Episode review: Columbo Etude in Black

Columbo Etude in Black

September 17, 1972 marked the ‘Return of the Mac’, not to mention the car, the cigar and the eccentric mannerisms. Yessir, Columbo was back for a hotly-anticipated second season, seven months after Season 1 rounded out.

TV show line-ups didn’t come much stronger. Joining Peter Falk were screen icons John Cassavetes and Myrna Loy, as well as future superstar Blythe Danner. Although series creators Dick Levinson and Bill Link had moved upstairs, the episode was penned by Steven Bochco; the mastermind behind Murder by the Book.

So far so good, then, but does Etude in Black live up to the hype? Let’s apply our boutonnieres, leaf through our dog name’s dictionary, and bust out our MASSIVE robotic conducting arm moves to find out if it’ll be a standing ovation or a Bronx cheer at episode’s end…


Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Alex Benedict: John Cassavetes
Janice Benedict: Blythe Danner
Lizzi Fielding: Myrna Loy
Jennifer Welles: Anjanette Comer
Paul Rifkin: James Olson
William: James McEachin
Audrey: Dawn Frame
House Boy: Pat Morita
And introducing… Dog!
Directed by: Nicholas Colasanto
Written by: Steven Bochco
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis – Columbo Etude in Black

Musical Maestro Alex Benedict (John Cassavetes) has a problem – and one that threatens his glittering career as a celebrity conductor. He’s been romping with thigh-revealing pianist Jennifer Welles, who believes their primal love will provide greater sustenance to Benedict’s soul than his ‘safe’ marriage to Janice (Blythe Danner) and the zillions of dollars said marriage entitles him to.

Cover those thighs, strumpet! This is a family show…

Jennifer – clearly not a good judge of characters – is wrong. Benedict hatches a dastardly plot to rid himself of the ivory tinkling trouble-maker. Leaving his Jag at a grimy mechanic’s shop, Benedict gets a lift to the Hollywood Bowl with wife Janice to begin his prep for the evening’s symphony.

After bossing a few underlings around, Benedict retires to his dressing room for a nap. And when we says ‘nap’, what we really mean is ice-cold, premeditated MURDER. Before the killing, however, Benedict has got some work to do. He’s already faked a suicide note from Jennifer, so donning an amazingly conspicuous and memorable disguise of a long beige trench coat and HUGE sunglasses, Benedict sets out from the Bowl and jogs – in broad daylight no less – back to the car workshop.

“Musical maestro Alex Benedict has been romping with thigh-revealing pianist Jennifer Welles.”

He enters via a window of the rankest-looking toilet in TV history and confidently leaps into his extremely eye-catching and memorable Jaguar, which he drives to Jennifer’s house and parks literally around the corner. Did I mention already that all this is done in broad daylight? Benedict has balls, I’ll give him that…

Entering the house, Benedict pashes with Jennifer, who gives him an ultimatum: tell your wife about us, or I will! He assures her he’ll break the bad news to Janice ASAP, and tasks Jennifer with playing a heart-warming ditty on the piano. As she obliges, Benedict wraps a heavy ashtray in a cloth and clocks her around the back of the swede with it. He’s got 99 problems, but Jennifer Welles ain’t one of them anymore…

Benedict plants the faux suicide note in Jennifer’s typewriter, lifts her limp frame into the kitchen and turns on the oven gas to make it look like she took her own life. He then returns his car to the garage, seemingly not considering the odometer will show the mileage increase.

He’s behiiiiind yooooou!

The perfect crime? Hardly, Maestro. While lifting Jennifer’s stricken frame from the piano, Benedict’s boutonnier – a tell-tale pink carnation – has fallen to the floor. He hasn’t noticed, and it’s the only thing that can tie him to the scene (if you exclude the disguise, the car mileage, the workshop break-in etc, etc). Will it come back to haunt him?

Hours pass… Safely back at the Bowl, Benedict is informed that one of his musicians hasn’t showed up for the concert. Who? None other than Jennifer Welles, of course. Flying into a temper, Benedict orders an immediate change to the concert program while raging at Jennifer’s lack of reliability. His own ability to trip her phone number off the tip of his tongue alerts his wife’s suspicions, though, who struggles to maintain her belief in her man for the rest of the episode.

It’s now that Lieutenant Columbo is called into action. He’s at the vet’s getting a shot for his new dog – a slovenly basset hound he rescued from the pound – when he receives a summons to get to Jennifer’s house where she’s been found dead.

