Jack Cassidy is back for his third and final performance as a murderer in Columbo. Could he inject some much-needed magic into the uneven fifth season? Of course he could.
The Great Santini is a famous magician with a dark past. In a former life he was a Nazi war criminal, a fact that he has managed to keep a secret. The problem is that his manager Jesse Jerome knows about his past, and is using it as an excuse to blackmail Santini, taking 50% of all his earnings. Santini has had enough of this arrangement, and Jerome is about to reveal his secret to the Department of Immigration.
You would expect a magician to come up with a clever alibi, and Santini doesn’t disappoint. While he’s performing a trick onstage, supposedly trapped inside a tank of water, chained up, he is really sneaking around backstage. He uses his escapology skills to pick the lock of Jesse’s office while the old miser is counting his money, and wastes no time in shooting his enemy with a silenced gun. He even manages to give a waiter the impression that he’s in the props room under the stage, when his nightly brandy is brought to him, because he is wired up to a microphone and a speaker in the room.
Unusually there’s really only one that matters, and that’s tied in with the gotcha moment. We are used to Columbo picking holes in the murderer’s story and the murderer trying to paint over the cracks in his alibi, but that doesn’t really matter here, because Santini can simply cite his right to keep the secrets of his tricks, leaving Columbo to do all the work here. So, instead, Columbo has to find ways to trap Santini. Breaking down his alibi is relatively simple, as Santini repeats the same trick every night, so Columbo only has to sneak around backstage while the trick is going on, to find out that Santini is not in fact inside the water tank in chains. That gave him a nine-minute window to commit his crime. Having dispensed with the problem of the alibi, Columbo is able to establish that Santini could have got past Jerome’s unpickable lock, by springing an unexpected challenge on him during his performance, restraining him with cuffs that have the same kind of lock. Interestingly, both Columbo and Santini obviously know exactly what is going on at that moment, and in fact the sensible thing for Santini to do would be to admit defeat and say he can’t escape from that particular kind of handcuffs, but his reputation obviously means too much to him to do that, so he plays right into Columbo’s hands. The look of triumph on Columbo’s face actually makes this better and more significant than the gotcha moment at the end of the episode, which centres around an unusual kind of typewriter, with a ribbon that retains an impression of what was typed.
You know when you get given a birthday present you don’t really want, but it will offend the person who gave it to you if you quietly toss it in the bin? Columbo is in just that predicament, because his wife has given him a new coat. He is almost angry about it at the start of his investigations, complaining that he “can’t think in this coat”, and then spends most of the episode trying to leave it behind deliberately. It’s a joke lacking a punchline, but it’s still very funny.
Just One More Thing
Does Sergeant Wilson (Bob Dishy) look familiar? If so, you’re probably remembering his role in The Greenhouse Jungle, back in Season Two. This is the last of his appearances, which is a shame because he makes for a great sidekick here. When Columbo praises him, you can see that the compliment means the world to him, and his knowledge of one particular subject makes him crucial to the case, giving him a reason for being there that he lacked in his first appearance. I think everyone must have learnt from what went wrong before, because in The Greenhouse Jungle the presence of the Sergeant as a sidekick slowed the episode down and gave over to Wilson a lot of the interactions that would normally have happened between Columbo and the murderer. That problem is not repeated here, and instead we get a really fun Watson to Columbo’s Holmes, a nickname Santini himself gives the Sergeant.
This is one of those great episodes where the murderer thinks he has come up with a perfect crime, and Columbo is more than capable of proving that “there is no such thing as a perfect murder; that’s just an illusion.” The battle between the two of them is hugely fun but with an air of menace to it. Cassidy’s performance is pitched just right, considering Santini’s dark past. He comes across as a truly dangerous enemy, with no hint of a conscience and never a moment when he looks flustered. The only thing lacking is the gotcha moment, which is a bit of a prosaic way to close the case, lacking the impact of the earlier scene with the handcuffs, which was a genuine moment of triumph for Columbo. I prefer it if the gotcha proves that the murderer committed the crime beyond any doubt, but instead it merely establishes the motive. Columbo is probably right that it is enough to convict Santini, but it’s a weak ending to an otherwise great episode. I like it, not a lot, but I like it.* RP
* with apologies to my readers across the pond. Just type Paul Daniels into Wikipedia.
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Last Salute to the Commodore