Dick Van Dyke sporting a novelty beard isn’t necessarily the first thought when the words ‘Columbo killer’ are uttered. Nevertheless, the lovable man of comedy was cast as the prime antagonist in Negative Reaction, which aired on 15 October 1974.
Can the laugh-a-minute DVD play against type to convince as murderous photographer Paul Galesko? Or will his inherent harmlessness blunt the episode’s edge? Let’s whip out our ancient cameras and get ready to bellow ‘Were you a witness to what he just did?‘ as we find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Paul Galesko: Dick Van Dyke
Galesko’s beard: As himself
Frances Galesko: Antoinette Bower
Alvin Deschler: Don Gordon
Lorna McGrath: Joanna Cameron
Sergeant Hoffman: Michael Strong
Thomas Dolan: Vito Scotti
Sister of Mercy: Joyce Van Patten
Mr Weekly: Larry Storch
Ray: David Sheiner
MacGruder: John Ashton
Written by: Peter S. Fischer
Directed by: Alf Kjellin
Score by: Bernardo Segall
Episode synopsis: Columbo Negative Reaction
Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Paul Galesko (Dick Van Dyke, bearded) is hard at work in his darkroom, but he ain’t developing pictures! He’s actually putting the final touches to a sham ransom note that claims kidnappers have seized his wife, Frances.
Why would he do this, you ask? We soon find out, as Galesko is summoned by the shrill cries of Frances, who is chiding him for messing around when she wants to be driven to Lilleby’s auction house, where she has her eye on a ‘divine’ tea set.
The gin-soaked nag further admonishes her husband when he pleads to be allowed to take her out to see the ‘ranch’ he’s just purchased. Frances isn’t interested in slumming it, but finally agrees after some earnest cringing from her cowed other half.
Her mood doesn’t improve when she sees the state of the ranch. Unable to hide her scorn for the place, she pours forth a torrent of abuse – only silenced when she turns to see Galesko flexing a length of rope with a murderous look on his face. Grappling with Frances, he forces her into a chair and securely ties her into place before taking photos of her on a Polaroid-style camera – a cheap clock placed on the mantelpiece setting the time at 2pm.
Galesko then gives Frances a lecture on how miserable she’s made him over the last few years. And as put-downs go, it’s a pretty juicy one. “I have this dream, Frances. I’m working and there’s a phone call and he says, “Terribly sorry, Mr Galesko, but your wife’s dead. Unfortunate accident’,” he explains, his tone awfully even.
“And then I always wake up and I want to cry. Because you’re still alive, Frances. And I have nothing to face that day but another 24 hours with a domineering, nagging, suffocating woman who took all the joy out of my life.” He then produces a gun from his briefcase and slays Frances in cold blood. Problem solved!
Galesko then stops in at a gas station to establish his 2pm alibi, ringing his pretty assistant Lorna McGrath and telling her to pack her bags for a photographic trip to the Philippines with him that he claims Frances is completely in favour of! What a vivid imagination these creative types have!
From there he’s off to a lakeside rendezvous with treble-denimed, mild-mannered ex-con Alvin Deschler, who has been running a series of odd jobs for Galesko (including purchasing the ranch) for the last 3 weeks following release from prison. Galesko makes Deschler promise to ring him at home from his motel room at 10am the next day. Deschler gleefully accepts, before coming clean that a camera he’d bought at Galesko’s request has been stolen from his motel room. This was the camera Galesko used to photograph Frances at the ranch.
Cut to the next day and a distracted-looking Galesko lets his housekeeper, Mrs Moyland, in and evasively answers her questions as to the whereabouts of Mrs Galesko. As she dithers uncertainly in the background, Galesko fields the pre-planned call from Deschler, arranging to meet him at a junkyard at 5pm before cutting him off and pretending to engage in debate with kidnappers.
He then beats it in an agitated fashion, telling Mrs Moyland to pretend to have heard nothing. But the Irish dame’s curiosity has been piqued. Sidling over to the phone she finds a note written in Galesko’s own hand saying: ‘$20,000 in small bills.’ (click video below for suitable sound effect).
