Columbo was at the cutting edge on 2 March 1975, as the penultimate episode of Season 4 presented a strikingly modern vision of how LA’s rich and famous could live.
Boasting Oscar-nominated Austrian actor Oskar Werner as electronics genius Harold Van Wick, and the stunning, Oscar-winning Gena Rowlands as his wheelchair-bound wife Elizabeth, Playback set out its stall to dazzle the viewer with an array of advanced technologies implemented into everyday life.
But can Playback‘s technical wizardry still be taken seriously by today’s audience? Or is it now laughably lame as we tune in on HD TVs and smart devices? Let’s strap on our digital watches, set the CCTV cameras rolling and find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Harold Van Wick: Oskar Werner
Elizabeth Van Wick: Gena Rowlands
Margaret Meadis: Martha Scott
Arthur Meadis: Robert Brown
Marcy Hubbard: Trisha Noble
Francine: Patricia Barry
Dog: As himself
Baxter: Herb Jefferson Jr
Written by: David P Lewis & Booker T Bradshaw
Directed by: Bernard Kowalski
Score by: Bernardo Segáll
Episode synopsis: Columbo Playback
A man in black is seen tampering with a window from a flower bed of a shadowy garden under cover of the night. He removes a pane of glass, flings open the window, severs an alarm cord and muddies the wall under the window before trotting off to make good his escape.
The same man, now out of his disguise, promptly rocks up to the security gate of his palatial home in his yellow convertible Mercedes, and is waved through by the security guard. Our man is Harold Van Wick, President of Midas Electronics, whose home is a technological wonder, full of gadgetery aimed at making life easier for his wheelchair-bound wife, Elizabeth.
We have stair lifts, CCTV equipment and doors that open automatically when hands are clapped together – it’s the Google home of the 1970s, that’s fo’ sho’. Van Wick gets a mixed reception at home, though. Elizabeth is delighted to see him, but the guest of honour, Margaret Meadis, Chairman of the company and mother of Elizabeth, far less so.
The brandy-soaked crone is in a Timmy Temper due to the company’s diving profits. Dismissing the economic recession as an excuse, she lays the blame solely on Van Wick. His obsession with gadgetery is leading the company to rack and ruin, she believes, and she wants him OUT.
“Brandy-soaked crone Margaret Meadis is in a Timmy Temper due to the company’s diving profits, and she lays the blame solely on Van Wick.”
Rather than witness a blazing row, Elizabeth takes herself off to bed leaving Van Wick and Margaret to juke it out. As the owner of the company, Maggie tells him in no uncertain terms that his time is up. She intends to replace him as President with her son Arthur (by all accounts an incompetent) and expects Harold’s resignation first thing in the morning.
Van Wick has no intention of yielding, but the old battleaxe has a trump card. She’s hired a PI to tail him and knows that he’s been fooling around with multiple women on the side. So it looks like resignation or divorce for Van Wick – neither of which he has much appetite for.
Leaving Margaret to her brandy and Chopin, Van Wick pops up to see Elizabeth and ensures she has her sleeping pill to make sure she has a good night’s kip as he heads out to an art exhibition at a nearby gallery. Husbandly love? Not a bit of it. He wants Elizabeth out for the count for the heinous crime about to be committed.
Returning downstairs, Van Wick enters the nerve centre of his high-tech home and records some footage of an empty room onto tape. This is then broadcast over the CCTV system, which is visible in the gatehouse where the unusually reliable guard keeps a close watch on what’s going on.
As Margaret decides to retire to bed, Van Wick creates a commotion in the room to attract her attention. Being careful to stay just off camera, Van Wick pulls a gun on the aged hag and shoots her in the back as she turns to run with stereotypical German efficiency. He then returns to the nerve centre and sets a timer which will show the footage of the actual murder over the CCTV system once he’s left the property to head to the art show.
“Van Wick pulls a gun on the aged hag and shoots her in the back as she turns to run with stereotypical German efficiency.”
He’s given a scare, though, when Elizabeth rings down from her bedroom. She’s been woken from her sleep by she’s not sure what. Some sort of noise perhaps? Van Wick assures her all is well and that her mother is still listening to music in the drawing room, and Elizabeth lays back down to sleep.
