Episode review: Columbo Double Exposure


Columbo double exposure opening titles

Columbo’s final outing of 1973 was a real pre-Christmas treat for eager viewers. Airing on 16 December, Robert Culp was back in his third and final appearance as a Columbo killer. At that time, no one else had done it more than once.

So is Double Exposure a suitable send-off for one of Lieutenant Columbo’s most fearsome and enduring adversaries? Let’s slip on our yellowest jackets,  prepare some subliminal cuts and find out!

Columbo Double Exposure cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dr Bart Keppel: Robert Culp
Vic Norris: Robert Middleton
Mrs Norris: Louise Latham
Roger White: Chuck McCann
Written by: Stephen J. Cannell
Directed by: Richard Quine
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis: Columbo Double Exposure

Dr Bart Keppel is a pioneer in the field of motivational research. His techniques deliver proven sales results and the good doctor’s services are in serious demand – except, it seems, from existing client Vic Norris, the man whose faith in Keppel has helped bankroll his success.

Norris, an irritable, sweaty little man, has had it with Keppel. Why? Because Keppel has stitched him up, photographing the married Norris with a young temptress who was hired by Keppel to ensure want-away clients stay on his books. Norris, reasonably enough, wants out! He tells Keppel that he’s history and hints that he’ll will report him to the District Attorney. Game over for Keppel? Not a bit of it…

The cerebral Doctor has cooked up a plan to rid himself of Norris – and it’s a beauty. First he inserts subliminal cuts of cool drinks into a motivational sales film that he’s due to premiere to Norris and co that evening. He rings Mrs Norris anonymously, telling her he has irrefutable proof of her husband’s philandering, and demands she meet him at some out-of-way location later on. He cranks the temperature up in the auditorium where Norris will watch the film. And finally he feeds Norris a gut-load of salty caviar knowing that it will cause a raging thirst.

Exposure 1

Murder is BAD, but this murder scene is SO cool…

The genius doesn’t end there. Keppel says that he’ll narrate the script for the movie, live, from a curtained stage at the front of the auditorium. In actual fact he’ll let a tape recording of himself do the narrating while he’s out a-killing!

Soon enough, Norris is feeling decidedly uncomfortable. He’s got a sweat on and is looking more irritable than ever. The subliminal cuts have the desired effect and he eventually gallops out to the drink fountain in the lobby to quench that thirst. It’s the last thing he does. Emerging from a side door, Keppel guns down Norris and hastily makes his exit.

The murder weapon is an automatic .45 pistol from Keppel’s own office. He returns it to its case on the wall, but first removes a calibration converter and hides it in a lampshade. It’s devilishly clever, and Keppel is soon back in place in the auditorium, in plain view of the audience as the lights rise at the end of the screening.

“Where is Mr Norris?” Keppel innocently asks other attendees as they depart. They soon find out as they stumble upon Norris’s corpse in the lobby. In his final act of cover-up, Keppel switches on the tape recorder to erase his narration and capture the commotion. It’s been a good day’s work for the arch-villain.

“Emerging from a side door, Keppel guns down Norris and hastily beats a retreat.”

Or has it? Police are soon swarming around the crime scene, Lieutenant Columbo amongst them. He’s famished after missing dinner and after polishing off some canapes, he’s tempted by a fellow officer to try some of the leftover caviar. His ensuing thirst later gives the sharp detective a circumstantial clue.

Encountering Keppel for the first time, Columbo fails to endear himself to the aloof researcher, referring to him as ‘Mr Keppel’, rather than Dr. It’s a mistake he repeats several times, much to Keppel’s annoyance. All this meeting establishes is that the tape recorder in the lobby was left there by Keppel to record audience feedback to the film. This satisfies Columbo – for now.

The Lieutenant’s next stop is the projection room, where he meets Roger White – a big, lovable, open-shirted boob, who provides the now-thirsty detective with a splash of iced tea and some intel on the art of the projectionist. It doesn’t seem important now, but will offer food for thought later on.

