Murder by the Book is one of the most important pieces of television ever made. With Steven Spielberg in the director’s chair and Stephen Bochco on writing duties, it’s stood the test of time better than almost any other Columbo episode, boasting a log cabin load of memorable moments.
But just what are the absolute highlights of this seminal piece of TV history? It’s an extraordinarily tough question, but I put forward my suggestions here. I’d love to hear yours, too, so bust me a comment below!
5. Columbo in the kitchen
The kind-hearted Columbo frees Joanna Ferris from the stressful environment of the crime-scene and transports her back to the safety and seclusion of her own home. And to help her relax and take her mind off the potential loss of her husband, Jim, he gets busy in the kitchen and whips her up a light omelet (or omelette for we cultured Europeans).
This shows two very important Columbo traits: firstly his genuine thoughtfulness and ability to put others at ease in a time of crisis; but also his wiles, as he’s able to get a measure of Mrs Ferris and take a look at how she and Jim lived their lives firsthand without distractions. Both are themes the series will return to again and again.
As for his cooking? Who knows. He lobs in some of the chunkiest pieces of onion ever seen, as well as revealing his secret omelet recipe to be: ‘No eggs. Just milk.’ Oniony milk mix anyone?
4. Jim’s sense of foreboding
On the drive to Ken’s lakeside cabin, Jim references a sense of deja vu, feeling that he’s been in this situation before. This clever, subtle moment foreshadows the means of Ken’s ultimate downfall.
Jim’s feeling of familiarity with this moment is because it’s an old idea of Ken’s for a mystery that the duo never expanded upon in their Mrs Melville stories. Jim wrote everything down, including this little snippet years earlier – much to Ken’s surprise and irritation when Columbo tracks down the incriminating jotting and uses it to seal Ken’s fate at episode’s end. Jim’s diligence sees that poetic justice is done from beyond the grave!
3. The tragic end of Lily La Sanka
Lily’s demise was clearly telegraphed earlier in the episode when her dinner for two with Ken in a scarlet-hued LA restaurant essentially portrayed the lonely widow making a pact with the Devil himself.
Their second date at Lily’s country shack proved just that, with Devil Ken dispatching her with a Champagne-bottle bludgeoning. The beauty of the scene, as with many Columbo murders, is that much is left to our imagination. In this instance, we see Ken wrap the bottle tightly in a napkin and stealthily approach Lily, who is distractedly counting her blackmail money. We then cut to her turning to the camera and screaming in terror as she realises too late what fate has in store for her.
Made even more powerful by Spielberg’s decision to cut the sound of the scream and have only silence before fading out to a commercial break, it’s a moment that almost out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock.
You can read about actress Barbara Colby’s tragic real-life fate here
2. Distracted by the bills
Columbo already has his doubts about Ken moments after meeting him, wondering why he drove back from south of San Diego rather than catching a plane after receiving the stunning news of his partner’s death. The suspicions escalate swiftly when the Lieutenant pays a visit to Ken’s opulent home, where Ken has just planted the body of partner Jim Ferris on his own front lawn. Why? Because Ken betrays himself with his own actions.
In the act of phoning in the ‘crime’ to the police, Ken casually opens his own mail. Columbo doesn’t witness that, but he does find the open mail when nosing around the house – and leaves Ken in no doubt that he considers it significant. “Bills are distracting,” he says knowingly as he leaves, leaving a flapping Franklin digging for a suitable response. From now on, Ken’s firmly in Columbo’s sights.
1. The opening sequence
A typewriter pounds. A writer in a high-rise office block is lost in a world of his own devising. A European car slides sleekly through the LA streets below the building, before pulling into a car park. The driver steps out, placing a gun in his inside pocket. So begins one of the pivotal TV moments of our time.
It’s an intro so arresting it still has the power to amaze well over 40 years after first airing. A more impactful opening to Columbo‘s first season is hard to imagine.
“The opening frames of Murder by the Book still have the power to amaze more than 40 years after first airing.”
Please share your favourite moment from Murder by the Book in the comments section below. And thanks, as always, for reading!
One of my favorite parts in this episode is when Lily La Sanka appears in the foyer at a theater during intermission looking for Franklin, who is with a stunning date. As she is yelling “Mr. Franklin, Mr. Franklin !!”, and his date asks “Who’s that ?”, he replies “Someone who SHOULD be somewhere else !!!” FANTASTIC !
By the way, the portrait of Mrs. Melville, prominently featured in “Murder By The Book”, makes a cameo appearance on the back wall of the meeting room at the Sigma Society in Columbo: The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case (1977).
And the abstract painting in the Ferrises’ living room reappears in Edna’s house in Suitable for Framing.
