Columbo: Identity Crisis (Review)

Columbo Peter FalkThere’s something about Nelson Brenner (Patrick McGoohan) that seems familiar: the clothes he wears, the Mediterranean architecture of his home, his career as an “operative”, the regularity with which he says “be seeing you”. Could this be… surely not. For now, he’s not a number. He’s a free man.

The Motive

… is never made entirely clear. There’s a strong indication that it’s something to do with the money Brenner owes to “A. J. Henderson” (Leslie Nielsen) from a side operation, or perhaps Henderson’s suggestion that Brenner is a double agent. The latter is the more likely motive, as Brenner is clearly rich. Maybe he fears being exposed by Henderson as a traitor. Either way, it doesn’t really matter, because Columbo fails to show any interest in establishing a motive, one of the many failings of this story.

The Murder

One of the most brutal we have ever seen, and not particularly clever. Brenner arranges to meet Henderson in a location that is known by the police as “mugger’s heaven”, and then beats him to death with a crowbar. He then takes his wallet to make it look like a mugging. The next morning, he winds the clock back in his office and records a speech he was supposed to be dictating the previous evening, making sure the chimes of the clock are caught on the tape, to give himself one of the weakest alibis we have ever seen.

The Second Murder (sort of)

This fooled me. For a while I was thinking a different murderer was committing the second crime for the first time ever, but instead it was Brenner in an excellent disguise, as mysterious villain “Steinmetz”, in fact a character of his own creation. He plants explosives in the car of another suspect for the murder, after planting Henderson’s credit cards in the glove compartment. However, the man survives, as Brenner deliberately only put explosives in the door, keeping him alive as the prime suspect. It’s a convoluted idea that achieves very little.

The Mistakes

Brenner arranges to meet Henderson at a funfair, which is not the best choice of location, because they get photographed together, setting Columbo on the right track. His alibi is full of holes, with the sound of blinds closing indicating that it was morning and the sun was coming through the window, but the real clincher is his mention of a news story that hadn’t happened yet in his dictated speech.


… is behaving a bit oddly. In a bar he fails to pay much attention to important evidence and behaves disrespectfully towards an ex-cop, because he’s distracted by a belly dancer. Seeing him ogling a woman instead of concentrating on his job seems out of character, and a baffling development. This doesn’t quite seem like the Columbo we know and love. However, I did really like the moment where he finds the pendant inscribed “love from Alice” on the body of the victim and appears to be deep in melancholy thought. The bodies he sees were once people who meant something to somebody.

Just One More Thing

Brenner is a villain like no other, thanks to his career in espionage. It’s like Columbo vs James Bond, if Bond went rogue. The odds have never been so stacked in the favour of the murderer.

“Lieutenant, let me assure you that you are delving into areas over which you have no authority. For the last time, I ask you, don’t harass me.”

When Brenner delivers that threat, Columbo gives him an almost arrogant smile on his way out of the office. He’s heard all these threats before, and it’s never made a jot of difference to the outcome, but that seems to be a hubristic response to the situation when the CIA show up to warn him off, including the Director himself. Columbo defaults to a tried and tested disarming tactic: appearing to be full of admiration and awe for those with so much power. What he really thinks of them is left to our imagination.

The Verdict

The episode ends with one of the weakest ever gotcha moments. Ultimately Columbo has established nothing more than Brenner’s alibi deception. He has no motive, no murder weapon, and nothing to place the murderer at the scene of the crime. But it almost doesn’t matter, because there is a sense that none of this will count for much in the end. Let’s face it, this would never go to court. Brenner would either be given a new identity, or more likely disposed of, due to his treachery. Maybe, just maybe, Columbo’s case against him would make the latter a bit more likely, but this is little more than a game for both of them. Columbo is the winner, and that’s enough.

Could this be the trigger for Brenner to be taken to a remote village and interrogated? He says Number Six’s catchphrase four times in the first five minutes, almost ramming the Prisoner references down the viewers’ throats, so maybe everyone involved thought it was a fun idea to get as close as possible to a Prisoner/Columbo crossover. Did we just see the downfall of Number Six? Perhaps, but either way I’ll close this out with the obligatory words to end any show with Prisoner references. Until next time…

Be seeing you.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: A Matter of Honor

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Reviews, Television and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Columbo: Identity Crisis (Review)

  1. scifimike70 says:

    This was one of the first three times I saw Patrick McGoohan, the other two being Silver Streak and Escape From Alcatraz. Ironically in retrospect, it was the first time I saw Leslie Nielsen. As for one of the first few Columbo episodes that I saw, coupled with the knowledge that McGoohan was Peter Falk’s favorite guest star, it certainly made one of the best impressions. I just now realized that the cast included The Breakfast Club’s Paul Gleason. Thanks, RP, for bringing back some of my fondest Columbo memories with this review. Nice idea about the imaginable Prisoner/Columbo crossover.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. epaddon says:

    The episode’s story construction is very problematic. Just why is Brenner playing this game of double-dealing and why does he really kill “Henderson”? Is it because he’s just “bored” with his successful life and needs to play these games for excitement? We’re never given a clue, but given how utterly eccentric McGoohan is, I guess that’s why we’re supposed to accept all this.

    As a fan of Barbara Rhoades, I love how this episode gives her a couple good scenes (an improvement over her limited role in “Lady In Waiting” when she wasn’t allowed to be her usual sexy self lest she upstage guest killer Susan Clark!). She actually wore the same outfit in her second scene in an episode of “Switch” where she plays an undercover cop who throws Robert Wagner over her shoulder when he tries to come on to her (and proving why she should have had her own “Police Woman” type of show!)

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s