Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 4

Episode review: Columbo By Dawn’s Early Light

Dawn opening titles

October 27, 1974 was a BIG day in Columbo circles: it was the day Patrick McGoohan made his series’ debut in By Dawn’s Early Light.

Yes folks, the dear Lieutenant’s 28th outing would pit him against one of the most iconic guest star adversaries in the show’s proud history, all set against the austere backdrop of the Haynes Military Academy. On paper, this is all terribly exciting. But does Early Light live up to the hype? Or to put it another way, is it a full-blooded hero of an episode, or the televisual equivalent of a pathetic Boodle Boy? And are we ready to find out?


Then read on! By Dawn's Early Light cast

Dramatis personae

BOODLE BOY: Robert Clotworthy Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk Colonel Lyle C. Rumford: Patrick McGoohan William Haynes: Tom Simcox Cadet Springer: Mark Wheeler Captain Loomis: Burr DeBenning Sergeant Kramer: Bruce Kirby Cadet Morgan: Bruno Kirby Miss Brady: Madeleine Sherwood Written by: Howard Berk Directed by: Harvey Hart

Episode synopsis: Columbo By Dawn’s Early Light

A lone, sweaty man is hard at toil in the crude kitchenette of a no-frills homestead. The nature of the work? Tampering with explosives! The mystery man tips gunpowder from a 75mm shell and adheres a ring of putty-like substance to the inside of the casing before replacing the projectile’s cover and washing the powder down the sink.
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It’s either a humid morning, or the thrill of kneading plastic explosive before breakfast is just too real!

He dresses in an army uniform and silently slips out into the lightening dawn. He takes the shell and returns it to a locked case in the armoury before strolling out to a vintage French 75mm cannon and surreptitiously pushes a cloth down the barrel. Turning to leave the scene, he stops. His view centres on a jar of CIDER hanging in a dormitory window, which he can just make out through a small gap in the trees. A look of thunder that suggests someone is going to pay flickers over his face as he takes an about turn and strides away. A bugle sounding reveille breaks the silence and a nervous, fresh-faced lad knocks of the door of the army man’s abode. It’s BOODLE BOY MILLER (Woooooooooooooooooooo!), whose poor geometry skillz appear to have landed him the unenviable role of lackey to the cannon-corrupting Colonel Lyle C. Rumford for the rest of the semester. BOODLE BOYAnd while the coffee he’s delivering meet’s Rumford’s approval, the state of his shoes does not. It’s Founder’s Day, you see, the most important date on the calendar of the Haynes Military Academy, and certainly not a day to scrimp on the shoe shine. “How do you explain those shoes, Miller?” the Colonel barks. “Those shoes are a disgrace. Following this morning’s ceremonies you will report to my office for discipline.” The Boodle Boy sags like a limp lettuce and trails away to an uncertain future… The Colonel remains in combative mood after arriving at his office to meet a special guest. That guest of honour at Founder’s Day is none other than William Haynes, grandson of the academy patriarch, who has had a fractious relationship with Rumford since his own days as a ‘poor cadet’ some 20 years prior. Haynes has his heart set on shutting down the academy and replacing it with a co-ed junior college – something that Rumford vehemently objects to. But Haynes’ mind is made up. The academy is failing, despite its proud history. Capacity is 6000 cadets. There are just 1100 enrolled. “The truth is nobody wants to play soldier anymore. The war’s over,” says Haynes.

“The shoe-shamed Boodle Boy sags like a limp lettuce and trails away to an uncertain future.”

“It’s never over, William. There are too many people set on destroying our country,” the Colonel returns, evenly. “And that is why institutions like this academy cannot be allowed to die.” The two trade barbs, with Rumford leaving his office door ajar to allow busybody secretary Miss Brady to overhear. Rumford goads Haynes into presiding over the Founder’s Day ceremony by telling him he’s not welcome and should beat it off campus ASAP. Haynes takes the bait like a trooper. He will not play a background role – he’ll be front and centre and will fire the ceremonial cannon shot to commence the day’s festivities. In seizing the opportunity to hurt Rumford, Haynes has sealed his own fate. We now cut to the pageantry of the day. Cadets dressed like toy soldiers march on parade, brass band tunes a-blaring. The cannon is prepped to fire, rigged shell and all, and Haynes strides out to meet his destiny. One yank of the cord and KABLAMO! William Haynes is splashed all over the parade ground.
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Rumford initially mistakes Columbo for a slack-jawed gawker at the crime scene