Gathering up his art show invite from the desk behind the corpse of Margaret, Van Wick departs, leaving the number for the gallery with the security guard after jotting it on a magazine. He overtly notes the time as being 9.13pm, and dashes off into the night to establish his alibi.
At the art show itself, he further underscores this alibi by showing off his rad new digital watch to buxom brunette Marcy, which shows the time to be 9.28pm. It’s the most heavy-handed time establishment since Dale Kingston’s antics at the Sam Franklin art exhibit in Suitable for Framing 4 years earlier, but such is the allure of his watch the time is cemented into Marcy’s mind forever, and moments later she fields the call that alerts Van Wick of the murder of his mother in law.
We’ve already been shown this, of course. After the timer on the CCTV system ran down, the footage of Margaret’s murder was beamed down to the gatehouse and instantly noticed by the guard, who jalloped up to the house in a rush and informed the authorities.
And so it is that Lieutenant Columbo, hampered by a heavy cold, is summoned to the crime scene. A shocked Elizabeth is unable to shed any proverbial light on the murky situation, although Van Wick himself seems to have sussed it out. A burglar broke in, knocked over a pot plant on a plinth, and then gunned down Margaret in terror when she came to investigate.
Columbo wonders how he knows this, and it’s then that Van Wick takes him into the CCTV control room to show him the footage of the killing. The surveillance system is triggered by movement, light or the heat of a human body, so someone must have been in the room, albeit agonisingly just off camera, to start the recording. The Lieutenant laments the fact that the killer wasn’t picked up on the tape. It’s almost as if the killer knew where the camera was.
Doing his usual checking around, Columbo next quizzes Baxter, the gate house guard. Although he gets confirmation that Van Wick was off premises at the time of the killing, he is troubled by his actions. Normal procedure was for Van Wick to let Baxter know where he was heading, and for Baxter to write the contact number down on his log. However, tonight things were different. This time Van Wick handed Baxter a magazine with the number already scribbled on it.
It may only be an insignificant act, but it sets Columbo’s policeman’s nose twitching. “When a person does something one way and he suddenly does something another way, I immediately think,” he says.
Indeed the Lieutenant instantly returns to the house to put more questions to Van Wick. Did the burglar take anything? No, he must have cut and run. And why didn’t the CCTV system capture the whole room? It was trained on the safe, Van Wick responds. “We were expecting a thief, not a murderer.”
Columbo returns in daylight the next morning – with Dog in tow – to examine the exterior of the house more closely. Alerted by Dog’s ceaseless barking, Van Wick locates the detective in the flowerbeds by the laundry window by which the perpetrator appears to have entered the house.
Little things are bothering Columbo. He can see the footprints going to and fro the window, but they’re the same depth. He’d imagines that the killer, in panicked flight, would have left deeper prints on the way out after leaping at pace from the window. He also notes that there is mulch all over the soil – but none inside the laundry room. The room hasn’t been cleaned, so why isn’t there mulch and soil all over the floor. “Perhaps he took his shoes off,” responds Captain Obvious Van Wick, making Columbo’s observation as irrelevant as an analogue watch on a bowl-haired German’s wrist.
It’s Elizabeth who is next on Columbo’s Q&A list. She’s cuddling Dog, who has been lolloping freely around the gardens, and is quite taken with the slovenly beast. At the Lieutenant’s behest she outlines her recollections from the previous evening – and provides more ammunition to bolster his thinking.
She explains how she woke from a troubled sleep at 9pm after believing she heard a noise, only to be assured by her husband that she must have been dreaming. Relieved to wake from her bad dream to see familiar items in her room (her dressing gown on the bed and a hideous clown toy on the chair), she took herself back off to sleep. This statement will be important later on.
While Columbo is out at the art gallery corroborating Van Wick’s alibi, the man himself is in stern conversations with Elizabeth. He needs her to sign some documents for the next day’s board meeting and she indicates that she thinks she ought to take over Chairmanship of the company. Van Wick is incredulous. “Do you think I would remain in the company in a subservient position to my wife?” he rants.
At this stage, they are interrupted by Columbo. He’s been thinking about Elizabeth’s recollections and wants to run a test. She returns to her bedroom and closes the door, while Columbo fires an actual gun into a box of sand. Lo and behold, her bedroom door swings open, although she hears only a very muffled noise from the gun.
