Episode review: Columbo Dead Weight

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Dead Weight title

Season 1 of Columbo left viewers knocked for six with its heady combo of lovable central character, wicked high society bad guys and sumptuous production values.

Murder by the Book and Death Lends a Hand are two of the best TV episodes ever made. But could the quality be maintained in the Season’s third instalment? We’re turning back the clock to 27 October 1971, when Dead Weight first aired. Does it sink or swim? Let’s find out!

Dead Weight blog

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Major General Martin Hollister: Eddie Albert
Helen Stewart: Suzanne Pleshette
Mrs Walters: Kate Reid
Burt: Timothy Carey
Officer Sanchez: Ron Castro
Colonel Dutton: John Kerr
Harry Barnes: Val Avery
Directed by: Jack Smight
Written by: John T Dugan
Score by: Gil Melle

Columbo Dead Weight – Episode synopsis

While boating with her overbearing mother, troubled divorcee Helen Stewart distantly witnesses Major General Martin Hollister gun down lily-livered Colonel Dutton in cold blood through the window of his dockside mansion.

Helen reports the crime to the police, and Lieutenant Columbo is sent to investigate. There’s a certain level of reluctance, though, because General Hollister is a bona fide war hero, whose exploits with his legendary pearl-handled Colt 45 in Korea helped make him a household name.

Columbo Dead Weight

Even the blind ran in fear from these eye-burning ensembles

Naturally, Hollister is guilty as sin, having dispatched the Colonel with that favourite weapon for fear of his shady business dealings being exposed. Before Columbo arrives on the scene, Dutton’s body has been hidden behind a secret revolving bookcase (yesssss!), and the Lieutenant finds the General doing nothing more sinister than directing the toils of some bungling cadets, who are packing a case with his war memorabilia for a new exhibition in his honour.

After a decent nosy around – where he finds out that the General’s legendary gun was supposedly stolen from him years before, leaving only a duplicate to donate to the exhibition – Columbo seems satisfied that nothing is amiss and leaves the General to prepare for a celebratory dinner.

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General Hollister easily talks his way out of a tight spot during his initial meeting with Columbo

Alone again, the General finds out the whereabouts of Mrs Stewart through the loose-lipped boat hire owner (Columbo regular Val Avery in his first appearance). He then shows up on her doorstep and invites her to watch the 11 o’clock news that evening in the hope that a report on his exhibition and war heroics will clear his name. So begins a sham romance where Hollister takes advantage of Helen’s low self-esteem to turn her to his way of thinking, and to forget about the crime she witnessed.

Although his plotting works on Helen, it has the opposite affect on Lieutenant Columbo. The detective, who had little reason to suspect Hollister initially, is wary of his motives in taking such an interest in the star witness. Columbo attempts to lead Helen back to her initial suspicions, but her lonely heart is leading her head.

Even the reappearance of the Colonel’s body off the LA coast (Hollister ditched the corpse off his boat after the celebratory dinner) doesn’t sway her. She’s now firmly on the General’s side, leaving Columbo unable to rely on his one key witness, even as he builds the rest of the case. His chances of securing a conviction seem all at sea.

Columbo Suzanne Pleshette

The lady loves a man in uniform – even one old enough to be her grampappy!

It’s a casual conversation with war veteran – and chilli purveyor – Burt, that gives Columbo the inspiration he needs. Burt just can’t get rid of his old war memorabilia. It’s too important to him. Columbo makes the jump to Hollister’s pearl-handled Colt 45. The General places great importance on his war mementoes. There’s no way he’d let anyone get hold of that gun. Ergo, the so-called duplicate must be the real thing!

Columbo arranges to meet Helen at the Hollister Exhibit, a party which the General predictably gatecrashes. The Lieutenant reveals that he’s already had the ‘duplicate’ gun run through ballistics, and it’s the same one used to shoot Colonel Dutton. The general’s attachment to his beloved gun has been his undoing. Most normal people would have thrown it away after the killing. The General couldn’t bring himself to part with it.

Bested in battle for the first time, Hollister apologies to Helen and submits to the long arm of the law. Columbo, meanwhile, takes Helen’s arm and leads her out of the exhibition to an uncertain future as credits roll…

Columbo Eddie Albert

WHY I OUGHTTA!

Dead Weight‘s best moment: face-off at the jetty

A variation on the usual “we both know I did it, but you’ll never prove it, so CLEAR ORF” chit-chat so familiar to keen viewers, Dead Weight features a fine exchange between Hollister and Columbo on the jetty by the General’s house.

Returning from an early morning outing on his boat, The Iron Horseman, Hollister finds Columbo lying in wait for him. On paper he’s just having a jolly fishing jaunt. In reality he wants to unsettle the General with a series of questions. A grizzled war veteran isn’t likely to be spooked by such antics, and so it proves as Hollister dishes out some advice laced with double meaning. “Find a different spot, or use a different bait. Otherwise you’re not going to catch anything, Lieutenant.”

