Columbo went where no man has gone before on 11 February, 1973 by casting Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy in the role of murderous medic Dr Barry Mayfield.
Casting Spock, err… Nimoy seemed an inspired choice on paper. Just think what he could bring to the table: a Vulcan’s cold logic; a Klingon-esque love of killing; a Romulan-infused ruthless ambition. That combo could never be bad, right?
But does A Stitch in Crime hit home with the force of a tire iron to the head, or does it instead bring on a morphine induced-style coma? And am I able to avoid making dozens of Star Trek puns throughout this review? Read on and find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dr Barry Mayfield: Leonard Nimoy
Dr Edmund Heideman: Will Geer
Sharon Martin: Anne Francis
Harry Alexander: Jared Martin
Marcia Dalton: Nita Talbot
Written by: Shirl Hendryx
Directed by: Hy Averback
Score by: Billy Goldenberg
Episode synopsis: Columbo A Stitch in Crime
Brilliant young heart surgeon, Dr Barry Mayfield (Leonard Nimoy), is hungry for success. When his august colleague Dr Edmund Heideman (Will Geer) seeks a longer period of research before unleashing a revolutionary new heart drug, Mayfield’s patience runs out.
He wants recognition – and he wants it now, before someone else beats them to the punch. To do that, he’ll need sole ownership of the research – and that means getting the lovable Heideman out of his hair, permanently.
The opportunity presents itself swiftly, as the elderly surgeon’s heart is in a bad way and he needs a replacement valve, stat. Heideman has complete faith in his young protege, and trusts Mayfield with the job of patching up his dicky ticker. Little does the old boy realise the villainous scheme Mayfield has in mind.
Mayfield, you see, has dyed some dissolving suture black, so that it passes for regular suture in the operating room. What does this mean? Well, when it dissolves in a few days, Dr Heideman’s replacement valve will fail and he’ll perish. It’ll look perfectly natural, but it will leave Mayfield in command of the research project.
Luckily for Heideman, he has a friend in nurse Sharon Martin (Anne Francis in her second Columbo outing). She doesn’t trust Mayfield one iota, and she’s watching the young surgeon like a hawk throughout the operation. And although all seems to go well in theatre, as Sharon cleans up afterwards she notices some leftover suture on the floor. Picking it up, we can immediately see something’s not right with her reaction as she rubs it between her fingers with a puzzled expression. Foul play is clearly in her mind.
She suggests as such to Mayfield as they meet in the lab shortly later. He challenges her to have the suture analysed to prove her suspicions, and she rises to his challenge by booking an appointment at the medical suppliers the following morning. It’s an appointment she’ll never make. As she heads to the hospital car park to head home after a stressful day, Mayfield steps out of the shadows and raises a tire iron. We never see the fatal strike, but it’s game over for Sharon.
Mayfield doesn’t stop there, though. He’s much too clever for that. Instead he takes Sharon’s apartment keys and, waiting for her roomie Marcia to clear out, he breaks in and plants morphine under the kitchen sink before messing up the place to make it look like a drug-addled fiend has marauded through in pursuit of a fix.
Back to the hospital parking lot and a dishevelled Lieutenant Columbo is one of the officers in action. The sleepy detective isn’t at his best after a sleepless night, though, first sprinkling egg-shell over the crime scene, then using the murder weapon itself to crack the egg against. CSI this ain’t…
From here, Columbo heads off to find Dr Mayfield. He locates him in his office, on the phone, receiving the news of Sharon’s demise. Although his voice registers shock, Mayfield had the presence of mind to wind up his desk clock as he speaks.
When Columbo references the incident as an example of Mayfield’s great concentration, the Doctor tries to explain things away. “It was purely reflexive,” he says, but we know that Columbo is already onto his man. After all, he’s seen similar examples from killers in the past – just think of murderous Ken Franklin opening his mail as the corpse of his partner lay on his front lawn…
Columbo’s next interview is with Marcia back at Sharon’s apartment. She’s a bit of a loon, and has nothing useful to tell the Lieutenant. His trip wasn’t wasted, though, as the hidden morphine is uncovered while he’s there – albeit suspiciously with no fingerprints, only glove smudges on the bottles. Why would Sharon wear gloves, Columbo wonders?