Predictably Lieutenant Columbo is amongst the officers sent to investigate. And just as predictably he’s mistaken for a meddling onlooker by Rumford, who asks Sergeant Kramer to remove him from the crime scene. Word on the street is that this was a tragic accident. The old cannon – a relic from the First World War – had simply fired one shot too many. William Haynes was in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing more to it than that. It’s only Columbo who’s not buying into the popular viewpoint. He finds a piece of the exploded cannon barrel with a thread attached. Subsequent searching leads him to find an oily rag beneath a patrol car. Looks like it must have come from the cannon. But what can it mean? Columbo makes a beeline for Rumford, who is seated in academy chapel with hundreds of cadets to hear the hastily-arranged prayer service. Columbo shows the rag to Rumford, asking what it might be. A little too quickly Rumford claims not to have the slightest idea. But when he hears that Columbo will take it to the lab he takes a closer look and suggests it could be a rag used to clean the cannon. Of course, were it to be left in the barrel it could have caused an explosion, but the Colonel suggests that’s unlikely to happen at an academy of such standing. Nevertheless, the two head to Rumford’s office to check files to see which of the bungling cadets might be responsible. One lad who isn’t to blame is BOODLE BOY Miller. He’s nervously waiting for the Colonel’s return and when Rumford shows a softer side by patting his shoulder and letting him off, he first flinches like a wimp, then skips off as gleefully as a gambolling puppy. Yes folks, everything’s coming up Milhouse Miller! Although tragically for the viewer, the cleft-chinned cadet figures in the case no further. SAD FACE. A search of the files reveals that one Cadet Springer had been on cannon cleaning detail – and that he’s a poor cadet with a number of demerits on record. The Colonel concedes that if any cadet could have made such a gaffe as to leave a cleaning rag in a cannon, Springer would be that cadet. As Columbo heads off to question the youth, Captain Mainwaring, I mean Loomis bustles in and is given a proper down-dressing by his superior officer, who berates him for allowing hard cider to be brewed under his nose in Pershing Hall and orders him to deliver the culprits. The harassed Loomis scats as sheepishly as the Boodle Boy doubtless expected to just moments earlier. Columbo attempts to make light of the cider infraction. “I guess boys will be boys,” he says with a smile. “Boys will be boys, Lieutenant,” Rumford deadpans back. “But someone’s got to turn them in to men.”
Mainwaring - Loomis

Captain Loomis: heir apparent to the Mainwaring dynasty?

On his way to Pershing Hall, Columbo catches up with his fellow officers, all waiting impatiently to be dismissed. They pass the Lieutenant a blueprint that they recovered from Haynes’ car, which will be an important clue later in the episode. Finding Springer alone in his dormitory room, Columbo hands him the cloth he found, which the cadet instantly identifies as a cleaning rag due to the gun oil on it. Springer repeatedly rejects any insinuation that he might have left the rag in the cannon, and also explains that it’s considered an honour detail to clean the cannon – a concept that puzzles Columbo given that Springer has a track record of underachiving.
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Cadet Springer: acing rag identification tests since 1974

The Colonel explains away this apparent discrepancy over a rudimentary dinner in the mess hall. Sometimes giving an honour detail to a troublesome cadet can buck them up, he says. Columbo, for his part, says that he thinks Springer is holding something back, but that he believes he didn’t leave the rag in the cannon because he identified it so quickly. With his wife visiting her mother in Fresno, Columbo decides to spend the night at the academy to continue his investigations. Woken at 3am with a racing mind, Columbo wanders to a phone booth and rings campus security guard, Officer Corso, who had earlier told him that the fateful cannon explosion had been heard 8 miles away at Westlake. Yet the cannon is fired every day at sundown. So why only this time was it heard from so far away? The shirty officer has no other explanation other than ‘the cannon never exploded before’, which doesn’t satisfy the Lieutenant but there’s no other course of action open to him than to slink back to bed… He gets a rude awakening at reveille the next morning as an energetic young cadet springs into his room, cracks his behind and bellows ‘Up and at ’em trooper!’ While freshening up, the bleary-eyed detective notices some dust on the side of the sink. Looking up to the air vent he can see that’s where the dust was from. In a mere moment, he’s cracked the cider mystery that continues to elude the hapless Loomis. His next meeting with Rumford comes on the parade ground later that morning. He has interesting news: a ballistics investigation has revealed traces of gelignite in the breech of the cannon. The supposed blank shell has been tampered with, and that means murder, pure and simple. But who’s guilty? He doesn’t suspect Springer, so has next to nothing to go on. Dawn 2 The problem of the blueprint is the next thing to vex Columbo. It just doesn’t tally up with the current building layout. Why build a new gym, for example, when there’s a perfectly good one already? It’s at this point that Loomis informs him that Springer has gone AWOL and to put out an APB. Columbo assures him he will, but instead he goes about investigating the crime his way. He’s already figured out that Springer has a girlfriend from the nearby Valley High School after noticing the pledge ring he wore on a chain round his neck. Tracking down Springer’s love interest Susan, Columbo tails her to Springer’s hideaway and overhears the lad’s concerns that he’s been set up. Revealing himself, Columbo asks them to spill the beans. Cut to Rumford’s office. Columbo is with Springer and they drop a proverbial bombshell on the Colonel. Springer couldn’t have left the rag in the cannon. Why? Because he didn’t clean the cannon the night before. Moreover, he was OFF CAMPUS that night. While he won’t say where he was (in Susan’s arms, no doubt), Columbo verifies the alibi. Springer is out of the running for the Academy’s Murder of the Year Award!

