After being absolutely spoiled last time round watching Murder By The Book, Series 1 of Columbo continued its strong early season form in the shape of Death Lends a Hand.
So let’s get ambidextrous and furious as we race back in time to 6 October 1971 to hang with another of the Lieutenant’s most enduring foes: three-time guest killer Robert Culp.
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Investigator Brimmer: Robert Culp
Arthur Kennicut: Ray Milland
Lenore Kennicut: Patricia Crowley
Directed by: Bernard Kowalski
Produced and written by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Score by: Gil Melle
Columbo Death Lends a Hand – Episode synopsis
Irascible Private Dick, Investigator Brimmer, attempts to blackmail the wife of media mogul Arthur Kennicut into revealing the inside line on her husband’s dealings with politicians and other heavyweight decision makers. Brimmer figures Mrs Kennicut will agree to his scheme, given that he’s just told her husband she hasn’t been having an affair – despite knowing full well she had following an investigation.
“After giving Lenore a good old-fashioned TV shaking, Brimmer then backhands her to the face.”
Later that day she breaks into Brimmer’s beach house to inform him she won’t play ball. Not only that, she’ll tell her husband about the affair and let him know how Brimmer really operates his business. Arthur Kennicut is not a man to have as an enemy.
The two clash. After giving Lenore a good old-fashioned TV shaking, Brimmer then backhands her to the face, sending her tumbling backwards to smash her head on a coffee table. Although not premeditated, Brimmer has a dead body on his hands and a plan that has spectacularly back-fired. He dumps the body in a far-away industrial estate and slinks away into the night.
Not content to merely rely on the LAPD (including one Lieutenant Columbo), Kennicut hires Brimmer and his agency to help crack the case. During the first meeting between the two investigators at Kennicut’s palatial home, Columbo gains his first piece of evidence against Brimmer. They know the murderer wore a jewelled ring, because it left a mark on Lenore’s cheek. Professing a belief in palmistry, the wily Lieutenant gets to examine the hands of both Kennicut and Brimmer. Columbo notes that Brimmer does indeed wear a jewelled ring, though he keeps it quiet. The game is afoot…
Columbo’s investigations lead him to a local golf pro, who soon admits to an affair with Lenore. But Columbo eliminates him as suspect. His sun-tanned hands show he doesn’t wear a ring. Brimmer is looking increasingly likely to be the culprit, as the Lieutenant discovers him to be left-handed, like the killer, as well as being a man of a fiery disposition, apt to explode with rage given the right provocation.
“Brimmer is a man of a fiery disposition, apt to explode with rage given the right provocation.”
Brimmer throws Columbo a curveball, though, by offering him a job at his agency. He’ll triple Columbo’s pay, although he’ll take him off the Kennicut case. The Lieutenant mulls it over before ultimately declining.
With Kennicut demanding a swift conclusion to the case, Columbo plays his trump card. After finding out Lenore wore contact lenses, he has the body exhumed to see whether the lenses were still in place. He then calls Brimmer’s bluff by revealing that one lens is missing. If the killer only knew about this, says Columbo, we’d have the advantage because a crucial piece of evidence might be lying around to incriminate him.
Stung into action, Brimmer desperately searches the thick rug in his home where Lenore fell, but to no avail. Maybe it’s in his car trunk, where he put the body before he disposed of it? But his car is in the agency garage after inexplicably failing to start earlier in the day. He must check, so heads over to investigate.
A frantic search of the trunk ensues and lo! He finds a contact lens in a corner. Pocketing it, he prepares to depart before being literally caught in the headlights as the hidden Columbo, Kennicut and co emerge from their hiding place.
“Would you mind telling us what you were looking for?” asks Columbo. “Papers… for a case,” snarls Brimmer, but no one’s buying it. Kennicut urges the investigator to confess to the killing, while the Lieutenant invites him downtown to explain himself on the record.
Feigning resigned annoyance, Brimmer agrees. As he marches out he attempts to bin the incriminating lens, but is stopped at Columbo’s command, who reveals the lens to the onlookers. As Kennicut looks on with pain etched on his face, Brimmer admits his crime and is lead away, lamenting that the Lieutenant never took up his offer of a job.
With just Columbo and Kennicut left at the scene, the detective reveals the truth: none of Lenore’s contact lenses were missing. That was just a ruse to draw out Brimmer. The one in the car trunk must be a coincidence, but anyway, Brimmer’s actions are all that matters now.
When Kennicut muses about how Brimmer’s car was out of action at such a crucial stage, Columbo spins him a merry yarn about how his misspent youth, putting cars out of action with a potato up the exhaust, must have played a part in him wanting to become a lawman, so he could make amends for these misdemeanours. The enigmatic Lieutenant then turns tail to leave the garage.
A bemused Kennicut turns to look at the car exhaust, checks himself, then spins on his heel and follows Columbo’s lead as credits roll…
Best moment – did he or didn’t he?
The final scene in the garage between Columbo and Arthur Kennicut is a thing of beauty. Firstly it reinforces the generally cordial relationship between these two very different men, enhancing the Lieutenant’s everyman appeal. But more importantly, by not looking up the car exhaust, Kennicut helps protect Columbo’s aura of mystery, which will be a key theme throughout the series.
We must always ask ourselves: is anything Columbo tells us true? Or does he make it up on the spot to suit his circumstances? Letting the viewer make their own mind up about what to believe is a pivotal factor in connecting to the character.
My opinion on Death Lends a Hand
If Murder by the Book gave us a quintessential killer in Jack Cassidy, Death Lends a Hand does so again with Robert Culp, who is many a fan’s absolute favourite. Jack will always be my personal No 1, but Culp gave us something very different.
