The first season of Columbo very quickly hit upon the magic formula that makes the series work so well and sets it apart from any other crime drama: show us a murder perpetrated by somebody rich and/or powerful, place the viewers in a position of dramatic irony whereby we know the identity of the murderer, and then show us how Columbo figures it out, with a gotcha moment at the end. From that point onwards, all the series needed to do was repeat that format to be a guaranteed success, but the second season has been an odd mixture of different experiments in messing with the format. It seems very early days to be doing that, and largely it has been unsuccessful, with nearly every variation to the format being to the detriment of the series, but in the final episode the writers hit upon a twist that works really well: we see the murder take place, but the murderer has a twin. Which one of them committed the crime?
Money. Clifford Paris is about to get married, and his nephews stand to lose their inheritance. One of them needs the money, while the other is a banker and appears to be independently wealthy, so the question of which one committed the crime seems initially obvious, until Dexter takes Columbo on a trip to Las Vegas to observe his brother Norman’s gambling addiction.
On the day of his wedding, Clifford is taking a bath and one of his nephews turns up with a wedding present: a food mixer to drop in his bath! What a shocker of a present! The body is found slumped over an exercise bike, making it look like he was exercising and his heart gave out. Sneaky. But it doesn’t end there, because it turns out that Clifford had already willed everything to his fiancée Lisa, irrespective of the marriage, and the attorney in charge proposes to the brothers a plan to destroy the wills in return for continuing to make as much money out of the estate as he was before the death of Clifford. That brings us to…
The Second Murder
When crooked lawyer Michael Hatheway goes to visit the grieving(ish) Lisa to retrieve her copy of the will, he finds her dead on the pavement below. The police have arrived, and he’s in her flat. A set-up!
As always when a murder is made to look like an accident, Columbo finds the inconsistencies almost immediately. The bathroom shows evidence that Clifford was just having a bath, but then he was supposedly exercising. Who takes a bath before their wedding, and then gets all sweaty again on an exercise bike just before he has to go and get married? There is also a footprint outside the housekeeper’s window that matches the flat-footed brothers, so the only question really is which one of them did the deed? The moment when Columbo realises there are two of them is priceless, when he clearly thought he had an easy case sewn up quickly.
There is a red herring of a mistake, when Columbo finds out that Dexter ordered two new food mixers, but he immediately shows him both of them still unopened. I can’t imagine anyone reading these articles who hasn’t seen the episodes, but a warning that everything from here on in spoils the twist at the end…
I spent most of the episode assuming the murderer was going to turn out to be Norman, which is where things seemed to be heading, but a few key pieces of evidence lead Columbo to the truth. Firstly it wouldn’t have been actually possible for just one of the brothers to lift the slippery uncle out of the bath. At the start of the episode, the idea that one of them got him out, dried him and carried him down to the exercise bike does seem a bit absurd, but you sort of write that off as bad writing and forget about it, when it’s actually a really clever plot point. Then there’s the speed with which the power was turned back on after the murder, just 15 seconds, although it takes over a minute to get from the bathroom to the fuse box and switch it back on. The burglar alarm was switched off to allow the murderer in, meaning there had to be an accomplice, and the final clincher is the phone records of the two brothers, which shows that they were ringing each other all the time, despite their claim to be estranged from each other.
Making his life far more difficult this time is an absolute monster of a housekeeper, Mrs Peck, who acts as if she owns the place and treats Columbo like dirt. There is a great moment where he wears his heart on his sleeve, telling her he has feelings too, and that she is a “very unfair person”, at which point they make a truce until he breaks her television for the third time and then spends the rest of the episode trying his best to ignore her, muttering, “can’t talk now.” It’s really funny stuff, but it was just a shame that nobody showed up with a food mixer when Mrs Peck was in the bath instead.
Just One More Thing
There is a magnificent scene when Dexter is filming his cookery show and gets Columbo out of the audience to help with the cooking. Most of the scene was ad libbed, and it’s an amazing performance from Peter Falk, going from a deer in the headlights in front of the cameras, to getting a few laughs and then enjoying the limelight. But look out for a howler of a continuity error when he rolls his sleeves up and in the next shot they are back down again and he rolls them up for a second time!
For this one, the writers found a way to remain true to the basic format of a Columbo episode, showing us the murderer committing the crime, but also made the story function effectively as a whodunit. It’s not just any whodunit, either, with clues to the identity of the murderer hidden in plain sight, while still managing to keep us guessing until very near the end of the episode. Added to that, this is one of Falk’s finest performances as Columbo, acting against one of the best ever guest stars. This may have been largely a series of disappointments, but it certainly came good at the end.
We are going to take a break from the shabby detective for a while to investigate some more Edgar Wallace Mysteries, but will return to Columbo for the third season in a few weeks. RP