ALAKAZAM! As if by magic, master villain Jack Cassidy returned to give Columbo‘s fifth season a much-needed boost in the illusion-packed Now You See Him on 29 February 1976.
The presence of Cassidy as The Great Santini, the return of Sergeant Wilson and the unique and mysterious backdrop of the Cabaret of Magic help Now You See Him stand tall in the memory. But is the end result as good as the ingredients itself? Or to put it another way, is this a water tank illusion of an episode, or merely a simple card trick?
Let’s don our most luxurious capes, twirl our moustaches and bust out of some unbreakable handcuffs as we investigate…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
The Great Santini: Jack Cassidy
Sergeant Wilson: Bob Dishy
Jesse Jerome: Nehemiah Persoff
Harry Blandford: Robert Loggia
Della Santini: Cynthia Sikes
Danny Green: Patrick Culliton
Michael Lally: Mike Lally
Thackery (waiter): George Sperdakos
Dog: As himself
Written by: Michael Sloan
Directed by: Harvey Hart
Score by: Bernardo Segall
Notable locations: Cabaret of Magic (Magic Castle, 7001 Franklin Ave, Los Angeles)
Episode synopsis: Columbo Now You See Him
Jesse Jerome, owner of the Cabaret of Magic, has a hold over his star act, the globally renowned Great Santini. Only Jerome knows Santini used to be a Nazi SS guard by the name of Stefan Mueller. And when Santini refuses to play ball with Jerome’s demands for a bigger slice of his earnings, Jerome vows to send proof of Mueller’s identity to the Department of Immigration.
Santini isn’t going to take this threat lying down, so he concocts a brilliant murder scheme and puts it into action during his own live stage show, when he’s supposedly suspended in a locked case inside a glass tank of water.
Actually safely in his dressing room below the stage, having slipped out of the case’s false bottom, the wicked wizard applies a wig and false moustache and dons a waiter’s uniform enabling him to blend in with the throng of kitchen staff above. He also has a small earpiece and microphone enabling him to speak to the waiter who’s brought him his nightly brandy and create the illusion of being in the dressing room when he was really stalking his prey.
A sweaty Jerome is in his upstairs office, counting the nightly takings and swigging Campari. We can see he’s just finished typing his letter to send to the Department of Immigration and is ready to cook Santini’s goose. The ace escape artist has other ideas, though. Picking the supposedly unpickable new lock Jerome just had fitted to his office door, he slips easily inside. Alerted by a slight noise, Jerome comes to check and with one shot from a silenced gun, his career as a professional money grabber is over.
Leaving the gun on the floor and pocketing the incriminating evidence (which he later burns below stage), Santini slips effortlessly back to his dressing room and – lo and behold – is back on stage having amazed the crowd at the conclusion of his water tank escape just as Jerome’s body is found. Now that’s what you call a watertight alibi (chuckles for several minutes at own hilarity).
LAPD’s finest soon gather at the Cabaret of Magic, including one Lieutenant Columbo. He’s not looking quite the same as usual, though, as he’s sporting a new, dark brown raincoat – an unwanted gift from his wife. Upon arriving at the scene, Columbo learns that a Sergeant John J. Wilson is the officer in charge – the same Sergeant Wilson he worked with in Greenhouse Jungle (albeit having changed his first name from Freddie at some point in between).
It doesn’t initially appear that Wilson has learnt much in the intervening years, as it’s Columbo, as usual, who’s noticing things the others aren’t. For one thing, why is Jerome’s lower back so sweaty? And doesn’t the position of the corpse suggest that Jerome was walking towards the door when he was killed? He didn’t open the door, because he’d have been closer to it. Was he surprised by an intruder? The plot thickens when close examination of the door lock reveals scratch marks. It was picked!
Wandering around near the stage downstairs, Columbo is accosted by Santini, who is keen to avoid nosy parkers learning his secrets. He reveals to the detective (far too readily) that the killing must have taken place while he was suspended in the tank of water. He promises to help with any queries the Lieutenant has – but he’ll stop short of spilling the beans on his world-famous illusions.
