Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 4

Episode review: Columbo Playback

Playback 1

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 HDTVs and smart devices? Let’s strap on our digital watches, set the CCTV cameras rolling and find out…

Playback cast

Dramatis personae

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 gadgetry 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 gadgetry 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 battle axe 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.

Playback 23

The Battle Axe, Harpy and Old Crone Unions all refused to accept Margaret Meadis as a member

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.


Harold enjoyed eyeing the exhibits at the art show

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.

Playback watch

“Do you know where I could get a watch like that for $16-17?”

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.”

Playback 10

Harold trials the 1975 equivalent of Google Glasses

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.

Playback 4

Cuteness overload! *heart explodes*

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.


Columbo proves a point via the medium of HIDEOUS CLOWN TOY

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.

Playback 3

Columbo surprised the Van Wick’s with a take-out chicken dinner

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.

Playback 2

I spy with my little eye something beginning with ‘your ass is toast’

“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.

Elizabeth Van Wick

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.

Columbo Playback

4K TV debuted at Van Wick HQ back in 1975. Who knew?

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!

Columbo playback watch

Unless I’m very much mistaken, there’s still a market for a ‘super watch’ like this

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…

Playback art show

Marcy making eyes at this wimp is the most far-fetched plot line of them all!

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.

Columbo Gena Rowlands

Fragile flower or independent woman? You decide…

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.

Playback 20

Spirit of a Dead Dog, anyone?

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 art world 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?

Playback 15

Harold’s hairdo is the only thing in the household that isn’t cutting edge

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.

Playback 19

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.

  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. Troubled Waters
  12. Any Old Port in a Storm
  13. Prescription: Murder ——– A-List ends here—
  14. An Exercise in Fatality
  15. Swan Song
  16. The Most Crucial Game
  17. Etude in Black
  18. By Dawn’s Early Light
  19. Candidate for Crime
  20. Greenhouse Jungle
  21. Playback
  22. Requiem for a Falling Star
  23. Blueprint for Murder
  24. Ransom for a Dead Man —– B-List ends here—
  25. Dead Weight
  26. The Most Dangerous Match
  27. Lovely but Lethal ———— C-List ends here—-
  28. Short Fuse
  29. Mind Over Mayhem
  30. 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.

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187 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Playback

  1. As one more than knowledgeable of firearms and marksmanship, I can assure you all that the odds of that one shot striking, let alone killing, the victim, esp in light of the specific manner in which the shot was fired (from the waist, canted, at a moving target), are off the charts and never would’ve been taken by a careful killer, even if killer was very capable with a handgun.

    Obviously, killer would’ve known it had to be a fatal shot. If not, either he would’ve had to carefully shoot and strike her again (and again?) to make she was dead. Otherwise, although fatally wounded, killer risks chance she lives long enough to utter his name to police or emergency ambulance guys. And it goes without saying that he couldn’t step closer to her without being captured on tape.

    • I can suspend my disbelief enough to accept that a character is a crack shot whenever the script calls for him or her to be, but I agree that it is annoyingly over the top that so many filmmakers push this envelope (wink) by having the gunman shoot from the hip.

      Just aim normally for cripes sake. Culp in Double Exposure gets it right (though even he should have stood closer to the victim.

      • Perhaps we can assume that the murderers have been practising their shooting skills, and have copied what they have seen in westerns? Just be glad that they don’t fan the hammer.

  2. Dear Columbophile, thanks a lot for another brilliant review. I guess you deemed too obvious to mention the following three facts in this episode – I only remind them here in case a very inattentive viewer comes along:
    1. Beautiful sad Elizabeth, on top of being in a wheelchair, is also severely brain damaged, suffering from Anton’s blindness (also known as visual anosognosia – Google it, it is fun). Nothing else could explain how she can go back to sleep after seeing the Atrocious Clown Doll staring at her, in the crude light from her suddenly, automatically opened bedroom door (!). It also explains her constant not-screaming when looking at Husband’s Haircut.
    2. If the attentive viewer zooms and looks behind the left ear of “the Gateman” he will not fail to notice the tag “MIDS005” which proves that this guard is a product of MIDAS Robotics, the newest and costliest department of this innovative firm. It explains his/its superhumanly focused screen-watching, allowing him/it to react only milliseconds after the Old Hag’s murder appears.
    3. An Austrian having adopted a Dutch name, Harold is obviously a former colleague of famous Santini, only less skilled in hiding a German accent and a Nazi temper. The Impossible Haircut tries to distract us from this understanding – but it fails. No doubt Old Hag holds information about THAT ugly past as well in her tiny blackmailing purse.
    Warm regards

    • Sebastien H,

      Your comments on the episode “Playback” are hilarious, and spot on!! I agree that there simply is no other explanation than “Visual Anosognosia” to account for Elizabeth’s surprising ability to wake up to that evil, terrifying clown, sitting motionless in the chair, staring right at her, and for her to actually FEEL RELIEVED that she had awoken from a nightmare! Personally, having that clown staring at me as I tried to sleep would be more nightmarish than anything I could conjure up in my wildest dreams!

      Gotta hand it it to that poor security guard – have to give him props for sitting on that uncomfortable chair for hours and hours, yet remaining so attentive. Hopefully he was well-paid!

      And your comment about Harold’s possible link to The Great Santini is funny and clever.


