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 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.

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 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.


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…


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.


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


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.

Fatality 2

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’.

Fatality 8

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…


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

Columbophile Buy Me a Coffee

Contribute to this site’s upkeep from just $3

Dozens of Columbo gift ideas right here

Please support this paid advertisement from Milo Janus Inc.

Feeling flat? Tired and fat? Then Milo Janus is where it’s at…

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

How did you like this article?

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

  1. I saw this in its original run, but it wasn’t until just now, watching the New Year’s Day Columbo marathon, and seeing Patrick O’Neal in Blueprint for Murder say the phrase “an exercise in futility” that I finally got the title of this episode!

    • The first joke in Friends is that the New York coffee bar is called “Central Perk”. I think it took Phoebe two or three seasons to get it.

  2. This is very possibly
    Columbo’s finest
    outing as a detective.

    Milo Janus is a villain without any
    redeeming qualities. Even his name
    – a malted milk ‘health’ drink, a 2-faced
    god – hints that his fitness empire is
    a front. He’s a stone-cold killer who
    dispenses health and fitness advice
    to all, while looking out for himself
    in every possible way.

    Janus’s corporate-wise murder victim
    is onto him faster than his planned
    escape will allow. Very quickly
    Columbo amasses the evidence
    that he was not working out, but
    chased down and killed by a
    very strong man, then made to look
    that way.

    A burn mark implicates Janus.
    He has a solid alibi, which Columbo
    begins to disprove. But Janus is
    slippery, and changes his story
    on a dime. And its most solid part,
    a phone call from the dead man
    to Janus’s house, is hard to debunk.

    Columbo detests Janus so much,
    for what he’s done to two victims,
    he enrols in his fitness program,
    only to throw it back in his face.
    In the final showdown, he explains
    the call, and the confusing part
    about the phone lights. The final
    surprising gotcha – a mere shoelace –
    brings the brute down.

    True, the five minute Tricon scene
    is overlong, and not all that funny.
    But Columbo is for the ages now, and
    the scene helps tie him to the pre-
    microprocessor era. I kind of like that.

    Rating 9.5/10

    • Now for some of
      the nice touches,
      and some really bizarre stuff.

      ‘Buddy’s’ Corvette is the same
      shade of orange-red as Milo’s
      workout bathing trunks: they
      are indeed ‘two peas in a
      fraud’ . Buddy is wearing tartan
      slacks to go with his flashy sports
      jacket and car. Or maybe they’re
      pyjama bottoms?

      When Ruth splashes Milo in
      the restaurant, she also nails
      the man in the next booth over.
      When the waitress returns,
      she pauses, annoying Milo. Does
      she wonder if he and Milo had
      an altercation?

      When Columbo returns to the
      Tricon office from the elevator,
      he looks about for no reason.
      Only when the elevator doors
      are closing, does he retrieve
      his cigar just in time to dive
      back through them.

      Unexplained: When Columbo is
      at Gene’s desk the morning after
      his murder, all the papers that
      were on his desktop the night
      before are gone. Yet the empty
      cartons of Chinese food in
      his wastepaper basket remain.
      Wouldn’t police, or the janitor,
      have removed these too?

      Also, during the crime scene
      in the gym room, an old man
      wearing only a white towel
      below his waist, arrives and
      ducks down to get a better look.
      Wouldn’t police have cleared the
      whole building, including the sauna,
      of customers?

      Links to ‘How to Dial a Murder’:
      The closing credits of ‘An Exercise
      in Fatality; show an actor named
      ‘Eric Mason’ (but not in IMDB) ,
      and another actor in the role of
      Doberman. Both episodes also
      feature a phone call central to their

      • I thing that
        the simplest
        explanation for the missing papers
        is that Milo just filed them away.
        No point in taking a chance on police
        wondering about them.

        The clean desktop, but full wastebasket,
        might have tipped off Columbo though.

  3. That has to rank as one of the all time great Columbo scenes. Columbo showing up at Milo’s house only to become all tongue tied when Gretchen Corbett opens up the door in that bikini………..

