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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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92 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Short Fuse

  1. I agree with the assessment of this episode. It had the feel of a bare-bones first run-through of a script that wasn’t fully-formed. Practically no dramatic tension, characters that were hard to either hate or like, very little chemistry between the characters. This deserves its place at the bottom of the list shown above.

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  5. I just rewatched this episode, and concur with CP’s assessment that “Gillis … and the story editors didn’t … make the most of what was a half-decent premise – and an excellent ‘gotcha’.” More specifically, I agree 100% with CP that Columbo “races to the far-fetched conclusion that an exploding cigar is the only explanation” for the two suspicious deaths. All because David opened a cigar box while leaving a telephone message? But nothing apparently happened as a result. [Relatedly, it made no sense to me that Roger was constantly looking at his watch during the message. Columbo, who already had heard the message, made it clear that Doris’ call to police quite likely was a “false alarm.” So Roger was on notice that the recording hadn’t revealed anything bad happening to the car or its passengers.] And because Ferguson “cleaned that car before they left” and “there was nothing else in that car except a suitcase, a coat, and a box of cigars”? Did Ferguson check under the hood? Did Ferguson put the car on a rack and check underneath the body? What about a bomb put in the gas tank itself? There would seem to be innumerable possibilities for the placement of explosives other than the cigar box.

    That said, there would have been nothing wrong with Columbo gathering a few cigar-related clues (the oddly discarded cigar case, Logan’s missing cigar box, etc.) and leaping to a theory that he acknowledges later was just a stab in the dark. Like in “Requiem for a Falling Star” (“I was just playing hunches. I had nothing to go on. I was just guessing.
    I had nothing concrete. I just wanted to see what you’d do.”) But not as a firm evidence-based conclusion as Columbo maintains here.

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  7. I rewatched (and certainly not for the first nor for the last time) this episode last week. I like it, mainly thanks to the great variety of the scenery, both inside and outside buildings.

    There’s also a short scene that seems to pay homage to Steven Spielberg’s Duel. Note the big rig at the chemical plant that appears in the background, while an absent Roger is sitting still in one of the plant’s electric “golf carts”. The rig is getting closer and louder, then blasting and honking along, with exactly the same engine roar as the gruesome Peterbilt in the Duel movie.

    Keep up the good work CP, splendid blog/website!

  8. Seems to me this is another episode in which Columbo had NO evidence against the murderer, played by a surprisingly sexy Roddy McDowall, who brutally offs his uncle and uncle’s chauffeur (car bomb, obviously, if chauffeur was taken out) until the killer gives himself away in a very uncharacteristic display of panic. (In fact, Columbo would not even have been part of the investigation if the murderer’s aunt had not called for him to investigate.)

  9. I wouldn’t go as far as to say Short Fuse was poor , but it seems to get itself tangled up and is hard to follow at times which puts me off it rogers character can be silly and annoying definetley one of the lowest ranked of the seventies but i have to differ from columbophile I think i would still choose it over Dead weight which I just dont enjoy .

  10. An interesting bit of trivia is that Roddy & Ida Lupino, both Brits by birth were born just round the corner from each other in the London borough of Herne Hill both from acting families.

  11. One more note of humor, funny to me that “Uncle DL” really loves himself, by having a photo of himself on his desk. That is a narcissist supreme, loves to look at himself. 🙂

  12. A few observations:
    1) Interesting how two of the lead apes from the original Planet of the Apes are in two of the first seven episodes and only separated by one episode in between. Kim Hunter (Dr. Zira) was in ‘Suitable for Framing’ and Roddy McDowall (Cornelius) was in ‘Short Fuse’.

    2) Being African-American, I notice these things… African Americans unfortunately were relegated to background extras roles, but more noticeable to me, they were only given talking parts as servants (butler, maid, and a chauffeur/security guard). Unfortunate for that post-civil rights day.

    3) Great to see Ida Lupino, she was not only extremely beautiful even at her age in this episode, but she was also extremely intelligent and a talented director & producer in her own right.

    4) As for this episode, unlike the blog author — I think it’s a top-tier one, mainly because of the well accomplished, legendary, and great actors. Plus the cable car scenes are impressive, especially with the door open at the end. That’s some very good cinematography and stunt work (to me).

