Well, isn’t this a cheeky little wine, but not presumptuous, with a farty bouquet and top notes of mahogany and beefburger. Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the pompous world of wine appreciation, almost entirely debunked in blind taste tests as a skill that makes about as much sense as astrology. Anyone who is not massively snobbish and patronising need not apply.
Adrian Carsini inherited a vineyard and enormous wealth, and uses it to fund his collection of absurdly expensive wines. His brother Ric owns the land and isn’t too pleased with the way the family business is being run as a hobby by Adrian, so he has decided to sell the land to one of the big wine companies. Adrian isn’t too thrilled by that idea…
… so he picks up a heavy object and hits Ric over the head with it. At first I thought the murder victim was being played by a bad actor who couldn’t keep still, but instead he’s still alive, so Adrian shuts him in his wine cellar, turns off the air conditioning, and leaves him there to run out of oxygen while Adrian jets off to attend an event for oenophiles. On his return, his expert nose fails to detect anything a bit whiffy about an enclosed space somebody has died in, so he removes the body and drops him in the sea wearing scuba gear, leaving Ric’s car abandoned to stage a scuba diving accident.
Not, surprisingly, the Ric-shaped puddle of yuckiness that should be in the wine cellar, or the murder weapon, or marks of bindings around Ric’s arms and legs. None of those enter into the story because they would make Columbo’s life far too easy, so they are all conveniently ignored by the writer. Instead, there are inconsistencies with the scuba accident. Ric’s car is in perfect condition, despite supposedly being abandoned for a few days in all weathers, and nobody ever spotted it there. The autopsy shows that he hasn’t eaten for a couple of days, so he would hardly be scuba diving in a state of total starvation. Then there are the mistakes that lead Columbo to the identity of the murderer. Adrian allowed somebody else to decant a hugely expensive claret at the party on the night of the murder because he had shaky hands, but he never lets anyone else decant his wines. He lets Columbo into his vault, where Columbo manages to sneak out a bottle of port and take it to a meal in a restaurant with Adrian and makes arrangements with the wine steward to bring out Adrian’s own wine without his knowledge. Adrian makes a big scene because his expert palate detects that the wine has been exposed to high temperatures, unwittingly confirming that the air con was off in his wine vault on a hot day while he was away.
Allowing himself to be shut in the wine vault seems to be an alarming act of bravery from Columbo, although it turns out to be impossible to be trapped in there (without being tied up, of course). This is a great red herring moment, because it seems like one of the usual Columbo plot beats while in fact being something entirely different. There is often a moment where Columbo’s plans have been foiled, and the revelation that it’s impossible to get locked in the vault seems like one of those. Instead, it’s a moment that many of the cleverest episodes of Columbo have: the reversal of dramatic irony. Columbo episodes rely on the viewer knowing more than Columbo does for most of the episode, and there is often a turning point where he knows something we don’t instead. This is it. We don’t know he has no interest in the workings of the vault door, and instead is using it as an excuse to be left alone for long enough to pocket a bottle of port. It’s just a shame the moment is ruined by the clip of Adrian getting angry in the restaurant in the teaser at the start. This is a perfect example of why shows shouldn’t ever have those, because it’s too easy to join the dots between the spoiler at the start and the twist in the tale that happens in the restaurant.
Just One More Thing
Look out for a couple of moments where Columbo whistles “This Old Man”. It will become a bit of a thing. Here it is used firstly as an indication that he’s on to something and cheerful about that, and later as a precursor to a one-last-question.
This one really makes very little sense. Adrian leaves his brother alive in his wine vault instead of finishing the job right away, and in doing so jeopardises his beloved wine collection, which is his entire motive for bumping off his brother in the first place. A high temperature outside for one day wouldn’t bring the temperature in the dark, cool vault up to 150 degrees as claimed. That’s absurd. It would be the place in the building where the temperature rose the least. At the end of the episode we see Adrian throwing his collection into the sea because he knows it has been spoiled, including bottles of wine that are so expensive he knows nobody would ever drink them, and he is one of the few people in the world who can tell any difference anyway. If he’s doing it to get rid of evidence, that makes no sense either, as the absence of the collection would be harder to explain than the circumstantial evidence Columbo has managed to establish.
Despite a script that is full of holes, and plenty of padding (the lying/blackmail from Adrian’s secretary is largely irrelevant in the end), this one is hugely popular with Columbo fans, and that is of course thanks to the wonderful performance from Donald Pleasance as Adrian. The final moments of the episode are also fondly remembered, because they show a mutual admiration between Columbo and his adversary, at the end of an unusually cordial battle between detective and murderer. It is indeed a great moment, but it’s just a shame Columbo saves his respect for a man who is emotionally shut off to anything in his life that can’t be poured from a bottle, and is an insufferably patronising snob.
I love how Columbo uses his detective skills rather than his palate to identify a wine, and the way the writer cheekily sums up the whole world of wine appreciation; when Columbo asks an expert of over 40 years learning how you can tell a good wine from an average wine, this is the oenophile’s answer:
“By the price.”
The Emperor has no clothes. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Candidate for Crime
Donald Pleasance, a most distinctive acting presence for films like Halloween, THX 1138, Fantastic Voyage, and as James Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, makes a superb impression as one of the few murders whom Columbo can have a friendly respect for. Peter Falk, the master of Columbo’s humanity that he was, ends this episode well with “Thank you, sir. That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” is most heartfelt. It’s also another reason why I’m a fan of Brenda Blethyn as Vera Stanhope for her similar humanity. Thanks, RP. 🍷
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