“All he does is sleep and drool”: ‘Dog’ made his debut in Etude in Black

Although all signs point to a suicide, little things immediately bother Columbo. Why would someone so talented and beautiful want to take her own life? And if she loved her pet cockatoo so much, why would she allow it to die of gas poisoning too?

The emergence of Alex Benedict at the house also provides some food for thought for Columbo as he witnesses the Maestro picking up a flower from the floor near the piano and attaching it to his lapel. Benedict claims it fell off as he removed his coat there and then. If Columbo knows otherwise he doesn’t say so, although it’s not the sort of detail that normally escapes him.

The scene is enlivened further as drunk trumpeter Paul – a former lover of Jennifer’s – stumbles onto the scene, braying about how there’s no way Jennifer would take her own life. The proverbial plot is well and truly thickening.

Remaining inconspicuous doesn’t appear to be amongst Benedict’s strong points

As Columbo’s investigations continue, we fall into the same delightful pattern the show so enamoured us with in Season 1. The Lieutenant fastens himself to his suspect, seeking his (oft ludicrous) opinion on all matters of the case, and is there every time Benedict turns around, unsettling him at the car yard, at his home and in his place of work.

He even seeks assistance from an unlikely source: young Audrey, Jennifer’s precocious next door neighbour (for ‘precocious’ read ‘annoying’). She says she can identify Jennifer’s love interest, who is someone from the orchestra. Sensing triumph, Columbo whips her along to an orchestral session. Can she identify Jennifer’s lover? You bet she can! Only the joke’s on Columbo this time, as Audrey IDs drunkard Paul instead of Benedict.

“The Lieutenant gets one of his trademark lucky breaks when returning to the vet’s to get a booster shot for the dog.”

The Lieutenant doesn’t give up that easily, though, and he gets one of his trademark lucky breaks when returning to the vet’s to get a booster shot for the dog. A re-run of the Benedict concert from the previous week is on air and the wily detective is finally able to lock in on some hard evidence.

Calling the Benedicts to the Hollywood Bowl’s recording studio to watch some video tapes of the previous concert, Columbo makes his case. ‘Look!’ he points out during a freeze frame. Benedict doesn’t have a flower in his lapel during the concert.

So what, comes the response from Benedict. I don’t always wear one. But you picked one up from the floor at Jennifer Welles’ house, points out Columbo. That’s your word against mine, retorts Benedict, and I don’t remember that at all.

“I love you.” Benedict’s poignant parting words to wife Janice

What about this, says Columbo, flashing up footage of Benedict speaking to the media in the aftermath of her death being revealed. Another freeze frame clearly shows a carnation in his lapel. Where did it come from? When Janice refuses to back up Benedict’s claim that she pinned it on him straight after the concert, the game is up. Whispering words of love in his wife’s ear, Benedict salutes Columbo and allows himself to be escorted down town.

After making sure Mrs Benedict is being taken care of, Columbo takes his seat to watch the full re-run of the concert as credits roll…

Etude in Black‘s best moment: Chopsticks at the Bowl

Perhaps Columbo will deputise for Jennifer Welles at the next concert?

Nothing beats the simple pleasure of seeing Columbo indulging in some cheeky Chopsticks action at a deserted Hollywood Bowl.

Not only is it charming in its own right, but the moment also leads into a delicious, extended hypothetical debate between the Lieutenant and Benedict about whether the Maestro could have committed the crime, and ends with Columbo shattering Benedict’s impregnability by revealing that his superiors are letting him investigate the case as a homicide. There’s even a classic ‘Just one more thing…’ thrown in for good measure. Lovely stuff…

My take on Etude in Black

Having canvassed many a fan’s opinion on the matter over a period of years, I’m fully aware that Etude is treasured by a high percentage of Columbo fans. Many even rate it as their single favourite episode. So, it’s with a hushed voice and guilty heart that I must reveal I don’t like it that much. If I haven’t instantly lost your respect and attention, I’m grateful. And if you’ll hear me out, I’ll state my case.

Etude in Black marked the first episode (pilots excluded) with the longer 90+minute running time, which would have been 2 hours on network TV including ads. Season 1 episodes ran for about 75 minutes each (90 mins with ads) and were almost all perfectly paced. But Columbo was such a hit, the network, NBC, insisted on some longer episodes to maximise advertising revenue.

