Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 4

Episode review: Columbo An Exercise in Fatality

Columbo Exercise in Fatality opening titles

Four months after Season 3 ended in thrilling style, Columbo burst back on to screens in the trim, taut and terrific form of An Exercise in Fatality.

Starring Robert Conrad in short shorts, and with the surprisingly shady scene of fitness club franchises as the backdrop, Exercise was treading new territory when it debuted on September 15, 1974.

But how does it compare to all that’s come before it? Let’s stock up on carrot juice and vitamin pills and get ready to huff and puff on our rotten cigars until next July as we find out…

Columbo Exercise in Fatality cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Milo Janus: Robert Conrad
Jessica Conroy: Gretchen Corbett
Gene Stafford: Philip Bruns
Ruth Stafford: Collin Wilcox
Buddy Castle: Pat Harrington
Lewis Lacey: Darrell Zwerling
Snooty Tricon woman: Susan Jacoby
Written by: Peter S. Fischer (from a story by Larry Cohen)
Directed by: Bernard Kowalski
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis: Columbo An Exercise in Fatality

Milo Janus runs his health spa network like a despot. He’s got controlling interests in pretty much every supplier to the network, and is charging franchisees over the odds for everything from gym equipment to pens and paper.

It’s a ‘healthy’ little racket – but perhaps not for long. Gene Stafford, owner of the Chatswood franchise, has had enough. Gene’s been seeking evidence of profiteering, and thinks he’s getting close to bringing Janus’s gym empire crashing down around his ears.

Fatality 3

Blue-eyed boy? Hardly. Milo Janus is one of the series’ most loathsome baddies

Summoning Janus to a meeting, Gene tells him that his days are numbered. “I can smell flim-flam right down to the paper clips you make me buy,” he sneers, before promising Janus he won’t rest until he has enough evidence to start a class action against him.

It’s fighting talk, but Janus has both the stomach and physique for a scrap. All Gene is saying is true. Janus has been channelling company funds out of the country and is planning to do a runner to Europe to live off his ill-gotten gains. As Janus himself confides to partner-in-crime Buddy Castle: “In eight months I’ll be in my villa overlooking the Adriatic with 2 million in Swiss francs to keep me warm.”

He’s sufficiently spooked, however, to know he has to prevent Gene from blowing his cover. And the best way to do that? Cold-blooded murder! And so coercing his hot young secretary / lover Jessica Conroy to leave the office early, Janus finds a tape recorded phone call made by Gene to his office earlier that day and gets a-splicing. He returns home to plant the sham tape recorded message in his study, pointedly removing a light bulb from his phone that indicates when one of its two lines is in use. Why? Tune back later…

We next encounter Janus back at the Chatswood spa. It’s after hours, and he sneaks in through a rear door to confront Gene in his office. Gene is in high spirits, believing he’s found what he needs to see Janus charged with grand larceny – and that’s when Janus springs into action.

Whipping a metal pipe out of his back pocket, Janus attempts to strangle Gene against a wall. His attempt fails as Gene pours a pot of coffee on his assailant’s arm and takes flight through the empty building. His bid to escape is short-lived, however, as Janus chases him down and chokes him to death.

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Janus’s approach to diplomacy is as uncompromising as his approach to business

Janus then carries Gene’s lumpen corpse to the changing rooms and kits him out in gym clobber and sneakers. Laying Gene on a weight bench, Janus balances a heavily-stacked barbell on Gene’s neck to make it look for all the world like death was caused by an epic gym fail.

Now to establish alibi. Janus is staging a shindig at his luxury pad. While he’s been out a-killing, lover Jessica has been entertaining his guests. Claiming to have been sent on a wild goose chase across town to a business meeting that never took place, Janus apologises to his guests and slips into a side room to start the movie projector.

While he’s there he whips out his tape recorded message of Gene’s voice and uses the study phone to call his own home’s second line, which Jessica answers. The tape recorded message is Gene’s voice asking for Janus, so he takes the phone and stage manages a faux conversation.

“Janus hasn’t reckoned on the immense abilities of one Lieutenant Columbo.”

Within ear shot of his guests, Janus makes it clear that Gene is already in his gym gear and is planning a workout before heading home, and loudly warns him not to try anything too strenuous. It’s a fine performance from the nerveless Janus, who has every reason to believe he’s gotten away with murder.

Naturally he hasn’t reckoned on the abilities of one Lieutenant Columbo, who is amongst the police detail sent to investigate early the next morning. It is he that notices the spilt coffee stains on Gene’s office carpet and the large number of empty Chinese takeaway boxes on his desk. Who would work out after eating a big meal like that?

He also spots brown shoe polish marks on the newly waxed gym floors – the sort that would be made if someone was running,  then involved in a scuffle. None of the police officers are wearing brown heels, but Columbo finds Gene’s shoes in his gym locker. And guess what? They’re brown. Already the little things aren’t adding up…

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For many viewers, this scene is the defining moment from Exercise in Fatality

The Lieutenant heads out to Janus HQ to break news of Gene’s demise, but he’s absolutely thrown when a bikini-clad Jessica answers the door. Janus is out on his morning run, so an addled Columbo makes awkward small talk until the master of the house returns.

Although seemingly saddened by Gene’s death, Janus takes the opportunity to reiterate that he warned Gene not to overdo it the night before. The observant Lieutenant is swiftly picking up clues, though. As he takes his leave, he notices the burn mark from the coffee on Janus’s arm. The fiendish killer claims it was hot water from when he was shaving, but Columbo is already joining the dots.

The Lieutenant’s next port of call is Gene’s estranged, alcohol-dependent wife, Ruth Stafford. She hints at strains in the relationship between Gene and Janus and references a mysterious ‘Lewis Lacey’, whose name Columbo had seen on Gene’s office calendar. Who he is will have to wait for later, though, as the detective is on his way once again.

We catch up with him again at the beach, where he’s trying to question Janus in the middle of his energetic morning workout. Invited to tag along, it’s not long before Columbo is a dishevelled, sweaty mess – and he’s not getting much out of Janus.

exercise2.jpg

Come on, Columbo, keep up buddy…

Columbo wonders why Gene would workout after eating a large Chinese meal. Easy, explains Janus. “He wanted to do everything right now… forget about the rules!” Columbo also reveals that the heel marks on the waxed floor suggest Gene was running and suddenly stopped. He concludes Gene was chased, killed, and changed into gym clothes.

Janus rebuffs the idea, reminding the Lieutenant that when he spoke to Gene on the night of his death, he was already in his gym clothes. This will become the most important statement in his ultimate downfall. At that point, the conversation is interrupted by a call from Buddy Castle. It’s here that Columbo notices the indicator light bulb is out on Janus’s phone. It seems insignificant now, but forms part of the rich tapestry of evidence Columbo is amassing.

Columbo next attempts to track down Lewis Lacey at Tricon Industries, only to find that he was terminated some moons before. Lacey does show up at Ruth Stafford’s house, though. He explains that he had been doing some forensic accounting of Janus’s books at Gene’s request. While Janus is technically within the law, Lacey suspects that he’s been sending company funds abroad without informing the IRS. He leaves his files with Ruth.

“Columbo concludes that Gene was chased, killed, and changed into gym clothes.”

Columbo’s investigations, meanwhile, take him to Milo Janus HQ where a brief meeting with Jessica yields yet more clues. She tape records every call that is made to the office in case of law suits. She then discusses the call she answered at Janus’s house on the night of Gene’s death, recalling that the voice she heard was Gene who said: “Hi Jessica, Gene Stafford.” Why is this significant? Well, it was the first time she’d ever been at Janus’s house. Naturally Columbo wonders why Gene wasn’t at all surprised to hear Jessica answer the phone there.

