When Columbo took to the high seas on 9 February 1975, you better have packed your sense of fun – because this is an adventure like no other for the dear Lieutenant.
With Peter Falk’s BFF Ben Gazzara at the proverbial helm, Robert Vaughn pimpin’ it up as the murderer and Mrs Columbo tantalisingly just around the corner at all times, this has all the ingredients for a very bon voyage.
Sounds good, right? But is Troubled Waters plain sailing all the way, or a star-crossed journey destined for Davy Jones’s locker? I can’t wait to find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Hayden Danziger: Robert Vaughn
Rosanna Wells: Poupee Boucar
Lloyd Harrington: Dean Stockwell
Captain Gibbons: Patrick Macnee
Purser Watkins: Bernard Fox
Sylvia Danziger: Jane Greer
Dr Pierce: Robert Douglas
Nurse Melissa: Susan Damante
Written by: William Driskill and Jackson Gillis
Directed by: Ben Gazzara
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Episode synopsis: Columbo Troubled Waters
Amidst all the hoo-hah of a
boat ship boarding, one Lieutenant Columbo is dashing around like a man possessed. We soon find out why. He’s not there investigating foul play. Instead he’s desperately seeking Mrs Columbo, who was won the couple a cruise to Mexico in a raffle aboard ye goode shippe Sea Palace.
The Lieutenant is relieved when Captain Gibbons (played by the Britisher-than-thou Patrick Macnee) confirms he has seen the dear lady and that she’s safely stowed away. Captain Gibbons and Purser Watkins are also pleased to note that Columbo has a Lieutenant’s designation (or ‘Leftenant’ in their parlance) – a fact that has a bearing on subsequent, murderous happenings, although they are bemused by his clothing. “Do you expect inclement weather in the Mexican waters?” the skipper asks, pleasantly.
Right behind Columbo in the queue is our chief antagonist Hayden ‘Huggy Bear’ Danziger, and wife Sylvia. They’re essentially the guests of honour. Car sales executive Danziger has a host of car dealers on board as his guests and wants them all to feel the love. As a prior guest on the ship, the crew ensure Danziger his every whim will be catered for. And with that, we’re all at sea!
We’re barely out of port, however, when Danziger starts getting up to mischief. With his sensibly packed key cutting set (apparently any car dealer who’s worth his salt has one on him at all times) and creates a master key, which he’s swiftly using for no good! He breaks into the room of big-haired piano player Lloyd Harrington and plants a receipt for a gun in his safe box.
He then ooches off to the room of sexy singer Rosanna Wells and plants the gun in her wardrobe. As he completes the task she walks in, but is little surprised to find him there. Indeed it appears she was expecting him. It emerges that the pair have been romping since they met on the last cruise. He’s trying to break it off, but she wants cash to keep her mouth shut, or she’ll blab to Mrs Danziger.
The exchange gets heated. “No smart little broad from Pittsburgh” is going to mess up everything he’s worked 20 years for, he warns her. “This one is,” she replies – before receiving a punch to the face for her troubles. As he leaves, Rosanna’s face has retribution written all over it…
To put all this in context, prior to this action we’re introduced to cruise ship band members Lloyd and Rosanna, who are former lovers now at loggerheads. Seems as if they had a little triste some time ago but while he’s keen to keep getting jiggy, she’s moved on to Danziger and tells him in no uncertain terms that it’s game over. The hirsute suitor yells angrily at her in the public bar, and stomps away.
Danziger, meanwhile, is putting the next step of his plan into action. Inhaling amyl nitrate crystals from a capsule, he plummets into the ship swimming pool, clutching his chest and squealing for help. By all accounts he’s had a mild heart attack, and must spend a night in the ship’s hospital. Yes folks, we’re off to an extremely action-packed start.
The next 3 hours of the episode intersperse Danziger’s sneaky manoeuvres against the endless backdrop of Rosanna and the band belting out Volare to an audience of enrapt pensioners, which is every bit as glorious and hideous as it sounds and still the chief reason why I can’t take the idea of cruises seriously.
Despite being under regular ‘observation’ by ship’s nurse Melissa, Danziger is able to effortlessly obtain a pair of surgical gloves from the dispensary as she reads and smokes cigarettes with her back to the door! It’s the medical equivalent of the bungling security guard watching the ball game as the baddie tiptoes past the surveillance camera screen he’s not looking at.
