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Episode review: Columbo Identity Crisis

Columbo Identity Crisis opening titles

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… Columbo Identity Crisis cast

Dramatis personae

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.
Columbo Identity Crisis

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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.
Columbo Identity Crisis Bruce Kirby

Sinbad’s Adult Bar… you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…

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.
Columbo Identity Crisis

“You have the wrrrrong rrroom.”

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.
Columbo Identity Crisis Steinmetz

Steinmetz – super villain or cuddly grampappy? You decide…

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.

Photoshop has  come a loooooooooong way  since 1975…

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!
Columbo Identity Crisis

The ol’ tape recorder gets ’em again!

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.
Columbo Identity Crisis Patrick McGoohan

McGoohan put in an A+ performance as Nelson Brenner

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.
Columbo Identity Crisis

Columbo makes one hell of a cool entrance in Identity Crisis

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.
Columbo Identity Crisis Val Avery

Will you pay attention, Columbo!

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!
Columbo Barbara Rhoades Identity Crisis

Columbo eyes Joyce’s handiwork with great interest

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.
Columbo Identity Crisis Citroen SM

The car’s the star: Brenner’s beautiful Citroen SM

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.
Columbo Identity Crisis

Brenner delivers another juicy tit-bit for Columbo’s notebook

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.” IMG_2362 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.
  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Publish or Perish
  3. Double Shock
  4. Murder by the Book
  5. Negative Reaction
  6. A Friend in Deed
  7. Death Lends a Hand
  8. A Stitch in Crime
  9. Double Exposure
  10. Lady in Waiting
  11. Troubled Waters
  12. Any Old Port in a Storm
  13. Prescription: Murder —– A-List ends here—
  14. A Deadly State of Mind
  15. An Exercise in Fatality
  16. Identity Crisis
  17. Swan Song
  18. The Most Crucial Game
  19. Etude in Black
  20. By Dawn’s Early Light
  21. Candidate for Crime
  22. Greenhouse Jungle
  23. Playback
  24. Forgotten Lady
  25. Requiem for a Falling Star
  26. Blueprint for Murder
  27. Ransom for a Dead Man 
  28. A Case of Immunity —– B-List ends here——
  29. Dead Weight
  30. The Most Dangerous Match
  31. Lovely but Lethal ———-C-List ends here—-
  32. Short Fuse
  33. Mind Over Mayhem
  34. 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…
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147 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Identity Crisis

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Not a fan of this episode , find it over convoluted and columbo acts weird in certain scenes .

  5. Sorry, one more question (as Colombo might say). Was that Louie Anderson playing the gas station attendant who gave Colombo the $10 bill?

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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….

  9. 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”.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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!)

  15. 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…

  16. 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.

  17. 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?


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