Just a shade over three years after he made his character debut in Prescription: Murder, Peter Falk was back in the role of Lieutenant Columbo – this time in an official pilot for what was hoped would become a hit series.
Airing on March 1, 1971, Ransom for a Dead Man was a big-budget spectacular with a cinematic feel and a captivating villain in the shape of two-time Oscar nominee Lee Grant. But would the mystery at its heart be good enough to win hearts and minds of the viewing public? Let’s buckle up and find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Leslie Williams: Lee Grant
Margaret Williams: Patricia Mattick
Agent Carlson: Harold Gould
Paul Williams: Harlan Warde
Written by: Dean Hargrove (from a story by Richard Levinson and William Link)
Directed by: Richard Irving
Score by: Billy Goldenberg
Episode synopsis: Columbo Ransom for a Dead Man
Lady lawyer Leslie Williams has no further use for elderly husband, Paul, so she shoots him, and disposes of the body in the ocean. A wily one, Leslie has a perfect plan to side-step suspicion. Using answer machine tape audio of her husband (the first example of what would become a Columbo staple), and by fashioning a ransom note saying he’s been kidnapped, she puts her elaborate scheme into action.
The FBI is called in, in the suave shape of Agent Carlson. The LAPD representative is his polar opposite: the scruffy Lieutenant Columbo, who appears in bumbling fashion having lost his pen in the dark doorway of the house. But while the FBI go through the motions, ignoring Columbo, it is the Lieutenant who starts asking questions.
As an automated phone call comes in to her home, playing the message Leslie created to make her husband appear to be alive and well, and demanding a $300,000 ransom, it’s only Columbo that notices that she didn’t ask if he’s alright. That bothers him, and it’s the first sign of the cogs in his razor-sharp mind whirring into action.
Once she has the ransom cash, what follows is an intricate set piece where Leslie, a skilled pilot, heads out in her light aircraft to a pre-arranged drop point over the desert. There she flings an empty bag out of the plane window, supposedly containing the ransom money, which she had already nabbed. As Leslie circles back to the airstrip, the FBI and police storm the drop site to find just the empty bag.
Again, only Columbo wonders why the kidnappers bothered to leave the bag behind instead of making an instant getaway. He even picks the lock of Leslie’s locker in the airport’s pilot room, but she’s already removed the evidence and stashed it in a secret compartment in her walk-in wardrobe.
“Lieutenant Columbo appears in bumbling fashion having lost his pen in the dark doorway of the house.”
The next day, the body of Leslie’s husband is discovered. The news is broken to her in court prior to trial and, for the first time, she breaks down, collapsing in front of witnesses and has to be escorted out. Again, Columbo is bothered. Why lose it now when she’s been so calm and collected? Why didn’t she ask where the body was found, or how he died?
Columbo’s suspicions aside, things have gone to plan for Leslie. All until Margaret – her husband’s daughter – returns home from Switzerland, that is, to act as the thorn in her side. The two despise each other and Margaret makes a scene at the funeral, slapping Leslie’s face and bellowing: “This what you wanted, isn’t it?” Columbo comforts Margaret at the cemetery. He has found a likely ally in his bid to prove Leslie’s guilt.
As the episode races to its conclusion, via a wonderful scene where Leslie takes the Lieutenant on a spin in her plane (much to his discomfort), it is the relationship he has forged with Margaret that gives Columbo the edge. Over a bowl of chilli at his favourite diner, Margaret reveals to Columbo that Leslie hated her father, and had used his reputation in the legal profession to springboard her own ambitions. Margaret is sure Leslie pulled the trigger, but there’s still no hard evidence. So they cook up a scheme of their own as fiendishly clever as Leslie’s was.
In full-on psycho mode, Margaret terrorises Leslie in her own home, firing blanks from a gun at her, and letting her know that she knows the ransom bags were switched. Margaret will get out of Leslie’s hair and back to Europe, she says, if Leslie will pay her her $25,000 annual allowance. Leslie takes the bait.
After an icy farewell at the airport with Margaret, Leslie runs into, who else, but Lieutenant Columbo. He invites her to have a drink: his tone suggesting it’s a farewell knowing she’s beaten him fair and square. Then the coup de grace: Columbo produces the ransom money that Leslie had used to pay off Margaret. Only the killer could have the money. Ultimately, it’s Leslie’s greed, and total lack of conscience that has done her in.
As Columbo puts it himself: “Mrs. Williams, you have no conscience and that’s your weakness. Did it ever occur to you that there are very few people who would take money to forget about a murder? It didn’t, did it? I knew it wouldn’t.”
Another officer escorts Leslie down town, and Columbo is left with a bill for the drinks he can’t pay, despite having $25k on the table in front of him, as credits roll…
Best moment – the quiet ‘f*** you!’
It’s a bit of an under-the-radar moment, but the scene in the courtroom following the revelation that Leslie’s husband’s body has been found, where the Lieutenant asserts his authority over the smarmy Agent Carlson, is a moment to treasure.
When Columbo starts discussing all the things that bother him about Leslie’s reaction, Carlson gets snooty. “Let’s understand this one thing,” he bleats. “If you start harassing this woman I’m going to take it upstairs.”
Cue a magnificent Columbo comeback: “Um, just one minute, Mr. Carlson. It’s like this. This is not just a kidnapping. This is a murder now and I kinda figure that’s my department. I’ll see ya around.”
The message is clear: Columbo may be small. He may be scruffy. He may be humble. But he will not be pushed around. It’s a brilliant scene, and well worth refreshing your memory on below…
My thoughts on Ransom for a Dead Man
What a difference three years makes! If you’ve read my previous review of Prescription: Murder, you’ll know that, while I loved the episode, I suggested that the Columbo we encountered in it was one we couldn’t love. As the official pilot episode, Ransom for a Dead Man’s Lieutenant Columbo had to be a character the audience could really dig in order to give the network confidence to commission a full series. This placed no small amount of pressure on Columbo’s creative team – but they nailed it in every way.
