Viewers of Columbo Season 1 could scarcely have been better treated. Every three weeks or so, when the Mystery Movie Wheel circled back to the lovable Lieutenant, they were virtually guaranteed not only a gripping mystery, but an A-List star of the day as Peter Falk’s chief antagonist.
That all changed on 15 December 1971, when Columbo was pitted against a virtual unknown for the first time as Lady in Waiting aired. The actress in question was Susan Clark – a capable performer in a number of small screen roles up to then, but hardly a name to set pulses racing.
So how did the episode compare with the sky-high standards of Season 1, and how did Clark cut the mustard against Cassidy, Culp and the cadre of exceptional villains we’ve met up to now? You’ll only find out by forging bravely on…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Beth Chadwick: Susan Clark
Peter Hamilton: Leslie Nielsen
Mrs Chadwick: Jessie Royce Landis
Bryce Chadwick: Richard Anderson
Directed by: Norman Lloyd
Written by: Steven Bochco
Score by: Billy Goldenberg
Episode synopsis – Columbo Lady in Waiting
Downtrodden Beth Chadwick is fed up of having her life governed by despotic, interfering older brother Bryce, the head of the ultra-successful family advertising agency, so decides to do something about it.
Bryce has taken over from where their late father left off – oppressing Beth and refusing to let her live her own life, even as far as intervening with potential suitors. But he oversteps the mark when he pens a poison letter to Beth’s current squeeze – company lawyer Peter Hamilton and threatens to sack him if he doesn’t leave Beth alone.
Incensed, Beth puts a cunning plan to rid herself of Bryce into action. Having already pinched his door key while he slept early in the episode, we are shown her plan of attack in a wonderfully realised daydream-style sequence that simply had to have been filmed in the 70s.
As Beth (alone in bed, in a grandma-ish nightgown, tucking into a box of chocolates), imagines what lies ahead, the camera plays out the assassination plot in soft, swirling focus. We’re shown Beth’s plans that will involve the keyless Bryce come round to her patio window and ask to be let in, at which point she’ll slay him, slam on the burglar alarm and play the old ‘Ah was sleepin’ an’ done thought it was a prowler‘ routine that so seemed to fool US juries in the 1970s. What could possibly go wrong?
BUT HOLD YOUR HORSES! Did I just hear the sound of a needle skipping across a record, that universal signifier that the game doth change? I did! For Beth’s plans have been scuppered not once, but twice.
Firstly, Peter (just back from a business trip) has received the letter from Bryce and ain’t happy. In fact he leaps into his car and screeches straight over to Chadwick HQ to give the control freak a piece of his mind.
Worse still, Bryce himself – that perennial party pooper – sidesteps Beth’s plans. Instead of falling for the bait, he’s simply let himself in through the front door with a spare key hidden in a plant pot (as millions of normal folk would – good foresight, Beth) and wanders into Beth’s bedroom, casual as you like, to ask why she didn’t answer the ringing doorbell.
Despite being stunned, Beth recollects herself, guns Bryce down and sets off the alarm. Peter, who has just arrived, hears the shots and the alarm, vaults the driveway gate, gazelle-like, and jallops to the house as Beth desperately tries to make the cold-blooded killing look like the accident she had planned.
And in one of the tensest of all Columbo moments, just as she’s finished moving briefcase, body and all into their proper positions, the front door bell rings. Beth’s sense of panic is palpable. Her best-laid plans have well and truly gone to pot.
“When Bryce and Beth’s mother arrives, her first act is to slap Beth’s face for killing her beloved son.”
Luckily, Peter’s a sympathetic audience, and when the police arrive at the scene – including one Lieutenant Columbo – he keeps them at arm’s reach. Beth’s story is plausible, certainly, but it’s not all plain sailing. When Bryce and Beth’s mother arrives from Phoenix, her first act (after hilariously demanding Columbo carry in her luggage and pay her taxi fee), is to slap Beth’s face for killing her beloved son. But despite family friction, Beth is determined to turn over a new leaf. She just needs to come through an inquest, first. No biggie…
As luck would have it, the inquest jury lets her go free, and Beth starts making those major changes to her life. She has a complete makeover, going from a bookish, timid type to a saucy minx with a daring dress sense and dashing new hairdo.
“Beth has a complete makeover, going from a bookish, timid type to a saucy minx with a daring dress sense and dashing new hairdo.”