He then slips out of the hospital, grabs a crew uniform and jallops down the crew staircase to Rosanna’s room just before she gets there to change costume ahead of the band’s second set. As she sits down at her dressing table, Danziger emerges from hiding and shoots her dead without a word, muffling the sound of the gun by firing through a feather pillow. He draws a shaky ‘L’ on her mirror with lipstick and races back up the stairs to hospital – stopping only to drop off the gun in a mountain of towels in the laundry room and shed the uniform.
He gets back to his hospital just in time for his 11.30pm pulse and blood pressure test, nurse Melissa noting that the rates are sky high once again. The mystified band, meanwhile, can only wonder where their lead singer is as they bust out some gentle crowd pleasers (Agadoo, Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini, etc etc) and wait for her return.
Cut to Purser Watkins rapping urgently at a cabin door. It’s Columbo’s! The sleepy Lieutenant is informed that the Captain needs him, and his first thought is that Mrs Columbo has been misbehaving. “She likes to have a good time. Sometimes she gets carried away,” he stammers. But what they need him for is his crime-solving skillz, as he’s lead to the cabin of Rosanna Wells to do what he can to assist.
Columbo requests the crime scene is sealed off and photographs taken. Skipper Gibbons, though, is taking umbrage at it all. He can’t have an investigation take place! The passengers are on holiday, for goodness sake! His antics are suggestive of a man with something to hide, although this isn’t an avenue the episode ever goes down.
“Danziger’s been plotting this for a long time, and he doesn’t care if innocent lives are ruined in the process.”
Nevertheless, Gibbons finally agrees to allow a discreet photographer access to the room, while a seasick Columbo takes himself off to the hospital to seek a remedy for his churning guts. While he’s waiting for the medicine his eye picks up on something out of the ordinary on the floor right outside Danziger’s sickroom. It’s a tiny feather. And while it mightn’t mean anything to him now, it’s ringing enough of an alarm bell for the wily detective to pocket the evidence for later consideration.
The corpse of Rosanna is brought to the hospital, and while the bullet is being dug out, Columbo nips in to see who the patient is in the ward, but before he can get into too much chit-chat with Danziger, Doctor Pierce calls him away. Death was very likely instant, they conclude, which puzzles Columbo. How could she have had time to scrawl an ‘L’ on the mirror?
While Columbo isn’t falling for the obvious, the ship’s crew is. Poor ‘L for Lloyd’ is summoned and his hands checked for gunpowder. There’s none to be found, but he could easily have been wearing gloves. A subsequent search through his room throws up the planted gun receipt, dated two weeks prior. And we can now start seeing the devilish depth of Danziger’s treachery. He’s been plotting this for a long time, and he doesn’t care if innocent lives are ruined in the process.
Of course, no murder weapon has been found yet. But that swiftly changes when an orderly finds it in the pile of laundry. Alas there are no prints on it, but Columbo confirms it’s the murder weapon after a test shot is a match for the bullet taken from Rosanna’s body.
Columbo has called on Danziger for help, given he has a large number of guests on board, and it’s at this stage that our killer falls into that old habit of being rather too forceful in his suggestions. “You’ve got the gun, a bullet, proof of ownership and a young man who felt rejected,” he opines. “It’s obvious the musician shot her.”
Of course, knowing Columbo the way we do, he’s never going to fall for the easy option. He dismisses the gun receipt as credible evidence. Why would Lloyd keep it amongst his other receipts – all of which were retained for tax deduction purposes. And he has every reason to start suspecting Danziger. He’s a previous passenger who knows the ship routine, after all. He’s a long-time car dealer, so would know how to cut a master key to both commit the crime and incriminate poor Lloyd. Plus he’s starting to get waaaaaaay too helpful. But how can Columbo prove anything against the guest of honour?
“Our killer falls into that old habit of being rather too forceful in his suggestions.”
He’s bothered by a number of things, too. Why wouldn’t the killer just fling the gun into the ocean? Lloyd had no powder burns on his hands, so if he fired the fatal shot he must’ve worn gloves. So where are the gloves with powder burns? If the gun was hidden, maybe the gloves were too (although we saw Danziger fling the gloves overboard upon release from hospital).
Continuing his investigations, Columbo discovers that a pair of surgical gloves are missing from the ship’s inventory. Danziger was in the infirmary, so it’s another reason to suspect him. The Lieutenant even goes so far as to ask the ship’s doctor whether it would be possible to simulate a heart attack. The doctor has to admit that inhaling amyl nitrate crystals might do it, so Columbo heads off to the swimming pool.