Uncovering the drugs, however, gives Columbo reason to pay a house call to Mayfield – and he finds the doctor hosting a lavish pool party, complete with guests galore and enough booze to sate a shipload of thirsty pirates.
During a short interview, Mayfield reveals that Sharon did have access to drugs in the lab. He can’t help Columbo with his next query though. The police found a note in Sharon’s handwriting seeming to set up a meeting with a mystery man called ‘Mac’ the morning after she was killed. Mayfield’s never heard of a ‘Mac’, but knowing he needs to provide the detective with a lead to follow, sets the next part of his plan into action.
Once Columbo has shambled out, Mayfield is straight on the phone to Marcia. The two take a stroll, and the medical man heavy-handedly tries to make the rather slow Marcia remember something, anything, about Sharon’s love life, but she’s too wrapped up in herself to take the bait.He eventually manages to crowbar the name ‘Harry Alexander’ into the conversation and convince Marcia that she was the one who remembered it. The police must be informed, he tells her, because Harry could be an important lead. So he bundles her into her car and takes her straight back to her apartment.
Guess who’s there? You got it… Columbo! He wonders why the doctor was in touch with Marcia, and his suspicions increase when she explains that it was Mayfield who remembered Harry Alexander by name. His case is coming together nicely, although he’s got some way to go to prove anything.
A visit to see Harry sheds some interesting light on proceedings. Harry is a Vietnam vet who seems to have struggled with PTSD, and then drugs. He met Sharon some time ago, and she helped him overcome his drug dependency. A romance blossomed, but she called it off for fear he was becoming too dependent on her. He tells Columbo he hasn’t seen her in 6 months, and the Lieutenant seems to take this at face value.
He reports as much to Mayfield on a return visit to the hospital to try to dig up more info on the mysterious ‘Mac’. Mayfield is sceptical of Columbo so easily dismissing Harry as a suspect and yet again ups his game to focus attention on the reformed drug addict.
This time Mayfield stoops even lower than his murder of Sharon Martin. He breaks into Harry’s apartment and waits behind a door for him to return. He then chloroforms Harry and delivers a massive morphine hit to the unconscious man’s arm. Harry literally didn’t know what hit him. He briefly awakes in a psychedelic haze, but can only plummet down his apartment stairs to what must rank as the cruellest, most unnecessary Columbo killing of all.
For all intents and purposes, Columbo has got it wrong about Harry. Looks like he was Sharon’s killer after all, at least that’s what Mayfield says. But Columbo isn’t convinced. He noticed that Harry was left-handed when he met him. But his fatal dose of morphine was delivered into his left arm. How could a lefty have done that?
“Someone’s going to a lot of trouble to convince me Harry Alexander was the guy,” says Columbo pointedly – a fact not missed by Mayfield. “Lieutenant, what possible reason could I have for killing him?” he asks. “You ask tough questions, doc,” Columbo admits. “So does a jury,” smirks Mayfield in the most blatant admission of guilt since another doctor – Ray Flemming – held a hypothetical conversation about murder with Columbo in 1968’s Prescription: Murder.
It’s not all bad news for Columbo, though. On a visit to the bed-bound Dr Heideman, he cracks the ‘Mac’ mystery. It’s not a man’s name at all – it’s in fact an abbreviation for Marcus and Carlson, the medical supplies company the hospital gets it suture from – both regular and dissolving.
With some hard evidence at last Columbo confronts Mayfield, but the doctor simply laughs in his face. For once, Columbo doesn’t play the fool. Slamming down a pitcher on Mayfield’s desk, he lays down the law. You better hope Heideman doesn’t die, he tells the now straight-faced medic, or there’ll need to be an autopsy and that’ll prove whether dissolving suture was used.
“For once, Columbo doesn’t play the fool. Slamming down a pitcher on Mayfield’s desk, he lays down the law.”
Once again, circumstances are stinging Mayfield into action. And once again he seems to have all the answers. He diddles Heideman’s medicine dosage to bring on an adverse reaction and make it look like the heart valve is failing. He then orders an emergency surgery to repair the valve – and replace the incriminating dissolving suture.