Columbo is back at the Cabaret of Magic the next day and enjoys the privilege of seeing Santini practising his act up close. He again attempts to find out more about Santini’s whereabouts at the precise time of Jerome’s death, claiming he needs the info to satisfy his superior. Santini doesn’t fall for it. He’ll only reveal his whereabouts if the law absolutely requires it further down the track. But give away his secret to Columbo now? “My dear friend, I’d rather confess to a murder than to do that.”
What the detective does leave with, though, is an invite to watch Santini’s live act that evening and with that in mind he heads straight to the locksmith to make a special request: he needs a set of handcuffs made using the unpickable lock from Jerome’s office door. And he needs it ahead of tonight’s show!
“Columbo plays his own trump card by challenging Santini to break out of his new unbreakable cuffs in front of a live audience.”
We subsequently find out Columbo’s need for urgency. During Santini’s show, the Lieutenant races up on stage to ‘volunteer’ to assist the great magician in his act. And after being dazzled by an array of card tricks, Columbo plays his own trump card by challenging Santini to break out of his new unbreakable cuffs in front of a live audience.
Unable to refuse, Santini does what he does best – and promptly escapes from the cuffs to the delight of the boozy crowd. Columbo winks at him. “I knew you could do it,” he says, a sly smile on his face. He has the proof he needs that Santini could have picked Jerome’s office lock. The magic man is Columbo’s new prime suspect – even more so when he bustles downstairs during Santini’s water tank illusion to find the magician in his dressing room – and expecting the Lieutenant’s visit.
While this proves Santini had the opportunity to kill Jerome, there’s a complication. Santini has a brandy delivered to him at precisely the same time every night. When Columbo finds the waiter, Thackery, who delivered it the night before, the guy states with certainty that Santini was in his dressing room, because he spoke to him and could see him moving around (another illusion, created by a revolving lamp).
He explains that Santini played a mind trick on him, correctly guessing the number he was thinking of. He does admit that he didn’t see Santini with his own eyes but would swear it was his voice he could hear.
Columbo also chats to Harry Blandford (Robert Loggia – wooohooooo!), Jerome’s business partner, who tells him that the kitchen is so hectic every night that he wouldn’t notice if his own “mother came in here and kissed me.” This interests the Lieutenant, as it suggests that Santini could have snuck through the kitchen unheeded on his way to Jerome’s office to commit a killing.
One thing Columbo needs to do is improve his knowledge of illusions, so he visits a magic store and speaks to the sinister-looking owner, who proves to be most helpful. He suggests that it would be perfectly possible to appear to be somewhere you’re not through use of a concealed microphone and speaker. Such know-how is common in the trade and is widely used by the ‘gaff in the head act’ – a mind-reading stunt carried out by two people, one on stage and one roaming the audience (the gaff).
Further strength to Columbo’s suspicions comes when he chats to down-on-his-luck former high wire ace Michael Lally (played by series regular Mike Lally) who has known Santini for years under several different guises. He confirms that Santini used to be the gaff in a head act, so he’d be completely au fait with use of concealed microphones and radio transmitters. By now Columbo has all he needs against Santini – except a motive.
We don’t have to wait long for that. Catching up with Wilson at police HQ, Columbo notices a colleague at the water fountain has a damp lower back – just like Jerome did on the night of his death. Sweaty guy had been sitting in a low-backed chair, so the two detectives head back to the Cabaret of Magic to give Jerome’s office another once over.
The one chair that fits the bill is a leather chair near the typewriter. There had been reading glasses on Jerome’s desk, suggesting he could have been typing, but there was no paper in the typewriter, nor any typed documents to be found. Closer inspection of the typewriter itself yields the key clue. It’s a very modern machine (as Wilson is happy to demonstrate), in which a golf ball-like device revolves and punches individual letters out of a disposable carbon ribbon. Everything that has been typed on the machine can be read back on the carbon ribbon.
