In a series marked by twists and turns, Columbo Season 2 saved it’s biggest surprise till last, serving up an actual whodunnit with feuding identical twin brothers vying for contention as the Lieutenant’s number one suspect. A Double Shock indeed!
So let’s set our clocks back to March 25th 1973, grab a glass of milk and plate of health cookies and settle in for Double Shock – the season finale. Is it electrifying stuff, or just a shocker? Let’s find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dexter and Norman Paris: Martin Landau
Lisa Chambers: Julie Newmar
Mrs Peck: Jeanette Nolan
Michael Hathaway: Tim O’Connor
Clifford Paris: Paul Stewart
Sergeant Murray: Dabney Coleman
Written by: Steven Bochco (from a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link)
Directed by: Robert Butler
Score by: Dick De Benedictis / Oliver Nelson
Episode synopsis: Columbo Double Shock
Aged fitness fanatic Clifford Paris is killed by his nephew, celebrity chef Dexter, on the eve of his wedding. The method? Electrocution through a food mixer being flung into the bath he’s relaxing in. That’s quite an eye-opener, eh Clifford?
Sandwiched around a gloved hand switching the house alarm on and off, the incident causes a brief power outage, disrupting fiery housekeeper Mrs Peck’s TV viewing – and her evening goes downhill even faster when Clifford’s youthful, high-energy fiancee, Lisa Chambers, swings excitedly by to pick up her soon-to-be betrothed.
Lisa races upstairs to surprise her true love, only to find the bathroom empty and seemingly unused. Then it twigs! Lisa’s just bought Clifford a new exercise bike for his home gym. He must be using it right now! Lisa doesn’t know how right she is. Racing downstairs, she finds a dead Clifford in a hideous attitude on the exercise bike, his leaden corpse rolling to and fro with the motion of the machine.
With Lisa screaming blue murder, it’s not long before the police are swarming around the scene, including Lieutenant Columbo, looking more dishevelled than ever having been forced out of bed to investigate. With it so obviously choreographed to look like a heart attack from a too-strenuous workout, Columbo wonders why he’s there at all.
Addled and not at his best, the Lieutenant’s first run in with Mrs Peck isn’t long in coming. While examining the gymnasium, he absent-mindedly dabs cigar ash on the carpet, cue an explosion of rage from the pint-sized crone. “You must belong in some pigsty,” she snarls – the first of many delicious altercations between the two throughout.
A shaken Columbo tries to make amends only to make matters worse, first rubbing the ash into the carpet before smashing a pitcher. It’s not long before Mrs Peck is braying in horror, and Columbo takes himself upstairs to the bathroom to throw some water in his face.
It’s there that the first signs of suspicion arise. Looking for something to dry his face, Columbo notes a towel astray from its rack, which he finds damp in the hamper. In a house run like clockwork by Mrs Peck, he wonders why. He checks the bath. Someone has certainly used it. But why would Clifford have a bath and then exercise? It doesn’t make sense…
Columbo takes these queries to Dexter and Mrs Peck – the latter instantly livid at any insinuations that her towel-tending skills weren’t up to scratch. Certainly things look odd to the detective – particularly when he learns that there was a brief power cut during the evening. Clifford died of a heart attack; he had used the bath; and there was a power outage. That could mean murder by electrocution.
When Columbo’s sidekick Murray (played by a magnificently moustached Dabney Coleman) reveals that a cast of a footprint outside suggests a flat-footed man has been on the scene that evening, Dexter becomes suspect number one. Columbo event attempts to compare his foot arch with Dexter, who admits that he does indeed have flat feet.
Looks like this case could be closed within minutes – until Dexter’s identical twin brother Norman also arrives at the home. He too, has flat feet. And all of a sudden we have a genuine whodunnit on our hands!
There’s no love lost between the brothers, both of whom point the finger at the other. Banker Norman describes Dexter as a ‘low life sponger’ who’s desperate to get his hands on their uncle’s pile of cash. Norman is wealthy in his own right, so has no motive.
We hear a different story from Dexter. After he snares Columbo to appear live on his daytime cookery show, Dexter whisks Columbo off to Las Vegas, where Norman heads every week. A little snooping unveils Norman has gambling debts of $37,000 in one casino alone. Now both brothers have motive.
The plot thickens further as Columbo visits Lisa Chambers in her apartment. A spiritual and spirited young woman, Lisa swiftly takes umbrage at Columbo’s line of questioning – even asking the Lieutenant to beat it. It’s suspicious behaviour, which Columbo raises with long-time family attorney Michael Hathaway. Could Lisa be in on it with the two brothers? Not likely, says Hathaway. He doesn’t think she even knows them, let alone be in league with them.
