If I can be permitted to engage in a brief moment of nostalgia, when the first season of Columbo was made in 1971, the first episode was directed by somebody you might have heard of: Stephen Spielberg. He went on to be a director of blockbuster movies, and he first achieved that feat while still in his 20s. In completely unrelated news, Murder, Smoke and Shadows features Fisher Stevens as Alex Bradey, a famous director of blockbuster movies, while still in his 20s. This episode was written by Richard Alan Simmons, a writer with a distinguished career stretching back to the 1950s. Also in unrelated news, apart from a remake, this was the final Simmons script to see production.*
Alex’s old friend Lenny has come to visit him at the studio where he works. How nice of him. But Lenny isn’t there just to get reacquainted with an old friend. He has just found footage of an old film from their student days, showing the death of his sister. Alex was there when she had an accident during the shoot, and just left her to die. Now Lenny is going to share the footage with the press, and ruin Alex’s career.
Alex persuades Lenny to stick around for a bit (lucky), hires a truck to pour water all over his film set, manoeuvres Lenny into just the right place on the huge set (luckier), and Lenny gets electrocuted by an electrified metal gate and the wet ground. Alex drives off with the body, and dumps it on a beach.
This is surely one of the shoddiest murders ever in a Columbo episode. A book about Alex’s films drops out of Lenny’s jacket at the beach, and Alex doesn’t notice. Half-drunk ice-cream sodas from Lenny’s visit are still sat there in the director’s den when Columbo visits. Most clumsily of all, Alex leaves a burnt shoe heel lying around on the film set. There are also elements of this case which are beyond Alex’s control, or would have been difficult for him to do anything about. Alex is ID’d with a traveller’s cheque in his money belt. A cab driver remembers driving Lenny to visit Alex, although Alex claims not to have seen him for 2 years. Columbo even finds Lenny’s studio tour ticket inside a college yearbook in Alex’s den and eventually gets hold of a copy of the student film footage. It’s all as sloppy as the old ice-cream sodas.
Sergeant Burke is back, but hey, who cares about him, because… wait for it… Dog is back too! How long does that breed of dog live? Well, you can’t blame Columbo for deciding to get another one that looks similar. I wonder if he did that with his wife as well, revealed to have divorced him in the spin-off show. Apologies to anyone whose facial tick was just set off by the mention of Mrs Columbo.
Just One More Thing
The easy clues are all pretty boring, but the gotcha moment is hugely enlivened by the revelation that Columbo was one step ahead of Alex, who thought he had fooled the detective by hiring actors to gossip about Lenny purchasing drugs, sending Columbo off on a false trail. Of course he didn’t really fall for that, but even more satisfying is the news that Alex’s blackmailing secretary Rose was in cahoots with Columbo all along, and the restaurant where Alex agreed to her demands was staffed by actors employed by Columbo, using Alex’s own trick against him. The cocktail waitress was even played by his own girlfriend, and he never noticed. This is a rare instance of Columbo going beyond cleverly assembling clues and actually humiliating his enemy. We are used to Columbo having respect for his opponent, but this is an exception. I think it comes across fairly clearly that Columbo really can’t stand the arrogant young director.
“The only thing that’s given me any pleasure in this case, Mr Brady, is charging you with murder, and I must say, sir, that’s been a very great pleasure, sir.”
One of the things that so often impresses me about Columbo episodes is the cleverness with which he assembles his evidence. It’s therefore something of a disappointment when he just gets lucky with his discoveries. That happens too much here, and relies on Alex making oddly irrational mistakes, such as leaving Columbo in his den to snoop around, when he didn’t need to do that. The discoveries of the shoe heel, the book, and the traveller’s cheque, are all just lucky breaks. Little is earned, apart from the set-up at the restaurant, and that relies on the co-operation of the secretary who, in any other Columbo episode, would have tried to take the blackmail money and run, and would likely have been the second victim. But what this one has going for it is a very different kind of enemy for Columbo, performed very well by Fisher Stevens, and one whose youthfulness contrasts with the sexagenarian detective in a way that couldn’t really have happened so markedly during the show’s original run, making the triumph of lived experience over conceited youth so much more satisfying to see. There’s plenty of life in the old dog yet. RP
* All silliness aside, I genuinely have no idea why that happened. Did he simply choose to retire at this point? If anyone has any idea, please use the comments section.
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Sex and the Married Detective
Fisher Stevens was most interesting casting as a murderer that Columbo has no respect for. Clearly he’s a nasty piece of work and, with all that’s coming out about abuses from Hollywood powers, it’s very interesting territory for Columbo.
Good to see Law & Order’s Steven Hill in the cast, though he could’ve had a bigger role. There are common lessons to be learned in Columbo about how selfish gain can quite easily lead somebody like Alex Bradey to murder and an ultimate fall from grace. So thankfully this Columbo episode’s take on it was new enough at the time. The return of Columbo was off to a pretty good start.
Note: Falk and Stevens would work together again in the prison sports drama Undisputed.
Thank you, RP, for your review.
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