  3. With regard to Oskar Werner’s haircut. I’m going to say Austrians in the 70s were not known to be tonsorial trend-setters. You could also say that electronics geeks aren’t into precise personal grooming either, especially in the 70s.

    I love the mid-70s video technology, it all brings back memories of our early 1980s college TV equipment, the 1” tape format. That was professional equipment at the time and we got local TV station castoff gear when they upgraded to the next generation. It was very cutting edge for this episode.

    One thing I constantly find in a show from this era is that we’re seeing this on far better equipment than anyone did when originally aired. I spot a lot of things now that would have been invisible unless you were wealthy enough to own a home system like the one Van Wyck has. Unfortunately, as a sound guy the soundtrack problems are distracting, especially when you hear dialogue that was dubbed in later at the studio to replace poor-sounding dialogue tracks from exterior shoots such as with Mrs Van Wyck on the patio with Columbo. I put it down to our also vastly better TV sound systems.

    There is one thing that irks me and it’s in every episode and frequently, too. It’s the Universal Phone Ring. For some reason, like the Wilhelm Scream, that one telephone sound effect recording was used for any and every telephone heard in this show and in many others of the day. Again, in 1974 it was inaudible on a tiny TV speaker of the time. So I try to ignore it.

    About that convertible, the Mercedes 450SL. I own one of those. They’re not as expensive now as most would think because there a lot of them still running around, but they sure were when first sold. The original sticker price would be about $120-140,000 today. It was definitely a sign of wealth and was a rich man’s toy. You can still get one in good condition for a lot less than a new Hyundai but it will last another 30 years if well cared-for.

  4. I didn’t enjoy this episode the first time I saw it, but I’ve had it on in the background while I lie in bed many times since then, and it’s much better than I initially thought. Maybe just listening to it and not being able to see Harold Van Wick’s haircut helps. 🙂

    His hairstyle is indeed bad, enough to damage the episode. And it sets up a cascade of unflattering looks that runs the rest of the way down his face: the rosy cheeks, the prominent teeth, the ascots and turtlenecks. Without that hairstyle, we could see if he’s good-looking and we could understand what women see in him. I should do a Google Image Search for Oskar Werner so I can see what he would look like with normal, non-Romulan hair. His hair makes Jarvis Goodland’s rug look OK by comparison!

    About Harold Van Wick: my fan theory is that the character is actually Dutch. The Dutch are a lot like the Germans, the word “Dutch” even being a cognate of “Deutsch.” This would explain the name “Van Wick” (spelled “Van Wick” on IMDB but spelled the Dutch way, “Van Wyck” on several other sites), the blonde bowl-cut (a shorter version of the proverbial “Dutch boy” mop-top), and the toothy smile. Harold even pronounces the name as the hyper-correct “Fon Veek” when introducing himself to Columbo.

    Speaking of names, I notice that in your review and on the IMDB the family is named “Meadis,” while the company seems to be named “Midas” but pronounced “Meadis.” The closed captions and Wikipedia spell both names “Midas,” so at first I thought this was some eccentric foreign pronunciation, like the way the British pronounce “migraine” (“mee-grain”). 🙂 Now I’m wondering if the company is named Meadis Electronics and we all just assumed it was Midas. Harold calls his snazzy digital watch (it *prints out* the numbers!) “the Midastar” (I think—he says it really fast both times). He’s hardly the man with the golden touch, at least according to Margaret Meadis.

    On that note, it’s hard to tell how evil Margaret is, because she’s only really mean to Harold, and he deserves it. Maybe she’s right when she accuses him of tearing through her life savings developing new gadgets. Maybe she’s wrong, and the company needs such innovative R&D to stay competitive, but we’ll never know. We only know what the episode tells us. You’re right about the amazing magical-image-enhancing video system, though! That’s a keeper! Instead of VHS or Beta we’d all have been renting movies in the Midas format in the 1980s!

    My other theory is that when Columbo is carrying a brown paper bag, the villain is in trouble. (As seen in your “take-out chicken” screen-capture above!) 🙂

    In fairness to the art gallery ladies, they seemed amused, not offended, that Columbo thought the ventilation duct was art. One of them—Francine IIRC—even jokes “I should have tried to sell it to you!” 🙂

    I get my “Columbos” from MeTV, and before that, from Vision TV. Both channels have an older target demographic and show ads for stairlifts like the one Harold built for Elizabeth in their house. However, I’m a child of the eighties and was traumatised by the movie “Gremlins” and will never be able to trust those things. The stairlift industry must hate that movie. If they don’t already, they certainly will when Generation X becomes elderly. When an ad for stairlifts comes on, my friends and I just look at each other like, “Nope. ‘Gremlins.’ ”

  5. Brilliant episode but we should have seen more of marcy I’ve just googled her apparently she was in carry on camping!!! I had a watch like that it was a 6 million dollar man watch LoL love reading your reviews in fact I read em whilst im watching which is not good for obvious reasons.