“Springer couldn’t have left the rag in the cannon. Why? Because he didn’t clean the cannon the night before.”

Springer is confined to quarters and dismissed, but Columbo’s now got the scent and bombards Rumford with questions. It’s starting to look like Rumford was the target of the cannon rigging. Who would do such a thing? A wronged cadet? A love rival? A disgruntled war vet? Rumford rejects all possibilities. So if he wasn’t the target, Columbo thinks aloud, then William Haynes must have been. So who would want to kill him? Their next discussion, later that day, regards the mystery blueprint. Columbo is puzzled why a bathroom on the plan has no urinals if it’s a male-only military academy. As a result, Rumford comes clean about Haynes’ plans to turn the place into a co-ed junior college. However, he says it was nothing but a ‘crackpot scheme’ that the board of trustees is dead against (contrary to what Haynes told us earlier in the episode). Rumford’s immediate focus, however, is on catching the CIDER ROGUES! So in the small hours of the night he orders a snap inspection of Pershing Hall, requiring all the cadets, and a sleepy Lieutenant Columbo, to fall out.
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Columbo is absolutely down with the cider-brewing kids at Pershing Hall

Every room is checked to no avail. Finally Rumford orders Loomis to check the latrine and to investigate the air vent. The cadets are on tenterhooks – but the cider isn’t there! They can’t understand it until Columbo wanders in and takes them into his confidence. He’ll keep quiet about the cider, but he needs to know everything about it. As dawn breaks, Loomis calls Rumford and invites him to the parade ground. It’s about the cider! Meeting at the cannon, Loomis points to the cider hanging in same window where Rumford saw it on the fateful morning. Loomis is sent galloping off to get the second floor to fall out as Columbo makes his way over and finds time to grill Rumford about precisely when he last saw the cider. Night or day? Weekday or weekend? The Colonel is stuttering in his replies, but adopts a masterful tone when the weary cadets are lined up in front of him. When he orders the culprits to identify themselves, though, Columbo steps in. “All cadets remain where you are!” he shouts, much to the ire of the Colonel who isn’t used to having an order countermanded. However, the game’s up. Columbo By Dawn's Early Light Columbo lays down the law. The only person who ever saw the cider hanging in the window was Rumford. The only night it was ever left out to ferment was Saturday night. It was brought in at 6.25am, before reveille, to avoid it being seen, and it would have been too dark to have seen it before 6.15am. The only place on the academy it could have been seen from was the cannon – and that places Rumford at the cannon on the morning William Haynes died. For the embattled Colonel, the war is finally over. He admits the deed, but with no contrition. In his opinion, it had to be done to protect American interests. Columbo allows Rumford one last opportunity to dismiss the cadets before he surrenders to the detective as credits roll…

Early Light‘s best moment: the companiable chat

Dawn 13 I wanted to include Boodle Boy here, but McGoohan’s excellence during his companiable chat with Columbo really warrants the highest praise. One suspects there isn’t a lot of small talk and bonhomie in Rumford’s life, and that’s what makes his honest and friendly exchange with the detective in his palatial office all the more memorable. As well as providing us with insight into Rumford’s absolute commitment to US national interests, we’re also given a hint of the man behind the uniform, the man who would hang up that uniform and tend his roses if wars didn’t need to be fought. It’s a humanising scene for Rumford, strangely sad, and one that I suspect quietly impresses Columbo, who has a soft spot for excellence and dedication in others regardless of their crimes (think Adrian Carsini and Tommy Brown).

“It’s a humanising scene for Rumford, strangely sad, and one that I suspect quietly impresses Columbo.”

