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.

Playback2

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.

Clown

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.


Columbophile Buy Me a Coffee

Contribute to this site’s upkeep from just $3

Dozens of Columbo gift ideas right here

Columbo Trisha Noble

Don’t be gone long, y’all!

How did you like this article?

185 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Playback

  1. I must point out a GLARING visual error contained in this episode. Baxter, the gate house guard, is first alerted to the murder when he sees the shooting on his closed circuit TV screen. I ask that you focus on the top left hand corner of the closed circuit footage that he views, just as the gun shot occurs. You clearly see a distinct puff of smoke enter the frame (obviously from a prop gun that was discharged off-screen). But the actual shot from the murderer comes from the bottom right of the screen!!. Has anyone else spotted this? How it managed to be included in the final cut that went to air escapes me.

     
  2. Rich White Boy with zero history of violence or mental illness, a weak motive, and absolutely everything to lose, nonetheless suddenly and inexplicably becomes a remorseless and premeditated murdering psycho.

    That is, this is a Columbo episode.

     
    • As with Riley Greenleaf, Harold Van Wick is already an unpleasant character who realizes that he’s about to lose his meal ticket marriage, and has planned well in advance to prevent it.

      He is about to lose his cushy, well paid job and his bed hopping lifestyle. To him this means he already has everything to lose and gives him an excellent motive to risk committing a murder.

       
      • He’s losing his job, not his marriage, mansion, money, or meal ticket.

        Understand that the creators, producers, writers, directors, and broadcasters behind Columbo want us all to believe what they believe: that deep down, all White males are ticking time bombs of hatred and Evil.

         
        • Sorry A.D. but I don’t understand any such thing.

          Surely “the creators, producers, writers, directors, and broadcasters behind Columbo” were either totally or mostly white males themselves?

          And there were plenty of nice white male characters depicted on the show, such as Leslie Nielsen’s character in Lady in Waiting, Ned Diamond in Forgotten Lady, any character played by Vito Scotti, and of course, Lt Columbo himself.

          And while it’s true that all of the murderers were white, some of them were woman. How does your theory explain that?

          In the case of Harold Van Wick, his marriage is his meal ticket. If he doesn’t agree to step down as CEO, his mother in law will tell her daughter about all of his affairs. Then he will lose his wife, any job with the company, the house and the lifestyle that goes with it. If he kills his mother in law and gets away with it, he loses none of that.

          I think what you should please try to understand is that all of the motivations behind the murders are explained, and it is never due to somebody suddenly becoming a homicidal maniac for no reason. Quite often, as in Playback, the murder has already been planned before the episode begins, so we have to find out the motivations as we go along. But it’s all there.

           
          • Almost no one involved with Columbo at high levels was a White male. I think you’re confused or naive.

             
            • You certainly do like calling people here on this blog “naive”. You might want to try backing off on passing judgment on people here, just because you disagree with their opinions.

               
            • Hi A.D. Do you actually know what “naive” means? Because you seem to think it means anybody that disagrees with you. And my only “confusion” is with trying to understand how anybody can have this opinion.

              Are you actually saying that most of the people involved with Columbo at a high level were female, non-white, or both? And in the 1970’s? Not that I’d find anything wrong with that, but I don’t think it was the case.

              Can you name any of them? I’m sure there were a few, but you should be able to come up with lots of names. And even if you can, how does that prove your point? Levinson & Link were white males, and they made the killer in Prescription: Murder a white male, but so what? Columbo is a white male too.

              And why single out the Columbo series? I would think that most of the killers in the other Sunday Mystery Movies were white males, not to mention all the other cop shows of the time, on all the networks.

              And I notice that you haven’t addressed my points about female killers or nice white male characters on Columbo. How do you explain their presence?

               
        • That’s a reach, and give the writers way too much (bad) credit. IMO, they simply want us to be entertained and watch the next episode so they can sell advertising to sustain their show. If there’s any agenda behind the writing, that’s likely it.