Exposure 13

Oh Roger, you big, lovable, open-shirted BOOB, you…

It’s then on to Keppel’s office, where he questions the Doctor about the tape recorder. Keppel claims he turned it on while still in the auditorium as part of his usual post-film routine. He also condescendingly suggests to Columbo that, statistically speaking, Mrs Norris is the most likely murderer – especially if she knew, as he does, that Norris has been having a fling with mystery woman ‘Tanya Baker’. Like in so many past episodes, Columbo’s usual subterfuge has Keppel convinced that he has nothing to worry about.

Someone who is worried is Mrs Norris. Her world has been turned upside down in a single day, first by the revelation that her husband is having an affair, and then by his slaying. Columbo pops in and she comes clean about the phone call she received the night before, and how, at the time of her husband’s death, she was alone at a far-flung location waiting for the caller who never arrived.

It means she has no plausible alibi, but Columbo assures her she’s not a suspect. “If my wife decided to murder me, she could come up with a better alibi than you got,” he says, taking a heap of pressure off the beleaguered widow’s shoulders in the process.

Exposure 7

The stricken Mrs Norris finds reassurance in Columbo

Columbo starts looking into Keppel’s background and is impressed to find out his pedigree as a thought leader in motivational research. After checking out some of Keppel’s books from the library he catches up with the Doc at a supermarket, where he’s at his work monitoring the reactions of supermarket shoppers via CCTV.

Columbo relays that the guns from Keppel’s office have been cleared by ballistics of being the murder weapon. The calibre of the guns is too large. Norris was killed by a .22. Columbo also reveals that he found out from Norris’s secretary that a board meeting that day had been due to kick off with action item ‘Terminate Keppel.’ This might have left a lesser foe flapping, but not the cool and collected Keppel, who suggests that it must have meant ‘terminate our agreement with Keppel until we next need him‘. Whatever you say, Doc…

Columbo does rattle Keppel for the first time – albeit only slightly – when he grills him again about the tape recorder. Turns out the recording started in the lobby, right after Norris’s corpse was discovered. How could Keppel forget that he’d started it there, not in the auditorium as earlier claimed?

Keppel falls back on the classic Columbo adage: “Men do strange things at times of crisis.” This in itself is contradictory, as Keppel earlier told Columbo that he was cool and calm under pressure. And if there’s one thing the Lieutenant is good at it’s picking up inconsistencies in people’s characters. Safe to say, it’s another reason to suspect the dastardly Doctor.

He’s not alone in his suspicions. Indeed, big lug Roger has already beaten him to it and cracked the case! In a private interview with Keppel, Roger reveals that he has it all figured out. Roger heard the sound of the spliced subliminal cuts going through the projector. Before the cannisters of film were sent down to the vault, Roger checked them and saw the subliminal cuts with his own eyes.

“That big lug Roger has already beaten Columbo to it and cracked the case!”

Still, Roger’s a reasonable chap and if Keppel will fund his real estate dreams through a $50,000 donation, he’ll keep his mouth shut. Keppel icily agrees to deliver the cash to Roger later that evening, and snubs the offer of a handshake as the blackmailing boob guiltily heads on his way.

Strange as it sounds, this development appears to have played in Keppel’s favour. Using a credit card to diddle the lock, he breaks into the Norris household and makes off with a .22 gun (How did he know where it was stashed? Don’t ask…). He uses this to gun down Roger, who’s moonlighting at the Magnolia Theater. Keppel then ambles back to his own HQ to go about his usual business.

Lieutenant Columbo, quelle surprise, is waiting for him. He’s been reading up on Keppel’s use of subliminal cuts and is getting a demonstration on how they actually work. He needs Keppel’s help with his enquiries, of course. Notably whether it would be possible to use subliminal cuts to drive a thirsty person out of a cinema screening to seek water. Keppel has to admit that it’s possible. However, the only version of the film Columbo can lay his hands on has no subliminal cuts. If there ever was a second print of it, it must be long gone by now.

Although seemingly painted into a corner, Columbo doesn’t have to wait long for his next chance to test the Doctor. The Lieutenant receives notification that Roger White has been killed. He invites Keppel along, telling him that he’d ‘make a great detective’. A laughing Keppel accepts Columbo’s challenge. “All right Lieutenant,” he says. “I’ll play.”

At the Magnolia Theater, a fellow officer informs Columbo that the murder weapon was left at the scene. The gun is registered to none other than Vic Norris! It’s music to Keppel’s ears, as he’s able to suggest it shows that Roger and Mrs Norris were in on the act together from the start.