Jessica even recalls that the call from Gene came in on the second phone line into Janus’s house – because that light bulb was lit up – and that Janus was in his study at the time setting up the movie. Columbo’s suspicions are mounting fast.

The next scene is a meeting between Janus and Ruth at a restaurant as the two talk business. She reveals that she’s got Lacey’s notes and is going to pick up Gene’s investigations from where they left off, but Janus laughs it off and even suggests they head back to his place – at which point she flings a glass of wine in his face and departs.

Fatality 6

TAKE THAT!

Here the episode takes a dark twist. A shaken Ruth overdoses on booze and pills and narrowly avoids death. Columbo visits her in ICU and she’s able to feebly outline her meeting with Janus. Confronting Janus in the waiting room, Columbo, for once, can’t contain his emotions. He publicly accuses Janus of killing Gene, trashes Janus’s alibi (which he has easily disproved) and indicates that he won’t rest until he proves his case. Columbo then strides away, but a chance encounter with a mother tying her son’s shoelaces opens up a train of thought that spells doom for Janus.

Back in his office, Janus receives a call. He’s aghast when he hears Gene’s voice on the other end of the line – but not for long. Storming into the outer office, he finds Columbo, who’s keen to show him how a dead man can appear to be alive.

“A chance encounter with a mother tying her son’s shoes opens up a train of thought that spells doom for Janus.”

The detective explains how he’s been through the recorded messages from the day of Gene’s death and has already found the place where Janus spliced out Gene’s call. He gives Janus credit for removing the light bulb on his phone so Jessica didn’t realise the phoney call was being made from the other line from his own study. And then Columbo tells Janus he knows he staged a fake conversation with Gene to convince witnesses the victim was alive and well.

“Guess work. Supposition. More cigar ashes,” Janus responds, but it only stirs Columbo on. The fake conversation is what’s nailed Janus. In his sworn statement, Janus stated that Gene had claimed he was in his gym kit and about to work out. That’s impossible, Columbo concludes. Because of the shoe laces.

Fatality 7

The missing link: no, not Janus’s ape-like arms, but the front-on tying of Gene’s shoelaces…

Gene’s shoes were laced in such a way that someone else must have tied them. That means someone killed him and changed him into his gym kit. And that someone, says Columbo, is Milo Janus.

Gene, you see, was last seen alive by eye witnesses at 7.30pm wearing his business clothes. The place was then locked up for the night and Gene was found dead in his gym clothes the next morning. Nine hours before the body was found, Janus was having a ‘conversation’ about how Gene was already dressed for his workout.

“You and you alone knew that he was in his gym clothes. You said so. You swore to it in front of five witnesses,” explains Columbo, as stern as we ever see him. “How did you know he was in his gym clothes if you didn’t change the clothes? You tried to contrive the perfect alibi, sir. And it’s your perfect alibi that’s gonna hang you.”

It’s game over for Janus and his face tells us that he knows it too, as credits roll…

Best moment: the hospital showdown

Columbo losing his cool is such a rare thing that when it happens it really matters. And when he loses his cool with Milo Janus at the hospital following Ruth’s overdose, it’s as angry as we ever see him.

We’ve seen flashes of temper from Columbo before, notably in Prescription: Murder and A Stitch in Crime. The first – his tirade at Joan Hudson – was not real rage at all, but a calculated act designed to intimidate the weak link in his investigation. The latter, when he slammed a pitcher down on the desk of the laughing Dr Mayfield, seemed genuine, although Columbo’s ulterior motive of forcing Mayfield into showing his hand was certainly a factor.

“It’s raw, it’s authentic and it makes for utterly gripping viewing.”

There’s no such subterfuge here. It’s a prolonged tirade that has nothing to do with furthering his case and everything to do with letting the world know what he really thinks of Janus. It’s raw, it’s authentic and it makes for gripping viewing. See for yourself below. The quality of the clip isn’t great, but the power of the scene remains undiminished.

My opinion on Exercise in Fatality

Columbo Season 3 ended on such high notes that it was imperative Season 4 got off to a muscular start after a four-month hiatus. That was achieved literally and figuratively with An Exercise in Fatality, which pitted the doughty Lieutenant against cold-hearted fitness fanatic, Milo Janus.

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Brilliant beefcake: Robert Conrad in fighting form as Milo Janus

The casting of Janus was inspired. The handsome Robert Conrad, then aged 40, had the honed physique and icy arrogance demanded of the role, creating an unsympathetic but alluring central baddie who is both easy to hate and easy on the eye.

Unlike many of Columbo’s high society adversaries, Conrad’s Janus is more grounded in reality. He’s made his way to the top of the health club franchise world through uncompromising wheeler-dealing and has something of the street fighter about him, offering a fine combo of charming (but insincere) business kingpin and someone you wouldn’t want to be alone with in a dark alley.

Janus and Columbo never warm to each other. And that’s telling. Columbo usually finds something to admire about people, but the more he gets to know Janus, the less he likes him. Indeed, Janus has no redeeming qualities other than his bewitching good looks. He’s a morally bankrupt toad, who is only looking out for Number One.

He also commits one of the most violent, frightening Columbo murders. When Janus pins Gene against the wall with an iron pipe, Gene is terrified, breaking free and taking a desperate flight before being hunted down. And even if he was eventually ‘choked’ in a 10th of the time that would really be required, it’s a very powerful scene.

Elsewhere, Janus’s circle of trust seems to extend only as far as right hand man Buddy Castle (Pat Harrington), who has himself served jail time for fraud. It’s a smile-raising admission, then, when Janus casually tells the Lieutenant: “Buddy is as honest as I am.” For a character with such a strict moral compass as Columbo, this is as good as Janus shouting from the rooftop: “I’M A BADDIE! LOCK ME UP!

Exercise Corvette

Crime doesn’t pay, amirite Buddy Castle?

Janus’s vile nature makes it inevitable that his relationship with Columbo will head south, and so it proves. As well as murder and an unethical approach to business, Janus’s wickedness also causes the fragile Ruth Stafford to make an attempt on her own life – an act that Columbo cannot turn a blind eye to.

It leads to the magnificent hospital showdown (outlined above), and a finale to savour as Columbo meticulously outlines his case against Janus, taking obvious pleasure in revealing just how much weight of evidence he has at his disposal to crush Janus into a proverbial pulp. It’s a confrontation for the ages.

Peter Falk is marvellous throughout. He’s firing on all cylinders here and showing no signs of being jaded in the role. Falk had earned a big pay hike for Season 4, up from $100,000 per episode to $132,000 (the equivalent of $660,000 today), but he can’t be accused of going through the motions. This is one of his best ever Columbo turns, boasting great humour, humanity and steel.

“The take-down itself is extra satisfying because Columbo really can’t stand Janus.”

He also gets a chance to revel in an excellent finale, where he tells Janus exactly what happened on the night of the murder. When he says to Janus: “I’ll tell you how you did it, if you’re interested,” it’s a line straight out of Sherlock Holmes, who took repeated delight in outlining every little step he took to crack the most impossible cases. The take-down is extra satisfying because Columbo really can’t stand the guy. As a result, he takes a grim satisfaction when telling Janus that it’s his ‘perfect alibi that’s gonna hang you’.