NBC needed the extra ad breaks to help pay for Cassavetes’ appearance fee

Many Columbo purists, myself included, think that move was a mistake. It led to widespread padding out of scenes in the longer episodes. The stories had a tendency to sag and the potential to lose viewers’ attention. It’s no coincidence that few of my personal top 10 Columbo episodes are ‘long’ ones.

And while Etude was the first of these longer episodes, it suffers less than some that followed it because, unlike subsequent long episodes, Etude was originally intended as a regular-length transmission. Indeed, the 75-minute version aired in Canada before an extended cut was foisted on US audiences, but while there are some scenes added for padding, the scenes themselves haven’t been padded out. That’s an important distinction.

In later episodes it became clear that there wasn’t always enough material to justify the longer running time. So scenes that could have been raced through were drawn out to the nth degree. Think of Carsini’s real-time car manoeuvring in Any Old Port in a Storm; the endless garage investigation scene in Candidate for Crime; and the agonising wait for the computer printer in Exercise in Fatality.

“Etude in Black is arguably the most ambitious episode since Ransom for a Dead Man.”

Those episodes are damaged by the longer running time because scenes become a bore – something that’s largely avoided in Etude. While it’s easy to identify scenes in Etude that appear to have been added in later, they’re actually not bad in their own right. The scene where Columbo drops in on Benedict in his own house is a prime example. It’s a classic unsettling move by the Lieutenant, visiting his quarry in their own backyard while never asking a single question relevant to the case – and leaving with an autograph for his wife.

The scene eats up more than five minutes without ostensibly progressing the plot at all. It’s fun stuff, but it’s not strictly necessary – and wasn’t part of the original story. Cassavetes’ shorter haircut is testament to it being filmed weeks later and cut in to bump up the running time.

Excuse me, but what did you pay for that haircut?

I’ve never seen the shorter version of Etude, but writer Bochco and Falk himself both admitted that the extra running time did it no favours. I find it an episode that I struggle to really commit to for the full duration. Still, its length is not the sole reason why Etude remains on the fringes of my Columbo favourites. For my money, the central clue just isn’t compelling enough. I don’t think Benedict would cave in on the evidence of the lapel flower. Sure, it doesn’t look good, but it falls short of condemning him.

I liken it to Murder by the Book. Ken Franklin could’ve talked his way out of that fix in a second. Similarly Benedict had a way out. Because he often wears a carnation and had just taken his coat off, he might simply have assumed the one on the floor was his and picked it up. It could plausibly belong to someone else and could have been dropped much earlier.

We learn later that the carnations are a rare type, grown specifically for Benedict by his wife in their garden. I think this point could have been laboured further. It would have been easy for the script to include a reference to these particular carnations being absolutely unique to the region and that the one found at the crime scene could only have come from Janice’s garden. That way, Benedict would have far less wriggle-room in a court of law. His admission of guilt seems too convenient a way to paper over this rather feeble gotcha, which makes for an unsatisfying finale.

“For my money, the central clue just isn’t compelling enough. I don’t think Benedict would cave in on the evidence of the lapel flower.”

With the carnation clue in mind, I put forward a tantalising alternative path the episode could have followed to lead to a much more damning indictment against Benedict. The dropped flower at the crime scene would remain central – but in this instance Benedict wouldn’t return to the crime scene to get it, instead not noticing his loss. The entire symphony orchestra would normally wear pink carnations and Benedict’s being absent on concert footage would alert Columbo to his potential guilt.

However, without being able to verify that everyone in the orchestra was wearing a flower, the Lieutenant would remain uncertain about the killer’s identity until closer examination of the bloom revealed it to be a special kind – the kind only grown by Janice Benedict specifically for her husband. That would absolutely tie Benedict to the scene of the crime, while pulling the rug out utterly from under him at the end of the episode. While it would have required some substantial reworking of the script, I think this scenario could have worked well.

The carnation clue fails to fully blossom *titter*

Something else that could perhaps have been tightened up was Benedict’s reckless approach to setting up the murder. Lest we forget, he takes a heck of a lot of chances getting to Jennifer’s house from the Hollywood Bowl, wearing an extremely conspicuous outfit as he jogged about in broad daylight, and then parking his extremely memorable car right around the corner from the victim’s house! If nothing else, one has to admire his chutzpah but I really don’t consider his actions very plausible if avoiding attention was his goal.