Peter Falk’s performance here was arguably the single most important barometer of success. Granted, he might not have 100% mastered the character yet, but he’s very close. It’s a terrific performance, full of warmth and trickery, and packed with the idiosyncrasies that will come to define the character. It’s a big step up from Prescription: Murder and sows the seeds of a character that we really will take to our hearts.
Ransom’s Columbo is a less confrontational figure than in his debut outing, while his efforts to lead those around him to underestimate his mental prowess have been strongly dialled up. Take his intro scene here, when the seemingly bumbling Lieutenant is searching fruitlessly for a pen in the dark doorway of the Williams’ household. He doesn’t seem a threat to anyone.
Another good example swiftly follows when Columbo raises the troublesome issue of how the lemon-shaped soaps in Leslie’s bathroom stick together when wet. The facial expressions on display from Leslie and snooty FBI agent Carlson make it abundantly clear that they believe him to be a fool. It’s the classic Columbo disarming technique in action and was rarely displayed better. Falk was in the groove straight away.
Lee Grant also excels as Leslie Williams. Indeed, she would earn an Emmy nomination for her turn here and one must concede that it was well deserved. She’s wickedly cold, yet dangerously alluring at the same time (witness her flirtatiousness with Agent Carlson); a confident woman in a man’s world who isn’t afraid of anyone or anything. Leslie takes calculated risks to achieve her desired outcomes, both professionally in court, recreationally in the air, and personally in murdering her ageing husband, and later in paying off the troublesome Margaret.
“Leslie Williams is a confident woman in a man’s world who isn’t afraid of anyone or anything.”
As befits a leading lawyer, Leslie’s also a very smart cookie. Despite initially falling for his bungling incompetent charade, she quickly learns that there is much more to the detective than meets the eye and recognises the ‘shop-worn bag of tricks’ that he uses to put suspects off their guard. She thinks she’s cleverer than him, naturally, but to give her credit, Leslie doesn’t underestimate him like so many others will in years to come. “Lieutenant Columbo, fumbling and stumbling along but it’s always the jugular that he’s after,” she notes. “And I imagine that more often than not he’s successful.” She certainly got that right.
The two leads share plenty of screen-time making for several juicy encounters. Highlights include Leslie taking Columbo for a joyride in her plane (putting an end to his niggling questions in the process) and the enjoyable gotcha scene where Columbo lays bare the moral vacuum at Leslie’s core. Great friends off-screen, Falk and Grant had genuine chemistry together and would go on to star together in Broadway hit The Prisoner of Second Avenue at the end of the year.
Ransom is, in many ways, a big step up from Prescription: Murder. That one was an adaptation of a stage show and it sometimes felt constrained by that. Not this time. Ransom for a Dead Man was an original story and a big budget piece of television with few limits. They ramped everything up to 11, the sets, costumes, fashions and locations – including filming within the iconic Barney’s Beanery chilli haunt and capturing sumptuous aerial footage of Leslie’s light aircraft over California’s Tehachapi Mountains.
Ransom has style and class in abundance and captures that sense of ‘how the other half live’ as well as we ever see in the show’s long lifespan. It’s a visual treat and would have been great to see on a big screen to really gain maximum enjoyment from (as was possible in 1978 when the picture was released in cinemas in Italy and the UK). Some of the editing techniques and fades are very 70s – particularly Leslie’s eyes fading demonically into a set of car headlights and the highly stylised freeze-frame murder scene – but they enhance the episode’s charm rather than detract.
“Billy Goldenberg’s score is a cinematic wonder – as good as anything gracing the silver screens of the time.”
Dean Hargrove’s teleplay is sharply scripted and does an excellent job at showcasing Columbo’s speed of thought. Time and again, the Lieutenant is first to notice little inconsistencies in Leslie’s reactions to events, the types of minor details that elude the more polished FBI men around him. Even at this early stage in his career, Columbo is a fascinating character study and a highly believable on-screen presence.
Special praise must also go to Billy Goldenberg’s score. It’s a cinematic wonder, as good as anything gracing the silver screens of the time. He created a single iconic theme and then fashioned variations on it, sometimes subtle, sometimes haunting, sometimes sweeping and orchestral. Heck, there’s even a muzak version being played at the airport. It’s simply great stuff. The soundtrack was released on vinyl in 1976 and if you’re lucky enough to own a copy, I envy you. Remind yourself of the majesty of the score below…
So, if that’s all good, what didn’t work? Well, the hate-filled Margaret/Leslie relationship seems a bit too pantomime to believe at times. In fact, Margaret as a whole can be quite hard to stomach and the quality of her portrayal is something that divides fans.
Patricia Mattick was just 20 years old at the time of filming and was making only her third screen appearance. While undoubtedly a fine actress, her Margaret seems much more theatrical and less convincing than the assured screen presences of Falk and Grant. Also, I get that she’s the wronged party and has a right to furious with Leslie, but a lot of the time her peevish act meant that I just wanted her to pipe down and get off screen.
“Ransom is technically superior to Prescription: Murder, yet oddly less enjoyable.”
Saying that, Margaret has two fine moments when she slaps Leslie at the funeral and later even tries to clobber Columbo when he admonishes her for her clumsy attempts to frame her stepmother. Both are powerful, emotional scenes that stand out in the memory.
Margaret aside, there’s the question of Leslie’s motive to consider. We never really know why she decides to kill Paul. We can infer that she had no further use for him and needed him out of the way to allow her to fulfil her growing professional and financial ambitions, but it’s never made clear. It doesn’t damage the episode, but I personally always find it more satisfying when we have a clear-cut reason driving the murderer’s actions.
Some critics have savaged the ending, too, citing that someone as intelligent as Leslie would never be caught out the way she is. I don’t agree. As I alluded to earlier, I see Leslie as a risk taker. She calculates her odds in everything she does and her decision to use the ransom money to pay off Margaret is just another example of that. Her actions are believable for her character.
