We’ve all been there: leaning forward in our favourite chair, eyes wide, staring at the screen, waiting for that fabulous moment when the killer’s luck runs out and Columbo takes ’em down.
At their very best, the Columbo ‘gotcha’ moment can have the audience fist-pumping and whooping with glee as the killer’s smug veneer crumbles away and the realisation that they’re history kicks in. To celebrate these golden moments, I’ve put my thinking cap on and listed what I think are the 10 very best denouements. And to make it clear, we’re talking about the actual moment when Columbo gets his man or woman, regardless of what comes before or what happens afterwards. After all, lest we forget, some of the very best episodes have relatively weak reveals, while some lesser episodes are redeemed by the Columbo knock-out blow at the end.
If your own favourite isn’t here (and I must warn you that some sensational moments have not made the cut), do let me know what your own faves are and why. Now, here we go…
10. Columbo Goes to College (1990)
Purists may rage that the climax of this far-fetched outing from 1990 is selected ahead of some iconic 70s moments, but a man must write from the heart and select according to conscience, not to seek popular approval. Hence the smack-down of frat brats Justin and Coop sneaks into my top 10.
As gotchas go, it’s a bit of a double-whammy. Firstly, Columbo shows the crowd of criminology students how the murder was committed, with a car door remote firing a gun through the air vents on Coop’s rad Hilux hood to shatter a dummy’s head into a million pieces. This elicits not a flicker of a confession from the dastardly duo, of course, and the other dim-witted students seem strangely incapable of deducing that this experiment essentially totally proves they did it!
No, it’s not until Columbo reveals that the car Justin and Coop had planted the murder weapon in (to incriminate a hired goon) was really Mrs Columbo’s car that the wily Lieutenant had tricked the boys into using! Only Justin and Coop had information on the car. Only Justin and Coop could be guilty of the crime.
Reminiscent of how the Lieutenant snared Commissioner Halperin in 1974’s A Friend in Deed, it’s a delicious conclusion to an episode that really proved to a new, young audience (both in the show and amongst the TV viewership) how sharp and relevant Columbo still was.
9. Playback (1975)
Gadget lover Harold Van Wick is certain that his manipulation of CCTV footage showing the shooting of his crone-like mother-in-law will leave him in the clear and free to continue running the family’s electronics empire into the ground. After all, as his flashy digital timepiece (the Apple Watch of its day) clearly shows, he was eyeing up brunettes at an art show at the supposed time of the crime.
Naturally, Columbo’s inquisitive mind (and one good eye) hones in on the only fatal flaw in Harold’s dastardly scheme: his invite to the art show could be seen on the sideboard behind the mother-in-law’s dead body; yet it is gone in the rigged footage used to establish his alibi. Ergo, the shooting occurred before Harold left the building.
The beauty of this gotcha is in the contrasting reactions between Harold and his handicapped wife, Elizabeth. Harold’s quivering, barely controlled rage at being foiled is set against the shock and tear-stained face of Elizabeth. It packs an emotional punch few other episodes get close to.
8. Prescription: Murder (1968)
Dr Ray Flemming is so in love with himself and his massive intellect that there’s no room for anyone else. After viciously strangling Mrs Flemming, he stages an elaborate fight on an airplane with his young lover – scorching redhead Joan – disguised as his wife. She flees from the plane before take off, leaving the good Dr to head off to his alibi in Acapulco.
Once Columbo is on to them, and knowing Joan is the weak link, Dr Flemming is desperate to see the back of her. Imagine his satisfaction, then, when Columbo calls him to Joan’s house and reveals she’s taken an overdose. Upon seeing a bikini-clad redhead being dragged from a swimming pool and covered with a blanket, seemingly dead as a post, it looks for all the world as if Dr Flemming is home and dry.
You got rid of your wife but you’ve lost the girl you loved, so it was all for nothing, chides Columbo. Not so, scoffs the dastardly Doc, unable to resist one last chance to prove his superior mental capacity. Joan was expendable. He’d have found some way to get rid of her.
Lo-and-behold the real Joan emerges from a corner where she’d been skulking, listening to every back-stabbing word. The other redhead was a decoy – Columbo having used Dr Flemming’s own modus operandi against him to make him see what he wanted to see. It’s the ultimate table turn, and with a simmering Joan ready to confess, Dr Flemming’s future is suddenly looking a lot less rosy.