My favorite moment is the nervous excitement portrayed by Barbara Colby as Lily La Sanka, when she confronts Ken (whom she admires and adores) with her blackmail proposal. She knows she’s in way over her head but can’t resist the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Did you ever notice that the voice of the police radio dispatcher is the same at scene of the drowning near San Diego as it is at the scene of the body dump at Ken’s home in Los Angeles? That doesn’t make sense; but it’s such a wonderful voice, I think they wanted to make good use of it!
This is in my top five favourite episodes. I love the way Columbo teases Ken Franklin’s mind with the ‘lots of little things’ like driving all the way from San Diego instead of taking a plane and opening the mail after he tries to convince Columbo he found his partner’s body on the lawn. It certainly gets Ken Franklin thinking.
Hi, came across this site recently and have been enjoying the write-ups and comments. I’d like to ask this: Do the episodes in the DVD box set contain all the scenes?
I followed a link from a comment here on your site that led to four scripts. On perusing the script “Make Me A Perfect Murder” there seemed to be scenes and dialogue that I hadn’t seen in the TV version.
I noticed other small variations in that episode – perhaps these small scenes were edited out to fit into the TV time slot? Anyway, what I’d like to know is if the DVD set contains the studio’s entire show. If so, I’ll definitely get them!
This site is very nice work! Keep it up!
The four teleplays on http://leethomson.myzen.co.uk/Columbo/ are the writers’ original scripts. In production, some scripted scenes are omitted or changed. For example, in the script of “Murder by the Book” is a scene (at pages 19-A to 19-D) that was dropped from this episode, but later used in “Blueprint for Murder.” So the fact that scripted scenes do not appear on the DVD does not mean that the DVD is incomplete; rather, it means that there were script-to-screen changes before the original TV episode was completed.
Thanks for your response RichardWeill. How is the script numbered? The “19A-D” I was reading is in the movie, so there must be a specific way to understand how it’s numbered.
Pages 19-A to 19-D are between pages 19 and 20 of the “Murder by the Book” script — and did not appear in that episode. Were you reading a different script?
Indeed! I was reading the script from “Make Me A Perfect Murder”. I see it now – the incident in “Blueprint” where the tyre became flat. Interesting!
Great trivia Richard Weill, and thanks for the teleplay link.
The environments in “Murder by the Book”, like so many of the best Columbo episodes, convey no menace in of themselves. The office, the cabin, Lily’s little apartment… but Ken Franklin drifts in and out like an evil miasma. Even when he is not there (the omelet scene) you feel his presence. Perfect psychopath. Brilliant.
Yes, the opening sequence of Murder by the Book is a virtual “textbook” for how to put together an opening scene in the mystery genre. Though not a word is spoken, the writing, acting, music, cinematography, direction, and editing are first-rate, not only setting the plot in gear, but for providing the viewer with insights into the Ken Franklin character played so memorably and elegantly by Jack Cassidy.
The opening title and the music, which included the clanking sounds of a manual typewriter as a musical instrument tell us that this is a story about writing itself, establishing the subject of the story. (Unfortunately, the once familiar sound of a manual or IBM Selectric typewriter is rarely heard today, and is not even electronically replicated on computer devices today in the same way that digital cameras replicate the sound of manual shutter cameras.)
Cassidy’s acting conveys that he is a cold, calculating, confident, cunning, stylish, waggish–yet baleful and dangerous–character. His actions tell us that virtually everything we see him do has been carefully planned and executed. From the moment he steps into his soon-to-be former partner’s office, we see no display of anger, resentment, envy, jealousy, or any other such “base” emotions that might normally precipitate a desire to murder someone. Cassidy’s character is too smooth, too self-assured to convey such emotions. Instead, we see him smiling from time to time and behaving in an almost whimsical manner as he goes about staging the ransacking of Jim Ferris’ office (to later direct blame on “the Outfit” or the “Friends of the Friends”).
However, while Cassidy’s character carefully plans everything, he also, at first, indicates that he’s not quite as perfect as he’d like to be. In one beautifully written, acted, and directed part of the opening sequence, Ken Franklin almost slips up as he leaves his cigarette lighter on Jim’s desk and walks past it. The cigarette lighter in this sequence almost became what Alfred Hitchcock called a “McGuffin,” which is a literary device that he masterfully employed in his classic movie Strangers on a Train, which involved a plot driven by the possibility that the murderer would plant a cigarette lighter at the crime scene to incriminate the innocent lighter’s owner.
But what we think might turn out to be a clue later in the story is quickly snatched away, as Ken stops momentarily and then returns to retrieve his lighter. And in a continuous, fluid motion, he picks up the lighter, opens it with his hands, and coolly lights the cigarette already dangling from his lips. He then pauses to ponder everything to confirm to himself that he’s following his plan to a “T,” as he tilts the cigarette upwards and downwards in contemplation between his lips. This scene tells us that, far from easy to catch, Ken Franklin is going to be a most formidable suspect for Columbo.
