Columbo colossus Patrick McGoohan was back to leave another indelible mark on the series on November 2, 1975, as the show’s fifth season reached its halfway stage in the shape of Identity Crisis.
And this time McGoohan wasn’t just unleashing his acting chops. He was also entrusted with directorial duties on this complex spy thriller that pitted Lieutenant Columbo against a master operator from the CIA.
After a comparatively lacklustre season up to now, can the reassuring presence of McGoohan elevate Identity Crisis to Columbo‘s top table? Or is this convoluted twaddle certain to confuse and enrage? Let’s investigate…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Nelson Brenner / Steinmetz: Patrick McGoohan
AJ Henderson / Geronimo: Leslie Nielsen
Lawrence Melville: Otis Young
Sergeant Kramer: Bruce Kirby
The Director: David White
Louie the bar tender: Val Avery
Salvatore De Fonte: Vito Scotti
Joyce: Barbara Rhoades
Written by: Bill Driskill
Directed by: Patrick McGoohan
Score by: Bernardo Segáll
Notable locations: Brenner home, The Enchanted Hill, Beverly Hills; Pike’s Amusement Park (closed in 1979, now shopping district), 95 S Pine Ave, Long Beach;
Episode synopsis: Columbo Identity Crisis
Two CIA operatives exchange a coded telephone conversation before agreeing to meet at a Long Beach amusement park. One, nicknamed Geronimo but masquerading as an AJ Henderson, has been lying low for some years after pretending to be dead at the insistence of the CIA Director. The second, Nelson Brenner, now wants to enlist Geronimo to aid him in his attempts to secure a secret microfilm from a ‘crafty old Buzzard’ – AKA the mysterious Steinmetz.
In need of cash, Geronimo accepts the offer and heads to seedy adult bar Sinbad’s that night to rendezvous with Steinmetz’s agent, Lawrence Melville. Sneaking off below the nearby pier, the pair discuss a fee of $300k worth of gold for the microfilm trade to take place before Melville amscrays, promising to meet Geronimo the following evening to provide an update.
Who should then step out of the shadows but Brenner. Geronimo is confused. “What are you doing down here?” he asks. “Oh, just taking the air,” Brenner warbles before savagely striking his fellow operative on the forehead with a tyre iron. As Geronimo’s crumpled body lies on the sand, Brenner finishes him off with a blow to the back of the head. As Columbo killings go, it’s brutal stuff!
Enter Lieutenant Columbo, emerging through a cloud of cigar smoke at the crime scene. Police suspect Geronimo has fallen foul of a violent mugging. The location is known locally as ‘Mugger’s Haven’ after all, plus the victim has been cleaned out of his wallet, cash and ID. All that’s left to help further the investigation was an unopened pack of cigarettes and a book of Sinbad’s matches.
Something’s bothering Columbo straight away, though. Why has the victim’s jacket been removed? A mugger wouldn’t need to remove it to get at a wallet. The Lieutenant mentally files this for later consideration and ambles off to find Sergeant Kramer at Sinbad’s.
Kramer has been busy. He’s already had some help from bartender Louie, a former cop, who confirms the victim left the bar at 11pm. He also reveals that ‘a young black guy’ got up and followed him out when he left, and agrees to drop round to the station the next day to see if he can be identified in the police files.
Early the next morning we find Brenner driving to his office, listening to the morning headlines about China pulling out of the Olympics. He has to dictate a speech for a client, which he pointedly told his secretary he would do the night before and leave for her to transcribe. In order to establish an alibi, he winds his clock back so that the chimes for 11pm will be recorded. But he has to close his blinds to block the morning sun from shining in his eyes, and that, too, is caught on tape. Once done, he resets the clock and beats it before prying eyes can catch him out.
Columbo, meanwhile, is hanging with Kramer, who has again been digging up info. Thanks to intel from a bellboy at Geronimo’s hotel, they’ve uncovered his alter ego of AJ Henderson, who it turns out works for an advertising agency. But when the two cops meet the business owner and show him a photo of the dead body he tells them straight: it isn’t AJ Henderson. He’s a much older man. Confusion reigns.
It’s not all bad news, though. Kramer also found out that in the hours before his death ‘Henderson’ had requested directions to the amusement park at Long Beach so Columbo heads off to investigate. It’s a fruitful trip. The guy at the shooting gallery remembers him because he and his companion each hit 10 targets out of 10. So who’s the mystery companion, Columbo wonders.
He hits the jackpot when he questions the park’s photography team. Busty Joyce, a roaming photographer, takes snaps of randoms all day long and entices them to purchase the prints. After an exhaustive search through the previous day’s snaps, she and Columbo spot ‘Henderson’ in the background of one photo – and the mystery man is there, too.
Columbo is able to obtain a blow-up of the snap to help in his pursuit and when a colleague of the real AJ Henderson identifies the man in the photo as ace consultant Nelson Brenner, the policeman and the spy are set on collision course at last.
They meet face-to-face at a Commodity Brokers Luncheon (fun times!), when Brenner is watching the speech he wrote be delivered with aplomb by lively Italian Salvatore De Fonte. When Columbo questions Brenner about Henderson he denies all knowledge, but changes his tune when Columbo whips out the photographic evidence. Slipping into deception mode, Brenner claims he was trying to poach Henderson to work for him and convincingly feigns surprise when told that the dead man is not the real AJ.
Placated for now, Columbo allows Brenner to depart and the ace spy heads back to his palatial home to find ‘The Director’ has paid him a personal visit by helicopter. The head honcho is vexed by Geronimo’s death, but doesn’t seem to suspect Brenner’s involvement – and he’s also picked up on Columbo’s interest in the case, urging Brenner to have the detective put under surveillance just in case he finds out more than he should. Brenner agrees, and Columbo is subsequently tailed by two bunglers in an easy-to-spot plumbing van.
Bartender Louie, meanwhile, is able to identify Melville from his police record so Columbo pays him a visit and invites him to police HQ the next day to explain why he followed AJ Henderson out of the bar on the night of his killing. The detective then heads off to Brenner’s house where he finds the master spy indulging in a pool party par excellence.
Columbo wants to know about Brenner’s alibi. I was dictating a speech, Brenner insists – check with my secretary. Columbo also reveals some particulars of the case. He suspects Henderson was killed by someone he knew because he was hit from the front. The Lieutenant also wonders why Henderson’s jacket was removed.
“Melville complains that ‘some heavy little dude named Columbo’ is putting pressure on him.”
“I cannot figure out why would a mugger take off a victim’s coat unless he was gonna remove something other than cash or credit cards,” he says. “Well, not being a mugger, I’m afraid I can’t help you there,” Brenner replies before expressing his belief that Melville is the man to chase.
The spy also gives Columbo a polite warning. “Lieutenant, I think that I should warn you that I am not an unworldly man. I have powerful and important friends – even in the police department. I respectfully request that you do not harass me.” Good luck with that, Nelson!
Brenner next arranges a meeting with Melville, but in his alter ego as Steinmetz – an elderly, balding, bearded man with a heavy east European accent. The two meet on a mountain road, and Melville complains that ‘some heavy little dude named Columbo’ is putting pressure on him. ‘Chill bro’ Steinmetz assures him, busting him a little hard cash to temper his concerns.