  6. I dig the bar scene where he watches the instant replay. The bartender’s “one minute” gesture is filed in my repertoire.
    Its also nice to see the Lieutenant dine on a hamburger & chips for a change… although it looks like he doesn’t even taste it (like the burger’s he ordered with Leslie Nielsen)

    • Enjoyable episode. A couple things bother me though: 1. Columbo says he can’t shake hands, he has a cold; shakes hands with Mr. van Wick several times. 2. van Wick tells Columbo he has to take his shoes off to come inside; Mrs. van Wick is particular about that; later on, Columbo jumps on Mrs. van Wicks’s bed with his shoes on!!!. 3. What happened to the son, Arthur? You’d think he’d be there that night or the next day, comforting his sister and asking about the investigation. Lastly, what no wake? No funeral plans? No friends dropping by to offer condolences and food? Mrs. van Wick’s mother is murdered and she’s out pruning flowers and playing with Columbo’s dog the very next morning!!! Unrealistic, to say the least. Other than that, it was real good.

      • What wonderful points you brought up. I always enjoyed this episode and never realized these points. I feel like I found where’s Waldo!. Brother was mild mannered, though called weak by the murderer.
        Gena appears to be a smart woman was she blind to her husbands fooling around. I think she could have taken it. She was treated with kid gloves, and I guess protected. Yes, did know about the shoes on the bed, but seeing him on the bed in the first place surprised me. And the shoe issue, if I remember correctly Murderer asked Columbo to take off his shoes. But the Murderer didn’t take off his own shoes, did he?.

      • #2 is a problem peculiar to the TV universe. In real life, everyone takes off their shoes when they come into the house. On TV they leave them on all the time, including (as in this episode) when they’re flopping down on a bed!

        At some point they must have tried it without shoes and discovered that people on TV look weird with only socks.

        Either that or it never occurs to them that in the real world, they’re at work, which is where you wear shoes (like you would at any job), but *in the universe of the show, the characters are at home.*

  7. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Make Me a Perfect Murder | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  8. “I wouldn’t say it if I couldn’t prove it.”

    My vote for best Columbo one-liner ever. Is that even a thing?

  9. Absolutely one of my favorite episodes. It was high time that Columbo started having to deal with more technology being used in crimes and despite his “old school” approach, our fearless Lieutenant was still able to nail van Wick with his own gizmos!

    • Exactly why….shud there be a Columbo reboot …i really hope it’s not set in mo dern day…..which would require Columbo to deal with a lot more “techie” situations….

  10. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  11. I enjoyed this episode a lot, especially the ending. The best episodes are usually those that aren’t just fun, but which contain some seriousness too, and the ending is a good example.

    However, my biggest problem with the episode is the impropability of someone committing a murder like that. First of all: who would want to live in a house where there are video cameras everywhere?

    • As for the killer’s hair, I don’t mind it at all. If I didn’t know his profession, I might have guessed he was a classical musician or something like that (it is stereotyping, I know).

      • accents and money have a certain appeal. I suppose if he was good enough for Tyrone Power’s daughter, other women would find him attractive as well.

    • I found this episode heartbreaking. The look on Columbo’s face as he watches Gena Rowlands go up the stairs – he knows he’s going to hurt her, and it hurts him.

      • Heartbreaking and very well done. Any slight weaknesses are due to writing, and that’s probably due to the constraints of the 90 minute format.
        It’s a pleasure to watch the pros like Oskar Werner and Gena Rowlands do what they do so well.

  12. This episode is as super as that watch. I wonder where I could get a haircut like Harold’s for, like, $8-9. I wish I could post pictures in my comments. I found a picture of Carolyn Jones where she is a dead ringer for Oskar Werner.

  13. Anyone else catch the part where the wife moves her feet and legs when she is in bed?

  14. I enjoyed the episode, but when you zoom in on a cruddy 1970s videotape, the resolution gets WORSE, not better. That was my only problem with the climax.

    • Harold had invented a revolutionary new high-definition videotape which ultimately sealed his doom! Just kidding – I agree, this is a sticking point for me, too. Let’s try to remember it’s only a movie, enjoy it, and accept a little artistic licence as the price we have to pay.

  15. I loved Van Wick’s accent, but physically he was no romantic daydream, especially with that Moe Howard Special they called a haircut. You can’t blame him for hating his mom-in-law’s guts, though. Margaret was yet another of Columbo victims that it’s hard to feel sorry for, though certainly Elizabeth deserves sympathy for losing her mother. (Not to mention, being married to guy who insists on treating her like a china doll.) That scene where she’s cuddling Columbo’s dog is precious, though!

  16. Maybe it was partially the hair and my loving stereotyping of German/Austrians, but the murderer gave me some slight Kinski vibes (really the explosion and almost reverse-kinski spiral he did at the gotcha started my thinking that way, totally different execution than the original but a very similar startling feeling to watch). I really like the technology in these episodes too, they’re done somewhat realistically for the limitations of the time (though mm-7 mashing 3 keys at a time on a keyboard was a little bit silly) and I love the vintage styling of the machinery just like the clothing, they definitely dont make them like they used to

  17. When does Columbo settle on Van Wick as the suspect?

    I think it’s when there’s absolutely no mulch on the floor. It’s scraped all over the wall outside– are we supposed to believe someone hoisted themselves through the window, legs flailing, and didn’t leave a speck when they landed? Then Van Wick, who’s been more or less spokesman/chief interpreter for the killer, drops another explanation, “Maybe he took his shoes off.”

    And Columbo acts like that explains it. A puzzling reaction, since on its face, it’s a preposterous theory. The killer hung in mid air over the floor while removing one, then the other shoe, which both promptly vanished, taking the mulch with them.

