TV viewers of 1971 must have thought they’d died and gone to heaven after tuning in to the first two episodes of the first season of Columbo.
Following hot on the heels of the sublime Murder by the Book came Robert Culp’s Columbo debut in the outstanding Death Lends a Hand. It’s an episode packed with highlights, but here I select my favourite five. I’d love to hear yours!
5. Getting heavy with the golf pro
I really like how direct and uncompromising Columbo is with the golf pro at the country club. It’s a whole different aspect of his character from that which we usually see as he drops the bumbling veneer and gets straight to the heart of the matter.
The detective immediately sees through the golf pro’s bravado, swiftly reducing him to a state of nervous uncertainty before Columbo frees him from his worries by letting him know he’s not a suspect.
We can surmise that the Columbo who rattles the golf pro is the real Lieutenant, more so than the obsequious, confused figure who so disarms the high society types who are his real quarry.
4. Brimmer goes berserk
Columbo has a hunch that Brimmer has a combustible element to him, and his curiosity is satisfied in rousing style as the irascible PI goes ape in front of his very eyes after a bungling young employee gives away classified information to Columbo within earshot of his boss.
It’s a terrific result for Columbo, who has not only found out a stack of info about Brimmer’s business and its key operators, but he’s also seen just how easily the hair-trigger head honcho can lose his cool. It’s certainly another crucial piece of evidence to add to his stack of suspicions against Brimmer.
Notice, too, how Columbo effortlessly played the young PI before and after the incident, filling his boots with intel while allowing the smug young oik to feel superior about his lot in life. Smart work, Lieutenant. No wonder Brimmer offered him a job…
3. Playing the fool
Columbo rarely does a better job at making his chief suspects underestimate him than he does in Death Lends a Hand. On location in a luxury mansion in the presence of a media mogul and ultra-suave private investigator, Columbo masterfully makes himself appear to be as clueless as possible.
Firstly he confesses a belief in hocus-pocus techniques such as palmistry, allowing him to assess the type of finger rings worn by both men as they exchange bemused glances. He then further highlights his ineptitude by walking into a closet instead of through the doorway when attempting to depart.
Although it’s not long before they cotton onto his wiles, both Brimmer and Kennicut immediately write off Columbo’s chances of cracking the case – giving the Lieutenant an early advantage he never yields.
2. The murder montage
The death of Lenore Kennicut is masterfully filmed. After Brimmer lashes out, we’re shown everything and nothing as Lenore tumbles to her death, shattering a glass table with her head as she falls. The scene has been described as ‘Hitchcockian’ with good cause.
Just as interesting, however, is what follows. Brimmer’s cleaning up of the crime scene and disposal of the body is played out on a montage superimposed onto his glasses to Gil Melle’s sinister score. It’s innovative stuff, and if you need a reminder you can view the clip below.
Not only is it iconic, it was also necessary as the editors were able to play out multiple scenes simultaneously enabling the episode to hit its running type. Style and function combined? Top marks all round.
1. Did he or didn’t he?
After artfully out-manouevering Brimmer into confessing the crime, the final scene in the garage between Columbo and Arthur Kennicut is a thing of beauty.
After seemingly planting evidence in Brimmer’s car to force his hand, Columbo also hints broadly to Kennicut that he was also responsible for Brimmer’s car being out of action through a potato in the exhaust pipe. The enigmatic Lieutenant then turns tail to leave the garage. An intrigued Kennicut starts to look at the car exhaust, checks himself, then spins on his heel and follows Columbo’s lead.
The scene is wonderful on two levels. Firstly it reinforces the generally cordial relationship between these two very different men. But more importantly, by not looking up the car exhaust Kennicut helps protect Columbo’s aura of mystery, which will be a key theme throughout the series.
We must always ask ourselves: is anything Columbo tells us true? Or does he make it up on the spot to suit his circumstances? Letting the viewer make their own mind up about what to believe is a pivotal factor in connecting with the character.
“By not looking up the car exhaust Kennicut helps protect Columbo’s aura of mystery.”
Let me know your own Death Lends a Hand greatest hits in the comments section at the end. If this article has given you a yearning for a more detailed going over of Death Lends a Hand, you can read my full review here.
