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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 Chatsworth 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.

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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 Chatsworth 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.

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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…

Read about the top 5 scenes from An Exercise in Fatality here


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

  1. I’m a new poster here. Love your site and is loads of fun to go through my Columbo DVD set in order and following along. I rank it and then read your review and the comments quickly after. I ranked “Exercise” 4th so far. After reading your review I figured you would rank it much higher but alas no. I think you are WAY to hung up on the longer version/filler aspect. Did they make Columbo wait to long for that printout?, sure but I’m in the camp of more of Columbo is never a bad thing.

     
  2. Regarding the visit to Tricon: I enjoyed the snootiness of the woman at the help desk. The time spent on that scene doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that, even after the printer has been printing for several minutes, the actual printout is only one sheet long, looking like it has about 20 lines of information. With that much printing, it should have been ten times as long. So why not use a longer printout? A longer printout would have validated the claim that “all the information you need” was there, and it could have added to the comic value.

    Missed opportunity.

     
  3. “An Exercise in Fatality” is my favorite Columbo, and I will happily argue that it is the best. I’m disappointed to find that Columbophile has it on the “B-List”. The only issue I have with it is the information-desk scene, which is painfully and unnecessarily drawn-out. Otherwise, the episode is near perfection.

    Something that I have not seen anyone else bring up in these comments is the true genius of the episode’s writing and plotting. Like re-watching the movie “The Sixth Sense”, an attentive re-watch of “An Exercise in Fatality”, knowing how Janus set his own trap, is sure to have you wondering, “OMG HOW DID I MISS THAT?!” There are MYRIAD little clues along the way — check it out.

    The camera lingers just a little extra on the victim’s shoes at the scene…not so much you KNOW it’s a clue until you rewatch.

    The scuff marks on the gym floor are shoe-related; the viewer should be thinking shoes are more important than just the proof of a scuffle.

    Columbo fills his shoes with sand while running on the beach and then he is shown slowly pouring the sand out — to ensure that the alert viewer is always thinking about shoes.

    Then, of course, once the sand is poured out, we see Columbo tying his own shoe slowly. On first watch it’s just a casual part of the scene, but on second watch you wonder why you didn’t wonder, “wow, why would the director make sure that we see him tying his shoe?”!

    And the in-your-face kicker? Even the name of the forensic accountant is a tip-off…Lewis LACEY. If you aren’t thinking about shoes and laces throughout the episode, you’re behind Columbo

    The writing is incredible and the filming is incredible.

    The best Columbos are the ones that are fair to the viewer, giving them every chance to know what Columbo is thinking without him ever saying so until the final scene. The worst Columbos are — well, “No Time to Die”, which makes me retch even typing its title — and the ones in which the viewer is completely disrespected and Columbo reveals some evidence out of nowhere at the end of the show. Things like “Undercover” and the parking meter coin?? Holy crap — horrible. Compare that to the intricate hints you get about the shoelaces all the way through “An Exercise in Fatality” and just marvel at what Fischer and Kowalsky did.

    Sure, the final scene is rather tedious and overexplained, but it is still the best gotcha in the entire series of (usually) good gotchas.

     
    • Excellent point with Columbo’s shoes with sand. So far, I thought this was only for comic value (incidentally, love the music when Columbo tries to keep up with MJ on the beach!), the average viewer (like me) is probably supposed to remember the shoe detail when Columbo sees the mom lacing the little child’s shoes in the hospital.

      I have a rather complicate question regarding the “imaginary conversation” from MJ with Gene Satfford : was the technology from 1974 already able to determine that the phone call MJ received did not come from the Chatsworth franchise, but from the other line in MJ’s home?

      That simple fact would have already proven that MJ lied and would have been the main suspect.

       
      • In 1974, records were kept of long-distance calls but not local calls. So the question would have been: how far was it from Gene’s gym to Milo’s house?

        Columbo uses phone records in other episodes and I’m glad they weren’t used here. It would have been particularly weak for Milo to use a phone in his own house to mimic a long-distance call.

         
        • Hmmm. Milo’s alibi is that he was at a car dealership on the other side of town. If he spent only half of that time at Gene’s gym committing the murder and setting up the fake accident, I’d guess that the franchise was still some distance from his home, and it would not be a local call.