Checking the filter, what does he find? Two halves of an empty medicine capsule! When the doctor identifies it as amyl nitrate, Danziger is established as chief suspect. Even shirty Captain Gibbons starts to see sense – especially when Columbo refers to Danziger’s pulse rate on the night of the killing, which leapt right up just prior to his 11.30pm check-up. It could mean he’d had to run up the crew staircase to get back in a hurry. The noose is tightening around Danziger’s razor-sharp collared neck!
Again confiding in Danziger, a Hawaiian-shirted Columbo explains the significance of the surgical gloves stolen from the hospital. They simply must be hidden somewhere and if they can be found with powder burns on them that could be the clincher required to connect Lloyd with the killing. Danziger takes the bait – and how!
Late that night he steals the ship magician’s .38 revolver, another pair of surgical gloves from the hospital (won’t you tighten up security, Melissa?) and sneaks down to the engine rooms, using the drone of machinery to block out the sound of the gunshot. He then tucks the gloves into a fire hose and beats a retreat.
Quite why he’s chosen this course of action is revealed the next morning. As the ship nears port, a final fire drill test is run and before you can say “THAAAAAR SHE BLOOOOOWS!”, the surgical gloves flop out of the hose on to the floor. Now it’s Columbo’s time to shine!
Danziger is called to the bridge where he is greeted by Captain Gibbons and the Lieutenant, who is indulging in some old skool police work as he examines the gloves with a Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass. A cocky Danziger believes he’s home and dry. “I’m delighted for you,” he tells the detective. “Now, if you can find powder marks on them you’ve got your final proof, haven’t you? And that will prove that the whole thing was planned.”
“Columbo is indulging in some old skool police work as he examines the gloves with a Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass.”
Columbo concedes all these points. He has found powder marks on the gloves, but that’s not what he’s really looking for. What he wants is on the inside of the glove! The latex of the surgical gloves retains finger prints and palm prints. So if Columbo can positively match the prints with someone on the ship, then he has his killer. And it’s at this stage, Danziger starts looking more than a little seasick.
Using graphite shavings from a pencil, Columbo obtains a print from the index finger of a glove. He can see straight away that it’s not a match for Harrington, whose prints he captured earlier. No longer beating around the bush, he takes the direct approach to draw out a confession. “Mr. Danziger would you place the index finger of your right hand in that graphite and I think, maybe, we can wrap this whole thing up very quickly?”
Danziger attempts a feeble excuse but is stopped in his tracks and has to admit defeat. “How did you find out?” he asks dejectedly. Columbo whips the little feather out of his top pocket. It triggered his suspicions because they don’t use feather pillows in the hospital because of allergies. And that means Danziger must have inadvertently picked it up at the crime scene and deposited outside his hospital ward.
Danziger is escorted off to the police launch, but the fun’s not quite over. The episode ends as it begins with Columbo desperately seeking Mrs Columbo to depart the ship, this time to a jaunty and stereotype-tastic Mexican trumpet ditty. Purser Watkins points her out, just about to hop onto a launch for shore.
“Do I still have time to catch that ship?” asks the Lieutenant, after an episode of being ear-bashed for referring to the cruise ship as a boat. “Yes you can,” he’s told. “And Lieutenant? That’s a boat.” The puzzled Lieutenant finally computes. “Ah, to Hell with it,” he grins as credits roll…
Troubled Waters’ best/worst moment: Volaaaaaaaaare
I’ve made light of it in the summary above, because the thought of actually being in a cruise ship audience being subjected to Volare is my idea of hell. However, ask a fan their main recollection of Troubled Waters and Poupee Boucar’s interminable rendition of Volare is always right up there.
As referenced earlier, this is wonderful and terrible at the same time, featuring a show-stopping turn from Boucar in front of an audience who are absolutely lapping it up. It epitomises the cruise ship experience of the 70s (I’m guessing), but is also effectively set against the scheming Danziger’s break-out from the hospital and his date with destiny with the singer when her song is finally done.
My thoughts on Troubled Waters
An absolute blast from start to finish, it’s easy to see why Troubled Waters resonates so strongly with viewers, and has held a space in the fans’ top 10 Columbo episodes each year since I started a poll in 2015.
The cruise ship setting is unique, memorable and entertaining, we’re tantalised by Mrs Columbo’s proximity (surely we’ll see her at last!) and we’re treated to one of the series’ best ever killer guest stars in Robert Vaughn.
