Columbo: Season Three (Part 1)

Mark Dawidziak, author of The Columbo Phile, says Season 3 (1973-74) was the best of them all. Is he right? Let’s check things out…

“Lovely but Lethal” by Jackson Gillis, based on a story by Myrna Bercovici

Cosmetics tycoon Viveca Scott (Vera Miles) has a powerful rival, David Lang (Vincent Price). Karl Lessing (Martin Sheen), a research scientist for her company, is planning to sell her out by letting Lang have the formula for a revolutionary new wrinkle cream, and in the course of a violent argument she slugs him with a microscope and kills him. Then another of Viveca’s employees turns on the blackmail screws… 

The Columbo episodes that deal with an unpremeditated murder are never as interesting as the ones where the villain has everything carefully worked out beforehand, and this is no exception. As well, the clue that finally lets Columbo pin guilt on Viveca is less than convincing; there would be at least one way for a defence lawyer to explain it that didn’t involve her being guilty. Not a strong choice to launch the new season, in spite of a great lineup of guest stars.

“Any Old Port in a Storm” by Stanley Ralph Ross, based on a story by Jackson Gillis

Half brothers Adrian (Donald Pleasence) and Ric (Gary Conway) Carsini are co-owners of a winery that, with Adrian running things, turns out distinguished but unprofitable wines. Ric actually owns the land all by himself, and when he tells Adrian he’s going to sell it to a concern that makes undistinguished but profitable wines, Adrian clobbers him from behind, ties him up and and locks him in the wine cellar, turning off the ventilation to make sure Ric will suffocate. He later dresses the body in scuba gear, dumps it in the ocean, and hopes the police will conclude it was an accident. 

This one is widely considered a top-notch Columbo, and the strength of Donald Pleasence’s performance is one reason why; this nice-guy-pushed-too-far is one of our hero’s more memorable adversaries, and I was almost sorry when it was time to read him his rights. As well, going after a killer who shares his heritage brings out a lot of Columbo’s Italian-ness, and it’s nice to see him fleshed out a bit this way. On the other hand, I don’t think a lot of viewers will have much trouble anticipating exactly how our guy is finally going to trip Adrian up.

“Candidate for Crime” by Irving Pearlberg, Alvin R. Friedman, Roland Kibbee and Dean Hargrove, based on a story by Larry Cohen

Nelson Hayward is running for a seat in the U.S. Senate, left unexpectedly vacant by the death of the incumbent (no, he had nothing to do with that!). His campaign manager, Harry Stone (Ken Swofford) insists the very married Nelson break off his affair with a beautiful young aide. Instead, Nelson decides to kill Harry (who knows too much about a lot of things) and pass the murder off as a botched attempt on his own life by organized crime.

By the third season, Columbo – originally a 90-minute show – was bouncing back and forth between 90- and 120-minute episodes. “Candidate for Crime” is a two-hour affair that could easily have been cut back to the shorter length, with several scenes that pad things out without adding much to the story. That said, Jackie Cooper is a wonderfully slimy politician-murderer, and the final clue is nothing short of brilliant, maybe the second- or third-best in the entire Columbo canon.

“Double Exposure” by Stephen J. Cannell (who later created “The A-Team”)

Dr. Bart Keppel is a motivational psychologist who specializes in the art of subliminal advertising on film. He also has a side hustle as a blackmailer, which helps him fund his company. One of his victims has decided enough is enough, so Keppel uses subliminal techniques to lure the man to his death while appearing to have an airtight alibi. 

The best Columbo endings are the ones where our man finds a flaw in the murderer’s plot that leads straight to him; less satisfying are those where there is no clinching proof, so Columbo sets a trap of some kind to get the villain to betray himself. “Double Exposure” has a “trap” ending, but it’s truly ingenious, the best trap Columbo ever set. Add to that a brilliant “perfect crime” and a wonderful performance by Robert Culp (playing a character who’s the most likeable of the three he portrayed on the show, yet also the most sinister) and you have a classic. It’s too bad Stephen J. Cannell never wrote another Columbo.

To be continued with the other four episodes from this season…

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