    • Fans of the bikini scene might also like the scene in Peter Falk’s movie “The Cheap Detective”, where his character meets a woman played by the lovely Ann-Margret, and can’t remember his own name.

      • I love Columbo and my wife is so nice she has watched all of the episodes with me. So recently we thought we would watch “The Cheap Detective”. Unfortunately half way through the movie we turned it off. Really a bad, corny, and not funny movie. Quite a disappointment. That being said, An Exercise In Fatality is a really good and entertaining episode.

  4. Call me crazy but the Tricon Industries scene had me laughing out loud. It was funny to hear the clicking of the printer that wouldn’t stop, Columbo’s comical reaction, and the haughty woman’s annoyance.

    • Yes, it’s a funny scene that would not be included in any other cop show. Just goes to show that police work is not all dashing about in cars.

      • I go back and forth in liking that scene or not. In a way it’s a giant time killer. But in another way it’s brilliant in it’s confident portrayal of nothing happening and sticks with it to the end. It kind of reminds of the Chinese Restaurant episode of Seinfeld where they’re all just waiting for a table the entire episode and the minutiae of life plays out.

        • Hi Garret. I think I am right in saying that this kind of “nothing happens” comedy was invented by Ray Galton & Alan Episode for an episode of the 1950’s BBC radio comedy series Hancock’s Half Hour called “Sunday Afternoon At Home”.

          The central gag being that in 1950’s Britain there was nothing to do on a Sunday, “and Saturday’s always spoiled thinking about Sunday”.

          (Galton & Simpson also wrote Steptoe and Son, which became Sanford and Son in the USA).

          Bringing the discussion back to Columbo, the Tricon scene is a lot like the building permit scene in Blueprint For Murder, showing that police work can involve a lot of tedious waiting about, but it gets results.

          • I CANNOT believe you brought up Hancock’s Half Hour! I was going to mention that but very few people have heard of it, after all it’s a 65 year old English radio show! That show is incredible. There’s another episode where they’re sitting at home and someone rings the doorbell and for ten minutes the discussion is along the lines, “I wonder who it could be. I wonder what he wants. Boy he’s quite persistent at ringing that doorbell.” Then they finally answer it and he’s gone! You are completely right, that show invented it.

            • Thanks Garret. I think the episode you are referring to is “The Christmas Club Share Out”, which is the only episode without Bill Kerr. (They speculate that it might be Bill knocking at the door).

              The Hancock radio series is currently being repeated on BBC Radio 4Extra every Wednesday morning, lunchtime and evening. Another good example of nothing much happening is the episode “The Election Candidate”.

              For Columbo fans who have no idea who I am talking about, Tony Hancock was a very popular British comedian of the 1950’s and 1960’s, who epitomized the little man against the world.

              He died much too young by his own hand in 1968. One of the lesser sadness’s of this being that he probably would have loved Columbo.

              • Yes that’s the episode! I got into Hancock about 15 years ago through an English friend of mine. And yes, I’m sure Tony would’ve loved Columbo. It would’ve given him something to do on Sunday evenings!

                • Tony Hancock is still well known and popular in the UK. Some of the original radio show recording no longer exist, so for the last few years the BBC have remade them as “The Missing Hancock’s”, with the original scripts and an excellent soundalike cast.

                  Luckily, the original version of “Sunday Afternoon At Home” still exists. (“I thought my mother was a bad cook, but at least her gravy used to move about”).

                  Right, back to Columbo . . .

  5. I love that a screening of an X-rated film was, apparently, ample cause for a dress-up cocktail party.

    Is everyone suddenly a 15 year old boy?

      • The line is something like”…a horror movie, x-rated and uncut.”
        It’s true that sometimes (especially back then) horror could be classified as “X-rated” based on the amount of graphic violence or sexual content, or both. But it’s a little strange that Milo doesn’t even name the film, suggesting the “hook” is that it’s a rather naughty, if random, film in one way or another.