Later that night, Columbo and Wilson put their sting operation into play. Tricking Santini into heading up to Jerome’s office, they use radio equipment to suggest they’re inside and on the cusp of proving the magician’s guilt. Taking flight downstairs, Santini is confronted by Columbo and Wilson who reveal that their voice-throwing trick was a copy of the one Santini himself used when killing Jerome and chatting to the waiter.
Better yet, they have established a motive for the crime. Jerome’s letter to the Department of Immigration, identifying Santini as ex-Nazi Stefan Mueller, is in Columbo’s hand. Taking the letter, Santini works his magic and – FOOM – it’s sent up in smoke before anyone can stop him.
Columbo, however, was well prepared for just such an act of sabotage. Performing some sleight of hand of his own, he produces another copy of the letter from a pocket. Then another. And another. Wilson does the same. The quarterback is toast!
“And I thought I’d performed the perfect murder,” whispers the dumb-struck Santini. “Perfect murder, sir?” Columbo responds. “Oh, I’m sorry there is no such thing as a perfect murder. That’s just an illusion.” Santini takes one last look around the Cabaret of Magic before police escort him off the premises, as credits roll…
Now You See Him‘s best bit: where the magic happens
The entire scene of Columbo volunteering to assist Santini during his live act is TV gold. So determined is he to get on stage and test the magician’s lock-picking skills that Columbo virtually storms the stage, giving Santini no option but to accept his presence – a decision that plays a big part in sealing his own fate.
The array of card tricks Santini plays on Columbo is delightful in itself, but the piece de resistance is the tense build-up (complete with cliche-licious drum roll) to Santini escaping from the unbreakable handcuffs. As the camera draws in on Columbo’s face the jollity has gone, replaced by a grim and intense satisfaction as his hunch that Santini could have picked the lock on Jerome’s office door is proved right.
It all ends with a sly wink from detective to magician and the simple line: “I knew you could do it.” From this point on, you just know there’s no way Santini’s going to elude the detective’s clutches – whether he’s a master of escapology or not.
My views on Now You See Him
If ever a Columbo episode was bound to live long in the memory, it was destined to be Now You See Him. The magical setting, the fun of the tricks and illusions, the great humour throughout, the return of Sergeant Wilson, a Dog cameo, a speaking part for Mike Lally and the series’ swan song for Jack Cassidy, Now You See Him ticks so many boxes that your pen will run dry long before the end.
But there’s more to the success of this episode than merely the feel-good factor, for this is a terrifically plotted, scripted, directed, acted and paced episode that’s as good to watch the 100th time round as it is the first.
Yet at its heart there is true darkness, with The Great Santini desperate to hide his shadowy past as Nazi SS Guard Stefan Mueller and – just as heinously – Jesse Jerome profiting from this through extortion. It’s interesting that Jewish actor Nehemiah Persoff was cast as the ghastly Jerome, the suggestion being that Jerome himself may be a Jew protecting a Nazi for financial gain – an unconscionable act by anyone’s reckoning.
That the episode manages to tread the line so effectively between darkness and light is to the eternal credit of writer Michael Sloan, story consultants Peter S Fischer and William Driskill, director Harvey Hart (here helming his fourth and final Columbo) and a magnificent ensemble cast, who all rise to the occasion.
Jack Cassidy plays the role of Santini with suitable gusto. He’s more reserved than raging force of energy Riley Greenleaf in Publish or Perish, less mischievous than Ken Franklin in Murder by the Book, but the trademark winning smile, the nonchalance and the underlying icy interior that Cassidy does so well are all present and correct. In short, everything he does screams charisma.
“Now You See Him ticks so many boxes that your pen will run dry long before the end.”
