Notable for being the first (and only) episode directed by Peter Falk himself, Blueprint for Murder hit the air on 9 February, 1972, as the curtain fell on Columbo‘s legendary first season.
Being pitted against egotistical architect Elliot Markham, and investigating a crime for which no body has been found, Columbo has his work cut out for him more than usual. But how did Falk cope with the rigours of being in front of and behind the camera? Or to put it another way, is Blueprint for Murder TV immortality or should it be condemned to quiet burial in the foundation of a skyscraper? Read on to find out what I reckon!
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Elliot Markham: Patrick O’Neal
Bo Williamson: Forrest Tucker
Goldie: Janis Paige
Jennifer Williamson: Pamela Austin
Directed by: Peter Falk
Written by: Steven Bochco
Score by: Gil Melle
Episode synopsis – Columbo Blueprint for Murder
Volatile Texan Bo Williamson is in a trademark hot temper. He’s taken exception to ace architect Elliot Markham’s attempts to wheedle him out of millions of dollars to fund a super-sized vanity project dubbed ‘Williamson City’.
Returning from an 8-week trip to Europe to find that his young trophy wife, Jennifer, has green-lighted Markham’s project without his permission, Williamson goes APE – Texan style. First he smashes a scale model of Williamson City in front of the gaping eyes of Markham’s busybody secretary. He then hoons over to the construction site (where Markham is directing some bungling oafs) to confront his nemesis.
A blazing altercation ensues. Williamson tells Markham (in his inimitable Texan way) to go whistle for his cash, and not to speak to his easily-influenced wife ever again. Markham zaps him back, calling him a Philistine and hinting MASSIVELY that he’d like to see him dead.
Williamson laughs it off. Jennifer won’t inherit his fortune even if he were dead. She’d earn a fair income from a trust fund, but not enough to fund a city. Williamson then delivers a condescending slap to Markham’s cheek as he bustles away to his horse training track, confident that he’s left the architect in no doubt who’s boss.
But Markham doesn’t take the hint. And when Williamson finishes whooping away at the racetrack, who does he find waiting for him in the back seat of his car but Markham himself. To the jaunty soundtrack of Williamson’s beloved country and western music, Markham whips out a revolver and frogmarches the Texan to a presumed grisly demise in the nearby equipment shed. He then drives off in Williamson’s car, switching to a classical music station more amenable to his high cultural leanings, to put the next phase of his plan into action.
Back at the construction site the next day, Markham and young Jennifer Williamson (in a stupid polka dot hat) are merrily swigging Champagne at the dedication of his current project when they are interrupted by one Lieutenant Columbo. The LAPD have been informed by Bo Williamson’s wife that he’s dead, and Columbo has been despatched to investigate.
Jennifer isn’t in the least concerned. Of course Bo’s not dead, she says. He’s likely just jetted off to Europe again. He does shiz like this all the time. And she hasn’t rung the police. It must be Goldie – Bo’s first wife, who he remains on chummy terms with (i.e. “friends with benefits”).
Columbo pootles off to see Goldie – and meets as flamboyant a character as he’s ever come across. She’s being attended on by a Japanese masseuse, clad only in a towel, as he grills her. Goldie’s adamant Bo’s dead. Why? Because Bo tells her everything, and always lets her know when he’s leaving the country. He also has an appointment with his heart specialist coming up, and he’s very wary of his health. Ergo, his disappearance must be foul play.
While Columbo is open-minded and takes Goldie seriously, when Bo’s car (planted by Markham) shows up at the airport it’s starting to look like she might have got it wrong. But something’s bothering the Lieutenant. All of Bo’s cassette tapes (Google them, bewildered, younger readers) are country and western. Yet the radio’s tuned into classical music. As his puzzled colleagues look on, only the wily Lieutenant realises that the game is afoot!
The clues then start coming thick and fast: Columbo learns that Bo has a pacemaker for his dicky ticker and that his upcoming appointment was a crucial one that he’d never miss. He finds out that Bo and Markham met on the day the former was reported missing. Markham tells the Lieutenant that they were discussing Williamson City, which, he alleges, Bo was cock-a-hoop about.
When Columbo visits Markham’s office, though, he discovers the smashed up model of the city. Hardly the act of a man in love with the project, eh? He also comes across Markham’s clearly visible stash of classical LPs that he relaxes to while at work. The detective is very quickly building a solid foundation for his suspicions (puns 1,000,000% intended).
Next up, Columbo goes to earwig into one of Markham’s university lectures on Egyptian burials. The idea of a body being buried within the foundation of a building is conveniently raised, poker stylee. But who is bluffing, and who’s got all cards in their hand? At this stage, it’s not clear who’s leading who on.
Things take a radical twist when Markham and Jennifer, flirtatiously playing tennis, find one of Bo’s blood-stained cowboy hats in undergrowth. The blood type matches Bo’s. Even the unflappable architect is taken aback, although he tries to hide it. “A battered, bloodstained hat by itself means next to nothing,” he tells Columbo. Errrm, since when, matey…?
