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…
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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’.
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…
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.
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.
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.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- A Friend in Deed
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- 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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