You can’t keep a good crook down. Not content with escaping from prison once and disguising himself with a dodgy moustache as American Football manager Paul Hanlon, private investigator turned murderer Carl Brimmer has done it again. It’s no wonder Columbo is on to him right away, despite his second alter ego Dr Bart Keppel committing what appears to be the perfect crime. Yes, Robert Culp is back to play the murderer again, in his third Columbo appearance.
Keppel is a motivational research specialist. In other words he studies people’s shopping habits and uses his observations on their psychology to advise advertising clients. He has been blackmailing his best customer, Vic Norris, having framed him in an indiscretion, something he has apparently done many times before. That might seem like an odd thing to do to your best customer, but there you go. Vic is having none of it, and is threatening to expose Keppel’s crimes. He’s got to go…
This is a strong candidate for the cleverest murder we have ever seen. Keppel phones Vic’s wife anonymously and tells her about the affair, asking her to meet him. That gets her out of her house and on her own, so he can attempt to frame her. At a premiere of his motivational sales film, he plies Vic with some very salty caviar, having inserted a subliminal image of a drink into his film. His live narration on stage is a recording. When Vic, inspired by the subliminal image, leaves the theatre, Keppel is ready and waiting to shoot him. He uses his own gun, modified with a calibration converter, which he removes and hides in his office. He has a whole bunch of people who will alibi him because they thought he was on stage the whole time, he has no apparent motive, and he has implicated an obvious suspect. Will this be third time lucky for Paul/Carl/Bart? Does practice make perfect?
Columbo always seems to be something of an expert in human psychology, and as usual he is quick to spot the murderer’s odd behaviour. He behaved in an inhumanly cool manner, picking up his tape after the murder and returning it to the vault (in reality, he needed to get rid of it and replace it with a splice-free print). He easily explains that away as being an organised, calm individual. Columbo commits that to memory and uses it later against him; Keppel’s tape player was found in the lobby, recording what was going on. The pretext for that was to record a question and answer session (in reality it was recording over his narration), but why would Keppel switch it on after the murder? He says he switched it on in the auditorium, but the recording doesn’t back that up, so he eventually has to revert to that old excuse most of the murderers trot out to explain their odd behaviour: people do illogical things when they have had a shock. As Columbo points out, that is inconsistent with the unmoved, calm person Keppel is supposed to be, as an explanation for getting on with what he had to do with the tape. This is just circumstantial, and Columbo collects plenty of little clues (showing great cunning in establishing with a sneaky collect call that Keppel lied about not knowing the woman Vic was supposedly having an affair with, for example), but nothing sufficient to close the case until the gotcha moment at the end, but he’s too late to prevent…
The Second Murder
It’s the old story. The projectionist has figured out what Keppel did, has the proof that Columbo lacks, and wants money. This is often the point at which the murderer panics and commits a much sloppier second murder, or at the very least a more straightforward one, but in this instance it’s almost as clever as the first, something I don’t think we have ever seen before. Keppel uses it as an opportunity to strengthen the case against the woman he is trying to frame, breaking into Vic’s house and stealing a gun, so the murder weapon will throw suspicion on Vic’s widow. He kills the projectionist and then replaces the first reel for the second himself, setting the time of murder later in the day, by which time Keppel is in the company of Columbo himself. Columbo is Keppel’s alibi!
I always look out for the moment when all pretence is dropped. Columbo lets the murderer know he’s on to him, and the murderer basically stops pretending to be innocent and defaults to a position of pointing out to Columbo that he doesn’t have any proof. In this instance that happens on a golf course, after a great war of words with each of them getting one up on each other in turn, amusingly putting Keppel off his stroke. From then on, it’s all about finding the proof that Keppel thinks Columbo can never get. That proof would have surely been his film with the subliminal frame, and that’s long gone…
Just One More Thing
Columbo helps himself to some caviar because he missed dinner. He is hungry and tired, because he has been “working late on that Hayward case”. Astonishingly, that indicates that at least part of this episode takes place concurrently with the previous one, and Columbo is working on both cases at the same time. This man isn’t just good at his job; he’s extraordinary.
OK, there are problems with this. The reason for the original blackmail is hard to fathom, considering Vic was already Keppel’s best customer. The subliminal stuff is all nonsense. It almost certainly doesn’t work in reality and there was never a law passed against it in the USA, as Keppel claims. Vic could have walked out to get a drink at any point after eating that salty caviar. Keppel couldn’t have controlled the timing of that with a single frame of a picture of a drink. Columbo’s subliminal images at the end also would not have worked, so you have to suspend disbelief a little more than usual for a Columbo episode. Perhaps at the time the viewers would have been taken in a bit more by all that stuff, so I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that it’s a fault with the writing.
The episode packs a bit too much into the shorter running time. This really needed to be one of those 90 minute episodes. Both murders were extremely clever and complex, and I had to keep pausing and going back a bit to watch some scenes twice, just to make sure I wasn’t missing any of the details. The longer running time would have allowed the story to breathe a little better, and I’m starting to come to the conclusion that it is generally a better format for these stories. This one felt rushed. You also have to suspend disbelief for the ending, with Keppel not noticing Columbo very obviously hiding in his room, and having failed to dispose of the calibration converter since the murder, which seems very odd to say the least, but it still stands as a really fun gotcha moment, with Culp playing it at the end as Keppel apparently descending into insanity. As he laughs at Columbo’s ingenuity, there’s madness behind those eyes. After losing three times to the same detective, I’m not surprised. Maybe Hanlon/Brimmer/Keppel will stay in prison where he belongs this time, but I wouldn’t like to bet on it. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Publish or Perish