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Ruth Stafford is ably portrayed as a tragic figure by Collin Wilcox

Pleasingly, the work put in by the supporting cast is just as good. Special mention goes to Collin Wilcox, as the “little bit smashed” Ruth Stafford. She joins the list of sad alcoholic Columbo wives, which includes Vicky Hayward from Candidate for Crime and Joanna Clay from Last Salute to the Commodore. She drinks to forget, a lot, but has the presence of mind when it most counts to stand up to Janus. When she flings a glass of wine in his face in the restaurant after he suggests the two head back to his place, the audience roars its approval.

In the role of Jessica Conroy, Gretchen Corbett is even more memorable – largely because of the impact she has on Columbo (and many viewers) when opening the door for him dressed only in that tiny, cherry-print bikini.

“Janus and Conroy are the Prom King and Queen of the Columbo opus.”

She is gorgeous in this episode, but brings much more to the role than mere eye candy. Jessica holds her own with Janus in the confidence stakes and her sharp memory provides Columbo with vital evidence he needs to bring down her boss.

Corbett would go on to achieve wider fame as Beth Davenport in The Rockford Files, but her iconic bikini appearance here has arguably helped her achieve TV immortality. Indeed it must be said that Janus and Conroy really are the Prom King and Queen of the Columbo opus. The Lieutenant’s really hanging with the hotties in this one…

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Hotties: Janus and Conroy

All participants benefit from a splendid Peter S. Fischer script, who proved his worth on Season 3 outings Publish or Perish and A Friend in Deed on his way to becoming the series’ official story editor for Season 4. Fischer loved the Columbo character, and his scripts were honed to give Falk maximum opportunities to shine.

Exercise is no exception. When initially wandering around the crime scene, an exhausted Columbo cannot think straight and begs for coffee. “Before coffee I’m up, I’m walking around, but I’m not awake,” he confides to a colleague – a sentiment that reverberates with millions of viewers to this day.

“Before coffee I’m up, I’m walking around, but I’m not awake.”

Fischer also ensured that Falk’s natural comic talents could be harnessed. The scenes where Columbo endeavours to keep up with Janus during his beach workout, before having to discreetly tip a tonne of sand from his boots in Janus’s flower beds, are a terrific. His bemusement at being served up a Janus-style breakfast of carrot juice and vitamin pills is palpable. “I’ll save these for lunch,” he deadpans, pocketing the pills.

There’s also a fine scene when Columbo takes up the special 30-day gym offer at Gene’s health spa – ostensibly to get fit after taking Janus’s advice, but really to unsettle Janus and further his investigations. Seeing the tracksuited Columbo tethered to a running machine as he puffs and pants through a brief chat with Janus delights every time.

Milo Janus Columbo Exercise in Fatality

Hard-boiled eggs and black coffee this ain’t…

Yes, when it comes to performances and script Exercise in Fatality delivers in spades. But the enduring quality of a Columbo episode depends greatly on the story and the mystery at its heart. Exercise delivers here, too – particularly with how effectively Columbo makes his case.

Critics of the show play up the fact that Columbo often only has circumstantial evidence and a hunch to follow. It’s his incessant bothering of suspects that leads to them confessing, they bleat. Exercise blows that assumption out of the water. The Lieutenant’s hunches are underpinned by rock solid police work, which leaves Janus with no wriggle room at episode’s end.

And it’s not just the shoelace clue. Most people remember the shoelace clue as being the critical one. It’s not. The shoelaces merely serve as a link for Columbo to connect the other evidence he’s collected. And it’s a long, damning list. Consider:-

  • Indicator light bulb out on phone
  • Janus’s alibi busted
  • Gene phone call being spliced out of office tape recorder
  • Burn on Janus’s arm, coffee stain on Gene’s office carpet
  • Janus ‘conversation’ with Gene and sworn testimony that Gene was in gym wear
  • Gene’s shoe polish marks on gym floor indicate chase and sudden stop
  • Gene’s work shoelaces were left tied in his locker
  • Strong man needed to lift and place weight on Gene’s neck
  • Gene eating big meal before workout
  • Lacey suggestion that Janus is channelling money overseas without informing IRS
  • Shoelaces tied by another person

In short, Janus is toast. He’s one of the most demonstrably guilty of any Columbo killer. He may have a slammin’ bod, but the only slamming he’s going to be hearing for the next 30 years is the cell door closing at night.

And yet despite all this, Exercise in Fatality isn’t one of my absolute favourites. With a running time in excess of 95 minutes, this is really too long for its own good. A lot of fun scenes are extended beyond their natural lifespan, slightly blunting their impact. Other scenes aren’t necessary at all and serve only to pad out the episode – a pet peeve of mine.

Columbo Exercise in Fatality

Over the course of the Tricon Industries scene, I was able to read War & Peace, run a marathon, prepare a banquet, wash the car, walk the dog, paint the house…

The Tricon scene, where Columbo is kept waiting for a computer printout by a snooty jobsworth, is particularly tiresome. It’s nearly 7 minutes of screen time that does nothing to progress the plot. Frankly, the whole Lewis Lacey sub-plot could have been cut without greatly harming the episode. Even the denouement takes an age, as Columbo explains the shoelace deduction in painstaking detail – far more detail than the observant viewer needs.

Still, that won’t bother most viewers, and with so many memorable scenes and one of the series’ most dastardly villains to root against, I can understand why many rate this so highly. For my part, while I admire its many redeeming features, Exercise in Fatality falls just short of fully capturing my heart. Unlike its central antagonist, it’s a little too flabby for its own good.

Did you know?

Peter Falk was so enamoured by the shoelace clue that he made an impromptu appearance on The Tonight Show to big it up with Johnny Carson.

Seemingly having literally hopped from one studio to another, and in full Columbo regalia, Falk waxed lyrical about the episode in a fun-filled 5-minute guest slot, which you can view in all its glory below.

How I rate ’em

It’s not quite top tier, but An Exercise in Fatality compares favourably with many of the best-loved episodes, including Swan Song and Etude in Black. 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. An Exercise in Fatality
  13. Swan Song
  14. The Most Crucial Game
  15. Etude in Black
  16. Candidate for Crime
  17. Greenhouse Jungle
  18. Requiem for a Falling Star
  19. Blueprint for Murder
  20. Ransom for a Dead Man
  21. Dead Weight
  22. The Most Dangerous Match
  23. Lovely but Lethal
  24. Short Fuse
  25. Mind Over Mayhem
  26. Dagger of the Mind

If you dig it more than I do, consider voting for Exercise in the Columbo fans’ favourite episode poll.

And remember, when I grow, you grow, so please feel free to share this article on your social channels to help make sure it reaches as wide an audience as possible.

Next up is the rib-tickling Negative Reaction, starring Dick Van Dyke as murderous photographer Paul Galesko. Can’t wait! See you then…


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Find out where Milo Janus ranks in the list of Columbo’s most loathsome baddies

BUY THE WHOLE COLUMBO SERIES ON DVD HERE!

 

 

110 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo An Exercise in Fatality

  1. you’re wrong about the tricon scene not furthering the plot. this is where columbo gets fooled by lacy’s answering machine. which led him to milo’s scam.

  2. Hi from Italy! First of all, I have to say your blog and your reviews are awesome. However, there’s one thing I really struggle to understand in this episode (and looking at the reviews on IMDB, I’m not the only one). The clue which, according to Columbo, is the proof that Janus is the murder, is his statement about the victim wearing gym clothes. I don’t understand how this would prove his guilty, since Janus himself told Columbo that the victim told him he was going to make some exercise. OK, the phone was a phoney one, but again, how does the statement about the gym clothes prove Janus’guilt? Can you help me understand this, please?

