Almost a year ago, Columbophile and I wrote contrasting reviews of Season 2 episode Dagger of the Mind: Columbophile loathed the episode (it’s still dead last on his ratings list); I enjoyed it as a pastiche paying comic homage to the Golden Age of British detective stories.
Now the shoe is on the other foot. Publish or Perish is one of Columbophile’s favorite Columbo episodes (read his full review here). I consider Publish or Perish one of the series’ great disappointments.
Publish or Perish!? Am I serious!? A Jack Cassidy episode? Not only a Jack Cassidy episode but, in the opinion of many, the best Cassidy episode—ranking his Riley Greenleaf above both Ken Franklin and The Great Santini as his finest Columbo appearance.
And what about director Robert Butler’s literally explosive opening sequence featuring John Chandler as Eddie Kane in a stand-out supporting performance—followed by Butler’s montage of Eddie Kane, Alan Mallory, and Riley Greenleaf, while the latter is drinking and driving his way to an alibi?
For good measure, there is also the clever casting of Mickey Spillane as Alan Mallory. [Every time I hear “Mickey Spillane,” my first thought is of the scene in the Oscar-winning film Marty where one of Marty’s friends recounts in detail one of Spillane’s bloodier passages, to which another friend responds, “Boy, that Mickey Spillane, he sure can write.”]
I’ll grant you all of these things. Feel free to add to the list. I didn’t call Publish or Perish “bad”; I called it “disappointing.” The longer your list of good things in the episode, the greater my disappointment. Because Publish or Perish has all the necessary pieces for a great Columbo. It even has the material for a first-class Columbo ending, but botched it. If only Peter S. Fischer’s “pop” clue (Peter Falk’s term for the final clue with which Columbo nails the villain) had been as good as everything else. But instead, Publish or Perish fumbled the ending completely. And from my perspective, this is an unpardonable Columbo sin.
When I judge a Columbo, I judge the ending first. A well-directed, well-acted episode cannot compensate for a bad ending. Even slick, well-written dialogue cannot compensate for a poor “pop.” And Publish or Perish’s “you don’t kill off Rock Hudson” “pop” clue—and everything in the episode supporting it—is simply lousy.
“Publish or Perish fumbled the ending completely. And from my perspective, this is an unpardonable Columbo sin.”
If we take a close look at the structure of Publish or Perish—the whys and wherefores of how the episode is plotted—I think we will see how much better the episode would have been if all the “you don’t kill off Rock Hudson” business had been trashed. [I’m sure Columbo’s NBC Sunday Mystery Movie companion, McMillan & Wife, didn’t need its star mentioned in Publish or Perish to draw an audience.]
Riley Greenleaf’s “perfect crime” has two components. First, he frames himself for the murder of Alan Mallory: Greenleaf threatens to kill Mallory (“You will die”; “I’ll see to it” that Mallory never writes for anyone else), the murderer is told to use Greenleaf’s gun leaving Greenleaf’s fingerprints undisturbed, and to drop Greenleaf’s copy of Mallory’s office key at the scene. Second, Greenleaf gives himself an unshakeable alibi for the time of the crime: a bar crawl and car smash-up (that he claims he can’t remember) quite a distance away.
Pause here and ask yourself: why isn’t it enough for Greenleaf simply to give himself the alibi? Why does he have to go further and actually frame himself for the crime? For me, the only answer is this: because it’s necessary to create an apparent adversarial relationship between Greenleaf and Eddie Kane. After all, there’s nothing particularly ingenious about creating an alibi for yourself while your accomplice commits the crime. Nor is there anything particularly exonerating about the most likely suspect having an iron-clad alibi if he well may have had an accomplice.
However, if you can create the impression that the murderer hates Greenleaf enough to frame him, you tend to focus attention away from any theory by which the two apparent adversaries are in cahoots. [Winnie-the-Pooh’s creator, A.A. Milne, may have been the first to come up with this idea, in his play The Fourth Wall (also known as The Perfect Alibi).]
So far, so good.
