Columbo: Playback (Review)

Columbo Peter FalkColumbo’s enemies are often very rich men, and wealthy people love their latest gadgetry. This often throws the lieutenant into a world of strange marvels, that haven’t always dated well (let’s not mention the robot), but this week it’s all about a smart home with surveillance cameras and doors that open when you clap your hands. That technology, which is still desirable today, provides murderer Harold Van Wick (Oskar Werner) with his alibi, but also proves to be his downfall.

The Motive

Van Wick is the president of an electronics company, owned by his mother in law. She has evidence of him cheating on her daughter, and also he has been frittering away the company’s funds on his passion for new technology. Now she has had enough, and is going to give the job of running the company to her son instead. Van Wick is not exactly thrilled with that idea.

The Murder

This one is remarkably clever, and the technology involved would be difficult to replicate even today, relying on the ability to cut tape and play old footage into a security system. Van Wick stages a break-in and plays old footage into the security system while he shoots his mother in law. Then he times the actual footage of the murder, with himself just off screen, to play later in the evening, after he has left for a function at an art gallery. The security guard witnesses the footage after Van Wick has left the house. The perfect alibi?

The Mistakes

We have seen this many times before: whenever a murderer tries to fake a burglary, there are always details that make no sense. This imaginary burglar took nothing, managed not to be caught on camera by staying out of the frame, apparently by dumb luck, left no deep footprints outside the window to indicate jumping out afterwards and running off, and managed to get inside without transferring any of the mulch on the other side of the window onto the floor. As is usually the case, Columbo gets Van Wick trying to explain away these inconsistencies: the burglar took nothing because he panicked and he took his shoes off. It’s all a lot of straw clutching, but Columbo plays along, biding his time for better evidence, and he certainly discovers that. Van Wick’s wife woke up when the shot was fired, and the sound of it opened the automatic door. That can be proven by the fact that she was able to see her clown toy on the other side of the room, which would be in darkness with the door shut, although Van Wick deftly sidesteps that one by claiming the technology can malfunction. I would be asking why anyone would have a creepy clown toy in their room in the first place, but then I don’t have Columbo’s skills for asking “one more thing” that is actually helpful. The gotcha moment is all about the security footage, which shows Van Wick’s invitation to his party still sitting on the table when the shot was fired, proving he hadn’t left the house yet.

“To get it off the desk you practically had to step over the body.”


The series is getting more and more value out of Columbo’s confusion with… well, just about anything that isn’t criminal psychology. For this episode he has to figure out the technology, so instead a visit to a modern art gallery proves fruitful for our comedy sequence of the week. He is completely baffled by random-shaped sculptures for ridiculously high prices, and mistakes a ventilator grill for art. Anyone who recognises the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome that underpins the modern art world will realise that the joke is really on the gallery’s clients, because it makes just as much sense to charge thousands of dollars for a plastic grill as it does for some random bits of scrap metal strung together and titled “The Car Park”, and there really is more artistic value in Columbo’s wife’s painting by numbers.

Just One More Thing

Not only have the writers realised that there is a lot of mileage to be had from Columbo’s confusion, when thrown into the world of rich people with more money than sense, but they have also clearly figured out that they have a second star of the show, and his name is Dog. He is getting an ever increasing role in his episodes. Soon he’ll be solving the crimes himself.

The Verdict

I’m not sure the evidence that catches Van Wick would have been possible at the time. The paused footage is as fuzzy as you would expect, and shows those sound lines you used to get with physical tape, and yet somehow the equipment is able to zoom into a tiny area of the screen and show an invitation on a desk with such crystal clarity that we can read the writing. That one gotcha moment is also the only thing that really matters in the end, so in hindsight all the chatter about the imaginary burglar seems like a distraction, and the wife’s memory of the door opening is very circumstantial. But the climax to the episode is so effective that it doesn’t really matter, and the path to Columbo’s victory is a huge amount of fun. The writers are also very clever with the way they show Columbo discovering something in the footage but don’t show the viewers until he is ready to reveal all to Van Wick, so that’s one of those moments where the dramatic irony reverses and we find ourselves on the edges of our seats. Despite the cutting edge tech on display, this episode is very formulaic: familiar plot beats, a textbook Columbo case, and a gotcha moment that relies on something being somewhere it shouldn’t, but when a formula is so brilliant we have absolutely nothing to complain about. Now I’m off to unscrew my ventilator grill and try my luck at the nearest art gallery. It’s got to be worth a few thousand, right?   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: A Deadly State of Mind

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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1 Response to Columbo: Playback (Review)

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Once again we understand how the murderers in Columbo who must resort to such egocentric cleverness can’t help but make fatal mistakes. The way that Van Wick breaks down at the end, with Elizabeth (Gena Rowlands) quite shocked and devastated by the truth, is acted very well by Fahrenheit 451’s Oskar Werner, right down to heading out the door to his arrest and saying the cuffs won’t be necessary. Peter Falk’s last look just as he switches off the video before the freeze frame is also timeless. Thanks, RP, for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

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