Episode review: Columbo Dagger of the Mind



Columbo broke new ground on November 26, 1972. For the first time ever the Lieutenant stepped outside his LA comfort zone and mixed it up with a bunch of Brits on a work visit to Scotland Yard.

Predictably it ends up being a busman’s holiday for Columbo, who’s swiftly thrust into the middle of a murder mystery amid the twin settings of the theatre stage and a colossal country mansion.

Can ‘Leftenant’ Columbo cut the mustard in old London town? Or will this fish out of water be out his depth alongside the pride of Scotland Yard? Let’s stiffen our upper lips, roll out the tweed jackets, and perfect our Cockney accents as we find out…


Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Nicholas Frame: Richard Basehart
Lillian Stanhope: Honor Blackman
Detective Chief Superintendent Durk: Bernard Fox
Tanner: Wilfrid Hyde-White
Sir Roger Haversham: John Williams
Joe Fenwick: Arthur Malet
Sergeant O’Keefe: John Fraser
Directed by: Richard Quine
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis: Columbo Dagger of the Mind

Basehart Blackman ColumboIt’s dress rehearsal night at The Royal Court Theatre, where husband-and-wife duo Nicholas Frame (Nick) and Lillian (Lilly) Stanhope are hoping to reverse their decline by wowing crowds with their rendition of Macbeth.

Their comeback has been bankrolled by Sir Roger Haversham, who has been coerced into opening his wallet by Lilly’s flirtatious behaviour. In short, Sir Roger believes he’s in with a chance for romance with the leading lady. Or he did – up until today.

Driving to a rainy London, an enraged Sir Roger turns up unannounced in Lilly’s dressing room. An argument breaks out, and Nick enters stage left to see what’s going on. It’s all happening now. Sir Roger bellows that he’s been taken by ‘a ham and a tart’ (ouch!) and a scuffle ensues. Lilly’s pearl necklace is broken and scatters over the floor, and as Nick and Sir Roger wrestle, she grabs a jar of cold cream and flings it toward the feuding fellows.

A one-in-a-million shot, it shivers Sir Roger on the noggin and kills him outright. Self-defence it may have been, but with the curtain about to rise there’s no way the self-obsessed actors are coming clean. They stuff Sir Roger in a trunk and take to the stage.

During an interval, Lilly’s in for a shock. Stage doorman Joe is tinkering with the heater in her dressing room, even wanting the trunk moved at one point. She gets shot of him, and when he’s still hanging around later on Nick pushes some coppers into his hand and tells him to get to the pub, which he does with cringing gratitude.


Death by cold cream! Could you Adam and Eve it?

Little do the dastardly duo know that Joe has inadvertently wandered off with Sir Roger’s umbrella, leaving his own in the dressing room. As they make an exit with the corpse-filled trunk, Lilly grabs Joe’s umbrella, and they travel back in separate cars to Sir Roger’s country pile after locating his car in a side-street.

With the house silent, they set the scene to make it appear Sir Roger simply fell down some ‘apples and pears’ (stairs to those non-Brits reading) to his doom after a quiet night reading. They stash Sir Roger’s coat, hat and the wrong umbrella is his closet. Dashing off in Nick’s sports car, the crafty couple have every reason to believe they’re home free.

The next morning we’re at Heathrow Airport. Some police officers are awaiting the arrival of a ‘great detective from Los Angeles’. They little suspect it’s the same scruffy American who’s causing trouble to other passengers as he searches for his lost suitcase. Indeed, when he sends one case spilling open they eye him with unfriendly suspiscion – until he’s rescued by Sergeant O’Keefe, who’s tasked with escorting him to Scotland Yard.

After stopping for a photo opportunity at Buckingham Palace, Columbo is delivered to Detective Chief Superintendent Durk – his host for his London jaunt, where he’s come to see the Yard’s cutting-edge policing techniques in action.

Columbo dagger of the mind london

That’s one for the Columbo family album alright!

