Episode review: Columbo Candidate for Crime

Candidate for Crime opening titles

The closing months of 1973 saw the US engulfed in political storms, with the fuel crisis and the Watergate scandal stealing the headlines in October and November.

The timing was perfect, then, for Columbo’s first foray into the political arena. This came on 4th November 1973, as the shabby Lieutenant went head-to-head with unscrupulous would-be Senator Nelson Hayward.

Does Candidate for Crime romp to a runaway victory in the hearts of viewers? Or is it a dud, attracting little popular support from the masses? Let’s don our new camel jackets, fling away our bras and drink oceans of scotch as we find out…

Columbo Candidate for Crime cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Nelson Hayward: Jackie Cooper
Vicky Hayward: Joanne Linville
Linda Johnson: Tisha Sterling
Harry Stone: Ken Swofford
Chadwick: Vito Scotti
Sergeant Vernon: Robert Karnes
Deputy Commissioner: Regis Cordic
Directed by: Boris Sagal
Written by: Irving Pearlberg, Alvin R. Friedman, Roland Kibbee and Dean Hargrove (from a story by Larry Cohen)
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis: Columbo Candidate for Crime

Senatorial hopeful Nelson ‘His Own Man’ Hayward (Jackie Cooper) is at police HQ talking to reporters about the threat made against his life in the build-up to election day. His courageous refusal to give up on his campaign is winning him hearts and minds, but Hayward’s also been assigned constant police protection, with Lieutenant Columbo (in a rare pre-murder appearance) part of the work detail.

Cut to ape-man (or is it man-ape?) Harry Stone, who is watching Nelson’s interview on TV – and loving every minute. He orchestrated the death threats, you see, as part of his bid to ensure Hayward’s election. Stone is Hayward’s aggressive campaign manager and although he has all the charm of a rock himself, he’s on the cusp of realising his own professional goals through Hayward’s elevation to the Senate.

Naturally there’s a stumbling block, and that block is in the lithe but braless form of Linda Johnson – the appointment secretary of Hayward’s braless wife, Vicky. Linda and Hayward are lovers – something Stone plans to put a stop to to avoid it compromising Hayward’s chances at the polls.

Candidate 13
Linda Johnson: bra free since 1973

Stone tells Linda that she’s history, but she refuses to yield. After she splits, Hayward himself shows up only to be given an ultimatum. The loathsome Stone has got Hayward where he is today and knows all his dirty secrets. If Hayward doesn’t ditch Linda, it’ll be political suicide.

The clever Hayward is one step ahead. He agrees to Stone’s demands, on the condition he can go and break up with Linda now, in person. Problem is that his police guard are following his every move, so Stone will have to wear Hayward’s hat and jacket and drive Hayward’s car round the LA streets until he loses the tailing cops. The two will meet at Hayward’s remote beach house later to debrief.

Stone agrees, and effortlessly gives the guard detail the slip. But when he arrives at the beach house an unpleasant surprise awaits as Hayward emerges from the shadows of the garage and guns his campaign manager down. He then slips a dainty watch on Stone’s gargantuan wrist, sets it ahead to 9.20pm, and smashes it against the floor to set the time of death before racing off to establish his alibi at a surprise party at home for his wife’s birthday.

About an hour into festivities, Hayward slips into his study to call the police, telling them that Nelson Hayward has been killed and to check out his beach house for proof. He then returns to the party to make a very visible fuss of his wife. The devious politico looks to have covered his tracks impeccably.

Over at the Hayward beach house, the crime scene is chaotic. It’s awash with cops, including the Deputy Commissioner, who has been tasked with Hayward’s protection. Given that the corpse they’ve found is Stone’s, not Hayward’s as initially feared, the Commissioner assigns Columbo to investigate.

Vicky Hayward – another braless wonder. What’s going on?

Columbo duly turns up on the doorstep of Hayward HQ to crash the party and deliver the bad news. Playing the part superbly, Hayward immediately seems racked with guilt that his switcheroo stunt has resulted in his long-time colleague’s death. Shutting down the party and refusing to answer Columbo’s questions, Hayward flounces out.

