We are back for the third season of Columbo and what’s this at the start? A bunch of quick clips of the episode we are about to watch. Spoilers! Then we are treated to the sight of a man with shaky hands scraping away at women’s faces with a scalpel, which doesn’t seem like a good idea, but he is working in the cosmetics industry, and the company he works for needs a miracle…
That miracle has arrived in the form of a cream that makes wrinkles disappear. In an amusing scene later in the episode, the world’s wrinkliest maid is on hand to provide a face for the cream to be demonstrated. After the application of the cream she looks like the world’s wrinkliest maid, with a layer of slime over some of her wrinkles. But anyway, boss of the company Viveca Scott thinks this is the “alchemy” that will reverse the fortunes of her ailing company. Just one problem: one of her employees, Karl Lessing (Martin Sheen!) has stolen the only jar of the cream and he’s the only one who knows the formula. He’s about to sell it to the highest bidder, rival David Lang (Vincent Price!). Can Viveca strike a deal with Karl?
No, she can’t. So she hits him with a microscope.
There is no fiendish plan here for Columbo to unravel. This is a simple crime of passion, with money as the motive. Viveca is particularly sloppy in her lack of clean up efforts after the murder, leaving behind a picture of her on the dartboard, the impression of the distinctive octagonal-bottomed sample jar in some flour (hilariously convenient for Columbo, and pretty lousy writing from Jackson Gillis), a magazine on which she wrote offers of money to buy back the formula (also terrible writing – does she lose the power of speech at that moment?), and some broken glass on the carpet.
The writing is clearly the mistake that sets Columbo on the right course. There’s nearly always a moment that makes him focus on the correct suspect, confirming that he is on the right track, and this is it. The amounts of money are written in a black eyebrow pencil, and at first it looks like Viveca is in the clear:
“Brunettes use brown eyebrow pencil.”
Later, Columbo notices Viveca’s beauty spot, and asks how she applies that each day:
“I use an eyebrow pencil of course, a black one.”
It’s not so much that revelation that gives her away, it’s the uncomfortable pause before she delivers the line, which clearly indicates Columbo has got one over on her.
But the key piece of evidence is that broken glass, which is a clever bit of writing because a drinking glass was broken in the argument so it seems irrelevant, but some of the glass comes from a broken slide from the microscope, and touching that gives both Columbo and Viveca a skin irritation from poison ivy, placing Viveca at the murder scene… although I have to say it doesn’t seem like particularly conclusive evidence to me.
It’s almost entirely irrelevant to the plot in the end, but there is also…
The Second Murder
This is a fun strand to the episode, but never amounts to much. Viveca is being blackmailed by Lessing’s secretary, so she kills her with a poisoned cigarette. A second murder in a Columbo episode is often the one where the murderer is panicking and gets sloppy, but here it’s actually more clever because it’s premeditated rather than a crime of passion. Not for the first time, there is no mention of the second murder when Columbo wraps up the case, so Viveca basically gets away with it, despite Columbo mentioning earlier that there is some evidence that the victim was drugged.
You’ve got to feel sorry for Columbo’s wife. He uses her as an excuse or example for just about everything. Whoever he meets, his wife is of course a huge fan of them or their work or their products (naturally, Columbo’s wife uses Viveca’s products!). But this time he nearly books her in to Viveca’s “fat farm”.
“She’s got a little problem in that area.”
Just One More Thing
Columbo’s usual tactics don’t really work on Viveca. She realises almost immediately that he is trying to pin the murder on her and there is little of the usual faux-friendliness we normally see. That means Columbo has to be very persistent. Look out for a great moment where Columbo says he will tag along, and Viveca gives him a stern no to that suggestion, causing Columbo to make his face of puzzlement:
Despite the great cast this is a bit of a limp opener to the new season. We are lacking several of the elements that make Columbo episodes work so well, such as the perfect crime (the second murder qualifies, but she basically gets away with that one), the desperate attempts to cover mistakes (throwing the pot into the sea at the end doesn’t really count), the cards-on-the-table moment (instead, Viveca is on to Columbo from the start), and the murderer trying to explain the inconsistencies to Columbo (she just tries to blank him instead). The moment of triumph for Columbo at the end is relatively weak, and it doesn’t look like he has strong enough evidence to convict Viveca. It also relies on the viewers forgetting about the eyebrow pencil writing, which is much stronger evidence (a handwriting comparison perhaps, Columbo? An analysis of the formulation to match it with Viveca’s, like they do with ink?) but would presumably have closed the case too early and been less entertaining for us. And this is an entertaining episode. It might not engage the brain quite so much as the average Columbo episode, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Any Old Port in a Storm