    I suggest Columbo is actually thinking something like “I knew it. This was seeming more and more like an inside job anyway.” Part of the Lt’s approach is to bring the killer on to help solve the murder, but Van Wick paints himself into the corner as few do. Should have worked on his story a little more.

  18. I love your comments about the hair because that haircut is so bad it’s distracting me from the episode. It’s just such an eyesore and doesn’t really suit his meticulous character. As a woman, I can confirm that I don’t get what Elizabeth or Marcy see in Harold, either. He’s not attractive, charming, affectionate or interesting. I guess Marcy could be interested in his money, but Elizabeth genuinely loved him and I wonder why.

    The episode isn’t one of my favourites, probably because I think the murderer is such a boring guy. He’s just not as engaging as most of the other murderers. There are a few good moments though, like the final scene or Columbo firing a gun. And I love the Van Wick’s house.

  19. The character of Elizabeth really interests me. When our daughter was at school (more years ago than I like to think) she had a friend whose mother treated her as an invalid at every opportunity. I mean the poor kid couldn’t sneeze without being sent to bed and told to rest. After a few years of this treatment, she was constantly pale and sickly, and we even saw her in a wheelchair.

    I wonder if Harold has convinced Elizabeth she is very delicate. He seems very concerned to ‘protect’ her from the outside world (“You don’t understand – it’s a jungle out there”). What looks like love is simply manipulative psychological bullying. I like to think that when she gets over the shock of the events in the film, Elizabeth finds she can spread her wings, leave that wheelchair, and live a fulfilling life.

    Finally: my view on Mr Werner’s hairstyle – it’s very European and emphasises his foreignness.

  20. Pingback: Season 4: have we reached ‘peak Columbo’? | The Columbophile

  21. Hello,
    Why all the comments about Harold’s hair? Did you already look at (the hairstyle of) nowadays great and successful creators, at the head of big business companies that value billions of dollars?
    And about “the gorgeous Marcy making eyes at him”? She certainly knows Harold’s a rich, wealthy and powerful man. Sometimes women are impressed by those qualities, aren’t they?
    Finally, it must be clear that the ONLY thing that interests Harold is technics. Everything he does is for technics

    • Is there such a thing as a coiffure fetish? It would explain a lot. And not just about this Columbo episode.

  22. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Deadly State of Mind | The Columbophile

  23. Thanks for clearing that up columbophile , it just goes to show how good the series was overall (especially 70s episodes) also playback is on ITV3 this Sunday and I am going to watch it over my roast beef dinner as I like it as for deadly state its not top tier stuff and it will tussle with any thing between 15th spot to 22 I am expecting cant wait hopefully you place it higher than the greenhouse jungle which I don’t enjoy much same goes for requiem , deadly state has a great gotcha.

  24. great review columbophile ,little bit dissapointed to see playback in 21st spot , can we expect a deadly state of mind before the end of the month ? not a huge fan of it but its a an episode i dont mind watching , good ending id prefer playback. Its bang on 6 weeks to christmas would be nice if columbophile could squeeze in 2 reviews before the end of the year. would be very festive , they also usually play at least 1 episode on 5 USA on xmas day 2 years ago they played 3 which spared me from watching Home alone and finding nemo.

    • Playback’s position is more an indication of how strong the series is overall, rather than it being a poor episode. Overall it’s still a goodie. As for Deadly State? I’ve started it, so it ought to be live before the end of November, although quite likely to be the final review of 2018.

      • Thanks for clearing that up columbophile, yes it does go to show how good the series was in particular the 70s also coincidently playback is on this sunday on ITV 3 and I am going to watch it after my Sunday roast if columbophile lives in the states this may not apply , as for a deadly state of mind excited about the review but its not a top tier episode but im sure its going to rub shoulders with those between 15 and 22 I prefer it to the green house jungle , by the way it said on Wikipedia that Oskar Werner was buried in his native Liechtenstein .

  25. I really appreciate Columbophile’s ability to help the viewer appreciate the finer points of Columbo episodes, such as the fact that Oscar Werner’s performance as Van Wick is finely tuned and so believable. Not showing any of the practiced or hackneyed gestures that many actors seems to need to rely on. He’s just a pleasure to watch, as is the lovely Mrs. Cassavetes, er, Gena Rowlands,

  26. Hello,
    Thank you very much. I like this episode. It’s one of favorites.
    But I’m surprised you didn’t mention what is I think the BIGGEST GOOF of all Columbo. Director Bernard Kowalski made exactly the same mistake as Harold Van Wick made.
    At 16’09”, the invitation card is still on the desk, although Van Wick has given it to Marcy at 15’28”.

    • The2 disappearing strawberry cream sodas or milkshakes in murder smoke and shadows is the most noticeable also commissioner Halpern’s wife’s drowning in a friend in deed was far 2 quick if that’s considered a blooper or maybe its just to fit in 2 the running time but either way its noticeable..