    • Milo himself admits in the end, that Columbo has proven with his creative shoelace clue demonstration, that somebody except Gene himself must have dressed him to stage the accident. After this, Milo is done, because only the murderer who dressed Gene in gym clothes could have known that he is dressed in gym clothes. And by his own testimony, Milo said that Gene was dressed in gym clothes the night before the body was found.

  3. And the part at the beginning where Jessica says, “Make it 6:15” in that sexy, confident, husky voice of hers. She really wanted a relationship with Milo!

    It’s just a shame he was all into obsessing about his crimes and getting away with it. Heck, it was white collar stuff anyway, at least in the beginning.

    Hire a good CPA who walks the line and is a little dirty but not too much, maybe even bring some (most, all ?) of the money back into the country in order to declare it for taxes. No way does Milo go to jail for overcharging the franchisees.

  4. This is one of the best episodes, but I am always a little puzzled about Milo, Jessica and Buddy. Milo Janus is committing fraud on a grand scale, but he himself is not a fraud. He really has achieved the peak of health and fitness by exercise and good diet. So why, when he has gone to all the trouble of setting up his franchises, does he bilk all those poor saps? Why not just run a legitimate business and retire at 60? He’s already got it all by (presumably) legitimate means: reputation, a big house on the beach, expensive furniture (in his home and office) PLUS a beautiful and devoted secretary. I suppose the reasons are that people do this in real life, and if he was 100% legit we would not have a Columbo episode . . .

    Jessica is more of a puzzle. She is a nice girl and obviously knows nothing at all about Gene’s murder. But, is she in on Milo and Buddy’s scam? She gives no indication of this, other than laughing along with everyone else at Milo’s uncut horror movie evening. But she is totally unfazed (although a little amused) when a police officer unexpectedly comes to her boss’s beach house, right up until she finds out about Gene Stafford. No hint of guilt at all. Could it be because she obviously has nothing left to hide?

    Finally, Buddy is not involved in the murder, but he is in on the scam right up to his neck and even tips Milo off about Gene’s investigation. And yet when Gene is found dead, Buddy seems not to have the slightest suspicion that it’s not all just a bit too convenient. I guess that if Milo thought he suspected, something could have been arranged . . .

    • Jessica doesn’t seem aware that Milo is a scamp (that might depend on how long she’d been working for him, especially since she’s his secretary). When Milo tells Buddy that he will soon be in the Adriatic wallowing in the good life, he doesn’t mention taking Jessica along, only the millions of dollars.

      When Columbo tells Milo (and her) at the beach house that Gene is dead, she casts a glance at Milo as if she suspects him. Or the glance may have been that she was startled. I’m not sure which, but I interpreted the facial expression to be one of slight suspicion.

      As you pointed out, it’s interesting that Buddy doesn’t seem too suspicious.

          • Thank you for your responses to my Jessica conundrum. I think that she has been totally taken in by Milo, who has suddenly seduced her so that she will innocently take the call at his house, recognise Gene’s voice and tell the police that he was alive at that time. Columbo is immediately suspicious of Milo’s reaction to the news of Gene’s death, but Jessica is just upset by it. I don’t think that she is ever suspicious of Milo, but is just genuinely confused when Columbo asks if she had been to the house before, as although Gene would recognise her voice, he should have been surprised that she answered the phone. I’m guessing that she also does not know about the scam (good point about her not being in Milo’s long term plans) and is just laughing along with the crowd at the movie night party, without realising (perhaps like everyone else except Buddy) what Milo is really talking about.  

  5. I don’t rate this episode much except for the ending , this is on the low and least enjoyable episodes of the 70s run and I just don’t know how columbophile can rate it higher than swansong.

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  10. I do not know how you can rate this higher than swansong good ending but I’ve never been a lover of this episode except from the exchange scene they have were columbo says I wouldn’t count on that till the end , this episode I don’t think would make my top 20

    • When I tie my shoes, all I see is a tangle for a knot. It’s hard to note which loop is on top or the bottom. Actually, it looks like neither. Both loops appear to originate from the center and rest on opposite sides of the shoe. This was one of my favorite episodes, as I found Milo Janus a despicable character and his arrest was gratifying. Also, Columbo was in top form with his dogged persistence, something not always present in the less successful episodes. When Columbo is Columbo, and the villain is truly a villain, it makes for good viewing.

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    • Yes, and that must have been delibirate. Milo means something like ‘the brave’ and Janus was the two faced god in Roman mythology. Implying that Milo Janus is not what he seems. Which is of course true because he’s hiding the fact that he is a murderer, but he also looks much younger than he is.

  13. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Negative Reaction | The Columbophile

  14. I was watching this again yesterday and maybe it’s because our ideas of what a gym should look like have changed, but my goodness, Milo Janus Inc is one weird place to work out in.

    On the one hand, speaking as an out of shape man of advancing years, I welcome the fact that unlike the usual cliched gym shots, this one is mostly populated by men who really do need to lose a few stones never mind pounds. But quite why so many of them have to work out topless I am at a loss. Perhaps that was de rigeur in 70s californian gyms but I have never seen anywhere else on film – outside of homoerotica and/or porn! – a set up where so many man are putting all their sizeable wares on show.

    And another thing 🙂 I am no expert on proper gym technique but even I can tell that some of those guys are doing some seriously bad moves. Next time you watch the scene where Columbo is on the running machine, check out before that the guy who is doing some weird pull down action behind his back while stooping over. A real case of “do not try this at home kids unless you want to do yourself serious damage”.

    I don’t know about the Lieutenant. That place needs to be shut down by the health and safety before you can even have chance to complain about the marks on the waxed floor….

  15. The anger fit in “Prescription: Murder” is probably calculated, but it’s also a result of what TV Tropes would call “Early Installment Weirdness”. As this reviewer notes in their review, the character really hadn’t been firmly established in that pilot. This anger fit is simply Columbo snapping as he does in “A Stitch in Crime” and it is excellent. So surprising too–I loved Columbo spitting “What do you care?” after Janus pops up with his phony smarm.

    Didn’t read Mrs. Stafford’s overdose as a suicide attempt, but rather a pill-popping alcoholic who almost self-medicated to death.

    I liked the scene where Columbo’s waiting for the printout. Character moments that don’t advance the plot aren’t inherently bad.

    Overall one of the very best episodes. The bit about the shoelaces was bogus but, well, in the end every “Columbo” episode is bogus and every case is something a good defense attorney would blow out of the water. This one actually has enough evidence that Real Life Columbo might stand an outside shot of a conviction for once.

    Choosing to attempt to strangle someone to death when you can see they have a piping hot pot of coffee in their hand really is amazingly stupid.

  16. looking forward to your review of negative reaction , one of the best , dick van dyke is brilliant in this funny , yet serious episode I much prefer it to an exercise in fatality , ill be honest im not a fan of this episode its good but wouldn’t even get in my top 20

  17. I like the wise-guy coroner. He and Timothy Carey are two actors I wish had got more work on this show. The actor who played the coroner did come back as the key-shop owner in “Now You See Him”, and one of Lt Lucerne’s co-stars. But he and the Lt play pretty well off each other, and more graveside banter like this would have been cool.

  18. Just a quick nitpick or the recap, because I think it’s a detail that’s worth emphasizing: the whole gag is that Milo Janus looks like he’s in great shape for a guy in his fifties; but they managed that by casting Robert Conrad, who was still in his *thirties*.

