Episode review: Columbo A Friend in Deed


Columbo A Friend in Deed opening titles

Columbo took a dark twist for its Season 3 finale, with A Friend in Deed taking viewers on a very different type of adventure by pitting the Lieutenant against his own superior officer, Deputy Commissioner Mark Halperin.

With a cast boasting Richard Kiley, and Peter Falk’s great mate Ben Gazzara in the director’s chair, the omens looked good for a rip-roaring curtain-closer to a magnificent season of event television. But is A Friend in Deed a shining jewel in the Columbo crown, or just too dark for its own good? Let’s turn back the clocks to 5th May 1974 and find out…

Columbo A Friend in Deed cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Deputy Commissioner Mark Halperin: Richard Kiley
Hugh Caldwell: Michael McGuire
Margaret Halperin: Rosemary Murphy
Artie Jessup: Val Avery
Lieutenant Duffy: John Finnegan
Wexler the Jeweller: Eric Christmas
Jeweller’s assistant: Arlene Martell
Directed by: Ben Gazzarra
Written by: Peter S. Fischer
Score by: Dick De Benedictis & Billy Goldenberg

Episode synopsis: Columbo A Friend in Deed

Hugh Caldwell makes a phone call to his neighbour’s house. He looks seriously stressed out, and becomes more so when he learns that the man he’s trying to reach – Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Halperin – is out at ‘the club’. As Caldwell wanders back through his house we see why he’s agitated: his wife Janice lies dead on the living room floor.

Slinging on his jacket, Caldwell heads out and is soon bending Halperin’s ear about his woes. He didn’t mean to kill his wife. He’d grabbed her by the throat in a fit of pique and it was all over before he knew it. So what can he do?

Luckily for Hugh, Halperin is a man of action. Everyone knew that Hugh and Janice were having marital troubles, so Hugh mustn’t report the crime himself. Instead Halperin demands Hugh waits at the club and rings his own home from there at 10.30pm. Halperin will answer and tell him what to do. Until then, Hugh must stay in plain sight.

Commissioner Mark Halperin Columbo

Evil beard + jaunty hat = BAD COP!

Cut to Halperin at the Caldwell residence, the rakish angle he’s sporting his hat at leaving the viewers in no doubt that he’s a very bad cop. He jimmies the garden gate lock and patio doors to gain entrance, then sneaks upstairs to get a night gown for Janice and to remove some family jewels.

Hugh rings right on schedule, and the two simulate a homely husband-and-wife chat as a jolly bartender looks on. Before he rings off, Halperin tells his twitchy partner to stay where he is until the police contact him. He then rings off, changes Janice’s clothes and heads for his own home right across the road, hiding the stolen jewels in his garage.

He races upstairs to his own wife, Margaret and implicates her in his scheme, calling her over to the bedroom window after claiming to see a man in dark clothing running from the Caldwell house. When a phone call to the house isn’t answered, Halperin summons his compadres at the LAPD – with one Lieutenant Columbo amongst the investigation team.

It looks like the ‘Bel Air Burglar’ has struck for the fourth time in 2 weeks, this time adding murder to his usual thievery. But Columbo, at least, is making no assumptions. He alone notices that Janice had left a night gown below her pillow, so requests a colleague to search for her fingerprints on the handles of her wardrobe. Little things are bothering him from the get-go.

“It looks for all the world like the ‘Bel Air Burglar’ has struck for the fourth time in 2 weeks.”

At a press conference the next day, Halperin plays into the hysteria surrounding the Bel Air Burglar, promising to double regular patrols and even get helicopter recon on the go to ensure the city’s wealthiest feel adequately protected.

He drops a clanger, though, when he references that his wife was with him when he saw the perp galloping from the Caldwell house. As a journo bellows “Does this mean your wife can identify the killer?”, a seemingly agitated Halperin bustles off stage.

Someone unimpressed with the press conference is the real Bel Air Burglar, Artie Jessup. He’s watching from his favourite slum bar and is far from pleased to have been incriminated in such amateurish work. We soon see why, as a fence comes to meet Jessup but refuses to take his wares because of the ‘heat’ now surrounding him. With even fellow low-lives suspecting him, Jessup is going to have his work cut out making ends.

