Grace Wheeler used to be a star, but that was a long time ago, and now she is deluded and trying to recapture the magic of her youth. If you’ve ever seen the classic Twilight Zone episode The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine, Grace is basically our Barbara Jean Trenton, spending her evenings watching her old films. The difference is that Grace actually has a chance of reviving her career, and has her old dance partner Ned Diamond on board to direct her comeback feature, but it will cost a lot of money.
Grace’s husband doesn’t want to part with a lot of money. He stands in the way of her big dream: to be a musical movie star again.
While she’s supposed to be watching one of her old films, Grace drugs her husband, puts a gun in his hand and shoots him, making it look like a suicide. She leaves the door to his bedroom locked and escapes out of the window, climbing down a tree, and returning to watch the end of her film. The tape has broken, but a quick fix and it’s spliced back together and playing again, just in time for the butler to witness her alibi and find the body.
Faked suicides in Columbo are second only to faked burglaries in the logical inconsistencies they throw up. Henry’s behaviour makes little sense in terms of a suicide. He apparently took sleeping pills (and eventually the autopsy shows too high a dose in his body), read a humorous book, and then killed himself, after looking at his medical report that showed he needed a prostate operation. If it was a spontaneous decision to take his own life, how was he in possession of his gun, which was normally stored in his car glovebox, and if he went to get that, how are his slippers unscuffed? But the big mistake was simply the stroke of bad luck: the film broke, which means a 1 hour 45 minute movie took 2 hours to watch. It only takes a couple of minutes to splice the film back together, so what was Grace doing for the rest of the time? She wasn’t in the room.
There is a side-story going on in this one where Columbo hasn’t renewed his firearms licence for ten years. In keeping with previous continuity, he hates guns and doesn’t even carry one, so he bribes one of his colleagues to take the test for him. This is not just light and shade within the episode, although it is amusing. It also makes the important point that Columbo will bend the rules for the greater good if necessary, which is exactly what he does at the end of the episode. But as a summary of his work ethos, I think the following quote is a golden moment:
“I’m in the homicide office at least once a week. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you there.”
“Well, I don’t get down there too much. None of the murders take place there, you know.”
Just One More Thing
Once again Dog makes for an excellent co-star. Just look how adorable he is, being fed an ice cream by his beloved owner:
After dragging out what seemed like an inevitable solution and an easy case to crack, this one sprung to life from the moment Columbo explained everything to Ned. It is unprecedented for him to spill the beans to a third party in such detail, and it had me puzzled at first, because his motivation could not be protecting his career. Nobody has been able to get Columbo to change course with the kinds of threats Ned makes, no matter how rich and powerful. And then the realisation dawned: he’s being kind. He wants Ned there for the gotcha moment:
“If she means anything to you, you ought to be there.”
… but then we don’t get a gotcha moment, so this kept me guessing right to the end. The writer spent so much time focussing on the severity or otherwise of Henry’s illness that we were distracted from Grace’s, which is enormously clever, because there are clear indications throughout that she has dementia. In fact, she only has a couple of months to live, and that gives Columbo a “problem”.
“I don’t believe that she even remembers killing him.”
I don’t think for one second that Columbo turned up for his evening of movie watching with the intention of letting Grace walk free, and that’s important. He just wanted Ned to be there to comfort her when he arrested her. But when Ned comes up with the idea of confessing, Columbo plays along. It’s all there in Peter Falk’s performance, written all over his face, the moment he realises that he can let this one go, and it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s not gonna take much to break your story.”
“It might take a couple of months.”
“Yes, yes it might.”
A couple of months is of course all that Grace has left. It’s a shivers-down-the-spine moment, because it’s just so unusual and poignant, and provides us with one of the most genuinely surprising endings to a Columbo episode we have ever seen. Fans have endlessly debated the rights and wrongs of what Columbo does, but I have absolutely no doubt he does the right thing. Grace’s behaviour was likely to have been warped by her illness for a while, so she was probably not responsible for her actions and quite possibly acting completely out of character (or why not do all this years before, and revive her career when she was younger?). Either way, there is little point punishing a dying old lady for a crime she doesn’t even remember committing. Columbo isn’t a cruel man, and it’s always interesting to see the contrast in his approach to his cases, depending on whether he admires his enemy or not. This is the one where Columbo lets his opponent get away, and that might just be the bravest example of writing the series has ever attempted, but with great risk comes great reward. We never get the satisfaction of a gotcha moment, but instead we come away from the episode with something far more important: a whole lot to think about. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: A Case of Immunity