Now relaxed, Melville takes the cash and agrees to drive Steinmetz’s car to a drop-off point. But just as he disappears into the darkness, the mysterious old man pushes a remote control button and – KABOOM – the car goes up in flames. It’s a bit of a ruse by the crafty old buzzard, though, as he’s only put explosives in the car door, not the engine. Melville survives, but with Henderson’s credit cards found in the car glove box he’s now a prime suspect. He protests his innocence, however, and is able to help a police artist come up with a sketch likeness of Steinmetz from his hospital bed.
Despite this stitch-up, Columbo doesn’t believe Melville did it. He’s still focused on Brenner – especially after his secretary admits she can’t absolutely corroborate her boss’s whereabouts at the time of the killing. He said he would return to the office to dictate a speech and she did find the tape the next morning as he promised, but that’s as good as she can manage.
Columbo tells Brenner as such when he arrives moments later. “I do feel you’re involved, I have to admit that,” he says. Cue a further warning from Brenner. “Lieutenant, let me assure you that you are delving into areas over which you have no authority. For the last time I ask you, don’t harass me.” And after the detective ambles on his way, Brenner is on the phone to The Director tout de suite.
Heading to the park for a hot dog lunch, Columbo is accosted by a team of CIA operatives, who lead him to a meeting with The Director. The top man reiterates the message that Columbo needs to drop his harassment of Brenner and forget that he ever heard of Steinmetz. “We’ve been after him a lot longer than you have,” he explains. He also confirms to Columbo that all operatives wear a gun.
Filling up at a gas station, Columbo is greeted by Brenner and the two have an amiable chat which ends up in Brenner inviting the Lieutenant to his house that afternoon for a cocktail. Columbo accepts and turns up later at the palatial Brenner HQ for a jolly knees up at which he discovers that Brenner had had his house bugged, but has since had them removed. The two retire to Brenner’s den for a cigar and it’s there that Columbo spots a photo of the spy from the Korean War, when he was an ace fighter pilot. Of note is that Brenner has a noticeably higher hairline.
Far from giving up on the chase, Columbo remains hot on the tail of his chief suspect. He secures a copy of the De Fonte speech and then heads to Brenner’s office to listen to the tape itself – and what he finds on it is going to cook Brenner’s goose, especially in conjunction with an artist’s impression of a balding Brenner in Steinmetz mode.
So what’s the crucial evidence that’s going to bring Brenner’s world crashing down around his ears? Well for one thing the sound of the blind closing is captured on the tape. Columbo believes it was done to block out the morning sun, but Brenner claims it was for privacy. In any case, listen closely, Brenner says! I’ll prove I was here on the night of the killing. And – lo – the sound of 11 chimes on his clock can distinctly be heard.
Before Brenner can collapse into smugness, Columbo shoots him down. He can prove Brenner recorded the speech the morning after the killing because of the reference to the Chinese pulling out of the Olympics. The news wasn’t announced until 6.20am on that morning – more than 7 hours after Brenner claimed he’d written his speech.
Columbo reveals that he couldn’t give up on the case because of Henderson’s jacket being removed. The jacket would only have been removed to take off his shoulder holster – and only a fellow spy would have known he was wearing one. A wryly amused Brenner laments that he was disturbed from putting the jacket back on the body by a loving couple canoodling under the pier, before credits roll. That’s Mah-Jong, baby!
Identity Crisis’s best moment: sing-song Brenner
I don’t think there’s a Columbo fan alive who doesn’t absolutely dig the exchange between Brenner and the Lieutenant as their discussion turns to the sort of music that is enjoyed at the Columbo homestead.
After Brenner switches from rock to classical in the shape of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, a wiggly-fingered Columbo excitedly exclaims that it’s Mrs Columbo’s favourite piece of music. Cue Brenner’s melodious, soprano-style response of “I kno-oooooo-oooooow.”
It’s a testament to McGoohan’s line delivery skillz that he can do so much with so little, but is also indicative of an episode that’s high on eccentricity and packed with fun. Revel in it below…
My take on Identity Crisis
Spies (or “operators” as they’re referred to throughout this episode) were big news in the United States in 1975. The President’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States was set up under Gerald Ford in January 1975 to investigate the Central Intelligence Agency (and others), who had been accused of a litany of covert, illegal activities during the 1960s in a New York Times report the previous December.
So it was against that backdrop that Identity Crisis was conceived. The shadowy world of espionage was a new topic for the series to explore and the production went all out, making a bold and bonkers piece of television that’s nonsensical and gripping in equal measure.
Patrick McGoohan was born to play Nelson Brenner. Eccentric by nature, McGoohan was given free rein to mould the character as he saw fit, and he gives us a central protagonist who defies conventional description, combining upper-class erudition and charisma with a chilling psychopathic streak. Like Hassan Salah in the previous episode A Case of Immunity, we have a powerful bad guy who you sense could really do Columbo harm and not bat an eyelid, which makes for a fascinating confrontation.
Here, McGoohan became the first actor other than Peter Falk in Blueprint for Murder to act and direct the same episode – and he absolutely excels. In Blueprint, Falk’s performance was subdued, doubtless due to the pressure of his dual responsibilities. McGoohan has no such problems, giving a sparkling performance in front of and behind the camera for which he should earn the highest of praise.
Not since Steven Spielberg helmed Murder by the Book have we been drawn into the action by so many close-ups and low POV angles that make the viewer a witness to, or complicit with, the skulduggery unfolding on screen. Of particular note is Columbo’s magnificent introduction to the episode, when his silhouette emerges through a cloud of cigar smoke against a backdrop of flashing police car lights on a beach at the dead of night. This is seriously good stuff and heightens the drama no end.
Similarly good is the murder itself, an unusually fierce one by Columbo standards, that sees Brenner flip from calm control to bulging-eyed psycho in a heartbeat to club Geronimo to death. It’s Hannibal Lecter-esque, and indeed the manner in which Brenner finishes off Geronimo, swinging his tyre iron at a camera placed at foot level at the unseen victim, was echoed in The Silence of Lambs during Lecter’s escape from police custody. Whether it was an actual influence to Jonathan Demme’s work is unknown, but it’s raw, chilling and extremely powerful.
It’s not all as good as this, though, as we see the first baby steps towards some undesirable Columbo character development that will become more prevalent in later episodes and series. A case in point is the distracted and discourteous Columbo who is barely paying attention to the testimony of barkeep Louie in Sinbad’s bar.
“Identity Crisis is a bold and bonkers piece of television that’s nonsensical and gripping in equal measure.”
While being given information that’s potentially pivotal to the investigation, Columbo is more interested in eyeing the belly dancer than giving Louie the attention he deserves. This isn’t the Columbo we know and love, who should be all ears to former cop Louie’s intel, and thanking him sincerely for his astute observations. The ‘out-to-lunch’ facial expressions he makes while sitting at the bar also irk and seem out of character.