First Galesko jallops off to see his publisher, Ray, to secure a loan to pay the kidnappers. Then he heads to Deschler’s motel and watches the ex-con drive off for their rendezvous. Sneaking into the motel room, Galesko plants a cut-up newspaper, glue and the camera he’d used to photograph Frances at the ranch. Job done, he makes his date with destiny with Deschler at the abandoned junkyard.
Explaining his late arrival a result of the kidnapping panic, Galesko hands the ransom note to Deschler to get his prints on it. “You have any idea who took her?” the luckless sidekick asks. “I’m sorry, Al. It’s going to have to look like you did,” replies Galesko, before drawing a gun and getting his slay on again.
Of course such antics won’t be damning enough, so for good measure Galesko places the gun he used to kill Frances in Deschler’s dead hand and fires it into his own leg at point-blank rage. OOH-YAH! But a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, amirite? As he hops painfully back to his car, however, Galesko is stunned to encounter a drunk bum who has been swigging booze with gay abandon in an old wrecked car before being startled by the gunshots, and who sends him off to a nearby gas station to make an emergency call. WHAT. A. DAY.
It’s only now that Columbo trundles on to the scene, being stopped from entering the junkyard by a uniformed officer who thought the detective was trying to sell his car for scrap! It’s a classic entrance from the crumpled Lieutenant.
Sergeant Hoffman is in charge at the scene and explains to Columbo the particulars of the crime. Columbo is bothered immediately that Galesko would kill Deschler without first finding out where his wife was being detained. The pair then encounter the old bum, Thomas Dolan, who is adamant that he heard what happened and wants to make a statement down town. The other cops don’t take him seriously, but Columbo insists he’s treated with respect and sends him off with an officer to make a statement.
Columbo, meanwhile, heads off to see Galesko at the hospital to gets the photographer’s version of events. They are interrupted by a call from Hoffman, who reports that they’ve searched Deschler’s motel room and found all the incriminating evidence they need to pin the crime on him.
Yet Columbo remains unconvinced. He has a sleepless night and is found bleary-eyed at the office the next morning by Hoffman. After having checked up on Deschler’s background and his recent release from jail after a five-year stretch for extortion, Hoffman couldn’t be more certain that the case is solved. Columbo, however, sounds a note of caution. “Do you see anything in there that says that Deschler was stupid?” he asks Hoffman. “Because if he left that camera and that newspaper and that glue laying around like that, he’s stupid.”
As Columbo plots his next move, Hoffman receives a phone call. It’s the bad news they had been fearing: Frances Galesko has been found dead! (please refer to devilish sound effect above).
The law enforcers encounter a desperate (and limping) Galesko at the ranch, who wails his displeasure before pulling himself together and positively ID’ing the corpse. He avoids being questioned, though, by insisting on accompanying the body away in the ambulance. Columbo does glean some useful facts from realtor Mr McGruder, who confirms that he sold the ranch to Deschler, but that he suspects Deschler was buying for a third party.
McGruder also references that Deschler showed up every morning at his real estate office in a cab. Columbo doesn’t think anything of this now, but it’s a clue that will drive critical thinking later. He also finds a crumpled-up photo of ‘Frannie G’ (as no one calls her in the episode, more’s the pity) in the ranch’s empty fireplace and squirrels it away for future reference.
Keen to grab some more intel from noble bum Dolan, Columbo heads down town to St Mathew’s Mission to catch him in person. After being mistaken for a homeless derelict himself due to his dishevelled appearance, Columbo is given a bowl of beef stew by an over-eager nun and gets nattering to Dolan.
Although pleasant enough company, Dolan can’t help Columbo with his enquiries about how much of a gap there had been between the shots at the junkyard, as his statement had suggested. Why? Because he was blind drunk when he made the statement and can’t remember anything about the incident now. Columbo’s hit a brick wall.