Cassidy deserves plaudits for his sleight of hand skillz, too. He really does a very commendable job at performing the tricks and illusions. Detractors of this episode grumble that the nature of the tricks Santini displays (card tricks, hankies from pockets, doves out of thin air etc) are a bit entry level for such a globally renowned magician. I beg to differ. I think it’d be absolutely terrific, akin to watching a master like Houdini up close and personal showcasing the building blocks of his trade. Kudos to real-life TV illusionist Mark Wilson, whom I believe showed Cassidy the ropes and was on set to oversee the quality of the tricks was suitably high.
Cassidy and Peter Falk have incredible rapport, so it’s little surprise to find Falk on sizzling form, too. The presence of Cassidy always seems to give him a little extra, so perhaps it’s no coincidence that he puts in his most watchable performance of the season here. Of particular note is the extended scene where Columbo assists Santini on stage – a scene I imagine was largely ad libbed. From his eager volunteering and his genuine excitement at being on stage to the knowing wink after Santini breaks out of the specially prepared cuffs, we’re watching two masters at work here and it’s so enjoyable.
Columbo’s interactions with Sergeant Wilson are also supremely entertaining. Bob Dishy was a great pal of Falk’s and the two are having a great time during the ample screen time they share. Three years on from his debut in Greenhouse Jungle, we can see that Wilson hasn’t progressed as far as we might have hoped. He’s a diligent officer but lacks a spark of brilliance.
Despite his assertion that “I’ve gained a lot of experience since our last case”, poor Wilson is leagues behind the good Lieutenant. Columbo immediately dismisses the Sergeant’s suggestion that cabaret singer Danny Green is a viable suspect. He’s looking for someone who can pick an unpickable lock, which naturally makes the magician the chief suspect. This reality has eluded the hapless Wilson, who has discounted Santini because he naively believes he really was suspended in a tank of water at the time of Jerome’s death. Oh, Wilson…
Still, although Wilson may not himself be luminous, he is a conductor of light. Little wonder that Santini refers to him as ‘Dr Watson’ at one stage. Indeed, it’s Wilson’s knowledge and appreciation of Jerome’s state-of-the-art typewriter and its carbon ribbon that ultimately solves the case.
Not that Wilson realises his contribution. After bolting out ‘Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their party’ on the ‘beautiful machine’, Wilson is up on his feet and ready to get back to work. Only Columbo sees the significance of the typed words being immortalised on the disposable ribbon, but he couldn’t have done it without his lovable sidekick.
So, yes, I adore Wilson! And I do find it a bit of a shame that we never encounter him again. I think one more appearance in the 70s’ series would have been fitting without over-egging the pudding. Or better yet, how about having him return in the 80s/90s a couple of times as a Captain to show his career progression? That would have been such a treat for long-time fans that I’m rather sad that it never happened. Still, I digress…
In Cassidy and Dishy, we have two actors that Falk loved being around, and who helped him deliver outstanding and rib-tickling performances. A third person who fits into that category is perennial series extra, Mike Lally – a man Falk loved having on set.
Beloved by serious fans, Lally racked up at least 23 appearances in the 70s – usually as a background extra with very few spoken lines. Here we’re treated to an extended scene of Lally (playing a former high wire act going by the name of Michael Lally) conversing with Columbo at his run-down apartment – and it’s terrific.
Lally knows Santini from decades before when they trod the circuit together. He’s able to provide useful information about Santini’s changing accents and identities, although he doesn’t know anything about his original identity. He’s helpful to a point, but the beauty of the scene really lies in what it shows us about the real Columbo.
Lally is clearly down on his luck. He lives in a dive and has to share toilets and showers with other tenants. All he owns in the apartment is his TV and the hotplate. His final years on this earth look bleak and lonely – a far cry from the life in the spotlight he once knew. Yet Columbo makes him feel like the place he’s in is a palace, not a slum, sharing a beer with Lally and displaying his rare gift of being able to connect with and put at ease people from all walks of life. It’s superb stuff.
Also worthy of praise is the episode’s on-going gag about Columbo’s hated new coat, which is a stroke of genius. From the moment of his introduction in it, when a fellow officer says he looks different and Columbo replies “I’ve had a haircut”, the coat is used as a device to tickle the audience – and it really works.