  27. OT: A favorite Columbo episode, A Friend In Deed, can now be seen in a pristine form on YouTube, for those who have access. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ic0w8FdVdys

    Certainly, every Columbo fan loves the pop clue in this classic episode. Our good friend of this blog, Richard Weill, has aptly written: “As a general rule, all Columbo “pop” clues fall into one of three categories: (1) those Columbo finds that have been there all along; (2) those found or created by the villain in response to something Columbo said or did; and (3) the ones Columbo fabricates, in which case it is not the clue itself, but the villain’s reaction to the “pop,” that brings the villain down.” https://columbophile.wordpress.com/2017/12/10/make-me-a-perfect-columbo-the-5-key-steps-to-crafting-a-columbo-mystery/

    A Friend In Deed is, indeed, one of the best (and probably the first) of Richard’s category 3 pop clues,

    And just for the fun of it–and to establish that “Mark Halperin” isn’t all that bad–here’s a clip of Richard Kiley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J4WtKSokvs

    • My favorite episode. The premise is outstanding, so is the gotcha. And I love the evil coolness of the villain. Columbo busting his own boss is classic. Plus, there’s a chopper!

  28. Pretty much agree with the review. The story is not great. Even the proof, while perhaps more original at the time, is not one of the best now that we know how to play with tapes, and most importantly, I could not stand the look or the acting of Oskar Werner. To me a great actor is one who says a ton with the fewest of words and the smallest of gestures. McGoohan and Cassidy could indicate something important by a slight voice inflection or a raised eyebrow. Werner is pretty much monotonous, and I also hate his look. Rowlands is the exact opposite. Lovely to observe and extremely subtle and moving acting. It is still fine entertainment but below average by Columbo standards.

  29. I know this site has observed the tragic/untimely deaths of Columbo participants in the past. Checking up on Oskar after watching and enjoying this episode, it appears in real life he became a near recluse and drank himself to death. He had been a big movie and stage star for a while but apparently he could be a difficult personality and lost many friends along the way. In retrospect, he didn’t have all that long to live after Columbo and his choice to appear strikes me as an interesting one. Did he want to do one more quality role before giving up the ghost? In any event, watching this episode compelled me to spare a thought for this talented but unfortunate man.

    • he was very talented and was probably responsible for the downfall of his career. I loved him in Ship of Fools and Decision Before Dawn, just to name two. He did a lot of stage work; his last appearance in anything was in Salzburg doing The Prince of Homburg. I think he did Columbo because it was a classy show, he needed the money — he hadn’t done anything on film in 7 years.

  30. To me Harold looks like Illya Kuryakin in desperate need of a stair master. Him as a hottie only makes sense in the 70s. The one Columbo lothario I find less appealing as a human being is the loathsome Wayne Jennings of Murder in Malibu fame. Great review.

  31. Fantastic review coumbophile and I cant criticise the review itself, I agree van wick is Not the most memorable killer, perhaps playback is a bit unfunny compared with other episodes and might not be top- top tier , but however I don’t agree with its 21st place at all because the good points strongly outweigh the negatives, mainly the ending, in particular the gotcha, Elizabeth’s tears Oskar’s fit of hysterics , the background music , as you highlighted Colombo firing a gun which was a nice bonus , and moreover on the whole a good motive ,storyline clues, should elevate this much higher, its certainly better than the greenhouse jungle , candidate for crime , etude in black , any old port in a storm and for me its more enjoyable than by dawns early light. but lets not forget how many good episodes there were during the 70s run.

  32. Hey there Columbophile! Love the blog and the show and watch it constantly. I’ve recently been looking for a pocket notepad, and wondered if in all your research and trivia, you ever came across what the brand of note pad our guy uses?

  33. I don’t think Werner was lacking in charisma. While his performance is largely understated compared to Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp or Patrick McGoohan, he was one of those actors you can’t ignore. I found this to be the case in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold with Richard Burton. There was always bubbling underneath from the surface in his performances which was ready to explode at any moment.

  34. Mr. Columbophile,
    Thank you for keeping alive the greatest TV series ever. Your writing is obviously the product of hard work and your analysis is acute. I agree with you much of the time, not all, but I appreciate the reviews.

  35. ReLly enjoyable review! Lots of fun bits to read, as well as the serious analysis. I’ve never been a big fan of this episode. It’s strangely ponderous, and Oskar Werner is rather dour, but the conclusion is extremely strong and your writing makes me want to watch again with fresh eyes.

  36. It’s remarkable to see such a great episode in spot 21, but that’s no reflection on Columbophile’s rating; it tells you all about the high standard of Columbo episodes in general. I do disagree with the surprise and amazement about Van Wick being an attractive man.He may not be much to look at, but he’s high profiled, blue eyed and has confidence. He is clearly an authority figure and that’s what can appeal to young atractive women, looking for ways to climb the stairs of status. If Harold would have started a fling with the beautiful Marcia, she’d have probably to use him up to the point that she no longer needed him. Only Harold would be too clever to let her take advantage. He is a smart man, who knows what he wants and who he’s dealing with. Hence he already had found out a long time ago that his mother in law was spying on him. And don’t forget, women don’t necessarilygo for good looks, status can be just as appealing, or even more so. That’s why, to me, it’s not surprising at all that a girl like Marcia would make sure that a man like Harold would notice her. And she did choose that dress for the occassion.

  37. Your not alone – Van Wick is an unconvincing heart throb. My wife said she’d run a mile if he smiled at her as he does in the episode! As for his hair? A contender for worst barnet of the entire 70s run, although I’m sure their are other strong contenders. Love the blog! I just discovered it a few weeks ago. Keep up the good work.