           
      • I don’t know if I got the fina properlyl. the main fact is that Colombo discovered that the call was a fake and as consequence he couldn’t know what Gene was wearing. Is this it? Just to demonstrate without doubt that the call was fake was the final point to me.

         
    • Manus Hand…Shouldn’t that be “Manos Hand”? That’s how Torgo spells it, anyway.

      I’m profoundly ashamed to say I missed all the shoe references. “Lewis Lacey”….brilliant. That was Fischer’s first Columbo script, and you can find video of Peter Falk raving about it to promote the show with Johnny Carson. As much as I like Fischer’s scribing, now I gotta pay attention to his episodes a bit more closely.

       
      • Hi Glenn — yes, my friends jokingly claim that it must have been my 1964 birth announcement in the LA newspapers that inspired the making of Manos. God forbid! 🙂 My dad chose to spell it “Manus” on my birth certificate. Whew. 🙂

        Glad to help point out the genius of Fischer’s writing in this episode. Of the nine episodes he wrote, I personally think this one stands alone. However, I also really liked the “it had to be murder by a third party” device that he used in “An Old Fashioned Murder” with Ruth Lytton having turned off the lights on leaving the scene of a midnight double-murder.

         
  4. I don’t see where MJ removes the light bulb from the phone once he arrives home. He walks straight back to his office. The absence of the light bulb is mentioned several times.

     
    • They don’t show it. Presumably, that’s a brief task and your supposed to go with it. Maybe he did it earlier in the day, anticipating his deception to come.

       
      • At just after 10 minutes into the episode, you see Milo at home unscrewing the bottom of the phone in his living room. It fades out, so we don’t see exactly what he’s doing, but we get enough indication for it all to make sense later on.

         
    • Another thing going against Janus: the tax issues alluded to by Mr. Lacey to victim’s wife. In my experience, IRS hesitant to pile on tax issues into already existing, non-IRS- related violations. BUT…murder plus international plus dollar amount here ($12-13 mil, imo, in 2020 dollar terms) might do the trick. Not only is evasion in that amount probably good for 5-7 yrs in fed pen, but laying out scope of fraud (and what victim was onto re Milo culpability) might’ve been helpful in strongly supporting 1) motive, 2) showing Milo as a bad guy, generally.

       
  5. Apologies if someone else has mentioned this — if so, I missed it — but Ruth Stafford is played by Collin Wilcox, who is best known to most as Mayella Ewell, the young woman who accuses Tom Robinson of raping her in the 1962 film *To Kill a Mockingbird.*

     
  6. I was waiting the whole episode for Columbo to question the purpose of Gene’s phone call from beyond the grave. The way Milo staged it, it seems Gene’s only reason for calling was to tell Milo he’s going to work out alone. Very strange, considering everyone knew they didn’t like each other.

     
    • I think the purpose of the staged phone call (apart from providing an alibi) is to give the impression that Milo and Gene had made up their differences and there was no animosity between them. I think they got along just fine until Gene realised that he was being bilked. Of the five witnesses to the phone call, Buddy seems to be the only one who knows that Gene was going through the financial records, having warned Milo about it in the first place.

      Which does make me wonder why Buddy doesn’t seem to think that Gene’s death was anything other than an accident? Perhaps he does, but he’s just keeping schtum to prevent his part in the spa scam from being exposed.

       
      • I think the fact that Buddy and Milo were both criminals in cahoots with each other cancels out whether or not Gene was murdered. I don’t suspect it mattered to Buddy one way or the other.

         
  7. Very good episode, Conrad makes an excellent bad guy. Couple of things I noticed – being Janus was an expert in fitness, odd he would use a curling bar to stage Stafford’s death. A curling bar is used just for that – to perform curls, sitting or standing – not flat bench presses. But I guess being Stafford was a ‘novice’ so to speak, they could have used that excuse. Also Janus never made contact with Stafford’s left hand with the curl bar – even for moment – only his right. I thought maybe Columbo would have caught that and thought it strange the guy tried to bench press with only one arm (his right arm) – no wonder he broke his neck!

     
    • What about the fact that Janus would know that a guy like Stafford could bench maybe 135 lbs for reps at a max and that’s with taking the bar off a stand? I can bench 250 lbs and could never maneuver even the 185 lbs on that bar over my chest to a lying down position.