  19. not one of my favouritse lacks humour , ab it too long and i really only like the ending i would watch this anytime but i would not put this in my top 20 , negative reaction is up next much better episode , funnier dick van dyke and a great story and ending look forward to that

  20. I think Columbo’s anger at Dr. Mayfield was spontaneous. He wasn’t counting on Mayfield’s laughter which came across as indifferent to Dr. Hidemann’s vulnerable condition. Ruth Stafford’s vulnerability also strongly motivated Columbo to publicly eviscerate Janus. Columbo can play games with the killer when someone is dead. But when the killer turns his attention to the living then Columbo is through playing games. Interesting that in both instances Columbo got angry inside hospitals.

  21. Has anyone noticed another connection to the Rockford files? During the establishing shots of the pilot episode of Rockford “Backlash of the hunter”, Columbo’s Peugeot is seen sitting on top of the Ocean side cafe on the pier. It’s a scene borrowed from the most crucial game where Columbo is eating chilli and Val Avery meets him.

    The tricon scene is hilarious. I think Peter Falk could relate to it having worked for the budget bureau of Connecticut before becoming an actor and he hated it.

  22. I know that I’ve taken up a lot of space commenting on this particular episode, but I’ve one last observation to make. “An Exercise in Fatality” is the only Columbo episode that I’m aware of where the murderer is so confident and so in love with himself that he thought he could win the silence of a woman who was onto him by offering to sleep with her. Here’s what Milo Janus says to Ruth Stafford in the restaurant sequence:

    Milo Janus: You don’t know anything about the business world. The real business world.
    And for that matter, neither did your husband. He lived in that ivory tower of Pentagon bureaucrats, pushovers. It’s a lot tougher selling apples on the street corner. That’s what I do, and I do it successfully. And no one’s gonna spoil it, Ruth. . . No one. Understand? Have some wine. Actually, it’s very good.. . Relax. Later, we’ll go over to my place.

    Although Ruth throws the glass of wine in Janus’s face, Janus actually thought that Ruth would succumb to his “charms.” Janus is probably the most arrogant of all the killers in the Columbo series.

      • Bumping Ruth off was likely a thought in the back of the sleazy gym entrepreneur’s head, and, if Ruth had threatened to harm him in any way, she likely would have met an “accident” not unlike the sort that Ken Franklin planned for Lily La Sanka in “Murder By the Book.” Like Dr. Ray Fleming in “Prescription: Murder,” Janus was always “thinking ahead” and “something would have been arranged; like an accident, maybe,” as Dr. Fleming put it. However, the way the scene was played, Janus thought himself to be so desirable to women that he believed that he could seduce Ruth and put her mind at ease, even though he didn’t have half the charm of Ken Franklin or even Dr. Fleming. This, I think, was his Plan A. But Plan B was surely a possibility later down the road if “necessary.”

    • How about General Hollister (Eddie Albert) and Helen Stewart (Suzanne Pleshette) in “Dead Weight”? I think Hollister qualifies as a murderer who “thought he could win the silence of a woman who was onto him by offering to sleep with her.”

      • Richard, I’ll have to give you credit for your knowledge of the Columbo oeuvre. But I’d still consider Major Hollister (Eddie Albert) to be a close contender because Suzanne Pleshette’s character Helen Stewart was desperately seeking a “Mr. Right” and Major Hollister was in the right place and the right time to capitalize on her weakness. He hardly had to do much to win her silence. She practically invited him into her life and wanted to disbelieve her own eyes. Plus, Major Hollister, unlike Milo Janus, had an impeccable reputation. Consequently, the prospect of Janus seducing Ruth Stafford was a far greater challenge than it was for Major Hollister, requiring a much greater egocentric personality.

    • The most arrogant TV murderer that I can recall was in an episode of the original Hawaii Five-0, How to Steal a Masterpiece. The murderer literally thrusts the stolen masterpiece under McGarrett’s nose, although it’s hidden under a common painting.

      • Gary, I checked out the Hawaii 5-0 episode “How to Steal A Masterpiece” at this link:
        https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x56zlyh. That was a well-written and acted show with some interesting twists. Interestingly, the script concerns the world of art and Jack Lord was himself an exceptional artist. And the cast includes Luther Adler of the famed Adler family of actors and acting teachers, and George Voskovec. As for the ending and the murderer’s arrogance, I saw that as a sort of homage to Edgar Allan Poe and “The Black Cat” in particular (and to a lesser extent to “The Tell-Tale Heart”), in which the murderer unconsciously gives himself away. “Book ’em Danno!”

        • I’m not familiar with the Poe works, but I’d definitely say that this villain’s actions were conscious and intentional. Luther Adler was most memorable in the three-part Hawaii Five-0 episode, ‘V’ For Vashon: The Son, The Father and The Patriarch. He was also in The Twilight Zone episode The Man in the Bottle.

          • As in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” George Voskovec’s character’s actions in the Hawaii 5-0 episode were conscious, but his wish to give himself away was unconscious. Both the narrator of “The Black Cat” and George Voskovec’s character gave themselves away through their boldness (or arrogance if you want to call it that), taking wild risks when they didn’t have to.

          • In the early to mid-1990s, I was involved with Scientology, and one of the reasons given for their idea that man is basically good is that when a man does evil, he will, if only unconsciously, trip himself up.

          • I re-watched the episode, and he definitely put the painting under McGarrett’s nose intentionally. Afterwards, his partner says, “You are insane!”, and he responds, “Daring! That’s the mark of the artist.” Voskovec played a somewhat similar character in another episode of Hawaii Five-0, The Finishing Touch, except that now he plays an expert in authenticating documents. Between being tired of working for a low salary and the fact that he is going blind, he forges some highly valuable bonds. Another point about the episode, How To Steal A Masterpiece, is that unlike most Columbo episodes, you don’t explicitly know that Voskovec’s character is a criminal until near the end of the episode, an intermediary between Columbo episodes and Perry Mason episodes.

          • Gary, I thought we had already resolved that George Vosevec’s character in Hawaii 5-0’s “How to Steal a Masterpiece” boldly and intentionally put the incriminating evidence right in front of McGarrett because he consciously thought that his crime would escape detection, but he also unconsciously gave himself away because of his boldness and recklessness.

            This was precisely what happened in Poe’s “The Black Cat.” In Poe’s classic short story, the murderer tore down the basement wall masonry, hung his wife’s body behind where the wall was, and then reset the wall as though nothing had changed, but he failed to realize that he had also walled the family’s black cat Pluto in along with his wife. Eventually, the police perform a thorough examination of the house searching for the body, including the basement.

            Here is what Poe’s narrator says:
            ——————————-
            I folded my arms upon my bosom, and roamed easily to and fro. The police were thoroughly satisfied and prepared to depart. The glee at my heart was too strong to be restrained. I burned to say if but one word, by way of triumph, and to render doubly sure their assurance of my guiltlessness.

            “Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps, “I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this — this is a very well constructed house.” (In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered at all.) — “I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls — are you going, gentlemen? — these walls are solidly put together;” and here, through the mere phrenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
            ——————————–
            The narrator’s conscious, bold, brazen, or “insane” act of rapping his cane against the very wall where his wife was buried (along with the very much alive Pluto) would be his undoing.

            Columbo fans may also note that this classic Poe short story was likely the unconscious inspiration for the satisfying “gotcha” of one of the better later-year vintage Columbo episodes, “Columbo Cries Wolf” (1990).

          • I was just giving more details, having re-watched the episode. As to Columbo Cries Wolf, I wondered in Columbophile’s post on the best ‘Gotcha’ moments, how he could not include the eponymous gotcha moment in that episode.

  23. Good review on episode. This episode is definitely in my top 10 or 20. Love the sand in the shoes.Reminds me of Buster Keaton. Milos Janus is so arrogant. Of course Janus means two faced.