The issue I do have with the ending is that it’s all over in such a hurry. Ransom is long for a Columbo episode, with a 98-minute running time. They had ages to play with, yet the final wrap-up in the airport is gone in a flash. This is a shame, as it gives the viewer little opportunity to savour the gotcha, or marvel at Columbo’s stunning victory.
As a result of these imperfections, Ransom is, perhaps, a little less than the sum of its parts. It’s technically superior to Prescription: Murder, yet oddly less enjoyable. But credit to director Richard Irving, editor Edward M. Abroms and art director John Lloyd. They set out their stall to impress, and they succeeded. The episode was a ratings hit and a critical success. A month after Ransom debuted, NBC commissioned a full series. Six months later, Season 1 would air.
So, while Ransom might not ultimately be one of my absolute personal favourites, it has many merits and played its part more than well enough to pave the way for greater things to come. I call that a job well done.
Did you know?
Ransom for a Dead Man was released in cinemas around Europe, notably in the UK (in 1973) and Italy (in 1978). A magnificent series of film posters was produced for the Italian release (Riscatto per un uomo morto), which can sometimes be found on eBay and are well worth tracking down if you’re a collector. My own home has a good few of ’em.
On a sadder note, Patricia Mattick, who played Margaret, died of cancer in December 2003, aged just 52. Watch the episode closely and you can see that Margaret is watching the film Double Indemnity in the house kitchen during an argument with Leslie. Double Indemnity is about a woman who kills her husband to claim an insurance payout. Nice touch!
How I rate ’em so far
While it’s fair to say Columbo’s career is off to a flying start, I do prefer Prescription: Murder to Ransom, albeit it only by a slim margin.
- Prescription: Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
Where does Ransom rank in your list of favourites? Vote for your number one episode in the Columbo best episode poll here.
Thanks, as ever, for reading. I’ll be back with a review of Murder by the Book soon.
I’m going through the series for the first time and so far, this one’s ending is perhaps my favorite. “Congratulations, Lieutenant. You’re very smart.” “So are you.” Those small moments of grudging respect, affording even a murderer a little basic human dignity, I like that every time I see it.
PSPS Thank you so much for providing the link to Billy Goldenberg’s soundtrack on youtube. As a musician, I am always keenly aware of the very creative and atmospheric music running through so many of the episodes. Leslie’s theme by Goldenberg brings us a hauntingly disturbing melodic line and his variations throughout are remarkable.
I’m the type of person who becomes immersed in music. For example, if I happen to be channel surfing and notice “Amadeus,” “Vertigo,” or “North by Northwest,” I’m immediately stuck just because of the music even though I’ve seen it before.
This episode of Columbo is like that. Billy Goldenberg’s original inspired composition here is magnificent. Your snippet from the opening captures some of it. However, this was so well-regarded at the time that the original soundtrack for this episode was commercially released! It contains all the cues, different orchestrations and variations used throughout the episode including the unexpected whimsical version used in the final airport scene. It’s the actual studio recording that was later used in editing. OMG, I’m listening to it right now and I’m getting swept away!
Someone posted it on YT and I highly recommend it. I don’t know if this blog filters links, so here’s what to put after the YT URL:
A very interesting nuance to this episode. Lieutenant says, regarding Leslie’s offer to cook dinner, that not using her hired help reflects that “if you want something done right, do it yourself”. Cut to Leslie with a slight over-reaction — “What do you mean by that?” Columbo chose his words carefully as he immediately suspected her. This is prior to the ‘call’ from the hostaged ‘Mr. Williams’ where he surmises that Leslie is unable to feel empathy and thus capable of being a killer. I urge fans to rewatch this exchange, it is actually really well done. This level of subtlety is very seldom found in TV or cinema other than by actors with stage experience, who would only make this work for the benefit of folks rewatching the production/episode and looking specifically for the moment of investigative inflection.
CP, I enjoy your thoughtful and always humorous reviews. Thank you for each and every one. Can’t wait until you do the last three.
I enjoyed this episode as much as the first. Thought that the two women leads were fantastic. I felt that the Margaret character was completely believable as a young person who hated her stepmother and believed that she had murdered her father.
As one of the other commentators stated, I also was troubled by Columbo’s advising Margaret to shoot blanks at her stepmother. This was not necessary. She could have worn her down with more accusations and then negotiated for money. It is not only illegal (in our universe anyway) to have a minor shoot blanks to terrorize a suspect but out of character for Columbo. Margaret could have been used to set the murderer up without the use of a firearm.
Columbo has always used shady/risky/illegal tactics throughout the series, so it’s 100% part of the character as far as I’m concerned.
Ricky, I agree completely about the illegal firing of blanks at the step-mother. Also, was it legal for Columbo to pick the lock in the airport locker room? Overall, I enjoyed this episode immensely, but I got to the point of wishing Margaret was pelted by someone, instead of the other way around. Also, at the very beginning of the episode, I couldn’t shake the improbable notion of Lesley wrapping and tying her dead husband, getting him in the car, then getting him out of the car, and kicking him over the side of the hill. She must have been in great physical shape.
Columbophile, I just discovered your blog earlier this week and absolutely LOVE it. My copy of “Shooting Columbo” (great title!) is due on my doorstep today, and it will join four other Columbo-related books on my shelf. I gave the complete DVD set (all 69 episodes) to my dad in 2012. Upon his death in 2014, I got the set back, and have started watching the whole thing for the 3rd time now. I rotate watching Columbo and Agatha Christie’s Poirot with David Suchet. All GREAT stuff.
Totally agree – Columbo’s use of Margaret is somewhat weird and ill advised… why would a policeman give a gun to a minor? But Pattye Mattick was awesome as Margaret-it is a cool episode.
Ed has my vote! Mattick and Grant were both great in their roles. Margaret and Leslie’s highly volatile relationship really made the episode. Lee Grant can be quite captivating and beguiling, check her out in Damien: Omen II.
I must have missed something….how did Columbo get possession of the ransom money at the end? I must have gone to the kitchen for a beer or something?