           
  3. Obviously the one critiquing this episode took extreme exception to the gentleman’s hairstyle. As a men’s hairstylist for over 40 yrs I must say that whether you like it or not there is no getting around the fact that it does give the man a more youthful appearance than had he had it combed back away from his forehead as is more typical of someone his age. The cut he is sporting here is most often found on a boy, and there is my point. It creates an illusion of youth. Just like sometimes an older woman can achieve this by not doing the typical little old lady thing and cutting her hair in a typical little old lady style and keeping it in a bit more youthful style. Remember, I didn’t say I particularly like his hairstyle, I just mean he probably would have looked older with it slicked back. I personally prefer the pompadour style, something like Jack Lord in Hawaii 5 0. Thats how I wear mine. But its not necessary youthful looking. But I like it anyway.

     
    • It is interesting that Oskar Werner’s hairstyle has often led to some kind of irritation and concerns people to this very day.

      Most of the time he preferred to cut his own hair in a „do it yourself“ way, with the help of a simple plastic hair cutter, even when he was already a film star. He was unhappy about his obstinately grown hair and said that hairdressers could not do much good about it, anyway.

      During the shooting of „Fahrenheit 451“ in London in 1966, he had a serious dispute with director François Truffaut about the interpretation of his role. Obviously in an act of defiance, he went to a local hairdresser’s and had his hair cut extremely short. Truffaut, on beholding him, was shocked, because quite a lot of scenes had already been finished with Werner‘s normal-length haircut. Being reproached by Truffaut, Werner claimed that he had fallen asleep during the process of hair cutting and was not responsible for the calamity. Truffaut was very angry and avoided to show Werner in close-up for the rest of the movie, respectively had him wear some kind of cap.

      You are quite right that Werner‘s haircut in „Playback“ gives him a more boyish look. As the actor always had a reputation for looking much younger than his years, I guess he wanted to live up to it also in the Columbo series.

       
      • Perhaps, in the context of the story, Harold had invented a “cut your own hair” machine, which he was testing?

        I saw this episode yesterday and just noticed that when Columbo is at the art gallery, he claps his hands in triumph, much like the way Harold opens the doors in his house.

        There is an episode of the BBC sitcom “Some Mothers Do ‘ave ’em” starring Michael Crawford, made shortly before “Playback”, which features the hapless hero in a “house of the future” designed by his brother in law. In this house, the doors slide open on approach (much like the Enterprise) which leads to much hilarity with the bathroom door.

         
        • It is true, we cannot know what other gadgets Harold had invented or was testing at the time. Maybe his hairstyle can also be explained by an automatic hair cutter which he had invented but not yet developed to perfection.

          Columbo is bewildered and also deeply impressed by the Van Wyck‘s house and its technical appliances – at least so it seems. At the same time, he enjoys using these appliances, like opening doors by simply clapping his hands. In the end, he even makes use of them for justice‘s purposes, cornering the murderer with the clown trick and the enlargement of the manipulated tapes, turning his own tricks against him.

          I can never quite get over my suspicion that part of Columbo’s clumsiness and bewilderment is a habit he has acquired in order to be underestimated during his investigations. Sometimes, I agree, he really is awkward and blundering, as with Mrs. Peck in „Double Shock“. I think he also must drive Mrs. Columbo crazy at times, with his cigar ash all over the place and other slovenly habits. But all things considered, he is a very bright, intelligent and really clever fellow who is able to adapt to his surroundings and make the best use of the circumstances he finds at the location of the murder.

           
          • “I can never quite get over my suspicion that part of Columbo’s clumsiness and bewilderment is a habit he has acquired in order to be underestimated during his investigations”. Yes, I think that Dr Ray Fleming pretty much sums this up in “Prescription Murder” when he tells Columbo that he overcompensates, i.e., that he exaggerates his natural clumsiness etc to lull suspects into a false sense of security.

            Quite right about Mrs Peck though. That is the real deal and nothing at all to do with solving the murder.

             
  4. I really do ike this Columbo episode, as I am an admirer of Oskar Werner’s art of acting, which is always smashing. In this case, his cool aloofness combines ingeniously with Gena Rowland’s warm-hearted performance.His acting in the last scene is world class.

