Columbo was in exulted company on 7 October 1973, as the second episode of Season 3 pitted him against his most highbrow opponent yet: wine connoisseur Adrian Carsini.
It’s a true fans’ favourite, but under critical analysis is Any Old Port in a Storm truly a vintage episode, or is it comparative swill? To put it another way, is it a Ferrier Port, or a Marino Brothers carbonated rosé? I can’t wait to find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Adrian Carsini: Donald Pleasence
Ric Carsini: Gary Conway
Karen Fielding: Julie Harris
Joan Stacey: Joyce Jillson
Maitre D‘: Vito Scotti
Billy Fine: Robert Walden
Directed by: Leo Penn
Written by: Stanley Ross and Larry Cohen
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Episode synopsis: Columbo Any Old Port in a Storm
Winemaker extraordinaire Adrian Carsini is hosting an intimate Sunday shindig at the family winery for three highbrow cohorts. After some pleasantries, Adrian ducks out to fetch a bottle of fine claret from his office. Ear-wigging in via intercom, he overhears his fellow connoisseurs confirming that they’re about to name Carsini as the Wine Society’s ‘Man of the Year’.
The wind is taken out of his sails, however, when he’s confronted in his office by hedonistic half-brother Ric. Polar opposites in every way, Ric is sick of Adrian’s pursuit of wine perfection over financial gain. He’s come to Adrian seeking a $5000 loan so he can jet to Acapulco to get married for the fourth time.
Adrian is unimpressed and the two trade barbs before Ric slips in the sucker punch: he’s planning to sell the land the winery is built on to mass-market wine producers, the Marino Brothers!
Adrian is livid! The prospect of losing the one thing that has meaning for him stings him into action. He snatches up a heavy object and smashes Ric over the head. Ric is out cold, but alive. Showing remarkable composure, Adrian gathers the claret and heads back to his guests.
He receives another surprise, though, as officious secretary Karen Fielding is outside his office prepping for the pair’s looming wine-buying trip to New York. She’s seen Ric’s car outside, but before she can ask too many questions Adrian shoos her off home to pack some ‘splendid gowns’ for the trip. He then finally returns to his guests who ‘surprise’ him with news of his impending accolade.
“Adrian and co are soon chilling in the cabin of the airliner as a comely hostess delights onlookers with a fine performance on an electric piano.”
The happy quartet then engage in the most mean-spirited toast in televisual history, as Adrian says: “May our enemies never be as happy as we are at this moment.” Ummmm, cheers…?
After all this frivolity, Adrian has to deal with the aftermath of his spat with Ric. And by ‘aftermath’ I mean dragging Ric’s beefcake body to the wine cellar and trussing him up like a spring chicken. Switching off the air conditioning unit that regulates the temperature of the precious wines, Adrian leaves Ric to his fate.
The next thing we see is Adrian, Karen and co chilling in the cabin of the airliner as a comely hostess delights onlookers with a fine performance on an electric piano. It’s first-class travel 70s style, and is utterly fabulous.
To prove to Karen how pally he and Ric are, Adrian asks her to send a cheque for $5000 to the newlyweds in Acapulco – a sum Adrian promptly spends on a single bottle of wine for himself at one of the auctions. His justification? “No one really needs a $5000 bottle of wine, Karen. I just don’t want anybody else to have it.” We’ve all been there, ammirite?
Back in LA, meanwhile, the should-be Mrs Ric Carsini is worried. Her fiancé never arrived in Acapulco and there’s no sign of him here either. She tries to report him to missing persons, but the department is empty. Instead she finds Lieutenant Columbo, who promises to do what he can.
Some days later, Adrian is back home and ready to complete his cunning plan. Somehow squeezing Ric’s bloated corpse into a wetsuit and then into the Ferrari, Adrian drives out to a remote cliffside location and tips Ric’s body into the ocean. He then cycles back to the winery on a silly little fold-up bike.