Undeterred, Columbo shows up at campaign headquarters the next morning. He’s kept waiting as Hayward and Linda have a ‘meeting’ behind closed doors (.i.e. smooching), but he is there to witness a lovely new camel jacket being delivered for Hayward and twigs right away that it’s made from the same material as the one Stone was sporting when he was slain.

When he’s finally granted an audience with Hayward, Columbo reveals a few things that are bothering him about the crime scene. For one thing, the engine of the car driven by Stone was cold. Police were on the scene minutes after the crime was called in, so the engine ought to have still been warm. Columbo’s own engine was warm for more than hour after he drove out there. The inference is clear: the murder could have taken place a lot earlier than Stone’s ladyish broken watch suggests.

Columbo Candidate for Crime
The art world’s loss was LAPD’s gain…

How the killer had enough light to kill Stone by also troubles the detective. The streetlight outside the garage is broken, and the road too narrow to allow the killer’s car to have turned its lights on Stone. The angle the bullets were fired at suggests that the assassin was hanging around waiting for someone to show up. If Hayward was known to have round-the-clock police guard, why would someone do that?

Columbo also grills Hayward about the new jacket. He admires its cut. Where could he get one like it for an upcoming function he’s attending with Mrs Columbo? Hayward directs the scruffy policeman to officious tailor Chadwick, where his suspicions continue to rise. Columbo learns that Hayward ordered the jacket 10 days earlier. Did he know he’d need a new one to replace the one now riddled with blood and bullet holes?

All Columbo’s hunches are pointing towards Hayward. The Lieutenant even enlists Vicky to give him advice on Stone’s sense of style. The man wore nothing but durable clothes. His suits and shoes were virtually indestructible, yet his watch was a fragile thing that smashed easily? Both agree that the watch seems out of keeping with everything else Stone owned and wore. Someone could have put it on him just to establish time of death.

“What did he pay for these shoes…?”

Columbo also plants seeds of suspicion in Vicky’s mind. He asks her if, during her party, Hayward had left the room at all around the time the murder was called into the police. Poor Vicky is now extremely flustered, and Hayward realises that he’s firmly in Columbo’s sights, which forces him into playing his final trump card.

Cut to the morning of election day. Hayward has faked another death threat and security is tight at campaign HQ. Anyone going into Hayward’s suite is thoroughly searched, and Columbo has requested to be alerted if Hayward is on his own at any time, for any reason.

It’s not long before Columbo gets just such an alert. Hayward has requested privacy to make  personal calls. But it’s not calls he’s making, folks. Instead, he takes the silenced gun he used to kill Stone (which he’d stashed in his suit jacket), steps out onto the balcony, and fires through the glass door as if aiming at someone sitting at the phone desk.

“Hayward realises that he’s firmly in Columbo’s sights as the prime suspect. It forces him into playing his final trump card.”

Calm as you like, he then draws the curtains, hides the bullet in the wall behind a chair and slips the gun into a briefcase, which the unwitting Linda escorts out of the suite. Grabbing Vicky by the hand, Hayward then skips merrily out to cast his vote.

Some hours later, Hayward is back. There’s an air of revelry in the air and it looks like ‘His Own Man’ will romp to victory. Slipping away to make more ‘private calls’, Nelson returns to his suite and sets a firecracker off on the balcony.

Thinking a gun has been fired, there’s pandemonium amongst the campaign supporters outside, and the police bust in to secure the scene. A shaken Hayward says a man on the balcony fired a shot at him through the window before disappearing without trace. Check out the bullet hole in the glass and the bullet in the wall behind him!

It’s now that Columbo calmly saunters in. There’s no need to look for the shooter, he says, because the man who fired the gun is still in this room. That’s right, it’s Hayward.

Columbo Candidate for Crime gotcha
No one in this photo is wearing a bra (except Nelson)

Now livid, Hayward tries to prove his innocence. There’s no gun in the suite is there? So how could Hayward have fired it? Surely all the police need to do to prove Hayward’s innocence is to dig the bullet out of the wall and see if it it was fired from the same gun that killed Stone?