In the same scene, there’s some drivel about Columbo figuring out the belly dancer is shy through her eyes and actions, followed by him punching a pillar as he celebrates cracking the conundrum. It’s a little oddball and, dare I say it, we’re seeing the seeds of unwanted weirdness in the Lieutenant that will be amped up to 11 in McGoohan’s next directorial assignment, Last Salute to the Commodore. The more affected facial expressions and deliberately slow responses to those around him will also become a more established part of the Columbo character in Seasons 6 and 7.
Still, these aspects don’t spoil proceedings because it’s obvious that Falk and McGoohan were enjoying working together so much. It shows. When the two are on screen together it’s dynamite. McGoohan, in particular, is on vintage form. His line delivery is always exceptional, but here it’s on another level culminating in two of the most memorable lines of the series in the warbling, high-pitched “I knooo-ooow” (chronicled in more detail above) and the drawn out “Mahhhhh-Joooong.” He also slips in a few “Be seeing yous” in homage to The Prisoner.
There’s such fun to be had watching these two revel in each other’s company that the ridiculous and complex plot really becomes secondary. Apt for a spy story, we never get a clear picture of what the hell’s going on in Identity Crisis. Why does Brenner bump off Geronimo? Is it because of his intimation early on that he believes Brenner is a double agent? If so, surely The Director would suspect it too. Also, why does he let Melville live and potentially blow his cover? And what is he trying to achieve with Steinmetz?
We never get close to having these questions answered, but, and again similar to the unknown motives of Salah in A Case of Immunity, it doesn’t matter that much and it doesn’t get in the way of the enjoyment. What we’re seeing here is another example of what is becoming the theme for Columbo Season 5 in that there’s more going on than meets the eye.
“There’s such fun to be had watching Falk and McGoohan that the ridiculous and complex plot really becomes secondary.”
In Forgotten Lady, it was the surprise revelation of Grace Wheeler’s terminal illness. In Immunity it was the ambiguity around Salah’s power play and political machinations. Here it’s high-level espionage – a naturally secretive subject. There’s more at play than we mere mortals can comprehend, so let’s just leave it at that, shall we?
Although Falk and McGoohan’s performances stand out, this is yet another example of Columbo going for strength-in-depth with its supporting cast. In his second series’ appearance, Leslie Nielsen is a joy to watch as Geronimo. Sporting one of the most open shirts in TV history as he swans around the Long Beach Amusement Park, he has some cracking lines that hint at his natural comic abilities.
“Threeeee yeeeears amigo,” he grumbles when asking why Brenner left it so long to contact him. Then after hitting 10 out of 10 targets at the shooting range, he declines to accept the $20 panda prize, saying: “You can keep mine, buddy. I’m all heart.” It’s one step away from Frank Drebbin!
Elsewhere we’re given the very real treat of four of Columbo’s six legendary regular support stars appearing in the same episode: Val Avery as barman Louie; Bruce Kirby as Sergeant Kramer; Vito Scotti as Salvatore De Fonte; and Mike Lally as a taxi driver. All four were close friends of Falk, and their very presence is likely to have helped bring out the best in him. And as fan favourites too, there’s loads for Columbophiles to enjoy here – including some rare spoken lines for Lally. Simply put, everyone’s a winner!
There’s also a fun role for Barbara Rhoades as amusement park photographer Joyce. Rhoades first appeared as a receptionist in Season 1 outing Lady in Waiting, and her scenes with Columbo here poring through photos of are a hoot. Plus she’s looking H-to-the-O-to-the-T in that halter neck top! Her presence goes someway to making up for a lack of more pivotal female characters in the past two episodes.
Finally, Otis Young as Lawrence Melville is that rarest of Columbo supporting characters – a black man in something more than a background role. Aside from this, it’s really only James McEachin who had semi-decent Columbo supporting roles in the 1970s as a black actor (in Etude in Black and Make Me a Perfect Murder) and Young does a fine job in bringing to life the poor stooge to Steinmetz and his struggles to get to grips with his lot in life. Plus the scene where he turns ‘angry black man’ in hospital when instructing the police artist is a cracker! Bravo Otis!
Something else that stands out in this episode is its sense of style – particularly that of Nelson Brenner and anything to do with him. He wears some of the most splendid ensembles of any Columbo killer (ooooh, that white suit jacket and claret turtle neck), his house and garden are fabulous and he drives the most gorgeous Citroen SM, (a French car, like Columbo’s). Forget your Mercs, Jaguars and Rolls Royces – when it comes to Columbo killer cars, Brenner’s is in a world of its own.
As you can see, there’s a heck of a lot to like about Identity Crisis. But it does have its weaknesses – particularly surrounding the gotcha. In fact the ending to the episode is flatter than anything that comes before it, leaving a vaguely anticlimactic feeling with the viewer as credits roll.
For starters, the ‘crucial’ evidence Columbo unveils is stuff we’ve already encountered in the series. The theme of significant sounds caught (or not) on tape (blinds closing, clock chimes) have been used before in Publish or Perish and The Most Crucial Game. And just like in Crucial Game, Columbo has proved virtually nothing against Brenner by the end. Sure, he might not have been dictating the speech when he said he was, but that’s a far cry from proving Brenner was under the pier that night. Similarly, there’s no weapon and no motive. It’s clever police work, certainly, but nothing to worry an ace spy.
That dodgy police photo fit of Brenner dressed up as Steinmetz is also unintentionally hilarious, and I would argue proves NOTHING AT ALL! Remove the hair and add a comedy beard and glasses to just about any man and you could have Steinmetz. All Columbo has against Brenner here is that he wears a hairpiece and that ain’t a crime (although arguably it should be in some cases).
If we’re to try to take it more seriously we’d have to conclude that the CIA will never let this get to court anyway, instead either assassinating Brenner or reassigning him to a new life in a new location. His knowledge would be too important to national security interests to let him rot in jail – even if he has been double dealing as Steinmetz.
Still, as discussed already, the overarching plot of Identity Crisis isn’t really why we watch. The beauty of this episode is seeing – and hearing – Patrick McGoohan at his delicious, eccentric best. He may have won an Emmy Award for his turn as Colonel Rumford in By Dawn’s Early Light, but I feel sure he got more of a kick from being able to indulge himself a little more here and really commit to – and direct – the nonsense going on around him.
In terms of direction and performances, this is really a first-rate episode – and I can see why Peter Falk was so keen to have McGoohan back to direct in future. The conclusion isn’t the strongest, but that can happen even with the very best episodes, so isn’t an insurmountable obstacle to our enjoyment.
No, if there is a bitter aftertaste to Identity Crisis, it has to be that the fun had by the leading men here sowed the seed for them to push the envelope of eccentricity and indulgence many steps further for Last Salute to the Commodore, which followed just three episodes later. Can we ever forgive McGoohan for that one? Let’s wait and see…
Did you know?
Peter Falk rated Identity Crisis amongst his very favourite Columbo episodes, and particularly relished the interactions between Brenner and the Lieutenant.
Falk is quoted as saying: “The scenes between Columbo and the murderer are, in my judgment, among the best we ever did. They have that perfect balance between being both compelling and amusing. And that’s what we always strive for – that’s the trick in those scenes, keep ’em tense and keep ’em funny. And a great deal of credit for that goes to Patrick McGoohan. I’ll always remember how much fun I had playing ’em, and to this day I get a kick out of watching ’em.”