It’s not long before the body is found. It looks like a diving accident, where Ric’s dashed his swede underwater and passed out before running out of air. Columbo is amongst the crime scene investigators and when the body is identified as Ric Carsini, he remembers it’s the missing person the mystery blonde reported to him some days ago.
Heading out to the lakeside club where Ms Stacey hangs out with her cool cat pals, the Lieutenant delivers the bad news. The hipsters receives it surprisingly well – even furnishing Columbo with useful background info that Ric and half-brother Adrian didn’t get on and that Ric was planning to sell the winery. It’s reason enough for Columbo to immediately suspect Adrian of foul play.
The case throws up its usual puzzles for Columbo. Medical examiners reveal that Ric hadn’t eaten for 2 days before his death. For a guy with such a healthy appetite this seems odd. Also suspicious is that Ric’s treasured Ferrari 330 GTS seems to have been left with its top down on a rainy day (Columbo checked with the weather bureau to find out) – and there’s not so much as a watermark on the paintwork. How can that be?
Columbo gathers a good amount of circumstantial evidence, but with Adrian known to have been on the East Coast on the presumed day of Rick’s death, his chances of securing an arrest seem slim. Even a nosy around Adrian’s wine cellar appears to lead to a dead end. Columbo is desperate to find out whether someone could be locked in the cellar and suffocate, but he discovers that getting out from within is child’s play as the door can’t be locked from the outside.
He does find out something useful, though. The air conditioner for the cellar is vital in keeping the wine at the right temperature and humidity. Without it, very hot days could cause the wine to reach high temperatures and spoil.
Columbo’s policeman’s nose tells him that Carsini is his man. But a visit to see Karen at her home seems to put paid to that. She confirms that on the day of hers and Adrian’s trip to New York, she saw Ric both arrive and leave the winery. If that’s true, Adrian is definitely innocent. To apologise for suspecting Adrian, Columbo offers to take both he and Karen to dinner the next evening.
The three meet at one of LA’s most exclusive eateries, although Adrian is initially disgusted that Columbo has been seated near the kitchen. His temper turns to delight, though, as he finds the Lieutenant to have swiftly honed his wine appreciation skills to perfectly select wines to match their meals.
The best is saved till last as Columbo summons the sommelier to order a bottle of 1945 vintage Ferrier Port – one of the finest ports known to man. Adrian is giddy with joy at the prospect of rounding out a fine dining experience with such a venerated drop.
“An exciting meal has been ruined by the presence of this… LIQUID FILTH!”
His smile soon dies on his lips, however. Although Columbo and Karen near swoon with how good the port it is, Adrian’s superior palate identifies a problem. “This…is…dreadful,” he softly fumes to the sommelier. “Don’t you realise that a great wine is like a great work of art? Such disdain cannot and will not be tolerated!”
Adrian can tell that the wine has been exposed to temperatures in excess of 150 degrees, oxidising and spoiling it. His rage at this poor treatment cannot be masked: “Is there something wrong? Everything is wrong,” he bellows to the Maitre d’. “An exciting meal has been ruined by the presence of this… LIQUID FILTH!”
The flustered Maitre d’ insists that they don’t pay for the meal as Adrian storms off in Timmy temper. Columbo catches his guests outside, and Adrian reiterates that the wine was definitely bad due to overheating.
This reminds Columbo of the super-hot day LA experienced when Carsini was away in New York, and how the Columbo family fridge packed in leaving him with only warm beer to drink. That day had seen the mercury hit 109 degrees in the shade, which means that indoors without air conditioning the temperatures were even higher. He then thanks Karen again for confirming that she’d seen Ric drive away on the fateful Sunday, and bids the couple farewell.
Adrian is most displeased to hear that Karen has lied for him. On the drive home, he expresses his resentment that she now has a hold over him. In response Karen tells him that she wants to be more than an employee: she wants to become Mrs Carsini! Stunned, Adrian tells her they’ll talk about it in the morning and leaves her without a backwards glance.