No sir, says Columbo. You see, he’s already had the bullet run through ballistics and can confirm that it is a match for the murder weapon. When he was alerted earlier to Hayward requesting privacy to make calls, Columbo gave his full attention to the interconnected phone system. If Hayward had been making calls, a light on the phone corresponding with his suite number would’ve lit up. It never did.

If Hayward wasn’t making calls, what was he doing? When Hayward goes to vote, Columbo goes to investigate and what he finds seals Hayward’s fate forever. “I dug this bullet out of that wall three hours before you said that somebody fired it at you three minutes ago,” Columbo tells Hayward. “You’re under arrest, sir.” With no room left to maneuvre, Hayward can only close his eyes in resignation as credits roll…

Candidate‘s (second) best moment – Chez Chadwick

Rather than focus again on the majesty of the gotcha (which is actually the best part of the episode), I thought I’d highlight another gem of a scene featuring one of Columbo‘s most-loved regulars, Vito Scotti.

Vito Candidate 2
Oh Vito, I LOVE YOU!

Cast as uppity tailor Chadwick, Scotti is on vintage form. It’s a blast to watch his reaction to the shabby detective, which is just on the polite side of disdain as he attempts to help Columbo find a jacket for an impending bowling league dinner dance.

The humour of the scene works perfectly, but it also has a pay-off in that Columbo learns just how far in advance Hayward had to order his own replacement jacket for the one Harry Stone was killed in. While not conclusive, the revelation is a key element in Columbo’s strengthening case against the crooked candidate.

My opinion on Columbo Candidate for Crime

Inserting Lieutenant Columbo into the skulduggery of politics is a delicious premise. Sure, he’s come into contact with the rich and famous before, but going toe-to-toe with a man with one foot in the Senate was something new and exciting for the series.

And on paper Candidate for Crime really is gold. The murder is deviously plotted and carried out. The killer is a suitable contrast to the earthy Lieutenant. There are also numerous intriguing relationship plot points unfolding throughout the episode, a good sprinkling of humour and it all rounds out with a truly amazing denouement, which is easily right up there with the series’ very best.

There are enough brilliant elements in Candidate for Crime for it to be ranked amongst the series’ greatest hits. So why, then, is this only a partly successful episode? Well my friends, it’s that pesky longer running time problem yet again

Candidate 20
A fun scene, but it does nothing to progress the plot

Regular readers will know that a criticism I often have of the ‘longer’ episodes is that they’re only very rarely as well paced as ‘standard’ 75-minute episodes. Candidate suffers more than most. Running to 93 minutes, it’s miles too long. It could easily have lost 20 minutes without hurting the plot, packed as it is with scenes that are either tediously extended – or not necessary at all.

Not convinced? Then consider these:-

  • The crime scene investigation in Hayward’s garage. It goes on for 9 minutes, most of which is merciless padding
  • Columbo at the dentist being lectured about negative profiling of Italians in the media. The scene goes nowhere slowly
  • Columbo’s interview with Hayward at his campaign office is interminably long, with the Lieutenant taking eons to make his (absolutely inconclusive) points
  • Columbo’s car being pulled over for an inspection by traffic cops, revealing a litany of problems. It’s quite funny, but no one would miss it if it wasn’t there. The scene even ends with comedy music, for Pete’s sake!
  • The Lieutenant takes an AAAAAGE to pay his car repair bill, endlessly searching his pockets for items
  • The drawn-out chat with Hayward and Columbo at Hayward’s home prior to him shooting his poolside video is minutes longer than it need be

There are other examples, too, but you get the picture. There’s an awful lot of filler here which prevents Candidate from reaching its full potential. I’m aware there are two schools of thought on these longer episodes. Some enjoy simply spending quality time with Columbo and learning more of his eccentricities. I’m all for that if there’s a pay-off or if it’s funny and charming. If not, then I’m champing at the bit.

“There’s an awful lot of filler which prevents Candidate for Crime from reaching its full potential.”

