One of the most effective tactics Columbo employs is to hound the person he thinks is the murderer until he or she gets flustered and makes a mistake. So what happens when the murderer is a man like Dr. Barry Mayfield, who is so emotionless that he’s almost… Vulcan? This is going to be a tricky one for Columbo.
Dr. Mayfield has been working on a new transplant rejection drug. His colleague Dr. Hidemann wants more tests before they take it any further, but Mayfield is worried another group will get there first and take the credit he deserves. Hidemann, bless him, is one of those people with a towering intellect but little in the way of common sense, because he’s about to have heart surgery and it’s probably not a good idea to annoy the man who is about to operate on you.
The Murder Attempt
During the operation, Mayfield uses dissolvable suture, dyed to look like permanent suture. It seems like the perfect crime, because in a few days the sutures will dissolve and Hidemann’s heart will fail. The only problem is that one of the nurses, Sharon Martin, is experienced enough to know the difference between the two types of suture, even when it has been dyed a different colour. That bring us to…
Sharon makes herself a note to phone the company who supplied the suture in the morning, to confirm her suspicions, but before she can do that Mayfield clubs her over the head and gets the dodgy suture back so he can dispose of it. He later breaks into her home to plant evidence that makes it look like she was a drug addict, and was attacked by an another addict to steal drugs from her.
We start, as usual with some details that don’t quite add up. None of them are proof, but they set Columbo on the right track. He observes Mayfield casually adjusting his desk clock while he gets the news of his colleague’s death, which Mayfield brushes off as force of habit, but Columbo’s big strength is his deep understanding of the psychology of how people behave at times like this. The planted evidence in Sharon’s home lacks any fingerprints but displays evidence of glove smudges, and again Columbo understands how different kinds of criminals work: an addict desperate for his or her next fix doesn’t think clearly enough to commit crimes wearing gloves to cover their tracks. Then Mayfield tries to manipulate Sharon’s friend into thinking up somebody who could have been the drug addict killer and reporting that to the police, although Columbo sees them together so he knows that the trail of breadcrumbs he is being led along comes from Mayfield. The attempt to frame an innocent man from Sharon’s past isn’t going to wash, unless…
The Second Murder
This is the point at which the murderer is normally panicking and commits a much more sloppy crime, but Mayfield is a special case, the most emotionless killer Columbo has ever had to deal with. What he does is actually really clever, injecting the potential suspect with drugs and making it look like he stole the drugs and fell to his death while under the influence. The camera effect that accompanies his drugs trip is deeply unpleasant. Mayfield’s attempts at framing are all to no avail, though, because Columbo already noticed that the victim was left handed, and Mayfield injected him in his left arm.
He is about as far out of his comfort zone here as he could possibly get. Not only is the murderer immune to his usual tactics, Columbo also has to spend most of the case hanging around a hospital, which is the last place he wants to be. A lot of comedy springs from how queasy he gets, particularly when he’s trying to get information about suture while an operation is going on. However, when it really matters, his steely determination allows him to watch Mayfield’s final operation.
There is one astonishing moment towards the end of the episode, where Columbo gets angry and slams down a water jug on Mayfield’s desk. It might seem out of character, but in fact this is a classic cards-on-the-table moment which we get in nearly every episode, except Columbo clearly realises that a different approach is needed for Mayfield. This man is so emotionless that Columbo has to forcefully drive his point home:
“I believe you killed Sharon Martin and I believe you’re trying to kill Dr Hidemann.”
Columbo has figured out the only way he can save Hidemann. Mayfield has to operate again to save his first victim, because if Hidemann dies now then Mayfield knows there will be an autopsy which will provide evidence to convict him.
Just One More Thing
The interesting thing about this one is how Columbo has the case wrapped up and the evidence to convict Hidemann, but to achieve that he needs the victim to die. To be the true hero of the story, Columbo has to find a way to save a man whose life hangs in the balance, but still secure the evidence he needs to convict the murderer. The second season of Columbo has tried to break the usual flow of the story a few times, largely unsuccessfully, but this is a tweak to the format that works brilliantly.
I have to say I didn’t quite buy the ending. Columbo episodes often have a moment where there’s a big twist we aren’t expecting, usually tied to some kind of dramatic failure on the part of Columbo, and here that happens incredibly late in the game, with the dodgy sutures failing to turn up during the search of the operating theatre. I almost started to think this was going to be the one where the killer gets away, but then we get the final twist, which relies on the viewers being able to accept that (a) Mayfield is secretly a pickpocket/magician of remarkable skill, and (b) Columbo failed to notice something that would obviously be… well, not very clean, shoved into his own pocket.
The other problem I had with this one, it has to be said, is Leonard Nimoy. I haven’t seen him in enough different shows to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem exactly, but either Nimoy couldn’t manage a performance that wasn’t Spock-like, or he was hired to give a Spock-like performance. Either way, I don’t think he quite pitches it right. There’s emotionless/psychopathic (which is surely the writer’s intention), and then there’s… well, wooden. As much as I love the idea of a killer in Columbo who is immune to the Lieutenant’s usual tactics, in the end he’s just a bit too bland and Vulcan to ever come across as a real person rather than a stilted performance. That aside, this is an intricately-constructed story, with some great twists and turns along the way, and probably Peter Falk’s finest performance so far. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: The Most Dangerous Match