Columbo: How to Dial a Murder

Columbo Peter FalkDogs are supposed to be man’s best friend, but they can also be deadly weapons in the wrong hands. In this episode of Columbo, the very inventive seventh season continues with the most unusual method of killing yet, but can the Lieutenant stop the murder weapons from becoming the killer’s victims as well?

The Motive

Dr Eric Mason is a highly respected psychologist, whose lectures draw a crowd. When he found out that his wife was having an affair with his best friend, she just happened to die in a car crash shortly afterwards. Now he has set his sights on his best friend Dr Charles Hunter.

The Murder

Eric has trained his dogs to respond to the sound of a telephone ringing and to attack when they hear the command “Rosebud”. He invites Charles to his home for a game of tennis, and says he might be a bit late because he has a medical appointment. Charles arrives first, the phone rings, and Eric tricks him into saying the word “Rosebud” out loud. Death by dog attack! Unless Columbo can figure out the case quickly, this will be a triple murder, because the dogs will have to be put to sleep.

The Mistakes

There are many. Eric can’t do much about the fact that the kitchen phone is hanging off the receiver, indicating to Columbo that the victim was on a call when he died, and yet nobody reported hearing the screams on the other end of the phone. He also can’t do anything about the fact that the dogs are friendly with Columbo after the killing, which would only happen if they were trained to kill on command, rather than reverting to feral instincts (I didn’t buy for one second that Columbo, or anyone for that matter, would be playing happily with two dogs that had ripped a man to pieces and were apparently left free to run around the property afterwards). But there are lots of mistakes that were easily avoidable. Eric had to disconnect his other phone, so the dogs would run to the one Charles was using, and he left it disconnected for Columbo to find. He also left a hook in the ceiling which was used to attach a dummy for training the dogs, and some straw from the dummy on the floor. At the disused film set where he was also training the dogs, he left another hook, a fragment of Charles’ jacket, and had also collected a rusty old light from there, just to make absolutely sure Columbo was left with a trail of breadcrumbs to lead him to the clues he needed. His ECG at his medical appointment showed that his heart rate shot up at the moment of Charles’ death. All of this is probably enough to convict Eric, but what Columbo really needs to close the case is the attack word…

Columbo

Eric and Columbo play a word association game, which Columbo records in the hope of finding out the attack word, but an interesting aside is the words Columbo himself chooses. Some of them are clearly designed to make his enemy uneasy, but one I think is a window into his own past:

“Father”
“Win”

Later, when he is playing pool with Eric, we get another clue to Columbo’s past:

“You play a first rate game, Lieutenant.”
“Well, my father taught me, sir.”

On a basic level they are talking about the game of pool, but I think it can be taken more metaphorically than that as well, referring to the game of cat and mouse between killer and detective. Considering the first word that comes to mind when he thinks of his father is “win”, could Columbo’s dad have been a great detective, who always caught the killer and taught his son everything he knew?

Just One More Thing

For the second episode in a row, and for only the third time in total, a killer tries to add Columbo to his tally of victims. This is far more unnerving than last time, because we see the dogs run at Columbo and knock him backwards. As much as we might have figured out by that point what he has been up to during those long hours spent with the dog trainer, it’s still a nail-biting moment, as we know what those dogs are capable of. The fear factor was established very effectively right back at the beginning of the episode, with the scary sight of the dogs attacking a straw dummy in a darkened house.

The Verdict

Some fans see Nicol Williamson’s performance as being a bit flat and lifeless, but I think he pitches it just right. When we see Eric’s lecture it is cult-ish and is all about control. He calls it “life control” instead of mind control, but this is clearly a man who places the importance of self-control above all else. Complete control over emotions is the promised land he offers to his followers. He even takes that so far as to resist the advances of his young and beautiful lodger (played by Kim Cattrall), so it makes sense that Williamson’s interpretation of the role would be tightly controlled. The only aspect of this episode that I think is genuinely a problem is the quantity of mistakes Eric makes, which is lampshaded by the writers with Columbo’s comments about him (“you left enough clues to sink a ship.”). Columbo’s disappointment in Eric highlights the problem but doesn’t solve it. Eric has such a logical, methodical mind that it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense that he would be so sloppy with the details. Having said that, the story does hold together very well and it’s not really possible to pick many nits like many Columbo episodes, with just the aforementioned scene with the Lieutenant playing with the murderous dogs at the scene of the crime being the one moment requiring suspension of disbelief. Columbo is also perhaps at his most heroic here, saving no fewer than four lives: Joanne, the two dogs and his own life.

Eric achieved success by teaching people to use one trigger word to defeat all others, and in doing so control their emotions. It’s paw-sible, but I’m not sure if he was barking up the wrong tree with that idea. Just choose your word carefully if you have canine company, so you don’t end up needing a dog-tor. OK, I’ll stop now. Thanks fur reading.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: The Conspirators

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.

3 Responses to Columbo: How to Dial a Murder

  1. scifimike70 says:

    This certainly takes a prize as one of the most complex Columbo episodes and with an excellent guest star in Nicol Williamson for the murderer, even one who makes a lot of mistakes. It’s also good to see the lovely Kim Cattrall in one of her early roles. Ed Begley Jr. too as Officer Stein. It might have an important message about the mistreatment of animals, with Columbo saving the lives of two dogs who were heinously used as murder weapons. And the use of “Rosebud” over time had finally urged me to see Citizen Kane which was one of the best decisions of my life. It showed how such references in Columbo like Peter Falk’s final quote here: “I wonder how W. C. Fields did it.” would be appealing. Thank you, RP, for your review.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Stephen McGinnis says:

    The other episodes where they try to make Columbo a victim? The guillotine one, the Mrs. Columbo one and hmm? Rewrite this if needed . Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s