  24. I like this episode until the last ten minutes. Yes, Robert Conrad is a snake, and yes, Gretchen Corbett is unforgettable in her swimsuit, but the story suffers from what I think is the weakest gotcha in the entire series. Any good lawyer could easily confuse a jury about which way the shoelace loops should be pointing. Moreover, there’s a continuity error: Phil Bruns, who played Gene Stafford, was left-handed. (In the scene just before his death, when he’s sitting at his desk, note the way he’s holding his pencil.) So even if Columbo could plausibly explain his theory to a jury, it all goes out the window anyway, because shoelaces tied by a leftie would be pointing in the same direction as shoelaces tied backwards by a rightie. It’s all too contrived, even for a series that relied heavily on contrivance.

    • That would be correct if not for the fact that Stafford’s work shoes, the ones that left the scuff marks, were tied as they would be by a rightie. There would have been no reason why two pairs of shoes would be tied differently unless two different people tied them and Janus knew Stafford had changed into gym clothes.

    • This is the kind of knit-picking that I joked about when I complained about why Robbie Stafford, the son of Gene and Ruth Stafford, is nowhere to be seen after the death of his father and his mother is emotionally falling apart.

      As for the final clue and Janus’s trial, there was plenty of evidence to convict Janus, who surely would have become best friends with Dr. Barry Mayfield in prison. There’s the coffee on the floor and Janus’s burn. There’s the brown shoe scuff marks on the floor matching Gene Stafford’s shoes. There’s the empty Chinese food cartons, consistent with someone working, but not planning on working out. There’s the bulb out in Janus’s multi-line phone so that Jessica Conroy would think the incoming call on the other line came from an external location. There’s Jessica’s testimony that Gene immediately recognized Jessica had answered the phone, even though Gene was calling Janus’s house, instead of Janus’s office. There’s Jessica’s testimony that she never actually conversed with Gene, but simply turned the phone over to Janus. There’s the missing piece of audio tape from the answering machine log and the splice. There would be the testimony of Lewis Lacey, the corporate lawyer or forensic accountant, who would established, along with Ruth Stafford, the financial motive for homicide. (There would also likely be the evidence from an IRS investigation in this particular case because Janus’s financial scheme included tax evasion via off-shore accounts.) And, finally, there’s the first loop on the side of the little toe in the photo of Gene Stafford’s sneakers. Let’s take another look at the script:
      ——————————————————-
      Columbo: Look at this photograph. . . This is a picture of Mr. Stafford’s sneakers. It was taken when the body was discovered. You’ll notice that the first loop which you can always identify it’s the top loop the first loop is on the side of the little toe. Now look at this shoe. This is Mr. Stafford’s shoe. I found it in his locker. . . Now, this is the interesting point. When I tie my own lace the first loop is on the side of the big toe.

      [Columbo demonstrates with an actual shoe, tying as usual.]

      When Mr. Stafford ties his own laces the first loop is on the side of the big toe.
      This matches with this.

      However when I tie somebody else’s shoe the first loop is on the side of the little toe.

      [Columbo demonstrates with an actual shoe, but simulating someone else tying the shoe.]

      And this matches with this. There’s only one conclusion. Mr. Stafford did not put on his own sneakers. Somebody else did. And that somebody was you.
      —————————————————–
      Now, the question posed is this: Does a left-handed person tie shoes differently from a right-handed person such that the first loop is reversed, appearing on the little toe side, rather than the big toe side? The answer? No difference. Lefties still make the first loop on the big toe side when they tie the left sneaker or shoe, as can be seen in the following videos:


      There’s an amusing story in Peter Falk’s own collection of stories involving the development of a possible clue for use in a future Columbo episode, which was likely inspired by the shoe tie clue in “Falk v. Falk.” The proposed clue revolved around the idea that right-handed men put on their trousers left-foot first, whereas left-handed men put on their trousers right-foot first. To put this potential clue to the test, Peter Falk asked a dozen or so men to put on their trousers at the same time, and then to repeat the process a number of times, which made for an amusing sight. Ultimately, Falk and others involved in the test concluded there was no specific tendency for lefties to put on trousers in a different way then righties, nor was there even consistency among lefties in one group or righties in another group. So, the clue idea was abandoned.

      • And, to make things even more complicated on the trousers issue, is it left-handedness or left-footedness that would control? I am left-handed, but right-footed. I’m told this is fairly common.

      • Well, if there’s no difference between a rightie and a leftie, then Janus tying the shoes backwards wouldn’t make any difference, either. As for all the other clues you mention, they are merely circumstantial. They may indicate foul play, but they don’t place Janus at the scene of the crime — which is why our good lieutenant had to wait until he figured out the shoelaces before he could make an arrest. I stick with my original assessment: it’s a lousy gotcha..

        • Please forget about the argument that “Oh, it was only circumstantial evidence.” The law doesn’t rank circumstantial evidence below direct evidence. And even fingerprints and DNA analysis are circumstantial evidence. So murder convictions are often obtained based solely on circumstantial evidence.

          As for the shoe clue, it still works regardless of whether Gene was left-handed or right-handed because, if I recall correctly, the way the sneakers were tied was compared to the way Gene tied his shoes (an apples-to-apples comparison).

          But, I’d grant you that a good criminal defense attorney would still try to muddy up the evidence by casting doubt on the reliability or consistency of the way people tie their shoes, perhaps with the following demonstration:

          • “So murder convictions are often obtained based solely on circumstantial evidence.” Perhaps, but as I said earlier, Columbo himself feels he can’t make the arrest until he figures out the shoelace thing. He apparently agrees with Janus that the rest of the evidence isn’t enough. And the shoelace thing is twaddle.

          • Joe, I’ll have to defer to guest commentator Richard Weill, who has plenty of experience in prosections on whether or not the shoelace evidence would get the prosecution over the top with Janus’s conviction.

            For Richard’s legal analysis of other episodes, see these links:

            https://columbophile.wordpress.com/2017/05/17/what-happens-when-columbos-cases-go-to-court/

            https://columbophile.wordpress.com/2017/05/20/when-columbo-goes-to-court-a-second-opinion/

            • Richard is a big fan of this episode, and I, too, would be most interested in his opinion on the evidence. I suspect he’ll think it’s a pretty strong case against Milo J.

          • I’d defer to him. All I can say is, I’ve been tying my shoes backwards and forwards, and I’m darned if I can see which way the top loop points. As for Phil Bruns being left handed: It’s an error in continuity, not in the story Columbo does say Gene was right handed during the gotcha scene. But if the case is going to rest on the guy being right-handed, I’d think the director should at least make sure the character is, in fact, right handed.

          • As I’ve said elsewhere on this site: “Many murders are proved circumstantially. In fact, circumstantial evidence can be more reliable that direct evidence, i.e., eyewitness testimony. Eyewitnesses are often wrong. A piece of circumstantial evidence may not prove a lot in isolation, but it usually is what it claims to be.”

            Columbo’s shoelace evidence is cleverly presented in “An Exercise in Fatality” — with Columbo comparing how he ties his own shoe and someone else’s shoe, to how Stafford’s sneakers and dress shoes are tied — but that’s not the comparison that would matter if this case came to trial. The only comparison that would matter at trial is comparing Stafford’s sneaker laces to how Stafford ordinarily tied his shoes. In legal terms, this is evidence of “habit,” which allows you to prove that a person habitually engaged in specific conduct (which would then permit the inference that some outside event occurred when he did not act as he habitually did). The problem with habit evidence is that you must prove it was a habit, i.e., that Stafford always tied his shoes in a particular way. One pair of dress shoes does not a habit make. You might be able to find an expert to testify that people of a certain age always tie their shoes the same way (and then hold your breath to see if the defense produces a parade of ordinary citizens to refute this). But what you really want is a closet full of Gene Stafford’s shoes, that he slipped off with the laces still tied, to prove your point. That’s not likely. Moreover, even if you could prove what his habit was, how does that prove that something else didn’t make him alter his habit on this occasion? Maybe he hurt his hand and this caused him to change his ordinary pattern.