Yet for all that, I can understand why many fans love Etude in Black. It has some marvellous moments and is arguably the most ambitious episode since Ransom for a Dead Man. It’s almost cinematic in scale, with its extensive use of location shooting and the epic orchestral score – featuring Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart – putting it a level above most episodes in terms of production values.

“I’m no expert, but isn’t a conductor’s baton supposed to be caressed rather than wielded?”

Cassavetes’ friendship with Falk was a crucial factor in him taking on the role of Alex Benedict and his casting was a seriously high-profile one by television standards. True to form, the two seem to revel in each other’s company, although I don’t feel they zing in the same way Falk and Jack Cassidy do. And while it’s a relatively minor gripe, I can’t help thinking Cassavetes could’ve tried a little bit harder to look like he really knew how to conduct an orchestra.

I’m no expert, but isn’t a conductor’s baton supposed to be caressed rather than wielded (no double entendres intended)? Yet Cassavetes’ arm movements are as stiff and stilted as they come – and nowhere near being in time with the music. It’s as if his only direction was: Pretend to be conducting an orchestra really badly. if so, he carried out his instructions to the letter. He’s certainly no match for this chap…

The calibre of the supporting cast was suitably grand, too. Cassavetes is impressive enough, but to have silver screen Goddess Myrna Loy also gracing the episode was a real coup. Playing Janice’s mother Lizzi Fielding, Loy’s role was a small one but the charisma and authority she brought cannot be overstated. Dare I say it, Etude could have benefited from a few more minutes of her time.

Blythe Danner was also a hit as the vulnerable Janice Benedict, hoping against hope that her husband wasn’t really the git she suspects him to be. Danner, who was pregnant with daughter Gwyneth Paltrow at the time, was sympathetic without ever being pathetic. One senses Janice has the moral fibre to bounce back from this blow and get back on with her life at some point – something that can’t always be said for the many wronged wives of the wider series.

There are even cameos for the awesome Jimmy McEachin, as Benedict’s sidekick William, and Pat Morita (AKA Mr Miyagi) as the mysteriously titled ‘House Boy’, who allows Columbo into the Benedict residence, so there’s plenty to surprise and delight the keen viewer. And, last but not least, we welcome ‘Dog’ into the fold. The lovable mutt would go on to win the hearts of millions of viewers and there’s plenty of fun to be had during his debut as Columbo struggles to get to grips with the responsibility of pet ownership.

Myrna Loy: awesome in this and EVERYTHING ELSE!

Just about the only character that irks is the precocious Audrey – Jennifer’s pre-teen neighbour whose sassy attitude towards Columbo and his lack of pet-tending skillz quickly starts to grate. For me, her scenes singularly fail to provide the injection of humour that I suspect was the intention.

So there we have it. Etude is an interesting study. On one hand majestic, dynamic and a quite amazing statement of intent for the season. On the other, it’s mired in plot holes that prevent it delivering the sucker punch the lavish settings and big budget set it up for.

As a result, it has never completely won me over. The heart wants to love Etude in Black. The head, like Janice Benedict suspiciously eyeing her husband, can’t ever fully commit. So, it’s warm applause at episode’s end, rather than a rapturous 13-minute standing ovation. Sorry Maestro…

Did you know?

Although Nicholas Colasanto (AKA ‘Coach’ in  Cheers) is officially credited with having directed Etude in Black, word on the street is that both Falk and Cassavetes took on the lion’s share of directorial duties. And that’s a pretty cool thought…

How I rate them so far

We’ve now got an actual top 10 of episodes form the reviews so far and, true to sentiments expressed above, Etude has fallen into a sort of halfway house. It’s still a goodie, but not quite as good as it perhaps ought to have been. Read any of my past reviews by clicking on 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. Etude in Black
  7. Blueprint for Murder
  8. Ransom for a Dead Man
  9. Dead Weight
  10. Short Fuse

Am I being fair? Leave a comment below and if you treasure Etude above all others, do vote for it here in the favourite episode poll!

I’ll be reviewing the under-the-radar Greenhouse Jungle in the coming weeks, so check back in soon. And thanks, as ever, for reading. You’re da greatest

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You can read my thoughts on Etude in Black‘s top 5 scenes right here

The good cop/bad cop spin-off series ‘Audrey and the Lieutenant’ never took off
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