Columbo: An Exercise in Fatality (Review)

Columbo Peter FalkLieutenant Columbo nearly always finds something to admire or respect in his enemies, but we start the fourth season with a different vibe altogether. Milo Janus has no redeeming features, and Columbo is the man to take him down.

The Motive

Milo runs a network of gyms on a franchise model. The franchisees are under contract to buy from specific suppliers, who are all ripping them off, right down to the paperclips. One of the franchisees is Gene Stafford, who is being bled dry by his overheads, and has done a bit of digging. It turns out that Milo owns all the suppliers, and is getting the huge amount of money he raises from them out of the country without paying the proper taxes.

“I’m going to get the rest of these suckers together and I’m going to start a class action against you.”

Milo faces the collapse of his business empire and charges of grand larceny, unless Gene can be silenced…

The Murder

Brutal and messy. The murder itself is one of the most untidy ones we have ever seen. Milo tries to strangle Gene in his office, he slips out of his grasp, runs through a table tennis room and then is cornered and finished off with an iron bar. But if the murder is clumsy, the cover-up is almost poetic in its intricacy. Milo changes Gene into gym clothes, lifts him onto a bench and places a barbell across his neck, making it look like a bench-pressing accident. He then heads off to provide himself with an alibi, staging a fake phone conversation with Gene by using the two phone lines into his home and a recording of a phone call from earlier in the day. It looks like the perfect alibi.

The Mistakes

Loads of them, but oddly not the obvious ones I was expecting. A gym owner would surely know better than to ever bench press without a spotter, and Columbo could easily have put together a picture of the motive by speaking to other franchisees, who were similarly disgruntled. That’s all ignored, but there are plenty of mistakes for Columbo to choose from.

Firstly, the crime scene doesn’t add up to an accident. There is evidence of a struggle in the office, and marks of brown shoes on the recently polished floor where Gene ran from his attacker. Gene had just eaten a takeaway meal, so would hardly work out straight after that.

The alibi is also easy to unpick, and the big mistake that sends Columbo off in the right direction is the indicator light not working on Milo’s phone. He removed it so nobody would know the call was coming from his other phone, and he never replaced it. From there Columbo is able to piece together the fake phone call, complete with spliced audio from the secretary’s phone record from earlier in the day. The gotcha moment is magnificent, and revolves around the victim’s shoelaces, which were tied in such a way that he couldn’t have put his own shoes on. That proves he was changed into gym clothes by the murderer, and Milo claimed that Gene said he was working out during the alibi phone call.

“How did you know he was in the gym clothes if you didn’t change the clothes? You tried to contrive the perfect alibi, sir, and it’s your perfect alibi that’s gonna hang you.”


My opening comment at the top of this article was only 99% true, because Columbo does initially express his admiration for Milo, due to his television show, preserving the usual format of a famous and/or powerful enemy for Columbo. However, what’s different here is how Columbo ends up so angry with Milo, to the point that he nearly loses his cool. There’s normally a cards-on-the-table moment but this one’s different because it isn’t designed to make the murderer slip up in some way, like they usually are. This is no carefully timed baiting of his enemy. Instead, it’s a genuine expression of disgust with a man sitting in a hospital waiting room, pretending to be concerned for a woman he has driven to an attempt on her own life. There is no love lost here.

Just One More Thing

There is a comedy scene I absolutely loved, with Columbo trying to get information about a private detective employed by Gene, and waiting in frustration for a computer to very slowly print out a huge amount of unnecessary information, although he only asked where the man works. He then goes on to try to phone the guy, and starts talking with an answerphone message by mistake. It seems like a funny bit of padding, until later in the episode when it becomes clear that the confusion with the answerphone was the trigger for Columbo starting to think on the right lines about the faked phone call. That’s good writing, when the breather moments in the episode have an important point to them.

The Verdict

Lots of funny moments in this one, including the sight of Columbo surreptitiously emptying sand into Milo’s plants and pretending he doesn’t hate the carrot juice and health pills he is offered for breakfast. But this one does drag on a bit, and could have benefited from being slimmed down, perhaps losing the scenes with Milo’s business associate Buddy Castle and also with the private detective, none of which is particularly necessary to the story. Other than that, this is a great start to the season, with an alibi that seems initially perfect but proves to be as holey as Swiss cheese, and a real grudge match between Columbo and the murderer. In the world of Columbo, exercise is not always good for the health.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Negative Reaction

About Roger Pocock

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4 Responses to Columbo: An Exercise in Fatality (Review)

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Great drama in this one and with a great guest cast: Robert Conrad (The Wild Wild West), Gretchen Corbett (Beth Davenport of The Rockford Files), Pat Harrington Jr. (One Day At A Time’s Schneider) and Collin Wilcox Patton who is famous as To Kill A Mockingbird’s Mayella Violet Ewell. Peter Falk gets to show how really adaptable Columbo can be when he takes on the exercise routines at Janus’ facility. It’s fun even if unsurprisingly replaced by how serious Columbo can be when closing in on the murderer. The buildup to how Columbo can understand how the murder was done proves that luck is always on the great detective’s side, which he’s always quite open about. And shoelaces that finally do Janus in are a quintessential example of Columbo’s strong attention to detail. Thanks, RP, for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. epaddon says:

    Once Gretchen Corbett opens the door you can never look at Beth Davenport in quite the same way again. 🙂

    Gene Stafford wins the award for victim who is too stupid to realize it may not be a good idea to tell someone as physically imposing as Milo is that he’s going to get him sent to jail, because does he think Milo’s just going to stand there and maybe not at the minimum do something threatening to him in return? At the very least he shouldn’t be doing this after hours when no one else is around!

    Also, one little problem with Columbo blowing apart the alibi. His demonstration is based on showing how a right-handed person ties his shoes but if you look carefully at the beginning, you’ll notice that Gene Stafford is holding the pencil in his left hand which means that’s the one he writes with!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Daisy Blount says:

    This is one of my favourite episodes, as the plot and interactions between Columbo and murderer are excellent.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Jesse Maiolo says:

    What private detective? The guy checking the books who was fired from his job?


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