Hard to disagree with that assessment, eh? Read about Peter Falk’s other favourite Columbos here.
How I rate ’em
I’m not quite as effusive as Peter Falk himself. Identity Crisis is a flawed gem, which is hugely entertaining but let down by a weak conclusion. Dare I say it, it’s arguably a bit weird for newcomers, too. It’s highly recommended, though, and slots comfortably into the higher echelons of my ‘B List’.
Missed any of my other episode reviews? Then catch ’em via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- A Friend in Deed
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder —– A-List ends here—
- A Deadly State of Mind
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Identity Crisis
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- By Dawn’s Early Light
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Forgotten Lady
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- A Case of Immunity —– B-List ends here——
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal ———-C-List ends here—-
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
So there we have it folks, Identity Crisis laid bare! Please let me know your opinions on this one, and where you rank it in your own personal standings.
I’m now off for a secret rendezvous with Steinmetz, so check back soon for our next episode outing – A Matter of Honor. Be seeing you…
Did they say Melville was 28? The actor portraying, Otis Young, him was 43 at the time.
As far the coat not being on the victim, I thought it might be raised as a possibility that he was carrying it rather than wearing it, but this possibility was never raised.
I found this one to be dull and protracted with obvious filler scenes like Columbo counting change for gas and chatting it up with two little girls. I fought sleep several times and failed at the end. Story is important to me so if that’s not sufficiently nailed down, I don’t really care about interactions between characters, however ably played and whoever might play them.
I agree with your prioritization. If the story is dull, if the clues and resolution unsatisfying, does it really matter all that much how quirkily someone says,” I know!” or “Mah Jong!”?
This one was too complicated for me. If I have to read the summary and rewatch the episode then something is wrong. This seems television that everyone involved thinks it is very good stuff, the one who wrote the scenary, the director, etc., but they cannot imagine the point of view of the people who watch and don’t understand.
Ok, English is not my first language and at crucial points they speak fast, but I did understand the other episodes.
Fortunately, Columbo remains more or less his own self which I like so much. I don’t minde too much if I didn’t get it all, I just saw him working and that’s the main reason why I watch.
I scratch my head at this episode. I think we see such an ugly side to Columbo’s personality when dealing with the bartender and when ogling the belly dancer. When Bruce Kirby is explaining how he found out about AJ Henderson and the amusement park, Columbo is dismissive. I don’t remember another episode where these characteristics are on display. It’s like he’s turned into a” mean girl.” :). On the plus side, we get to see Enchanted Hill in all its glory… before Paul Allen bought it and razed it.
So many episodes are enhanced by the walk-in parts. Here the diamond performance is the photographer (played by Barbara Rhoades). It’s somewhere between flirty, bored teacher, saleswoman dragged from her work, playful.
Likewise her male partner looks like a man holding back his frustrations on parole who ended up making badges. And then the never disappointing Vito Scotti. His parts are always too brief.
As for Lawrence Melville playing Otis Young, great acting, he should have played the great Muhammad Ali.
Overall, this episode is not convincing and after the above characters fade away, it’s time to switch off.
As a black man, I felt delighted to finally see a black thespian with a important part on the show (which took 5 seasons, 5 fecking seasons!), and he killed it; all his scenes, and especially the one on the hospital bed, were outstanding and full of life and truth.
English is not my first language and I had problems following the plot, but by reading comments here, even Americans had that problem too.
Still, John Cassavetes as the killer in Etude in Black is the best performance so far in the series, and he was an avid anti-method acting professional.
Couldn’t even finish this one, and I’m a huge Prisoner fan. I don’t watch Columbo to see him being a creep who can’t be bothered to listen to clues; McGoohan is waaaay too hammy; and the convoluted nonsense of the plot just isn’t worth trying to follow. Down there with The Commodore as one of the most annoying Columbo experiences I’ve ever had.
Another great McGoohan line: “No calls. . . FIVE minutes.”
Remember when Columbo asks The Director about Steinmetz, and The Director says the Agency has been trying to figure that out for a long time, and angrily vows they will figure it out who it is?
At the time, Columbo does not know who Steinmetz is; but eventually Columbo figures out it is Brenner, but by then he can’t pursue Brenner because The Director has convinced Columbo to back off.
Once Brenner realizes the law can’t touch him, he feels safe to actually admit to the crime after Columbo kicks the legs out from under his alibi.
At that point, Brenner knows his alibi is worthless; he has confessed to Columbo; he knows Columbo has been intimidated by The Director to not pursue him anymore; and, after Columbo realizes Brenner had secretly invaded and bugged his house, Brenner knows Columbo is even further intimidated, knowing Brenner can get to him anytime, anywhere to do him harm, if he should change his mind again and starts pursuing him again.
But it’s interesting that Columbo likewise has some leverage over Brenner too. If Columbo starts to feel too threatened by Brenner for whatever reason, all Columbo has to do is inform The Director the true identity of Steinmetz and The Director could end Brenner’s career, or worse.
So it’s interesting to see when it is all said and done, Columbo is not completely at the mercy of the whims of the powerful Brenner.
Brenner’s Citroen is indeed a star. But also starring is without a doubt Melville’s copper hot rod ’55 Chevy Bel-Air, complete with chrome Cragar wheels, “twice pipes” and dragster stance. Extra bad-ass. This is purposeful: someone at Props was tired of the Euro princessmobiles and the Lieutenant’s piece of shit (it had issues, there’s a reason “there’s only three like it in the country”), and dishwater detroit cop sedans, and made damn sure a real LA ride was featured.
Beaujolais Columbo hahaha … was that really in the script or did Patty Mac just ad lib that? cracking.
Absolute admin. He invented whatever language he was supposedly speaking.
Patty Mac! I love it.
While I have previously expressed displeasure at the gotcha of Crucial Game (no need to reiterate here), I do appreciate how humorously Identity Crisis calls back to those events. It goes beyond the plot simply re-deploying the chimes bit. Brenner’s enthusiasm in pointing out the chimes “there, did you hear!? did you hear!?” is countered by Colombo’s knowing and laconic reply: “Oh, I heard the chimes.”
I suspect Falk was intentionally winking at diehard viewers with that line delivery. A small touch of meta that, for me, elevates the use of recorded chimes out of mere “copied clues” territory and serves to further character development. Showing off some of Columbo’s detective skill learned from past cases makes sense in a TV show’s fifth season.
Identify Crisis is a great episode and for Prisoner fans amazing. The references and nuances are exactly what a Prisoner fan is used to. The “be seeing you” references are a great tribute but more obvious. The Plumber repair truck slowly following Columbo is reminiscent of the black sedan always lurking in the background of some Prisoner episodes. Even the type set on the plumbers truck is prisoner like from the series. The fact that McGoohan’s character has a dual identity speaks for itself. The meeting with the director in on a train labeled 1, hmmmm. Some other elements as the pool scene lend themselves to Danger Man episodes McGoohan was in. On the whole, The Prisoner atmosphere stands tall in this episode. Hardcore Prisoner fans will always see McGoohan’s Prisoner style bleed thru but this particular episode definitely exhibits a bad Number 6 at work.
