslie out, and that’s probably why it’s ignored, but it’s a bit clumsy because there’s a woman out there who can provide Columbo with a very simple statement that proves his case.”

    This brings up an excellent point that this episode had what could have been a good “gotcha” clue to bring back into the story at the climax because the audience might have forgotten this along the way (the friend “Pat” actually does appear again after the burial segment when all of Leslie’s friends are telling her she needs to make an example of Margaret for her behavior). Frankly, I think it would have been a far more believable way for Columbo to trap her than the way the episode plays out because I have a hard time believing that Leslie could really think she could buy Margaret off. It would be better if Leslie had been so self-assured of how she’d planned things it never would have occurred to her that someone like Columbo would then track down her friend and get her to admit she’d called the office at the same time Leslie supposedly received a call from the fake “Kidnapper” (the fact that the call was witnessed by two other people would mean she couldn’t lie her way out and say that her friend had called just before). Perhaps the reason they didn’t go this route is because they still hadn’t worked out the formula of a “gotcha” clue to climax things with and were still going the route of “Prescription Murder” where Columbo basically gets to the killer through a psychological game of using another person to trip the killer up into doing something damaging. Had this story been filmed as a regular Columbo episode during its run I think they would have gone a different route.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Roger Pocock says:

      True, and also I think when they had refined the format of the gotcha moment it eventually became a millstone around their necks. I’ve just finished watching Season 9, and getting the gotcha moment to work well by that point seems to have become a sort of magic fairy dust that just fell through their fingers almost every time. It reminds me a bit of Twilight Zone, where it all relies on an effective twist ending, so if that’s weak then the whole thing just sort of collapses.

      Liked by 2 people

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