Columbo: Try and Catch Me

Columbo Peter FalkIf somebody asked me what are the defining qualities of Columbo, the reasons why I think this is the greatest crime series ever made, near the top of my list would have to be the respect Columbo shows for his enemies. It nearly always shines through his approach to his cases, and makes for a fascinating relationship between murderer and detective. For the first time, the Lieutenant puts his feelings into words in Try and Catch Me, and it’s a magnificent speech:

“Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them too. Sometimes, like them and even respect them. Not for what they did, certainly not for that, but for that part of them which is intelligent, or funny, or just nice, because there’s niceness in everyone, a little bit anyhow.”

What a fabulous summary of his character, and this is the perfect episode for that speech, because murderer Abigail Mitchell is easy to like, played by a very sprightly octogenarian Ruth Gordon, who literally dances around Columbo at times, delighted to be observing how a real detective works, despite also being the deer in his headlights.

The Motive

Abigail is a crime writer, whose rights to an important work of hers are shared by her nephew by marriage, Edmund. His wife died in a boating accident and the body was never found, so Abigail is convinced that he killed her beloved niece. Now she wants her revenge, and she wants the rights to her work back at the same time.

The Murder

A clever one, but reliant on the stupidity of Edmund. Luckily for Abigail, he is extremely gullible. She wills everything to him, persuading him to will everything to her in return, as a formality. He doesn’t smell a rat, despite Abigail already saying to him, “I know what you did, everything you did.”. She asks him to drive off and then come back secretly via the service road on the pretence of showing him the combination to a safe without anyone else knowing. He indulges her apparent eccentricities and again doesn’t smell a rat. She persuades him into the walk-in safe, with its non-functioning light. For the final time, he doesn’t smell a rat. She closes the door and locks him in, heading off on holiday to celebrate her victory. When the safe is opened by her secretary in the morning, he has suffocated.

As an aside, I did wonder if that was an unrealistic death. Surely there would be enough air to get him through to the next morning? But apparently the science does check out.

The Mistakes

There are really only two that matter, both of which seem rather foolish for a clever crime writer. Edmund leaves his keys on the table, so Abigail swipes them up and hides them in a large ashtray full of sand. This makes little sense because she could simply have taken them with her and disposed of them later, when she was on holiday, for example, or even just dropped them somewhere outside the house, where it might have been assumed Edmund dropped them himself. Instead, her secretary finds them and starts to blackmail her, until Abigail makes another odd choice and just hands them to Columbo, saying, “I found them this morning, out back.” It’s a high-risk strategy that doesn’t pay off, because Columbo already has photographic evidence of the place she says she found them, showing that she clearly made up her story.

But the real problem for Abigail is that Edmund suffers a slow death, and during that time he’s inside a safe with lots of other stuff. He might be in the dark, but there is enough time to find a way to leave a secret message. I won’t spoil how he does that because the gotcha moment is a lot of fun, but “death bed testimony” obviously leaves the case beyond any doubt.

Columbo

There are three moments that provide a window into Columbo’s soul. The most obvious and the best is the speech mentioned above. There is also Abigail’s appeal to his compassion at the end:

“I don’t suppose you would consider making an exception in my case. An old woman, quite harmless all in all, under the circumstances, your kindness?”

… and Columbo’s response demonstrates that there are some lines he will not cross:

“I thank you for the compliment, but you’re a very professional person in your work, and so am I.”

But there is also a much more subtle moment that gives us an insight into his opinions. He is quite dismissive in his behaviour towards the lawyer. No “one more thing” for him, just a swift goodbye, but he also says this: “Very good lawyer, sir. Very convincing.” It’s an interesting word to use to describe a lawyer, “convincing”, and I think the respect Columbo describes in his speech is lacking here, even though he is dealing with somebody who is not the murderer and is being honest with him. It’s a word you might use of an actor saying the right lines to get the desired result. Perhaps Columbo thinks a lawyer’s job is about “convincing” people by choosing the right words, rather than doing what is right.

Just One More Thing

The obvious parallel that people draw with this episode is that Abigail Mitchell is an Agatha Christie-like crime writer, but I think that only scratches the surface of the character. Instead, she’s a mirror to Columbo himself. She uses all his tricks, putting on an act of innocent harmlessness (her age helps), and it’s not entirely clear how much of her disarming approach to the murderer/detective relationship is genuinely her personality, and how much is tactical. She reverses the usual roles so thoroughly that she even uses Columbo’s “just one more question” line against him.

The Verdict

If I look at this one logically, it’s not the best-constructed of Columbo crime stories. The murder only appears to be clever because of the foolishness of the victim, the murderer makes a clumsy mistakes that don’t really make sense for somebody who writes crime stories for a living, and the story is really very simple, relying on a couple of plot points and just one little twist in the tale. The blackmailing subplot amounts to nothing in the end either. But despite all that this is clearly one of the best Columbo episodes, and the two reasons for that are obvious: Ruth Gordon and Peter Falk. They are both incredibly entertaining here, and are helped by a great script. The writers may stumble over their plotting a bit, but the one thing they do perfectly is the characterisation of the two leads. If you want an episode to show a fine example of Columbo’s personality to a newcomer to the series, and why he is such a great detective, this is a safe bet.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Murder Under Glass

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on junkyard.blog. Author of windowsintohistory.wordpress.com. Editor of frontiersmenhistorian.info
This entry was posted in Reviews, Television and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Columbo: Try and Catch Me

  1. scifimike70 says:

    Great one to start the New Year with on the Junkyard. Columbo is the kind of the show, certainly with Columbo’s most heartfelt speech, to make us think about the kind of world we’d all like to live in. Ruth Gordon as Abigail works very well with Peter Falk and it’s good to see the lovely Mariette Hartley again. The way the murder is committed is quite a lot to take in, even for a murderess who is sympathetic enough for losing her beloved niece. Abigail is a vigilante in that sense which may set a new bar for the kind of justice that Columbo must uphold. Even for a victim whom we know is also a murderer himself which for this show may be particularly new ground. So thank you, RP, for this review that shows how Columbo has so remarkably progressed over time and Happy New Year to the Junkyard.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Stephen McGinnis says:

    I believe this is my favorite episode, I just like it. Hard to pick best episode for great detective work…maybe Framed for Murder or the jewel thief guy getting set up by the commissioner. Thanks from Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. epaddon says:

    There’s just enough ambiguity in the episode to make you wonder if Edmund really did kill his wife. It’s not clear-cut necessarily. Columbo’s observation that the lack of pictures indicates it was a poor marriage is actually not necessarily so since some people dealing with grief find they can’t keep images around.

    Mariette Hartley in a belly-dancing outfit once again like in her Trek episode and “Genesis II” episode shows her ability to surprise us with how sexy she can be. 🙂 And it’s interesting how her character ends up being the only one I can recall in classic Columbo who actually “gets away” with a crime since she blackmails Abigail and at episode’s end is outside the jurisdiction of the law having taken the cruise (and Abigail observers, “Veronica will flee’ when she’s arrested).

    Liked by 2 people

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