Just rewatched the episode and it sets the ending up fairly well (though all through subtext). Brenner is sweating visibly by the end of the exchange, because he knows what Geronimo said to him is true: even rumors are enough to sink him, and if Geronimo had more than rumors, so does Columbo. The Director has met him and mentioned his desire to get Steinmetz; as laughable as that retouched photo of Brenner may be, hand that and the other information to the Director and he’s likely to follow up to good result. There’s no way the CIA could afford to let this case go to trial anyway, but Columbo can nail Brenner without that needing to happen.
I can’t really say that the episode would benefit from Brenner being hauled off and the Director offering Columbo a job, even if this one didn’t follow a case where a supposedly-untouchable murderer gets exposed to his boss who doesn’t especially need to worry about court cases.
I dont know if anyone realizes that this episode proves the existence of Mrs Columbo, Nelson ser Columbo’s home bugged.and he said he knows Columbo’s wife likes MAdame Butterfly because he heard Columbos wife saying that.
By the way, the ending is pointing towards a surprise turn for Columbo. Most likely the criminal knows that CIA will make him disappear and Columbo will have to leave the case frozen…
Like with many other episodes, in this one the victim is naively heading towards death.
Why would an experienced operator not have a safety plan when playing with fire? I mean, he meets Brenner, he threat him for not paying him the debt and then he naively follows Brenner’s instructions?
But of course, as with the other episodes, the beauty of Columbo doesn’t stand in the murder itself, but rather in the way Peter Falk interacts with the other characters and how he’s building his cases.
For myself, Columbo is also like a history and geography lesson, as many great details can be observed through the show.
I know it’s acting, yet the actors still add a bit of the reality inside the show (the only exception I’d say is “The dagger of the mind”, where actors do exaggerate a lot, maybe to emphasise the world of theatre), which for myself is very interesting.
I was born in the early ‘80s, so when I watch some Columbo episodes and I correlate them with the photos from my parents’ photo album of the ‘70s, it helps me better understand that era.
Never mind the belly dancer, “Busty Joyce” stole the show! Another good episode. I am going back through all episodes – thank you TUBI! and am up to season 5 now.
I only enjoined this because of Patrick McGoohan and his interaction with Peter Falk. I loved the first appearance of Columbo on the scene but hate him ogling the belly dancer. I still don’t understand the motive of killing Geronimo, who Brenner was also working for, and the point of Steinmetz. I still don’t understand the plot explained at the beginning of the story (or what Brenner’s profession was). But I guess like everyone else here, who cares? It was nice to see all those different locations in this episode and to watch McGoohan act.
By the way, in the “notable locations,” Travel Town wasn’t mentioned. It’s an old train museum of sorts, still open but with much less of a crowd, on the northern side of Griffith Park, bordering Burbank, CA. I always like seeing Columbo milling about places near me.
Did you understand the reason why he went that day to the Travel Town?
The whole scene is kinda strange. It seems like he went there just for a Hot Dog, but who would travel miles at lunch time just for a Hot Dog? 😬
I noticed that Brenner sure was spending a lot of extra time with Columbo at the end of the episode. For most baddies, when Columbo is nearing the end of the chase, they are doing everything they can to stay away from him; but here, at the end, Brenner wants to spend additional time with him.
In the body of the episode, Brenner tells Columbo several times that he needs to drop his investigation. But at the end, Brenner does a 180 and makes the unusual move of inviting Columbo back to his house for one final one-on-one. Why did he do that?
Once Columbo had gotten too close for comfort, finally the CIA Director has his little chat with Columbo. Brenner knows The Director told Columbo to back off, Columbo knows he better back off, and Brenner knows Columbo has decided to back off.
So now that Brenner knows he is safe from arrest and prosecution, he can safely satisfy his curiosity and find out how Columbo knows what he knows. So he invites Columbo to discuss it privately.
Even then, Brenner doesn’t admit to anything. That would still be too risky for his taste. But he makes enough oblique references to the murder that Columbo knows what he’s talking about, and so do we.
So, instead of the usual adversarial gotcha, they play a calm cat-and-mouse game. The mouse can find out how the cunning cat hunted him down, while staying safely out of reach of his claws. And even though the cat knows he can’t pounce on this mouse, he can at least have the satisfaction of telling the mouse how he caught him.
What do you think?
I would agree. In the Columboverse, it’s not about making an iron-clad case in court, it’s about that precise moment when Columbo, the killer, and the viewer know that the Lieutenant has won. That’s the emotional satisfaction for us, and it’s what drives our enjoyment – not what a hypothetical jury might decide.
This episode makes that incredibly clear. With the CIA’s involvement, and the relatively weak strength of the Gotcha, this case ain’t sniffing a courtroom, and Columbo and Brenner both know it. So the final scenes here are all about confirming dominance in their cat-and-mouse – who gets the upper hand at the end. As with all episodes, the rich/famous/vain/powerful/condescending villain has established superiority over Columbo in a mountain of ways (note how Brenner refuses to acknowledge the role of the law when he calls him “Mr. Columbo”).
Brenner’s invite to have Columbo join him at his estate – where Brenner displays all the symbols of wealth, power and authority at his disposal – is all about continuing that dominance. So is Brenner’s gleeful admission that he bugged Columbo’s home. But the beauty of the scene is when Columbo turns that dominance around. Brenner notes that music (like the music Brenner just turned on) helps calm the nerves, to which Columbo immediately asks, “Are you nervous?” Brenner brushes the question off, but the balance of dominance is shifting with the body language and verbal tones of he and Columbo as they move to another room. After Columbo lets Brenner cut his cigar (“You have all the experience”), the switch is complete. Brenner sees that Columbo is eagle-eyeing the photo with the receding hairline resembling Steinmetz. The spy’s tone becomes steely, and by the end of the encounter, Brenner is nervously tapping the rolled-up artist’s rendition of Steinmetz that Columbo gave him against his leg.
At the office, Brenner now recognizes that Columbo has established dominance, even if it won’t be in a court of record. But he has to know what drove Columbo to his conclusion. “Was it the coat?” And Columbo has won.
I think this is the best explanation of the episode, and of the whole spirit of Columbo, that I’ve read. That scene in the house is so key, where midway through Brenner realizes his last gambit of bringing Columbo into his territory and impressing/intimidating him by the exalted place he holds in the world doesn’t work. He understands Columbo is a different kind of adversary. I love how the word “mah jong” is used to demonstrate the shifting of power in their relationship that you so incisively mention in your post.
I also couldn’t agree more about how the point in Columbo isn’t that some air-tight case has been made and there’s no way this perp is weaseling out of it. At some level it’s the thrill of the chase and not the finality of the catch that stimulates Columbo. Of course he wants them convicted, but he’s more interested in the puzzle. I think that’s what people miss sometimes- it’s not “Law and Order” where the point is to see it to the end.