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“You know that I know you know I did it, but you’re never going to prove it…”

It’s a good example of the episode’s sharp script, and an exchange even the Lieutenant seems to enjoy. To put it in Sherlockian terms, the game is afoot!

My opinion on Dead Weight

In any season of a quality TV show, it’s inevitable that some episodes will stand the test of time less favourably than others. That’s the case with Dead Weight. It’s a perfectly good piece of television, but when compared to some of the other gems Columbo Season 1 threw at us, it struggles to stay afloat.

“Having a witness to the crime adds a delicious twist to proceedings.”

Its chief shortcomings are a comparatively uninteresting adversary (sorry, Eddie Albert fans) and a weak central clue that brings about his downfall. These off-set a fine script and some excellent performances by the supporting cast. Having a witness to the crime also adds a delicious twist to proceedings.

Interestingly, Dead Weight was filmed at the height of the tensions between Peter Falk and Universal. The actor felt the studio was trying to renege on an agreement to let him direct an episode and was in combative mood. Determined to win the power play, Falk stormed off set and even got a Doctor’s note to explain his absence. Universal threatened to sue Falk, who returned to the set to find that as much as possible had been filmed in his absence. Word on the street is that the crew even refused to re-shoot scenes with Falk that they had filmed with a stand-in during his absence.

Such a hard-line approach to negotiations paid off for Falk in the long-run, but his antics irked his fellow actors, as Suzanne Pleshette fascinatingly describes below.

The difficulties this scenario posed the cast and crew may be reflected – if only to the discerning viewer – in the lack of rapport between Columbo and the other leads in Dead Weight. For the first time the scenes between detective and suspect don’t sizzle. There’s some decent interplay between Columbo and Hollister, but the chemistry doesn’t match what we’ve seen before – very likely because of Falk’s studio feuding.

This tension infiltrates the Falk/Pleshette scenes, too. The two were great friends before filming the episode but she was not amused by his actions. As a result, they seem oddly at arm’s length from one another throughout. To an extent, that’s down to the Helen Stewart doubting character but the on-set frostiness must surely have contributed.

“What we don’t get here is a killer with the charisma of Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp.”

On the flipside, Falk’s antics seem to have had a positive impact on the chemistry between Albert and Pleshette. Their irritation at the lead man can’t have failed to give them a greater bond as actors. Resultantly, the relationship between their characters seems genuine. Some may disagree but I dare say Hollister, regardless of his initial selfish motives, was genuinely growing fond of Helen and was sorry to bring her pain at the episode’s climax.

Sadly, what we don’t get here is a killer with the charisma of Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp. Following on the heels of Murder by the Book and Death Lends a Hand was always going to be a tall order, but the Hollister portrayal is, well, a little dull. He never convinces as the gung-ho war leader, and the character traits that lead to his downfall – his alleged vanity and ego that prevent him from ridding himself of the murder weapon – rarely come across in his performance (giant portrait on his home wall notwithstanding).

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The big question: where is this original portrait now, and can I have it?

Worse still, Hollister’s nowhere near cold enough. As a man used to maintaining his nerve in the heat of battle, he ought to be icy as the Arctic. We hardly see that. Perhaps Albert was too nice a guy in real life to convince as a stone-cold killer? I can’t help thinking that a really frosty baddie could have provided a more dangerous element and helped elevate the episode a notch or two.

Pleshette, though, is excellent and very much the beating heart of the episode. She puts in one of the series’ best supporting performances and succeeds in making Helen much more interesting than Hollister. Browbeaten and bullied by her gin-soaked mother (Kate Reid on fine form), she’s emotionally fragile and her self-esteem is in dire need of a pick-me-up.

All this makes her falling for the General’s charms, her desperation to be respected and loved, seem believable – even if she did believe she witnessed a killing. There’s no happy ending for Helen and we can only wonder what the future holds in store for her after she witnesses another man in her life let her down.

While the performances are all well and good, it’s the quality of the mystery that separates the great Columbos from the good and unfortunately Dead Weight is a bit of a let-down. The central clue regarding the General’s Colt 45 is poorly conceived and hopelessly executed, leading to a desperately disappointing (not to mention confusing) gotcha scene.

Columbo comments that the pearl-handled gun was not amongst the weapons he spotted in a crate of items at the General’s house bound for the exhibition at the military institute. Hollister spins some yarn about how he was robbed of the gun in the Korean War and that the institute had a duplicate made – but it’s a story that makes no sense at all.

