Columbo Dagger of the Mind: a second opinion

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Columbo dagger of the mind cast

If you scroll down below Columbophile’s episode review of The Most Crucial Game, you will see a comment where he generously invited me to submit a “second opinion” on a future review. After an email exchange (in which I did not learn Columbophile’s real name), we agreed that Dagger of the Mind would be an ideal episode for such a “second opinion,” as our views of this episode definitely diverge (read the Columbophile review here).

By way of introduction, my devotion to Columbo dates back to Monday, March 1, 1971, when I watched the original broadcast of Ransom for a Dead Man. I may have missed a few episodes when they first aired, while off at college and law school in the mid-70s, but not many. I caught up with all of those later, and repeatedly. Indeed, after 46 years, it is impossible for me to count how many times I have watched Columbo. I’ve even watched some of the 90s episodes more than once – the mark of a true fan.

Aside from my devotion to the show, there are two things you should know about me: I’m a lawyer and former prosecutor; and I’m also a playwright with a particular affinity for stage thrillers. Last year, my thriller Framed premiered at the Elite Theatre just outside Los Angeles to standing-room-only audiences and a run extended by popular demand. A local newspaper critic noted Framed’s “uncommon authenticity,” and called the play “engaging, entertaining, highly credible, and well worth your time.” So I think I understand both murder in fact and murder in fiction – and, most importantly, that delicate area in between where a murder mystery can be both entertaining and credible.

Now let’s talk about Dagger of the Mind.

The two words that best describe Dagger of the Mind

I am not blind to the flaws in this episode if, that is, you view this episode no differently than you view every other Columbo. However, my bottom-line message here is this: You have to view Dagger of the Mind differently than you view any other Columbo.

In my opinion, no review of Dagger of the Mind is complete without two words. The first one is “homage.” This episode is Richard Levinson and William Link’s homage to all the British-style murder mysteries they read as kids that helped frame their template for Columbo. [Levinson and Link received “story by” credit for Dagger of the Mind – only the second such credit they received since Ransom for a Dead Man.]

Columbo Dagger theatre

Dagger is a homage to the British-style murder mysteries Levinson and Link read as children

In a 2002 interview, Link described how he and Levinson learned to write mysteries: “We really learned mystery structuring from John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen. … We went to the school of John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen. That was really our university in mystery writing.”

While Carr and Queen (Queen being the pseudonym for two cousins) were Americans, both wrote in the British style; in fact, Carr moved to London where he wrote and set most of his mysteries. They had no hardboiled private eyes going down mean streets, no shamuses pistol-whipping stool pigeons, no two-timing dames, gun battles, or car chases. Rather, according to Link, these were “ingenious murder mysteries” with “surprises, interesting solutions,” and “very good unknown murderers who are unmasked at the end.”

Columbo is descended from that school of mystery writing. He bears no resemblance to literature’s most famous Los Angeles detective, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. Columbo carries no gun. [“I hate guns, he says in Troubled Waters.] He has a weak stomach; neither planes (Ransom for a Dead Man), nor boats (Dead Weight), nor autopsy photos (Dagger of the Mind) agree with his constitution. He doesn’t haul suspects into headquarters for questioning (at least not since Prescription: Murder). The crimes he investigates are bloodless, almost antiseptic. For the most part, he is surrounded by beautiful people in lush settings: celebrities, writers, musicians, psychiatrists, connoisseurs of food, wine, and art. Agatha Christie could easily have filled a coach on the Orient Express with a random dozen Columbo murderers.

“Dagger of the Mind is practically a love letter to the London of the classic mystery novel.”

And so, in the 11th episode of the series (excluding pilots), Levinson and Link transported Columbo back to his literary ancestral home: the London of Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, John Dickson Carr’s Gideon Fell, and Dr. John Thorndyke – the last of whom was the creation of R. Austin Freeman, inventor of the inverted mystery (where the reader learns the murderer’s identity and how the crime was committed at the beginning), another Columbo antecedent.

columbo londonDagger of the Mind is practically a love letter to the London of the classic mystery novel: with its panoramic shots of the Thames, the Houses of Parliament, the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, and Tower Bridge; with its references to Scotland Yard, Big Ben, the Wax Museum, theatre, pubs, darts, a stately home and its butler, a gentleman’s club, pints, and fish ‘n’ chips.

It is an episode where umbrellas play a central role (and we are instructed on their proper care), where Shakespeare and Gilbert & Sullivan (“a policeman’s lot is not a happy one”) are both quoted, a Rolls-Royce and British sports car both featured, and a newspaper headline screams: “The Butler Did It!”

It’s where a Scotland Yard Detective Chief Superintendent actually says, “Holmes, Sherlock Holmes was, I suppose, our most famous detective,” and an actress tells her actor husband, unsure how to navigate a murder investigation: “If you’d taken that part in the Agatha Christie play like I told you to, you would know these things.”