It’s not just me who thinks this way, either. Peter Falk, Steven Bochco and critic Mark Dawidziak have all rued how longer running times have negatively impacted otherwise classic episodes. It’s a great pity here because Candidate starts and finishes terrifically, surprising us with Columbo’s early cameo and stunning us with Hayward’s downfall – the latter undoubtedly one of the show’s greatest ever reveals. If only the whole episode was as perfectly paced.

All that said, there are enough gems hidden in the script to keep the viewer keen. Notably there are some rib-tickling conversations between Hayward and Columbo, as well there should be given the amount of screen-time they share.

Nelson Hayward Candidate for Crime
Will Nelson be able to remain ‘His Own Man’ in jail…? Don’t bet on it!

Doubtless for padding purposes, the Lieutenant takes longer than ever to explain himself to hayward. There are so many lost threads, asides and pocket searches that an impatient person would be shaking Columbo by the lapels in frustration. The writers do well to make light of this, with Hayward pleasantly stating. “You’re a very nice man, I like you very much. But I’d hate to have to depend on you if I was in a hurry.”

In the build up to Hayward sending Columbo off to his tailor, there’s also a heart-lifting exchange about the state of Columbo’s appearance. “Why, Lieutenant, are you considering a change of wardrobe?” Hayward asks innocently. “Oh, no, no,” replies Columbo. “Every once in a while I think about getting a new coat, but there’s no rush on that, sir. There’s still a lot of wear in this fellow.” Yes, approximately 30 years’ worth as it turned out!

I rather like Jackie Cooper in this. His Nelson Hayward is not as smooth as Jack Cassidy or as threatening as Robert Culp, but he presents  a believable mix of charm, hardheadedness, untrustworthiness and insincerity.

Columbo Candidate for Crime Harry Stone Linda Johnson
Who will Nelson choose? Livid orangutan Harry, or braless temptress Linda?

I also find his character nicely intriguing. Clearly he’s out of love with wife, Vicky, who’s sunk into borderline alcoholism as she struggles to cope with his disinterest. But how genuine are his affections for Linda? Hayward’s willing to kill his successful campaign manager to keep her around: a pretty big commitment. Does he love her, or is he simply enjoying carnal delights? It’s a topic that would’ve warranted further exploration, as it would have fleshed out Hayward’s motive.

Speaking of Hayward’s love rivals, how good is Joanne Linville as the embattled Vicky? I say very good. There’s a sadness about her that is sensitively portrayed, despite the litres of scotch her character swigs throughout. Vicky has the measure of Nelson and could doom his political hopes, but she’s desperate for his love at the same time. She’s a fascinating study.

Candidate for Crime Vicky Hayward
Vicky Hayward: sad, sensitive and sinfully mistreated

By contrast, Tisha Sterling’s Linda is far less interesting. In fact it’s hard to see what Hayward finds so alluring about her that he’d risk his marriage and political ambitions for. It suggests that there’s more going on than we know, but the script doesn’t go there. Another missed opportunity.

When considering the script I can’t help but wonder if too many cooks were involved. There are five credited story contributors. What level of involvement each had is unknown, but it feels like they may have unwittingly tied each other up in knots – doubtless as a result of having to extend scenes or add new ones to bump up the running time.

A prime example is the inconsistent use of phone records. Columbo admits he checked the records of Nelson’s beach house to confirm the call to the police didn’t come from there. So why didn’t he check the records from Hayward’s home, where his prime suspect was known to be at the time the call was made? That could’ve tied up the case there and then. Use of phone records has been inconsistently applied throughout the series (inconclusive in Most Crucial Game while damning in Double Shock), but inconsistency in the same episode is a bit much (NB – a possible explanation for this inconsistency is detailed here in a handy article about how US phone systems worked in the 70s).

“Columbo aside, all the cops in this episode appear to be absolute bunglers.”

Likewise Hayward’s new camel jacket. Hayward tells Columbo that he was in two minds about ordering one the same as the one Stone was killed in. We subsequently find out that it was ordered it 10 days earlier – way before Harry was killed. And even though his reason given for having done so is plausible (a cigarette burn on a sleeve), how could Hayward reconcile the two contrasting statements? Columbo usually picks up on these things in a flash and uses them to his advantage. That he doesn’t here is indicative of the jumbled writing in evidence.