          • True, Milo is not exactly the paragon of virtue. On the other hand, prior to the actual murder it’s difficult to pin down what exactly he is doing that is illegal as far as the victim, Gene, is concerned. There is later discussion about the IRS, suggesting Milo is probably a tax cheat but so what? That has nothing to do with Gene or his franchise.

            Gene angrily accuses Milo of owning the suppliers through which the franchisees are contractually obligated to buy. Yes…and? This is common.

            Gene is also angry that the supplies cost much more than their generic counterparts. Again, yes…and? McDonald’s corporate, for example, typically owns the land on which franchises are built, thus franchisees effectively pay rent for the privilege of running the business.

            A franchise buys the franchisee name recognition and a certain level of expected quality, as Milo puts it. Maybe it’s all bunk and Milo is selling low quality crap, but a few things to note:

            -The gym appears to have lots of customers
            -Other franchisees (as far as we know) are happy with the contractual agreement (fooled, as Gene would say)
            -Higher supply costs are typically passed down to the consumer. If there are lots of customers then they must be comfortable with the higher costs.
            -How many supplies does a gym really need anyway? New towels occasionally, the odd light bulb, floor wax, etc? It’s not as though gym equipment breaks down very easily or often.
            -Even the accountant later in the episode says that he cannot find anything technically illegal, at least in terms of the business model…Milo’s probable tax evasion is another matter.

            I have to laugh at Ruth’s assertion (after she picks up the trail where her estranged husband left off) that Milo’s supplements are priced something like 6 times over cost. WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF SUPPLEMENTS MRS. STAFFORD.

            In a way, Milo Janus was ahead of his time: a celebrity fitness guru hawking overpriced vitamins and supplements. Great business model, if the customers are willing to pay.

            I think Milo says he will have 2,000,000 swiss francs (I looked it up, that’s about $654,000 usd in 1974) That’s a hefty amount in 1974, so someone has to be buying his garbage.

            Gene seems to think Milo is fleecing him, which might be true but it would depend on the nature of the contract, not who owns the suppliers or where Milo channels the profits. The IRS might care, but unless the contract states that Janus Inc will spend X percent of profits on marketing/quality control etc., I don’t see that Gene Stafford has much of a case. Milo might have even known this, but only killed him out of fear of his tax problems being exposed in an audit.

            Shoulda called a lawyer, Gene!

            • Very well put, KEVIN. That has always bothered me too; Gene seems to be complaining about things he himself signed up for and should have expected as part of the way his franchise’s relations with the parent company worked.

            • Hi Kevin, this is pure speculation on my part, but if Milo kept it quiet that he owned the suppliers the franchise holders had to use, it was precisely because the items were low quality and overpriced.

              Not technically illegal perhaps, but if it got out, that would be the end of the business as nobody else would want to sign up for a Milo “Two Faced” Janus franchise.

              Maybe the franchises had a choice of which suppliers they had to use, but did not know that they were secretly all owned by Milo Janus Lots of Lovely Lolly Ltd?

              Jessica does mention to Columbo that they have had their share of lawsuits. And she should know. I hear that Jessica moonlighted as a lawyer . . .

              • Let’s be honest, it’s ALL speculation. We might as well discuss Mrs. Columbo’s hair color or Dog’s favorite brand of food. The information just doesn’t exist, but it’s damned fun creating our own side stories that could best fit the canonical stories.

                It’s brunette and Alpo by the way.

            • I think the key clue
              as to what he is up to
              might be the name Milo Janus.

              Milo comes from Milo of Croton,
              an ancient Greek wrestler legendary
              for his strength. Janus is a Roman
              god usually depicted as having two

              But Milo is also the name of a chocolate
              malt drink, usually marketed worldwide
              as a health benefit. When in reality,
              one glass contains a dangerous level of
              sugar (20mg), plus maltodextrin, and

              Janus’s products may be of similarly
              dubious benefit, though sold as
              nutritional supplements throughout
              his chain.

  6. I’m still confused by the big reveal. Witnesses say that they saw the victim in street clothes at 7:30 pm. He was found the next morning in gym clothes. Fine.