He got it from Margaret after she skipped through the departures gate, who had been given it by Leslie to buy her silence.
I’ve enjoyed Columbo for many years, and I enjoy it even more following along with your blog reviews….thanks for the insight and humor you offer!
I believe that the comic sequence where Lee Grant’s character takes Columbo out for plane ride was the inspiration behind the helicopter scene in the film “And Justice For All,” written by Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson.
“And Justice For All” had a bigger budget, of course, so the film is able to milk the basic joke a bit longer. Here’s the scene with Al Pacino and Jack Warden:
I’d also like to point out that although the complete Columbo series is no longer available to watch on Peacock TV for free, it’s now being carried on Tubi TV–free (with commercials)–for those who can access this streaming service.
Ransom for a Dead Man- Most awesome episode ever! Also most Columbo episodes are available via IMDB- if you have an Amazon account- with FreeVee- I believe commercial free. 👍
Leslie Williams may well be my favorite Columbo killer. Not only is Lee Grant’s performance fantastic, but I’m intrigued by them being one of the most enigmatic killers in the series. Also, in taking Columbo up on a plane ride (and even making the Lieutenant take the wheel), Leslie is one of the few killers who not only parries Columbo’s psychological warfare, but goes on the offensive.
A lot of people complain about the acting on Margaret, but I thought it fit the character perfectly: Margaret is the kind of teenager who is very purposely theatrical in their behavior, in an effort to seem more sophisticated than they really are.
I remember this episode has the same problem I had with Colombo Goes to College. Colombo resorts to having a firearm fired at the suspect to unnerve them which is horrendously illegal. Not only are blanks extremely dangerous, he conscripts a minor to use a firearm and fire blanks *at* the suspect which is morally bankrupt and would have both Margaret and Colombo behind bars for their actions. It doesn’t matter if this is the Colomboverse and legal entrapment, it’s morally wrong.
These brutal tactics that Colombo employs is enough for innocent people to confess to a crime, given their lives were threatened and legitimately endangered by Colombo. The Lt should be above such things, especially since he’s suppose to abhor firearms. And even if didn’t get Margaret to fire a gun at Leslie, the fact that he’s her co-conspirator means he’s an accessary to Margaret’s criminal actions taken on his behalf. And Margaret, despite her morally wrong actions and criminal activity, seems to never suffer any comeuppance for it, seemingly because the script thinks she’s the good guy and it’s good thing to frame evidence and fire guns at unarmed murderers.
I’m gonna assume the creepy messages scrawled everywhere were Columbo’s idea, and bringing a gun into the mix was Margaret escalating things on their own.
That was probably the Lieutenant….. 📺
Finally saw Ransom, the last remaining Columbo on my to-do list. Lee Grant was fantastic. Sly, observant and alluring.
I find it interesting that in both pilots the killers mostly don’t fall for Columbo’s shtick. The psychiatrist and lady lawyer are similarly arrogant to later killers, but both see through the Lt.’s attempts at guile much more quickly. That feels backwards for a TV series. You’d think they’d start with the Columbo character setting a precedent that this act is how he fools high-class murderers and “gets his man,” then subvert that trope after the audience has come to expect it by writing savvier killers requiring fresh traps to catch them. Instead, the killers get less respectful of Columbo (i.e., dumber) as the series progresses. Falk shambles in, the guest star smirks or makes a snide comment, and we know that underestimation will seal their fate.
So before viewers even knew about Falk’s “shopworn bag of tricks,” they weren’t working. He had to go beyond. Then, Season 1 arrives, and the bozo shtick becomes Columbo’s main weapon, often singularly responsible for cornering an elitist killer.
While this may sound like a criticism, I think Levinson, Link and Falk correctly learned that Columbo’s bozo act was far more beloved by viewers than his keen detective skills were admired. We want to see Falk play spider to the killer’s fly as much as possible. If the fly spots the web straight away, Columbo can still save the day but has to do so in a fashion too resembling other smart fictional detectives.
In the end, neither pilot movie resides among my personal favorites, despite possessing many strong qualities. They feel more like echoes of what I think of when I think of Columbo.
Leslie’s fingerprints are all over the ransom note!
As they should be since she was the recipient (in addition to being the sender) of the note.
Was any reason given for Columbo being assigned to serve as the “local police liaison” to the FBI? Is it typical to send a homicide detective to a reported kidnapping?
Kidnapping is a state crime. It only become a federal crime if it crosses state lines (under the “Lindbergh Law”). Until that interstate element is established, it’s entirely credible that the FBI and local police would work together.
Sorry for the confusingly worded question. I’m wondering why LAPD sent a man from its homicide department with no death reported? Columbo nails that juicy line to the Carlson after the body is found, but it made me wonder why he was sent in the first place.
Apparently, that’s the way Columbo’s version of the LAPD worked. He also investigates a kidnapping in “The Greenhouse Jungle” and “No Time to Die.” And in “Columbo Cries Wolf,” he investigates a disappearance.
More smoking gun proof that the scene with
Margaret at the beanery was intended to be shown
before Columbo’s first interview of Lesley and
the flight with her in the small plane:
In the scene after Margaret is outed for planting
keys evidence, we have the following dialogue:
COLUMBO: The fact is that she came to me
and she told me that she thought you
were involved. I told her it was a far-fetched
LESLIE: But you did tell her about the missing keys. You
never mentioned them to me. That wasn’t among
those little details that was bothering you.
COLUMBO: Well, Mrs Williams, if by some remote chance
your stepdaughter was right, it wouldn’t have
been very smart to have told you.
Again, this dialogue only makes sense, if Columbo’s interview
with Leslie comes AFTER his restaurant and keys discussion
scene with Margaret. Both Columbo and Leslie’s remarks imply
that the keys discussion with Margaret came before the first
interview at her office.
