For the third time, Lieutenant Columbo is on holiday and just happens to get caught up in a local murder investigation: “Wherever you go, you take your work with you.” For the third episode in a row, Columbo doesn’t really have authority in the realm of his investigations, but this time he’s also up against the clock. Can he solve the case before it’s time for him to go back home?
I thought this was going to be the second episode in a row where motive is unclear. In fact, when local cop Sanchez (Pedro Armendariz Jr) questions what the motive was, Columbo brushes off the question with “let’s start with small things”. That’s an interesting insight into the way his mind works: he doesn’t try to put the big picture together until he has focused on all the details, and at times doesn’t seem to be interested in motive at all, but eventually he comes to realise that motive is the key to this case. It’s an integral part of the gotcha moment, so let’s save that for now…
Luis Montoya (Ricardo Montalban) is a famous bullfighter who has been teaching the son of his right hand man and employee Hector Rangel (Robert Carricart). Rangel’s son Curro (A Martinez) was injured in the ring, and for reasons that are not entirely unclear until the end Hector has packed his bags and is leaving. Montoya tricks Hector into the ring, shoots him with a tranquillizer dart, and then releases the bull. As Columbo says to Sanchez, the bull is the murder weapon, not the murderer.
This is a clumsy one, with lots of clues left for Columbo to find. The big one is Montoya’s two cars. One of them was always driven by Hector, with Montoya as the passenger, but Montoya ordered the other to be cleaned ready for his use earlier in the day, indicating that he knew Hector would not be available to drive him. Hector had his bags packed, and Montoya’s hastily concocted excuse that he was “moving into the main house” doesn’t check out with the housekeeper or servants. There are also some boring details about picks and lances that will interest nobody other than enthusiasts for this “sport”, but the moment where the case comes together for Columbo is when he realises that the muleta (that’s the red cloth, for those who have as little interest in bullfighting as I do) should have been wetted to stop it fluttering around in the wind, if the encounter between Hector and bull had taken place when Montoya said it did.
This is a rare example of Columbo acting as a mentor, and his friendship with Sanchez is a joy to watch. Perhaps his most interesting piece of advice, when he thinks he is going to have to leave the case unresolved, is this: “You can nail him if you keep after him.” That’s Columbo’s modus operandi in a nutshell: be a dog with a bone.
Just One More Thing
The interactions between Columbo and the murderer are very different here to most episodes, but reasonably in keeping with a theme of this season so far: Columbo in places where he doesn’t have authority. This gives the killer the confidence to be much more dismissive towards Columbo, and little reason to keep in with him, although Montoya still finds himself lured into a lot of the usual traps, such as trying to explain away inconsistencies. This is a clumsy mess of a murder, with a deeply flawed attempt to cover his tracks, but perhaps that is because Montoya could have never banked on a foe like Columbo. He was a “legend in this country”, and would have expected to deal with Sanchez on his own. Had that happened, there would hardly have been a need to commit a perfect crime.
The motive is a key part of the gotcha moment, and that works very well, although it does necessitate a coda scene that is very Agatha Christie and seems an odd fit for the series, with Columbo explaining the plot. That means the episode lacks the powerful punchline that we have come to expect from the series. It also means that the downfall of the murderer is much more to do with the exposure of his motive rather than the mistakes he made, which build up over the course of the episode as a body of evidence. The one that is saved for the end, the dry muleta, is not a particularly thrilling clue. However, the importance of the motive does result in that familiar plot beat, the moment the dramatic irony is reversed, taking on a greater significance than ever before. Usually we see the full picture while Columbo pieces it together, but with 20 minutes to go Columbo has “a crazy notion why Rangel was killed”, and he isn’t telling us. So the episode ticks a lot of the right boxes, including a great cards-on-the-table moment between detective and killer (“Some day, somebody’s going to come to your door.”) Despite this, it never really came to life for me. Part of that problem might be my total lack of interest in the setting of the murder. I just can’t raise any enthusiasm for learning about the difference between a lance and a pick. But I think it also highlights how vital a strong gotcha moment is to the overall impression an episode of Columbo leaves us with. If there’s a weak punchline, the story that builds up to it lacks a raison d’être. This was Brad Radnitz’s only Columbo episode. It was his moment to snatch victory or suffer defeat, but in the end his writing faltered at the key moment, like Montoya facing the bull. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Now You See Him
When casting Ricardo Montalban as the adversary for a Columbo episode, as when he was cast as Khan in Star Trek, it proves to be most significantly memorable. The same with a soap opera star like A Martinez for a supporting role like Curro. I must admit that I found the actual motive most difficult to take in for this one, which thankfully doesn’t deprive us of a quite profound resolution and reminder of why Peter Falk excels as Columbo when solving murders while on vacation. The future of the series was progressing most effectively at this point. Thanks, RP, for your review.
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