Even better? Based on when the reel of film ran out, police project that Roger was killed between 7.30pm-7.55pm. And during that time, Keppel and Columbo were together. The detective is personally providing Keppel’s alibi. “That’s a tough nut to crack,” concedes Columbo. “That’s not tough,” replies the smug Doctor. “That’s impossible.”

It doesn’t look as if there’ll be much reason for the two to meet again, but Columbo remains undeterred. Gatecrashing Keppel’s round of golf, the Lieutenant goes on the assault and continually puts Keppel off his game through the latest case developments. Columbo even outright accuses Keppel of committing double homicide, not that the Doctor is overly concerned. “As far as I know, a court of law in this country still requires some kind of evidence,” he chides.

“Columbo outright accuses Keppel of committing double homicide, not that the Doctor is overly concerned.”

What Columbo has is circumstancial. But he finally has a brainwave. He grabs a police photographer and heads back to Keppel’s office where he has a range of photos of himself taken in various places, appearing to be earnestly searching for something. What’s his plan? We soon find out.

Dr Keppel is back in business mode, showing the motivational film he made for Norris to a new suitor. Partway through, though, Keppel is starting to get twitchy. He departs the screening in a hurry and races back to his office. He makes a beeline for the lamp and removes the calibration converter – and is promptly disturbed by the flash of a camera bulb!

Columbo and the photographer emerge from their hiding place. The Lieutenant takes the converter from Keppel and fits it into the automatic pistol on the wall. ‘That’s a lovely touch. A converter. I never figured on a converter. And one hidden in a lamp!” he enthuses. “Doc, I woulda sworn you had a gun hidden in here and I was trying to smoke you out – but I never figured on this.”

Realisation hits Keppel like a tidal wave. “A subliminal cut! You used a subliminal cut!” And indeed Columbo did. Several photos of himself snooping around Keppel’s office were spliced into the film that the Doctor has just been viewing. One of Columbo examining the lamp must have been the subconscious cue Keppel needed to betray himself.

Keppel 2

Doctor Keppel was certified insane 10 minutes later…

Columbo couldn’t have solved the case without heavily relying on Keppel’s own technique to draw him out. “If there was a reward, I’d support your claim to it,” the detective tells his outmanoeuvred foe. The irony isn’t lost on Keppel, who is left laughing like a loon as credits roll…

Double Exposure‘s best moment: par for the course?

Exposure 1

There’s a lot of competition in this episode, but my personal highlight plays out on the fairways of the golf club, where Columbo repeatedly puts Keppel off his game with a series of revelations.

Columbo doesn’t just annoy Keppel – he properly rattles him for the first time when he tells him that, despite police statements to the contrary, none of Norris’s entourage can  positively confirm that Keppel was plainly visible at the front of the auditorium when Norris was slain.

“Anyone who plays golf will know that those who break the moral code of the game absolutely cannot be trusted.”

As he chops the ball all over the course, Keppel shows his true colours by openly cheating, flinging his ball out from beside a tree to play it more easily. Anyone who plays golf will know that those who break the game’s moral code absolutely cannot be trusted. For all his sense of superiority, Keppel really is amongst the lowest of the low.

Recovering from his shock, Keppel finally hits a good one up to the green. “For a while there I thought I was going to spoil your game,” says Columbo. “Not a chance Lieutenant,” the now-chipper Keppel clucks as he turns his heel on the detective.

It’s been a high-stakes game between Columbo and Keppel all the way and despite a wobble here it looks like Keppel firmly has the upper hand once again. His downfall, when it comes, will be extra sweet because of it.

My opinion on Columbo Double Exposure

Ah, Robert Culp. He left such an indelible mark on the series it’s hard to accept that here, in only the Lieutenant’s 21st adventure, it’s his curtain call as a Columbo killer.

Sure,we’ll welcome him back 17 years later as the angry father to upstart Justin in Columbo Goes to College, but it’s a looooong hiatus for someone who was absolutely at the top of their game here, and someone who brought so much to the show.