    Janus pretended to talk to the victim “nine hours earlier” — at maybe midnight — and announced to the room that Stafford was already in his gym clothes.

    Wouldn’t that have been completely consistent with the fake story Janus was creating? Stafford would have changed into his gym clothes sometime after 7:30 and started his ill-fated workout at midnight, right after calling Janus. He would be in his gym clothes as he was found the next day.

    What am I missing? I mean, I discount the whole shoelace thing because that could never hold up in court since some people do tie their shoes backwards.

    • Yes, I suppose that if you discount the shoelaces, then the whole “someone else dressed him, and you’re the only one who knew he changed clothes” argument fails. But there was ample evidence, from his other shoes, that he tied his laces “normally”, so I personally think that Columbo proved his case through that..

      • Yes, the tied laces on the gym shoes don’t match the still tied laces on Gene’s regular shoes (Janus must have undressed him in a hurry).

        This has to be seen in conjunction with the evidence that the whole telephone conversation with Gene was faked (the spliced tapes, “Gene” not being surprised that Jessica was at Milo’s home, and the telephone light not working).

        If it can be proved that Janus wasn’t really talking with Gene, then how did he already know that Gene was in his gym clothes?

        • “If it can be proved that Janus wasn’t really talking with Gene, then how did he already know that Gene was in his gym clothes?”

          Ah. That could be it. *IF* the phone call was proven to be fake, then his knowing that Stafford was in his gym clothes would be the smoking gun.

          But, how can the phone call be proven to be fake? All the hints at it being fake can be explained away. The light bulb may have been removed months earlier if Janus didn’t want his guests knowing he was on the phone. Gene wasn’t surprised to hear the secretary’s voice because she lied and she’s been to his home many, many times. Or, maybe he just didn’t care. None of the hints proves that Janus was faking the call. Without that proof, his knowledge of the gym clothes was plausible.

          • I’ve been beating that drum for a while now. Whole Lotta IFs and a admission based on Gene’s supposed word of mouth. Not the greatest gotcha IMO

          • Hi bing. You are overlooking the most damning, physical evidence of the faked phone call, the tape from Jessica’s desk recorder that had been spliced, because the section with Gene saying hello to her and asking to speak to Milo had been removed.

            How would Milo explain that away?

            And if Milo had innocently removed the light bulb months earlier, why not just say so when Columbo pointed out it wasnt working?

            • Oh, and as it was probably not a local call, Ma Bell should have a record of a call being made from Gene’s franchise to Milo’s home, but they won’t “Because there wasnt one”.

            • “the tape from Jessica’s desk recorder that had been spliced,”

              I assume that the actual clipped piece of tape had been disposed of. Columbo did find the spliced tape and, from the secretary’s log, knew it was the beginning of a call from Gene. But, what the missing tape actually said was only known to Janus and the secretary.

              Janus and the secretary were dating. Would she rat him out and confess that the missing tape was exactly what she also heard on the phone that night? Maybe.

              • I don’t think it’s a question of “ratting” or “confessing”. Jessica had nothing to do with the murder, and would have realised that Milo had an ulterior motive in “dating” her, i.e. using her as an unwitting dupe in answering the phone and recognising Gene Stafford’s voice.

          • As with other episodes (Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case for example) I suspect the strongest evidence is financial. While that is not conclusive physical evidence, it certainly lends credence to the fact that the victim had an enemy with a strong incentive to shut him up.

            Surely, they would open up the books and figure out what was really going on.

            If that be the case, I think the challenge is to prove a murder took place at all. That’s where the spliced phone recording becomes important. Only 2 people could have cut the recording, but only one had the strength, window of opportunity, and motive to commit murder.

            Nonetheless, I’m going to watch again to see if I can figure out the gym clothes remark. I feel like I am missing something.

            • Hi Kevin. The gym clothes remark has to be taken in conjunction with the way that the laces were tied on the gym shoes. Each is part of the same clue.

              Columbo sees that the laces on the gym shoes do not match the still tied laces on Gene’s street shoes, so somebody else must have dressed Gene in gym clothes after he died.
              (The remains of the Chinese meal, the coffee stain on the carpet and the heel marks on the gym floor all bear this out).