If there was a duplicate made by the institute, why was it in the General’s possession at all? If it wasn’t in his possession, how did he manage to switch the duplicate with the murder weapon after the killing? More tellingly, why claim to have ever lost it in the first place? The only reason Hollister would logically have claimed to have lost the gun was if he knew he was going to use it for a murder at some point in the future and would therefore need a duplicate to be in existence to divert suspicion away from himself.

It’s bewildering stuff that suggests vague writing around an idea that was never fully fleshed out before filming began. The issue is exacerbated by the dodgy police work that goes hand in hand with this case. If there was any suspicion that Hollister might have been involved in a murder, it would have been simple to have every gun at the exhibition immediately tested to see if it had recently been fired. The Colt would have been impounded and as soon as Dutton’s body was found and the bullet matched to the gun, the case would have been over regardless of the nonsense surrounding the duplicate. Grrrrrr…

Columbo Dead Weight Helen Stewart

Both Columbo and Hollister attempt to win Helen around to their way of thinking – using very different methods

If it sounds like I hate Dead Weight, fear not! There is a gulf at its heart surrounding the central clue, but there’s still plenty to enjoy. The typical Columbo cat-and-mouse act between detective and quarry becomes a three-way game here as both men attempt to ‘woo’ Helen round to their way of thinking – quite literally in Hollister’s case. It’s a new element to the show and it keeps our interest especially when Helen, who was so adamant about what she saw, starts to backtrack as she warms to the General’s intentions.

I’ve alluded to the quality of the script on a couple of occasions already, and there are some real gems tucked away within it that raise a smile. As well as the ‘best moment’ outlined above, there’s a fun scene on board the General’s yacht, as Hollister takes delight in putting his boat through its paces – much to a seasick Columbo’s dismay.

“A man with the name of Columbo, shouldn’t he be more at home on a boat?” asks Hollister. “Must have been another branch of the family,” responds the green-gilled Lieutenant.

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Helen comforts a seasick Columbo after his jaunt out with General Hollister

Pleshette also delivers one of the best Columbo put-downs of all. Affronted by the Lieutenant disparaging the General’s vanity over the cut of his army uniforms, she hits back. “Some men, Lieutenant, do not want to look like an unmade bed.” How do you like those apples, Columbo?

We get a nice glimpse of Columbo bending the rules to gain a tactical advantage, too. When he’s first called in to investigate, Columbo asks uniformed officer Sanchez to check the General’s yacht for any sign of a body. “But Lieutenant, I don’t have a warrant,” Sanchez replies. “Well, I’ll ask the general for permission,” says Columbo slyly. “If he doesn’t give it, then I’ll get a warrant. In the meantime, check it out.”

It’s a lower-level incident than the evidence planting we saw in Death Lends a Hand but is another clear indicator of Columbo’s willingness to do what it takes to solve a case – even if it potentially leaves him on shaky moral ground. It’s a trait that will remain with him throughout his long TV career.

Elsewhere it’s good without being great. The directing is A-OK, but lacking any particularly memorable set pieces or innovation. There are some lovely highlights on the Gil Melle score (including the main theme, featuring waves and sea gull calls), but other elements were a straight lift from Death Lends a Hand. Like the whole episode, it’s a little hit and miss.

But even if Dead Weight is Columbo not firing on all cyclinders, it still delivers enough goods to keep its head above water. And that’s the power of 70s’ Columbo. Even the lesser episodes are still better than most TV ever made…

Did you know?

Although Columbo’s first name is never revealed in the series, a close up of his name badge in this episode appears to suggest it’s Frank. See for yourself…

Name badge

In one of the draft scripts of an unnamed Season 1 episode, one writer had given Columbo a first name. Show creators Dick Levinson and Bill Link insisted it was cut out, but if Dead Weight was the episode, it could explain why the name on the badge is what it is. The same badge can be seen in A Matter of Honor in Season 5, and the name ‘Frank Columbo’ also shows up on an evidence bag in 1989’s Grand Deceptions, adding weight to the argument.

However, Falk, Levinson and Link always insisted that Columbo had no known first name, leaving the viewer – as with so many elements of the mysterious Lieutenant’s actual life – to make up their own mind.

How I rate ’em so far

Like a weighed-down corpse, Dead Weight plummets to the bottom of the current standings – more a statement of the stellar quality of all that has preceded it. Read previous reviews by clicking the links below.

  1. Murder by the Book
  2.  Death Lends a Hand
  3. Prescription: Murder
  4. Ransom for a Dead Man
  5. Dead Weight

Where does Dead Weight rank in your list of favourites? Vote for your number one episode in the Columbo best episode poll here.

I’ll be back with a review of Suitable for Framing in a few weeks’ time. Spoiler alert: it’s one of my ultimate favourite episodes!

Read my thoughts on the 5 best moments from Dead Weight here.


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It’s all smiles until we meet again…

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