Rumford is candid enough to offer the Lieutenant a quality cigar and even becomes the first character (I think) to overtly ask whether Columbo has a first name. “I do,” the detective concedes. “My wife is about the only one that uses it.” A quiet, underplayed scene then, but one which I take considerable pleasure in viewing. McGoohan might have won his subsequent Emmy Award for this scene alone.

My take on By Dawn’s Early Light

Patrick McGoohan casts a large shadow over Columbo. He would ultimately play a Columbo killer more often than any other actor – 4 times – and would also have multiple writing and directing credits to his name over the ensuing quarter of a century.  Amazing, then, that we’re nearly two thirds of the way through the original series’ run by the time he makes his debut here. As a comparison, Robert Culp had wrapped up his trio of murderous appearances a season earlier, while Jack Cassidy already had two killer credits under his belt. Who could have predicted that McGoohan, then, would have such an enduring relationship with the show and with its leading man, Peter Falk?
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It was verily love at first sight for McGoohan and Falk

What’s more remarkable is that this is such an atypical McGoohan performance. He plays it so straight and is so restrained as Colonel Lyle C. Rumford that it could be a different actor entirely than the more eccentric, more ‘McGoohan’ roles he subsequently played in Columbo – notably in the bonkers Identity Crisis a year later, where McGoohan appeared to have a carte blanche to mould his character, and the whole episode (he directed) in his preferred style. It’s a quite marvellous, understated performance by McGoohan as Rumford, who appears to be playing a character a good deal older than his own 45 years at time of filming. He entirely succeeds in giving us a multi-layered character of great depth and intrigue. It would be easy to have made a military academy leader one-dimensional, and with lesser writing and a lesser actor we could have been given a forgettable villain. That’s definitely not the case here. McGoohan would go on to remember his Columbo debut very fondly, saying: “That’s probably my favourite [of the three Columbo episodes he was involved in in the 70s]. It might be my favourite role in the United States. It took a bit of work, but I thought it was excellent. It was on the basis of that experience that I agreed to do the others.”

“It’s a quite marvellous performance by McGoohan, who entirely succeeds in giving us a multi-layered character of great depth and intrigue.”

Let’s examine McGoohan’s Rumford more closely. Firstly, as the authority figure, the military man who makes others dance to the beat of his drum, he’s on the money. Cadet Springer aside, the rest of the Academy respects and fears him in equal measure. He’s a stickler for discipline and God help those who step out of line on his watch, because they’re going to be in for a world of hurt. Then we must consider Rumford’s devious, strategic mind. He’s clearly been planning the downfall of William Haynes for a long time, using Springer’s poor disciplinary record as a vehicle and smokescreen for committing murder. Consider: Springer was placed on cannon cleaning duty 3 weeks before the crime occurred. Rumford was able to plausibly claim that this ‘honour detail’ was given to Springer as a means of boosting his morale, while at the same time being able to perfectly use the cadet’s known foibles to portray him as a highly likely candidate to have caused the cannon explosion through simple carelessness. Sure, it’s pretty unethical for him to use Springer as a fall guy this way, but looking from Rumford’s perspective as a military leader, he’s shrewdly using what resources he has available to him to achieve his vision of victory. And that victory is safeguarding the future of the academy by eliminating Haynes and his co-ed plans, and by association safeguarding the US against foreign aggressors. That’s clever work.
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Ruthless and single-minded, Rumford poses a stern challenge to Columbo

Detractors might say that it’s pretty convenient that Haynes would rise to the bait and seal his own fate by presiding over the ceremonial cannon shot on Founder’s Day. After all, this is a duty that Rumford always carries out, and for the episode to work Haynes had to take the bait. I prefer to look at it from the perspective of Rumford really knowing his enemy (he had, after all, overseen Haynes’ own cadetship years before) and knowing what buttons to push to trigger him into a fatal mistake. That’s all well and good, but McGoohan’s greatest triumph is in making Rumford a strangely sympathetic figure, despite his total lack of contrition for his crime. This is achieved through knowing that Rumford’s motive had national interests at heart, but more powerfully through his interactions with Columbo, which go some way to revealing what type of man he is when not in uniform. During the companiable discussion outlined above, we learn that Rumford isn’t a bloodthirsty tyrant who terrifies weedy recruits for kicks or to boost his ego. He deeply cares about his country and wants to ensure the US Army has the best possible recruits to keep the country safe – ‘no more mama’s boys’, as he himself puts it. This is the life he has chosen, placing US interests above all else, including, it seems, his own.

“McGoohan’s greatest triumph is in making Rumford a strangely sympathetic figure, despite his total lack of contrition.”