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Who gardens in an outfit like this?

Columbo’s investigations, meanwhile, have taken him to the Halperin household, where his unexpected arrival causes a gardening Mrs Halperin to tear her jacket on a rose thorn. She does tell the detective that she knew of Janice’s fling with a younger man, but confirms that she did not see the perp making his escape, despite what her husband said in the press conference.

Next stop for the Lieutenant is Caldwell’s home where Hugh is moping. Columbo has discovered that there were no fingerprints on the handles of Janice’s wardrobe. So how come she was in a night gown rather than the red dress Hugh last saw her in?

Hugh has the answer. Janice always kept her night gown under the pillow, so she’d have had no reason to open to wardrobe. This detail that only a husband would know appears to put Hugh in the clear, but Columbo knows the under-pillow night gown wasn’t touched. The lack of fingerprints on the phone trouble him, too. If Janice spoke to her husband at 10.30pm, her prints should be on it.

Things are falling into place for Halperin, though. He’s going to be airborne that night on helicopter patrol so has to ensure his evil scheme comes to fruition. Back at home he encounters a coy Margaret in the bath. She asks him to leave, but he coos some sweet nothings at her to keep her keen. “Have I told you recently darling that our marriage has been a constant joy to me?” he says before gripping her neck and pushing her under the water to commit the quickest death-by-drowning ever seen on TV.

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“No, I love you more…!”

It’s a shocking crime, but if the viewer thinks it was done in the heat of the moment we’re soon proved wrong. Halperin heads to the funeral parlour to see Hugh (and pay last respects to Janice). The simpering Hugh is full of thanks to Halperin for helping him clear up this little mess. “If there’s anything I can ever do for you…” he offers. “There is my friend… tonight,” is Halperin’s ashen-faced response.

He reveals all to the bewildered Hugh. Halperin just drowned his wife and wants to set it up so the world thinks the Bel Air Burglar did it. If Hugh doesn’t help, then Halperin will personally see to it that he goes down for life. That’s friendship, baby!

The fiendish scheme plays out from the air, as Halperin swoops above the Bel Air roof tops in the police chopper. As he passes over his own home, he claims to notice someone lurking by his wife’s car. The chopper loops around and trains its searchlight on the Halperin homestead – revealing the chilling sight of a man (i.e. Hugh Caldwell) in a stocking mask carrying a limp form in his arms, which he casually lobs into the swimming pool!

As the perp dashes away, Halperin adopts the role of all-action hero, leaping into the pool from the hovering chopper and delivering mouth-to-mouth in a desperate bid to resuscitate dear Margaret – a bid doomed to fail given that she’s been stone dead for hours!

Columbo is called in. He inspects the corpse and is stunned to find that Mrs Halperin is wearing the same torn jacket that she was wearing in the garden earlier. Why is this important? She was due out that evening to pick up an award in recognition of her charitable work. There’s no way she’d have worn a torn jacket to such an important occasion.

“Columbo is increasingly sure that Hugh and Halperin are in on it together but how can he prove it with his own boss breathing down his neck?”

Halperin, meanwhile, appears gripped with rage and sadness. He’s blaming his slip of the tongue at the press conference for Margaret’s death. For his part, Columbo is bewildered why the killer would return to the area so quickly. It’s another thing that doesn’t add up.

The subsequent coroner’s report gives Columbo more reason for suspicion. An autopsy reveals that Margaret has soap in her lungs. She wouldn’t have got that from drowning in the pool, but could have if she was drowned in the bath.

Columbo is increasingly sure that Hugh and Halperin are in on it together but how can he prove it with his own boss breathing down his neck? Halperin is siding with the robbery division’s version of events that the Bel Air Burglar has gone rogue and orders  Columbo to follow up on that angle.

The dutiful Columbo does just that, visiting his opposite number Lieutenant Duffy in robbery. If it weren’t for the murders who would Duffy pin this on, Columbo asks? Easy, says Duffy. Artie Jessup every time. So Columbo sidles off to Jessup’s favourite dive bar to enlist his help.