Because the restaurant scene comes immediately before the
above one, the dialogue above makes no sense whatsoever,
But why the key restaurant scene was not shown in the order it
was meant to be, remains for me, the biggest mystery of the entire
Thanks to amara.org for providing the above
snippet of dialog… there is a script god for
Except that the original script disproves your “smoking gun.” The order of these scenes is exactly as in the initial draft script. The dialogue you quote is on pages marked “Rev. 11/12/70” — which was the first of six revisions through 12/22/71 — but the flying scene, the diner scene, and much of the keys scene are all in the initial draft, and certainly in the very same order as was shown in the final pilot. Your “biggest mystery” is not a mystery at all; it is debunked by conclusive documentary proof.
The dialog definitely, without ANY possibility of being
wrong, proves that the scene is out of logical order.
The order as it appears on DVDs now, not in the pilot
broadcast. Which could have been the same even
though I suspect it was not.
But that the scene got switched around without a
rewrite, or it’s dialog changed, even before filming
began, that I don’t deny.
As for “conclusive documentary proof”, Hollywood
TV scripts just don’t come under this heading!
Face facts, Dog. The order of all the scenes you address is the same in the initial script of “Ransom for a Dead Man” (which even bears a handwritten episode title, showing how early in the process it was written) as in the aired version. And all the specific dialogue you address is in the script. (In TV scripts, all revised pages are identified. You can tell which are original pages, which pages were changed in the first revision, which pages were changed in the second revision, etc. The script is about as conclusive as you can get about the drafting history of an episode.) So you can theorize all you want. You can certainly express your opinion about what the order of these scenes should have been, or how the dialogue should have been arranged. But when the original (i.e., as yet unrevised) script matches the final film in this respect, there is no plausible argument to be made that the order of these scenes was switched either via a rewrite or via an edit, or in any other way. There is no version of “Ransom for a Dead Man” that presents these “key” moments (pardon the pun) in the order you theorize. Them’s the facts.
That said, I find nothing illogical about the order of the scenes/dialogue in question. Columbo admits that he held information back when confronting Leslie. Of course he did. He wants to find those keys. Telling her prematurely about them could have prompted her planting or destroying them. Meanwhile, he is seeking Margaret’s cooperation. Margaret might have been very helpful in helping Columbo find the true keys. Leslie confronts Columbo with the fact that he told Margaret something he’d never told her. But now, because the cat is out of the bag, Columbo can respond more candidly. How is this in any way illogical?
Moreover, the Columbo-Margaret confrontation helps mask the ending. We’re left with the impression that Columbo no longer trusts Margaret. We’re therefore surprised when we learn that she had served as Columbo’s accomplice in setting Leslie up. Was having Margaret plant the phony keys part of the deception (of both Leslie and the audience)? We’re never told.
Pattye Mattick was awesome as Margaret Williams- her character could have been better developed….
For me, there are 4 key ingredients to a good Columbo episode:
1) The murder is well planned and makes us believe the killer can’t possibly lose.
2) Columbo steps in and sees details that suggest the killer’s guilt.
3) Columbo and the killer have a very entertaining battle of wits throughout.
4) Columbo nails the killer with that undeniable piece of evidence.
Ransom for a Dead Man succeeds reasonably well on #1. It’s certainly an original and ambitious idea and it convinces the viewer that she is a step ahead of the FBI. She even manages to baffle Columbo at first.
It is less successful with #2 as the details pointing to her guilt are scant. The bag being left at the drop could easily be explained, for example, by perhaps the kidnappers thinking there might be some kind of tracking device in it (however possible that might be). Also, Leslie could have simply not asked how her husband was during the call out of fear of upsetting the kidnappers or being aware that the call may be kept brief. As with Prescription Murder, Columbo’s suspicions seem a little forced and unconvincing for someone who didn’t witness the crime.
It meets #3 fairly well but with a significant flaw. Leslie is actually stupid enough to show Columbo the answering machine that played a crucial role in her faking the kidnapping. Clearly the writer was at a loss as to how to get Columbo to cleverly piece together that part of the crime so they had her just give away this detail.
As for #4, the improvement over Prescription Murder is that here we get physical evidence proving guilt (rather than a confession): there were no kidnappers–Leslie has the money. But the method for getting it is over the top, with all the crazy antics of Margaret in the house to make it happen. With such behavior, it seems less likely that Leslie would believe Margaret would shut up and more likely that she’d try another murder.
So while Ransom is a step towards the series in many ways, had there never been a series and viewers for eternity were left with only the Prescription and Ransom, Ransom would come across as a very odd turn for the character and is a much less impressive battle between Columbo and the murderer.
1) The murder is well planned and makes us believe the killer can’t possibly lose.
Not quite, as her plan and execution do have flaws. The
FBI though bungles the fingerprint evidence, allowing her
2) Columbo steps in and sees details that suggest the killer’s guilt.
More than his own intuition, and Margaret’s own accusations,
we get the strobe light that the kidnappers supposedly leave
to signal to Leslie where to drop the loot. The FBI recovers it,
then it goes to Columbo, then to Margaret, who hangs it in
Leslie’s face. The strobe was Leslie’s first boo-boo. There
was no reason for the kidnappers to use a beacon that
could be seen from the air but dropped from a plane, since
they were supposedly on the ground.
Dropping the empty bag when and where she did was another
of her avoidable mistakes. She should have dropped it on
her way back, when the FBI was no longer following and
couldn’t recover it.
3) Columbo and the killer have a very entertaining battle of wits throughout.
Yes, but the tape machine wasn’t a mistake. It was already in
Leslie’s office, so hiding it would have been incriminating. She
hid the part that could make outcoming calls, which Columbo
had to later reconstruct.
Her mistake in their last duel of wits was finally implying her
guilt. She does this after Columbo hints he will call on her in
the murder trial anyway, when she drops her pretense of
innocence, and says she will claim he is just trying to destroy
her. At which point he quickly puts his sting into motion,
and tells her that truthfully, he’s been taken off the case
4) Columbo nails the killer with that undeniable piece of evidence.