Realising he has to now disprove that Bo is dead (no body means Jennifer can still fund Williamson City, see?), Markham indulges in some gentle private investigating, you know, the sort of help that immediately indicates to Columbo that the helper is also the killer. He suspects Goldie has planted the hat, so turns the tables on her.
During his snooping, Markham discovers Goldie stands to inherit 25% of Bo’s money. She has an excellent motive for killing him. Columbo doesn’t fall for that, but he is aware that Goldie has a cut on her leg and that her blood type matches Bo’s. She admits to planting the hat, but she remains adamant that Bo has been slain.
Success appears to be eluding Columbo. He believes Markham has bumped Williamson off, but where is the body? Has it been buried in the foundation of the high-rise Markham has been constructing? Goaded on by Markham, Columbo is determined to find out by digging up the pile of the building – a major operation that will cost the taxpayer thousands of dollars.
Before that can happen, Columbo needs PERMITS, which he gets after several hours of real-time queueing in a government office. The building pile is duly dug up and drilled to pieces. There’s not a trace of any foul play, let alone a body. The Lieutenant has been publically humiliated. Or has he?
Not wanting to miss the chance to finally be rid of the troublesome corpse, Markham fetches it from the horse farm and returns to the construction site. He’s just about to pitch the body back into the foundations when the scene is illuminated all around. Markham’s been caught in the headlights – just like Investigator Brimmer in Death Lends a Hand a few episodes before.
“Why would a man who only ever listens to country music have his radio tuned into a classical station?”
Columbo saunters over. Turns out he’d been playing along with Markham’s games all along. Why had the architect been so keen for Columbo to dig up the pile? So he could place the body in a place nobody would think to look: a place that had already been searched.
Columbo played a classic double bluff – and it was the music in Bo’s car that cracked the case for him. Why would a man who only ever listens to country music have his radio tuned into a classical station?
“Carnegie Hall and Nashville. They don’t mix,” concludes the Lieutenant. “No. No they don’t,” concurs Markham as he’s carted off down town.
Columbo goes to light up a cigar but, remembering a health warning he received from Williamson’s heart specialist earlier in the episode, he symbolically crushes it underfoot before being driven away in a police black and white as credits roll…
Blueprint for Murder best moment: the near miss…
A chirpy Markham is racing back to the construction site with Bo Williamson’s body in his trunk when he runs into trouble. A blown tyre leaves him narrowly avoiding a nasty smash, but just when he thinks he’s gotten away with it a traffic cop pulls up behind him.
After congratulating Markham on his fine driving skillz, the cop then invites him to open the dead-body-filled trunk to help replace the tyre. Markham freezes, but, thinking fast, comes up with an excuse: his spare tyre is flat, too, and he’s been meaning to get it filled up. The affable law enforcer then rides off, promising to send a repair truck, and Markham is back in business after one hell of a close shave.
It’s a scene of superior tension – and one that was actually originally planned for Murder by the Book (also written by Bochco), but was cut for timing reasons. It does appear in the novelisation of Murder by the Book.
Additional: look closely and you can see Markham hands over Columbo’s ID to the police officer when asked for his licence. Did he pickpocket the Lieutenant? Does his scurrilousness know no bounds? Was the officer a halfwit? We’ll never know…
My thoughts on Blueprint for Murder
If you’ve read the previous reviews of Dead Weight and Lady in Waiting, you’ll perhaps already know that the filming of Columbo Season 1 wasn’t all plain sailing. Falk was having regular bust-ups with Universal after he accused them of reneging on an agreement to let him direct an episode. The rows even caused him to be barred from the sets, causing delays in production and, at times, consternation among cast and crew.
After toughing it out, Falk got his way. The studio would let him direct. But it would be the series’ most demanding directorial challenge, Blueprint for Murder, that the star would be lumbered with. The heavy amount of filming at a live construction site would have taxed a veteran. For a newcomer it would be a punishing prospect indeed.
“Directing Blueprint must have taken its toll on the star – Falk would never direct another episode.”
Series creators and co-producers, William Link and Dick Levinson, admitted that they had become exasperated with Falk and were pleased to palm off the episode on to him. But they also admitted that Falk’s commitment to excellence was commendable. He approached directing in the same meticulous way as he did his acting – even seeking input from Steven Spielberg (who he worked with on Murder by the Book) and his old mate John Cassavetes.
As a result, it sits proudly in the company of some marvellously directed pieces of television from Columbo Season 1. But it must have taken its toll on the star – Falk would never direct another episode.
Blueprint for Murder is also a strong mystery in its own right. There’s a lot to enjoy here, not least (as fast became the series’ norm) the stellar standard of the supporting cast. Everyone here adds value to the episode, from the central stars right down to the officious secretary, Bo’s doctor, the construction site security guard and the jobsworth at the government department, whose red-tape, regulations and lunch stand between Columbo and getting the job done.