            So I have serious doubts how the shoelace evidence would play in court. But Janus’ prosecutor would have a lot more to work with than just this and, in circumstantial cases, it is the collective weight of all the evidence, not any single piece, that controls the outcome.

            Having said this, let me point out why I think the final scene still was effective. In Peter Fischer’s script, while Janus admits to nothing, he does concede: “Your little demonstration proves one thing and one thing only. That somebody else put on Stafford’s gym shoes but the fact remains you can’t prove that I did it.” That’s an enormous concession on Janus’ part. [A prosecutor might argue that Janus here betrayed a consciousness that someone else did, in fact, put on Stafford’s sneakers, but I don’t know how much this would accomplish.] With the “somebody else put on Stafford’s gym shoes” factual point conceded, Columbo has a clear path on which to nail him. If, however, Janus had said: “Your little demonstration proves one thing and one thing only. That Gene tied his shoes lots of different ways,” Columbo would have been left in a much stickier situation.

          • Aside from eyewitness testimony and circumstantial evidence, another form of evidence that cannot always be relied on is the confession. I took a DVD course from The Great Courses, Law School for Everyone, https://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/law-school-for-everyone.html
            and one of the recommended books that I read was, Convicting the Innocent by Brandon Garrett, and some of the examples were of people who made false confessions, were wrongfully convicted, and were later exonerated by DNA evidence.

  25. The saying “Mind over Matter” had already been altered into “Mind over Mayhem” the season before. lt could have easily been changed once more into “Mind over Muscles” – I would have loved that title.

    • I think that it is obvious that the pun used in the actual title, An Exercise in Fatality, from ‘exercise in futility’, is vastly preferable.

  26. “An Exercise in Fatality,” or “Falk v. Falk,” is one of my favorite Columbo episodes. (Robert Conrad’s real name is Conrad Falk, and some even suggest that he’s distantly related to Peter Falk.)

    I grew up watching Columbo as a child at a time before video recording was available and the only way to watch the show was during the original broadcasts or in subsequent reruns. And when “An Exercise in Fatality” was a rerun option among my channel options, I’d inevitably watch the entire episode, while I’d pass on some other Columbo episodes.

    This episode continues to fascinate because it involves the nearly “perfect crime,” as well as for the many other reasons articulated in Columbophile’s review. And make no mistake about it. Milo Janus’s murder scheme was very close to perfect. (I’d say it was “perfect” except for the indicators that a struggle took place between Janus and victim Gene Stafford, such as the spilled hot coffee, Janus’s burn, and the brown shoe skid marks on the floor.)

    But in the real police world, where detectives with the skills and tenacity of a Columbo are conspicuously absent, the Gene Stafford case would have been quickly written off as an unfortunate accident, much the way the death of United Nations General Assembly President John Ashe would be written off as caused by accidentally dropping a barbell on his own throat in June 2016 at his home in New York, resulting in “traumatic asphyxia with laryngeal cartilage fractures.” Never mind that Ashe was set to testify about charges that he bribed Chinese billionaire Ng Lap-seng so that the billionaire could win a sought-after UN contract, and that he reportedly received more than $1 million. Life doesn’t just sometimes imitate art. It can copy it. (Ng Lap-seng was recently convicted and sentenced to jail in May 2018 because another briber, Dominican Republic Ambassador Francis Lorenzo, testified against the billionaire.)

    And like Columbophile, the story, the direction, and the two Falks’ acting throughout, including the acting of the supporting cast is superb throughout. Watch the great cat-and-mouse interaction between the two Falks in this sequence. https://vimeo.com/183120193. Conrad’s character exhibits tremendous confidence in dealing with Columbo in the first part of this sequence because as far as he knows, no one suspects that Stafford was a homicide victim, let alone that he could have anything to do with it. But once they are together inside Janus’s house and Columbo reveals that homicide is, indeed, a possibility, and he even has a good idea how it may have occurred, Janus momentarily feels a sense of dread, as Conrad’s expression changes subtly. But because Janus just as quickly recalls that he’s committed the “perfect crime,” his confidence returns in full force. And all the while, the director frames a chess board with its black and white pieces in the right hand bottom corner of the screen frame to symbolize the battle of wits playing out between the characters. This scene also works in clue elements that will literally and figuratively tie things together, such as Columbo’s problem threading the lace of one of his shoes and the multi-line telephone.

    In spite of the strengths of this episode, there are some glaring plot weaknesses. For example, consider this dialogue between Ruth Stafford (played by Collin Wilcox) and Columbo:

    Ruth: Lieutenant, I really don’t know how I can help you. First I knew about Gene’s death was when a man from your department came by this morning.
    Columbo: Yes, ma’am. And I’m terribly sorry for your loss.
    Ruth: Oh. Well, I’m not so sure I lost Gene last night. I mean maybe it was a few months ago, a few years ago. . . You see, last September, when our son Robbie went off to school, it was the first time that Gene and I had been alone together in 18 years and we found that we didn’t really have a lot to say to each other.
    Columbo: Well, that happens.
    Ruth: It does.

    Did you catch that? Gene and Ruth Stafford had a son named Robbie who went off to school and yet he never even bothered to come back home after his father died or to see how his mother was making out in light of the tragedy. Robbie is MIA as far as this story goes!

    Another glaring weakness is that the story makes a big deal about Janus forcing franchise owners to buy from suppliers that charge high rates because Janus controls those suppliers. But the fact is that the franchise agreement would have certainly spelled that out and anyone looking to buy the franchise would have been aware of the requirement. And, in fact, many franchise agreements do require that the franchises purchase equipment and supplies from home company so that each store or operation is standardized. As Janus put it, after Gene Stafford said “I can buy the same stuff from a discount house half-price, retail,” –“But not the same quality.”

    Of course, I don’t really consider these glaring weaknesses, and I’m just having a little fun with the episode and with the fault-finding that sometimes happen as we critique these episodes.

    • A quibble: I’ll grant that folks who bought in would’ve known, beforehand, that they had to purchase furniture and office equipment and so on from a supplier *approved* by Milo Janus. But they presumably didn’t realize it’s always going to be a supplier *owned* by Milo Janus, which means Janus can get rich insisting they purchase cheap crap at high prices.

    • “But the fact is that the franchise agreement would have certainly spelled that out and anyone looking to buy the franchise would have been aware of the requirement.”

      That’s the thing, though. That’s why Milo is facing prison and why he feels he has to kill Gene. They *didn’t* know that the suppliers were charging grossly overinflated prices, nor that those required suppliers were owned by Stafford.

  27. Besides Beth Davenport, we also see Columbo walking past the restaurant outside Rockford’s trailer, in the scene where he meets Janus at the beach.

  28. That Milo Janus advertisement tune is such an earworm! I like to sing it occasionally and confuse my friends.

  29. I always thought Janus made a huge mistake with the stunt of making Columbo jog along the beach with him in his work clothes. If Columbo didn’t dislike him before that he sure did afterward!

  30. The careful summation of the episodes and thoughtful comments are part of what makes this blog so excellent and thoroughly enjoyable!! And the additional column on the same episode that details five defining moments are extra gravy. (-: Thanks so much for taking he time to do this.