Yes, but it is just as much Margaret and him wearing her down
so she is not even thinking straight anymore. As she
herself asks earlier, “but don’t the guilty under pressure
sometimes do the illogical thing?”. To which Columbo
replies, yes, in fact that’s what always does them in
Ransom for a dead man is one of my favourite episodes. In terms of point #2 I think the element of suspicion started before Columbo arrives on the scene. He turns up at the house specifically to tell the FBI that the police have found the car. This is a minor detail and the FBI are given this information over the phone anyway. However. Later in the episode Columbo drops the information that the driving side car seat was pushed far too forward for the victim to have been driving. Suggesting that a woman was driving. So he new this before he turns up. In my opinion. The hole nonsense at the door were he gets her to help look for his pen is a test. He knows a woman is involved so tries to test the only woman. If her husband was genuinely missing she wouldn’t be messing around outside looking for a pen. He is on to her before we even see him. Legend
I thought Columbo might be trying to test her
visual acuity in darkness. As she is able
to spy something, though not his lost pen.
Maybe he suspects she ambushed her husband
from behind in darkness in his car.
The other thing he asks is to see both the ransom
note and the envelope it came in. Why? Is he looking
to see if they were lettered by the same person?
Maybe at this point, he’s concluded that Leslie’s involved
in the kidnapping. Until realizing later (in the restaurant
scene with Margaret) that it was murder from the start.
Regarding #2, he was onto her even before she dropped the bag. If you remember, he looked shocked when she told the FBI agent that she brought her own bag when they were putting together the ransom money…who does that? I believe that made him even more suspicious and he believed she was up to something. If you add that to his earlier suspicion of a woman’s involvement before he even got to the house (regarding the driver of the car), the fact that the “kidnappers” knew so much information (she flies a plane, her husband’s itinerary), the missing keys, and of course her cool, calm behavior…I think #2 holds up pretty well. I agree with you completely on #4 though…
Columbophile, by your caption
below for one of your pictures,
I gather that the version you saw had the scenes
in the right order.
“Columbo regretted his decision to have chilli for lunch…”
So in your (correct) version, the lunch scene comes *before*
the flying scene. Not so, in the free streaming version you
posted for the 50 Year Anniversary post for this episode.
It’s shown out of order, right after the flying scene.
By the way, Ransom for a Dead Man pays homage to
Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”. Those of you with a copy
of the heist film, may want to watch it again to see if they
can catch all the things referenced by the episode.
This episode has many
elements reused in later
episodes. Which over the years has diminished the
huge impact that this exciting pilot once had.
Brilliant and cool-headed but heartless attorney
Leslie Williams dispatches her once useful aging
husband to move on with her life. And to steal the
$300 K ransom money she raises from his estate.
After a staged kidnapping that hoodwinks the FBI,
Columbo takes over the investigation when the husband’s
body shows up. He has noticed Leslie’s inconsistent
behaviour from the beginning.
Also ballistics shows that her husband was shot by
someone he knew, and at a place where bullet evidence
would be incriminating. Leslie’s handling of the
drop for the ransom money suggests she pocketed the
money by switching bags. Finally Leslie’s own replies
to Columbo helps to narrow down the list of murder
suspects to her.
But because of the FBI’s bungling of the case,
hard evidence is lacking. The main fly in Leslie’s
ointment, her stepdaughter, returns from Switzerland
hurling slaps and accusations.
Margaret and Columbo come to blows after she tries to
plant Leslie’s husband’s keys to frame her. The two then
work together to forge a plan to take her down.
By way of his announcement of being taken off the case,
Columbo shows Leslie her edited husband’s voice track
trick that fooled the FBI, only for her to scoff at his
With Columbo gone, Leslie would believe she is now in
the clear, but for Margaret showing up again threatening
to expose her. Then shooting Leslie over and over again
with blanks, mostly at the same location she shot her
Margaret’s scrawls a message “from one old bag to
another…”, subliminally hinting at the way Leslie
stole the ransom money, then hides in her dressing
closet where Leslie keeps it in a secret lockup.
Before demanding $25 K as her first year allowance,
for her return to Switzerland with the cash and to
stop making accusations.
After seeing her off at the airport with the money,
Leslie runs into Columbo, who says he is waiting.
While they’re having drinks at her invitation, Columbo
tells her that the cash that she just gave to Margaret
has been confirmed as being from the marked ransom
Columbo has relied on his deceptive farewell earlier,
Leslie’s fear of exposure, and her lack of conscience in
believing that her stepdaughter’s silence could be bought.
Rating: 10/10 (plus tiebreak bonus of 0.5)
(bonus of 0.5 for Lee Grant performance)
Clues Leading Columbo To Killer: 2.5/2.5
Final Gotcha: 2.5/2.5
Final Rating: 10/10 + tiebreak bonus of 0.5
Before I leave this excellent
episode for good, I wanted
to give another reason in my opinion, of why this
episode has fallen so far in the estimation of some
fans. When at the time of its debut, it was big ‘event
television’, and was well enough regarded to green
light the entire series.
Apart from it having its plot elements plundered by
so many of the regular series episodes, and thus
seeming so less original now.
Another one, is its impossible to ‘unsee’ a gotcha.
Fans today wonder how someone as supposedly
smart as Leslie could fall for such an obvious trap.
But it’s only obvious once you’ve seen it. Speaking
for myself, I was fooled by Columbo’s trap in both
this, and the original pilot, Prescription: Murder.
Many other fans must forget that they were too.
This element of surprise in the gotcha at the end
I think is one important factor that helped fuel
the popularity of the series.
Anyway, Ransom… along with Try and Catch Me
currently sit at the top of my ratings of the episodes.
I suspect they will continue to bookend (the pilot,
and the season 7 opener) the entire series to the
So different in tone from each other, yet in my opinion,
both so very deserving of their lofty position.
It is with a heavy heart I announce that I’m unable
to find a non-mutilated version of this episode.
My rating of 10.5 (out of 10) for the episode was
based mostly on my memory of the original.