7. Now You See Him (1976)
Many a fan’s ultimate favourite, Now You See Him pits Jack Cassidy against Peter Falk for the third and final time in an episode that aired 10 months before Cassidy’s untimely death. Luckily for us, it’s a suitably magnificent send-off with a gotcha moment to cherish.
In a case in which establishing motive and opportunity are so difficult (Santini is allegedly locked in a chest, submerged in water at the time of the crime) Columbo has to use the magician’s methods against him to draw him out. Meanwhile, sidekick Sergeant Wilson’s knowledge of type writer carbon ribbons allows them to secure the crucial evidence they need to prove motive: the victim was about to blow Santini’s cover as being a wanted Nazi concentration camp guard by sending a typed letter to the authorities. Cue an unforgettable encounter in the Cabaret of Magic.
Using slight-of-hand techniques to produce multiple copies of the incriminating document – despite Santini sending one up in smoke as his final act of defiance – it’s a marvelously showy ending entirely in keeping with the theme of the episode. It also delivered one of the series’ best ever lines, after Santini mourns that he thought he’d get away with a perfect murder.
“Perfect murder, sir?” says Columbo. “Oh I’m sorry, there’s no such thing as a perfect murder. That’s just an illusion.”
6. Negative Reaction (1974)
It’s not the first time we see Columbo employing suspect tactics to get his man (plant evidence much in Death Lends a Hand, Lieutenant?), but the conclusion to Negative Reaction is so good because it gives us genuine insight into just what Columbo is willing to do in the line of duty – and how he feels about having done it.
First, he deliberately develops a reversed version of the key photographic evidence in order to blow chief suspect and ace photographer Paul Galesko’s alibi. He then spins a yarn to Galesko about how he’d accidentally destroyed the original photo by dropping it in acid, forcing the desperate snapper to urge the Lieutenant to look at the original negative within the camera. Acting on impulse, and in front of eye-witnesses, Galesko grabs the incriminating camera that Columbo has cleverly placed in plain view behind him. The trap is sprung. Only the killer could know which camera was used. Galesko, stunned, realises he’s done himself in.
Despite ultimately achieving his aims this is a Pyrrhic victory for Columbo, who knows he has has stooped low to conquer. His slump-shouldered reaction at the closing freeze-frame says it all.
5. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (1977)
There’s a lot to like about this episode. As I’ll doubtless cover in future posts, this is my very favourite episode and it contains probably five of what I consider the 10 best Columbo scenes of all – the gotcha moment high amongst them.
There is majesty in the editing of the gotcha sequence. Employing simple cuts between the faces of the two leads, director Sam Wanamaker ramps up the tension and accelerates the confrontation to its conclusion as an increasingly agitated Oliver Brandt is driven to prove his intellectual superiority by showing Columbo exactly how the murder was committed – squibs, marker pen, giant dictionary and all. As his roars of self-satisfied laughter fade into the realisation that he’s sealed his own fate, Brandt visibly deflates and sags into the nearest armchair.
Notable not just for its fine staging and the terrific performances from Peter Falk and Theo Bikel, this denouement also features a cracking script, none more so than when Brandt, driven to a frenzy, brays at Columbo: “The man who conceived all this, you make him out to be a BUNGLING ASS!” Solid gold…
4. A Deadly State of Mind (1975)
A hit-and-miss episode in some ways, yet when it most matters Deadly State of Mind delivers a magnificent parting shot that lives long in the memory.
When escaping the crime scene after pokering to death his love rival, Dr Marcus Collier almost drives over a blind man and guide dog on their evening stroll. At the end of an episode, the ultra-smug Doc is confronted by a magnificent set-piece, arranged by Columbo, whereby an identikit man claims to be an eye witness who saw Collier making his getaway.
Dr Collier makes the fatal mistake of allowing his ego to kick in at the expense of his common sense. Never you mind that this man has walked unaided into the room and completed tasks only a sighted person could do, says the Doc. He’s clearly blind! And he sets to prove as much by making the man read from selected pages of a magazine – which of course the man manages perfectly.
Only then does a stunned Collier know he’s been had. This isn’t a blind man at all – but it is the blind man’s brother. And the eye witness who can therefore put Collier at the scene of the crime is none other than Collier himself. Simply sensational stuff.
3. A Friend in Deed (1974)
The great success of A Friend in Deed was the establishment very early on in the episode that Deputy Commissioner Mark Halperin was an officer of the law we could neither like nor trust. He’s the very antithesis of the honest, humble and earthy Lieutenant and it makes his ultimate downfall all the more satisfying.