       
      • Yeah, I think Milo was a bit thoughtless about the amount of weight on the bar. It needed to be enough to be deadly but not so much that it would have been unrealistic for Gene to attempt the weight. Not sure Milo considered the latter point. Columbo picked away at the high weight, but Milo fell back on “but anybody could have put a higher weight on the bar!”

        Like a lot of Columbo villains, Milo’s big mistake was trying to create an alibi. Had he simply walked out, it would have been obvious that it was a murder, but it would have been very hard to pin the murder on Milo, even given the knowledge of mutual animosity.

         
  8. Dear Columbophile: I just watched this episode for the first time in over 40 years, and I remember the “shoelace reveal” clearly. One of the reasons I remember it so well is the discussion I had with my mother over this episode. My mom, although right-handed, was what she termed “cross-handed”: she wrote with her right hand, but batted softball like a lefty, swept floors like a lefty, etc. She also tied her shoes like a left-handed person. We had a discussion many years ago about how, if she had been the killer putting shoes on the dead victim, her cross-handed tying of someone else’s shoes would look just like a right handed person had tied their own shoes. Ergo, my mom would have gotten away with the murder!!!! Of course she wasn’t strong enough to carry a dead man over her shoulder, nor was she strong enough to lift such a heavy weight onto his neck, but…..she could have thrown Lt. Columbo for a loop with her “loops”. Thanks for this website, which let me write about a memory of my mom from so long ago. I check this website whenever I watch another episode, and I currently have four more on dvr to watch this weekend.

     
    • You make a valid point about “cross-handedness”, but it could easily be proved that Milo Janus is right handed, and Columbo’s main evidence is that only Milo knew that Gene was wearing gym clothes. But being “cross-handed” is a significant part of “Death Lends A Hand” where the killer seems to be left handed, but Robert Culp demonstrates that he is ambidextrous, so he could be innocent. Enjoy your next four episodes!

       
      • Plus Columbo had evidence of how Gene tied his shoes, so it was obvious that someone else, the killer, tied his shoes. And Janus was the only one who on record said that Gene was in his gym clothes.

         
        • Yes, I’d forgotten that Gene’s street shoes still have the laces tied the way Gene tied them. Milo must have removed them in a hurry, without going to the trouble of untying them first. And there is also the clue about the heel marks from Gene’s shoes being on the floor after it had been cleaned.

           
        • I don’t understand. Gene told Milo at the phone tht he was working out. So Milo knew that he was in gym clothes.way this prove is so important? it becomes important only if the call between Gene and Milo is demonstrate as a fake. is it??

           
          • Gene is supposed to have told Milo on the phone that he was in his gym clothes, but Columbo proved that somebody else dressed Gene in his gym clothes after he died.
            By his own admission, Milo is the only one who knew Gene was in his gym clothes.
            Ergo, the phone call was faked as Gene was already dead, and Milo is the murderer.

             
  9. Just watched this again and was reminded what an enjoyable episode it is……hovers around #15 out of the 69 Columbos which is pretty strong.The characters are all really good and it is put together really well. Maybe it’s the rum drinks but this might have moved up a couple spots for me. What a fantastic show, i see no rival as best TV Detective series then or now.

     
  10. You’re right about the shoelaces bit. It goes on forever! I found myself thinking ‘OK Columbo, I’m not THAT stupid, I get what you’re on about!’ The employment office scene is long too, but it’s appropriate as it adds to Columbo’s impatience. Plus it’s got another attractive bint in the scene, so that’s OK! Couple of Pink Panther connections: Henry Mancini is credited for music as usual, but Pat Harrington was also the voice behind the cartoon version of Inspector Clouseau and his sidekick Sgt. Deux-Deux!

     
  11. The 90 minute episodes were made that length at NBC’s behest to fill the 9-11 PM Sunday night schedule. The remaining half hour would be for commercials, which was not an unreasonable amount compared to today, as well as promotional material for other NBC shows, and in some markets time for a local station to do a brief preview of the 11 PM newscast.

    Fall 1974 was also when John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence was first released, with Peter Falk as a much different character. Falk thought so highly of the film he lent $500,000 to Cassavetes. The film eventually grossed more than $10 million, not a bad investment. It’s interesting to see him go from a popular network drama to an art house film and he’s terrific in both. I have to wonder, though, if some fans were confused by Falk’s not being anything like Columbo had they gone to see it.