I loved the ending scene with Falk and Milland, 2 pros showing how to sell the story! My interpretation of Hunnicut deciding/realizing he did not need to look was because he figured out that Columbo had just told him how he had done it, no confirmation needed!
On the issue of the ring- right at the beginning when Columbo is discussing this with Brimmer (the convo about left handedness) you can clearly see he wears no wedding ring when he mentions his wife. Now whether or not you believe Mrs. Columbo exists in another story, but what I think that frame does it invites the reader to consider, before even laying out the issue, what significance a ring may have, especially to this case.
Why did Columbo suspect Brimmer early on? I do agree with you about the shaky basis of his suspicion. I wonder if it had anything to do with the husband’s association with Brimmer in the first place- I’ll have to rewatch that part for a closer look.
The only thing missing from your moments is Columbo’s blistering tee shot.
On #5, in the garage at the end when Ray Milland turns around then quickly turns back, I’ve always felt this was a hat tip to his famous scene in Dial M for Murder. Near the end of the film, the proof and the admission that he had hired someone to kill Grace Kelly hinges on him making an abrupt turn. Milland, with one key in hand and walking away from the apartment, pauses, then abruptly turns around, heads back to the apartment and retrieves a key he had hidden under carpet in the hall in front of the apartment. His abruptly turning around meant he knew there was a hidden key.
Could have called this episode: Death Lends Some Ambidextrous Hands.
I love this episode, but something that puzzles me–I have a theory–is why is leo so important and where does he go? (theory: he knew Mrs. Kendicott was having an affair; is offloaded so that this cannot be known. Just seems like kind of a dogleg.)
“Although it’s not long before they cotton onto his wiles, both Brimmer and Kennicut immediately write off Columbo’s chances of cracking the case – giving the Lieutenant an early advantage he never yields.”
I’m really digging your reviews, but I feel the need to correct some things as I see them. Watch the scene again, and you’ll see Brimmer’s growing dread as Columbo finds out where she was taking the golf lessons, this foreshadows Brimmer’s increasingly wobbly nerves like when he finds out Columbo has come to see him “Who? Oh yes, let him in” and when he picks the phone up on the first ring.
The blue tinted glasses montage is the finest 2 minutes of Columbo ever. Ever better than Dale Kingston being left whimpering by the gloved hands or the countdown scene in Make Me A Perfect Murder.
Steady on! Nothing beats whimpering Kingston bested by the gloves reveal, but the glasses montage is world class!
James, I’ll agree that the opening montage is inspired filmmaking and a creative way to show Brimmer’s attention to detail in the cover-up since Lenore’s murder wasn’t premeditated. However, from the first time I saw “Death Lends a Hand,” the sequence seemed somewhat derivative from Hitchcock’s 1951 classic, “Strangers on a Train,” where Bruno (Robert Walker) murders Merriam (Kasey Rogers), as is evident in this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S04ArwiZwjE. Or call it a homage of sorts, if you prefer. Filmmakers do this all of the time. And even the shadow sequence that precedes the murder in the Hitchcock clip from “Strangers on a Train” was derivative of the German 1920 silent movie, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” Oh, and by the way, if the actor playing Bruno in Hitchcock’s movie looks vaguely familiar to Columbo fans, that’s because the actor, Robert Walker, is the father of Robert Walker Jr., who played Neil Cahill, Dr. Cahill’s (Jose Ferrer’s) son, in “Mind Over Mayhem.”
The scene where Brimmer thinks the Lt’s coming in to talk about the case,and it all ends up being about Brimmer. To the point that even his little deflection about the beach house is shrugged off– “That close”, Columbo remarks. When he leaves, Brimmer shudders. He’s an ex-cop. He knows he’s just been made.
I just rewatched this episode and, as I did, I kept in mind that, when written and filmed, this was intended as the first series episode. As such, Columbo’s first scenes — where he is driving the Peugeot and stopped by a cop who doesn’t know who he is, followed immediately by his arrival at the crime scene where he seems preoccupied with finding a match — are such an appropriate introduction to the character. Remember: many viewers who tune in to a new series have never seen the pilot. Frankly, this was a much better introduction than the coffee machine scene in “Murder by the Book,” Columbo’s actual introduction for the series.
Shortly thereafter is Columbo’s first scene with Arthur Kennicut, where we see how gently Columbo treats a likely suspect whom he does not, in fact, suspect. And then Brimmer shows up, Columbo’s antennas go up, and we hear my favorite Columbo line of DLAH: “You know, I suddenly feel very much more optimistic about this whole thing.”
