Episode review: Columbo Short Fuse


Short Fuse 1

The year 1971 was a monumental year for American TV. Following the ultra-successful Columbo pilot Ransom for a Dead Man in March, five more magnificent outings followed between September and December in Season 1 proper. These included three of the very best TV episodes of all time – Murder by the Book, Suitable for Framing and Death Lends a Hand.

The Year of our Lord 1972 duly arrived, with millions of fans desperate for more Lieutenant Columbo action after the Christmas break.Would the New Year be kind to them? Let’s pull on our tightest trousers and turn back the clocks to January 19, 1972, the date Short Fuse first aired, and find out…

Short Fuse montage

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Roger Stanford: Roddy McDowall
Doris Buckner: Ida Lupino
David Buckner: James Gregory
Everett Logan: William Windom
Betty Bishop: Anne Francis
Quincy (credited as ‘Murphy’): Lawrence Cook
Directed by: Edward B. Abroms
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Score by: Gil Melle

Episode synopsis: Columbo Short Fuse

Madcap genius Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall) ain’t happy that his Uncle ‘DL’ David is trying sell off the family chemical plant against the wishes of both Roger and his beloved Aunt Doris (Ida Lupino).

Wicked uncle DL needs Roger to quit the business and convince Doris to back the sale. To ensure his co-operation, DL threatens to reveal the skeletons in Roger’s closet to Doris. Said skeletons involve debauchery, car theft, drug dabbling and other misdemeanours of the sort guaranteed to break the heart of even the staunchest old crone (no offence, Doris).

The evidence has been collected by Uncle D’s sinister sidekick Quincy, who, in the dual role of chauffeur and private detective, arguably deserved a spin-off show of his own, which could have scuppered the popular Jack Klugman vehicle years before it ever got off the ground.

However, I digress…

As well as getting mad, Roger gets even. Using his extraordinary brain power for EVIL, he rigs a bomb in a cigar case and deftly manipulates matters to ensure the booby-trapped box will be opened as DL’s car traverses a twisty mountain road. BOOM! So long Uncle! KER-BLAM! See you later Quincy! And helloooooo luxury office and total control of the chemical empire that Roger believes is his birthright.

“The action is intercut at one stage with a female Star Trek reject frenetically cage dancing. Ahhhh, the 70s…”

His plan works. In a scene reminiscent of a Hammer Horror film, David and Quincy battle sky-splitting lightning and driving rain as the car creeps up the mountain pass to explosive oblivion. Roger, meanwhile, is establishing his alibi by necking with company secretary Betty Bishop at a discotheque, like a pair of teenagers in love. This is unashamedly played out against a funky little Gil Melle jazz number, the canoodling action being intercut at one stage with a female Star Trek reject frenetically cage dancing. Ahhhh, the 70s…

If you can’t quite recall the glory of the scene, revisit it below from 1.49 mins in!

With disco beats still doubtless ringing in his ears, Roger stops off to steal Quincy’s typewriter from his luxury pad (don’t ask), and, lo and behold, runs into Lieutenant Columbo, who has been sent to investigate after Aunt Doris reported DL missing.

Why has a homicide detective been called in when there’s no evidence of a homicide you might justifiably ask? Well, it’s because indignant protesters have recently been giving the company trouble – even throwing a stink bomb into Doris and DL’s garden! This shocking act leads Doris to conclude there must be foul play afoot, and she insists on police action. Hence the humble Lieutenant is given another chance to pester some of LA’s filthy rich.

Short Fuse car

Columbo’s car is aptly described as ‘that old heap’ by the Ferrari-driving Roger in Short Fuse

Columbo’s first real clue comes via cutting-edge technology, 70’s style, in what was a familiar theme for the series. Calling from his car phone (which probably cost the equivalent of several trillion dollars by today’s standards) DL leaves Doris a message in which can be heard Quincy passing him the rigged box of cigars. Listening to it unfold, panicky Roger starts looking at his watch, knowing that a minute after the box is opened his Uncle will be a charred corpse.

“If only Roger had confessed early on it would have saved us all a lot of time and trouble.”