Probably for continuity, they moved the scene where
Columbo encounters Margaret, at Bert’s restaurant,
shortly after she met him at the funeral, TWO SCENES
AHEAD to immediately after Columbo’s flying scene
To fully appreciate the damage this does, consider the
upshot of the scenes when viewed in the correct order:
– Margaret tells Columbo at the restaurant why Leslie
is his best suspect, and that Leslie was bored with Paul
– talking to Margaret gives Columbo the idea that the
kidnapping was faked, but he criticizes it as ‘crazy’
– at her office, Columbo tests Leslie’s reaction to reenacting
– Leslie strongly contests Columbo’s theory that the
kidnapping was faked to cover Paul’s murder
– answering Columbo’s questions in the plane, Leslie
unwittingly eliminates all other suspects except herself
– at the end of the ride, Columbo tests Leslie’s reaction
to hypothetically killing a boring, perfect person,
In the jumbled, mutilated version, the FIRST two events
now come after the remaining ones. The inconsistencies
result in a much more confusing narrative on how Columbo
settles on Leslie as the lone killer.
So charge a penalty of -0.5 to Clues Leading Columbo
to the Killer. Grant’s performance still offsets the damage,
but the episode is no longer the more than perfect original.
Adjusted New Rating: 10 out of 10
My favorite Columbo episode! 👍
It was 1-2 on my list, tied with Try and Catch Me. That is until I noticed the ‘impromptu editing’. Now it is merely ‘perfect’.
Hey, but what’s the use in kickin’?
” talking to Margaret gives Columbo the idea that the
kidnapping was faked, but he criticizes it as ‘crazy’”
You really think the petulant child was educating Columbo as to possible major details of the crime?
To me this episode was amusing but not one of the best.
The cinematography and sets of ‘Prescription’ shined above this larger budget production.
If I had a penny for every time someone criticizes the character of Margaret, I would be a millionaire by now….
A good actress, a so-so script… well, it’s the episode that really convinced NBC to launch the series…. 📺
Ed the librarian
One thing I like to mention- so Columbo catches Leslie – the lady lawyer- and for sure she would put a heck of a fight to avoid going to jail. And happens to Margaret? She is supposed to be like 17? (Patricia was 19 at the time of filming) I guess an uncle or aunt would look out after her- cause following the script- all her friends are in Switzerland- where “she buys them with her money” per Leslie’s lines….
They should have made her character less one dimensional- more human- given her some friends in L.A. – her own age- even a boyfriend…. Guess all her friends were in Switzerland…Everyone around her are those rich adults…. More tears, more emotions and less gun shooting,in my humble opinion. Patricia did a fine job, I don’t care what people say…..
Definitely round out the character a little, with
more scenes like the one at the beanery.
Mattick’s performance was spot on. But the
character could’ve been made older.
The shootings with blanks were calculated to take
Leslie out of her comfort zone. No doubt conceived
by Columbo, and the payoff for his earlier getting
Leslie at the office to relive Paul’s murder.
The more I think about this episode, the more
good writing I see in it, and the more damage I see
in the shuffling of the key scene at the beanery.
My only guess is the distributor played editor
with the prints for the theatrical release, and they
wound up using one of them for the DVD.
It’s a good episode- timeless entertainment. I saw it for the first time as a teenager around 1986…. Didn’t pay much attention then. Then started watching Columbo on a regular basis around 2015…. And it’s truly a good episode- with its imperfections, but like most 1970s tv- superior to the present tv fare…. Back then Tv programs were major productions…..Other times…..
I agree, Margaret should have been older- maybe a college student visiting from out of state (not Switzerland) more mature and more developed- less shooting, more emotions…And a different wardrobe. Pattye did a good job, I don’t care what people say…..
She’s part of tv history- we are introduced to Columbo’s love of chili in the scene in Barney’s Beanery….. Gone too soon- after her tv years (1970-79) did a lot of theater 1979-95…. Did a Listal page about her: https://www.listal.com/patricia-mattick
Ed from Florida
I think the only reason why they made it
a Swiss school is to make handing over
some of the ransom loot more believable.
Falk showed some of his pool skills at
the beanery. It took skill to sewer his
cue ball on the last shot like that.
In some episodes there is a particular flaw (boring killer) that might kill it for some, and be of little consequence for others, thus resulting in a wide range of views. This episode seemingly has no such aspect, other than perhaps Patricia Mattig’s acting, but in any case, she is not a significant enough character to ruin it for you even if you hate her acting. On the other hand, it has numerous huge plusses (great Columbo-murderer rapport, great gotcha, complex murder plot, strong detective work, many memorable lines, great Columbo characterization, fantastic music). Therefore, I was quite surprised that it was not more popular with the bloggers. Even more surprising is CP’s ranking of 29, since based on the review itself, I would have thought that he gave it a rank of 15.
Right now, I’d rank it somewhere between 10 and 15. Every time I go thru the entire series, I move some episodes up a couple of notches and some a few notches down, as the real good ones are very close, and it’s easy to like something slightly more or less simply based on how recently you saw it and what mood you were in when viewing it.
I guess I’m the only one who can’t stand the self-satisfied Lee Grant and her ever changing brown to red and then back to brown again wig. I thought her performance was overly sarcastic at times, and too melodramatic at other times. I know her character was supposed to be cold and ruthless, but she completely lacked a range of any facial expression.
By contrast, I liked Patricia Mattick’s performance as the defiant and keen stepdaughter. I thought her heightened emotions and occasional outbursts were typical for a young woman her age, especially for someone who, on a gut level, knew her stepmother murdered her father. I thought she struck the right chord as an intelligent, yet emotionally distressed young woman.
Also, I didn’t at all buy Columbo’s “I don’t know how you do it….work for a woman” comment. I think the Lieutenant was trying to use that line as bait in an attempt to get some damning or critical information on Williams. At some point after his criticism, he allowed himself to be a passenger in a plane that Williams piloted. Someone who thinks females have a defined ‘place’ or limited role wouldn’t have submitted to being flown around by a female, who is the final authority as to the operation and safety of the airplane.