This represents a problem for Columbo. If a loud noise opened Elizabeth’s door at 9pm, the murder could have been committed prior to Van Wick’s departure at 9.13pm – something Van Wick strenuously denies. He was at the house, so would have heard a gunshot after all. In any case, Elizabeth was probably imagining things.
Not so, says Columbo, who puts part two of his experiment into play – this time in Elizabeth’s room. Recreating the scene as she recalled it, with only her bedside light left on, Columbo explains what’s amiss. While the end of the bed where Elizabeth said she saw her dressing gown upon waking is bathed in light, the chair with terrifying clown doll is in darkness – until Columbo claps his hands, opening the bedroom door and illuminating said despicable clown.
While an effective demonstration, Van Wick has a possible explanation: a simple error with the sensitive technology. In a system as complex as the house, there are sometimes gremlins in the works. It’s happened before, so what’s the big deal? “I’m afraid, Lieutenant, that your little parlour trick proved absolutely nothing,” the seething German opines.
Columbo appears to be down and out until a chance event at a diner gets him back on track. As he watches the football game on TV over chilli, a close-up video replay of the action sets his thoughts racing. Abandoning his dinner he heads off to see Arthur at the electronics company to study the before and after footage from the night of the murder. And upon close inspection of the two tapes played side by side, the Lieutenant can make out a small discrepancy between the footage. And what he finds will have serious ructions for Van Wick.
Muscling into the Van Wick homestead one more time, Columbo lays down the law. Reviewing the tapes in the CCTV control centre, he outlines his theory – and he hasn’t missed a trick.
“You fed a videotape of the study with no one in it down to the gatehouse an empty room. While it was playing, you shot your mother-in-law,” he tells Van Wick. “Then you set the machine to feed the murder tape into the closed circuit system so that Baxter would see it after you arrived at the art show. All you required was an automatic timer to start the tape at the right time.” Van Wick scoffs at the theory, but a steely Columbo stops him in his tracks. “I wouldn’t say it if I couldn’t prove it,” he responds sternly.
Then comes the piece de resistance. Zooming in on a light spot on the desk behind the corpse of Margaret, the video reveals the invitation to the art show with Van Wick’s name clearly visible on it. It’s the same invite he handed to Marcy upon arrival at the exhibition.
“By your own testimony, you took it there,” says Columbo – with Elizabeth by now in the room with them. “But in order to get it off the desk you practically had to step over the body. That woman was shot before you left the house. And you shot her.”
Van Wick makes a last, desperate bid to save his own neck. “Elizabeth tell the Lieutenant before I left the house I saw your mother coming up to the room to wish you good night,” he pleads. “Tell him! I saw her, I saw her alive before I left! Tell him, Elizabeth!”
When she refuses to back him up, Van Wick knows it’s game over. Calming down from the state of rage, he quietly assents to being taken downtown. Columbo, meanwhile, is left alone with a tearful, heartbroken Elizabeth as credits roll…
Playback‘s best moment: the tear-stained finale
As referenced above, the conclusion of Playback packs an almighty punch, and one that lives long in the memory. The beauty of this gotcha is in the contrasting reactions between Van Wick and the loving, vulnerable Elizabeth. His barely controlled rage at being foiled is amazingly acted out by Oskar Werner and is powerfully set against the shock and tear-stained face of Elizabeth.
Her world has been absolutely turned upside down, the lies of her husband wounding her even more deeply than the loss of her mother. With astounding performances from Werner and Rowlands, the scene elicits an emotional response few other episodes get close to, making it easily one of the most memorable gotcha scenes of the entire series.
My thoughts on Playback
‘Cutting edge’ technology is a common Columbo theme, from VCRs and intelligent record players in the 70s, to fax machines, pagers and cell phones in the 80s and 90s. Almost without fail the high tech gadgets that he encounters over the years bamboozle and delight the Lieutenant in equal measure.
Yet he always masters them and finds a way to turn the tech to his advantage in cracking the case – and his exploits in Playback could represent the zenith of his tech career. For Van Wick’s crime was, by mid-70s standards, a jaw-droppingly modern one. Presumably audiences of the day were gasping in astonishment at the digital audacity of it all. Indeed it’s a stunt that would still be impressive today.