No one does simmering menace better than Robert Culp

I personally prefer Jack Cassidy and consider him the ultimate Columbo killer. But Culp is hot on his heels, and for many fans holds the number one spot. His sense of explosive temper allied with a cold intellect makes him a truly dangerous adversary.

Although he’s much more in control of his rage here than we see in Death Lends a Hand and The Most Crucial Game, Culp is arguably at his most menacing in Double Exposure. It’s a magnificent performance and a perfect role for Culp.

“If ever an episode can be said to be playing cat-and-mouse games, it’s this one.”

Indeed, episode writer Stephen J. Cannell, who wrote the script on spec during the writers’ strike of 1973, envisaged Culp in the role as he wrote it. His dreams quite literally came true. The writers’ strike gave Columbo producers an almighty headache, but the quality of Cannell’s story was just the tonic. And although he wouldn’t contribute another Columbo script, Cannell made a big impact as the creator or co-creator of such legendary shows as The Rockford Files, The A-Team and 21 Jump Street.

Columbo fans have every reason to be grateful to Cannell, as his script delivers some  sensational interplay between the two leads. If ever an episode can be said to be playing cat-and-mouse games it’s this one. Although Keppel initially underestimates the bumbling detective (who doesn’t?), he later realises he has to be on the top of his mental game to stay ahead – a challenge he clearly relishes. It’s the best example of the ‘we both know I did it but you’ll never prove it’ interplay since Prescription: Murder.

Exposure 6

Columbo vs Keppel is an encounter for the ages

Columbo is struggling to establish the upper hand throughout. Each time he appears to have done so, Keppel outdoes him again. The golf course scenes are a prime example. Perhaps even more telling are the interactions following Roger White’s death. Columbo invites Keppel along to seek his ‘help’. We know and Keppel knows that Columbo is trying to catch him out. “I’ll play,” he says with a smirk a mile wide.

More fun follows. Columbo doesn’t tell Keppel where the murder took place. So when the Doctor agrees to drive them both to the crime scene, he sits waiting at the foot of the car park ramp. “Right or left? You didn’t tell me where the murder was committed, Lieutenant, so I couldn’t possibly know how to get there, could I?”

When Columbo indicates right, Keppel says: “Nice try, though,” to which a wry Columbo responds: “Can’t win ’em all.” This is a battle of wits that both are taking pleasure from. It’s so enjoyable to watch.

“The central battle is so much the focus of the episode that there’s almost no room for anyone else. But when Columbo vs Keppel is so engaging it doesn’t much matter.”

This central battle is so much the focus of the episode that there’s almost no room for anyone else. Arlene Martel was cast as Tanya Baker, but her part was cut completely (although her name remains in the credits). We see enough of Vic Norris to dislike him, but it’s a small role for Robert Middleton. Likewise the talented Louise Latham as Mrs Norris. She’s relegated to a bit-part when her role could have been easily have been expanded. But when Columbo vs Keppel is so engaging it doesn’t much matter.

Columbo Double Exposure Robert Culp

Would you blackmail a face like this?

Only Chuck McCann as Roger White gets a reasonably meaty secondary role. And he’s good in this. His affable nature shines through, likewise the inner turmoil he’s going through when blackmailing Keppel. One senses that this is the most courageous thing Roger has ever done. One of the most foolish, too.

It suits the plot, of course, for Roger to meet the ick. And it’s no surprise that Keppel would double-cross him. Lesson to would-be blackmailers of murderous motivational researchers: let them know that if anything happens to you, their crime will be exposed regardless. Silly, guileless Roger…

So, we’ve established that the acting is all good. Another element that really satisfies is this episode’s sense of style. Culp is cool as in this. From his killer pinstripe suit, to his contemporary golf course gear that would still look fresh today, Doctor Keppel has a winning look for every occasion.

Special praise must be lavished on the legendary YELLOW JACKET Keppel sports in the supermarket scenes. This guy cannot put a fashion foot wrong! I have serious jacket envy every time that sequence comes on.

Columbo Double Exposure Robert Culp yellow jacket

Sit sexily amongst pumpkins much, Dr Keppel?

That sense of style is matched by the direction. The murder scene itself is delightfully done with a breathless pace and Culp looking movie-star cool when pulling the trigger. It’s excellent work from Director Richard Quine, who’s at the helm of his third Columbo episode after previously heading up Requiem for a Falling Star and Dagger of the Mind. This is his finest Columbo hour by a distance.