Part-way through the operation and Mayfield is surprised to see an interested observer watching proceedings from the observation deck. It’s Lieutenant Columbo. The usually squeamish detective has put aside his usual misgivings to keep his good eye on the action.
As soon as the operation’s over, Columbo and his cohorts (in surgical scrubs) bust into the theatre – much to Mayfield’s disgust, who pushes Columbo aside as he attempts to exit. But the Lieutenant won’t be denied. The place will be thoroughly searched – as will Mayfield – for any sign of dissolving suture.
Alas for Columbo, the search brings up nothing but regular suture. Mayfield’s in the clear. With a begrudging shake of Mayfield’s hand, Columbo says his farewell. “It goes to show, maybe I’ve been at this job too long. Well doc, now you’re finally rid of me.”
Alone in his office, Mayfield breathes a huge sigh of relief – but it’s short lived as Columbo bursts excitedly back in. He’s finally figured it out, and Mayfield’s flash of temper in the operating theatre was what did it.
Recalling the uncharacteristic shove from the usually ice-cool doctor, Columbo gathers up the scrubs he was wearing earlier. Reaching into the pocket, Columbo draws out a tangle of dissolving suture. “The only thing we didn’t search was me,” he says, a smile of satisfaction on his face, as credits roll…
Stitch in Crime’s best moment
Columbo’s genuine anger at Dr Mayfield’s callous arrogance is not only the highlight of this episode. It’s one of the best, most important, Columbo scenes of all. Why? Because it’s such a rare sight to see the Lieutenant drop the veneer and show us what he really thinks about another character’s actions and personality.
As Mayfield laughs in his face during a showdown in the Doctor’s office, Columbo stuns his adversary by slamming a water pitcher down on his desk – wiping the smirk briefly off Mayfield’s own face in the process.
Genuine displays of rage from the Lieutenant are few and far between, which makes them all the more significant. It marks that the game has changed. From here on out, Columbo is out to get the doc, and he’ll take no small amount of pleasure from besting a foe he so clearly loathes.
View it yourself below. The quality of the clip’s not great, but the drama is undeniable.
My opinion on A Stitch in Crime
As you may have gathered from recent episode reviews, I’ve struggled to shake a niggling feeling that Season 2 hasn’t quite lived up to the hype generated by the unbelievably high standards of Season 1.
Episodes have been perfectly enjoyable with many delicious moments, but there’s not been a new rival to match Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp, or a scream-with-delight denouement such as we saw in Suitable for Framing.
Thankfully those wrongs were righted here in epic fashion. As well as a gripping mystery, we are given the most heartless baddie the series ever sees. Casting Leonard Nimoy as the ambitious Dr Barry Mayfield was a masterstroke. The lack of emotion he was renowned for as Spock is a huge strength here as he delivers a truly chilling performance that redefines just how low a Columbo murderer can go.
“Casting Leonard Nimoy as the ambitious Dr Barry Mayfield was a masterstroke. He’s the most heartless baddie the series ever sees.”
Nimoy is easily one of the best 4-5 Columbo killers of all. Corrupted by ambition, his Dr Mayfield is completely ruthless and remorseless. Remember that his killing of Sharon Martin wasn’t premeditated – it was driven by necessity, yet he dispatches her with the cold indifference of a hired hitman. There’s something of the Hannibal Lecter about his sense of calm when committing unspeakable acts, and I can imagine his heart race never getting above 85 bpm even when delivering the fatal blow.
It helps that the supporting cast that acted as foils for his dastardliness were just as well cast. Will Geer is better known as Grandpa Walton, and a more lovable counterweight to Mayfield is hard to imagine. It sends a very clear message to the viewer: if this guy’s willing to kill Grandpa Walton, just what will he stop at?
The braining of Sharon proves he doesn’t, but it’s the killing of Jared Martin’s troubled Harry Alexander that elicits an even bigger sympathetic audience response.
Here’s a guy that’s a reformed drug addict and troubled Vietnam veteran who has struggled to get his life back together and now works in a child’s petting zoo. He had a fling with Sharon, which ended in case he became too dependent on her. This bummed him out, but he was at least dealing with it as best he could. His cruel and senseless murder is, in my opinion, the single saddest Columbo killing of all (more about that here).