Big Harold, if I’m reading the signs correctly, is evidently one of the great inventors of his time. Not content with just being the boss of Midas Electronics, he also actually seems to be the brains behind the development of some seriously cutting edge tech.
In an age before HD was even imagined, he has it right there in his home’s CCTV system. Note the crystal clarity of the zoomed-in image of his art show invitation that seals his fate. That’s positively 4K! So startling was this advancement that Van Wick’s ingenuity seems to have lived on well beyond the presumed instant collapse of Midas Electronics. How? In the form of the Esper Photo Analysis machine blade runner Deckard employs in his pursuit of the replicants in the dystopian LA of 2019 [citation needed – readers enraged]. Prove me wrong, viewers. Prove me wrong…
Of course, we also mustn’t forget that ‘super watch‘ that Van Wick uses to so impresses the delightful Marcy Hubbard at the art show. In the smartphone and Apple Watch era we occupy it’s hard to take the idea of a digital watch seriously. That notwithstanding, it retains a kitsch appeal, and if someone wants to put a Kickstarter appeal together to fund a 21st century remake, you can count me in as a backer!
Let’s talk about Oskar Werner, shall we, who here is making his only US television appearance. He’s undoubtedly a great actor, and some of what he delivers here is world class. However, he’s much less charismatic than many Columbo villains so it’s harder to cherish his confrontation with the Lieutenant. Harold Van Wick is no Riley Greenleaf, no Dexter Paris, Alex Benedict or even Bart Keppell. There’s no sense of fun or mischief about Werner’s portrayal. It’s all straight-faced Germanic efficiency and aloofness, meaning that Van Wick is a less accessible and memorable villain than the very best.
What Werner does get right is the callous coolness required of the role. His repression of and philandering against dear Elizabeth really grates. She is sunshine and goodness. He is drearily self-interested, maintaining just enough of a pretense of affection for his wife to keep her keen. He gets his just desserts and we’re not in the least bit sad for him when that time arrives.
As an aside, please confirm that I’m not alone in being entirely unable to take Van Wick seriously as a lothario-like love interest. We’re informed by miserable Margaret that she has proof of him playing around but, really, what’s the appeal?
For starters, his hair is SO BAD that it would shame a 15th century infant. He’s also a charmless, sexist oaf. What were the redeeming qualities that stole Elizabeth’s heart? And are you seriously telling me that the sight of this bowl-haired, neckerchiefed wet would have the gorgeous Marcy making eyes at him across the crowded gallery milliseconds after meeting him? Maybe she’d had a few too many Champagnes before he arrived? It’s the only viable explanation…
In conjunction with the superb Gena Rowlands as Elizabeth, Werner plays out one of the series’ best ever gotcha scenes. And this is where his single finest acting moment comes in. As Columbo essentially proves his guilt, Van Wick goes into damage limitation mode, pleading for his wife to back up his heat-of-the-moment fabrication about Margaret going up to Elizabeth’s room to see her before he left.
When she refuses to support him, he FLIPS OUT, dropping his head and shaking it in a passion as he spins out of camera shot. It’s such an authentic portrayal of stunned, desperate rage that it nearly stops the heart. The contrast to Elizabeth’s tears is really quite something, and if you haven’t watched this one for a while it’s worth slapping it on simply for the last 5 minutes.
Rowlands is in fine form throughout, her wronged Elizabeth being the emotional heart of the episode. She’s evidently dearly in love with Harold, but I’m intrigued about the state of their relationship. Is she recently disabled, therefore unable to satisfy his carnal demands? Has his motivation really been to create a safe and protective environment for Elizabeth, or has he used it to indulge his love of gadgetery? She’s so lovely that it makes him seem extra cold and callous and a very unsympathetic killer.
However, as good as Rowlands is, it’s as if the writers couldn’t quite decide whether Elizabeth is meant to be a fragile flower or an independent woman. The script gives us a little of each. She tells Columbo he doesn’t need to worry that she’ll ‘break into pieces’, and suggests she might want to run the company after her mother’s death, yet she’s subservient to her husband’s wishes throughout. Ultimately she proves her strength at episode’s end, though – just another reason why the gotcha moment is such a good one.