I would attribute this terrific cigarette lighter moment in the opening sequence primarily to writer Steven Bochco and to actor Jack Cassidy. However, Steve Spielberg’s direction and camera framing decisions, the fluid camera work, and the smooth film editing developed Bochco’s and Cassidy’s work to maximum effect. Great writing isn’t just great dialogue. Great writing also entails writing effective dramatic action that conveys the nature of the characters at the same time that it advances the story.
Two comments on this “cigarette lighter moment.” First, virtually an identical moment occurs in “Prescription: Murder.” Before leaving for the airport, Ray Flemming has Joan Hudson (as Mrs. Flemming) telephone the dry cleaner to schedule a pick-up, using his handkerchief to keep Joan’s fingerprints off the phone. Joan hangs up with the handkerchief still wrapped around the receiver. Ray and Joan then leave, turning off the lights. The camera pans back to the handkerchief on the phone, when (without the lights going back on) a hand reaches in to grab the handkerchief. It is Ray Flemming, who then exits once again.
Second, while Steven Bochco did script this moment, he did so slightly differently from how it was shot. According to the teleplay: “Before [Franklin] leaves he suddenly grins to himself, remembering something. He goes back to the desk and retrieves the lighter. Pocketing it, he exits …” In other words, the script leaves the camera on Franklin. But Spielberg shot it “Prescription: Murder” style, focusing on the lighter until Franklin’s hand moves in to grab it.
Had this same device not been used in two of the first three Columbos, it would be more memorable, in my opinion, then it now is.
Richard, while it’s true that the “cigarette lighter moment” in “Murder by the Book” is derivative of the “handkerchief moment” in “Prescription: Murder,” as many things are derived from that seminal pilot, the moment in each respective episode serves a slightly different purpose.
In each moment, the object temporarily left behind could have become evidence that would trip up the murderer, and each moment has the stylistic device of the camera zooming/tracking to a close shot of the object, showing each object snatched away shortly thereafter.
However, the handkerchief in “Prescription: Murder” serves as a foreshadowing device that warns Dr. Fleming (and tells us) that Joan is the weak link in his plan because John left the object behind, not Dr. Fleming, and that Joan would ultimately lead–along with his hubris and underestimation of Columbo–to his downfall.
In contrast, rather than a foreshadowing device, the cigarette lighter in “Murder by the Book” reveals Ken Franklin’s character. Ken has planned everything to a “T,” and he has, indeed, executed his murder plan “by the book.” We learn that Ken didn’t mistakenly leave the cigarette lighter behind after all because when he scoops it up and immediately flicks the flame on, we see that a cigarette is already dangling from his lips. Ken (and director Speilberg) fooled us into thinking that Ken was about to make a blunder. But what really happened was that as Ken observed the lighter on Jim’s desk when he walked by, offscreen he drew a cigarette from a pack in his pocket and placed it in his mouth. Ken is revealed here to be cold, calculating, and ever confident. What initially appears to be a blunder turns out to be just a pause that was part of his step-by-step plan.
My heartfelt thanks to you for including Jim Ferris’ little “deja vu” speech among the best moments of “Murder by the Book.” What makes this moment so special? It’s that Bochco, Spielberg, Link, Levinson, etc. all must have known that no viewer would grasp the significance of Ferris’ reference when watching the episode the first time. Even when the so-called “pop” clue is revealed at the end, the chance of remembering this brief, passing moment is slim to none. No, this moment was included for the repeat viewer. You have to know the ending BEFORE seeing this moment to appreciate its reason for being. In other words, it’s a moment for the afficionado.
That said, I must express my disappointment that the final Columbo-Franklin scene was omitted. Was it too long to constitute a “moment”? Regardless, it is a masterfully constructed ending. So often, when I don’t have time to watch the entire episode, I skip ahead to this scene. And especially:
“Oh, come on, get to the climax, Lieutenant. You’re talking to a writer.”
“Am I? That’s not what I heard. And that’s the key: that you’re not a writer. When Mrs.
Ferris told me that you didn’t contribute to the writing, that her husband did all the work –” “That’s a lie.”
“I had to say to myself, how could a man with no talent for mysteries make up such a clever murder? If you were that ingenious, you’d be able to write your own books.”
“Go ahead. I’m fascinated, as boring as it may be.”
“Then I got it. The first one — the clever one — that wasn’t yours. The second one — the sloppy one — that was yours. But not the first.”
“Oh? And whose idea was that, then?”
“Your partner’s. Had to be.”