Mayfield is such a bastard. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say he’s the hardest-hearted Columbo killer of all – amidst some stiff competition! And that makes his clashes with Columbo utterly compelling. It’s right up there with the Lieutenant’s showdowns with Ken Franklin, Dale Kingston and Investigator Brimmer – but perhaps is most similar to his head-to-head with Dr Ray Flemming in Prescription: Murder. Both are medical men. Both are coolly detached, while making it abundantly clear they think they’re smart enough to get away with murder. And Columbo has no love for either one of them.
The script allows the two leads to make the most of the confrontation. They get a lot of screen-time together and Columbo doesn’t have a whole lot of dead ends to chase. He’s onto his man from the get-go, which allows for sumptuous exchanges between them – none better than the ‘rage’ scene discussed above, which includes Mayfield’s memorable taunt: “Lieutenant Columbo, you’re remarkable. You have intelligence. You have perception. You have great tenacity. You’ve got everything except proof.”
It all adds up to an immense feeling of satisfaction when Columbo finally gets his man. The gotcha moment isn’t as good as, say, Suitable for Framing, but it’s good enough to deliver at least a small injection of euphoria.
Like Nimoy, Falk’s performance is a sensation. As referenced in my review of Greenhouse Jungle, he’d really perfected the role by Season 2 and he’s at his most enjoyable to watch. The script allows for Falk to display his great comic abilities (notably using the murder weapon to crack his boiled egg on), but also enables Falk to show off the Lieutenant’s steelier qualities, too.
For an actor, being able to show off a variety of facets of the character must have been most appealing. Falk appears to have enjoyed every second, and I rate this up there with Greenhouse and Double Shock as one of his greatest ever Columbo performances.
All props, then, to writer Shirl Hendryx and director Hy Averback for such a gripping piece of TV. This was Hendryx’s only writing credit for the show, which seems a pity given how strong the script and story was.
“I rate this up there with Greenhouse Jungle and Double Shock as one of Falk’s greatest ever Columbo performances.”
Averback, meanwhile, delivers some extremely stylish visuals – none more so than the killing of Sharon Martin. Mayfield silently stepping out from the shadows is a glorious moment. Averback had been behind the camera for another of the series’ very best episodes – Suitable for Framing in Season 1 – and certainly seemed to have a knack of getting the best out of his cast.
As if that’s not enough, Billy Goldenberg supplied another cracking score. Every element that matters works in this episode. No wonder it’s so strong. The clip below shows the episode’s two murders set against Goldenberg’s chilling musical arrangements. I insist you take a look…
So much of A Stitch in Crime is so good. But is there anything that doesn’t work? Sort of… For one thing, I don’t really buy into the confusion surrounding the ‘Mac’ note. It was written in block capitals and in a sector so rife with acronyms it would be more natural to assume it’s initials than a man’s name, in this humble correspondent’s opinion at least.
There’s also the ending itself, and how Mayfield manages to hide the suture on Columbo in that heat-of-the-moment shove. To me, it’s not quite as amazing a way out as I’d like – although I have to admit I can’t come up with a better way myself. Mayfield is so cerebral that I almost feel he should come up with a more intelligent mechanism than a push-and-plant act of desperation. Of course, one could argue that it was a stroke of genius to come up with that escape attempt under so much pressure, so maybe it’s just me?
That aside this is a near faultless addition to the series and far-and-away the standout episode of Season 2 up to now. May it live long and prosper in our hearts.
How I rate ’em
Season 2 has been a slow burner up to now, but Stitch in Crime represents Columbo cooking with gas. Nimoy’s utter fiendishness helps elevate this episode to near stratospheric levels. It’s the highlight of Season 2 so far by a mile, and proudly sits shoulder to shoulder with the heavyweights from Season 1.
Read my other reviews by clicking on the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Lady in Waiting
- Prescription: Murder
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- Short Fuse
- Dagger of the Mind
As ever, do let me know your thoughts on this one. And, as always, thanks so much for reading. It’s very much appreciated – and always shall be.
Tune in again soon for Season 2’s penultimate episode – the chess-licious Most Dangerous Match, starring the easily-enraged Laurence Harvey.