We’re back for Season Six, and an award-winning actor who has struck an incredibly lucrative deal to continue in his successful, long-running show is playing a much-loved detective, opposite an actor who is playing an award-winning actor who has struck an incredibly lucrative deal to continue in his successful, long-running show, playing a much-loved detective. Confused? Things are about to get very self-referential.
Actor Ward Fowler (William Shatner) is being blackmailed by the co-creator of his hit show, Detective Lucerne. Clare Daley (Lola Albright) is taking half his earnings, in return for keeping a secret which is not revealed until much later in the episode. As any fan of crime fiction knows, blackmailers often prosper, but rarely live long…
A very clever one indeed. Ward invites his assistant Mark over to watch a match on television, drugs him, and tape records the match on his $3000 video recorder (!) to provide himself with an alibi. After he has committed the crime he can wind back Mark’s watch, rewind the tape, wake Mark up for long enough to make him think he has only fallen asleep for a minute or two, and put him to bed. Here’s where Ward gets lucky (and the writers perhaps rely a bit too much on this stroke of luck without ever acknowledging it), because Mark is a former alcoholic who has been on the wagon for 8 months. Ward easily persuades him that just one drink wouldn’t hurt, and that makes sense of Mark falling asleep. The murder itself is a little more run-of-the-mill. Ward takes ski clothing, including a balaclava, from the wardrobe department for a disguise, and a gun from the props department, and then stages a hold-up, knocking out the shop keeper and shooting Clare in the back. She recognises his voice, of course, because a whispering Shatner in a balaclava is still unmistakably Shatner (he just sounds a bit like he does on those talking pop songs of his), leading to some deliciously ironic final words:
“I am going to lower my hands now and leave. Goodnight, Ward.”
The alibi is very difficult to break. Columbo figures out how it could have been done when he sees Ward’s video player, but the mistake that breaks the alibi is Ward returning Mark’s watch to the correct time, although Mark always set it five minutes fast. As for the murder, it’s a familiar picture. Whenever a murderer tries to make it look like a robbery gone wrong, which happens frequently, Columbo never has much trouble spotting the inconsistencies. The bullet hole in Clare’s dress was higher than the wound, indicating raised hands, which makes a nonsense of the idea she was running away (nobody makes a run for it with their hands up). That means she was a moving target when shot in the heart, which makes it likely that the murderer was an expert marksman, tying in neatly with the reason for the blackmail in the first place, a simple matter for Columbo to uncover when he finds out that “Ward Fowler” is a stage name. His hidden past involves desertion from an artillery regiment. The disguise is found and contains traces of four different kinds of stage makeup on the balaclava, leading Columbo straight to the wardrobe department, and from there it’s logical to look in the props department for the gun. That shouldn’t provide proof against Ward, except for one thing: he wiped off the gun, but forgot to remove his prints from the fake bullets he removed and afterwards replaced.
Up to a point this story is a massive in-joke. Peter Falk had just negotiated a sixth season of Columbo on excellent terms, receiving well over a million dollars per episode. For his first story back, the Lieutenant is pitched against an actor who is playing a detective in a hugely popular show, who has tied the studio down to a lucrative deal, knowing that the show doesn’t exist without him. If this was meant as any kind of a dig at Falk then it presumably didn’t bother him, as he was clearly having a huge amount of fun with the idea. Falk and Shatner seem to have been having a whale of a time with this one.
Just One More Thing
I think there is one particular aspect of this episode that is enormously clever and widely misunderstood, and it starts with this line:
“It just might conceivably be Ward Fowler is the man we’re after.”
That is a line spoken by Ward Fowler. He goes into character as Lieutenant Lucerne, and speculates with Columbo about how Ward might have murdered Clare, treating Ward as a fictional character. This tends to get criticised on the grounds that Columbo is indulging some kind of descent into insanity, but it’s nothing of the sort. Ward is actually being incredibly clever, and the unique circumstances of his stage name and the role he plays allow him to do this. Regular viewers will be familiar with the cards-on-the-table moment, but this is that moment in reverse, driven by the murderer instead of by Columbo. But Ward can discuss the case openly with Columbo entirely in the third person, and in doing so he leads Columbo very subtly down the path to a logical conclusion that Ward doesn’t fit the facts as the murderer, and instead Clare’s husband should be the chief suspect. For a moment it appears to work, and the way Columbo plays along leads to an even more impactful tables-turned moment, with Columbo going on the attack, switching back from third person to second:
“And you changed his watch, didn’t you.”
That’s how you do a cards-on-the-table moment.
Both Falk and Shatner are on top form, and this is one of the cleverest ever Columbo episodes, without ever becoming convoluted. It is slightly let down by the weak gotcha ending, which feels like a bit of a cheat and is very prosaic. But the whole thing is so gloriously meta, especially towards the end. Just look at the following two lines of dialogue:
“I had to forget something. That’s always how the third act ends. You see, I’ve had no rehearsal as a murderer.”
“I believe that in this killing the murderer has the sympathetic part.”
He’s right, of course, and that’s what makes Shatner such perfect casting for the role of Ward, who boldly went up against a brilliant detective, and lost. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Old Fashioned Murder