How important is IQ? Could a hyper-intelligent person have a chance of outwitting Lieutenant Columbo? Who are we kidding…
Oliver Brandt is an accountant and a member of the Sigma Society, a club that only the cleverest 2% of the population are eligible to join. His business partner and old friend Bertie has discovered that Brandt has been sifting funds from his clients’ accounts to fund his trophy-wife’s lifestyle. His response to that problem is straightforward:
“Are you aware that I intend to expose you?”
“Well in that case I intend to kill you.”
This season has given us some clever murders, but this one beats them all. Oliver shoots Bertie with a silencer in the library above the Sigma Society, while the club members are downstairs. He then rigs up the room with wires so the arm of a record player will set off squibs as it moves across to simulate gun shots. Between the two shots a marker pen is knocked off a table, in turn knocking off a large dictionary that is balanced on the edge of another table, simulating a body falling to the floor. With Oliver downstairs and therefore alibied by the other club members, the sound of gunshots and a body falling are heard. They all rush upstairs and the combination of the two open doors and an open window causes the other door to slam, giving the appearance of an escaping burglar. In the confusion, Oliver quietly pockets the wires, but how about the murder weapon and the telltale squibs? They are safely hidden in his umbrella up the chimney, for him to recover and dispose of later.
This is as close to the perfect crime as we have ever seen. A slight problem is the time it takes the club members to get upstairs: about 40 seconds. Robbing Bertie’s wallet and leaving would have been a ten-second job for a burglar, so what was he hanging around for? Some little details allow Columbo to piece together the murder: funny little scratches on the record player arm where the wires were attached; a dividing line in the middle of the book that aided its balance on the edge of the table; the record set to start playing in the middle; and most importantly, evidence of soot and squib burns on Oliver’s umbrella, which wily Columbo managed to take by accident.
“It was an honest mistake, sir, and we’re not allowed to get evidence that way.”
Let’s get something out of the way first of all. Columbo has the following conversation with a 14 year old girl:
“You not only have a terrific mind, you’re also a remarkably pretty girl.”
“You know something Lieutenant, that’s the very first time anyone ever told me they like me for my body instead of my mind.”
Nobody said anything about her body, but it’s still a bit uncomfortable to watch, an aspect of the episode that really hasn’t aged well, but let’s dispense with that issue by acknowledging that it says absolutely nothing negative about the character of Columbo and is only a reflection of changing attitudes towards the appropriateness or otherwise of complimenting young girls. It was obviously only intended as another example of the lieutenant’s deep understanding of human psychology, and also his kindness, telling a girl who has only ever felt valued for her intelligence that she is pretty too. It makes her day, and it ties in nicely with a moment that comes later in the episode, when Oliver is reflecting on his past. Like Caroline, all he thought he had going for him was his brain, and that just gave him “painful, lonely years”:
“I had no real childhood. I was an imitation adult.”
This is an important message for parents of intelligent children. Don’t push them too hard. Allow them their childhood. They won’t thank you for their life achievements if they never got to kick a ball around with their mates. It’s a moment that also inspires sympathy for the killer, which is something that sets Columbo apart from many other crime dramas.
We also get an insight into Columbo’s own past. He obviously has a high IQ, as he demonstrates at the end of the episode, but he isn’t remotely interested in where he charts on that scale. Instead, he reflects on his early days in the police force, up against lots of very clever people, standing between Columbo and career advancement. How did he do better than all of them? By working harder than they did.
Just One More Thing
Look out for a brief appearance from a young Jamie Lee Curtis as the world’s grumpiest waitress, confiscating a doughnut that Columbo brought into a restaurant, and then taking his order for… a doughnut.
At just past the 50 minute mark we are into the gotcha moment, which features just Oliver and Columbo alone in the library. It takes nearly 20 minutes, a full quarter of the episode’s running time, and it’s utterly sublime, punctuated by flashes of lightning. At a basic level, it’s hard to ignore the deep flaws in this story. The club members hearing the book falling to the floor but failing to hear Bertie’s furious shouts before that makes no sense. Much of the episode is plodding, and has little relevance to the ending, while the gotcha relies on the murderer becoming unhinged enough to reveal his knowledge of the crime. All that being said, the tension is ramped up brilliantly, with Oliver nervous from the start and, unusually for a Columbo killer, becoming more and more of a nervous wreck throughout the episode, haunted by the sound of Tchaikovsky’s music, which accompanied the murder and now seems to follow him around wherever he goes. Columbo greets his moment of triumph simply with a raised eyebrow. His enemy might have had a “sky high IQ”, but it was a different kind of intelligence that mattered in the end. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Try and Catch Me
The conversation between Columbo and Brandt about intelligence, specifically the consequences of either the lack or the abundance of intelligence for some individuals, is one of the best TV dialogues for its time. Theodore Bikel’s delivery of Brandt’s confession for how being born smart is a curse in disguise can make us contemplate so much. Whereas Peter Falk’s delivery of how Columbo learned to deal with his more humbled end of the spectrum may reassure us, and in my own way I certainly appreciate this, that looking beyond the conditioned norms of ‘smartness’ can have its benefits. The world may be cruel to both those who conform to the norms and those who don’t. That’s why this is one of Columbo’s most inspiringly humanistic episodes.
Good to see Jamie Lee Curtis for one of her earliest roles as a waitress. Also some very good casting with Samantha Eggar, Kenneth Mars and Sorrell Booke. Thank you, RP, for your review.
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I don’t want to sound underappreciative. I enjoy these reviews a lot (even though I just found them today)! But I feel a huge factor in Columbo is the gotcha. Maybe you could add a gotcha section as well? I feel like I sound extremely rude, and I promise this isn’t my intention.
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Welcome to the Junkyard, and I’m pleased you’re enjoying the articles. I nearly always discuss the gotcha moment and I tend to do that in the Verdict section. I did struggle with the naming of that section and I’m still not all that happy with it because it’s perhaps a word that suggests a different kind of series than Columbo, but I find that the writing flows better when I can discuss the gotcha and my overall opinion of the episode together, rather than dividing off the gotcha moment into a separate section.
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