I very much doubt that Levinson and Link’s original concept “isn’t that some air-tight case has been made and there’s no way this perp is weaseling out of it.” I’m fairly confident that they wanted the gotcha to be as conclusive as one could make it. Not legally conclusive necessarily, but logically conclusive. For example, catching the killer in a major lie that cannot be explained away isn’t proof of murder, but it does irreparably shatter the killer’s pretense of innocence. It’s the difference between a satisfactory dramatic resolution and one that translates into legal proof. Certainly, liberties occasionally were taken with this lofty goal. Columbo gotchas were incredibly difficult to fashion. Sometimes they had to be imperfect. But remember, too, that these shows weren’t written to be watched as repeatedly, or studied as microscopically, as they generally are here. Alfred Hitchcock used to refer to “refrigerator moments”: logical flaws you don’t notice while watching his movies, but only occurred to you hours later, while grabbing a midnight snack. He never worried about these. One question we should always ask ourselves is: Did we notice this incongruity the first time we saw the episode — or the tenth?
Thanks Craig. Judging from other comments in this thread, including yours, many understand that this episode really crystallizes the importance of the interplay between Columbo and the Killer of the Week and the snowballing of clues that give Columbo the final dominant role at the end. And that’s because in this episode it’s obvious after the meeting with Larry Tate (sorry, “The Director”) that you can toss aside needing to overthink what will happen with those clues in court. It’s moot – it’s all about Columbo-villain-viewer, and each episode should be treated as such. A great Gotcha makes it better, of course, but as long as the Gotcha is competent, convincing to the killer, and elicits the “S*&@! You got me” look, that’s what counts.
This is not to excuse horrible Gotchas like “T’isn’t”. Bad Gotchas are hard to overcome and are a real drag when the closing credits roll. The clues here in “Identity Crisis” may not be airtight, but they are competent enough to show Brenner that Columbo has it right.
My guide for this episode says “A cunning advertising consultant leading a double life as a spy tries to cover up the details of a homicide.”
I didn’t realize Brenner’s cover job was “advertising consultant”, but now it falls into place that his boss The Director and advertising executive Larry Tate on “Bewitched” were one and the same.
Just like Brenner, The Director maintained his cover working in the advertising industry while living a double life in the CIA.
It makes sense when you think about it. The CIA uses deception to achieve its aims, and so do advertisers.
LOL! That’s awesome. It all goes back to “Bewitched”.
Evidence to support this take on the episode is the scene showing Columbo speaking Italian. This comes not long after Brennan is speaking Japanese to his house staff. It’s a pivotal moment where the tide is turning in Columbo’s favor. It shows that while he may not be rich, Columbo is worldly in his own way and not out-classed in the least.
You made very good points. However, I think Brenner only called him ‘Mr.’ instead of ‘Lieutenant’ when there were other people close by, like Brenner’s secretary. The secretary doesn’t know he’s with the CIA, and she’d be curious, or even unnerved, why her advertising boss is being visited by a ‘Lieutenant.’ So he called him ‘Mr.’ in front of her so she would think nothing of it. Just another visitor to her boss’ office. I think he DOES call him ‘Lieutenant’ a few times, too, but only when they’re alone.
Yes but….when we join that scene, the secretary is already explaining to Columbo, “I cant absolutely verify that Mr. Brenner came back that night and wrote his speech…”, so its pretty clear that the guy taking notes with the smelly cigar and raggedy raincoat is a detective. Thats when Brenner walks in, ticked off, and gives that “Mr. Columbo” an extra hard edge.
You’re right. Forgot about that. Did he Columbo ‘Mr.’ in any other scenes?
At the final Gotcha meet in Brenner’s office, he uses “Mr.” as well. I think he’s downgrading Columbo’s status as a response to the lieutenant’s closing in on solving the murder. It’s also demonstrating that Columbo is successfully getting under Brenner’s skin.
I, for one, place little importance on the Mr. vs. Lt. question. It’s not like Brenner called Columbo “Sonny.” I watch a lot of British detective shows, where high-ranking police officials are called “Mr.” all the time. Maybe this was designed to show Brenner’s foreign origins.
OK, I’m a little late to the party. This is one of those episodes where you just stop trying to figure out the motives and backstories and enjoy Falk and McGoohan go 15 rounds with each other. It’s a blast.
Why was Leslie Nielsen killed? I dunno. Who cares. It’s Columbo, not Le Carre.They’re spies. Maybe double agents. $300K at stake. Foreign intrigue. Yup, somebody is gonna die for no reason.
The reveal? Eh. Columbo knows he can’t arrest a CIA agent. It’s more Columbo letting The Prisoner know that HE knows he did it and is just as good at this spook stuff than Patty Mac.
1. Real CIA agents don’t walk around with CIA business cards. Kinda defeats the purpose of the whole spy thing.
2. Falk/Columbo acted really weird throughout. Oggling the stripp- er, “belly dancer” out of the chute and just affecting a sluggish, distracted vibe. Maybe Falk knew he needed all the acting horsepower he could muster with McGoohan in front of and behind the camera and just overdid it.
Barbara Rhoades. Woof!
I wonder if anyone here happens to know the belly dancers name? I checked IMDB and she isn’t even listed in the “uncredited” section.
Oddly, this eps is amongst Peter Falk’s top 5 according to his own perceptions and he said that the scene acting alongside Paul were his best EVER.
But I totally agree with you and I did not think peter falks delivered an amazing performance in this particular episode either.
He seemed a little hammy and the tone was a little over, a little classic comedy rather than his regular take on the role which is making little to no facial expressions and leaving the emotions more to his own very rugged face and wrinkles to do the job with no exaggeration.
I found the scene with the Italian Defonte man, in which he is offered more grapes to take, very caricature-esque.
Lots of witty references to The Prisoner, from be seeing you to the cut and color of clothes to the ubiquitous sneakers in so many scenes. The implication that Brenner is a double agent and Steinmetz is a fiction he’s created to throw the CIA off suggests, to me, that Columbo doesn’t have to arrest him so much as turn him over to the Director for far worse repercussions than a California court could dispense. In this, he has all the evidence he needs, including a witness. McGoohan often plays characters with very pronounced affectations, as though bored and amusing himself, only to reveal them as such in key moments where he’s more grounded, something mirrored in Columbo. The scene at the house, for example, shows both men engaged in mannered oneupsmanship, only to reveal in increasingly pointed verbal parries their true selves. This happens again at the end, and a nice touch is Brenner referring to his adversary as Mr. Columbo instead of lieutenant, a polite demotion. I thought Columbo wasn’t ignoring Val Avery’s bartender so much as having his suspicions confirmed, as though he’d already worked out something similar in his mind. He seems to be listening for confirmation rather than information, the details for which the sergeant would no doubt be taking down. Many great moments in this episode, with perhaps the most chilling being that Columbo’s house was bugged. But his reaction — more but of course than angry or frightened — suggests Columbo may have already anticipated the possibility. That he knows he’s being followed also suggests Columbo is one or two steps ahead by this point. There’s some subtle and not so subtle racism/colonialism with all the Asian servants and meddling by Brenner in the fate of various eastern countries, which reinforces that at the end of the day, for all his erudition, Brenner is just a venal capitalist hoping to secure his fortune. There’s also perhaps a bit of unintended creepiness in the way grown strangers repeatedly interact with little girls at the amusement park, though perhaps the argument could be made the mid-70s were more innocent times and no one would be fearful. The irony with Brenner is he, indeed, seems like enough the cold-blooded sociopath he would guiltlessly harm even children if they stood in his way, including bombing a nuisance village to serve hus purposes. To me, this is an A-level episode for its deft mixture of so many elements, and though McGoohan’s visual direction isn’t quite as creative as, say, Spielberg’s, it’s certainly as effective.