     
  12. The style of Chinese food containers you see in TV and movies never seems to exist in real life any more. It’s Styrofoam clamshell containers now.

    Buddy Castle is played by Pat Harrington, best known as Schneider on “One Day at a Time,” but known to fans of “Murder, She Wrote” as Nick Culhane, the Micky-Spillane-esque hard-boiled mystery writer and beer commercial star from “The Skinny According to Nick Culhane.” He was also disturbingly memorable in “The President’s Analyst” as the android leader of the Phone Company.

     
  13. My pardons if this anyone has mentioned this before, but has anyone noticed the outfit Robert Conrad wears in the scene where Janus meets with Ruth Stafford us similar to the one he wore as James West on “The Wild Wild West”?

    (I posted this earlier as a reply to another poster’s comments by mistake. If the moderator could kindly remove my other, I’d be very grateful.)

     
      • Just watched this episode tonite. Probably seen it 10 times and still wonder about the whole “only Janus knew he was in his gym clothes” gotcha.
        I thought Milo’s story was that Gene TOLD HIM he was in his gym clothes, No?
        Columbo had no absolute proof it was Milo who tied the shoes.
        All Janus had to do was stick to his story.

         
        • There is a lot of evidence to indicate that Gene was murdered. The coffee stain on his new office carpet, the Chinese takeaway cartons in the bin and the shoe marks on the gym floor. Milo is linked to this by the missing sections from the tape recordings, the burn on his arm from the hot coffee, the light not working on his telephone and Gene’s financial investigation. The shoelaces prove that someone dressed Gene in his gym clothes after he died, i.e. the murderer. Milo was the only one that knew Gene was in his gym clothes, ergo he is the murderer.

           
          • But why does Janus not destroy the unnecessary tapes, esp as the Scruffy Lieutenant presses on? Milo Nixon?

             
            • Milo Janus is an arrogant SOB, possibly the most arrogant killer in the history of the “Columbo” series. He is so confident that he has committed the perfect crime, it probably never occurs to him to destroy the edited tapes. Alternatively, if Jessica had innocently mentioned to Columbo that some of the tapes were missing, that would have drawn his attention to them. Columbo would not have them as physical evidence, but with the shoelaces and Milo’s testimony, he wouldn’t need them.

               
              • 1. Arrogance. Milo a sociopath, for sure. Sociopaths are ruinously arrogant sometimes but tend to be smarter than avg bear. Leaving tape in place after such doggedness being demonstrated by Scruffy One is nuts, imo.

                2. I won’t address alternate since not even implication it occurred.

                3. As a person who isn’t a stranger to criminal trials and lazy prosecutors, I suspect shoelace thing never even gets past pre-trial motion so that jury gets to see or hear it. Also, I’ve tried the laces test and, frankly, I don’t see it as dispositive at all.

                4. There are useful pieces of circumstantial evidence (motive pretty good; 180 lbs of weights used for a guy who’d never have tried that – though that doesn’t mean Milo did it; Milo’s master key; coffee burn – though in real life Columbo would’ve needed photo evidence of spill AND Milo’s burn to SHOW jury; phone light – though, again, Milo, due to Columbo apparently not seizing physical evidence, left with opportunity to replace bulb and muddy that water.

                ALL THAT BEING SAID, the total of those juicy tidbits, imo, does not get prosecution past “reasonable doubt,”…without that spliced tape. There’s just no way to explain Milo’s labor and premeditated effort to alter a dated recording of victim. This made even worse by above circumstantial evidence, of course. And, of course, Milo’s offering that anyone could’ve spliced it holds zero water for a couple reasons.

                 
                • Well, of course there is no indication of the alternative of Janus destroying the tapes. That is the topic here, why didn’t he destroy them? I was merely speculating that missing tapes in and of themselves would be suspicious.

                   
                  • Correct. Destroying evidence is just as dangerous as keeping the evidence and hoping for Columbo to not stumble across it. For example let’s take Dr. Cahill from “Mind over Mayhem”. He did destroy incriminating evidence (the bump in the hood of his car), but this did not prevent him from being suspected by Columbo.

                     
                  • Indeed, would be suspicious. But the prosecution can’t enter “suspicious” into evidence as exhibit A (though prosecution could’ve elicited testimony from secretary that this was not usual way or timing for purging tape).