She also assumes control of the company, tough talks the board room stiffs, belittles her mother, and starts domineering Peter – first promoting him without asking, then announcing their engagement without consulting him. A puzzled Peter doesn’t know what to make of this sudden transformation and says so. Beth begins to wonder whether he’s really man enough for her after all.
The main fly in the ointment for Beth is, of course, Columbo. Despite her being found innocent, he won’t go away. Those little things that always bother him are doing so again. If Bryce broke in through Beth’s window, why was there a copy of the evening paper by the front door? Why didn’t Bryce have grass cuttings on his shoes after walking across the freshly-cut lawn to her room window? And why did Beth order a brand new Ferrari, which she must have done in advance of her brother’s death?
“The main fly in the ointment for Beth is, of course, Columbo. Despite her being found innocent, he won’t go away.”
The wily Lieutenant manages to engineer a situation where he finds himself in a bar with Peter, who is drowning his sorrows as he contemplates love on the rocks. The two get talking and Columbo produces Beth’s transcript from the inquest that states she was woken by the burglar alarm, and then shot at what she thought was an intruder.
Peter is a fine lawyer with a great memory for detail. He recalls that he heard the shots first, then the alarm. With all the rest of the circumstancial evidence Columbo has amassed, it’ll be enough for a conviction.
So again we encounter Beth in her bedroom, this time sexily attired, reading reports while smoking and drinking. She really is a new woman. She hears a rustle outside of her window and reaches for the gun, but soon twigs it’s Columbo playing a trick on her.
He enters the room and tells her she’s under arrest. She laughs in his face, but when he explains that Peter’s testimony is what has been her undoing she draws a gun on him. “There’s no point in that, not with the police officers outside,” Columbo retorts, as calmly as if he were passing the time of day with a petrol pump assistant. “Besides,” he adds. “You’re too classy a woman.”
Won over by his chivalrous words, Beth smiles, hands the gun to Columbo and heads off to slip into something less alluring before going downtown.
Columbo, meanwhile, steps outside to light his cigar. The camera draws back through the dark garden to reveal not a policemen in sight, as credits roll…
Best moment – the dreaded ringing at the door
There are some splendid scenes throughout, but Beth’s moment of unadulterated terror as lover Peter rings the doorbell midway through her post-murder tidy-up work is really well done.
The sense of panic invoked by the camera work, the music and Clark’s facial expressions combine like a charm. It’s as convincing a display of panic as you’re ever likely to see on the small screen, and it sets the viewer’s heart thumping with the tension.
Columbo Lady in Waiting: my opinion
I regard Lady in Waiting as possibly the most under-rated Columbo episode of all. I know few fans that mention it amongst their favourites, yet when given close scrutiny it stands proudly in its own right.
Susan Clark was the least high-profile guest star murderer of Season 1 by a mile, which could contribute to why it’s comparatively under the radar. I rather suspect this is an episode skipped over by casual viewers, who prefer to sit in front of a Cassidy or Culp classic. But Lady in Waiting really delivers – and at its best it’s very, very good.
“Susan Clark was the least high-profile guest star murderer of Season 1 by a mile, which could contribute to why it’s comparatively under the radar.”
The main characters and their respective journeys make it an episode that keeps the attention. Clark is a big surprise. She’s superb and her character arc is intriguing. We really pity Beth at the start (she appears in my ‘Most sympathetic Columbo killers‘ article as a result). She’s been a victim of chauvinism all her life, and her own mother has let it happen. But as the episode progresses, and Beth’s new-found freedoms go to her head and fundamentally alter her character, any sympathy erodes away.
It’s excellent writing, and believable stuff. We can see why Beth would act this way after years under the heel of her beastly family. We can see why lover Peter would act how he does, too, in such rapidly-changing circumstances. All credit to writer Steven Bochco, who again rises to the occasion after also boasting writing duties on the superior season opener, Murder by the Book.
As an aside (and by no means one meant to plunge this into lewd, wolf-whistling territory), Clark is absolutely gorgeous in this. I love her physical transformation, the visual equivalent of the huge psychological change she undergoes. The self-doubt rolls away with her old look. The new Beth is smart, sexy and in the driving seat. Clark does a fine job in portraying both sides of Beth Chadwick. No mean feat when playing against as testing a co-star as Falk.