Special credit must also go to Martha Scott as the beastly Margaret Meadis. She’s a right old b*tch, who hates Harold – a feeling reciprocated by her son-in-law. The two trade some delicious barbs prior to the murder. “Margaret, dear have you done something to your hair?” Van Wick innocently asks. “No,” she replies icily. “Just what I thought…” Van Wick concludes. BURN Margaret!
Van Wick may be a heartless cad, who is treating her daughter terribly behind her back, but it’s hard to have any sympathy for the brandy-guzzling Margaret who is driven much more by financial interests than affection for Elizabeth. Van Wick got it right when he says: “You’re incredibly evil, Margaret.” They’re the last words she ever hears.
Much of the fun elsewhere in the episode revolves around the art exhibition. Indeed one can’t help but feel that Columbo writers hated the art scene of the 70s, with Playback following on from Suitable for Framing in making an absolute mockery of it all. This is never more apparent than when Columbo goes to the gallery to check up on Van Wick’s alibi. Mistaken for a classless oik by prissy curator Francine, the Lieutenant is given a whistle-stop tour of the exhibit ‘highlights’ – all of which leave him absolutely unmoved.
The best moment? Francine’s straight-faced explanation of the sculpture entitled ‘Espirit d’un chien mort’ – or Spirit of a Dead Dog – is delightfully juxtaposed against Columbo’s bafflement that such tosh could be valued at $1200 – approximately 10% of his annual income! She is subsequently appalled when he mistakes an air vent for an artwork, and again when he compares Mrs Columbo’s penchant for painting by numbers to the expensive landscapes on display. The scene’s not quite as damning of the vacuity of the artworld encapsulated by Dale Kingston’s Champagne-infused love-in at the gallery in Suitable for Framing, but it’s pretty cutting all the same, and never fails to amuse.
Similarities to previous episodes don’t end there. The crucial clue on video tape is a variation on the looking / listening for something that is out of place or that ought to be there but isn’t, namely the missing clock chimes on the phone recording in Most Crucial Game. The wronged, loving wife opting not to back up her husband at episode’s end is straight out of Etude in Black. It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that Playback feels like it drags at times. It’s a shorter episode, but it feels quite drawn out as some familiar beats are replayed. Playback indeed…
Still, there’s not much to dislike about Playback. It may not quite hit the heights of the Season 4 episodes we’ve enjoyed up to now, but it’s a highly effective murder mystery, boosted by some splendid performances, a cutting-edge killing and a truly satisfying conclusion. And it’s a rare gem in that the episode doesn’t feel dated by the technology in it. Surveillance equipment, high definition visuals, connected homes and advanced wristwatches are absolutely in vogue today, allowing Playback to maintain a level of modernity far beyond most of the 70s episodes.
Shame that we can’t say the same for Van Wick’s haircut, eh?
Did you know?
Playback is notable in that it is the only episode in which we ever see Columbo fire a gun – and boy he is unhappy about doing it.
Unable to tell whether the gun is loaded, or whether the safety catch is on or off, the Lieutenant requires the guidance of a fellow officer in order to simply shoot into a box of sand as part of an experiment. He admits to hating guns – a sentiment reinforced in Season 5’s Forgotten Lady, when we find out Columbo hasn’t taken his mandatory fire arms test for at least a decade, the naughty fella…
Interestingly we do see Columbo packing heat in No Time to Die in 1992, although he never pulls the trigger. However, that’s an episode so DIRE that it bears no comparison with any of the 70s’ classics.
Playback is also noteworthy in that it’s the only 70s’ Columbo episode with a one-word title.
How I rate ’em
Playback is perfectly enjoyable viewing, and I have no hesitation in recommending it. However, it rarely hits the heights achieved by the very best Columbo outings and is arguably the lowest profile episode from the fourth season. I still consider it an upper mid-tier episode, though, and with so little to choose from between episodes 14-24 on my current list, I’m certainly not damning it with faint praise.
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
As always, I’d love to hear your views on this episode, so get tapping away in the comments section below. If you dig this more than I do, let me know why.
That’s all for now, but don’t dare be a stranger! Season 4 concludes with my next review, A Deadly State of Mind starring the perma-tanned ‘Gorgeous’ George Hamilton.