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.