    One thing, however, always strikes me as improbable when I watch the scene of Harold killing his mother-in-law. When she enters the room and sees Harold, staring at her and lifting the gun, she does not say a word, but silently turns around and tries to flee the room. Would she not in all probability have called out Harold’s name in her panic? If so, this could have been heard on the tape, just like the falling of the flower pot could be heard when Columbo played the tape later on. Harold could not be sure that Margaret would let herself be shot down without uttering a single word. If she had called out his name, surely he would not have had enough time to manipulate the tape and erase her words, before putting the tape into the internal TV system and leaving the house. What would he have done then? Had he not calculated this possibilty?

    Can you follow my thoughts, or am I mistaken and have overlooked something? Since this bothers me every time I watch the scene, I would be grateful for your comments.

     
    • This has come up before, and it’s a good point. If she had called out “Harold!” he could have claimed that she was calling him for help.

       
      • Yes, Chris, I agree that this could have been Harold‘s explanation if Margaret had only cried out „Harold!“. But what if she had uttered something like „Harold, what are you doing?“ or „No, Harold, no!“

        In Harold’s favour, let’s assume that he was just willing to take that risk, in order to get rid of his evil mother-in-law. Otherwise we would have to assume that despite his meticulous planning of the murder, he had omitted to consider this point.

        Thanks for your answer, Chris, it‘is good to know that other Columbo fans have had similar thoughts about the scene.

         
        • You’re welcome Elisabeth. It is a crucial point that the whole episode depends on.

          Even if Harold had been able to somehow mute any incriminating words, it might still have been possible to read her lips.

          Perhaps we can put this down to Harold knowing his mother in law well, possibly from some earlier incident where she was too frightened to say anything.

           
          • That’s a good point of yours, saying that lip reading would have been possible in any case when watching the tape later on. Columbo would not have missed out on that, I guess.

            As to your other point, good old Margaret did not seem to me a person to be easily frightened or muted. But maybe Harold knew that her intake of brandy would be substantial enough to keep her from reacting quickly and speaking articulately.

             
            • Yes, Harold might have known what effect Brandy would have had on Margaret’s ability to articulate. As it is, she only manages a gasp and not even a scream.

              And sorry If I didn’t make myself clear, but by “mute” I meant some technical means of erasing any incriminating words from the tape’s soundtrack, not actually muting Margaret herself. Although it would probably have been possible to detect any such tampering.

               
              • No problem, I can see your point about the technical muting of Margaret. In my opinion, despite some minor inconsistencies, Playback is a very good episode and deserves a better ranking than it has got so far (no offence intended).
                It is fun to read all the commentaries on Columbophile – a site I only discovered a few days ago – and to speculate a little on this and that.

                Let me say that I did not at all mind Harold’s haircut, as so many others here on Columbophile do. Maybe because I have seen Oskar Werner in some of his superb film roles, like Ship of Fools, Fahrenheit 451, Jules et Jim, and others. In his younger years, he also was a great stage actor in classical roles (Hamlet, Don Carlos). Werner was a handsome man with a charismatic even though troubled personality, and a brilliant actor.

                 
    • He could have simply solved the problem by wearing a mask. Not that he actually did (so it’s a possible plot hole) but it’s not a problem that makes the whole scheme impossible to carry out.

       
      • Good point about a mask, but he could still have been recognised by his clothes, which he would not have had time to change out of and back into.

         
  5. Seven paintings from Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY can be seen in the art gallery. From left to right they are; You Can Come Up Now, Mrs. Millikan, The Diary, Silent Snow Secret Snow, The Dark Boy, Certain Shadows On The Wall, The Academy, and Class of ’99. Also, when Columbo visits the gallery, you can see the booklet from The Who’s 1973 double LP QUADROPHENIA sitting on the reception desk near the gallery entrance.

     
  6. Point taken that Playback recycles some bits from episodes past, but I think it still worked in a “greatest hits Columbo” sort of way because it largely manages to improve on the scenes it rips off. I found the art scene takedown funnier than Framing’s, Rowlands’ pain more heartbreaking than Danner’s, and the gotcha far superior to Crucial Game. Plus, the tech angle came off a good deal better than in Mayhem.

