Kay Freestone is a television executive looking for her next promotion. She is hard-working, intelligent and efficient. In fact, she possesses all the qualities necessary to be a perfect… murderer.
Kay is having an affair with her boss, Mark McAndrews. When he gets promoted, she assumes he will name her as his replacement. She is already his Executive Assistant, she is brilliant at her job, and she is his lover. Mark has other ideas:
“I can’t give you the West Coast, babe.”
This is one of the cleverest and most exciting murders we have ever seen. At a screening of her new movie, Kay sends the projectionist off on an errand, after winding the tape counter on to make it look like there are only two minutes to go until the next reel change, when there are actually five. While she listens to a recording of her own voice counting down the time she has remaining, she heads off to shoot Mark, and then return just in the nick of time. This all plays out nail-bitingly in real time, with Kay having to wait for a security guard to get out of her way, which almost derails her carefully laid plans. She makes the changeover of reels with one second to go, and just before the projectionist returns.
It’s really the obvious motive and the lack of other possible suspects that sets Columbo on the right course, but as is often the case Kay helps to confirm his suspicions by clumsily attempting to deflect attention elsewhere, showing him some of the usual crazy letters all television studios receive, which Columbo swiftly dismisses by demonstrating that the victim had to have known his killer. When Columbo says “I’ll keep your theory in mind,” he really means he will keep the fact that she raised the theory in mind.
Kay lying about her relationship with Mark doesn’t help either. It’s hard to cover up the existence of a love affair, and a women’s blazer returned to his house from the dry-cleaners exposes her lies, while the eventual arrival of the car Mark was going to give to Kay demonstrates his clumsy attempt to sweeten the pill of not choosing her for the big job. As for the murder itself, the projectionist remembers the scene that was playing on his return, which shows that the counter timings were off, and Kay threw down a glove she used to shoot the gun and never retrieved it. All of this is highly circumstantial, so Columbo has to resort to some sneaky tactics to trip up his enemy…
For an episode with such an exciting game of cat-and-mouse between Columbo and killer, this is oddly packed full of unnecessary padding. Columbo unusually appears before the murder takes place, crashing his car and hurting his neck, which only serves to add a little (not very funny) humour later in the episode. In one particularly time-wasting scene, Columbo plays with the buttons in a studio control booth, making wavy lines appear on the screens while looking extremely pleased with himself. It’s completely pointless, and to put it in perspective it lasts as long as the carefully-timed murder.
Just One More Thing
Broadly speaking, there are two ways for Columbo to achieve his gotcha moment: (1) put together the proof he needs by some surprising method using evidence in a way that isn’t immediately obvious to the viewer, or (2) engineer a new mistake from the murderer that implicates them. The series is increasingly relying on #2, and they are often clever and thrilling, but they cannot intrinsically be quite so satisfying for the viewers as #1, which are far more difficult for the writer to construct. The problem with #2 is they rely on the murderer walking into a trap. Last time, that was quite unrealistic, dependant on a reckless attempt on Columbo’s life. This is an example of #2 working as well as it possibly can, with the murder weapon retrieved without the murderer’s knowledge (or ours) and then a dummy weapon placed close to the original but slightly more visible, ready for Kay to spot it, remove it and therefore demonstrate her guilt. It makes for the second nail-biting scene of the episode, with Kay struggling frantically to retrieve the gun.
These exciting moments are helped enormously by the music from Patrick Williams, which is simply sublime, the best incidental music I have ever heard in a Columbo episode. It heightens the tension hugely. Without the padding, this would be a near-perfect instalment, with great performances from Peter Falk and Trish Van Devere as Kay. It all serves as a lesson in humility being more valuable than hubris. Kay was told by Mark that she wasn’t ready for the job, and in the end he was posthumously proved right. If she had bided her time, she would have got there. Instead, she murdered her way to the top, convinced of her own brilliance, and suffered the unravelling of her career, while her best laid murder plans were being picked apart by the persistent Columbo. Her downfall is a visual representation of chaos taking over a person’s well-ordered existence. Columbo will not go away, and eventually his face fills every screen in front of her. With her job gone, there is nothing left for her to produce, except the final moments of her own freedom. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: How to Dial a Murder
This Columbo episode is remarkably down-to-basics and complex at the same time on many levels. Trish Van Devere is very good and dimensional as the murderess and acts very well opposite Peter Falk. Always interesting to see Laurence Luckinbill after first seeing him as Sybok in Star Trek V. I found it particularly interesting to see Patrick O’Neal in a second guest starring role that wasn’t the murderer this time after Blueprint For Murder. For the last season for the first Columbo series, it’s certainly one of the most profoundly dramatic episodes to end it on. Certainly with a lesson on the consequences of letting your ambitions go to your head. Thank you, RP, for your review.
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Patrick O’Neal holds the distinction of being the only guest killer in the 70s run of the show to return in a “demoted” role so to speak, not counting Robert Vaughn whose return in “Last Salute To The Commodore” was designed as a deliberate red herring (Robert Culp returned as a non-killer in the 90s).
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The famous actors and actresses who don’t get to play murderers in Columbo like Lainie Kazan, who is quite memorable here as Valerie, are especially fascinating. It was most interesting how she gave the murderess a compassionately redeeming side which, for the sake of seeing murderers in Columbo as human beings, is always important.
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