If there’s one episode of Columbo that stuck in my mind the most from my childhood, it was probably this one. It was certainly in the top two or three that made a huge impression on me, and unlike Mind Over Mayhem there’s no obvious reason for this one to appeal to a child. So I think it has to come down to the idea of a man getting blown up by a cannon, and the performance of Number Six himself, Patrick McGoohan, in his first Columbo role. Unlike Mind Over Mayhem, I still think By Dawn’s Early Light is brilliant.
Col. Lyle C. Rumford runs a military academy. He is married to his job, with a later conversation with Columbo making it reasonably clear that he has nothing else in his life apart from some roses in his garden. The owner of the academy, William Haynes, is the grandson of the founder. He doesn’t like Rumford, who gave him a hard time when he was a cadet at the academy himself. He has decided he is going to turn the academy into a co-ed junior college, and he has the support of the board of trustees. Haynes can finally get rid of the man who made his life a misery as a cadet, but Rumford isn’t ready to retire to his rose garden yet. In the wake of the Vietnam War, he is fighting against the tide of change: “nobody wants to play soldier any more.”
This is a clever one, because it relies on Rumford’s deep understanding of his cadets, including former cadet Haynes. He knows that if he tells Haynes that he wants somebody else to preside over the parade on their founder’s day, Haynes will insist on being the one who does that. Columbo later finds a file on Haynes that describes him as somebody who will go out of his way to do the opposite of what he’s told. That places Haynes in the right place at the right time, firing the ceremonial cannon. The night before, Rumford rigged it so it would explode. Boom! Bits of Haynes all over the parade ground. Get those blades of grass scrubbed, you ‘orrible little cadets, and don’t forget to pick up all the bits!
Establishing the motive is the difficult bit for Columbo. He finds a blueprint for the new college, but has no way of knowing what it means, so he has to figure that out. Up until that point, the possibility remains that somebody could have been trying to kill Rumford. It also takes a long time to remove the problem of the scapegoat. Rumford cleverly gave an unreliable cadet the job of cleaning the cannon the night before, to cast suspicion on him instead, but it turns out he was so unreliable that he had skipped off to see his girlfriend. The fact that Rumford placed a troublesome cadet on what is seen as an honour duty is suspicious in itself.
It’s relatively easy to piece together the clues that indicate Haynes was murdered. Columbo finds the rag that was used to block the cannon, and analysis of the shell shows that the powder inside was replaced with gelignite. Having established all that, he needs to place Rumford at the scene of the crime. That’s the tricky bit…
A long time ago I promised to discuss the moment dramatic irony is reversed in a Columbo episode, and I’ve been waiting for the right moment. This is a good example. So the way a Columbo episode works is on the age-old principle of dramatic irony. We know who the murderer is and how he committed the crime, so the story is all about seeing Columbo catch up to where we are. But there often comes a point where that goes further, and Columbo knows something we don’t, often providing the key to the gotcha moment at the end. Here that’s all about the cider being fermented by the cadets. We could have a good go and piecing it together ourselves, but our clue is really limited to a brief shot of the cider hanging in a window when Rumford is rigging the cannon, a detail that is easily forgotten, but it’s there, thus avoiding the gotcha being a cheat on the part of the writer. It doesn’t actually introduce new information, although the details are filled in: the cider bottle was hung out for the first time on the morning of the murder, and would only have been visible during daylight and from a vantage point of the cannon’s position; it was taken in before reveille, but Rumford knew about it and was searching for the culprit, placing him at the murder scene when he was supposed to be in bed.
Just One More Thing
I love the Columbo episodes where a mutual respect develops between the Lieutenant and the murderer. This is very much one of those episodes. Rumford has such discipline and self-control that he is never flustered or annoyed by Columbo, but he also clearly ends up liking him, and understands his modus operandi:
“I wear a uniform. You wear a … I suppose you could call that a uniform.”
Both actors underplay this quiet little moment beautifully. It’s the point in the narrative where Columbo knows Rumford is the murderer, and Rumford knows that he knows it. Rumford offers a quality cigar to the Lieutenant, and becomes Columbo’s first opponent to bother to ask his first name.
“My wife is about the only one that uses it.”
Columbo later repays Rumford’s respect by allowing him the dignity of dismissing his cadets from the parade ground for one last time.
Patrick McGoohan was a worthy winner of an Emmy award for this episode. He quite logically puts in a tightly controlled performance as Rumford, but he tells the story with micro-expressions throughout. There are great examples of that when Rumford is having dinner with Columbo and you can see his developing admiration for the first time, and then later when Columbo appears to be going off into a blind alley with the idea of somebody trying to kill Rumford, and the merest hint of a smile plays across his face for the briefest of moments. McGoohan will be back for more than one rematch, and I can’t wait. We’ll be seeing him… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Troubled Waters