After killing his own wife and covering up for the murder of his neighbour’s wife, Halperin endeavours to lump the blame on jailbird and thief extraordinaire, Artie Jessup. He evens uses information from the case files to plant evidence (jewels) at Jessup’s address. Personally leading the search at Jessup’s apartment, Halperin becomes increasingly rattled as Columbo reveals he knows exactly how the Commissioner’s wife was killed – and accuses him directly of committing the crime.
Halperin’s personal crisis appears to have passed when the incriminating jewels are unearthed under a mattress. If the Commissioner killed his wife, how could her jewels be at Jessup’s place? Then comes the coup de grace. This isn’t Jessup’s apartment at all. It’s Columbo’s. Look – here are his shirts. Here’s a picture of his brother-in-law. His pyjamas are in the closet. You see, Columbo changed the address on the case file, and only the Commissioner had seen it.
Try as he might, Halperin can’t utter a word in defence when confronted with such damning evidence. His silence, and his grudging acceptance of his fate, makes for extremely satisfying viewing.
2. Candidate for Crime (1973)
Desperate to prove his innocence following the murder of his deeply unfashionable campaign manager, Harry Stone, senatorial hopeful Nelson ‘His Own Man’ Hayward cooks up an ambitious hoax assassination attempt on election day. While pretending to make private phone calls in his office at campaign HQ, he fires a silencer through his balcony window into a wall behind his desk. He then has the gun smuggled out by an unwitting accomplice and merrily trots off to vote with Mrs Hayward.
Upon his return, he makes a further claim to be making private calls, setting off a firecracker on the balcony to masquerade as a gunshot. Cue pandemonium as Hayward’s entourage bursts in to find him shaken and claiming to have barely escaped being slain by a gun-wielding thug on his balcony, who has, suspiciously, immediately disappeared without trace.
Columbo enters, stating that the gunman is in the room. In fact it’s Hayward himself, he says. Hayward loses it, challenging the Lieutenant to pluck the bullet from the wall and run it through ballistics to prove it’s a match for the gun that killed Harry. There’s no gun in the room, so that proves Hayward didn’t kill Harry, doesn’t it?
No, sir, says Columbo. You see, he already dug the bullet out of the wall just after Hayward went to vote. He knew Hayward wasn’t making calls from his office because he was monitoring the indicator lights on the phone lines (only in the 70s). And Columbo’s busts Hayward’s bluster in unforgettable fashion: “I dug this bullet out of that wall three hours before you said that somebody fired it at you three minutes ago [immense pause for effect]. You’re under arrest, sir.”
All Hayward can do is close his eyes and say a silent prayer. Another one bites the dust…
1. Suitable for Framing (1971)
Magnificent in its simplicity, the take-down of smarmy art critic Dale Kingston remains a joy to behold – whether at the first viewing or the 101st.
Keen to see his crazy Aunt Edna take the rap for the murder of his uncle Rudy, Kingston has planted some stolen Degas pastels in her linen closet, which the police duly find. Things look bad for Edna, but Columbo – late on the scene after seemingly being dismissed from the case – orders that the artworks be dusted for prints as he accuses Kingston of slaying his uncle.
Knowing his own prints are all over the works, ol’ Dale remains cool as a cucumber. But no, it’s Columbo’s prints they’re looking for after he got his mitts on them when reaching into an art folder earlier in the episode. And when there’s a positive ID on Columbo’s prints being on the paintings, Kingston is running short on options.
Entrapment, he claims with desperation. Columbo must have touched the paintings just now while he wasn’t looking! Cue the legendary ‘gloved hand reveal’. Watch closely and you can see Kingston’s lip quiver in panic when the Lieutenant’s hands come out of the raincoat pockets. It’s a brilliant performance from Ross Martin, who was superb throughout in making Kingston a killer you could love to loathe.
I defy anyone to watch this scene without wanting to leap on to their feet and roar with approval. Could this be the single best TV moment of all time? I’ve yet to see a better one…
The take-down of Dale Kingston remains a joy to behold – whether at the first viewing or the 101st.
So there we are. I’d love to know what you make of my top 10 Columbo gotchas. Do let me know in the comments section below. Apologies to the Double Exposure fans out there, who may be up in arms that the episode isn’t featured. It was a tough decision, believe me…
Of course, not every Columbo can be graced with an ending as exquisite as these. If you dare, you can have a look at the 10 least satisfying gotchas of the 70s here. Until next we meet, farewell.