Before that, though, they have a quick pit-stop at a country manor, where Durk’s wife’s uncle has died overnight. Of course, this is Sir Roger’s home and it’s not long before Columbo is snooping around the crime scene, spotting, among other things, a signed photo of Lilly prominently on display.

Columbo also notices that a first edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, that the deceased was said to have been reading, has been carelessly set face down. He wonders where Sir Roger’s reading glasses are, although household butler Tanner reveals he always kept them in his breast pocket. The Lieutenant’s still not satisfied, though. Surely they’d have been smashed? Yet there’s no evidence of any such detritus on the stairs.

Back at the theatre, last respects are being paid to Sir Roger, whose open casket is creepily up on stage. With the press present in spades, Lilly makes a ridiculous show of grief in front of the cameras and is comforted by Columbo – who’s in attendance with Durk and his wife. Lilly subsequently overhears the two detectives discussing Sir Roger’s death. His reading glasses weren’t broken after all. Durk (finally getting with the program) admits this is suspicious, so orders an autopsy.

Columbo Superintendent Durk

Chalk and cheese: Columbo and Durk

When Lilly reports this to Nick, the two are in a flap. But cometh the hour, cometh them man: Nick has a cunning plan. Racing out to Haversham’s home (again), they quiz Tanner about a rare Shakespeare book Nick claims to have lent the deceased. Columbo and Durk also show up and let the theatrical duo know that they’re investigating murder after the autopsy confirmed the body was moved post mortem. This actually plays into Nick’s hands, as the missing book is valued between 20,000-30,000 quid. If there had been an intruder, there’s a motive for murder right there!

Columbo isn’t convinced. If someone broke in and killed Sir Roger, why would they only take a single book from a house full of valuables? His mind whirrs further into action when he spies a burly serf about to wash Sir Roger’s car. Indeed he washes it everyday, but Columbo notices rain marks on the bonnet. It didn’t rain where Sir Roger lives, but it did rain in London. Maybe Sir Roger was in town after all…

Dagger 2

The ham and the tart camping it up for Columbo

Back in London, and it’s been a magnificent opening night for Lilly and Nick, who are basking in the praise of well-wishers backstage. Columbo is amongst them, and once he manages to get a word in edgewise he grills them both about what happened the night before. An argument was heard from Lilly’s dressing room. Columbo wonders if Sir Roger had dropped in, but the thespians stick to their story that the argument was simply between the two of them.

They stick to it a little too well, though, as Columbo points out. “When my wife and I try to remember what happened yesterday or the day before, well, we don’t agree on anything. And you two, you not only agree, you use almost the exact same words to tell about it. [giant pause for effect] Good night.”

Their night is about to get worse, too. As they leave the theatre they notice the fawning Joe is carrying Sir Roger’s umbrella! In order to get it back, Nick tails Joe into the local boozer, and plies him with drinks in order to get his guard down enough to make off with the jealously-guarded brolly. And just as the heavens open, they’re off in the car to Haversham Manor (a-ruddy-gain) to return the umbrella to its rightful place.

Columbo, meanwhile, is finally getting some use out of his raincoat! He’s on the soaking streets of London, accosting Joe as he comes out of the pub. The detective wonders why Nick has spent his opening night with Joe and company instead of a more slap-up celebration. He wonders even more when Joe reveals his umbrella was stolen in the pub.

“Lilly and Nick demonstrate that cat-burglary is another string to their bows by breaking in to the wax museum.”

With suspicions rising by the minute, Columbo takes a car out to…. you guessed it (yawn)… Sir Roger’s house. Just as nears the driveway, he’s almost run off the road by a speeding sports car going the other way. Although he’s not sure who it is, we know that it’s Nick and Lilly. They’re having to get a wriggle on as their attempt to return the umbrella has been foiled. Why? Because Tanner has told them that the wax museum has taken his hat and umbrella away that same evening for their new exhibition, which will creepily immortalise the freshly-slain Sir Roger in wax.

Unwilling to just give up on the perishing umbrella, Lilly and Nick demonstrate that cat-burglary is another string to their bows by breaking in to the wax museum and finally making the switch. It’s fair to say it’s been one hell of a night for them.