As mentioned in my ‘Best ever Columbo supporting stars‘ article, I really rate Leslie Nielsen’s performance in this. Seeing him playing it straight takes quite some getting used to for an audience more used to his capering antics in Police Squad and Airplane!, but he’s on top form.
He nicely portrays the confusion and inner conflict brought about to Peter by Beth’s character transformation. He truly loved Beth for who she was. He would have quit his job for her in a heartbeat. Yet her emancipation alienates him.
The natural comic talent still shines through at times, though. His cheerful response of “No, I hate you with a passion,” to Beth’s early-episode plea for him to confirm his love could have come straight out of Naked Gun. In short, he’s a joy to watch. But it does raise the question: was his hair ever anything other than grey?
On a more serious note, another question must also be asked: could Peter only have loved the down-trodden Beth, the one so desperate for his love, and the one without the strength to take fate into her own hands? Were they ill-fated lovers all along? The more you consider this, the more likely this seems, and it adds a nice dimension to proceedings for the more thoughtful viewer.
Special credit must also go to veteran character actress Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Beth’s overbearing mother. It’s a small role, but she tackles it with aplomb, firstly mistaking Columbo for home help, and making him struggle in with her luggage and pay her cab fare (telling him he “hardly looks the part,” when she realises he’s a policeman); then violently striking Beth for the death of her brother; before ultimately, meekly fading into the background as an increasingly dominant Beth starts calling the shots.
The character drama is compelling, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, too. As well as the taxi scene outlined above, the drive-in scene, where Columbo takes Peter for a ‘slap-up’ burger lunch to discuss the case, raises smiles galore – plus it’s nice to see the top down on the Peugeot for a change.
Falk as Columbo is predictably superb. The Lieutenant is at his tenacious best, never giving up on his belief of Beth’s guilt – regardless of the little matter of the jury finding her innocent.
His personal highlight is how he extricates himself from a potentially fatal situation at episode’s end. Beth has little to lose by gunning Columbo down. After all, he’s behaving in a most un-policeman like way. Yet he dodges death with guile and charm, finding a chink in Beth’s armour in that warm, human way Falk does so well. Take note ABC years – Columbo does not need to do stupid stuff like putting his head in a guillotine. This is how he handles crisis situations to close a case.
“Columbo dodges death with guile and charm, finding a chink in Beth’s armour in that warm, human way Falk does so well.”
As an aside – and this is purely my opinion – this is the first episode in which I sense the writers really knew that Mrs Columbo was real, and not some figment of the Lieutenant’s imagination designed to drop into conversations to flummox and disarm the killers.
Columbo’s barside conversation with Peter about his argument with Mrs Columbo, and her love of proverbs, is so genuine, and is such a slice of real married life, that she simply must be real. I find that comforting, and it’s perhaps another reason why I rate this outing so highly.
So in conclusion, Lady in Waiting is one of those Columbo episodes that surprises the viewer with just how good it is, even if it’s never quite top of their watch list. It’s a decent mystery, if not a great one, but the performances to a man and woman are superb. If you haven’t watched this one for a while I really encourage you to dig it out. You’ll be glad you did.
Did you know?
Like Dead Weight from earlier in the season, Lady in Waiting was also beset with difficulties between Falk and the studio, leading to walk-outs and a delayed schedule. Although it didn’t cause bad blood between Falk and Clark or episode director Norman Lloyd (who is still with us at the age of 101), it did give rise to a potential studio solution to the on-going run-ins.
Universal execs of the time came up with the idea of book-ending seasons of Columbo with Falk episodes, and then letting 4-5 other actors play the character in between. I think I speak for all fans when I say: Thank God they never did it…
How I rate ‘em
It may stun viewers to learn that I rate an episode many overlook ahead of the iconic Prescription: Murder, but I stand by my decision. I personally enjoy Lady in Waiting a great deal, so it sneaks into 4th place. Here’s my full list so far:
- Suitable for Framing
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- Lady in Waiting
- Prescription: Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
You can check out the other reviews by clicking on their respective links above. And if you haven’t yet done so, please vote for your very favourite episode in my Columbo poll here. More than 1200 fans have done so up to now. Don’t be that guy who hasn’t done it…
Next up on my journey through Columbo Season 1 is Short Fuse, starring the ever bonkers Roddy McDowall. It’s one I watch rarely, and my memories (reluctantly) chiefly centre on Roddy’s outrageously tight trousers. Whether there’s more substance to the episode than that remains to be seen!