Columbo: Season 3 (Part Two)

Life’s been coming hard at all of us lately, so let’s relax and go back to a simpler time when you could stand less than two metres from someone, the murderers were brilliant, and a certain unassuming policeman was even smarter…

(My look at the first half of Season 3 is here).

“Publish or Perish” by Peter S. Fischer (who would write several more Columbos and go on to co-create “Murder, She Wrote” with Levinson and Link)

Book publisher Riley Greenleaf (Jack Cassidy in his second outing as a murderer on this show) has a star author named Alan Mallory (Mickey Spillane). Unfortunately, Mallory wants to sign a contract with a different publisher. Greenleaf decides to have him killed – at a time when he has an airtight alibi – and collect on the hefty insurance policy he has on the writer’s life. (As I type this, I realize how reminiscent this is of the motive in Cassidy’s first episode, “Murder by the Book”.)

This one is not bad, but it should be better than it actually is, given Cassidy’s usual stellar performance and strong contributions by Spillane and by John Chandler as a psychopathic would-be author. The problem is, for me, the same one as in “Etude in Black” – as soon as a certain clue appeared, I said “That’s how Columbo is going to catch his man,” and so it was.

Peter S. Fischer wrote a total of five episodes for the original NBC Columbo, and two more for the revival on ABC, and they’re all at least good. On the other hand, most of his plots have one thing in common, and saying what it is outright might partially spoil some episodes for those who have not watched them. So here it is in rot-13:

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“Mind over Mayhem” by Steven Bochco, Dean Hargrove and Roland Kibbee, based on a story by Robert Specht

Dr. Marshall Cahill (Jose Ferrer) is a brilliant scientist who’s pushed his non-brilliant son Neal (Robert Walker Jr.) too hard all his life – so much that Neal, now a college student, has resorted to passing off the work of a recently-deceased researcher as his own. Dr. Howard Nicholson (Lew Ayres), a member of the same think tank where the Cahills work, threatens to expose Neal, so Marshall runs him over with his car, planting the body in Nicholson’s own living room and passing the crime off as a burglary gone wrong.

An ingenious murder and some equally ingenious detection by Columbo, but the way he finally exposes Cahill is, in terms of both morality and ingenuity, on the same level as dragging him into an interrogation room and beating a confession out of him. The episode still leaves a bad taste in my mouth when I think of it.

“Swan Song” by David Rayfiel, based on a story by Stanley Ralph Ross

Country superstar Tommy Brown (Johnny Cash) would be a lot happier if not for his blackmailing wife, Edna (Ida Lupino), who can prove he had an affair with Maryann Cobb, an underaged member of their entourage (Bonnie Van Dyke). As long as Edna is alive, the profits from Tommy’s concerts will go to Edna’s evangelical ministry. Tommy, an experienced pilot, flies Edna and Maryann to Los Angeles in his private plane. He gives them a thermos of coffee laced with sedatives and, once they are unconscious, parachutes out of the plane, letting it crash into the a mountainside. His plan hits a snag when he breaks his leg on landing, but he is still able to bury the parachute and drag himself to the crash scene in time for emergency crews to find him there.

Johnny Cash brings a lot of conviction to a character who’s basically him but a killer, and there is a wonderful scene at the crash site when an FAA investigator (John Dehner) goes from wanting to shoo Columbo away and let the professionals handle things to wishing he had someone as brilliant as the LA cop on his squad – in about five minutes! The episode’s ending is not one of the great ones, but there are lots of excellent clues and deductions up to that point.

“A Friend in Deed” by Peter S. Fischer

Wealthy Hugh Caldwell (Michael McGuire) kills his wife when a domestic argument turns violent. Knowing he’s not smart enough to get away with it, he turns to his friend, Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Halperin (Richard Kiley), to create an alibi for him. Mark does so, but that’s only the beginning of his sinister plan.

What if Columbo realized one of his superiors was implicated in a case he was investigating? Well, we know the guilty parties would pay the price at the end, but watching Columbo overcome this extra obstacle without ruining his career is suspenseful, and the way he does it is ingenious. And take special note of the brief sequence where a black guy turns up near a crime scene and the uniformed cop is all “Well, well, looks like we just caught our murderer!” This series did not take place entirely in fantasyland.

Taking Season 3 as a whole, I make it three excellent episodes (“Candidate for Crime,” Double Exposure” and “A Friend in Deed”), three good ones (“Any Old Port in a Storm,” “Publish or Perish” and “Swan Song”), one okay one (“Lovely But Lethal”) and one bad one (“Mind over Mayhem”). Would Season 4, with only six episodes, do better? Stay tuned…

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