Jessup is initially skeptical, of course. When Columbo flips the badge, the burly crook goes ape. But in a great example of his every man charm, Columbo defuses the situation and soon has an ally in his fight to take down Halperin and Hugh.


Strange bedfellows? Columbo strikes up an unlikely alliance with Artie Jessup

We soon find out what form of help this is as Hugh reports to Halperin that he’s been approached by Jessup, who is demanding money to keep his mouth shut about Hugh killing Janice. Halperin insists that Hugh finds out what Jessup knows, so dressed conspicuously in a sharp suit and huge 70s shades, Hugh scats off to the rendezvous – looking like the least believable dive bar patron of all time.

Jessup says that unless Hugh pays him $5000 he’ll admit to the first three burglaries, but will deny killing Janice. Jessup will be quite happy to return to jail, where he’s spent most of the last 20 years anyway, but the focus of the investigation will switch firmly to Hugh. Halperin orders a rattled Hugh to play along with the jewel thief’s demands.

Back at police HQ, Halperin finds Columbo looking through the files of his chief suspects – including Jessup. Feigning indifference, Halperin steals a peek at the address in Jessup’s file, then scarpers to take advantage of this new opportunity. Retrieving the stolen jewels form his garage, Halperin (hat all a-jaunty again) pays a visit to a grimy apartment block in one of LA’s less distinguished districts – the address in Jessup’s file. Using a credit card to force the lock, Halperin plants the jewels and beats a hasty retreat.

Halperin 2Cut back to Jessup’s watering hole. Hugh has returned with the cash and Jessup tells him it’ll do nicely as the first down payment. He’ll be in touch about the next one in due course. Then before you can say ‘by heck Hugh, you look out of place here‘, a gaggle of cops dash in and slap the darbies on Jessup.

Halperin, Columbo and Duffy are amongst the officers on scene, and it’s the Commissioner himself who whips out a warrant and tells Jessup they’re off to his apartment in search of evidence. Columbo gives the warrant a once over and tells the Commissioner he’s making a mistake, but Halperin won’t hear a word of it and the entourage troops off to the shabby apartment.

As officers start turning the place upside down, Columbo again tries to convince Halperin he’s making a mistake. But he then turns the screw, and references that he believes Mrs Halperin died in her bath tub, not in the pool. She likely died much earlier than initially though, too – around the time Halperin himself went home for supper that same day. “Commisioner, I believe you killed your wife, and I believe you either killed Janice Caldwell or you’re covering up for it,” he concludes.

Turning slowly to face him, Halperin’s response is his last play at staying in charge. “You just lost your badge, my friend,” he calmly retorts.

There’s a commotion behind the two men. Looks like some of Janice Caldwell’s missing jewels have been found! It’s the proof Halperin needs to have Jessup locked up. Or is it? Jessup snorts when told that the stolen jewels have been found in his apartment, and rocks the Commissioner when he snaps back: “Hey man, I don’t even live here!

In the shocked silence that follows, it’s Columbo who speaks up. “That’s true, sir, I can attest to that. He doesn’t live here, I live here.”

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“These are my pajamas. My shirts. My underwear. My photo of a man craning his neck strangely at a dog…”

Columbo, you see, had signed the lease on the place just that morning. He slipped the address into Jessup’s file. And who took a glimpse at that file? “Only one person besides myself knew this address,” Columbo says to his superior officer. “That was you, sir.”

Comprehensively outmanoeuvred, Halperin can only offer a silent nod of resignation as credits roll…

A Friend in Deed‘s best moment: good cop/bad cop?

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The episode’s greatest triumph is the portrayal of central antagonist, Deputy  Commissioner Mark Halperin. When we first meet Halperin he’s cavorting with a scarlet-clad woman and gambling in a vice den. There’s something of the devil in his looks and actions and note the clever use of mirrors, suggestive of a man with dual identities and a shadowy alter ego.

