A sport is being played in a big stadium, represented by some grainy stock footage. It’s that game that’s a bit like rugby, but with lots of lines drawn on the grass and players wearing an amusing amount of padding. Private Investigator Carl Brimmer from Death Lends a Hand has somehow got himself out of prison, disguised himself with a very 1970s moustache, and now goes by the name of Paul Hanlon, some kind of important person in the world of the strange sport he is watching. At least, that’s what it looks like, because the magnificent Robert Culp is back for his second starring role in Columbo.
Um… oh. This hasn’t happened before. We are neither told nor shown a motive. We could piece together a fairly credible theory, perhaps something to do with Hanlon wanting to gain control of something to do with the sport (sorry, I don’t understand such matters, and have no interest in finding out about them), or more likely he is simply in love with his victim’s wife. The way he comforts her and she wants his company and nobody else’s would tend to suggest there is a bit more going on there than just friendship.
Until you stop and think too much about it, this seems to be a really clever one. Hanlon leaves the stadium, drives over to his victim’s house in an ice cream truck, stops off on the way to make a phone call, with the radio playing the game in the background to provide him with an alibi, and kills his victim in a swimming pool, with a block of ice that will melt by the time the police get there. That makes it look like an accident. He even notices his wet footprints on the side of the pool and hoses them away.
Firstly, not everyone is obsessed with that game where you run around with a ball, so if you’re going to use an ice cream truck to get from A to B, somebody is going to notice even when there’s a match on. I felt very sorry for the child who spotted Hanlon:
“Hey mister, stop, I want an ice cream!”
Awww, poor kid. An ice cream truck is a recognisable and memorable vehicle, and Columbo is able to establish that the company who owns the truck doesn’t work in the area it was spotted. The hosing off of his footprints might seem like a clever detail, but it’s actually the one thing that first alerts Columbo to the fact that he is dealing with a murder not an accident, because the water on the side of the pool is fresh, not chlorinated (he tastes both!). But the big mistake that provides Columbo with his moment of triumph is the phone call that provides Hanlon with his alibi. Hanlon was aware that his victim’s house was being bugged, so he knew there would be a recording. Columbo spends hours listening to that, trying to find a noise that shouldn’t be there, to indicate that he wasn’t actually at the stadium, until he realises something important:
“I had it backwards. Maybe there was a sound that should be there, and wasn’t.”
That sound is a clock that should be chiming, and is absent from the recording. Case closed!
There are two sides to his character, and it’s pretty clear by this point that the one we see most of the time is an affectation. It has been a while since we have seen the real Columbo, but here his interaction with the crim who bugged the phones shows us a man who is manipulative and threatening when he needs to be. When he is dealing with both Dobbs and also with Eve, we see him putting the same threat to good use; it’s not so easy to dig your heels in and refuse to give the detective any information when he’s talking about being accessories to murder…
Just One More Thing
There is a running joke in this one where Columbo ruins his shoes in the swimming pool water, and asks a couple of people where they bought theirs. One pair he likes the look of cost $60, and he asks where he can get a pair for about $16 or $17. This is amusing, but it’s an interesting reflection of who holds the wealth in the USA. Week after week Columbo comes up against unpleasant, wealthy people. He does his job brilliantly, but struggles to afford a new pair of shoes. If society eventually moves on to a more even distribution of wealth, the one thing television historians will probably take from Columbo is how effectively it represents an upside down society.
The most clumsily written Columbo episode so far, by a mile. The writer’s lack of interest in examining a motive is astonishing, but there are also gaping holes in the plot. An hour after hosing down the side of a pool it’s still damp enough that Columbo can taste the water, despite the hot Californian sun, and yet the block of ice used to commit the murder has melted completely. But the biggest problem is the way Columbo catches Hanlon out at the end. As soon as the credits roll, you inevitably start thinking: hold on a minute… There are about a dozen reasons why the sound of the clock chiming might not be on the recording. It could have been fast or slow, and then corrected. He might have temporarily silenced it during the big game because it annoyed him. It might have stopped and then been wound back up.
The moment still has an impact, and that’s simply down to the performance of Robert Culp. In fact, that’s the only thing to recommend this episode, unless you’re interested in seeing cameo appearances from 1970s players of whatever that game is they’re playing. But that’s actually a reasonably strong recommendation, because Culp is a fabulous actor and he does manage to make a surprisingly attractive pigskin purse out of the pig’s ear the writer makes of the script.
In the end though, Columbo really doesn’t have a motive, a murder weapon or a broken alibi. I’m guessing Brimmer/Hanlon will be back for a rematch one day… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Dagger of the Mind