When I was a child, I saw this episode of Columbo and absolutely loved it. This might just be the episode that turned me into a Columbo fan. Rewatching it as an adult, I thought it was the weakest episode so far. So what went so right and so wrong? Let’s find out.
Dr. Marshall Cahill is the director of the Cybernetic Research Institute. He is a pushy father who loves his son, but wants the reflected glory of a son who follows in his footsteps. Cracking under the pressure, his son has plagiarised somebody else’s work in order to win an award. Cahill’s colleague Dr. Howard Nicholson has found out, and is threatening to expose his son as a fraud. Nicholson doesn’t realise that Cahill is a man who will do anything for his son, even murder…
Cahill seems to come up with a very clever plan. He secretly leaves a robot in charge of a simulation which he is supposedly in charge of himself, providing him with an alibi. He takes a car pool car that is allocated to somebody else, drives over to Nicholson’s place, and runs him over in the car. Then he drags the body into the house to make it look like… well, I’m not quite sure what he was trying to do, but we’ll get to that. He returns the car, and later uses his own car to have an accident that explains the damage to the car he used as a murder weapon. How will Columbo deal with an ingenious murder committed by such a clever man?
Quite easily, as it turns out. Cahill’s big mistake is to drag the body into the house and try to stage… what is he actually doing there? It’s like half a robbery, with furniture smashed up, and half a murder committed by an acquaintance, with two drinks left on the table. Columbo is quick to point out that a burglar who murders wouldn’t have been enjoying a drink with his victim, whereas an acquaintance wanting to making it look like a burglary wouldn’t have left the drinks there. If Cahill had just left the body outside, he might have had a better chance of getting away with it, although the car pool car has an extra 3 miles on the clock. A lot of fuss is also made about the remains of a cigar, leading Columbo immediately to the cigar-smoking Cahill, and also some boot polish on a door, which indicates the body was carried by somebody big and strong.
Lots of Columbo episodes have a moment of setback for the lieutenant. Here he tries to replicate the robot providing Cahill with an alibi, only for the attempt to fail. It’s an odd bit of writing because Columbo immediately realises that it counts for nothing, because Cahill could have been clever enough to achieve what “child genius” Steve Spelberg (I wonder who he’s named after) couldn’t manage. In the end, it doesn’t mean anything much one way or the other.
Just One More Thing
The obvious reason I loved this as a child is the inclusion of Robby the Robot as MM7, and the child genius. As an adult watching, this all looks utterly ridiculous. I would be amazed if a robot could achieve what MM7 does nowadays, let alone in 1974, and the idea that a little boy had made him was unintentionally hilarious. When Columbo left his dog there to be walked by the robot I winced at the idea, expecting a yelp and a crushed dog any second. Remarkably, Lee Montgomery managed to make Steve reasonably likeable, against all the odds. In the hands of another child actor he could easily have been insufferably obnoxious.
I mentioned that Columbo’s failed demonstration with the robot doesn’t mean anything much, and that’s a problem for so many plot developments here. Margaret Nicholson behaves in a weird an irrational manner. There might be some kind of a justification for her behaviour, but if so we are never privy to it beyond guess work. For a supposed genius, Cahill’s faked crime scene is absurdly incompetent, as is his theft of the file on the original creator of his son’s work, while leaving the index card in place, but none of Cahill’s glaring errors count for anything in the end, even the cigar remnants that Columbo keeps going on about, because the gotcha moment is a simple confession, achieved by a desperate father whose son has just been framed by Columbo. This should have been a triumphant moment of the great lieutenant’s street smarts and experience triumphing over supposedly superior intelligence, but instead his opponent isn’t much of a challenge at all. Maybe it all comes down to one key truth of the human condition: intelligence and common sense are not the same thing. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Swan Song
With Robby the Robot appearing in Columbo, along with five sci-fi actors as guest stars: Star Trek’s Robert Walker Jr. (Charlie X) and Arthur Batanides (That Which Survives), Planet Of The Apes’ Lou Wagner and Lew Ayres, and the original Dune’s Jose Ferrer as the murderer, it might add a slightly imaginable sci-fi flavor to a Columbo episode. Also there’s the honor of having Play Misty For Me’s and Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter. I must agree however that this was not one of the best ones for Columbo. Your point on intelligence and common sense not being the same thing is worth remembering it for. Thanks, RP.
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Let’s face it. This is the one episode where looking at it today, we just KNOW the case is going to get thrown out because what Columbo does to coerce a confession from Cahill crosses the most unethical lines of police procedure in the history of the show. There are other episodes where he is borderline or technically guilty of it but most of the time we can laugh it off a bit. In this instance though it involves traumatizing a totally innocent party in Neal in order to get the father to break and that is something that in today’s climate really comes off as unpleasant.
Jessica Walter is the kind of actress who easily could have been a Columbo killer in her own right. It’s a pity her only time on the series was in a totally throwaway part like this one.
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