Patrick O’Neal excels as Elliot Markham. He has the right level of cool arrogance to off-set the Lieutenant’s earthy charms, as well as being the perfect polar opposite to the blustering Bo Williamson, played with gusto by Forrest Tucker. O’Neal doesn’t have the natural charisma of Jack Cassidy or the danger of Robert Culp, but he does exude a sense of unsympathetic, cerebral menace that makes him a fine foil for Columbo.
As chronicled in my article about the best ever Columbo guest stars, Janis Paige as Goldie really rocks the house in every scene she graces. Goldie has sass in spades, but also an authenticity that both the Lieutenant and the audience can’t fail to warm to. Her best moment comes when she tells a bashful Columbo to turn away so she ‘doesn’t corrupt him’ while partially clothed in his presence, but every moment is to treasure and when Goldie’s on-screen the episode is at its most engaging.
Blueprint for Murder has its problems, though. Like Short Fuse, reviewed last time round, key clues come by the Lieutenant too easily. The lack of a corpus delecti throughout the episode ought to make this a real challenge for Columbo. Instead the crucial evidence he needs to build his case is handed to him on a plate. It’s painfully obvious Markham is the man. And the circumstantial evidence Columbo needs is gifted to him really quickly, too, which is another issue with the episode.
“The first half of the episode motors along like an enraged Texan in a Cadillac. Halfway through it slows down to a crawl.”
The pacing just isn’t quite right. The first half of the episode motors along like an enraged Texan in a Cadillac. Halfway through it slows down to a crawl – and not only when Columbo is forced to confront the bureaucratic process in a series of mammoth queues. These scenes actually raise a smile, but for me the frantic start unbalances the episode and highlights weaknesses that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
Adapted for the screen by Steven Bochco, writer of the seminal Murder by the Book, Blueprint has a fine mystery at its heart and a terrific conclusion. I just feel that it’s heavy-handedly set up. There’s little subtlety in Markham and Columbo’s charade surrounding whether the body is buried in the foundation. When the idea is first mooted at Markham’s university lecture it feels conveniently shoehorned in, as if the writers didn’t quite have the time to establish the idea in the mind of the audience in a more natural way.
Part of that may lie in Falk wearing both actor and director hats. He must have been preoccupied. Having finally forced the studio’s hand to let him direct, Falk was determined not to fluff the task. He doesn’t, but it’s not his finest hour as Lieutenant Columbo, and I’m not convinced he and O’Neal really played off each other as well as they might.
“Blueprint for Murder is a good Columbo episode, but not a great one.”
I’ve read reviews of this episode suggesting that Falk and O’Neal ‘sizzle’ on-screen together. They don’t. While I’m interested in their confrontation, I’m not compelled by it as happens in the very best Columbo outings. But I feel like I should have been, as they’re such contrasting characters.
Maybe they were rushing the clock and didn’t get enough takes together with Falk on the other side of the camera. Or maybe the amount of overall screen time shared between Columbo and killer is lesser here than in other episodes. It’s hard to pinpoint, but something’s missing. It’s not a fatal flaw, but it does limit Blueprint‘s potential.
There’s another flaw, too, which has long bothered me. Boisterous Bo allows himself to submit to Markham far too meekly. Sure there’s a gun, but he lets Markham walk him into the equipment shed without a peep. I don’t buy it. The Bo we see before then would have gone down scratching, kicking, biting and butting to come out on top. What we’re shown is a cop out. Bo deserved better!
Even more damning for the episode is that the behind-the-scenes police work must have been non-existent. It wouldn’t have been hard to track Bo to the racetrack, where at least one witness could have placed him. Presumably a search of the grounds would have ensued, turning up the body in a jiffy. But of course, that wouldn’t have been any fun, would it? Instead I prefer to think the bungling Sergeant Grover (left) from Greenhouse Jungle was assigned to the task…
In conclusion, Blueprint for Murder is a good Columbo episode, but not a great one. While it sufficiently satisfies I believe it could have scaled greater heights under different circumstances. Although Falk does a competent job in the director’s chair, I’d rather he’d left it to someone else and just focused on the Columbo character. As he never returned to the director’s hotseat, I guess he must’ve felt the same way.
Did you know?
Elliot Markham’s car of choice is an uber-stylish 1968 Mercedes-Benz 280 SE Convertible. If it looks familiar, it should, because the same actual car was driven by dastardly Ken Franklin in Murder by the Book. Like Markham, he also stowed a dead body in the boot. I like to think that Markham picked up Franklin’s car in some sort of auction after Ken was sent down, and perhaps a little of Ken’s wickedness rubbed off on the naughty little architect.
How I rate ’em
A decent enough outing without ever threatening the upper echelons of the leaderboard, Blueprint for Murder is a mid-tier Columbo episode in most regards. But that’s not necessarily a criticism given the sky-high standards we’ve largely seen up to now.
While Blueprint isn’t in the top half of our rankings yet, I have a feeling it will comfortably end up nearer the top than the bottom when every episode has been reviewed (at this rate in about 500 years). Read my past reviews by clicking on the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- Lady in Waiting
- Prescription: Murder
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- Short Fuse
And of course, if you heart Blueprint above all others, do vote for it here in the favourite episode poll!