Instead we see hints that Rumford is a lonely, isolated man with no love or fun in his life. There’s no Mrs Rumford, nor any suggestion that romance has ever been high on his agenda. He speaks of his rose garden at home that he’d be happy to tend if only there were no more wars to prepare for. It’s really quite sad. And that’s the crux of the Rumford character: he’s driven by discipline and duty. Everything else comes second. In that sense he’s like a more pleasant, nuanced forerunner to Jack Nicholson’s braying Colonol Jessup from A Few Good Men. All credit to writer Howard Berk for giving us a villain the majority of viewers can at least understand, even if they don’t openly like. Columbo’s opinion of Rumford seems to be just what the balanced viewer’s would be. The respect he affords the Colonel at episode’s end, when he allows him to address his cadets one last time is, in its own way, as kind an act as his toast with Adrian Carsini at the conclusion of Any Old Port in a Storm.
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The odd couple: poles apart, but the respect is there between Colonel and Lieutenant

Falk and McGoohan clearly hit it off on set. That much is evident in the later faith Falk placed in McGoohan as a Columbo co-star, writer and director. Both men admired the other’s approach to acting, and even if there’s little actual mirth in their exchanges in By Dawn’s Early Light, the seeds were sown for what would be a long and fruitful relationship. Would Early Light have been so restrained had it not been McGoohan’s debut? We can only speculate, but must give due props to director Harvey Hart, who successfully delivered a Columbo quite like no other. Rather like A Friend in Deed, this is an episode apart in many ways. It’s very quiet, with long interludes of near silence broken by sounds and conversation – particularly at the start when the Colonel is rigging the shell. There’s no musical score at all. Indeed the only music in the episode is that which is provided by the cadets on the drill field. This, combined with the location shooting and lack of humour, gives the episode a very different ‘feel’ to the average Columbo. It’s much more like a standalone movie in fact. This treatment makes sense. After all, war is hell and the spectre of Vietnam hangs over this episode like a pall. As Haynes himself puts it: ‘No one wants to play soldier anymore,’ – a sentiment that ran deep across the nation at the time. As a result, this is a serious representation of serious subject matter and lacks a lot of the little humorous asides that have become a hallmark for the series. There are some cute scenes, though. The wimpy Boodle Boy and zero-authoritaire Captain Loomis raise smiles, while Columbo’s rude awakening when he gets his bum cracked by that young cadet while reveille is still ringing in his ears is a fun moment. There are some nice fish-out-of-water scenes, too, as a baffled Columbo struggles to get a word out of straight-armed cadets running like dorks around campus, and is bewildered by first year cadets eating ‘square meals’ in the mess hall.
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We’re also treated to Bruce Kirby’s first turn as Sergeant Kramer, a workaday detective who here seems rather impatient with Columbo’s methods. Kramer would return in 5 subsequent episodes, making him the series’ single most recurring character aside from Columbo and Dog. Kirby also had the pleasure of sharing screen-time here with his son Bruno (of City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally fame), who starred as cider-brewing conspirator Cadet Morgan. In terms of lighthearted aspects, that’s about all we get. Whether this hurts the episode depends entirely on your point of view. For all its artfulness and weighty drama, just how enjoyable is By Dawn’s Early Light when compared to the very best instalments in the Columbo opus? I find that harder to quantify.

By Dawn’s Early Light is certainly compelling viewing, but it’s very straight-faced.”

I like to refer to Peter Falk’s own comments on what makes for a vintage Columbo. For him, it’s about achieving ‘the perfect balance between being both compelling and amusing’. I concur. Early Light is certainly compelling, but it’s very straight-faced. And because of that, for me at least, it’s less enjoyable to watch than my absolute, dependable favourites. The pace of the episode is also something I can see being an issue for some viewers. It’s a veeeeeeeery slow episode, which never really picks up speed and the co-ed plan blueprint confusion is drawn out rather more than is welcome. However, this pedestrian pace works overall because that’s how it’s written, but it perhaps makes Early Light a little less accessible than a joyous 75-minute romp such as Murder by the Book.
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Extensive location shooting gives By Dawn’s Early Light a different look and feel to most Columbo episodes. Plus, TANKS!

Of course it’s always a treat to watch Columbo unravel a case. Here he’s as shrewd as ever, his detective wiles able to help him immediately discount the obvious suspect (Springer) because of how quickly he identified the cannon rag. Rumford’s failure to do so gives the Lieutenant reason to suspect him further down the line, but the script isn’t so heavy handed that it labours this point. And we again see evidence of Columbo’s everyman charms in how he ingratiates himself with the cadets to crack the mystery and force Rumford’s surrender. In conclusion, By Dawn’s Early Light is something of a strange beast. I respect it for what it is: a wonderfully written, hard-hitting piece of detective drama featuring a riveting turn from McGoohan. But it’s not what I watch and love Columbo for, and it’s rare that I would choose it from the DVD collection with so many other more accessible, lighter options available. Still, let that take nothing away from what is a highly impressive televisual achievement, and one that proved, even after nearly 30 episodes, that Columbo was still as ambitious and deft as it ever had been. Is there a cloud to that silver lining? How long can this quality be maintained?
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Unanswered question: did Columbo ever get that pair of socks?

Did you know?

Patrick McGoohan’s turn as Colonel Rumford was recognised by him winning the Outstanding Single Performance by a Supporting Actor in a Comedy or Drama Series Emmy Award in 1975. It was a good night for Columbo and its alumni, too, with Peter Falk winning the award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series; Valerie Harper (Most Crucial Game) winning Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series for Rhoda; and Jessica Walter (Mind Over Mayhem) scoring the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series for the critically acclaimed but unpopular Amy Prentiss. Falk and McGoohan would double up again to win Columbo Emmys in 1990 – McGoohan for his portrayal of Oscar Finch from Agenda for Murder. I can’t find any photographic evidence of McGoohan’s 1975 win, but Peter Falk’s acceptance speech is below.

How I rate ’em

As you’ll have noted from the review, ranking Early Light is a tricky task. It’s terrific drama, but is very different from the average Columbo. As a result, I rank it mid-tier overall because I just don’t enjoy it in the same way I do my absolute favourites. It’s in excellent company, though, and with very little to choose between any of the episodes in my ‘B List’, this still represents a BOODLE-BOY-TASTIC thumbs up. Read any of my other episode reviews via the links below.
  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Publish or Perish
  3. Double Shock
  4. Murder by the Book
  5. Negative Reaction
  6. A Friend in Deed
  7. Death Lends a Hand
  8. A Stitch in Crime
  9. Double Exposure
  10. Lady in Waiting
  11. Any Old Port in a Storm
  12. Prescription: Murder ——– A-List ends here—
  13. An Exercise in Fatality
  14. Swan Song
  15. The Most Crucial Game
  16. Etude in Black
  17. By Dawn’s Early Light
  18. Candidate for Crime
  19. Greenhouse Jungle
  20. Requiem for a Falling Star
  21. Blueprint for Murder
  22. Ransom for a Dead Man —– B-List ends here—
  23. Dead Weight
  24. The Most Dangerous Match
  25. Lovely but Lethal ———— C-List ends here—-
  26. Short Fuse
  27. Mind Over Mayhem
  28. Dagger of the Mind
As always I’d LOVE to hear your views on this episode. If you love it above all things, cast your vote for it in the Columbo favourite episode poll here. Shoot me a comment below, and come back soon for big adventure on the high seas as Columbo goes cruisin’ with Robert Vaughn in Troubled Waters.
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Q.) Who serves the Colonel his coffee on Halloween? A.) The BOO-dle Boy

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176 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo By Dawn’s Early Light

  1. I really didn’t like this episode. It took an age to get going and then seemed to drag on for far too long. Maybe it’s because it’s very different from previous cases, but I didn’t enjoy it at all. It struck me as very dull and with no particular cleverness to the crime or the solution. I’d put it right down with Dagger Of The Mind for entertainment – at least I got amusement from the OTT performances in that.

  2. I commented on the review when it was written, but re-visited here after just seeing the episode again (for about the 6th or 7th time). There is one important point I’d like to add. As most, CP sees Rumford’s motive as being purely selfless – because he views Haynes and his plans as a national security threat. However, I see an additional motive that is not so selfless, and I think there is support in the script for naming that motive as a major one – namely, in the “companiable chat” scene that CP so loved. Let me explain.

    Right when Rumford mentions retiring to his white roses, Columbo clearly has a revelation, as his facial expression screams: “Oh my God, I just got it. How did I not think of that until now.” What just dawned on him. The writers leave it to the viewer to figure it out. I think Columbo realizes suddenly that there is a much simpler motive than he thought for Rumford, namely, his lack of any life outside of the academy. Thus, he might very well have been willing to kill Haynes if Haynes threatened his job. Suddenly, the blueprint fits in neatly, as he realizes that Haynes wanted to make it co-ed, which inevitably meant Rumford had to go. Hence, he tells Rumford right after this that he is going to get the blueprint. I think CP, despite his brilliant review, missed this key point. It provides another reason for the murder, explains the sudden reaction, and even more importantly, explains why they introduced this personal scene so late and right before the gotcha ending. In the ensuing blueprint scene, Columbo also makes it clear for the very first time that he even suspects Rumford.

  3. Seeing this episode again, I am reminded how unique, and
    how much a departure it was from other Columbo episodes.
    It’s compelling viewing, and worth seeing more than once.
    Despite my high rating, it’s the lieutenant’s most joyless and
    sombre outing.

    For one, there’s no Howcatchem mystery. Most first-time viewers
    will spot right away the incriminating element that places
    Colonel Rumford in the wrong place at the wrong time, right
    in the critical opening scene.

    Another unique aspect is the murderer. A humorless
    disciplinarian who puts his responsibility and duties above any
    personal joy in his life. Who as a hawkish defender of military
    preparedness, is ready to strike against any enemy, murdering
    out of fanatical idealism. Who’s austere personality seems
    to permeate throughout the academy itself.

    Finally, the episode is notable for its realism, after Columbo
    enrols in the academy like any cadet. Almost every scene.
    has a documentary feel to it. There are no sounds or music
    not coming from the story itself. There are fish out of water
    scenes, but they aren’t funny, any more than it would be for us.
    The episode is an immersive experience of what it’s like to go to
    a military academy.

    There’s no enjoyment of this episode as a regular Columbo
    outing. What the viewer is left with are contrasting character
    studies of two different professionals as they go about their
    different duties. They have similar rank of authority, but serve
    two very different gods.

    In the end, Columbo gets his man, because his man rarely
    cares about being caught. And would have done what he
    did in any case.

    • Rating: 8.5/10
      Marking Breakdown:
      Entertainment: 5.5/5 (bonus 0.5 for McGoohan’s performance)
      Clues Leading Columbo to the Killer: 2.5/2.5
      Final Gotcha: 0.5/2.5 (counting only as a clue, as was shown
      at the beginning)

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this episode in spite of the minimum of humor. We all enjoy Columbo humor but it’s lack in a humorless military institution with a humorless commandant seems fitting. I felt it helped establish the somber atmosphere of the episode but I look forward to its return in the next episode.

    One thing that troubled me is Rumford’s lack of concern about possibly critically injuring two cadets. Sure, he was willing to let Cadet Springer take the blame for inadvertently causing the explosion with the supposedly forgotten rag, an incident which would be ruled accidental. But what about the two cadets that loaded the canon and were standing at its side when the explosion occurred? As Rumford is an admitted explosives expert he would have known that the C4 in an old canon which decimated Haynes would also have injured the cadets inconveniently standing by at head height. Further, the two serving in this honor position were probably among the top cadets at the academy – the kind of future officer that Rumford wants to nurture.

    Thanks for your work Columbophile.

    • I think I can answer your question about his lack of concern for the safety of the two cadets who loaded the cannon — this bothered me, too, until I just re-watched that scene. All of the video evidence (I re-watched the scene multiple times) shows the cadets, after loading the cannon, walking away from the cannon (at 16:41), onto the grass, and the last time we see them on screen they are still in the act of walking away from it. In the subsequent shot of Haynes walking toward the cannon area, there are no cadets in sight. From this evidence, it’s understandable to assume that Rumsford knew that they’d be far enough away from it upon detonation.


    I often read comments about the so-called “gaping holes” in the plot lines of Columbo episodes. With respect to these LEAGLE-eyed critics, this is my response: I care not about these multiple and “gaping plot holes”, cited with such regularity. I care not, not one single iota.

    As relevant as these loose ends may be, the truth of the matter is that they are a distraction from the pure aesthetic quality of the work. Fine art, in all its dimensions, requires moments of SUSPENDED DISBELIEF in order to be truly appreciated. And “Columbo”, in all its glory, represents supeme fine art in the genre of television detective fiction.

    For me it’s the sheer delight, among other things, of watching Columbo in action: his peerless genius, his eccentric and idiosyncratic mannersms (more often than not a clever ruse in the art of distraction), his subtle sense of humour, his unmistakable humility and modesty (delicately balanced with his razor-sharp acumen and powers of observation), his calculated cat-and-mouse routine before delivering the kiler blow and so much more; infinitely …

    The entire series, each episode in its conception, construction and conclusion is underpinned by one overarching principle: the modus operandi whereby Columbo investigates, traps and arrests the killer. What happens beyond falls outside the ambit and jurisdiction of the programme’s format.

    I believe that, as critics, our concern ought to be focused upon his modus operandi and the sublime and brilliant manner in which he sets about to execute his duties, culminating in him putting the crapping culprit into a corner from which he/she cannot escape. This is the sum of Columbo’s project: investigate: probe, gather clues, analyse, synthesize, make deductions, draw conclusions and set the scene for the final kill (pun). His work is done. It ends here. Leave the rest to the jurors and the legal fraternity. Let’s not compare apples with bananas.

  6. I’m not sure: this seems to be the only episode that did not feature an attractive female co-star. They could have certainly done better with the colonel’s secretary. Or was there a reason for this related, perhaps to the colonel’s implied lack of interest in women? He would, no doubt, have chosen his secretary. If so, then this a very clever layer of sub-text woven into the episode.

  7. What makes the cigar-scene so beautiful and moving is that when McGoohan says the thing about his roses, he is confessing that he is completely alone, loves no one, and has no life outside his work. He conveys his loneliness more powerfully by NOT speaking it directly than any lament could have done.

    • If you’ll notice, that is when Columbo gets a “revelation” expression on his face. It seems that this fact makes him realize that Rumford had a personal motive to kill Haynes besides the national security factor, namely, because he would have no other life to turn to if he was fired, as Haynes was planning to do.

  8. This episode was a different animal in many senses, but that novelty serves to make it memorable despite sparse humor. For one, I liked how you knew early on that the colonel wasn’t likely to crack from Columbo’s usual nagging tactics. As noted by CP, Columbo didn’t even try to lean on that dead-end strategy in this case. Just kept digging until he found a smoking gun/cannon. And Rumsford didn’t fall apart as much as he merely wasn’t the type to deny the truth when thrown laid bare.

  9. After viewing this AGAIN, I noticed that this is one of the few episodes where the killer doesn’t become outwardly agitated with Columbo’s pestering. Not once.
    Rumford remains calm and is never annoyed by Columbo’s inquiries.
    Perhaps this is the “discipline” of being a Colonel. (Cool, calm, and collected)
    I don’t think the murderer/writer who locked the guy in the closet ever became angry with Columbo either, now that I think about it.

  10. It’s amusing that the Citadel, where this episode was filmed, is now co-ed (though only just – women make up something 2% of the students). Seems William Haynes got his way after all.

  11. This is my first post o this site. I hope to write more about my history with Columbo soon, but I just want to say that I was very impressed with the character of Rumford. With that stern, strict outward persona, but with little cracks where his emotions and philosophical feelings can seep out in quieter moments with Columbo. This kind of characterization is very rare in TV and modern films.

  12. Always one of my faves, up there with Exercise in Fatality and The Most Crucial Game. Just personal faves for some reason, although A Friend in Need really has become a part of that group as well along with Sky High…

  13. The great thing about this episode is the relationship Columbo has with the colonel, and how consistent it is. The colonel doesn’t devolve into the typical villain who loses his patience with Columbo easily and repeats “can you get to the point?” over and over. He keeps his cool the whole time, answers questions calmly, and remains truly devoted to his job. I don’t think it was even a “dark” episode, per se. We got tons more insight into the villain’s motive, background, and character than we did in most episodes.

  14. McGoohan definitely deserved the Emmy for his performance. Watching this takes me back to the 1970s with the unspoken references to the just concluded Vietnam war, and the conversion of the men’s academy to a co-ed college. This was about the same time West Point was opened to women cadets so for me the parallels to current events (a la 1974) helped make this a favorite episode.

  15. Who is the actress playing Hildy..the makeup artist removing Dale Kingston’s makeup at the studio.

  16. With the regards to the objection to the cider clue, you’re assuming the cadets knew what they’re doing. When I was in college, at least three years older than these cadets, we had the idea of buying some cider and leaving it out on a ledge to ferment. All we got for our efforts was two gallons of vinegar. So, it’s plausible that high school age kids could fall for the same nonsense as we did.

  17. By Dawn’s Early Light is clearly one of the best Columbo episodes ever. What an epic televisual feast. Everything about it is absolutely first class. I cannot rate it high enough. Easily in the Columbo TOP 5 episodes. Every scene is a gem. It’s a phenomenal piece of television.

    • I could not agree more. My favourite McGoohan Columbo performance by a country mile and that Emmy was very well deserved. Top 5 might be pushing it for me but it’s nailed-on top 10.

      And as for the humour (or lack thereof in this episode) I must be one of the few Columbo fans for whom that is a blessed relief. When it’s overdone it’s a huge turn-off for me. Especially in the new era episodes where Columbo is basically played as a bumbling idiot for laughs.

      But here I found it just right: my favourite being the conversation Columbo has with the cadet about the socks and the promise ring, which ends with the lieutenant recounting a rather sweet anecdote about a bracelet he gave to a girl once… “Well, I was pleased” never fails to raise a smile, as does the look of bemusement on the cadet’s face!


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