After a couple of turkeys, I was starting to think the best days were behind this series of B movies, but this is a little gem of a film. If you’re a Columbo fan, you’ll probably love this one, because it follows all the familiar plot beats of that series.
Firstly we get to see the murder play out and, as per many Columbo episodes, it’s an ingenious crime committed by a rich, powerful man. The viewer is wrong-footed for a while, because it looks like a simple matter of a man hiring an ex-con to stage a robbery of fake diamonds from his safe. Sneaky Ray sells this plan to likeable crook Arthur Payne as a way to get one up on his treacherous wife, who has been secretly selling off the jewellery and replacing it with fakes behind her husband’s back, while having an affair with another man. Ray says something to the effect of forcing his wife to confess when they claim on the insurance and then being able to dictate the terms of their divorce. I was thinking that doesn’t really hang together, but my assumption that it was bad writing was completely wrong. It doesn’t hang together because it’s a lie.
Arthur shows up at what he thinks is Ray’s house, is interrupted in the act of burgling the safe, in which he finds a gun and nothing of value, and scarpers to a nearby house to hide out. When the police arrive on the scene, we get the big twist surprise: it’s not Ray’s house at all, and a woman is lying dead, shot by the gun Arthur found. It’s all a massive set-up, so Ray’s rich chum Theo Gaunt could murder his wife. How will Columbo solve this one?
OK, so I had to keep reminding myself that it isn’t a Columbo episode, although Inspector Jackson (John Carson) is similarly likeable and has the problem of a rich enemy to deal with and a boss who wants the case sewn up quickly and can’t see past the obvious solution. Who is going to believe Arthur? The plot turns on a piece of evidence that is actually even more clever than most Columbo gotcha moments: Arthur was paid £50 up front to do the job, and then Theo tried to make out that £50 was stolen from his safe, except Arthur had already spent a fiver in his local convenience store, something the owner can corroborate. How could he have spent some of the money he stole from a safe, before he committed the crime?
Arthur is helped by the owner of the house where he hides out, and if it were not for her belief in him the inspector would likely have just closed the case without taking his story into account, so she’s a key player in this story. On paper it looks like an absurd idea, and the actors must have wondered how they were going to make it work: Pamela (Pamela Greer, incorrectly credited as playing “Sally”) has just met Arthur, a man who has broken into her house, and within minutes she’s giving him tea and covering for him when the police arrive. Both actors are so good that they somehow make it work. Arthur comes across as very credible and Pamela’s expressions display a subtle attraction to him. She also has a steely determination to do what’s right, which will not be shaken by any potential danger from Arthur or threats from the police. She’s a great character, among a whole cast of great characters, from nasty, duplicitous Ray, who double-crosses everyone, to his hard-hearted girlfriend who took Theo for a fool. Even the cameo appearances are magnificent, including Ray’s pervy friends who turn up to drool over some telephoto scenes of a French beach, and best of all shopkeeper Pop Medwin, a crazy old coot who bizarrely thinks having an imaginary wife upstairs will deter a thief from stealing his cash box stuffed with bank notes, because he doesn’t believe in banks. Then we have the murderer himself, who is far from being a sympathetic figure but definitely a character trope we can understand, best summed up by his own words at the end:
“Is there anything more pathetic than a middle aged fool?”
This one was a joy to watch from beginning to end, everything from the atmospheric opening shot of the train to the inspector’s bluff to force a confession. It didn’t just remind me of Columbo, it felt like watching Columbo at its very best. Long-term readers of this blog, who know how much I love that series, will realise what a high compliment that is. The intricacy of the murder plot is even lampshaded, a clever use of a trope that was years ahead of its time in 1963:
“My wife reads that sort of stuff in bed. Even she doesn’t believe in it.”
The writer of this one was Roger Marshall, who also penned the enjoyable Solo for Sparrow. That one suffered a little from the story not quite fitting comfortably within the one-hour format, but The Set Up is clearly the work of a writer at the top of his game. He has four more entries in this film series, so I will be looking forward to those. It’s hard to see how he can better this one, but for now my faith in The Edgar Wallace Mysteries is restored. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Edgar Wallace Mysteries: Incident at Midnight