Given that we know Columbo represents all that is good about policing, this magnificent introduction sets the stall out early that Commissioner Halperin is a man we can neither like nor trust. And so it proves in riveting fashion.

My opinion on A Friend in Deed

A dark and brooding tale of police corruption, cover-up and murder, A Friend In Deed is an episode apart in many ways – and is an entirely successful addition to the series.

I’ve often said that Columbo is at its best when it’s able to play on Falk’s natural warmth and comic timing to ally gripping mysteries with plenty of laughs. A Friend in Deed turns that ideology on its head, delivering a gritty, almost entirely humour-free police drama that the viewer cannot take their eyes off.

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Devil incarnate: Mark Halperin is one of the series’ biggest baddies

Richard Kiley’s portrayal of our chief antagonist is central to the success of the episode. His Commissioner Halperin is absolutely unscrupulous, selling out his supposed friend, his ideals and the badge he’s sworn to protect in order to secure his wife’s millions. We’ve not seen such single-minded villainy since Leonard Nimoy’s icy Dr Mayfield in A Stitch in Crime. Halperin plays for high stakes and is a very dangerous enemy – ingredients that make his ultimate downfall in one of the series’ best ever gotcha moments extra satisfying.

Halperin is an interesting study. It’s as if he’s become bored of being a good guy, so no longer bothers to try. He clearly doesn’t give a fig for anything other than his wife’s riches and  scorns her charitable, philanthropic interests, at one point saying: “Darling, if you’re embarrassed by all your millions, why don’t you just sign them over to me? They wouldn’t embarrass me in the least.”

We can only wonder how long Halperin had been planning to do away with poor, unloved Margaret. Evidently some time given his wholehearted embrace of Hugh’s crisis moment and how swiftly he turned it to his advantage. He deserves credit for his speed of thought, if nothing else, in turning a neighbour’s misfortune into his own opportunity to trouser a $4.5 million fortune.

“Is it conceivable that a senior officer would be unaware of Columbo’s amazing track record?”

That said, despite being a smart operator and quick thinker, there must be some question marks over Halperin’s judgement. For one thing, is it conceivable that a senior officer would be unaware of Columbo’s amazing track record? After all, the Lieutenant was described as ‘fast becoming a legend in the department‘ only a year earlier. There are plenty of bungling homicide officers Halperin could have called in to investigate instead to maximise his chances of success. Selecting Columbo smacks of either indifference or uber-confidence.

Does he underestimate Columbo like so many others have done in the past? If so, that’s a desperately poor play. Maybe his arrogance is such that he didn’t consider anyone on the force his mental equal. He certainly seems to hold the LAPD in low esteem on the whole and was not expecting the thorough investigation and inquisitive mind Columbo brought to proceedings. Maybe he neglected to read up on the Hayward Case?

One might also question Halperin’s choice of partner in crime. Hugh is far too lily-livered to rely on. He’s the weak link and Halperin must have known it. Maybe his next step would have been to kill Hugh and make it look like a suicide? Given Halperin’s lack of scruples I wouldn’t be surprised, but alas we’ll never know. Certainly hapless Hugh will turn on Halperin to save his own skin. Oh to be a fly on the wall at their future courtroom encounter!

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Halperin and Caldwell: Master and apprentice

Kiley isn’t the only example of perfect casting. Step forward Val Avery as Artie Jessup. Avery made a living playing petty thugs on the small and large screen and he’s really wonderful in this, giving us menace, combustibility and a ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude that grounds the character in a grubby reality.

And that reality is a side of Columbo we seldom see. We’re so used to seeing the Lieutenant in high society circles that it’s almost more difficult to picture him mixing with the city’s underbelly – despite his scruffy appearance. But that’s what we get in A Friend in Deed, and it doesn’t hurt the episode one bit. In fact it’s fascinating to see how Columbo interacts with Jessup and the ease in which he wins the con’s trust and, ultimately, his complaisance.

Of all episodes, this is probably the one where we see the ‘real’ Lieutenant the most, as he eschews his veneer of bumbling and confusion to cut to the chase, showing a strength of character and a grittier aspect of his personality that is usually kept hidden. His take down of Halperin requires guts and self-assurance in equal measure, but he doesn’t blink when going eye-to-eye against his superior.

