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…