  38. I thought this was a pretty strong episode. Stellar cast to be sure. Martha Scott was a veteran of stage and screen who originated the role of Emily in “Our Town” and also played Emily in the 1940 movie.

    Anyway, off the topic of this episode–I’m just finishing Season 6. Any idea why only three episodes? Was Peter Falk too expensive by this point?

    • I believe he was looking to really ignite his movie career at the time, so took a reduced schedule to accommodate that. He was very expensive (he earned $300k per episode for Season 6) but the studio would gladly pay as it was such a commercial hit.

    • Vidor, Peter Falk certainly became more “expensive” as the popularity of Columbo soared. That’s the way the business works. But even at the added “expense” the ROI (return on investment) was still strong. However, the reason for fewer episodes had much more to do with Peter’s desire to cut back on quantity and to focus on quality. Here’s an excellent interview between Eileen Prose and Peter that talks about this very issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZnCa4Uw2n8

      As for your comment about this being a relatively strong episode, although I agree, for various reasons, I think that some Columbo fans have a problem with Oskar Werner, even though I’d consider him to be one of the greatest screen/stage actors of the day. Some, including our host, have a problem with Oskar’s haircut. In any event, his haircut wasn’t all that different from another actor’s, David McCallum, from his “Man From Uncle” days: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illya_Kuryakin#/media/File:David_McCallum_Man_From_UNCLE_1965.JPG

  39. I disagree with Columbophile on Playback. The story is well conceived. All of the main characters are interesting, well-rounded, and they develop as the story unfolds. (And kudos to Eleanora for recognizing that Elizabeth’s character was well-rounded, rather than “contradictory.” And, in any case, remember the words of the great American poet Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”) Also, the actors in Playback are all first-rate. The direction is superb. And to top it all, the episode ages well, despite its heavy emphasis on technology. It also ends with perhaps the most poignant scene in the Columbo oeuvre.

    But before I continue, let me put Playback in perspective. At the time this episode was made, home videorecording was still in its infancy and was slowly being commercialized, basic computer systems filled up entire office rooms, Paul Allen and Bill Gates had recently dropped out of college to form Microsoft, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs were still dreaming of creating the first Apple computer, and “the Clapper” (a device which allowed consumers to turn electrical devices like lamps on or off by clapping your hands together) was still about 10 years away from being marketed as a novelty item on TV. So, in many ways, Playback was way ahead of its time.

    But it was also a time of economic and political upheaval worldwide, a period that would later be called the 1973–75 recession, characterized by a general distrust of government, high unemployment, and high inflation. This was an important component of the storyline because these were key circumstances leading to the motive for Margaret’s murder, as the owner of Midas Electronics. Profits were down across the board at the time even with huge corporate layoffs throughout many industries. Yet, despite all that, Margaret threatened to crush Harold’s world by laying him off if Midas had another down quarter. Moreover, it wasn’t just business for Margaret, as she personally enjoyed humiliating Harold. You can see that in Margaret’s sly smile at the end of her last pre-murder meeting with Harold, after she demanded his resignation.

    The business conflict inherent in Playback is one that was and will always be timely. Should business be driven by quarterly expectations or by a long-term view? Should a business invest now in the hope of achieving cash flows that may be years away? Or should a business be slashing expenses for short-term profitability? There’s a great film that addresses this key theme and it has inspired many filmmakers. It’s called Executive Suite (1954) directed by Robert Wise and written by Ernest Lehman, the first, one of the best directors of all time, and the second, one of the greatest screenwriters of all time. And in that great movie, the visionary’s position wins out over the short-term financial-driven position.

    But in Playback, Margaret wants to push out Harold, the visionary and technological genius, to pursue short-term profits and to ignore the future, forgetting that things constantly change and that the paradigm of today may be replaced by an entirely new paradigm. That short-term view seemed wrong to me back when I first saw this episode as a boy when it was a TV rerun, and it still seems wrong in recent years. Taking the big picture into account, Harold is actually a sympathetic character in many ways, with his only serious flaw being his infidelity to Elizabeth.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that murder is the answer to the threat that Margaret posed to Harold. Instead of creating his complex alibi, Harold could have simply arranged to apply some aggressive–though legitimate–accounting techniques to temporarily increase profits, and if that wasn’t enough, he could have “cooked the books” to generate still higher profits.

    Many people today don’t realize it (or remember) that while the great technological advances were occurring in the 1980s and 1990s, such aggressive accounting and corporate fraud was rampant. And the motive for that was not only to please investors focused on short-term profits, but to generate untold riches for corporate management. One of the largest corporate frauds of all time, for example, was the AOL-Time Warner merger. AOL, once one of the great innovators in the Internet, making it accessible to millions and millions of people, built its “growth” largely on fictitious revenues. And many people don’t know that because of the massive frauds that took place, many of the important accounting rules were belatedly changed to eliminate the weaknesses of those rules that were exploited during that technological boom period.

    But Playback was made in the mid-1970s and such rampant corporate fraud was not yet in vogue. If Playback were to be remade today, Harold would have “cooked the books” to please Margaret’s penchant for short-term profitability. And instead of hiring a private investigator (Investigator Brimmer back in business?) to track Harold’s infidelities, Margaret would hire a forensic accountant (Lewis Lacey?) to expose Harold’s manipulation of the company’s books.

