It’s the season finale of Columbo, so what’s the perfect way to end the third series? By pitting Columbo against his own boss. This is going to be a tricky one…
The First Murder
In terms of the first murder, it’s simply a crime of passion. Hugh Caldwell’s wife is having affairs, so things are not great between them. One evening they have a row, the fight gets physical, and his wife ends up dead. But this isn’t really the main focus of the story, because Hugh’s neighbour and friend is Columbo’s boss, Deputy Commissioner Mark Halperin, and he is keen to help Hugh. The friendship is obviously strong enough for Hugh to go to Mark for help, and some reviewers question how realistic it is that a friendship would make Mark cover up for Hugh, but that misses the point. Mark has surely spotted the opportunity to sort out a problem in his own life. This man doesn’t do anything out of the kindness of his heart.
Mark sends Hugh off to the bar, goes to the house, pretends to be Hugh’s wife phoning Hugh at the bar, and stages a burglary. To alibi Hugh successfully, his wife needs to be changed into her bedclothes, and the bed is untidied, to make it look as if she was disturbed by a burglar. While Hugh is still at the bar, Mark returns home, pretends he sees and intruder, and reports the crime. This is just the start of Mark’s dastardly schemes.
The Second Murder
Mark’s wife is rich, and he wants control of her money. So he strangles her when she is taking a bath. Now it’s Hugh’s turn to provide the alibi. Mark goes up in a helicopter on the ruse of searching the neighbourhood, while Hugh pretends to be a burglar, carrying out the body of Mark’s wife under the spotlight of the helicopter and throwing it into the pool. A strangulation in the bath becomes a drowning in the pool, the desperate act of a serial burglar and killer.
The first cover-up is the one that’s really a big mess. There is an unworn nightdress under the pillow, but Hugh’s wife has been changed into another one from the closet. The maid cleaned the house earlier in the day, and the closet doesn’t have any fingerprints on the handles, nor are there any fingerprints on the telephone. The prints of Hugh’s wife should be on both, if he’s telling the truth. As for the second murder, there’s soap in the lungs of Mark’s wife, but she was supposed to have drowned in the pool and her bath was dry, a clear indication she was murdered earlier in the day.
The case itself is not hugely challenging, despite being complex and involving two men working together, but the real challenge is dealing with a murderous boss. One thing that really keeps the viewers on the edge of their seats with this one is watching how Columbo has to play a very clever game. He can’t make a nuisance of himself, as he generally does. Most of his work has to take place away from the gaze of his boss, who has the power to order him off the case or even take his badge off him. As it is, Mark tries to steer Columbo down a route he knows to be a red herring: burglaries in the neighbourhood. The sheer genius of this script is the way Columbo simply does what he is told, and then uses that to his advantage.
Just One More Thing
There is some confusion caused by Mark assigning Columbo to the case, and it’s not entirely clear why this happens. Some reviewers attempt to suggest he might not be aware how good Columbo is, but that’s clearly not the case. The line “Lieutenant, nobody can be right all the time,” is a clear indication that Columbo’s track record is impeccable and he knows it. There are three possible explanations: (1) Mark has no choice, as Columbo is the only sensible person for the job, (2) Mark has to be seen to be using the best possible person to investigate a crime spree on his own doorstep, to avoid looking suspicious, or (3) He is simply so arrogant that he thinks he can outsmart anyone, even Columbo. The last of those three options would seem to fit perfectly with what we see of Mark’s personality.
This one is a tangled web, and it’s fun to see Columbo on the back foot, up against his most difficult enemy ever, which makes his triumph all the more satisfying. I found the gotcha moment at the end very guessable, but that didn’t stop it from being a hugely fun moment. As soon as I saw Mark looking at those files on Columbo’s desk, I knew he was being set up, but what a glorious trap Columbo sets for him. The ending was made even more perfect by what it lacked: no moment of cordial respect for his enemy, like we so often see. Columbo has no words of comfort for this cold-hearted killer, who has brought his own profession into disrespect. He simply walks away.
… and we are walking away from the world of Columbo for a while, with a busy schedule of Halloween and Christmas articles for most of our remaining Sundays this year, but don’t worry. Columbo will be back in 2022, with An Exercise in Fatality. See you next year, Columbo fans! RP