Speaking of evidence (weak segue, I know), this case proves more conclusively than ever how lucky the LAPD was to have Lieutenant Columbo on staff. Put bluntly, all the other cops in this episode appear to be absolute bunglers. Hayward’s guard detail seem particularly inept, letting the disguised Stone easily escape their clutches and then taking an eternity to trace Hayward, at his home.

Candidate 9
Vernon was soon transferred from the LAPD to the Keystone Cops, where he excelled

The most culpable seems to be arch-dunderhead Sergeant Vernon, who is essentially Hayward’s personal protector. Vernon’s low point is when he picks up Hayward’s gun-laden jacket, only to hang it up rather than bust the plotting politician for carrying an undisclosed firearm.

Little wonder, perhaps, that Hayward had the confidence to attempt his audacious final stunt, which included setting off an instantly-findable firecracker on his suite balcony. True to form, when Vernon lollops in and gives the balcony a cursory once over, he completely fails to see the firecracker debris, simply mourning that Hayward’s fictitious assassin ‘must have been a human fly’. Good work, Vernon!

[Side note: actor Robert Karnes, who portrayed Vernon, also played the similarly incompetent Sergeant Grover in Boris Sagal’s first Columbo directorial outing, Greenhouse Jungle. I like to think that Vernon simply had a name change between episodes to try to put past bunglings behind him and start afresh. He failed…]

“For all its failings when Candidate does deliver, it delivers magnificently.”

It’s all left for Columbo to masterfully take down Hayward in what proves to be one of the most satisfying and memorable take downs of all. Indeed, I’d rate this second only to Suitable for Framing in the list of great gotchas. And that’s high praise indeed.

For all its failings when Candidate does deliver, it delivers magnificently. If the whole episode had been paced as tautly as the opening and closing scenes, this really would be amongst Columbo‘s best cases. As it is (and rather like Nelson Hayward who is still languishing behind bars) we can only reflect on what might have been had our Candidate for Crime made a few better decisions at crucial times.

Candidate for Crime Nelson Hayward
I’ll get you next time, Gadget…

PSIf anyone out there has the skillz to make a 75-minute fan edit of this, then hit me up! Between us we can Make Candidate Great Again!

PPS – Since the above plea, plucky fan ‘Thanael’ has done precisely what I asked – made a streamlined version of Candidate for Crime! View the fruits of his labours here.

Did you know?

As referenced above, this was the second directorial effort by the able Boris Sagal, who first took the Columbo hotseat in Season 2’s Greenhouse Jungle. Looks like old Boris pulled some strings so that his 19-year-old daughter Katey Sagal got a small role as secretary at Hayward’s campaign office. It was just the third screen outing of her fledgling career.

Candidate for Crime Katey Sagal
Nepotistic much, Sagal family?

How I rate ’em

Candidate was potentially a great episode, but its ponderous pace ultimately causes it to slot into the middle of the pack in my rankings – right above Boris Sagal’s other Columbo directorial contribution, Greenhouse Jungle. Read any of my past episode reviews via the links below.

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Double Shock
  3. Murder by the Book
  4. Death Lends a Hand
  5. A Stitch in Crime
  6. Lady in Waiting
  7. Any Old Port in a Storm
  8. Prescription: Murder
  9. The Most Crucial Game
  10. Etude in Black
  11. Candidate for Crime
  12. Greenhouse Jungle
  13. Requiem for a Falling Star
  14. Blueprint for Murder
  15. Ransom for a Dead Man
  16. Dead Weight
  17. The Most Dangerous Match
  18. Lovely but Lethal
  19. Short Fuse
  20. Dagger of the Mind

Please let me know your thoughts on this one. Candidate has many fans, so if you’re one of them please feel free to expand on your favourite moments.

Check back soon for the Season 3’s next exciting instalment: Double Exposure. That’s great news because it means BAD BOBBY CULP is back! See you then…

Contribute to this site’s upkeep from just $3

Alternatively, donate via PayPal!
Columbo Candidate for Crime
“What episode is he reviewing next?” “I don’t know, I wasn’t listening.”
%d bloggers like this: