A dishonest politician? Surely not. They are all upstanding, honest people with only good intentions, right?
Nelson Hayward (Jackie Cooper) is a candidate in an election, and looks likely to win, thanks to his genius of a campaign manager, Harry Stone (Ken Swofford). Harry is very much the power behind the throne, and now he is demanding that Nelson severs ties with his secret girlfriend Linda (Tisha Sterling) to be a “happily married senator”. Nelson isn’t too happy about this.
“Harry stay out of my private life.”
“You don’t have a private life.”
That’s not the motive, though. Everybody seems to get this wrong, including the most prominent Columbo reviewer on the net, who complains that Nelson’s feelings towards Linda do not seem strong enough to motivate him to murder. But Nelson had clearly already planned to murder Harry before he demands the end of the affair (the pre-ordered jacket proves that beyond any doubt). Instead the motive is a wider issue. Harry has achieved what Nelson wanted him to achieve, but now he’s trying to keep running the show, and worse still he has dirt on Harry. All the dirt. He has to go…
I love it when the murderer comes up with a complex plan that seems to be the perfect crime. This one is ingenious. Nelson swaps clothes with Harry on the pretext of giving his police protection officers the slip so he can go and see Linda. Instead, he follows Harry to his beach house, shoots him, puts a broken watch stopped at a later time on his wrist, and then heads off to host a surprise party for his wife. For all the world, it looks like a political murder attempt on Nelson’s life has gone wrong, and it’s a case of mistaken identity because Harry was wearing his clothes. The surprise party is a perfect excuse for swapping clothes to give the protection officers the slip in the first place. There’s a great bit of misdirection from the director when it looks like Nelson is about to kill his wife as well, but he’s just surprising her for the party. Later, he slips away from the party and rings the police, pretending to be the murderer (well, he is the murderer, but you know what I mean):
“You’ll find what’s left of him in the garage at his beach house.”
An interesting thing about a lot of Columbo episodes is how the mistakes are unforeseen but also unavoidable, or at the very least the sort of thing the murderer would never dream of anyone noticing, which shows how brilliant Columbo is at picking up on small details. The broken watch is a flimsy thing, which Harry would never have bought because he always purchased durable clothing etc. After a 35 minute drive to the beach house, Columbo’s engine took nearly an hour and fifty minutes to cool, but the car Harry drove was cold when the police turned up. Harry was kept in the dark about the surprise party (he had to be), but that didn’t make any sense because he kept an appointment calendar for Nelson with every last detail of his life. Nelson ordered a new jacket to replace the one worn by Harry six days before he should have known he needed one. Then there’s the problem of where that phone call came from. There’s nothing on the phone records of the beach house, and the nearest public phone was too far away and was behind locked doors at the time anyway. But the biggest mistake is Nelson trying to pretend there’s an attempt on his life, to deflect suspicion away from himself onto an imaginary political killer. Columbo is one step ahead of him…
I love it when Columbo gets the murderers trying to explain inconsistencies. It’s bound to confirm he’s on the right track, because why would an innocent person want to do that? Nelson goes mad at the suggestion that it wasn’t a case of mistaken identity, which is of course an absurd reaction unless he’s the killer:
“I thought you’d be relieved.”
Nelson manages to explain away the new jacket by saying he needed a new one anyway. Here, again, I think other reviewers misunderstand what’s going on, complaining that Columbo doesn’t pick up on the inconsistency between Nelson having already said he was in two minds about ordering another of the same jackets, and now saying he had already ordered a replacement. But I think Columbo does realise that, but to say so would not serve his purpose. Instead, he does what he often does, lulling his opponent into a false sense of security by allowing him one or two little victories, before delivering a knock out blow: the problem of the phone call. That has Nelson desperately shouting possible explanations at Columbo while he’s filming a campaign video, none of which make any sense, a classic example of the murderer trying to explain his mistake. Where that doesn’t really work, it has to be said, is in the writers conveniently ignoring that Columbo could simply have checked the phone records of Nelson’s own house, and wrapped up the case without all this hassle.
Just One More Thing
For the first time, we see Columbo’s boss, and he’s clearly not as clever as Columbo. It feels like a misstep to introduce him to us, and perhaps he should have remained an unseen character like Columbo’s wife. It’s hard to pin down why it feels so wrong, but I think one reason is the way he has been shown in the past to have complete faith in Columbo, always on his side even at great potential cost to the department’s finances and reputation, and unwavering in the face of pressure from powerful people. This guy has always had his back, and knows that Columbo is a horse he can always bet on. And yet… when we finally get to meet him it’s hard to reconcile him with that person.
This is a masterpiece of how to utilise the longer episode format. Not only do we get to spend more time enjoying Columbo’s character quirks, but just about everything that appears to be padding turns out to be significant in some way (perhaps the only exception being the dentist appointment, but that’s huge fun so what does it matter?). A great example is when the traffic cops stop Columbo and instruct him to fix his car. It looks like padding. That leads him to take it to the garage closest to the beach house, which also looks like padding, until it leads to an important discovery: the garage was closed at the time of the murder, and that was where the nearest public phone would have been. That leads to a great moment where Nelson thinks he has successfully explained the inconsistency between the time on the watch and the distance to the garage by saying Harry set his watch five minutes fast, only to find that Columbo has withheld the crucial piece of information about the garage being closed. It’s a fabulous mini- gotcha moment on the road to the big one at the end, with Columbo completely outsmarting the murderer.
“I dug this bullet out of that wall three hours before you said that somebody fired at you three minutes ago.”
This one has a powerful murderer, a clever crime, plenty of humour, lots of twists and turns along the way, and a knockout gotcha moment at the end. If you want to see the perfect formula for a Columbo episode, look no further. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Double Exposure