When Columbo learns that Mallory had the office lock changed three weeks earlier, Columbo tells Greenleaf that he believes the killer both (a) has the second copy of the new key (“if I could find the person with that new key, I’d find the person that killed Mr. Mallory”), and (b) left Greenleaf’s key behind to frame him. What is Columbo saying? If the killer knew he needed a copy of the new key to open the door, then he must have known that the old key didn’t fit the lock. Why would leaving behind a key that couldn’t open a lock frame Greenleaf? Obviously, this is all another clever Columbo gambit intended to cause his chief suspect to do or say something to incriminate himself. And it works.
When Greenleaf pulls the champagne bottle and syringe from his desk drawer, it is clear that his plan all along has been to dispose of Kane in such a way that Kane appears to be Mallory’s killer (a job presumably made easier by the fact that Kane was Mallory’s killer). No surprise here. Every Columbo fan knows that Columbo accomplices can calculate their life expectancy with an NBA game clock.
Remember Tracy O’Connor in Suitable for Framing? Tony Goodland in The Greenhouse Jungle? Shirley Blane in Lovely But Lethal? As Ray Flemming said about the first Columbo accomplice, Joan Hudson in Prescription: Murder, “Something would’ve been arranged, like an accident maybe.” Even Jack Cassidy must always have known that Eddie Kane had to go. Remember what he had to do to Lilly La Sanka in Murder by the Book?
“Every Columbo fan knows that Columbo accomplices can calculate their life expectancy with an NBA game clock.”
What Greenleaf didn’t plan on was including the new office key. Thanks to Columbo, that part is improvised—and improvisation is usually the beginning of the end for most Columbo villains.
So Greenleaf spikes a bottle of champagne, adds Mallory’s office key to Kane’s keychain, checks to make sure that his phone number is in Kane’s address book, and types a cover letter and synopsis of Mallory’s novel (in Kane’s name) on Kane’s typewriter. Then Greenleaf uses one of Kane’s grenades to blow his accomplice up. [By the way, has an explosion that loud ever caused so little damage to the bomb site? The next day, Kane’s apartment looked no worse than it looked before the blast.]
The elements of Columbo’s solution are all in place–without the added business about Mallory changing his ending so “you don’t kill off Rock Hudson.” Yes, it’s necessary that Greenleaf know enough about Mallory’s book to write a credible synopsis. But we have Norman Wolpert of the Lewis Manuscript Service to establish this. The final scene should begin, not end, with Norman proving that Greenleaf had the wherewithal to write the “Kane” synopsis.
Then the only further proof Columbo would need to nail Greenleaf is something showing that Greenleaf is, in fact, framing Kane. And Columbo has that evidence! The office key! Columbo even confirms that Greenleaf is the only person he told that “there had to be another key to fit the new lock.”
A lot of terrific Columbos end with Columbo conning the killer into locating or planting or manufacturing a key piece of evidence, an act irreconcilable with his or her innocence (e.g., Ransom for a Dead Man; Death Lends a Hand; Requiem for a Falling Star; Swan Song; A Friend in Deed; Negative Reaction; Troubled Waters; The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case). Peter S. Fischer wrote two of these episodes (A Friend in Deed; Negative Reaction). Why not use this ending here?
In other words, when Columbo reveals that he just changed the Mallory office lock a second time, why isn’t Kane’s matching key the “pop”? Who, but Greenleaf, could have put that key on Kane’s chain? Who, but Greenleaf and Columbo, even knew about the key? Instead, the new key is brought out at the beginning of the final scene and promptly forgotten. Instead, we get the confusing “you don’t kill off Rock Hudson” ending.
Cynics among you are probably now decrying: “But what disproves Kane didn’t come back two days later, intent on ransacking Mallory’s files, and have the new key made so he could get in?” Fair question. But you don’t need Rock Hudson to answer it. All you need is one additional fact, simple and uncontrived: that Kane’s fingerprints aren’t on the key. They’re on the other two keys on Kane’s keychain, but not on this key. How is that possible? If Kane only put the key on his chain, he would have left fingerprints. [Columbo occasionally used negative clues (the clock that didn’t chime in The Most Crucial Game; the muleta that had no water stains in Matter of Honor), but never fingerprints that should have been there but weren’t. Too bad. It’s a great clue. In a courtroom scene in my play Framed, a police witness cannot explain why the defendant’s fingerprints were left carelessly all over her gun, while all the bullets remained pristine.]