Vaughn is a great place to start our analysis. He makes an immediate impact as the dastardly Danziger – not least because of his extraordinary attire. Is this what auto executives routinely wore at their leisure in the mid-70s? If so, please someone invent a time machine and whip me back there, because he absolutely rocks the ‘pimp chic’ look like no other actor could.
When we first meet Danziger he’s wearing a brilliant white lounge suit, a dark crimson shirt with some of the widest, sharpest collars ever produced and a devil-may-care cravat around his neck. This guy knows how to live! His subsequent wardrobe changes are equally outstanding giving us a killer who might well top the Columbo fashion standings, certainly giving Nora Chandler and Viveca Scott a good run for their money.
Vaughn wonderfully fits the Columbo villain archetype with elegance, charm and arrogance in abundance. It’s as if he was borne to it, and his wordless dispatching of troublesome lover Rosanna Wells is as ice cool as the series gets. I could watch Vaughn all day long, and he’s so good in this that it’s a borderline crime that he never played a Columbo killer again (instead being wasted in the BILGE that was Last Salute to the Commodore a year later).
“Robert Vaughn wonderfully fits the Columbo villain archetype with elegance, charm and arrogance in abundance.”
He and Falk seemed to really hit it off and their interactions are amongst the series’ most enjoyable. We’re taken right back to the Columbo basics here: the Lieutenant latches on to his suspect straight away, brings them into his circle of trust, elicits their opinions and help throughout – and finally pulls the rug out from underneath them just as they think their innocence is assured. While the denouement doesn’t match that of Suitable for Framing, the table-turning gotcha is conceptually similar to the take down of Dale Kingston.
The crime itself is also reminiscent of Framing in its depth and complexity. Danziger has taken time to craft a marvellously devious plan to incriminate Lloyd Harrington and establish his own alibi, involving the pre-purchase of a revolver in a location he knew Harrington to be; faking a heart attack; and sufficiently memorising a ship’s layout to commit the crime unnoticed. In the end it’s only a combination of Columbo’s blind luck and inspiration that does in for him.
And if I’m being ultra-critical of this episode (and that’s the point of these reviews), it’s the blind luck aspect of the crime solving that is a little hard to bear. A seasick Columbo spotting the feather outside Danziger’s hospital room is a bit of an easy way out. There are plenty of reasons to ultimately suspect Danziger, but they all stem from the pesky feather.
A similarly implausible device is used in A Deadly State of Mind later in this series when the Lieutenant spots the tiny spent lighter flint on the carpet, which triggers his suspicions of Dr Collier. I’m not a mystery writer, so don’t have a better suggestion off the top of my head as to how these situations could have been better resolved, but I just find it all a bit too convenient.
Danziger’s superhuman knowledge of the bowels of the cruise ship is also pushing credibility just a shade. He’s referenced as a past guest, so it’s OK to assume some level of understanding of ship layout and crew movements, but he knows it so well that he might have designed the ship and created the staff rota himself! It doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of the episode, but is again just slightly too convenient for my liking.
“Danziger’s superhuman knowledge of the bowels of the cruise ship is pushing credibility just a shade.”
As is so often the case with a good Columbo episode, plot holes can be be forgiven to a certain extent if the viewer simply buys into the fun – and that’s where Troubled Waters makes it easy for the viewer. Because the episode was filmed on a real cruise to Mexico, the cast and crew mingling with actual guests, everyone seems to be having a right old time.
Peter Falk’s great mate Ben Gazzara directed this episode and his presence doubtless helped keep his leading man in good humour throughout. It can’t have been an easy job at times for Gazzara, with a mass of extras to manage as well as an at-times stormy voyage that caused seasickness amongst the film crew. The wind whipping across the decks played havoc, too, with basically everyone in the main cast suffering from BAD HAIR DAYS at some point during the shoot.
Still, if this dampened enthusiasm aboard ship it absolutely doesn’t show in the final product, because this is a total hoot. Note the lovely, natural interactions Columbo has with fellow guests while searching the pool filter. It’s quite charming to see. Also note the rapturous looks of the audience enjoying the century-long version of Volare. The guests must have been dining out on the experience for decades to come!
All credit to Gazzara, who delivered an episode poles apart from his first Columbo effort, A Friend in Deed, the dark and humourless tale of police corruption that rounded out Season 3. That he could apply his hand so easily to the light and cheery Troubled Waters shows terrific versatility.