Link and Levinson wrote this episode (the only series episode they actually wrote), and it is evident how meticulously they crafted what they thought would be the first half-hour of the first series Columbo.
I didn’t know it was supposed to be the first. That would explain why his driving is shot on the street, instead of rear-projected. A more expensive process, but it was his first moment. (He still had to talk to the cop, but in 1971, a typical vanilla scene would have established the shot first, with the car driving along, and then him inside, with the filmed background playing behind him. Or the cavalry, like in Airplane.)
I have an unusual favorite moment from this episode that isn’t on your list, though I wouldn’t rank it with the 5 you’re identified and discussed, so call it a runner-up. Maybe it’s because I first saw this episode when very young and it stuck with me since because a young boy is also a key character in the scene.
The scene that comes to mind takes place in a park and Columbo is pushing a young boy riding on a swing, as the boy cajoles Columbo to push him ever higher. The boy’s mother soon comes onto the scene to confront Columbo to stop the interaction. And, let’s face it, if you didn’t know who Columbo was in this situation, you’d be alarmed too. The boy plays the son of Leo and Ceil Gentry (played by a former great USC football player, Marvin Goux, and Lieux Dressler, respectively). Columbo wants to talk to Leo, an investigator working for Brimmer for information that can help him with the case.
The scene is memorable because we get to see yet another side of Columbo’s character and his remarkable ability to win the trust of people under some difficult circumstances. Columbo has already won the trust of the boy. And although Ceil was understandably worried about what Columbo was up to, Columbo quickly put her mind at ease.
Columbo’s gentle interaction here is a wonderful counterpart to his aggressive inquiry of golfing instructor Ken Archer (played terrifically by Brett Halsey), but which also ends with a soft touch, to Ken’s relief.
Cracking selections! This episode is basically one long highlight!
Just because of the location, I love the scene on Kennicutt’s home at the “pool”. It was filmed at San Simeon, the palatial Hearst estate. I think it may be only one of two uses of the location in film; the other being in “Spartacus”. (But I could be wrong.) I was there once back in ’89, and it’s nice to have my memory refreshed when I see it.
Yes, that’s the one, Beverly House on the Hearst estate. Also appeared in The Godfather and The Bodyguard.
I remember this was one of Columbo’s most sumptuous locations – I had no idea it was the famous San Simeon, thanks for revealing that.
Also great to watch the Lt, who doesn’t play golf, hit a beautiful drive on the driving range and then pass back the club. Is there anything he can’t do? But let’s not mention the tuba.
My take on this scene was the opposite. I had assumed that Columbo, like Peter Falk, DID play golf. The lieutenant’s drive ball was a veiled threat, a way of saying to the golf tutor, “Don’t lie to me. I’m not as stupid as I look.”
But hey, I could be biased by Falk’s autobiography, “Just One More Thing.” In it is a hilarious story about how young Falk explained his love of golf to his father.
I love these “greatest moments” posts: they encapsulate each episode so well and invariably make me want to watch them again! You’re succeeding in keeping the memory of the good Lieutenant alive!
It has been a while since I saw “Death Lends a Hand,” but I remember being struck by Ray Milland’s overall performance. And that montage! Lord, that was unexpected . . . and it kept on going! Sheer admiration for such a bold and imaginative way of moving things forward.
I, too, enjoy when the Lieutenant drops what I assume is the bumbling façade and confronts other characters more directly– it rattles me a bit. In fact, I watched “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case” for the first time last night and mentioned to “Mrs. Santini” how much I enjoy seeing Columbo’s hard-boiled edge (when he talks straight to George Camponella in the discotheque). Perhaps an examination of his greatest no-nonsense confrontations would make a good future post.
Thank you for the post suggestion. That’s a very good idea. I agree that Milland is marvellous in this. I think it’s one of the very best guest star performances of them all.
A stellar episode all around! I also loved the Columbo-free scene early on when Brimmer tries to enlist Lenore as a source of future intel, & she is having none of it. Also, the “recruitment lunch,” where Columbo politely listens to the job offer & extricates himself quickly & politely. Brimmer’s suave panic in a joy to behold, as is his comedown.