As he digests this information, the Lieutenant absently puts out his cigar in an antique silver platter he mistake for an ashtray – earning another rebuke from Mrs Peck. “BUM! You’re a BUM!” she shrieks, before rushing tearfully away. Columbo follows to both apologise and appeal to Mrs Peck’s good side, which leads to an unforgettable temporary truce over milk and health cookies. A truce that lasts as long as it takes for Columbo to break Mrs Peck’s precious TV set as he attempts to fix it…
Columbo’s questions about Lisa get Hathaway thinking. He stages meetings with Norman and Dexter to let them know that if they did kill Clifford it’s all for nothing, as the old boy willed everything to Lisa. However, there are only two copies of the will. Hathaway has one and Lisa the other. If Norman and Dexter will agree to keep him on as manager of the estate, Hathaway will get the will off Lisa, leaving the brothers free to inherit. The twins agree.
Hathaway arranges to pick up the will from Lisa at her apartment. When he gets there, however, he finds that he’s been double crossed. Lisa is dead, having been pushed off her balcony to a grisly demise. Police are on the scene, apprehending the crooked lawyer as he tries to flee with the will.
“One person wouldn’t have been able to easily get Clifford’s wet and slippery corpse out of the bath.”
With Hathaway now screaming foul play, Columbo racks his brain to get a conviction and finally cracks it. Summoning both the brothers to Clifford’s home, he sets it out for them. He knows two people were in on it, because one person wouldn’t have been able to easily get Clifford’s wet and slippery corpse out of the bath, dried and down to the gym. Someone in the house also had to have switched the alarm on and off to allow the other to enter unnoticed.
Even more damning, a second person was needed to change the fuse after the power outage. Mrs Peck swears that the power was only out for about 15 seconds. At a trot, Columbo times the distance between the bathroom and basement fuse box to be nearer a minute. And if that stack of circumstantial evidence wasn’t enough, Columbo has more. The brothers claim not to have been on speaking terms for two years, yet phone records reveal they’d spoken 20 times in the past 10 days.
The stunned brothers reactions are poles apart. The more measured Norman comes clean. Dexter screams at him to shut up. As Detective Murray frogmarches the twins upstairs, Columbo hangs back with the distraught Mrs Peck. Taking her by the hand, the Lieutenant gently leads her away as credits roll…
Double Shock‘s best moment: live cookery at its finest
Ask just about any Columbo purist to name their top moments from the entire series and it’s a safe bet that the legendary cookery scene from Double Shock will be right up there.
Weighing in at a little under 8 minutes, the scene was almost entirely ad-libbed by Peter Falk and Martin Landau and it’s an absolute gem. Called up on stage to be a reluctant assistant to Dexter, Columbo is initially abashed and stunned, barely able to string a coherent sentence together – much to the delight of the live studio audience. Yet he warms to the task, making a few wisecracks and milking the audience applause.
“This is probably the single best non-gotcha Columbo moment of them all.”
The nature of the scene made it perfect for ad libbing, and Falk, in particular, absolutely nails it. He’s as warm and charming as we ever see him – just look at his face light up as he and Landau revel in playing off one another. This sense of fun is genuine and contagious. I, for one, find it impossible not to smile along. This is Columbo at his most adorable.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and that’s exactly what this scene is. I’d even go as far as to say it’s probably the single best non-gotcha Columbo moment of them all.
My take on Double Shock
If Columbo‘s second season doesn’t quite match the overall brilliance of its first, the creative team at least did a great job in keeping the audience guessing. Despite the show’s established format being cemented in place over 9 episodes between 1968-1972, Season 2 still had the capacity to surprise.
In Greenhouse Jungle Columbo appears before the crime for the first time. In Requiem for a Falling Star we’re fooled into thinking the death of Jean was an accident. In The Most Dangerous Match the victim hangs on to life for more than half the episode, ramping up the pressure on the killer.
But Double Shock surpassed them all, delivering an excellent whodunnit in which we’re really not sure which of the Paris brothers committed the killing until the Lieutenant’s final reveal. It’s the biggest Columbo twist of the season, and the best of the bunch by far.
That’s part of what makes Double Shock such a successful addition to the series. But it’s by no means the only reason, or even the strongest reason, because this is 80 minutes of TV absolutely packed with highlights.
“Mrs Peck is undoubtedly Columbo’s most fearsome opponent.”
I’ve written before about how wonderful Peter Falk’s portrayal of Columbo had become by Season 2, but it’s worth repeating. In Season 1 he was still getting to grips with the character. By now he’s mastered every nuance. Falk now is Columbo. He’s not just playing a role. And Double Shock represents him at the zenith of his powers – arguably even more so than his terrific turn in Greenhouse Jungle.
Falk’s prowess is perhaps exemplified best in Columbo’s scenes with Mrs Peck. The Lieutenant is often pitted against genuinely menacing foes: the type that could cause him real trouble if they chose. Yet Columbo is never intimidated by them. With Mrs Peck, however, he’s really met his match. She is undoubtedly his most fearsome opponent.
Columbo has to really dig deep just to keep on speaking terms with her. Indeed, his apology to her for his untidiness and his appeal to her to treat him more fairly is probably the most challenging moment he has faced up to now. Talking down a gun-wielding Beth Chadwick in Lady in Waiting was child’s play by comparison!
