If you are a fan of a television show that ended years ago, its triumphant return is a magical moment. I can’t quite claim to be in that lucky contingent with the return of Columbo in 1989, because I wasn’t born when the original shows were made, but I can remember the excitement each time a new episode was first broadcast, with the show becoming an occasional treat between 1989 and 2003. After over a decade away from the role, Peter Falk returned as Lieutenant Columbo, and brought back a little bit of magic into the lives of his fans.
Elliott Blake is a magician pretending to have genuine psychic abilities. He is put to the test, and the stakes are high, with the possibility of a secret government role if he can convince the authorities that his powers are genuine. His challenger, setting up the test for him, turns out to be retired magician Max Dyson, famous for exposing charlatans. Elliott passes the test with flying colours, but it turns out that he is in cahoots with Max, and the two of them have a secret history together. Many years ago, they were imprisoned together in Uganda. Max betrayed Elliott to gain his freedom, and Elliott was left to serve another three years. Now he is serving up revenge, and it’s a dish best served cold.
Elliott confronts Max in his magician’s workshop, and then beheads him with his own guillotine. He escapes from the room, leaving it locked on the inside to look like an accident or suicide rather than a murder, and leaving the viewers with something very unusual for a Columbo episode: a locked room mystery.
A few details don’t add up to a suicide or accident. Elliott puts a screwdriver into Max’s hand to make it look like he was working on the guillotine when it beheaded him, but he chose a slotted screwdriver instead of a cross-headed one. Suicide also doesn’t work as a theory, because Max had bought his dinner for the evening. Elliott betrays his past connection with Max by crying at the funeral, which Columbo suggests is an odd reaction for somebody who only just met the victim. Pretending they didn’t know each other was never going to work anyway, Columbo simply finds an old State Department report, detailing their time in Uganda. But all of that is not quite enough for a conviction. Columbo needs more…
… so he risks his life, putting his own head in the guillotine once he has made it clear to Elliott that he will put together a case against him eventually. Columbo asks Elliott to put the wooden collar on his neck the safe way round. Elliott tries to kill him, but Columbo reversed the labels that indicate which side is safe and which side will send the blade through. This proves Elliott knew how to work the guillotine, and also that he was trying to murder a second victim. It’s a moment of thrilling tension, and I can’t recall a time when Columbo genuinely risked his life like this, although he has obviously walked into danger on several occasions. Great viewing though it is, the problem I have with it is the leap of faith Columbo takes. He’s not in the least bit nervous, and appears to be entirely confident that his switcheroo will work, but what if Elliott had figured out what Columbo is up to? In that case, the safe side would have been a win-win situation for him. If the labels weren’t switched, he doesn’t give Columbo the evidence he wants; if they were switched, Columbo dies by his own trickery. It just about works if you are a fan of the original shows, because we know how remarkably skilled Columbo is in criminal psychology, so it’s a reasonable assumption that it’s not quite the gamble for him that it would appear to be.
Just One More Thing
A big part of the success of Columbo is of course the game of cat and mouse between detective and killer. Here, the mouse doesn’t stand a chance. There is a great scene where Columbo waits for Elliott to go through a whole psychic performance, suggesting Max committed suicide, and finally Columbo deals the hammer blow: “but it couldn’t have been suicide”… and then proceeds to explain why, having given Elliott plenty of rope to hang himself. Then Elliott changes tack, trying to explain how it was obviously an accident, only for Columbo to play him for a fool twice, in exactly the same way.
“But it couldn’t have been an accident.”
I’m not a big fan of magic tricks, and here’s why. I know they are tricks, so whatever the magician does generally fails to impress me. There are always too many variables, too many ways in which the magician can cheat, including an accomplice, as is the case for Elliott. The only bit that would really ever interest me is the intellectual exercise of figuring out how it’s done, and that’s one reason I enjoyed this episode so much. We see Elliott pass a test that looks impossible, even with the help of an accomplice, and then Columbo replicates it and explains how it’s done. As with the gotcha moment, I have some small reservations. I’m not sure you could give a map book with all the pages the same to four people, and none of them would spot the deception, even with an elastic band around the book. So I don’t think this is a flawless return for the great Lieutenant, but it’s still a triumphant one, with Anthony Andrews providing us with a sinister opponent for Columbo. There is something about Elliott’s clipped speech and steely glare that makes him seem genuinely dangerous. The locked room element of the story is a bonus, and works well. And the moment Columbo returns to our screens for the first time in a decade is sheer perfection, sat in a car in the dark and then his face coming into view when he lights his cigar. In an episode that was all about charlatanism and fakery, Peter Falk gave us plenty of moments of pure magic. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Murder, Smoke and Shadows
Of all the Columbo episodes where it’s just Columbo and the murderer in the final scene, this one is certainly a reminder of how profoundly dramatic it can be. Anthony Andrews is certainly a superb reminder of what it takes for an actor as the murderer to match Peter Falk. And Anthony Zerbe for the murder victim is among the most distinguished for that role in Columbo.
I must say that even though I enjoyed this episode when I first saw it, today I somehow don’t find it as especially enjoyable as a select few from this new Columbo series. Reigniting the best magic for Columbo, even with Falk always happy to reprise the role, would prove to be challenging even with the casting of new special guest stars, as well as the returns of a few from the old series like Patrick McGoohan, Robert Culp, George Hamilton and William Shatner. But I would still keeping tuning in to enjoy the quite naturally fascinating Columbo/murderer chemistry. Columbo was back and now he’s also back on the Junkyard. Thank you, RP, for your review.
LikeLiked by 2 people