    So lack of originality aside, Playback rewards the viewer simply by fine tuning the show’s formula.

     
  7. Thanks CP for letting us know that Tricia Noble sadly passed away.
    Yes, she was the apple of my eye of all the Columbo women. An absolute smoke show!
    The way she “had eyes” on Van Wick immediately, gave me hope that ALL guys had chance with a hottie like her. (I know, it’s Hollywood!)

     
    • And thank you CNC for bringing this sad news to my attention. I had no idea that Trisha Noble had passed away. I only knew her from Playback and (as a blonde) in the British comedy film “Carry On Camping” but she was utterly charming. I just looked on Wikipedia and it seems the director of Playback cast her as Marcy when he saw her at a party, wearing the same dress that she wore in the episode.

       
      • My apologies for spelling her name wrong. I liked her so much in Playback, that I looked up some of her other acting credits and saw that she was in “Carry on Camping.” I wasn’t familiar at all with the “Carry On….” series. I must have been living under a rock here in the USA.I proceeded to watch “Camping” and I thought it was hysterical!
        I prefer brunettes, even though I’m blonde. Thus, I think Noble was much more attractive in “Playback.” Not even close for me.
        Was she a natural brunette?

         
        • It’s sad that Trisha Noble has passed away, and so soon after Barbara Windsor, a very popular star of several of the Carry On films.

          Carry On Camping is probably the most popular of the 30 or so Carry On films produced from the late 1950’s to the late 1970’s. I was very impressed that Trisha Noble not only played a scene with Peter Falk, but also with the legendary Kenneth Williams, a much loved British comedy actor.

           
        • You might also enjoy “Carry On Abroad”. This has much the same cast, some of them in very different roles. There is also a very pretty brunette as the tour guide. Oh, and special guest star Phil Silvers takes the lead role in “Carry On, Follow That Camel”. A tenuous Columbo link there, as he made a cameo in the Peter Falk movie, “The Cheap Detective”.

           
  8. Harold is one Columbo villain I regret seeing brought down. Clearly ahead of his time, just think where he’d eventually have taken that company. And not a bad sense of humor he had “it’s good for the soul, if you still have one”. Great episode, and love Gena Rowlands.

     
  9. A couple of things, Columbophile. 1. You keep referring to Van Wick (& Werner) as German. No, he was Austrian, a completely different country.

    2. You mention Van Wick’s “digital” video equipment. No, digital film/video didn’t exist in those days and wouldn’t for decades. It would have all been analog, and pretty blurry when you zoomed in on it. Columbo would have been able to zoom in to see that card in that era with that equipment. (Also, there’s no way with a primitive clock timer Van Wick could ever have covered up the murder in the manner shown. I don’t even think he could have done that with today’s technology, but at least it wouldn’t have been ludicrous.)

    3. A thought on Van Wick’s bowl haircut. It’s at least an alternative to the many wigs and toupees seen on the shown. Werner was clearly balding and what you see is an elaborate comb-over from the very back of his head to the front, to cover up the egg on top.

     
  10. This episode had all the bones of a great one but it fell short for me. It seemed the set up to the murder was too long so it left less Colombo investigation time. Falk and Werner had absolutely no chemistry either. In the best episodes, Falk either gets to actually bond with the killer or just flat out doesn’t like him, like Janus. There’s none of that here. Plus Werner gave himself away when he yells pretty hard at Colombo for annoying him. Then the final gotcha of zooming in on the video was too contrived. I get it that technology was new and the viewing public wasn’t savvy to how videotape worked but still it’s no excuse. It’s always best when the logic is based in reality. Sadly, this episode may have spawned countless video forensic scenes in other shows where they’d “zoom in and enhance” on details for the next 30 years!

     
  11. Pingback: Five best moments from Columbo Playback | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  12. Attention Trisha Noble fans! I was watching “Carry On Camping” last night and she turns up as a nice, blonde college girl called “Sally”. She has a scene with Kenneth Williams and Julian Holloway about halfway through the film.

    There is a theory that she played the pretty nudist girl seen briefly at the start of the film, but I’m sure that this is a different girl, another “mystery blonde”. Both characters are called “Sally”, which may have led to the confusion.