Columbo Friend in Deed

No Commissioner, you just lost YOUR badge, my friend…

This thrilling confrontation helps keep the viewer transfixed for nigh on 100 minutes of spellbinding action. Regular readers will know that the thorny subject of Columbo episode running times is a theme I return to time and again. As a rule, I believe longer episodes (95+ minutes without ads) are inferior to the shorter, 75-minute episodes, due to merciless padding of scenes that can take the edge off an otherwise cracking yarn.

A Friend in Deed bucks that trend handsomely becoming the first episode since Ransom for a Dead Man that really justifies a longer running time. Its deep, complex plot just couldn’t be shoehorned into 75 minutes. My episode summary above actually misses out a number of salient plot points simply to keep it to a readable length.

“There was a lot of money spent on this episode, and it was money well spent.”

All credit, then, to director Ben Gazzara and writer Peter S. Fischer, who didn’t waste a minute of screen time. Gazzara in particular impresses because, being one of Falk’s best friends, it would have been easy to lapse into indulgence and lose the sharp edge of the drama. That never threatens to occur here. That he returned to direct Troubled Waters a year later – an episode full of fun, and a polar opposite to this – speaks volumes about his abilities.

Fischer, meanwhile, was establishing himself as the Columbo writer of the day. He was introduced to the series in the similarly excellent (and complex) Publish or Perish earlier in the season, and was swiftly into his stride. I nominally prefer Publish, but Fischer really aced the ending here in a way that eluded him in his previous outing.

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Action Man Halperin preparing to leap from a moving helicopter

I also enjoy that A Friend in Deed feels like a big deal. There’s a lot of location shooting and, wonder of wonders, some actual action sequences! Columbo‘s such a talkie show that it rarely relies on action set pieces, but here we have two to write home about in a single episode: the exciting police bust at Jessup’s bar and Halperin’s glorious ‘man-leaps-from-helicopter-into-swimming-pool’ stunt. There was a lot of money spent on this episode, and it was money well spent.

So are there any weaknesses? None to speak of, other than the aforementioned and hard-to-explain lapses in Halperin’s judgement. Some might find it a shade too dark to easily stomach, and there’s none of the levity that Falk is usually able to bring to proceedings. What humour there is is largely restricted to the Lieutenant’s trials and tribulations with his car, which is more unreliable than ever. That aside, it’s all played with a very straight face. This is what Columbo would be if it was a gritty police drama. And it works.

If every episode was as dark and humourless as this it’s unlikely that Columbo would have been such an enduringly popular show. But as a one-off, A Friend in Deed has great impact and easily rates as one of the series’ stand-out adventures.

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What a way to finish Season 3!

Did you know?

Un Amico Da Salvare posterA Friend in Deed was one of a series of Columbo episodes (along with Ransom for a Dead Man, Etude in Black and Dagger of the Mind) to be released theatrically in Italy in the late 1970s.

Un Amico Da Salvare opened in Italian cinemas on 12th December 1978 and was accompanied by the pictured, ultra-cool movie poster. The chessboard design means fans often mistake it for an Italian version of The Most Dangerous Match.

Various guises of the poster can be found relatively easily on eBay at not too high a price, so if there’s a gap on your living room wall, why not have a look?

How I rate ’em

With virtually no weaknesses, A Friend in Deed is brilliant television and rightly takes its place in the top echelons of the leaderboard, with very little to separate it from the episodes I currently rank above it.

Read any of my past episode reviews via the links below.

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

How do you rate this dark departure from the Columbo norm? I’d love to know, so leave your comments below. And if you heart A Friend in Deed above all others, do consider voting for it in the Columbo fans’ favourite episode poll.

That’s a wrap for Season 3, so the next review will be Season 4 curtain-raiser An Exercise in Fatality, starring the beefcake-tastic Robert Conrad. See you there…

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Columbo’s rib-tickling cameo in 1984 blockbuster Tootsie