Falk and Jeanette Nolan must have been having such a good time filming these scenes – not least when she offers him a truce over a glass of milk and a plate of health cookies. How Falk could ever say “Thank you. I’m extremely fond of health cookies” so earnestly while keeping a straight face is a testament to his acting abilities. All kudos to Nolan, too. I consider her to be one of the very best supporting guest stars of all.
Their scenes arguably overshadow those between Landau and Falk (the joyous cookery show apart), but the episode doesn’t suffer because of it. Landau tackles the challenge of convincingly playing identical twins with panache. His Norman and Dexter feel suitably different: the dour Norman being an excellent counterweight to the colourful Dexter.
The downside of having twins is that Columbo’s time with his key suspects is effectively halved, and his interactions with them leave some unanswered questions. We never really get to know Norman and Dexter the way we get to know a Ken Franklin, Dale Kingston or Barry Mayfield. We’re not witnesses to their scheming, and we never get to find out why they’re such sworn enemies. It means their motive boils down to money: the lowest common denominator.
“Lisa died a terrifying death at the hands of men she hardly knew to keep her from claiming an inheritance that she never wanted in the first place.”
I have a hunch that Dexter might hate his family because they all seem so down on him. His brother describes him as a ‘low-life’, while the family lawyer claims him to be ‘useless’. This all seems a bit harsh to me. After all, Dexter is a bona fide celebrity TV chef, who drives a Ferrari. Given his niche line of work, he seems to have done pretty well for himself compared to his tedious banker brother, yet he takes all the flack. Families eh? You can’t live with ’em, etc, etc…
Whatever their motivation, both Dexter and Norman are clearly absolute b*stards. The killing of their uncle is bad enough, but the murder of Lisa Chambers really shows how low they can go. Because Lisa’s death takes place off screen, it lacks the emotional punch it would otherwise have had. But make no mistake: Lisa died a terrifying death at the hands of men she hardly knew to keep her from claiming an inheritance she never wanted in the first place.
Although she only has a few minutes’ screen time, Julie Newmar’s Lisa wins viewers’ hearts – even if she does give Columbo the cold shoulder. Despite that, she’s inherently good and clearly in love with old Clifford. It makes her death one of the most shocking Columbo murders of all.
Through the killing of Lisa, the brothers also make an enemy in family lawyer Hathaway. I actually quite like this character, who’s nicely portrayed by Tim O’Connor in his first of two Columbo outings. He’s unashamedly corrupt and doesn’t pretend he’s been devastated by Clifford’s demise. He’s done well out of the estate for years and wishes to continue to make money from it through helping the brothers.
His incorrigible nature and knowledge of the law makes him the sort of person you’d think the brothers would keep on side. Sure, throwing Lisa off the balcony to make it look like the lawyer was in cahoots with her all along might deflect some suspicion off them, but framing a lawyer is a high-risk strategy, and one that borders on being far-fetched. He certainly won’t be defending them in court now, will he?
Still, the weaknesses of Double Shock are few and far between. Set against its strengths of a finely-crafted mystery (Steven Bochco wrote the teleplay from a story by Jackson Gillis, William Link and Richard Levinson – a heavyweight quartet indeed); magnificent script; bags of humour and a sprinkling of the finest Columbo scenes ever filmed, and you have a recipe for success.
And best of all? A performance to marvel at from Peter Falk. As such Double Shock is an episode that gets better with every viewing, as we uncover more elements of Falk’s performance to treasure. After 17 episodes, he was more at home in the crumpled mac than ever, but his performances are as fresh as a daisy and he actually seems to be stepping up his game: something that augurs well for the rigours of a third season.
Did you know?
Dabney Coleman (pictured centre as Sergeant Murray) is only one of two actors to play both a police officer and a murderer in Columbo. As well as his turn here, Coleman returned as the chief protagonist Hugh Creighton in 1991’s Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star. The only other actor to double up in this way was Ed Begley Jr, who appeared as a cop in 1978’s How to Dial a Murder and a killer in Undercover in 1994.
How I rate ’em
I consider Murder by the Book the benchmark to compare all other Columbo episodes against because it was so perfect in so many ways. It’s apparent from the above review that I rate Double Shock highly, but can I justify placing it ahead of Murder by the Book? Well yes, I can – by a whisker.
Landau x 2 still ain’t Jack Cassidy, but so much of Double Shock delights me and I fall for its charms every time. It’s not as important a piece of television as Murder, but for sheer enjoyment it just has the edge for me. Only Suitable for Framing‘s superior gotcha places it higher at this early stage of proceedings.
Here’s my full list so far. Read my other reviews by clicking on the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Double Shock
- 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
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Short Fuse
- Dagger of the Mind
As always, I’d welcome your comments on this review and this episode as a whole. Thanks for reading, and I’ll be back with our first foray into Season 3 – Lovely but Lethal – in a few weeks!
This article is dedicated in memory of Martin Landau, who died on 16 July 2017, aged 89.