When in doubt, harass the suspect! It’s a technique that has served Columbo well in the past and something he falls back on again here, visiting Galesko’s studio. After small talk about how his poor photography skillz ruined his nephew’s wedding a few weeks before, he cuts to the chase referencing Dolan’s statement about two gun shots being fired some moments apart.
“After being mistaken for a homeless derelict due to his dishevelled appearance, Columbo is given a bowl of beef stew by an over-eager nun.”
Galesko scorns the idea that the bum’s word can be considered viable evidence, but does offer an explanation. Deschler, he claims, pulled a gun on Galesko, who immediately grabbed for it. In the tussle, Galesko was shot in the leg and Deschler dropped the gun. The two continued to struggle, but Deschler got the upper hand and raced for the gun. At that stage, Galesko pulled his own gun and popped a cap in the aggressor’s heart. It’s not entirely convincing, but plausible enough to placate Columbo for now.
The investigation next takes him to a camera shop where Deschler bought the camera that was used to photograph Frances. The clerk remembers Deschler, and again references that he was travelling in a taxi. This time it strikes a chord with the detective. Why was he always travelling about in cabs instead of renting a car? But what a minute – he had rented a car and was using it on the day he supposedly kidnapped Frances. Things are not adding up…
Columbo’s next move is to gatecrash Frances’s funeral, where he conspicuously snaps photos of the attendees, claiming to be on the look out for Deschler’s accomplice. Galesko is unimpressed by the intrusion, but Columbo has some pertinent questions to ask. The housekeeper had overheard Galesko say he’d meet the kidnapper at 5pm, yet he didn’t arrive at the junkyard until 5.30pm. With his wife’s life at stake, how could this be?
Now ever so slightly ratty, Galesko explains it by stating he in fact was sent to a random payphone booth in West LA at 5pm, and then ordered on to the junkyard from there. Columbo ain’t buying it. Why did Galesko make a note at the time of the phone call saying ‘$20,000 in small bills’, but not make any notes about how to find the location of a random phone booth he’d never been to before?
Rattled but just maintaining his composure, Galesko falls back on the Columbo killer’s staple of not being able to think clearly at a time of crisis. Yes, that old chestnut… The Lieutenant’s heard it all before, mate, and from people who’re currently behind bars!
Still, hard evidence is eluding Columbo until he puts two and two together about Deschler’s reliance on cabs. Searching through the dead man’s possessions he discovers that Deschler had a temporary driver’s licence, which was granted to him on the day Frances Galesko went missing. That explains why he was using cabs beforehand. It also raises the question of why Deschler would have planned the kidnapping, which absolutely needed a private vehicle, for a day when he might have flunked his driving test. Astute work, Lieutenant!
“Galesko falls back on the Columbo killer’s staple of not being able to think clearly at a time of crisis. Yes, that old chestnut…”
As a result of his rising suspicions, Columbo hounds Galesko further. At his studio he ‘accidentally’ slips Galesko the crumpled photo of Frances he found in the ranch fireplace. When Columbo wonders aloud why a perfectly good photo was flung away, Galesko is critical of the lighting and composition in a way that only a perfectionist would be. It’s another tiny reason to suspect Galesko.
More follows as Columbo becomes an uninvited guest at a photography exhibition of Galesko’s work that evening. The Lieutenant, you see, has bought one of Galesko’s books: a photographic study of life in San Quentin prison. And guess who appears in 9 of the photos? Big Al Deschler. The two knew each other, in some capacity at least.
Now livid, Galesko lets rip: “You believe that somehow I’m responsible for my wife’s death,” he gnashes. “Oh, don’t deny it, Lieutenant. You’re like a little shaggy-haired terrier that’s got a grip on my trousers, and won’t let go.”
Although Columbo apologises for being a pest and says he won’t bother Galesko anymore, we know that the pieces of the puzzle are coming together nicely in his mind. His situation is improved when a highly strung driving instructor confirms that Deschler did indeed take his driving test on the morning of the kidnapping, and he’ll swear to it in court. It’s the confidence boost the Lieutenant needs to spring his final trap.