                    Also, at the time in which MJ would’ve become concerned, he would not have been aware that Columbo would soon zero in on the tape, so that concern may not have registered with him and he would’ve pressed forward in the dreaded abundance of caution.

                    And, destroying ALL his tapes (which he probably did periodically anyway) oddly could’ve avoided much suspicion since, without Lt getting hold of the one tape that confirmed his heretofore circumstantial theory, sociopath MJ could’ve held onto defense that Gene WAS on the phone and there was nothing to be found on now destroyed tapes.

                     
                    • It’s true that destroying tapes looking suspicious would not be classed as evidence in court, but it would only have made Columbo dig deeper (and I don’t think he ever wanted to catch any killer more than Milo Janus). And I think Jessica explains that all the tapes are kept as possible defence against lawsuits. Rather than splicing the tape, Milo could have copied it and kept an intact original on the files. But there’s no indication that he did that.

                       
    • Since Columbo established that the killer tied the gym sneakers and Janus was the only one that stated he knew he was in his gym clothes,,,

       
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  15. In regards to the Tricon scene, I think I know the reason why it’s in there. Already by this time when network shows went into syndication (every major city at least had at least one independent station, i.e not affiliated with ABC, CBS or NBC) a few minutes were cut out of the original program to allow for extra commercials in the syndication re-airing. So, in order for nothing important to be edited for this, a scene like this would air in the original so it could be easily taken out.

    If I’m correct on this, one other obvious case, though a somewhat shorter scene, the recurring actor Vito Scotti plays a Funeral Director (undertaker) who tries to sell to Columbo.

     
  16. I Dont Consider this a Great episode by any means it has a couple of stand out moments and a great gotcha but on the whole I think its just about Average ,. wouldn’t come near my top 20 .

     
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  19. Every time I watch this episode, I wonder why did Milo show up at the hospital….a pillow over Mrs. Stafford’s face?

     
    • Yes, I have the same question.
      And another one: why is there a Buddy Castle in this episode?

       
      • Milo isn’t at the hospital to kill Ruth. He’s still pretending to be sorry for Gene’s “accidental” death and putting on a big show of fake concern for Ruth, who suspects him of fraud and possibly murder.

         
          • He’s trying to kid Ruth, so that she won’t continue with Gene’s investigation and try to bring charges against him for fraud, if not murder. And he’s trying to kid Columbo, who’s intending to bring charges against him for murder, if not fraud. Neither of them are fooled for a moment, any more than Gene was, but Milo has to constantly keep up the pretence of being an honest businessman.

            I agree that just because Milo is fit and healthy, that does not necessarily make him an honest person, and that he holds unfit people in contempt, but he could still make an honest living without owning the companies that supply his franchises. Of course if he did, there would be no story and we would not get to see Jessica in her bikini.

             
      • I think Buddy is there only to show a facet of MJ to audience and The Scruffy Lieutenant: MJ has murky associations that reveal something about his propensity toward fraud that otherwise might go unnoticed, given his clean cut look and military bearing.

         
        • Absolutely. And It’s Buddy that tips Milo off about Gene’s investigation. Buddy’s mere presence indicates to Columbo that there is something Dodgy about Milo Janus.

           
    • If you recall, Mrs. Stafford left some things hanging from the night before, re MJ being a crook and that Gene was onto that. I don’t recall specifics but do recall MJ, at some point, telling her it was all legal. Being the sociopath that he was, he just couldn’t leave it alone – especially due to the get-together ending so abruptly without him being able to pump the drunk woman for more details.

       
  20. Hi. I am a new face here. I have watched this eposide for the first time (as I am running through all Columbos in chronological order), and the downfall of its antagonist was probably the most satisfying one so far. I’d say it’s the most utterly unpleasant and arrogant killer until now (including Dr. Mayfield and the one in Suitable For Framing) which also makes Columbo’s outburst of anger all the more satisfactory. Considering how lousy the suspects usually treat him, one really wants him to get back at them sometimes, and I can’t help but think that he must feel a certain amount of pleasure by taking them down.

    As for the length, personally I don’t really mind it. I agree that scenes like the one at the information desk could have been cut shorter, but there’s clearly some entertainment value about the machinery that’s writing the info about Lewis Lacey. Especially considering the technical level of our time.

     

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