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.
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.