We next find him in his cellar filling baskets with wines, which he drives to a clifftop to fling into the churning Pacific. When returning to his car he finds Lieutenant Columbo lying in wait.
“They were all spoiled, weren’t they?” the detective asks. Adrian spins a yarn that he’s just getting rid of some inferior wines but Columbo doesn’t buy it. He’s learnt his stuff, and recognises that the bottles Adrian is discarding represent a great personal and financial sacrifice.
“Adrian’s one of the few men in the world with a palate delicate enough to have discerned that the wine had been overheated. His own ego does him in.”
Columbo then reveals all: on the day Adrian left him in the wine cellar to try and find a way out, the Lieutenant had pocketed a bottle from Adrian’s collection. That bottle was the very same Ferrier Port they drank in the restaurant, and that Adrian had himself identified as having been subjected to a temperature of more than 150 degrees.
The irony isn’t lost on Adrian. He’s one of the few men in the world with a palate delicate enough to have discerned that the wine had been overheated. His own excellence and ego have done him in.
A resigned Adrian gives himself up. He’ll be glad to confess to a crime he feels no remorse for. Besides, what’s his other option? A loveless marriage to Karen? Hardly. “I suppose freedom is purely relative,” he sighs as Columbo leads him to his battered Peugeot to be driven downtown.
There’s time for one last stop off at the winery, though. Cutting off the engine, Columbo produces a bottle of Montefiascone dessert wine and two glasses. The men drink a toast before we see Adrian drain a glass at a gulp and clutch the bottle to his chest as credits roll…
Any Old Port‘s best moment: the bittersweet farewell
The final scene – a mutually respectful exchange in Columbo’s car as he drives Adrian away from his winery to a life behind bars – is a beautiful thing. Two perfectionists, from completely different sides of the tracks, have found a genuine understanding and appreciation of the other. It’s the sort of TV moment that almost doesn’t exist any more and is all the more poignant because of it.
And you know what that means, don’t you? Yes, it’s an even better scene than LIQUID FILTH and easily one of the best ever Columbo moments.
My views on Any Old Port in a Storm
From its opening moments, where our gracious host references Titian, Any Old Port in a Storm has a lexicon and style all of its own.
Regular readers of this blog may be aware that Any Old Port leads the way in the fans’ favourite episode poll by a mile (see the top 10 here). Donald Pleasence’s performance as Adrian Carsini is a huge part of why this episode has captured fans’ imaginations for decades.
Rather like a Carsini label claret, Pleasence is absolutely superb. Every line he delivers is an event in itself, and he’s the beneficiary of a truly vintage script that makes the most of his English accent and exceptional range. He exhibits charm, aloofness, surprise, fury and pomposity effortlessly over the course of the episode, giving the audience a fully-rounded character to root for.
And root for him they do. Despite his lack of remorse for the killing of his brother, Pleasence makes Carsini one of the most interesting, sympathetic and complex killers we ever see on Columbo. Love for the winery and the art of wine-making – something that he has devoted his life to – drives him to murder. In doing so, he’s protecting what he loves most from his villainous brother.
But back to that line delivery! What a show Pleasence puts on. Some personal faves come in the opening scenes where Adrian quarrels with Ric, calling him ‘remarkably gauche‘, an ‘adolescent imbecile‘ and a ‘muscle-bound hedonist‘ in quick succession. If you love words and highbrow put-downs, you can’t help but love Adrian Carsini.
All this aural pleasure culminates in Carsini’s explosion of rage in the restaurant near the conclusion of the episode, where he berates the luckless wine waiter for delivering a bottle of LIQUID FILTH. It’s a scene that belongs in the pantheons of TV greatness and you can view it in all its glory below.