The script certainly gave its stars every chance to have a good time. Highlights include the game of quoits between Columbo and Danziger that resulted in the Lieutenant flinging his ring overboard; his shedding of his regular work clothes in favour of a muted Hawaiian shirt; the crew’s irritation that Columbo kept calling the ship a boat; and his concerns that Mrs Columbo’s apparently wild antics were going to land him in trouble.
Having Mrs Columbo there but just out of sight was a good move, finally proving beyond doubt that she is a real person (unless the crew were all suffering from mass hallucinations) and keeping the audience guessing right until the end about whether we’d finally catch a glimpse of her. Of course we don’t, which was the right decision, but drawing out the suspense is just another element of what this such a memorable adventure.
Truth be told, the calibre of the supporting cast was such that we didn’t need Mrs Columbo anyway. Alongside Vaughn was Patrick Macnee as the quintessentially British Captain Gibbons, and Bernard Fox as Purser Watkins making his second Columbo appearance after starring as Chief Superintendent Durk in Dagger of the Mind.
Dean Stockwell also made his second series’ appearance after being the murder victim in Most Crucial Game, while Poupee Boucar (or Poopy Pantz as my children refer to her as) gave as good as she got as Danziger’s wronged lover Rosanna in a small role.
We even have former silver screen beauty Jane Greer as Danziger’s older wife, Sylvia. She had one memorable conversation with Columbo that hinted at her passion for her younger husband and the fact that she wears the trousers in the relationship, but it was really an under-cooked role. Her character was a strong and interesting one that warranted further exploration. It’s a shame the episode didn’t go there.
It’s also a shame that the episode wasn’t slightly bolder when considering suspects other than Harrington and Danziger. Columbo indicates strongly that he believes a member of the crew could have committed the crime, something Captain Gibbons vehemently disagrees with – a little too vehemently to my mind.
“The actual gotcha, while clever, is a bit of an anticlimax, with Danziger simply quietly admitting he did it without any fuss.”
Initially obstructive of the Lieutenant’s investigation, and showing a surly demeanour about the on-going ship/boat gag, Gibbons would have been my first suspect. I would have enjoyed at least a hint of an investigation into his whereabouts at the time of the killing, but alas we are denied what could have been a really interesting confrontation. It doesn’t help, either, that the actual gotcha, while clever, is a bit of an anticlimax, with Danziger simply quietly admitting he did it without any fuss.
A final key takeout from Troubled Waters was Columbo reverting to old skool policing techniques to investigate the case in the absence of crime scene investigators and more modern crime solving paraphernalia. The sight of him using pencil graphite to capture finger prints and examining clues through a giant magnifying glass is a pleasant nod to simpler times, and also more overtly Sherlockian than we usually see.
Lest we forget, murder always followed Holmes wherever he was, too, and, like Columbo, he was always up to the task. It’s a good reminder of how similarly shrewd and resourceful the two detectives are, despite contrasting characters and eras.
In summing up, Troubled Waters is Columbo escapism in its purist form. It’s not perfect, but it has enough memorable ingredients to place it near the summit of most fans’ favourites list.
Columbo as a series doesn’t travel well (think Dagger of the Mind and Matter of Honor), but Troubled Waters makes a virtue of its unique, nautical setting to deliver a very different viewing experience. While it lacks a bit of the thrill of the chase with Columbo so firmly attached to Danziger throughout, it makes up for this with a big heart, big smiles and even bigger hair. It’s a
boat ship load of fun on the high seas and is highly recommended.
Did you know?
The actual ship from Troubled Waters was named the Ocean Dream, and was launched in 1972. It also appeared in The Love Boat (why not the Love Ship?) and Herbie Goes Bananas. However, it’s currently at the bottom of Davy Jones’s Locker off the coast of Thailand after capsizing and sinking in 2016. Rumour has it that Volare is still being sung, though…
How I rate ’em
Enjoyable as it is, Troubled Waters falls just outside my current top 10. It has many memorable elements that help it stand out, but the quality of the mystery itself isn’t quite top tier. Still, this is one I’d always watch with gusto if I saw it on TV as it’s so enjoyable.
Missed any of my other episode reviews? Then view them 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
- Troubled Waters
- 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
- By Dawn’s Early Light
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man —– B-List ends here—
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal ———— C-List ends here—-
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
Check back in again soon when I get round to reviewing the gadget-laden 30th Columbo outing, Playback. And do let me know your thoughts on Troubled Waters below.