Fortunately, DL rings off picoseconds before the fatal blast, but Columbo has noticed Roger eyeing his timepiece (which was so overtly done that a blind man would have noticed). Doris then gives the Lieutenant further grounds for suspicion when she openly states that she knows Roger doesn’t like his uncle very much. Way to go, Doris

If only Roger had confessed there and then it would have saved us all a lot of time and trouble. As it is, we’re taken on a convoluted journey of discovery with Columbo up the mountain via cable car to the crash site, and around the chemical plant with Roger, as he firms up his suspicions and races to the far-fetched conclusion that an exploding cigar is the only explanation, and that only someone of great intellect – i.e. ROGER – could devise such a crime.

Definitive proof eludes him, but the wily Lieutenant has a habit of making his own luck and finds a way to unravel the mystery via a splendid set-piece in a mountain cable car with Roger (now the boss of the plant) and just-sacked company Vice Pesident Everett Logan – who Roger has feebly tried to incriminate over the course of the episode.

Pretending that the cigar box has been found, unopened, at the crash site, a jovial Lieutenant cracks it open to divvy out the cigars as the claustrophobic cable car creeps up the mountain pass.

Untitled design (2)

Roger’s bluff is about to be well and truly called…

Roger, who’s been slowly losing his cool since the box was revealed, now blows his top completely. As well as desperately studying his watch again as he counts down towards what he believes is his own impending doom, he starts bellowing at the Lieutenant and striding round the cable car like a man possessed.

At the last moment he flings open the cable car doors and makes a grab for the box, scattering cigars all over the floor as he scrabbles desperately for the rigged one. When there is no kaboom, Roger realises he’s been had. He also seems to have completely lost his marbles, playfully slapping Columbo’s cheeks and roaring with maniacal laughter as credits roll…

Short Fuse’s memorable moment

The admittedly excellent cable car finale aside, Short Fuse is low on noteworthy moments. Indeed for the majority, their single enduring memory will be of his puffy patterned shirt and skin-tight blue trousers combo, as shown below. Some things, once seen, cannot be unseen…

Fashion McDowall

Roddy’s trousers: the enduring take-out from Short Fuse

My opinion on Short Fuse

All jokes aside, when the lasting memory of an episode revolves more around ridiculous trousers than a gripping plot, you know you’ve got trouble.

Short Fuse rather proves the old maxim that you can have too much of a good thing. This is the episode Season 1 didn’t need – and the blame lies squarely with NBC. The network got greedy following the stellar quality of the series up to now. They demanded ‘just one more’ episode be produced – much to the fury of series co-creators and producers William Levinson and Richard Link.

Although it wasn’t the last episode of Season 1 to be aired, Short Fuse was the last to be filmed. And because it was even more hastily put together than the others, it lacks the finesse and the attention it needed to elevate it to the standards we’ve come to expect. So where does it wrong?

Let’s start with Roddy McDowall. Some people love him in this. I’m not one of them. I find him fiendishly annoying. One senses that if this wasn’t his family business his co-workers would’ve delivered wedgie after wedgie to the prick in comeuppance for his ‘hilarious’ hi-jinks- although given his penchant for tight trousers, he’d probably have enjoyed that too much.

Roddy McDowall

Convincing genius, or irritating little Herbert? You decide…

I get that that’s how the character is written. Roddy is undoubtedly committed to the role. It’s just that he brings no subtlety to it. Granted, he offers a contrast to the usual, suave killer we normally associate with the series, but there’s too much madcap and not enough genius for my liking. In fact if we weren’t repeatedly told/reminded that Roger’s a genius, we’d have no reason to deduce it given his, at times, totally stupid actions and his default ‘out to lunch’ facial expression.

McDowall and Falk don’t hit it off in a satisfactory fashion, either. In fact we’ve not seen less chemistry between leads (pun 100% intended) since the dreary Dead Weight. Elsewhere, and despite some big names, Short Fuse is lacklustre. Ida Lupino is wasted as Aunt Doris; Jimmy Gregory merely OK as fiery uncle DL; Anne Francis insipid as Roger’s love interest.