    This is another of my favourite episodes. I wondered if Jessica’s suspicions were aroused about Milo when Columbo broke the news about Gene Stafford. She seemed to take on a suspicious look on her face. Or perhaps she was a “little smashed” herself, which I find to be the case in a few of the women in the episodes, for instance, Etude in Black and Uneasy Lies the Crown.

  31. “But the enduring quality of a Columbo episode depends greatly on the story and the mystery at its heart.“ I couldn’t agree more.

    “Exercise in Fatality” is in my upper tier because of the quality of the mystery, the clues, and the solution. It also one of the great examples of Columbo trying to enter the murderer’s world, in much the same way he learned about wine in “Any Old Port in a Storm” or would later cook Paul Girard a gourmet meal in “Murder Under Glass.”

    The casting of Robert Conrad, a notorious fitness addict, was as perfect as you can get. It is so perfect, in fact, that one wonders which came first, Conrad or Janus. Was Conrad simply cast to play Milo Janus? Or was Conrad recruited to play a Columbo villain, and only then was the story and Milo Janus character created as most suitable use of Conrad for a Columbo episode?

  32. “Sir, there’s something wrong with this orange juice,” is one of my favourite lines in all television-dom, and I love how Columbo plays it.
    Re the final clue. The first time I watched the episode, when I heard Milo Janus fake the call to Gene Stafford, I thought Milo was pretending the dialogue was along the lines of…
    Milo: “Come on over to our party.”
    Gene: “Party? I’m in my gym clothes right now.”
    Which, though Milo didn’t say it later in his official statement, is something Milo could fall back on that might counter Columbo’s end-of-show deductions and inferences.
    While I think the final ‘get’ is weak, I love the episode otherwise (and yes, the Tricon scene could be easily exorcised).

    • “Sir, there’s something wrong with this orange juice,” is one of your favorite lines in all of television?! I don’t even remember that line or the context and just in Columbo alone, there must be hundreds of better ones, although I can’t choose just one, but to keep it food-related, there is this interaction in Publish Or Perish,
      [Waiter hands Columbo a check]
      Lt. Columbo: $6.00? Excuse me, uh, no, I think there’s a mistake. I had the chili and the iced tea.
      Waiter: Oh. [adjusts figure]
      Lt. Columbo: $6.75?!
      Waiter: I forgot the iced tea.

      • When it comes to great lines I still think this exchange in ‘Candidate for Crime’ can’t be bettered.
        The assistant at a smart clothes store has been informed that the scruffy individual making enquiries is our beloved Lt. from LAPD:-

        Store Assistant: Oh are you undercover?
        Columbo: Uh, no sir I’m just underpaid.

        • That’s a good one. And I also like in “Swan Song” when he tells Pangborn that he’s so afraid of heights, “I don’t even like being this tall.”

        • Well, at least that’s a witticism. That reminds me of the scene from Negative Reaction when Columbo goes to the homeless shelter to find the witness (Vito Scotti) and has this interaction with future Columbo murderer Joyce Van Patten,

  33. Thank you, Columbophile, for another great review and for posting the Carson appearance… that made my day!

  34. The bikini scene is indeed a defining moment, but that is not a good thing. It is a microcosm of all the scenes in which Robert Conrad is wearing nothing but shorts. I’m not interested and I think that the whole shoelace clue is overrated. As I stated recently, this episode is among my four least favorite from the original series.

  35. For me it’s not just the scene where Gretchen Corbett opens the door. It’s her walk up to the door. It’s bringing Columbo into the house. It’s her pouring herself a drink. It’s her answering the “awkward” question. It’s her introducing Milo Janus. It’s her reaction to the death. It’s her going to get dressed. IT’S EVERY DARN PART! In short, the girl is GOT IT GOIN ON!

  36. I need to rewatch the episode: “Janus’s wickedness also causes the fragile Ruth Stafford to make an attempt on her own life.” I had thought it was something Janus arranged, not something Ruth did.

    • She hit the booze when she returned from the meeting, then couldn’t sleep while rerunning the meeting through her mind, so knocked back a few sleeping pills.

  37. Really excellent work again, this review. You leave no stone unturned in my opinion (and not, as I very occassionaly feel, no turn unstoned). As always we differ in how we enjoy the longer episodes. I really love the Tricon Industries scene, its one of the scenes I show to people who are not familiar with Peter Falk and the way he acts out Columbo. In this scene he shows how he often manages “to not fit in” if you catch my meaning. I am aware, as you say that scenes like these are ‘a pet peeve’ of yours, but I still liked to mention this.
    Having said that, keep up the good work! In a very short amount of time, this has become my favourite website. Thanks for that.

  38. Just love this site. As a huge Columbo fan this site is like finding gold. Never saw the Carson visit before. Thanks for this wonderful coverage of a great show and a great actor. Cheers Pat

  39. It’s becoming a habit of mine to state how excellent your reviews are, and this one is no exception. And as per usual, there’s one minor thing up on which we disagree. The scene at the Tricon HR office is long, it does drag, but that’s by design. The director wants you to feel the same sense of urgency Columbo no doubt feels, and the same sense of exasperation that it’s taking so long for him to get the information he needs. The small detail that bothers me about the scene is that once Columbo leaves the message on Lacey’s answering machine, he leave the sheet with all of his information behind. One would think he’d want to hang on to it in case he needed it later.

    When Columbo was addressing that women’s group thanks to Abbey Mitchell, and he spoke of the murderers he liked or respected (not for what they did), he was NOT talking about Milo Janus. If there’s a bigger unlikable SOB among the roster of villains, I’d like to know who it is. It is my hope that his cell mate would be end up being Joe Devlin so he could be driven crazy by Joe’s “poor Irish poet” shtick day in and day out. Small wonder Columbo lost it at the hospital. He hated Janus and to quote Columbo in the scene, “y’know what, so do I!”

    Jessica seems like a nice person, I hope what happened with Milo sharpened her taste in me.

    • I liken the Tricon scene to the one in Suitable for Framing when the busybody landlady is flipping through her photo albums and Columbo is desperate for her to hurry it along. The difference there is that that scene is actually funny and timed to perfection. The Tricon scene wouldn’t have been in a shorter episode at all.

      I completely agree about MJ’s unlikeability. He deserves everything he gets, and one suspects Columbo will do his utmost to ensure that’s life behind bars.

      In other news, I believe Jessica bounced back and found true love with a new man… Buddy Castle!

      • What I like in both the Tricon scene and the landlady scene is Columbo’s expressions of impatience. I find both scenes funny, and it’s because of Peter Falk’s acting.

  40. Good review.
    This episode has one has always bored me. Conrad’s Janus {no, not Conrad Janis, the character actor} is dull and uninteresting, where as all the other characters are entertaining. He’s just a flat plain villain. Except for Gretchen’s bikini and Columbo running on the tread mill, this episode for me os one of the worst in the series, and I can’t see it that highly on my rankings, but opinions do vary. Love the site.

    Gretchen Corbett was also a regular rotating performer in NBC’s “Rockford Files” for 4 years, Beth Davenport, Rockfish’s attorney..

    • Thanks for the comment (and for being such a regular commentator). Historically this one used to bore me too, but I’ve warmed to it more in recent years, and while watching with the reviewer’s hat on I enjoyed it more than ever. I just wish a 75-minute edit existed, as I think it could be loads better if shorter. I do like Conrad in this, but it’s Columbo’s dislike of him that makes for interesting viewing and keeps me focused (largely) until the closing jingle!

  41. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Friend in Deed | The columbophile

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