    • You are right, Duane, about the dearth of non-white actors on the series but, in all fairness, Columbo was assigned to the ultrawealthy precincts of the Greater Los Angeles Area, i.e. Beverly Hills, Bel Air, etc, and there were precious few African-Americans living in those areas at that time. It would have been unrealistic, to say the least, to pretend otherwise. Yours.

        • Very funny, but its probably Roddy. It’s always the skinny (twerpy?) guys. Everybody’s got to have SOMETHING. But the real reason I’m writing, is that the revealing clothes have helped me to lower my opinion of him even as an actor. So just now, I tuned in to the ending of “Short Fuse” as Roger sweated out the revealing of the cigar box and then started to totally unravel as he realized he was about to see God. There was definitely talent there. Darn!!!

        • It was all him. Member of the Milton Berle Club. Hollywood lore has it that Roddy was very well “endowalled”! 🙂

    • Appreciated your appreciation of Ida Lupino–just watched an old BW called “Road House” starring her. Excellent!!

  13. I was pretty okay with this episode, mainly because I liked the actors and thought the exploding cigar box was pretty ingenious. The final scene in the overhead cable car was fun to watch with Roddy going berserk. But I was distracted by other things while watching some of the show, and so I was mercifully spared the sight of Roddy in those God-awful jeans.

  14. Windom plays the corrupt (or if not corrupt, at least utterly negligent about avoiding conflicts of interest) DA in Prescription: Murder. He removes Columbo from the case at the behest of the killer, a personal friend. You would get impeached and disbarred for that sh*t.

  15. its a dogs dinner but it wouldn’t be any good if it was like an episode from Noddy the Toyland detective.
    This was definitely one of the poorest of the 70s but I still find it watchable and I prefer it to dead weight.

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  24. This is a wonderful site that I wasn’t aware of. Anyway, I want to say that I like to watch Ida Lupino in this episode in much the same way I’ve enjoyed Jean Simmons on “Murder She Wrote”. Exceptional acting, often subtle and restrained, is always a pleasure to view.

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  39. Put me in the minority of people who like this episode. It’s by no means a top ten for the series, but top twenty perhaps.

    I particularly liked all the business with Roger’s break-ins and forgeries and seductions because I like the idea that, for once in the series, the murder is not actually the end goal of the killer’s plan. Roger has to put DL and Quincy out of the way, to be sure, but it’s just one stage in a larger scheme to take over the company that he then has to carry off even with Columbo dogging his every step. It’s a pleasant change of pace.

    I also am rather taken with the way the unfolding plot changes our perception of Roger’s character. At first, he actually seems to be one of the more sympathetic of the Columbo killers: DL and Quincy are, after all, blackmailing him into quitting a job he clearly loves and signing off on the sale of his family’s legacy to some faceless conglomerate just to line his uncle’s pockets. It’s easy to empathize, even if we can’t ever really condone his methods. But then by the end of the episode we watch him slide slowly down the slippery slope until finally he’s forging evidence to slander William Windom and humiliate poor Anne Francis, all to alienate his sweet Auntie Ida from all her friends, and we see what a conniving sociopath he really is.

    I 100% agree with you about Roddy’s fashion choices, though. Whoever dressed him in this episode should have never been allowed near a professional costume department again.

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  43. I’m pretty much in agreement about this one. Much of Roddy McDowall’s TV work at the time was over the top, and on COLUMBO it’s bad when the culprit tries to look as guilty as possible! However, I would still single out “Dead Weight” as the first season’s weakest. Nice to discover a new blog about a series I used to watch with my father before he passed away last year, every episode at least twice.

    • Thanks Kevin, I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. I’m not a big fan of Dead Weight either. I’d say it’s the least memorable of Season 1, although I still prefer it to Short Fuse.

      • Being a longtime movie buff, I noticed Eddie Quillan among the cast, in one scene as Roddy asks Eddie’s mechanic Ferguson to check under the hood, enabling him to substitute the rigged cigar box for the good one. My father and I really enjoyed Quillan’s work in THE GRAPES OF WRATH.

      • yes Mr colombophile not a lover of dead weight, and I do admit that short fuse was a poorer episode yet ill differ and say id prefer short fuse mainly because of the end scene the placing of the medal around Colombo’s neck the door of the capsule opening and the laughing .

  44. I really could not take this one. I just finished watching all the ones on Netflix and this one drove me mad. It was super goofy. Dogs dinner is right!

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