Columbo Sir Roger Haversham

Casting John Williams as Sir Roger was all part of the grand homage

The casting of John Williams as victim Sir Roger Haversham is an especially delicious further homage to the classic British mystery. Williams is most famous for his Tony Award-winning Broadway performance as Chief Inspector Hubbard in Frederick Knott’s stage thriller Dial ‘M’ for Murder (like Columbo, an inverted mystery), a role he repeated in the Alfred Hitchcock film. [Ironically, the very next Sunday following the premiere of Dagger of the Mind, when the NBC Mystery Movie wheel rotated to an episode of McCloud (The Barefoot Stewardess Caper), John Williams appeared again, this time as “Inspector Mills.”]

Even the final shot of Dagger of the Mind is a subtle homage. As Columbo mounts the steps to the Royal Albert Hall, he is heading in the direction of a street named Kensington Gore – which also happens to be British slang for stage blood.

Which brings us to our second, indispensable word: “pastiche” (defined as “a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work”). In my view, Dagger of the Mind was never intended to be taken seriously. A victim killed with a jar of cold cream? Two murderers who are playing the leads in Macbeth, a play about murder and madness? Do you notice how Lillian Stanhope (played by Honor Blackman) plots most of what she and husband Nicholas Frame (played by Richard Basehart) will do – just as Lady Macbeth plotted for her husband? And how, in the end, they both descend into a kind of madness, as in the play?

Dagger 1

In true Macbeth style, the two leads descend into madness by episode’s end

Dagger of the Mind is meant to be 100% Anglophilic and theatrical fun. The two homicidal thespians overact at every opportunity. Sir Roger rails about “a ham and a tart”; no, he’s not ordering a main course and dessert, but branding Frame and Stanhope a lousy actor and a whore, respectively. The butler Tanner (Wilfrid Hyde-White) “was properly disturbed finding the master expired, and before breakfast and all”; indeed, Tanner is too proper and well-mannered even to discuss the financial terms of his blackmail scheme “until after breakfast.” Stage doorman Joe Fenwick (Arthur Malet) – who caught some shrapnel “with Monty, I was, at El Alamein” – is loyal to whomever will stand him a “pint of wallop” at the pub.

As for Bernard Fox’s Detective Chief Superintendent Durk, he combines the restrained, sardonic humor of a stereotypical Londoner (responding to Columbo’s claim that the Big Ben clock is a minute slow with: “We must put another penny on the governor.”) with the conventional thinking of an Inspector Lestrade. Until the episode’s final moments, Durk shows no inclination to challenge the superficial appearance of anything. Only after Frame and Stanhope are carted away does he ask Columbo how he could count on finding one of Lillian’s fake pearls in Sir Roger’s umbrella (“The odds were very poor and you know it.”). But for most of Dagger of the Mind, Durk resembles the kind of police detective that playwright Anthony Shaffer, in his play Sleuth, would have called “Inspector Plodder of the Yard.”

Columbo and Durk

Detective Chief Superintendent Plodder of the Yard? Not quite…

Meanwhile, Peter Falk gives perhaps his funniest Columbo performance. From the initial airport scenes, where authorities mistake him for a thief (“I was just about to put the arm on this light-fingered bloke.”), to his bolting Det. Sgt. O’Keefe’s (John Fraser) car to take pictures with his brother-in-law’s camera (“Gee, I hope I put the film in right.”), to his encounter with Lillian at Sir Roger’s wake (“Terrible time to ask, but how could I get tickets? I’d love to see the show tonight.”), to his nausea sitting between Durk and pathologist Diver (Richard Pearson) at Durk’s club, to his swipe at Nicholas and Lillian’s alibi (“I just have never seen anything like you. Like that performance you both just gave.”), to his abandoning Durk (“Those fish ‘n’ chips are greasy, but they’re sure good.”) as the latter walked on alone, along the Thames, talking to himself – Falk’s Columbo in Dagger of the Mind is a comic gem.

Final thoughts on Dagger of the Mind

Yes, the initial murder is excessively melodramatic (is it even really a “murder” in the legal sense?), the second murder far-fetched (how exactly did Frame manage to hang a conscious Tanner up so high?), and the solution less than dependable (although it does resemble the solution in Levinson and Link’s own Emmy-winning script for Death Lends a Hand). Moreover, Lillian’s reaction to the “gotcha” clue (“He put it there. Can’t you see? Before we came. He put it there. … Then he must have done it when we weren’t looking.”) is reminiscent of Dale Kingston’s reaction in Suitable for Framing – only here there is no comparable coup de grâce moment to prove her wrong. Because, of course, she isn’t.

“Dagger of the Mind is meant to be 100% Anglophilic and theatrical fun.”

I’ll grant you all that. But none of this detracts from my view that Dagger of the Mind is a joy to watch. It was a holiday romp, originally broadcast on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend 1972, the traditional beginning of the Christmas season.

Nor does it bother me that much of the episode wasn’t filmed in Britain at all. I accept at the start that Columbo is make-believe.

Does it trade in offensive British stereotypes? I guess, conceivably, the tropes and stereotypes could be perceived as offensive by a native Londoner or Brit. But I am neither, and find these bits of local color (or should I now say “colour”?) pleasantly evocative of a place I truly revere. More to the point, I strongly suspect that both Columbo creators felt exactly the same way.

Read the Columbophile review of Dagger of the Mind here.

Check out all the previous episode reviews here.

Columbo dagger finale

All dressed up and only one place to go: JAIL!

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