Sending Hoffman to summon Galesko to a meeting at police HQ, Columbo outlines his case very directly, accusing the photographer of perjuring his sworn statement that he left his wife at the auction house at around noon on the day of her disappearance. And he can prove it through photographic evidence.
You see, Columbo has created a blown-up image of Frances’s kidnap photo, and the clock on the mantelpiece behind her shows that it’s 10am in the morning – the time Galesko previously claimed to be at home alone with his wife.
The stern detective is therefore ‘surprised’ to see Galesko beaming at him in the face of such damning evidence. “You’re a gem. You’re a little flawed and you’re not too bright, but you’re one of a kind,” laughs Galesko before pointing out that Columbo has inadvertently reversed the print. The clock actually reads 2pm. If Columbo can produce the original print Galesko will prove it.
“You’re a gem. You’re a little flawed and you’re not too bright, but you’re one of a kind!”
Only Columbo can’t do that because he accidentally dropped the original in some hydrochloric acid. It’s gone for good. But he’ll testify that there was no mistake made when creating the image, and invites Hoffman to read Galesko his rights.
Now seriously worried, Galesko makes his fatal error. “You have proof of my innocence despite your clumsiness,” he says, while taking a camera off a shelf behind where Columbo has been sitting and slapping it on the desk. “Look at that negative in the back of the camera, Lieutenant. It proves I’m right,” he says.
But his action only proves one thing: his guilt. “Were you a witness to what he just did?” Columbo repeats to three eye witnesses in the room with them. And then realisation dawns on Galesko. Only the person who took the photo of Frances, who killed Frances, could have recognised the camera the photo was taken on.
As Galesko is led away Columbo reaches for his jacket, but slumps dejectedly on the desk with it only half on as credits roll…
Negative Reaction‘s best moment: livid Larry
Amidst red-hot competition, Columbo’s encounter with Larry Storch’s irate and irritable driving instructor, Mr Weekly, takes top honours because it never fails to delight.
When we meet Weekly, he’s standing furiously at the roadside after a driving test he was overseeing went horribly wrong, leaving the car in need of towing and Weekly in need of a lift back to his office. What he didn’t need was time in the car with Columbo – a man not known for his careful driving or the road worthiness of his vehicle.
Weekly predictably finds fault with every aspect of the process and when Columbo nearly collides with a car pulling out from a side street, his shattered nerves can take it no longer. “Pull over!” he insists, dabbing his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief and deciding to walk back to the office to avoid spending another second in Columbo’s shabby Peugeot.
Even though the scene does little to push the plot forward it’s a wonderful and well-paced 5 minutes of screen time that I suspect was largely ad-libbed and that gives both stars the chance to flex their comedic muscles. View the scene in all its glory below!
My take on Negative Reaction
Regular readers (my favourite kind!) will be only too aware that I bleat on about how the longer-running 95-minute Columbo episodes are rarely as satisfying as the 75-minute outings. Negative Reaction doesn’t just buck that trend – it takes the entire concept, roughs it up, flings it to the floor and clip-clops its little hooves all over the trembling corpse in a mad dance of triumph.
Sure, there are some scenes that aren’t technically necessary (including the driving test scene and the interaction with the nun), but they don’t outstay their welcome in a way that often occurs in less well structured episodes. Indeed, some of the incidental scenes really elevate this episode and I can only pay the highest of compliments to writer Peter S. Fischer and Director Alf Kjellin (who also helmed Mind Over Mayhem) for their superior treatment of the tale.
Credit, too, to Dick Van Dyke as Paul Galesko. Playing against type, he’s really very good in this, menacing when he needs to be, jovial enough when the going’s good and never threatening to take the edge off his performance with rubber-faced goonery. Indeed, ol’ DVD provides virtually none of the episode’s comic relief, of which there is more than a liberal sprinkling.
The rich vein of comedy that runs through the episode is what helps Negative Reaction stand proudly amongst the series’ finest efforts. Right from Columbo’s entrance, when a fellow officer mistakes him for someone trying to junk his car, the timing of the comic interludes is really first class.