“No one does barely controlled rage better, so Culp was perfectly cast as Brimmer and is a very dangerous adversary to Columbo.”
His villains are more threatening, less charming, more businesslike. Heck, with Cassidy you’d still want to hang out with him, even if you knew you were on his hit list. Culp is more liable to strike hard without notice. No one does barely controlled rage better, so Culp was perfectly cast as Brimmer and is a very dangerous adversary.
While the relationship between Culp and Falk is the glue that binds the episode together, special plaudits must also go to Ray Milland. He’s sensationally good in his understated performance as Arthur Kennicut. Cast as a media mogul, it would have been easy to fall into a one-dimensional braying and adversarial performance. Not a bit of it. Milland gives us depth and subtlety.
He succeeds in portraying Kennicut’s grieving, sorrowful side as effectively as he does the stern man of action. The dignified vulnerability he displays really touches the heart. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best non-killer guest star appearances we ever see in Columbo – everything his performance as Jarvis Goodland in Season 2’s Greenhouse Jungle is not, but that’s a story for another day…
“Ray Milland’s turn as Arthur Kennicut is one of the best non-killer guest star appearances we ever see in Columbo.”
And how is Falk faring in these fledgling days as Lieutenant Columbo? Extremely well. As mentioned in the review of Murder by the Book, he’s still refining the character, but Columbo’s as compelling as he’ll ever be. I like that we see his devious side coming through in such scenes as his effortless playing of a young, foolish private investigator to get inside information on Brimmer’s character.
He also displays a directness that we don’t often see. Note how he handles the nervous golf pro who has been having a fling with Mrs K. He’s very up-front with him, letting him know he’s onto him, and shaking his nerve. We are shown that Columbo handles different people in different ways, depending on who they are and the strength of their character. Perhaps the Columbo who rattles the golf pro is the real Lieutenant, more so than the bumbling, confused figure who so disarms the high society types who are his real suspects.
Some of this directness and the speed of thought seems a little forced, mind you. Columbo’s onto Brimmer in a flash, for example – too quickly, really. He has no reason to suspect him when he’s reading his palm and establishing that Brimmer’s ring could be a match for the killer’s. Such big assumptions are more common in the early episodes, and aren’t always grounded in reason. It doesn’t greatly detract from the episode, though.
Probably the greatest insight we get into the Columbo character here is just what he’s willing to do to get his man. And while we know the Lieutenant’s motives are pure, Death Lends a Hand suggests his methods may not be. He blatantly plants evidence in Brimmer’s car as a means of collaring him, and he almost certainly put the car out of commission, too. It’s not exactly honest police work, and I do wonder if this is one reason why the episode didn’t open up Season 1 as was originally intended.
For Death Lends a Hand was the first episode of the season to be filmed, but was pushed back to accommodate Murder by the Book. Murder is the superior episode in my opinion, so a sensible move, but I have a hunch that Columbo’s unscrupulous tactics, as well as this not being a premeditated murder, might also have contributed to this being held back from raising the curtain on Season 1. Perhaps we’ll never know…
“While we know the Lieutenant’s motives are pure, Death Lends a Hand suggests his methods may not be.”
Elsewhere, the episode hits similar heights to Murder by the Book. The pacing is excellent, and some of the direction and editing is really first class. The murder itself is a particular highlight. After Brimmer lashes out, we’re shown everything and nothing as Lenore tumbles to her death, shattering a glass table with her head as she falls. The scene has been described as Hitchcockian with good cause.
Just as interesting is what follows, where Brimmer’s cleaning up of the crime scene is played out on a montage superimposed onto his glasses. It’s powerful, innovative stuff, and if you need a reminder you can view the clip below.
All credit must go to director Bernard Kowalski. He was in the chair for four Columbo episodes (also Exercise in Fatality, Playback and Fade in to Murder), but this is undoubtedly his most successful and memorable outing. Props to William Levinson and Richard Link, too. The show’s creators were also the writers of this episode (a duty they largely left to others) and it’s a really gripping mystery with great clues: everything they set the series up to be, in fact.
Readers of my previous reviews will probably have noticed that I do bang on a bit about the quality of the musical scores in these early episodes. Death Lends a Hand is no exception, but it’s very different to what we’ve heard before. Jazz composer Gil Melle is the maestro and this far-reaching and varied score is no less successful in setting the mood of the episode than the majestic efforts of Billy Goldenberg in Ransom for a Dead Man and Murder by the Book. Again, the clip above does an excellent job in showcasing Melle’s expert contribution.
In conclusion, Death Lends a Hand is another great piece of television, and almost as good as Murder by the Book. Certainly the two episodes ensured Season 1 got off to the strongest possible start and viewers can have been in no doubt that Columbo was shaping up to be one of the great televisual experiences of the age.
Did you know?
The exterior scenes of Arthur Kennicut’s mansion gardens (pictured below) were filmed at the iconic Beverly House, which was also a location used in The Godfather (1972) and The Bodyguard (1992).
How I rate ’em so far
It’s a close call, but Murder by the Book just shades it, remaining top of my list from the 4 episodes watched so far. It’s been quality all the way, mind you!
Where does Death Lends a Hand rank in your list of favourites? Vote for your number one episode in the Columbo best episode poll here.
As always, I really appreciate you taking the time to read this. Check back soon as I investigate whether Season 1 can continue to deliver the goods when I review Dead Weight, guest starring Suzanne Pleschette and Eddie Albert.