              If Milo really had spoken with Gene, then his knowledge of the gym clothes would be 100% plausible, but the spliced tape (and other clues) show that Milo’s telephone conversation with “Gene” was faked, and Milo announces to a room full of people that Gene was in his gym clothes, which is how he was found the next morning.

              So, as Milo was not really talking to Gene, the only way he could know he would be found in gym clothes is because he dressed him himself, ergo Milo Janus is the murderer.

              Of course, Milo could claim that just because he faked a phone call from Gene and mentioned he was in gym clothes does not mean that Gene’s death was not an accident, but taking into account all the financial evidence that you mentioned, that defense is right up there with “That is my fingerprint”.

              • Quite right, I watched it again last night and now I see exactly what you meant: That Milo knew Gene was in gym clothes only became incriminating after he acknowledged (via the shoelaces) that someone else had dressed Gene.

                Of course Milo had not yet been read his rights so it would come down to the jury believing that someone else dressed the body and made it look like an accident.

                As for the brown scuff marks, a clever lawyer might argue that Gene ran from his office to catch the Chinese Delivery Boy (assuming the food was dropped off in front).

                Likely? No, but I’m not sure I could imprison a man for life over scuff marks and shoelaces.

                The spliced tape on the other hand seems very incriminating especially in light of all the other evidence and Milo’s terrible (non) alibi.

                • Hi Kevin. Yes, I think that between you, me and Manus Hand, we have solved this.

                  The coffee stain/scalded arm, Chinese meal and the scuff marks are minor clues, but consistent with Gene’s death not being an accident.

                  The shoelaces are important because they way they are tied doesn’t match on two pairs of shoes owned by the same man. (Thanks to Manus Hand for pointing this out).

                  Milo’s alibi about driving across town to the car dealership doesn’t hold up, and there is a wealth of evidence that Gene was investigating Milo’s financial impropriety.

                  The missing section from the spliced tape is also a vital clue. It’s true that Jessica could have removed it, but as she was the only person who heard “Gene’s” voice on the telephone, there would have been no point.

                • As a matter of
                  fact, anything you say
                  during the course of an
                  investigation, can be held against you. Columbo
                  thought Janus’s statement
                  so important, he even had him swear to it in front of witnesses.

                  Only after their arrest, must
                  a suspect be advised of their Miranda rights.

                  • “Only after their arrest, must
                    a suspect be advised of their Miranda rights.”

                    Not exactly true. Miranda only counts for formal interrogations after an arrest. Informal chats, like the kind Columbo has with the suspects, are not covered by Miranda.

                    And, even then, it only applies to whether a statement is admissible in court. If you are questioned before being read your rights, and you blurt out where the body is buried, that statement cannot be used against you in court, but they certainly can go and dig up the body and try to link the murder to you in other ways.

                    There are many cases where the police arrest and convict someone of crimes without ever giving them their Miranda Rights. They just need strong evidence other than a confession.

                    Miranda Rights do not work like the characters on TV make you think.

                • I was responding
                  to Kevin’s last remark
                  that Milo’s remarks could not
                  be used against them,
                  because he had not been
                  read his rights.

                  That is incorrect. Yes
                  they can. And they are
                  used all the time in
                  real cases, not TV.

                  It is ONLY upon arrest that
                  police must read someone
                  their rights, if they want to
                  use their subsequent
                  remarks against them at
                  their trial. As the accused
                  now has a 5th Amendment
                  right to refuse to answer.

    • I think there’s
      more than enough
      to prove Gene wasn’t working out.

      – his street and running shoes prove someone else dressed him
      – no proof that Gene, and not a recording phoned the Janus house
      – Gene would have been surprised Gretchen was at the house
      – trying to lift 30 Lbs more than he ever has before
      – working out just after a heavy supper
      – his street shoes left scuff marks after he was chased in the gym
      – coffee pot thrown as if in self defence
      – his locker locked when he was the only one in building

  7. I felt it dragged a bit, too. But I always loved Gretchen Corbett.

    Question: isn’t there another Columbo episode that used the shoelace thing?