I’ve already lavished praise on the irritable driving instructor scene, which tickles me every time, but we must also never forget what cracking entertainment we’re treated to at St Matthew’s Mission, when Columbo encounters Joyce Van Patten’s loony nun.
After a sleepless night, Columbo is looking even scruffier than usual and is of course mistaken for a derelict by the nun, who welcomes him warmly, serves him up a dish of beef stew and shakes her head at the state of his appearance. “That coat, that coat, that coat…” she clucks before bustling off to find him a replacement.
She eventually returns with a warmer coat, at which point the Lieutenant has to politely explain that he’s very fond of his coat and has had it for seven years, a fact the nun laments, saying: “Oh you poor man, don’t be ashamed.” When Columbo subsequently reveals he’s from the police and is investigating a case, she looks at him as if he’s a master of disguise. “You mean you’re working undercover?” she asks wide-eyed. “How clever you are, Lieutenant. You know, you fooled even me!” It’s TV gold!
The scene is made better by the presence of series regular Vito Scotti, cast as Thomas Dolan, and on scintillating form. I’d go so far as to say this is Vito’s best Columbo outing, as he gives Dolan an air of pleasant nobility, almost aristocratic, as the Lieutenant attempts unsuccessfully to pick his hungover brain about the events of the day before.
This is what Columbo as a show does so well: bring in a character in a small role but make them terrifically human and interesting in their own right. I’d love to know Dolan’s story. How is this articulate and witty man so down on his luck? All credit to Scotti for doing so much with what could have been a forgettable role. I think I speak for fans everywhere when I scream: I LOVE VITO SCOTTI!
More fun is to be had during Columbo’s interactions with Galesko, never more so than during the detective’s nonsensical chat about Dog being lovesick after the cocker spaniel next door moved away. “I don’t suppose you have a picture of a cocker spaniel around, do you?” he asks the incredulous photographer, who really doesn’t know what to make of it all – a classic Columbo disarming manoeuvre.
While there are plenty of laughs to be had, Negative Reaction does hard drama just as well. The brutal manhandling of Frances by Galesko prior to her murder was pretty full-on by Columbo standards. Likewise Galesko’s heartless disposal of the affable Deschler, who at the last realised he’d simply been a pawn in a much bigger game. And better still, the conclusion of the episode is gritty, grimy and a rare of example of Columbo playing hardball to close out a case.
Let’s consider the ending in more detail. It’s certainly one of the series’ best ever gotcha moments and is so good because it gives us genuine insight into just what Columbo is willing to do in the line of duty – and how he subsequently feels about having done it. We’ve seen Columbo employ suspect tactics to trick his quarry into giving themselves away in the past – notably in Death Lends a Hand. But on this occasion, forcing Galesko’s hand and cracking the case seems to give him no pleasure. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“The conclusion of the episode is gritty, grimy and a rare of example of Columbo playing hardball to close out a case.”
I’ve debated the enigmatic, slump-shouldered freeze-frame ending with fellow fans on social media many times. Just what was going through Columbo’s head? Some say the Lieutenant was simply exhausted after a long, trying case. Others believe the presence of the photo of Frances Galesko was a sobering reminder of the waste of life.
I favour a different interpretation: internal conflict through knowing he’s had to stoop low to conquer. There are a couple of reasons why. After Galesko identifies the incriminating camera, Columbo can barely bring himself to look his adversary in the eye as he explains the significance of Galesko’s misjudgement. He even says “Sorry, sir” just before the aghast Galesko is read his rights and led away.
To me that’s a clear indication that his actions have crossed some sort of self-imposed moral boundary, leaving Columbo empty and jaded despite achieving his ultimate aim: a classic example of a Pyrrhic victory.
The grubby setting of the police ‘dungeon’ also sets this scene apart. We rarely see Columbo in his workplace. Indeed show creators Levinson and Link never liked to show the Lieutenant at the police station, believing it eroded the power of his visits to society’s elite. This has never bothered me in the least, though, as any time we get to see Columbo in his natural environment, freed from the bumbling act he puts on to fool his suspects, is to be treasured.