You need zero further exposition to complete this “pop.” We’ve already seen Greenleaf, wearing surgical gloves, take Kane’s keychain from his jacket, add the key, and replace it in the pocket. No prints.
Compare this to the clumsy way in which the Rock Hudson storyline was shoved into the episode. Exhibit A: the Chasen’s Restaurant scene, where we first learn about the “you don’t kill off Rock Hudson” change to the ending of Alan Mallory’s novel. Sure, the scene has its delightful “fish out of water” moments, with Columbo trading his usual hot-dog-stand lunch for the valet parking and “big menu” of a swanky restaurant, and forgoing the menu’s sweetbreads financière and trout amandine for non-menu chilli.
But there is no credible investigative reason why Columbo ever goes to Chasen’s to meet Geoffrey Neal and Eileen McRae. On paper, it’s to ask them if they can “think of someone who might want to frame Mr. Greenleaf.” Really? You mean the framing of Riley Greenleaf isn’t just a ploy Columbo is using with Greenleaf, to put him off his guard? You mean Columbo is taking this theory seriously? For the reasons I gave previously, I find that hard to believe.
No, the scene exists for only one reason: exposition. So Geoffrey and Eileen can tell Columbo about the changed ending—something of no relevance to anything Columbo is then investigating.
But to top it all off, the Rock Hudson ending has a major flaw. How does Riley Greenleaf, listening to Mallory’s dictation, write a synopsis containing the new ending? According to Eileen McRae, in the new ending, the hero “says goodbye to the material world, and goes off to a monastery.”
Before being shot, Mallory begins to dictate this ending. He dictates: “He knew which way he would have to turn. Out across the plains was the monastery of St. Ignatius, offering him hope and a chance to wash away the wounds of war that had brutalized him.” We don’t know if he actually goes there, if he reconsiders, if someone or something intervenes, because Mallory never gets the chance to write the end of his book. But what we do know is that “the monastery at St. Ignatius” is part of the final tape Mallory is dictating to, as he says, “wrap it up for the first draft.”
So how did “the monastery at St. Ignatius” dictation get to Norman Wolpert and hence to Riley Greenleaf? Columbo seizes both the tape recorder and the final tape. He plays part of the tape to Greenleaf at the police station. The final tape never gets to the Lewis Manuscript Service.
Publish or Perish is one of two 1970s Columbos solved because a writing contained facts unknown at the time it supposedly was written. Identity Crisis is the other. I’m not a fan of either solution.
Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at the Publish or Perish story meetings. Given that Fischer wrote the “only one person, beside myself, knew this” ending for his superb A Friend in Deed script, later in Season 3, there’s reason to suspect that he may have done so here first—that the new office key was his initial “pop” clue for Publish or Perish. It’s only a guess, but a reasonable one. Why wasn’t it considered enough? How did the Rock Hudson business not only barge into the script, but become the “pop”?
“Prior to Publish or Perish, the only Season 3 Columbo with a tack-on ending was Lovely But Lethal, an episode acknowledged for its mediocrity.”
For me, it wrecks the episode. It’s a flawed ending forced into the story, with a lot of cumbersome exposition required to explain it, rather than a logical ending flowing naturally from what’s already in the story.
Compare this ending to the last three episodes reviewed here: Any Old Port in a Storm, Candidate for Crime, and Double Exposure. In the first, the murderer is caught because his murder plan left an exceedingly subtle clue behind that only the murderer could detect. In the second, the murderer had to try one last time to arrange an unsuccessful attempt on his life. In the third, the murderer’s modus operandi was used on him. See the difference? See how these solutions are baked into the core of the story?
Prior to Publish or Perish, the only Season 3 Columbo with a tack-on ending was Lovely But Lethal, an episode acknowledged for its mediocrity. The fact that Publish or Perish is not similarly viewed is a testament to Jack Cassidy, John Chandler, and Robert Butler’s ability to distract us away from Publish or Perish’s prominent story flaw.
It’s an awkward achievement, but an achievement nonetheless.
Richard Weill is a playwright, lawyer and former US prosecutor based in New York. A Columbo fan since the show first aired, he is an occasional guest contributor to the Columbophile blog
Read Columbophile’s take on Publish or Perish here.
Which camp do you sit in? Is Publish or Perish awesome or a let down? Let us know below?