Likewise the good Lieutenant, who has dragged Tanner (who covered for Nick and Lilly) to town and woken Durk in the dead of night to take them to wax museum, too. He wants to check the umbrella out for himself, and is disappointed to find that it’s the real deal when Tanner makes a positive ID. Durk is starting to think the Lieutenant has a screw loose, although Columbo keeps his minuscule hopes of an arrest alive by noticing that the basement window could theoretically have afforded an entrance to burglars.

Dagger champagne

Self-obsessed overload alert!

Come morning, and a giggly Nick and Lilly are in bed enjoying positive reviews in the London papers over Champagne. Naturally they’re surprised when the doorbell rings to reveal Tanner with a bag a croissants.

As he prepares a breakfast for them, Tanner lets them know that he’s looking for a job and that his loyalty is beyond question. It’s a thinly-veiled threat that even the acting hams can’t miss: they look after him, or he’ll blow their cover. With seemingly little choice, they agree, but in reality have no plans to employ the old rascal.

Nick sees to that. As Tanner returns to his luxury bungalow on Sir Roger’s estate later that day, he finds Nick awaiting him. Any pretense of friendship is soon over as Nick bundles the old man into the house and strings him up by his neck to a rafter.

Columbo Tanner

SPOILER ALERT: The butler didn’t do it!

Turns out they’ve really done one over on Tanner. Not content with just getting him out of the way, they hide a selection of rare books under his floorboards. The message to the world is clear: Tanner was stealing from Sir Roger, and was himself the murderer, but guilt has led him to take his own life. It’s a smart but grisly maneuver from Nick and Lilly, who now seem to have finally eradicated the weak link in their chain.

Not so fast, though. The final act, fittingly, has a twist in the tail. Columbo has finally pieced it all together. And in a finale that Sherlock himself would be proud of, he gathers all the key players at the wax museum to set out his case.

“In a finale that Sherlock himself would be proud of, Columbo gathers all the key players at the wax museum.”

As they gather round the waxwork of Sir Roger, Columbo tells them what he thinks happened. The two actors killed Sir Roger in a fight that saw Lilly’s pearl necklace broken and scattered across her dressing room floor. They then moved him to the mansion and set up the scene of an accident.

Then Columbo plays his trump card. He conjectures that pearls from the broken necklace could feasibly have ended up in Sir Roger’s umbrella. As the tension mounts, the museum manager slowly opens the umbrella – and a lone pearl rolls out on to the floor. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Nick is seized by Macbeth-style lunacy and raves crazily in the background. A stunned Lilly comes clean and admits the killing.

Columbo dagger of the mind gotcha

Quite what Durk made of Columbo’s unconventional policing style remains a closely guarded secret

As the guilty duo are carted away, Durk asks Columbo how he knew the pearl would be there. Clearly the Superintendent never tried to catch the attention of the pretty little redhead girl in third grade, says the Lieutenant. Feigning a cough (as he did while explaining the crime), Columbo effortlessly flips the pearl into a goblet being held by a wax figure. He really is a sly one…

Beaming despite missing his flight home, Columbo strides out of the wax museum across the road to the Royal Albert Hall, as credits roll.

Dagger of the Mind‘s best moment

columbo-rainAll the scenes of Columbo sightseeing in London are a joy to behold, as Falk is at his most adorable scampering around with his camera to secure the snaps he’ll want to show Mrs Columbo. But the highlight for me is that scene on the London streets when it’s teeming with rain.

After a dozen episodes in which there appears to be no danger of him ever really needing it, the raincoat finally earns its keep. And if you look closely it actually looks to be pretty good at repelling the rain.

Not only a fun scene, it also has a pay-off as Columbo learns that Joe has lost him umbrella after hanging out with Nick at the pub – and that’s the trigger Columbo needs to really formulate his case against them.

My thoughts on Dagger of the Mind

From the fanfare and pageantry of the opening music as the camera sweeps across London, Dagger of the Mind certainly does a good job at establishing the look and feel of old England.

