Columbo: Etude in Black (Review)

Columbo Peter FalkJenifer Welles is an enormously talented pianist. In fact, she is so talented that she can vaguely flutter her hands over the same few keys all the time and somehow the results of her efforts sound like a virtuoso performance. Note to directors: hire a real pianist, or shoot the scene from the other side of the piano.

The Motive

Apart from being a magic pianist, and lacking the requisite second “n” in her name, Jenifer is also a blackmailer. She is having an affair with conductor Alex Benedict, and is threatening to create a scandal if he doesn’t divorce his wife. We’ve seen the other side of that coin explored before, and once again blackmail doesn’t pay off. Her pet parrot isn’t too happy about things either.

The Murder

For a creative person, the murder is done in a very uncreative way, a brutal blow to the head. There is also nothing particularly inventive about the attempt to make it look like a suicide, with the body dragged to an oven, the gas turned on, and a suicide note placed in the typewriter. The clever bit is the way Alex breaks into the garage where his car is being worked on, drives the 9 miles to his victim, and then returns the car, making it look as if he couldn’t have committed the murder, because he was in his rehearsal room for a concert, with no means of driving back and forth to his victim.

The Mistakes

There are three big mistakes. One is particularly foolish, and doesn’t seem very realistic for somebody as meticulous as Alex. Why does he put the suicide note in the typewriter rather than just laying it down on the desk or putting it by the body of the victim? It’s an odd mistake to make, and it’s the big thing that indicates murder rather than suicide. The letters don’t line up with what has been typed (a plot point that couldn’t exist nowadays!) and as Columbo points out, why would she put the suicide note back in the typewriter? The second mistake is more of an oversight. Alex’s perfect plan about stealing his own car is not so perfect, because the garage noted down the mileage when the car came in, and that magically increased by nine miles. But the mistake that seals the deal for Columbo is the missing buttonhole. Alex drops his flower at Jenifer’s house and then goes back to retrieve it later, forgetting about the cameras that are on him all the time. At the concert he’s not wearing it, but the news report showing him emerging from the victim’s house later that evening shows him wearing the buttonhole, so he had to have picked it back up in the house.

Columbo

This is the first episode of the second season, and it’s the one where Columbo gets his dog, which does little other than “sleep and drool”. He rescued it from the pound, where “his time was up, if you know what I mean”. There’s a great “just one more thing” moment, not the first use of the catchphrase, but it wasn’t really a thing during the first season. This time it represents the cards-on-the-table moment, with Columbo revealing to Alex that it’s a murder case now, having just thrown down the gauntlet with the words, “suppose it was you”. It’s a powerful, dramatic moment.

Just One More Thing

Look out for the reflection of the flower in Alex’s glasses when he visits the scene of the crime, a very clever bit of direction. Also, music is used to great effect in this episode, punctuating all the important beats in the narrative: the planning, the build up to the murder, and the police finding the body.

The Verdict

It feels like we have finally arrived at the fully formed version of Columbo we know and love with this episode, but the story isn’t a strong one. The murderer relies on a lot of luck. He unlatches a window at the garage and nobody spots it and closes it. Nobody works late at the garage. Nobody has anything urgent enough that they have to speak to him while he’s supposed to be in his dressing room. The thing with the typewriter is a very foolish mistake, and I just don’t see a man like Alex doing such a weird, illogical thing as that.

There’s a moment where Columbo takes neighbour Audrey to identify the man who visited Jenifer on the night of her murder, and she picks the wrong guy. That’s because matters are complicated by the presence of an ex-boyfriend on the scene. Columbo looks surprised, one of the only times I’ve seen him genuinely wrong-footed, and it’s late in the game for him not to have everything under control. This is normally the point at which he’s closing his trap. The thought immediately occurred to me that it could have all been planned by Columbo in the first place, that he knew Audrey would pick the wrong guy, and that it would force the ex-boyfriend to spill the beans about the identity of his love rival, now he’s in the frame for the murder himself. This would have been the moment the dramatic irony is reversed, something that happens quite often in the best Columbo episodes. I’ll go into more detail about what I mean by that in a future article, where the technique is actually used, but here I was disappointed. Instead, the writers hung their whole story on that buttonhole, which was all a bit dull. When the viewer is able to guess a twist that would have been a much better example of writing than what we actually get, and then that twist doesn’t happen, it’s a poor reflection on the quality of the script. Nonetheless, Columbo deserves the compliment he receives from Alex at the end: “goodbye, genius”. Hopefully next time his genius will be put to the test a bit more. It was always going to come down to that flower, wasn’t it.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: The Greenhouse Jungle

About Roger Pocock

Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com Co-writer on junkyard.blog Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Reviews, Television and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Columbo: Etude in Black (Review)

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Whatever the creative drawbacks are with this one for Columbo, it works for fans who enjoy the chemistry between Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. Audiences who have seen their chemistry in Husbands and Mickey & Nicky will for obvious reasons find a particular enjoyment here. And in the final scene it serves the occasional tradition of Columbo, in some sense, respecting the person who commits the crime AS a person, but not as a murderer, which Falk could always excel at and here it works most appropriately.

    With other noteworthy guest stars like Blythe Danner, Myrna Loy, The Karate Kid’s Pat Morita and The Andromeda Strain’s James Olson, all the acting falls neatly into place. On all those points, this was a fine opener for Columbo’s second season.

    Thanks, RP, for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Roger Pocock says:

      Thanks Mike. The performances of the guest stars is certainly one of the big strengths of Columbo.

      Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        You’re very welcome. Columbo could attract iconic guest stars like Ricardo Montalban, Dick Van Dyke and Vincent Price. Such guest stars can always say a lot about the show that they’re making special appearances in.

        Liked by 1 person

      • scifimike70 says:

        Famous guest stars sometimes playing the murder victims in Columbo are also pretty interesting like Leslie Nielsen, Dean Stockwell, Martin Sheen and Anthony Zerbe. It’s all the more impacting for how the murderer makes his or her move.

        Liked by 1 person

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