  8. Pingback: Five best moments from An Exercise in Fatality | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  9. Dear Columbophile, two thinking about this episode
    1-Before rewatching it, I read a lot of your writing, saying Columbo show his hostility to Milo Janus (does any antagonist had ever a such badass name ?) very quicly. It dont appear like that in the episode. In fact, untill the hospital scene, he play as usual.

    2-A proof had been totally forgotten by the script : THERE IS NO FINGERPRINT of Gene on the left part of the dumbbell. Milo forgot to put the hands of Gene on this part. (my God, I’m sure this phrase contains a zillion of faults, I apologize for my english, once again).

    However, I still love this episode. And I admire the performance of Conrad. It should have been not easy at all to deliver his lines with swimming+push-up+footing+box training+…I don’t remember all of his workout.

    • The weather would have thought Peter Falk was pocketing such enormous fee per episode back then? Equivalent of nearly $700,000 today!!!

    • You might be right about the finger prints on the bar bell. I’d have to go back and watch it but I think you may have noticed something there no one else has! Yes, his name is pretty unusual. I always thought it was one of the great fictitious names that doesn’t sound made up. I wonder what the writer’s inspiration was for that name because that’s an odd name for an American.

    • I also noticed his forgetting to press his left hand on the dumbbell while watching the episode. I even went to the goofs section on IMB to see if anyone else picked it up.

      • That’s a good point about Gene’s fingerprints on the barbell, but he had probably used it before, and there might well be a fairly fresh set of prints from his left hand already on it from the previous day. (And of course, other people might have used it as well).

  10. Fun trivia: in this episode, in the scene where Columbo is hanging around the hospital, there’s a Sam Franklin painting behind him!

    (That’s the artist Vic Tayback played in “Suitable for Framing”!)

      • It’s hard to tell because we only see the bottom right corner of it, but it’s definitely not the pink cactus one. It’s white with some dark brushstrokes, and it’s wider than it is tall. So maybe it’s the horse one. 🙂

        While trying to find a screenshot of it online I discovered that someone else had noticed this, and this person *also* noticed that the same painting is in Commissioner Halperin’s office in “A Friend in Deed”! Sadly I don’t have either of these episodes saved but that’s something to watch for the next time I have access to them. 🙂

  11. I’m kind of shocked the snooty woman at Tri-Con didn’t go on to have a big career after this. I thought she gave a great subtle comic performance and it’s even more bewildering that she only has 4 acting credits that stopped at 1980. The imdb also says she was born in 1962 which is even more strange.

  12. This is one of my favorites but I was bewildered by a few things. Why say Robert Conrad is 53 when he was 40 at the time of filming? Why did he have to play someone 13 years older? Oddly, he did look 53. There was something about the 70’s and how it aged people. And the final gotcha moment when Colombo said in his alibi, Janus said he told everyone at the party Stafford was in his gym clothes and Colombo said only he would know that Stafford was in his gym clothes because he dressed him. Couldn’t it be assumed Stafford could have told him this over the phone, or Janus just assumed it? I don’t think that deserved the final gotcha moment. Though the printer scene was unnecessary, it was pretty experimental even by today’s standards. It felt cinematic, not like TV.

    • When it comes to his own health and fitness, Milo Janus is not a phony. To get this across to the audience, the character is 53, but is played by much younger man.

      I think I am right in saying that for the rest of his career, people assumed on the strength of this episode that Robert Conrad was a lot older than he really was.

    • I am hoping others will chime in , once again, on the final point of this poster’s comment — why is it continually being said that only Janis knew the man was in his Jim clothes when it was mentioned in the telephone discussion. I get it that the murder changed the clothes of the victim, but continue to not be convinced how it is being said that since Janice knew victim was in gym clothes that Janis was the murderer.