How Carsini interacts with every character is a joy to behold, whether that be affability with his wine-loving cohorts to his cold indifference to long-time secretary Karen. Pleasence’s biggest success is in giving Carsini genuine depth. It’s as if he’s played the role for years, not just one episode.
Another strength of Any Old Port is the burgeoning relationship between the two leads. Naturally Adrian initially underestimates Columbo. Why not? He’s an outrageous snob, after all, and Columbo’s a comparative slob, a beer-drinker no less. But respect quickly follows as Columbo’s wine know-how increases.
This cordiality is an aspect of the episode that nicely blossoms. Suspicion gives way to admiration on both sides and even if Columbo is up to his usual tricks to get his man, by the end of the episode we see genuine appreciation between the two. Theirs is a Columbo relationship like few others.
Falk takes something of a backseat to Pleasence but still has several moments to treasure. It’s such fun to see him interacting with the hipsters, for one. The opening of the scene, featuring couples rock and roll dancing in swimsuits, cracks me up every time.
The scene pitting the Lieutenant against the drunk in the bar is another enjoyable romp. A fed-up Columbo has to repeatedly shush his drinking partner as he listens to a news report about Ric’s death. The drunk eventually gives up, using one of Columbo’s famous lines against him: “I’m sorry that I bothered you.” Very nicely done.
Any Old Port also gives us Columbo’s first use of the This Old Man theme, which he whistles while waiting for information on the telephone. It’s lovely to hear it in this episode before over-use in later series dulled its appeal.
Aside from our leading stars, Any Old Port‘s cast boasts typical strength in depth. Julie Harris convinces as plain Jane secretary Karen, all diligent and impassive until she senses the opportunity to get more from Adrian than ‘$700 per month and 2 weeks’ paid vacation’ per year. There’s no light in her heart, though. Even her act of providing an alibi for Adrian is cold and loveless.
“Pleasence’s biggest success is in giving Carsini genuine depth. It’s as if he’s played the role for years, not just one episode.”
Gary Conway’s Ric Carsini is on-screen for just a few minutes but he does enough to get the audience off-side, taunting Adrian and delivering the stinging put down that ultimately leads to his death: “I’m sure the Marino Brothers will let you lick the labels on their new carbonated rosé.” He knew how to hit big brother where it hurt, alright (and vice versa).
Any Old Port is also notable in that it marks the first appearance of one of Columbo’s most-loved regulars – Vito Scotti. The versatile character actor was a long-time friend of Falk’s and graced six episodes between 1973 and 1989. Always good value, Vito’s simpering Maitre d’ oozes humour.
If it was just about the performances, Any Old Port would trounce almost all the opposition hands-down. That’s why I believe it rates so highly with fans. It’s a hoot to simply sit back and drink in (pun 1 jillion per cent intended). But I’m looking to cast a critical eye over proceedings here, and in doing so can’t help but highlight some shortcomings.
As with almost all the longer episodes, Any Old Port could have easily lost 15 minutes without harming the storytelling. A case in point? The real-time car manouevering, where Adrian first moves his Rolls Royce out of the garage, then moves Ric’s Ferrari in. You can’t tell me that would’ve been left in a 75-minute version. Several other scenes trundle along at a snail’s pace, and offer no pay-off or plot advancement. It’s mostly quality filler, but filler nonetheless.
“If it was just about the performances, Any Old Port would trounce almost all the opposition hands-down.”
There are several question marks regarding the crime, too. For one thing, Adrian leaves Ric alive, albeit unconscious, in his wine cellar as he jets off to New York. He’s taking an outrageous chance! Ric is a terrific athlete. Is it not conceivable that he could shake off a clash to the head and wriggle to freedom?
Adrian also switches off the air-con in the wine cellar as he leaves Ric. We must take it that the intention is to shut off the fresh air so that Ric will suffocate. But wait! The wine cellar is sufficiently large to have enough air in it to keep a man alive for an age. He’d die of dehydration first. So why flip the switch? It’s not a logical action.