It helps that this is a 75-minute episode. The pacing issues that blighted the longer Candidate for Crime and, to a lesser extent, Any Old Port in a Storm are absent. Double Exposure packs plenty in and never drags its heels. This is the way to tell a Columbo story.

Finally, what of the plot? Well, it does have some detractors who bemoan the implausibility of the subliminal cut method, and how it works so perfectly to place Vic Norris in Keppel’s gunsights as if this sort of skulduggery is an everyday occurrence.

It’s certainly far-fetched. However, it’s played so straight, and Keppel’s global expertise in the technique so clearly established, that I find it’s easy to accept it for what it is and just go with it. If you can do that, you’ll likely have no problems at all with this episode.

It’s not entirely free of faults, mind you. Personally I’d have preferred a clearer motive for Keppel. If the guy’s as hot a shot as he’s made out to be it makes no sense to be putting his best client in a compromising situation and then trying to blackmail him.

“Personally I’d have preferred a clearer motive for Keppel. It makes no sense to be putting his best client in a compromising situation.”

Is Keppel so desperate for Norris’s money that he’d stoop so low? Seems unlikely. Is he trying out a revolutionary, new high-stakes piece of research on Norris, loosely dubbed ‘the treat ’em mean keep ’em keen’ gambit? Maybe. There’s more going on than we know, and it’s frustrating not to have more insight on Keppel’s motivations here. C’est la vie.

I’ve taken some heat before for not including the ‘gotcha’ moment in Double Exposure in my top 10 Columbo gotchas (read ’em all here). So I thought I’d clarify my stance here. How Columbo outsmarts his man is brilliant. Keppel’s realisation that he’s been done in by use of subliminal cuts is masterful. But the actual moment when Columbo catches him out lets it down. ‘Why?‘ I hear you scream, desperate for justification. Well, it’s because Columbo and the photographer are so badly hidden.

Their ‘cover’ is a spindly pot plant that they appear to be beside, not behind. It grants them no cover at all! There’s no way an alert Keppel wouldn’t have noticed them as soon as he entered the room. It bugs me because it would have been very easy to have them more effectively hidden. Bah humbug!

Columbo Dr Bart Keppell Double Exposure

“A potted plant! You hid beside a potted plant!”

Still, as I hope you can tell, it doesn’t sufficiently upset me to mark the overall episode down. This is a magnificent addition to the Columbo canon, full of class, confidence and fun. It’s the highlight of Season 3 so far, and easily one of the most enjoyable Columbo episodes of all.

Did you know?

Candidate for Crime Nelson Hayward

Hayward keeps turning up like a bad penny!

Double Exposure marks the first time that Columbo refers to a previous case. When he arrives at the crime scene, the Lieutenant is desperately seeking sustenance having missed dinner because he was ‘working late on the Hayward case’ – a referral to the previous episode, Candidate for Crime.

The Hayward case clearly means a lot to Columbo as he references it again in the very next episode, Publish or Perish.

How I rate ’em

Double Exposure is a hugely enjoyable romp that rises above the far-fetched nature of the killing due to the riveting confrontation between Columbo and Keppel. It’s right up there with the best of ’em. 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. Double Exposure
  7. Lady in Waiting
  8. Any Old Port in a Storm
  9. Prescription: Murder
  10. The Most Crucial Game
  11. Etude in Black
  12. Candidate for Crime
  13. Greenhouse Jungle
  14. Requiem for a Falling Star
  15. Blueprint for Murder
  16. Ransom for a Dead Man
  17. Dead Weight
  18. The Most Dangerous Match
  19. Lovely but Lethal
  20. Short Fuse
  21. Dagger of the Mind

As always, your thoughts on this review and this episode as a whole will be most welcome. Thanks for stopping by, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on our next instalment, Publish or Perish, in the coming weeks. And you know what that means, don’t you? YES! Big Jack Cassidy is back. And if anyone can help us overcome the bitter pill of Robert Culp’s 17-year Columbo hiatus, it’s Jack!

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Robert Culp yellow jacket

I’ll tell you what, sir, if you give me the jacket I’ll let you go free…