As a single older man, I am painfully aware in my neighborhood of how much care I must exercise in dealing with neighbors’ children. I for one would go to any length to protect a child from a “predator”. I’m tired of hearing that a man interacting with a child, outside, and in broad daylight would be construed as “creepy”. I know “Special K” didn’t want to offend, but believe me, there are plenty of men who have to be overly concerned about appearances, due largely to the publicity and media attention given those who don’t comprehend a simple axiom: “there are things you just don’t do”. (A plug for you Dad). I’m pretty sure he would not have thought that speaking with a happy little girl and giving her a giant stuffed animal would have fallen into that category.
People who are bothered by that scene should give a kind of equal time when it comes to that similar scene of Death Lends A Hand.
When Leo’s wife sees Columbo talking to their kid in the park, she says “Hey, what’s going on here?”
Maybe it isn’t a very strong thing to say, but the meaning of it is obvious.
Sorry I am a bit overly sensitive on this subject, as sometimes I feel prejudice for not being married. Your discussion is very entertaining Special K, although I prefer the gritty Grape Nuts.
“I was younger and more beautiful then.” That’s such an awesome line.
It’s a pretty good episode (loved the amusement park bit and how Columbo got the evidence, and that girl was h.o.t.), with only one weakness – CIA threatened Columbo starting from halfway of the episode, but he just continues to pester Nelson like nothing happened, and gets no hard time for that. He gets one “final” warning near the end, but he still corners Nelson with ease.
I’m going to bow to Columbiophile on most of the positive points in the analysis, although the episode didn’t do all that much for me. I do have a different opinion on McGoohan’s wardrobe, however. I lived through the 70s and I generally like seeing the clothes and cars, etc. But, McGoohan’s outfits seemed anything but exceptional. They looked cheap and inappropriate for a man of his stature. Pretty much every time I saw him it was like….”Really, he’s actually reflecting 70s style and affluence?” I think not.
This episode starts out great, with good pace and mystery, but the plot slows midway through and the ending is anticlimactic. Would have been better as a shorter episode.
My sentiments exactly. It really lost steam and a sense of direction about halfway through. And the ending was pretty much a fizzle.
Not a fan of this episode , find it over convoluted and columbo acts weird in certain scenes .
Sorry, one more question (as Colombo might say). Was that Louie Anderson playing the gas station attendant who gave Colombo the $10 bill?
Why was Leslie Nielsen so sweaty in the first scene?
I never liked this episode for the same reason I never liked The Most Crucial Game: it lacks any explanation why the hell the bad guy had to kill. Every time I watch it I feel like I missed something, overlooked some clue. And it’s quite irritating. Also, for me McGoohan was much more impressive as Colonel Rumford. I think, that was his best role here.
Just watched and think there is an explanation for why McGoohan killed Neilsen. In fact, though it does go by fast, he has a very strong motive.
When McGoohan meets Neilson at the beach arcade, Neilsen says McGoohan must be ;unhappy to find out he’s alive and that McGoohan owes him money from some kind of side operation they pulled before Neilsen disappeared. Think it was like $300 thousand dollars or something like that. Definitely would have been a lot of money in 1975 dollars.
McGoohan says he doesn’t have it and then Neilsen responds that double agents always have lots of money. McGoohan denies being a double agent and Neilsen says he has lots of proof that McGoohan has been up to no good, implying that he’s going to spill the beans to the director if McGoohan doesn’t come up with the money, which the latter then says he will.
Even if McGoohan had the money and could afford to hand it over, he might want to kill Nielsen to remove the threat. But motive is established at the cost of making it inexplicable as to how Neilsen would have let McGoohan get the drop on him. He flat out says that McGoohan would have preferred him to be dead like he was told and on top of the other reasons he’s now threatened to reveal McGoohan’s crimes to the director.
Still, I really liked the episode a lot for McGoohan’s performance. Was a lot of depth and he really managed to convey that he was tired of his life and envied Columbo. Falk was a little over the top but didn’t think it was as bad as others did. Given the very strange circumstances Columbo found himself in, I felt like you could make sense of him being a little off balance and that it would have shown in itself by him acting with less restraint.
Ending made no sense. Gotcha didn’t amount to anything. McGoohan was some kind of super-spy and could have had advance intel indicating that China was likely to withdraw. And as McGoohan pointed out, the venetian blind stuff literally meant nothing. McGoohan wore a fake nose as Steinmetz, so they would have had to add that to the photo as well, so all the fact that he wore a toupee proved was that he could have made himself look like the person in the police sketch with a fake nose and other make up, not that he did. Don’t understand how Columbo could have possibly got a warrant.
But felt performances were good enough, especially McGoohan, and whole situation between Brenner and Columbo was so novel and interesting that I wasn’t bothered by the even more than usual implausibility of the denouement and, to me, this is one of the top episodes.
One of the most overrated episodes of the iconic 70s. McGoohan descends into pure ham and becomes tedious and tiresome. He’s no match for the earlier villains who graced this series. Very disappointing!
I couldn’t agree more! Overblown performance by McGoohan in and disjointed episode.
Patrick McGooan is Number Two.
The Director is Number One.
You would understand it all if you were a fan of “The Prisoner”
Be seeing you….
Regarding your comment about “The Prisoner”, not only the “,,,be seeing you” reminds us of that television series…See how Patrick is dressed at the start of the show…He is wearing the same jacket as “The Prisoner” aka Number 6….Later on, McGooan is second only to “The Director”….Patrick then becomes: Number the 2 as of the Prisoner TV show ….and The Director is then Number 1—–
Who is Number 1? (See the start of the Prisoner) ….You are number six—-
So….Patrick is Number Two—-and The Director is Number 1…You could understand all this if you were a fan of “The Prisoner”.
I loved the subtext in the scene at Brennan’s house. Columbo really lays it on thick calling him a hero who owns everything, speaks every language…and yet he still feels the need to put on old man makeup for shady underdealings.
One thing that was odd was the whole deal with the photo shack. Joyce somehow took THREE photos of them walking together? And two of them with the same fat lady POSING? It was established that she takes candid photos, so why was the lady posing for any picture, let alone two? And she didn’t even buy them! And if Brennan and Henderson were right behind her, how did Joyce manage to snap them so quickly? She would have had to give the fat lady her ticket and tell her where to go to get her pictures – not enough time to also take the operatives’ picture. Yeah, very nitpicky I know, but it’s just something I noticed.
I love the references to The Prisoner in this episode. Be seeing you.
What I don’t quite understand is that in a scene where Brenner is recording a clock, chiming 11 in his office. At the moment when the clock chimes eleven a tape is playing with Brenner’s voice. Does it mean that the tape recorder has two compartments, where one tape can be switched on in a play mode and the other (clean) tape is simultaneously swithed on in a record mode? Or is it a fuckup of the filming team (because a tape recorder can work only in one regime but not in two at the same time)?