We even get to see Columbo in the real underbelly of LA society when he’s wandering the downtown LA streets looking for the Mission in his bid to find Dolan, and we can see that he’s equally at home in the presence of prince or pauper, in palace or slum.
We’ve already covered the fine performances of Van Dyke, Van Patten, Storch and Scotti, but Negative Reaction is another prime example of a strong ensemble cast all bringing their A-Game to proceedings, and helping to believably flesh out their characters.
As Alvin Deschler, Don Gordon gives us a character we can root for, as he seems so well intentioned it’s impossible to not feel sympathy when he’s slain. However, the clever script gives us reason to question how far along the path to reform this ex-con really is.
The camera shop clerk describes Deschler as a ‘cheap bum’ and references the fact that he bought a $20 camera and asked for a receipt for $100. This isn’t the act of a sweet soul desperate to make his way in the world, it’s the sign of a dishonest crook taking advantage of his fellow man. Again we’re presented with a fully-realised character with depth beyond what we see on screen.
“Negative Reaction is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, which is wonderfully paced and which effortlessly treads the line between darkness and light.”
The same can be said of Antoinette Bower, who, as Frances, is as convincing a fishwife as we see in the series. She makes Galesko’s life a misery – even goading him right up to the moment he pulls the trigger. I’m interested in their relationship, too, as Galesko states that he has been ‘chained to her’ for three years. Have they only been married that long? Or is it only the last three years that have been miserable? I’m left wanting to know more about how their relationship reached the point where Galesko feels that murder is his only option.
Was the delectable Miss Lorna McGrath (played confidently by the stunning Joanna Cameron) the root cause of their unhappiness? Perhaps she came into Galesko’s life three years prior, stoking bitter jealousy in Frances who could see the mutual attraction between the two. Alas, we’ll never know.
Only one thing’s for sure. Lorna is H-to-the-O-to-the-T, and the sort of young lady that could turn many a middle-aged, grey-haired, bearded, loveless photographer’s head. One can only wonder what type of photos Galesko was planning to take on his trip to the Philippines with Miss McGrath. Ones unfit for publication if I’m any judge, the filthy beast!
This all sounds like an absolute love-in, doesn’t it? So are there any weaknesses? Well, sort of, but nothing to seriously dampen enthusiasm. Although I rate Van Dyke’s performance, I can’t help but feel that some of his angry exchanges with Columbo would have had more power if delivered by a more snarling, unsympathetic type like Robert Culp. But that’s a very minor niggle.
Slightly more troubling is the lack of clarity around motive. Is Galesko really so shallow that a bit of nagging and a longing to romp with Miss McGrath would drive him to murder? We’re not given any concrete reasons, so we have to assume that yes, he is! It places him a similar bracket to Tommy Brown from Swan Song, whose only motive in murdering Edna was to get rich and get laid. As inferred earlier, I’d like to know more about what was driving Galesko to commit murder, but I can live without knowing given how ruddy entertaining the whole episode is.
In conclusion, Negative Reaction is a thoroughly enjoyable romp from go to woah, which is wonderfully paced and which effortlessly treads the line between darkness and light, playfulness and pathos. I can pay it fewer higher compliments than that.
Did you know?
Dick Van Dyke and Peter Falk became very good friends off-screen and Van Dyke even had the honour of unveiling Falk’s posthumous Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in July 2013, Lord love ‘im!
How I rate ’em
A superior outing in every regard, Negative Reaction is definitely at Columbo‘s top table and sits shoulder to shoulder with any of the Lieutenant’s greatest adventures. Read any of my past episode reviews via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- 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 ————– A-List ends here——
- 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 ————– B-List ends here————
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
If you’ve got a hankering to view it now, Negative Reaction is available to watch in full online here (depending on which jurisdiction you’re in, but have a go, eh?).
And of course I’ll be back in a few weeks with a review of By Dawn’s Early Light, notable for being Patrick McGoohan’s introduction to the series. See you then!