The twin settings of the theatre and Sir Roger’s country manor feel far removed from the high-living LA backdrop that we’ve become used to, and with Brit actors galore taking prominent roles and putting their clipped accents to excellent use, Dagger swiftly ticks a lot of the boxes that a US audience of the day would have wanted.

Columbo dagger of the mind theatre

Stereotypical London? Check…

There’s more to follow, too. Columbo dashes around some of London’s most recognisable landmarks. The butler, that most British of mystery story ingredients, is here. So too the gloomy weather, the traditional pub, and the tweed suits. All the stereotypical elements we’d expect from a mystery in the mould of Sherlock or Agatha Christie are present and correct.

Injecting the earthy Lieutenant Columbo into this environment should be a blast. There’s certainly fun to be had as he struggles to comprehend what the country cop and Tanner the butler are telling him when he meets them at Sir Roger’s home. Little wonder, too, when lines like this are dished up: “Just took ‘is Lordship off, they did, to have ‘im properly coffined for public mourning.” Yes folks, Columbo is a loooooong way from home, in more ways than one.

“As a Brit myself, much of what I see here grates terribly. The stereotypes are too cliched.”

But aspects of this episode that might have delighted a US audience of the 1970s haven’t stood the test of time. And as a Brit myself, much of what I see here grates terribly. The characterisations are too cliched. And the acting from the murderous leading pair is just too hammy to bear – even if you take into consideration the theatrical setting. I get that this is a homage and not to be taken too seriously, but even so I feel like the joke’s on me.

Columbo Dagger of the Mind Lillian Stanhope Nicholas Frame

Blackman and Basehart border on unwatchable at times

On occasion this feels like we’re watching a Hammer horror film. There’s kitsch value in that but, really, as a viewer I feel patronised by the clumsy stereotypes on display. Nothing feels genuine, which is criticism I could also label at other Columbo outings with a foot in other cultures: namely A Matter of Honor and A Case of Immunity.

A saving grace of even mediocre Columbo episodes is the enjoyment one can glean from watching the Lieutenant mentally tussle with his adversaries. There’s very little of that here. Part of the problem is that Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman are so wooden as Nick and Lilly. They’re almost unwatchable at times and there’s precious little chemistry between the two and Falk.

Despite the show’s longer running time (approx 95 minutes as opposed to the ‘standard’ 75 minutes), Columbo and the killers spend comparatively little time locking horns. There’s a nice scene when Columbo grills them after their opening night success, but in terms of rapport and intrigue there’s nothing here that holds a candle to the sparring off against Cassidy, Culp et al that we’ve seen before.

I have a problem with the longer running time of this episode, too (as I do with the majority of the ‘longer’ episodes). It means this dross is drawn out far longer than is required. It doesn’t help that we’re taken to Sir Roger’s house so often – 7 times if my calculations are correct. Frankly I was bored well before the denouement. I suspect I wouldn’t be alone.

“Most of the time Nick and Lilly are too silly to be taken seriously.”

The finale isn’t entirely satisfying, either. Columbo has made a lot of assumptions in this episode, not all of which seem entirely justifiable – particularly his hunch that Nick and Lilly might have broken into the wax museum to tamper with the umbrellas. His resultant planting of the pearl in the umbrella may have been enough to extract a confession from the emotional stage stars, but it’s a bit too cute for me.

We’ve seen Columbo bend the rules to get his man before. Death Lends a Hand is the standout example. The difference here is that Columbo admits to the stunt. In Death Lends a Hand, we’re pretty sure he planted the contact lens and put Brimmer’s car out of commission, but we’re ultimately kept guessing. The Lieutenant’s aura of mystique is preserved. There’s a class distinction between the two episodes, and for all its uppity Britishness, Dagger is the poor relative by a country mile.

Columbo Dagger denouement

A thrilling conclusion? The jury’s out…

Still, as I perennially come back to when critiquing Columbo, nothing’s all bad. The same is true here. The second murder of the untrustworthy Tanner is a highlight. Although we don’t see it, the murder must have been gruesome and a terrifying way for the old guy to check out. I’d have liked more of this dark edge to come through. Most of the time Nick and Lilly are too silly to be taken seriously. Tanner’s grisly demise shows they’re actually pretty hardcore.