    Finally, we should take note of the exceptional acting in Playback by the three principal characters: Columbo, Harold, and Elizabeth. Although I don’t know it for a fact, given Peter Falk’s extraordinary popularity and influence over the show, I think that he specifically wanted Oscar Werner and Gena Rowlands to play the guest leads. Gena was, of course, a long-time friend of Peter’s. But Oscar Werner was mostly doing stage work around this time. Earlier, he starred in some of the greatest movies of the day, such as Jules and Jim, Ship of Fools, Fahrenheit 451, and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Peter surely was impressed with Oscar’s acting. So, forget about Harold’s haircut, which was probably just one of the peculiar styles of the day. Fashions from prior generations are always going to eventually look silly. (Back then, for example, men wearing bell-bottomed pants and platform “super-bad” shoes was all the rage.)

    Here’s a touching article by Gena Rowlands, remembering Peter Falk.

    And here’s a video clip of Oscar Werner from a scene from The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I would strongly recommend to anyone who appreciates great storytelling and drama, and is a tour de force of acting throughout. In this three-part clip, Oscar Werner plays a character called Fiedler and in the first part, his dialogue is as filmed in the original English. In the second-part, from a version of the film shown in Germany and Austria, he dubbed the German dialogue in his own voice. And in the third-part, the dialogue in English and German is overlapped. His emotion, timing, cadence, and rhythm in the two languages are stunningly close in delivery and power. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rCp2Oq93Mhw

    • I used to be a fan of Walt Whitman, but to be full of contradictions is definitely not a good thing. Off the top of my head, for a poignant moment on Columbo, I would suggest that in the episode, Try and Catch Me, when Ruth Gordon wishes that Columbo had been on the case when her niece was murdered, and then all of this wouldn’t had to have happened.

    • yes i agree playback is a very decent Colombo and i always enjoy it especially the ending and should be at least 5 or 6 places higher than 21 , i much prefer it to greenhouse jungle

  40. One of my very favorite episodes – because of Elisabeth and the described contrast between her and Harold. The gotcha is really memorable. Being a woman myself, I see no contradiction in Elisabeth’s behavior – she might easily be both fragile and independent (depending on the day), or a fragile one trying to gain more independence (which she fails because of Harold’s “lack of support”, to put it mildly). It’s rarely black or white in real life, and Elisabeth demonstrates it very credibly to me. And finally, what do you mean by “even Bart Keppel”? As you may remember, I think that Keppel is fantastic – much better than Greenleaf or Paris ! Thanks for another diligent review, though!

    • I agree, Bart Keppel is the best of the Robert Culp roles, with Double Exposure being one of my favorite episodes and it ends with one of the best ‘gotchas’.

        • Danny Goldman, who plays the press photographer in Double Exposure, who takes the pictures that Columbo puts in the film as subliminal cuts, was the ‘star’ in one of my favorite episodes of the original Hawaii Five-0, I’ll Kill ‘Em Again, in which he re-creates some of Five-0s most famous cases that were covered in a series of magazine articles.

    • Elisabeth was “fragile” with Harold. That is how he showed his love to her and she loved him so she grew more and more into this flower/fragile role for a continued relationship with him. That’s my take !

    • Excellent insights, thanks for your comments. I certainly believe that Gena R put in a hugely credible and impressive performance. She’s such a wonderful actress! As for Keppell, I used ‘even’ on him because he’s less ‘fun’ and charming than the other named characters, but he did have a playful edge on display at times that set him apart from other Culp characters.

    • I agree the ending is very memorable even if its not a top 10 columbo and the ending is what makes a good columbo and I feel columbophile has underrated it slightly

  41. Great review. One question I have is, at the end, why was Harold begging Elizabeth to lie for him? That is to say, the evidence against Harold was so airtight that a lie from Elizabeth probably wouldn’t have saved him anyway, and got her into trouble for accompanying a murderer.

    • My view is he was arrogant enough to think his control over Elizabeth was so great he could make her believe his version of reality and say what he wanted her to say.

  42. As always another excellent, insightful review. But just a few things….

    Oskar Werner was Austrian not German, but ok.

    As to what women found in Harold, he has a lot of money (we presume). Guys who drive Mercedes convertibles and live in big houses on a hill are going to attract the Marcies (Trisha Noble….woe!) of the world a lot faster and easier than a guy who drives small economy car and lives paycheck to paycheck.

    One other similarity you missed is the ol’ make it seem like the murder happened at a different time so the killer has an alibi trick. “Candidate For Crime” comes to mind as well as “Suitable For Framing.”

    Look on the bright side of that art gallery, at least it sells better stuff than the one that sells Sam Franklin’s crap 🙂

  43. I tend to disagree with your takes on shows, such as reading into things that aren’t necessary. Example: Harold’s hair? Who would find him attractive? How long was Elizabeth was wheelchair? Really? Who cares!?!?! My one question when I watch this episode, was how did he know Margaret was gonna fire him on this particular day? To the point of setting up break in. Granted she made comment on end of the year/quarter results…..Maybe it’s just me. Good episode…still has legs today. Great cast. Like most Columbo fans I only enjoy the 70’s episodes, and this is an enjoyable watch.