      • Hi Margie. Columbo proved sufficiently that the gym shoes that were found on Stafford’s corpse were tied by someone other than Stafford himself. Columbo did this by comparing the knots that he knew Stafford had tied on his dress shoes to those tied in the laces of the gym shoes on the body. From this, it can be concluded that Stafford was killed first and then dressed into his gym clothes (and shoes) by the murderer.

        This means that Gene Stafford himself was not alive at the time his gym clothes and shoes were put on his body.

        This means that there is no way that Gene Stafford could have told Janus, over the phone, that he was in his gym clothes.

        And yet, Janus tells everyone that this is exactly what Stafford told him during the phone call. Columbo has shown that Stafford couldn’t have told him that, if he was killed before his gym shoes were put on the body.

        So how could Janus have known that Stafford had his gym shoes on? The only explanation is that Janus must have been the one to put them on the dead body.

        Personally, I think it’s the best “gotcha” in the entire series.

      • Gene expressed no surprise when Jessica answered the phone for the first time at Milo’s home instead of his office, just saying “Hello Jessica” and asking for Milo in a business like way. This together with the missing sections of tape indicates that, with a recording of Gene’s voice, Milo staged an entire fake “conversation” with Gene for some reason. That in itself does not prove that Milo murdered Gene, but how else would he know that Gene was in his gym clothes if he hadn’t really just spoken to him?

  13. I found Exercise more workmanlike than standout. Poor pacing hurts it, though I agree it belongs near the top of the B list or perhaps bottom of A list.

    The series is really hitting its stride at this point. It’s a testament to the quality that even middle-of-the-road episodes are so enjoyable, well-made and reasonably airtight plotwise. I’m bouncing between the 70s and 90s episodes and have concluded — as many on this site already have — that the reboot eps simply aren’t in the same league as those from the glory years.

  14. With reference to the shoelaces…ever since I saw this, I’ve been trying to tie my shoelaces without thinking about it (more difficult than it sounds!) I *think* that I make the loops on different sides for left and right. Anybody else found this?

  15. Pingback: Columbo top 10 episodes as voted for by the fans: 2020 edition | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  16. There are several things about the storyline here that I question (that I don’t think anyone else has mentioned):

    1. Gene rather gloatingly (and somewhat stupidly) tells Milo that he has has been talking to all the other franchise owners and they’re all working together and pooling their evidence that Milo is bilking them, and that they all plan to file a class action lawsuit together very, very soon. (something that Gene should have kept to himself until the suit was filed, for his own safety). This information goes unaddressed for the rest of the episode, and Columbo never even seems to consider interviewing the other franchise owners to ask them what evidence they have that Milo was a crook. While it’s true that the fact that Milo is dishonest and is bilking the franchises doesn’t prove that he killed Gene, it most definitely would have given Columbo more than enough solid evidence to establish a definite motive for Milo to kill Gene to silence him.

    2. Furthermore, even after Milo kills Gene to prevent him from filing this class action lawsuit, there still are many other dissatisfied and angry franchise owners alive and still planning file their class action lawsuit. So wouldn’t Milo have to now silence each one of them? Gene was just the most persistent and angry franchise owner, but it sounds like they ALL have evidence that Milo is a crook.

    3. Additionally, the files that Lacey gives to Ruth probably had a lot of useful info that would substantiate Milo’s motive for wanting Gene out of the picture. Why doesn’t Columbo pursue this information from Lacey and/or Ruth?

    4. Lastly, what happened to all of the damning paperwork of Milo’s profiteering that Gene had in his desk? Even if Milo removed and shredded it all (unseen to the viewer) after killing Gene and before going home to his “party”, isn’t it safe to assume that Gene would have already shared at least some, if not all, of this evidence with the other franchise owners, since they were all planning a class action suit together?

    That said, I still agree with Columbophile and most of the posts here that this is one of the most well-written Columbo scripts I’ve seen. Robert Conrad is a menacing presence, and was well-cast as Milo Janus. The rest of the cast are terrific, as well, and I did enjoy seeing Columbo lose his cool in the hospital waiting room.