It all adds up to the air conditioning switch-off being simply a convenient mechanism for the wine to become oxidised on the roasting hot day. Adrian would have been better off finishing Ric with another blow to the head in the cellar, just to be sure. Think about it: he loves his wines enough to kill for them. So why wouldn’t he finish the job to guarantee their survival? It’s a plot hole that would doom a lesser episode.
I have problems with the restaurant scene, too. Not the performances, which are world-class, but the concept behind it. How could Adrian accept that a lowly-paid police officer could afford to pay for the meal at such a high-priced establishment? And that’s even before Columbo ‘orders’ the 1945 vintage Ferrier Port.
Adrian admits that the price of the bottle would be prohibitive. We must therefore assume it would cost, at a minimum, several hundred dollars at early 70s prices. Columbo could never afford this luxury, so Adrian should smell a rat.
I also query whether Columbo would choose to jeopardise the prestige of the restaurant the way he does. The commotion Adrian made would have caused some serious reputational damage, while making monkeys of innocent employees. That’s out of character for Columbo.
This scene only makes sense if the Lieutenant has had the full backing of his superiors, who have agreed to foot the bill in its entirety and fill the place with plain-clothed officers. Even for a guy with Columbo’s arrest record, that’s a helluva lot of trust (and taxpayers’ money).
“The restaurant scene only makes sense if the LAPD has agreed to foot the bill in its entirety and fill the place with plain-clothed officers.”
Finally I even have some quibbles with the clifftop encounter that seals Adrian’s fate. He’s evidently flinging the wine away to avoid it being used to incriminate him. But if he’s already decided he can’t let the blackmailing Karen into his life, then why would he? Remember, he loves his wine collection above all things. I can only attribute it it to the old Columbo adage that people do strange things when under duress.
Speaking of which, oughtn’t Carsini be more visibly emotional at the act of destroying his wines? As he lobs bottle after bottle off the cliff, it merely seems like it’s an inconvenience to have to do it rather than a personal tragedy, which it undoubtedly would have been. I’d have preferred to see tears coursing down his cheeks with every agonising hurl. Still, what it all leads to is the glorious finale in Columbo’s car – a scene so good that any faults with the episode can almost be forgotten.
So all in all Any Old Port in a Storm is compelling viewing and a barrel load of fun, but is by no means perfect. As Carsini says, a great label doesn’t always equate to a great wine. I feel the same about this episode. The slight imperfections, perhaps noticeable only to those invested enough to look for them, take the edge off what is for all intents and purposes one of TV’s greatest hits. The pity is that all these failings could have been effectively and succinctly addressed in the script.
So much of Any Old Port is great, exceptional even, but I never quite savour it as much as I hope to. Perhaps, ultimately, I’m too much like Carsini. And in this instance maybe that’s not such a good thing…
Did you know?
You’d think that being a murder victim in a wine-themed episode of Columbo might have put Gary Conway (Ric Carsini) off the grape for life – but not a bit of it! Gary and wife Marion actually own a vineyard of their own – the Carmody McKnight Estate in Paso Robles, California!
Regardless of whether the quality of the wine is Carsini-esque or more like the Marino Brothers, you just couldn’t make this up…
How I rate ’em
I can understand why Any Old Port is so revered by so many fans, but it wouldn’t do for us all to like the same things, would it? I certainly consider it amongst Columbo‘s top tier of episodes, but overall I admire rather than love it. Controversial? I hope not… Check out my other reviews using the links below!
- Suitable for Framing
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Lady in Waiting
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- 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
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse
- Dagger of the Mind
Am I being too hard on this televisual gem? Or will my insights cause you to throw your Any Old Port DVD over a cliff after seeing it in a new light? Let me know below.
As always, thanks so much for taking the time to visit the site. Next up on the episodic expedition is Candidate for Crime, so keep ’em peeled! For now, santé!