Columbo: Negative Reaction (Review)

Columbo Peter FalkOh it’s a jolly holiday with Lorna.
Lorna makes your heart so light.
When the day is grey and ordinary,
Lorna makes the sun shine bright.

… but Lorna is Paul Galesko’s secretary, and he’s married to a monster of a woman named Frances instead. He’s looking forward to a jolly holiday, but it won’t be with Frances. In the starring role as Paul Galesko is none other than Dick Van Dyke, in one of his most surprising roles. This is going to be supercali… well, you get the idea.

The Motive

“I was chained to you like a monkey chained to an organ grinder. Whatever tune you played I had to dance to, Frances.”

Paul doesn’t want to be chained to Frances any more, and it’s not difficult to see why. She’s an insufferable snob who seems to hate her husband. Beyond that, a specific motive is unspoken, but it’s reasonable to assume that Paul doesn’t want a messy divorce and just wants to get rid of his hideous wife so he can enjoy life with his pretty young secretary. They’re off on holiday together soon, minus his wife, and he’s not just looking to go fly a kite with Lorna.

The Murder

A complicated and clever double murder. Paul hires an ex-con, Alvin Deschler for some apparently innocent work, purchasing a ranch on his behalf. Paul then drives his wife to the ranch and kills her, staging a kidnapping attempt and pretending that Deschler is the kidnapper. Then he goes to a meeting with Deschler, shoots him, and uses Deschler’s gun to shoot himself in the leg, so he can pretend he was shot by a kidnapper and acted in self-defence. It’s hard to care about the death of his wife, but Deschler seems like a nice chap and doesn’t deserve his fate.

The Mistakes

There are lots of little inconsistencies. One of Columbo’s greatest strengths is his deep understanding of how people act in dangerous situations. He knows that it makes little sense for a man to shoot a kidnapper before finding out where his wife is, or to arrive to a meeting with the kidnapper half an hour late. It’s not impossible for Paul to explain those things away, but to do so he has to keep subtly adjusting his story. In the end he has to resort to that weak explanation we’ve heard many times before in Columbo episodes, when the murderer is running out of ideas: “I wasn’t thinking clearly at all.”

Deschler also doesn’t fit the normal profile of a kidnapper either. He has apparently behaved like an idiot, leaving behind all the evidence, including the cut up paper and glue from the ransom note, and yet Columbo establishes that the room had been cleaned so the paper should have been thrown away, and if the maid was lying about that (Paul’s suggestion), where was the mess from cutting out the words? Despite just having got out of prison, penniless and unemployed, Deschler was driving around in cabs, buying a camera and a ranch on behalf of somebody else, so clearly had an accomplice.

Then there are the little details of the crime that don’t add up. A clock at the dusty murder scene is dust-free and on top of dust, so had just been put there for the sake of the kidnapper photo. There were powder burns around the bullet hole on Paul’s leg, but not Deschler’s fatal wound, indicating that Paul was shot at point blank range but Deschler wasn’t, and a local drunkard remembers a time lapse between the two shots.

But the key to this story is Paul’s field of expertise. He’s a famous photographer, and his skills are his downfall. Columbo finds his discarded first attempt at a kidnapping photo, which only a skilled photographer would have rejected due to considerations like composition of shot. That’s not enough though. Columbo has to resort to some very sneaky tactics to get the proof he needs…

Columbo

Although this episode features a comedy actor in the lead role, all the humour is to be found elsewhere. There are two very funny scenes. Firstly, Columbo visits a soup kitchen to speak with the drunkard witness, and is mistaken by a nun for a down-and-out.

“I’ve had this coat for seven years.”
“Oh, you poor man.”

Later, Columbo wants to speak to the driving test examiner who gave Deschler his licence so he could hire a car on the day of the murder. The examiner is horrified by the experience of being in a car with Columbo driving. It’s very funny, but there is a slight problem with this particular brand of humour, because Columbo works best when the Lieutenant’s bumbling nature is nothing more than an act to disarm his enemies, and we have often seen the mask slip when he’s angry or goes on the attack. In fact, we see exactly that at the end of the episode. So showing him as genuinely incompetent in this way undermines that just a little. When the Sister of Mercy said “I won’t tell a soul about your disguise”, she actually hits the nail on the head, because Columbo does disguise his true nature, as a tactic in the game he plays with his enemies. Showing that disguise as his true self is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

Just One More Thing

The gotcha moment at the end is great. Columbo has made an enlargement of the kidnapper photo, showing the time on the clock as 10am. Paul realises the shot has been reversed and thinks he is being framed, and in the heat of the moment grabs the camera with the negative still inside, from a shelf of a dozen other cameras. How did he know which camera belonged to the kidnapper, if he didn’t take the picture himself?

“Were you a witness to what he just did?”

The Verdict

… and yet, it’s slightly lacking, despite being a magnificently dramatic moment. Yes, Paul could have found other ways out of the fix he was in, demonstrating the shot was reversed in other ways, such as the layout of the ranch compared to the photo, but it makes perfect sense that he would react in the heat of the moment by reaching for the proof that was just sitting on a shelf in front of him. But this is not the first time that Columbo has crossed a line, or at least stepped on it, by fabricating evidence in order to provoke a mistake from the murderer. It’s not quite a pyrrhic victory, but it’s enough of a cheat that Columbo probably doesn’t feel satisfied by his win. His slumped shoulders as the credits roll say it all. This time, Columbo can’t feel a surge of deep satisfaction at the life he leads.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: By Dawn’s Early Light

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Reviews, Television and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Columbo: Negative Reaction (Review)

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Good point about the gotcha moment. Certainly when we have Dick Van Dyke is an against-type role for Columbo’s adversary. It could naturally be seen differently today with how such gotcha elements are more realized in TV crime dramas like the Law & Order shows and FBI. But for all Peter Falk fans, it’s welcomed for how Columbo like any unique sleuth has his or her own brand of final confrontations with the culprit. Thanks again, RP, for another great Columbo review.

    Liked by 1 person

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