“Peter Falk himself didn’t like this episode, feeling it was too gimmicky. I’m firmly with him.”

Dagger also further explores the notion that Columbo is held in high regard by the LAPD, as he’s been chosen for the honour of visiting Scotland Yard. He’s even described as ‘a great detective’ by the officers expecting him at Heathrow.

This idea was first raised a couple of episodes earlier, when Sergeant Wilson described Columbo as ‘fast becoming a legend in the department’ in Greenhouse Jungle. This is a natural extension of that heightening profile – even if he remains ever so humble.

Personally I think it’s rewarding to see Columbo earning recognition of this type. After all, this is the cop who brought down a best-selling mystery writer, a revered war hero and a highfalutin concert maestro in the space of a few months. He deserves the plaudits. Conversely, I always find it irritating when other officers don’t show Columbo the respect he’s due, and show impatience with his methods. Don’t they know who he is?

Columbo Dagger Mind watch

Keep up won’t you, Big Ben?

As referenced earlier, the scenes of Columbo jalloping around London, camera in hand, help enhance the spectacle. It leads to a magic moment as Columbo and Durk stop to admire the Houses of Parliament.

“Is that Big Ben?” asks the wide-eyed Lieutenant. “Yes it is,” Durk assures him. Then, eyeing his own cheap timepiece, Columbo responds: “Well, look at that, a big clock like that and it´s only a minute slow.”

So while there are smiles to be had while watching Dagger of the Mind, they’re too few and far between to raise this above the mundane. Peter Falk himself didn’t like the episode, feeling it was too gimmicky. I’m firmly with him.

Some say a change is as good as a holiday. When it comes to Columbo, Dagger of the Mind proves that he’s at his most watchable in his own backyard. A homage to the Victorian mysteries of yore it may be, but as a piece of television this is about as unconvincing as Columbo gets.

Did you know?


Yo Durk, say cheese…

Only the location shots of Columbo sightseeing and the interior shots at Durk’s gentleman’s club were actually recorded on location in the UK. Everything else was filmed either at Universal Studios in LA or at Greystone Mansions in Beverley Hills – the location of Sir Roger Haversham’s palatial dwelling.

Although he’s as British as The Queen herself, the scenes involving Wilfrid Hyde-White had to be shot in Cali, as he was a tax exile and owed thousands of pounds to the UK Inland Revenue! The sly old dog…

Both Hyde-White and Bernard Fox would return in future, nautical-themed episodes: Hyde-White in Last Salute to the Commodore, and Fox in Troubled Waters.

How I rate them so far!

Remember that time I panned Short Fuse, claiming it was the first ‘poor’ episode of the lost up until that point? Well all I can say is: come back Roddy and your tight trousers – all’s forgiven!

I’d watch Short Fuse a dozen times before selecting Dagger of the Mind again. This is a very silly episode, which is both hammily acted and tediously drawn out. It may not ultimately be the worst of the 70s’ run, but I’d expect it to be ‘bringing up the rear’ for a long time yet.

Check out my other episode 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. The Most Crucial Game
  7. Etude in Black
  8. Greenhouse Jungle
  9. Blueprint for Murder
  10. Ransom for a Dead Man
  11. Dead Weight
  12. Short Fuse
  13. Dagger of the Mind

I thank you kindly if you’ve taken the time to read this article, and would love to hear your own thoughts on this one in the comments section below. I wonder if there’s a nationalistic split, with Brits loathing it, but others finding more to enjoy. Either way, let me know!

Next up on our voyage through all Columbo episodes is Requiem For a Falling Star, starring Oscar-winning actress Anne Baxter. A return to form for Season 2? Let’s wait and see…

Read a very different perspective on Dagger of the Mind in a ‘second opinion’ review here.

Read my top 5 episode highlights from Dagger of the Mind here.

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Dagger Mind

Sorry guys, your episode sucks… Good night.

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