     
  13. One thing I noticed — after trying to protect everyone from his cold, Columbo offers to shake Harold’s hand at their first meeting. I guess, by this time in his career, the Lieutenant is already suspicious of the big name guest star…

     
    • CP….another excellent “summary” and review

      I actually really like this episode….and though some have commented that Falk and Werner had no chemistry
      …I simply think Werner’s portrayal was intentional in that way….cold…aloof…etc

      We can also argue whether or not the technological aspects are valid etc…but those arguments are moot to me.

      The premise of the “gotcha” moment …the Big Pop.. i blv Falk and company called it…is.. definitely one of the stronger ones…and falls into the “didn’t see it coming” category for me.

      “What are you looking for?”
      “I’m not sure……I’m not sure”

       
      • I think the chemistry between Falk and Werner was not too bad. It is reported that Falk explicitly wished Werner to perform as guest star in the series. Werner responded to this wish, but being a rather difficult and demanding character, he got into a heavy dispute with the producer at the beginning of the shooting. He threatened to leave the set and take the next plane home (he had not yet signed his contract at the time).

        Falk, on hearing this news, left a dinner with his wife and daughter and hurried to the location, comically kneeling before Werner and pleading him to continue the shooting, for his sake. Werner agreed, but only on condition that the producer stayed away from the set for the rest of the time. This was granted.

         
        • Great story EBT. May I ask where the heck you heard this? I’m fascinated by how much inside info folks on this blog are hip to

           
          • You are welcome to learn the source of my little story, G4. I have taken it from the book „Oskar Werner – Seine Filme“ („Oskar Werner – His Movies“), edited by Raimund Fritz, published by Filmarchiv Austria 2014.

            Originally it was reported in the magazine „Daily Variety“ (Sept. 9, 1974) and was also later confirmed by Werner’s partner who lived with him at the time, German actress Antje Weisgerber, in an interview with Marc Hairapetian in his cultural magazine „Spirit – A Smile In The Storm“, Berlin 1993.

             
            • Thank you for sharing. I find it rather delightful that a behind-the-scenes snippet from a Columbo guest appearance would not only make the entertainment news of the day but live on in Werner’s biography.

              I suspect I have grossly underestimated how big a deal Columbo was in the early 70s.

               
  14. This was a short episode that felt short, but it really deserved it because that crime was child’s play for Columbo. The lack of mulch tracked inside the house was so obvious, there’s no explanation for anyone missing it (other than the usual “every cop is bad at their job except Columbo”). And I wonder when Columbo killers will stop framing murders as intended robberies where nothing is stolen.

    The performances and art gallery scene saved it, though. This is one of the few episodes that really feels like a tragedy, since we usually don’t get to see loved ones of the victim have genuine reactions. You really feel Elizabeth’s grief in the final scene.

     
  15. First – thanks Columbophile for all your insights and passion. I love all your reviews.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but it’s hard to see why Harold planned to kill Margaret that night before she revealed to him that he was being replaced as president of the company. Yet he had already taken precautions to stage the break in before he came into her study. Harold was doomed to be caught. No sympathy for him, only for Elizabeth.

     
    • Kevin,

      I agree with both of your comments (above, as well as the lack of household staff), and I wondered about those two anomalies myself. It certainly seems that Harold’s wire cutting and glass cutting prove that he planned to murder Margaret, even BEFORE she lowered the boom on him to notify him that she was replacing him as company president with her son Arthur. They must have had quite a contentious history, those two, if Harold was planning to murder her even before learning of Margaret’s decision to replace him!

      And when Elizabeth tells Columbo that the only staff member (a cook) had already left hours ago, and didn’t live at the estate, that struck me as inconceivable. Was the security guard Baxter the only employee who was at this palatial estate during the evening, when all he did was stare attentively at 3 monitors and log the comings and goings of the family and their visitors? Who took care of the landscaping and expensive gardens? Who did the housecleaning of this huge house? Considering that Elizabeth was wheelchair-bound, that Margaret seemed to have an unusual affectation for drinking brandy, and, that Arthur, the only son, didn’t live there at all, are we to believe that Harold, the only other resident, had enough free time to do all of the household care and maintenance (in addition to his duties as the President of Midas Electronics)? Maybe THAT explains why he never had time to get a decent haircut….