Re flying with a lady: Maybe the Columbo character is just courageous….!
Ransom is a good episode- to me, far superior to the 1968 pilot. It’s timeless, interesting and of course, not without its flaws, but no one is perfect. It has two cool , seasoned actors as the antagonists of this tale: Peter Falk and Lee Grant. And as an added bonus, awesome newcomer Pattye Mattick. She did a great job as the stepdaughter. I just wish her wardrobe would have been more in tune to what teenagers wore in 1971…For her “Ironside” episode- it aired 6 weeks after Ransom- her wardrobe was far cooler… I digress..…..I wrote this brief review for IMDB:
“After a three year hiatus, the Columbo series is rebooted with the mystery movie “Ransom for a Dead Man”. Lieutenant Columbo (Peter Falk) is assigned to assist with the kidnapping case of a high profile lawyer (Harlan Warde), but when he turns up dead Columbo suspects that the wife has something to do with it. Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) does a superb job at portraying a villain that’s able to hold her own with Columbo and their interactions are very entertaining. Peter Falk revamps the Columbo character as a clever, amiable, bumbling and unassuming detective that never shows all his cards; we start to see here the future Columbo we’ll grow to like and love- with all his “idiosyncrasies”.
“The storytelling is superior to the one from the first pilot, focusing on the investigation instead of the crime. Ransom for a Dead Man marks more than just a rebirth of the Columbo series, it launches the series. In the process it delivers a smart and engaging crime drama. Newcomer Patricia Mattick delivers a strong performance as the avenging stepdaughter, Margaret Williams.”
I’m so sick and tired of people using the word “vengeful” to describe Margaret- she is a victim, mother dead and then the “lady lawyer” kills her dad. Who is the villain and who is the victim here? Please……
And of course added like 30 pictures to the entry- it was almost devoid of pictures.
My 2 cents, be well you all,
Ed the librarian 👍
I think it was only because of the later series
that the 1968 TV movie was ever referred to
as a pilot, even though Falk did turn down
the TV series role when offered it soon after.
But Prescription Murder was big event television
as I remember. No one then knew the format, and
how or even if Gene Barry’s villain was going to go
down. A hugely successful suspense thriller for its day.
But it was perhaps clear to Falk even then that his
character would have to change. Perhaps they even dumbed him down a little too much for Ransom.
Which is another plausible explanation for why they
moved the restaurant scene. Following Margaret’s
hunches may’ve made him look a little too slow and
reliant on others. So they just moved it to later in the
Too bad, since I think it mangled the logic of the story,
and Columbo’s growing duel of wits with Leslie. Making
it much less enjoyable than Prescription overall
Idk….I think Columbo is courageous because he knows he has certain phobias, yet involves himself in activities that produce anxieties. But he’s always thinking about his case, and I think he uses controversial comments as an intention rather than an expression of his actual beliefs.
I’m trying to think of an episode in which he’s expressed old-time sentiments.
Totally agree! You absolutely hit the nail in the head. This properly summarizes the episode:
“After murdering her husband, a talented attorney ingeniously fakes his kidnapping using a combination of technology and know-how, making particular use of her pilot’s license, in order to divert blame elsewhere. However, her stepdaughter and, more significantly, homicide detective Lt. Columbo quickly come to suspect her, in this entertaining pilot episode. Bold scoring, flamboyant editing, and fine performances combine to good effect.” From IMDb.
Let’s not forget who the guilty party is…..
I tend to agree with your assessment. Get this Ms Grant is still alive, she is 93-95 years old. Her birth year is in question. The girl who played her step daughter in this episode died back in 2003 at the age of 52.
The girl was Patricia “Pattye” Mattick- and she did an awesome job- only 19 at the time. She held her own with 2 much older, seasoned actors; this was only her second tv role- after Room 222. Did an Everipedia page Fi Ed her: https://everipedia.org/wiki/lang_en/patricia-mattick
Patricia died of cancer 12/6/2003, only 52 -gone too soon. 💐
Ed the Florida librarian
I too thought that
performance is hugely underrated by the
Mainly because her character is so annoying
to some. As she would be, having her father
murdered, and her trust fund stolen from her.
She is the one most wronged of anyone living,
a female Hamlet.
I also like that Leslie’s behaviour is so different
when around her. Margaret sees through her,
and it’s a challenge for her to pose as innocent
for someone when Margaret is there with them.
Margaret’s character was essential to the story- the key to to catch her. (Columbo’s interesting tactics aside- like giving a gun to a minor- even with blanks) Also I find interesting how people always criticize her character- but she was following the director’s instructions….…
Patricia Mattick did an awesome job as Margaret- what the director instructed her to do a difficult but vengeful teenager. This was her 2nd tv credit- after Room 222 and followed 6 weeks later by her appearance on Ironside, as Bill Shatner’s younger sister. 1971 was a great year for her- 6 tv appearances and a minor part on The Beguiled-1971.
Her part was vital to the episode.
Ed from Florida
I agree. Overly self confident idealistic teenagers are perhaps the most annoying people and cannot be wrong. They are right and they don’t give up. I think this acting is on point. How do I know? I am raising a couple right now.
👍 Pattye Mattick was awesome as Margaret- a very underrated and misunderstood character.
Lee Grant. Impeccable.
I loved when Columbo stood up to the FBI agent. How does anyone think he became a Lt. anyway if he’s such a buffoon? Smoke and mirrors?
The stepdaughter is part of the overuse of secondary characters introduced to undermine the killer. Like the nurse Nimoy killed, the neighbor Eddie Albert had to romance, the 2nd murder in by the book. Not believable Lee Grant didn’t factor her in the plan.
By herself, Margaret was
inexperienced and ineffectual.
Even though she did inspire Columbo into realizing
that the kidnapping was faked.
He used Margaret, as she was her stepmother’s
adversary. Whom Leslie could more than handle,
but not with him guiding her.
I’ve no doubt the detective could have found a way
without her, if he had to.