The clock was recorded at the same time as his voice (it chimed in the background). He set it about 4 mins before it struck 11 so he had time to set up and get into the speech.
I enjoy McGoohan’s direction and overall shaping of the script. More than most episodes, script and direction feel all of a piece, with no filler or padding in terms of scenes or camerawork. And the acting, especially of the leads, is most enjoyable.
As you note, the Church Committee was established in 1975, and “The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence” had been released the year before (I still have my copy). Bringing the issue of clandestine operations into the episode, along with the fine location work, gives the episode a heightened 1970s aura, which I enjoy, and believe enhances the experience (especially if you are partial to 1970s film and television). Many “Columbo” episodes take place in the 1970s, but this episode feels as if it is not only set in the 70s, but about them (in a way) as well. What I would term “70s specificity” adds a richness to the episode.
As for the ending–there is a note of anti-climax, but what does a detective do when he proves a CIA operative murdered another operative (and this after the detective has already been spoken to by the Director). Mahjong is a game where rounds are governed by “prevailing winds,” so the anticlimactic/ambiguous ending seems appropriate to the episode, since Columbo cannot be sure what will happen next despite the fact that he solved the mystery.
First of all, is there anything better than when Brenner says, “luxuriant” in the last scene? That lilt he puts on certain syllables is an absolute gem.
I agree that the “case” is pretty weak but in some ways that makes it all the more fun. The fun is in the battle of intellects and to me it’s enough that Columbo has figured it out and Brenner knows that Columbo knows.
I was wondering what you thought of the scene between Brenner and Columbo at Brenner’s house. It’s one of my favorite scenes ever in the series, not just because of the “I knooooow” line which is a classic. It’s the whole scene, the world-weariness McGoohan adds to it of a man who is probably a little tired of the stress of the double life he leads. I feel it’s in that scene where he finally realizes Columbo has him and there’s no getting out. The undercurrent of that knowledge in that scene is just brilliant, IMHO.
Watching this episode on MeTV (in the USA) and, although I’ve seen it numerous times, I just noticed: in the early scene where Brenner is dictating the De Fonte speech, he winds the clock forward to set (in vain) his alibi. Then when he is finished, he winds it BACKWARDS to the correct time. This is a giant NO-NO for clocks with a chime mechanism! It is the surest way to break it and ensure it never chimes again. You always have to wind it forward. Small nit to pick, I know, but… well, I broke my dad’s clock doing that once, so I notice stuff like that. (He was not happy!)
Perhaps he had been given a state of the art SPY CLOCK for just such purposes as setting an alibi?
Until I read your review it didn’t even occur to me how unexplained the plot was. Why did Brenner kill Geronimo? What was the point of Steinmetz? But here’s the thing: rewatching just now I got such vibe between Brenner and Columbo – something almost like romantic interest. Anyone else pick up on it that way? Especially when at Brenner’s house.
I saw it as more quiet envy on Brenner’s part that a man as shrewd and clever as Columbo was completely at ease with his lot in life, while Brenner had to fill his life with unnecessary thrills and spills (and murder) in order to fight off boredom. I think Brenner wished he could be more like Columbo.
Yes, that’s a very plausible explanation. It’s near to the attitude of some other Columbo-murderers. Think of Dr Ray Flemming, Dr Bart Keppel and Dr Eric Mason. They also think they can play a cat-and-mouse-game with the lieutenant, which amuses them, until…
The motive is all in the conversation at the amusement park, although the recording does make it hard to pick up the dialogue at times.
Basically, what happened is this: Geronimo and Brenner were secret agents together, in the past, and, on the side, they obtained a very big sum of money (“we had a good thing going on in bananaland”). But then Geronimo was to pretend he was dead, by orders of CIA director, so Brenner pocketed all the money.
Now Geronimo is back and demands his cut, Brenner refuses, Geronimo implies he has proof that Brenner was a double agent and will use that proof unless he gets his money.
Injudicious of Geronimo, and he should have seen the murder attempt coming, but logical and sensible for Brenner.
As for the whole Steinmetz subplot, this is admittedly some guesswork on my part, since we never explicitly hear anyone say so, but it looks to me very much like Brenner has simply created Steinmetz out of thin air in order to scam money out of CIA. The CIA director is obviously fully persuaded that Brenner is running an important operation vs. Steinmetz, Brenner-as-Steinmetz demands to be paid a lot of money (selling some microfilm or something? Can’t remember offhand), and we know from the amusement park conversations that the agents are no strangers to making money on the side, so why not by scamming the CIA? It all fits.
I think you’ve got it down. Though I always thought the Steinmetz part of the plot was a little flimsy, the rest of the episode is really fun. To me, the enjoyment of Columbo is not so much whether all the plot pieces stick together or whether they’d be able to get a conviction off of the evidence but more the interplay between Columbo and the murderers. McGoohan, in every one of his roles in the series, is such a worthy adversary that he makes his episodes shine. Whether he’s a worldly double agent or a repressed military school director, he brings a depth to his roles.
Brenner strikes me as the kind of old aristocratic type that gets bored and believes he is above others (notice how he says to Columbo that it’s “Nothing you could understand” when he invites him to his place to show off his games, his wealth etc. Shooting a few peasants on his domain or frolicking with their wives is just fun. But he cannot do so overtly, so the Steinmetz character is that means to avoid boredom and make extra money for his expensive hobbies. Beyond all the movie exaggeration of the spy lifestyle and operations, that’s who he is. Under his smiling face there is a lot of cruelty, like it’s revealed via the killing blow. Geronimo could have been killed out of envy, a secret hatred over something in the past, let alone he might suspect Brenner is working both sides. But the fact he planted the bomb incorrectly to throw them off via a sketch sounds like the kind of mistake many Columbo killers make along the way, like the guy with the bad key in “Publish or Perish”, or the gloves+gun mistake in the cruise ship episode. I suppose he wanted to prove there really is a Steinmetz out there, like the other killers would like Columbo to believe there is a secret thief, lover etc who’s the murderer.
While Columbo might not have proven much in the end, I think this is similar to a Case of Immunity. If he goes to the spy chief with all this and gets his suspicions raised, it’s really bad for Brenner. But if he’s arrested anyway, I’m not sure how he avoids this fact coming to light. The movie could have cleaned up the mess a bit.
I’m not sure if this opinion has already been posted, a quick search didn’t reveal it.
Also I think there’s no need for a CIA recording to prove Mrs Columbo is real. The Lieutenant is an old fashioned guy with modest roots who gets a wife and kids and works his way to a somewhat higher status. He is not comfortable having wealth and cars, lots of women etc by himself, he just likes to peek at it while visiting people who do. I do agree thought that the movies might have exaggerated in how they avoid showing her. Plus, he might not have all the relatives with the various professions or connections he claims throughout the episodes. But I do believe the general idea.
Plenty to like about this episode. Mcgoohan is excellent. Concerning the scene with the out of character way a distracted Columbo deals with Louie the barman, the way Columbo is transfixed on the dancer reminds me of the scene in The Asphalt Jungle when the criminal can’t take his eyes of the girl dancer to his ultimate cost. Maybe it’s just a coincidence or could it have been one of Mcgoohan’s favourite films?