      Sumo

       
    • The conversation between the two revealed that Harold had already been warned by her that he would be relieved of his duties if the company did not make a profit. And it subsequently did not. Thus, based on her prior warning, he already knew that she was going to remove him from his position. He already saw it coming.

       
      • That’s also my guess. Harold had planned the murder of his mother-in-law for quite some time, since she harassed him more than once about his light-hearted management of her company. In all probability, he thought that after Margaret’s death he would gain sole leadership of the business. He also reckoned that, without her mother as support, Elizabeth would have to rely on him even stronger than before. Her brother Arthur would not be much of an obstacle to his plans for the company.

        Harold had gone through every detail in his mind before and had already prepared everything he needed for action. When Margaret put the pressure on him that evening, he acted without hesitation. Margaret had triggered her own death.

         
    • Of course he knew this. He is only so used to pretending being dumb that it has become his second nature, even when there is no suspect around.

       
      • Hmmm. Perhaps. It’s a good theory that Columbo is only pretending to mistake an air vent for a modern art sculpture, possibly so that he can have an innocent excuse to talk to Marcy about something other than the case.

        But he does make little mistakes in other episodes. He doesn’t realise that the sash he pulls will summon a butler, that the red button is for room service, or that the small dish is actually an antique belt buckle. And look at all the mistakes he makes in Double Shock, where he definitely isn’t trying to annoy Mrs Peck on purpose.

         
        • Yes, I concede that Columbo is a clumsy fellow at times. He makes awkward gestures and often seems absent-minded.
          But he would not be able to corner the murderer at the end of each and every episode, if he was not an extremely clever and sharp-witted guy.

          His clumsiness is partly genuine and partly pretension. It is also one of the character traits of Columbo which I love most, watching him with delight as he is cornering his opponents. And how often do they underestimate him, blundering into calamity!
          But I will take a second look at Double Shock with the great Martin Landau, and maybe come up with a new assessment.

           
  16. One thing that strikes me is the utter tedium of Dexter’s job. A bit of excitement for him at last ! – but did this family really require a security guard to stare at screens all hours of the day and night ?

     
      • As the house is automated, perhaps they don’t need many staff? Just a security guard and an (unseen) cleaning lady?

         
        • Harold was ahead of his time. Maybe he had already in the mid-70’s invented some household robots, doing the cleaning, vacuuming, lawn mowing etc.
          Of course, they were all safely stowed away at the time of murder.

           
            • Just do an image search for “Elroy Jetson” and compare him with Harold Van Wick.
              Proof positive.

               
              • As suggested, I did an image search of Elroy Jetson, whom unfortunately I did not know up to date. Indeed, I think he is an alter ego of Harold van Wick in his youth. The ingenious villain has grown up with technical innovations and gimmicks which he brings (almost) to perfection in „Playback“.

                 
                • Thanks Elisabeth. Yes, if Harold had been a Flintstones fan, Margaret would have been clubbed to death. Mind you, Harold would have had a hard time impressing Marcy with a sun dial on his wrist.

                   
    • The nature of the job doesn’t really make sense. It’s a residential home, not a museum or art gallery. Why should the guard be monitoring the inside of the home as opposed to the external surroundings? It is enough to simply have adequate security measures like alarm systems to protect the inside of the house. Internal viewing can always be activated whenever an alarm goes off so that the guard may see it what’s going on. It is simply unnecessary to have a guard constantly watching the inside of the house when there are other obvious and standard security measures available for a wealthy high-tech home. And I doubt that any home actually does that in real life. But, of course, such an absurd setup was necessary for the plot.

       
      • I think that Harold had invented this particular security system and was testing it out in his own home, with the idea of then selling it to museums, art galleries, etc.

        Either that, or Harold had been planning on murdering his mother in law from Day 1.

         

Leave a Reply to Nathan Godwin Cancel reply