    • I imagine he knew she was going to fire him based on previous conversations about needing to turn a profit, and failing to do so. Perhaps Midas Electronics had to release financial figures that day, and Harold would have known that well in advance.

  44. “[Van Wick’s] much less charismatic than many Columbo villains so it’s harder to cherish his confrontation with the Lieutenant. … 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.”

    An interesting reflection. But, of course, murderers are apt to be cold and callous. It’s in the job description. Columbo’s penchant for encountering a disproportionate number of charismatic murderers can strain credulity at times. Then again, charisma is often the Columbo murderer’s principal mode of concealment. A cold and callous adversary is a much more obvious killer.

    Here, the writers found an interesting solution to this conundrum. Here, Van Wick could show his natural cold and callous side without it appearing immediately suspicious — because of his “straight-faced Germanic efficiency and aloofness.” TV audiences in 1975 were used to cold and callous Germans. Viewers of TV drama would not expect to encounter a German with a “sense of fun or mischief.”

    So, in a way, I applaud how Playback’s script and casting, and Werner’s performance, combined to provide a more realistic homicidal personality, and yet use his Germanness to provide the same mask for which other Columbo villains need charm.

    • Murderers aren’t necessarily only cold and callous. A characteristic of psychopaths is supposed to be superficial charm; witness O.J. Simpson. This is one of my least favorite of the original episodes and I think that the main reason is Oskar Werner. There was a recent ME-TV quiz that had a picture of the scene with the hideous clown sitting on the chair, and I completely forgot that that was a scene from Columbo.

    • I think the best Columbo villains are entertaining and callous. Cassidy succeeded 3x I think and Landau also. Kiley may have been the most effective. Werner is in the category of callous villains who arent particularly entertaining, with others like Montalban. Other villains, like Gordon and Pleasance

      • I think that another characteristic that makes a given Columbo villain enjoyable to watch is intelligence. I agree with you on Cassidy, and although you have an incomplete sentence, and so I’m not sure which category you’re putting Pleasance in, I’d put him in the positive category. In the later episodes, even the episodes that I liked lacked star power and even when actors like McGoohan and Shatner played again, the stories were so much weaker that I didn’t enjoy them. The actors that I’d put in the positive category are Robert Culp, Ross Martin, Leonard Nimoy, Jose Ferrer, Johnny Cash, Dick Van Dyke, Robert Vaughn, Theodore Bikel and Louis Jourdan. The ones from the original episodes that I would put in the not so good category, besides Werner, are Eddie Albert , in the appropriately named episode, Dead Weight, Robert Conrad, George Hamilton, Hector Elizondo, Ricardo Montalban and Joyce Van Patten.

              • Of course, I disagree with that as well. I don’t call any episode ‘terrible’ but Van Patten’s episode was one of my least favorite from the original run and Jourdan’s not far outside my top 10 episodes. I’d say that there were strong parallels with his villain performance in the James Bond movie, Octopussy, my favorite non-Connery Bond film.

                • Didn’t intend to engage in a shouting match, sorry. “Terrible” is a poor choice of words. Both “Murder Under Glass” and “Old Fashioned Murder” have good value, but reside, I believe, in the weaker set of the original run. The funeral scene in MUG and the jail scene in OFM are amateurish but as whole episodes they are eminently watchable.

                  You are correct about Jourdan, on review. His portrayal was consistently eerie and certainly represented a person capable of murder. Van Patten’s portrayal was somewhat less believable, but more due to plot issues-is keeping the museum strong enough motivation to kill?

                  I gauge the episodes quality by watchability. Technically, Cassidy performance’s may not reach the heights of other actors, but his characters’ likeability is such that I can watch his episodes over and over. The best actors can combine both at the highest level. Kiley probably does that better than all.

                • i dont call any 70s episode terrible but murder under glass is simply a poor columbo and i dont take much enjoyment from it , same can be said for old fashioned murder i dont think much of it either and van patten was just as depressing as an episode of Eastenders and that woman fainting every 5 minutes was a bit silly but id still rather it to murder under glass, also i dont like dead weight and last salute to the commodore and i just despise a matter of honor its the worst of the 70s and dagger of the mind is another story.

        • I love Hector Elizando in anything….and I think he is pretty good in Columbo. Disagree with you on Robert Conrad, thought he was excellent in Exercise in Fatality.

  45. A pretty good episode. It’s not one of my favourites, but it does have much to recommend it. The performances are excellent.

    In reality though wouldn’t Columbo have had to carry a gun? I’m not American, but as I understand it all officers over there(whether Detectives or street Police)carry guns when on duty.

    • That’s correct. The Columbo gun thing is some sort of pc thing, imo, even that far back re guns. In that time frame, the bogeyman were supposedly ultra cheap compact revolvers used by criminals at convenience stores on Saturday nights…they coined them “Saturday Night Specials.”

      The gun thing of his is absurd. Also, recall there’s an episode where we learn he hasn’t qualified with firearm in a decade. In real life, homicide detectives run high risks in dealing with desperate people. Not all of Columbo”s cases would involve eccentric, upper scale hipsters and wealthy; but, rather some mundane suspects in bad neighborhoods with uncooperative witnesses. He’d also have a partner for same reason – safety and to have a witness to statements and evidence gathering.

      And I won’t even get into his shoes and car re realistic.

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