    • Milo killed Gene the same day that Gene told him about a) the potential suit and b) that he did not yet have any proof, but had papers that had proof. Milo presumably decided to kill Gene ASAP after that, so that even if by that evening he had found concrete evidence it would be unlikely that Gene would have gotten in touch with the other franchisees. Columbo, also, does tell Buddy that he talked to Lewis Lacey, so presumably he does have the info.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. “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.

          • He only had from about 7PM to 9PM. Not just killing Gene but also changing his clothing, and carefully enough so as both to not leave fingerprints and not leave any signs of foul play, would presumably take a while.

      • 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.

    • I completely missed the paying attention to the shoes. This could be my favorite episode if I can just clear something up that’s bothering me. I must be missing something but the final gotcha moment at the end didn’t satisfy me. Colombo says Janus was done in by his own alibi in that he told everyone at his house Stafford was dressed in his gym clothes and the only way Janus could know that was if he dressed him. Janus had answers for everyone of Columbos accusations except that final one. Couldn’t Janus say that Stafford told him on the phone he was in his gym clothes? Or even just assume that he was dressed in his gym clothes? I too liked the information desk scene. The actress was great, it’s unbelievable she only has 4 acting credits that ended in 1980.

      • Janus did say that Gene told him over the phone that he was in his gym clothes. But there is a lot of evidence that Gene was murdered, and the shoelace clue proves (within the context of this episode at least) that the murderer dressed Gene in his gym clothes after he was dead. Milo is the only one who knew Gene was in his gym clothes, ergo, Milo is the murderer.

        • Yes, I guess with all the evidence that was the final nail in the coffin that made Janus crack. Thanks for the reply.

          • You’re welcome. This is a good episode, but the gotcha is not quite as straightforward as some other episodes. No spoilers, but one of them features Ross Martin.

            Come to think of it, if Dale Kingston had met Milo Janus, say on a train, and swapped murders, they might have got away with it.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.*

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

        • Yes, very thoughtless. Milo is a fitness expert but he doesn’t realize that absolutely no one would use that bar with that amount of weight on that type of bench. One of the biggest brain fart moments of any Columbo Villain although it’s still on of my favorite episodes.

          • Valid points, but I think that Milo has thought this through. He wants to give the impression that Gene was a person who was out of shape and tried to correct it like that (snaps fingers), so a too heavy load on the bars would be consistent. And a lighter weight load that Gene would have lifted might not have been enough to accidentally kill him if it slipped, which it would be less likely to do.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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!

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

    • Her name is Susan Jacoby. She’s credited as Woman(Rose), which is odd. I thought she was terrific in that scene. Snooty and had this comedic timing with Falk. I looked her up and she only has 4 credits that stop at 1980! Also her imdb page says she was born in 1962, she obviously was not 12 in this. And no date of death. So she’s a bit of a mystery.

      • Minimal research reveals that there is an American author called Susan Jacoby, who was born in 1945. I don’t think that this is the same person, but the age is about right for the Tricon lady in Columbo. And whoever she was, the Tricon lady is not pleasant in manner, but rather pleasant to look at.

  29. 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,,,

  30. Pingback: Columbo top 10 episodes as voted by the fans: 2019 edition | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  31. 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.

  32. 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 .

    • Long time since you made this comment, but just watched and was looking to see if anyone else didn’t think it was all that great. Apart from excruciating print-out scene, the stuff with Lacey went nowhere, as did the dinner scene with the widow. Didn’t get why we saw the widow meet Lacey but only heard about the Lt. meeting him. Not sure if this is right, but felt to me like there wasn’t all that much interaction between Falk and Conrad. And was less impressed with the hospital scene than others seem to be. Couldn’t make sense of why Janus even showed up, didn’t really think the Lt came off as all that angry as opposed to merely dropping the pretense that he didn’t believe Janus was guilty, and didn’t see any point to the scene. Conrad was good, but in the minority with you here and think this was a weaker entry all around.

  33. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Murder Under Glass | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  34. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Try & Catch Me | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  35. 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.

  36. 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.


Leave a Reply to Pasaran Cancel reply