Only William Windom as Everett Logan really comes away with credit, putting in a strong, noble turn. Windom had the presence and range to have made an intriguing Columbo killer in his own right. Yet he never graced the series again.

“The final set-piece in the cable car is enjoyably tense, and at least provides a satisfying conclusion.”

The story itself is a dog’s dinner and hard to follow. There’s a sub-plot of Roger stealing chauffer/investigator Quincy’s portable typewriter and using it to forge evidence and incriminate others (which involves deliberately getting himself collared in a police chase), but it’s so convoluted I can’t be bothered to explain it. Indeed I had totally forgotten about it in the long gap between viewings, so low does it rank in my estimations.

Still, nothing is 100% bad. Where Short Fuse succeeds is in some delightful location shooting in the mountains, which gives Falk the chance to shine as the nervous Lieutenant fearful of heights, as well as giving the episode some much needed scale and grandeur that a chemical plant fails to inspire.

Short Fuse cable car

The enjoyably tense finale really only amounts to a sheen of lipstick on a pig…

The final set-piece in the cable car is enjoyably tense, and at least provides a satisfying conclusion. That aside, it’s not even a very memorable outing by Falk’s own standards. The magic Columbo moments that can elevate any episode are fewer and further between than normal.

“Universal would’ve been better advised to have saved this for Season 2, and let the idea mature instead of unleashing it before it was ready.”

There are some fun snippets, notably Columbo covering himself in silly string (life lesson – DON’T spray mystery aerosal cans in own face), and there’s one cracking line he gets to deliver. Upon hearing from Aunt Doris that the police commissioner has ‘sent his best man’ to investigate, a sheepish Columbo retorts: “My wife says I’m second best. She says there are 80 guys tied for first.” What a cute couple!

But Falk just doesn’t have enough good material here to work with. For a perfectionist like him this must’ve been galling. Little wonder he’s been quoted as saying that Short Fuse ‘just wasn’t as good’ as the other episodes in Season 1.

Silly String

This fun scene is one of the few things worth smiling about in Short Fuse

In conclusion, then, there simply aren’t enough highlights to recommend Short Fuse. It all feels too half-hearted and thrown together. What this tells me is that the writer Jackson Gillis (who was responsible for terrific outings including Suitable for Framing) and the story editors didn’t have enough time to make the most of what was a half-decent premise – and an excellent ‘gotcha’. It’s a real pity.

The network would’ve been better advised to have saved this for Season 2, and let the idea mature instead of unleashing it before it was ready. It might never have been a classic, but it could surely have been significantly improved on. And, who knows, given another year those skin-tight sky blue trousers might have been out of fashion and might never been unleashed on an unsuspecting audience…

Did you know?

McDowall aside, all the other lead characters in Short Fuse have more than one Columbo credit to their name. Jimmy Gregory appeared as the LA Rockets coach in Most Crucial Game; William Windom had a brief role in Prescription: Murder; Ida Lupino’s talents were put to excellent use as the harpy-ish wife of Tommy Brown (Johnny Cash) in Swan Song; while Anne Francis was the first murder victim of Dr Mayfield in Stitch in Crime.

Short Fuse stars 2

Short Fuse guest stars in their other Columbo turns…

How I rate ’em

Oh dear. I accept that not every episode can hit the dizziest of heights, but this is the first Columbo outing so far that I actually consider poor. As a result, and like a furious uncle plummeting down a mountainside in flames, it displaces the merely average Dead Weight at the foot of the standings. If you’re new to this site, you can check out the previous reviews via the links below.

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Murder by the Book
  3. Death Lends a Hand
  4. Lady in Waiting
  5. Prescription: Murder
  6. Ransom for a Dead Man
  7. Dead Weight
  8. Short Fuse

As always, please accept my sincere thanks for taking the time to read this, to share it, or to comment – even if you don’t agree with my opinions (many won’t). And if Short Fuse is actually a favourite of yours, tell me why. You might even want to vote for it in the favourite episode poll.

I’ll be back in due course to review Season 1’s curtain call Blueprint for Murder, directed by none other than Peter Falk himself. Until then, adieu…

Read my take on the top 5 scenes from Short Fuse here.

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