We’re so used to seeing him in the crumpled, beige mac that it’s almost an affront to see him smartly attired in a stiff and starchy new garment. Columbo seems to think so, too. “The coat! I CAN’T THINK IN THE COAT!” he seethes early on, tearing it off, before doing his best to lose it throughout the episode – even telling Dog to look the other way if someone tries to lift it through the open window of his car.
Falk himself was a big fan of the coat joke, telling Mark Dawidziak in The Columbo Phile book that: “The new coat made him very uncomfortable and self-conscious. It was a brilliant idea.” It’s part of the reason why Falk rated Now You See Him as one of his very favourite episodes.
The gotcha itself is another hugely memorable aspect of the entertainment, and one that the majority of fans rate extremely highly. I’m one of them, although it’s a bit ‘showy’ by Columbo standards. For the majority of the 70s’ series, the earthy Lieutenant didn’t need to indulge in unnecessary theatrics to prove a point. Such antics were mostly (although not exclusively – see Case of Immunity and A Matter of Honor) reserved for the comeback episodes of the 80s and 90s.
Still, the magic setting is so infectious that who could blame the writers for letting the Lieutenant exhibit a little showboating of his own to let Santini see that he’s not the only one capable of pulling the wool over people’s eyes? Not me…
Elsewhere, special mention goes to Nehemiah Persoff for giving us a truly odious and unsympathetic victim in Jesse Jerome. I’m not one to root for former SS guards, but Jerome certainly deserved his comeuppance. In a small role, Robert Loggia also brings the surly impatience required of him as the Cabaret’s junior partner Harry Blandford. Loggia has a menace to him that could have made him an interesting murderer for the series, although he’s perhaps a bit earthy to offer a really good contrast to Falk in the way Cassidy does.
Still, and rather like Santini’s failed attempt at murder, Now You See Him isn’t perfect. For all the intrigue of the illusory world we’re cast into, there’s little mystery about the culprit. As soon as Columbo learns the office door lock was picked, Santini is his only viable suspect. Even without the Immigration Department letter, the Lieutenant is able to prove method and opportunity, so Santini wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought he was.
In both of Cassidy’s other outings (Publish or Perish, Murder by the Book) there’s much more room to doubt his guilt, which makes Columbo’s unravelling of the crimes and chasing down of his quarry more of a challenge. However, Now You See Him has a better pay-off than both those earlier episodes, so I guess it’s swings and roundabouts.
I also feel that the writers missed a fine opportunity to inject some genuine emotion into the finale, which could have effectively ended the episode on a heart-wrenching note akin to that seen in Season 4’s Playback.
Santini’s own daughter, Della, is an integral part of his act – yet their on-screen relationship is seriously under-cooked. One must assume that she has unconditional love for her father and is young enough to know nothing about his life as a Nazi. Having her present at the gotcha, and witnessing everything she knows fade away in front of her eyes, just like one of Santini’s illusions, could have been extremely powerful.
Given the darkness of Santini’s past and his motive for killing, I think such an ending would have been appropriate to add some gravitas and sobriety to the levity of the gotcha scene.
Della’s small role also plays into an unwelcome theme of Season 5 of there being few strong, memorable female characters. Grace Wheeler from Forgotten Lady aside, there hasn’t been a pivotal female character to speak of. Aside from her bewitching good looks, Della Santini joins that unenviable list when she could have been a really interesting addition to the series. C’est la vie.
Still, when an episode’s this good and this entertaining, it’s hard to hold too much against its creators. While I personally rate this as the least of Cassidy’s three episodes, that’s simply because I nominally prefer Publish or Perish and Murder by the Book to it, rather than it having any glaring faults of its own. It’s Season 5’s standout episode by a country mile and right up there with the series’ very best outings. I don’t even need to complain about its longer running time, due to its sensational pacing. That really is magic!
Did you know?
We’ll never know if Jack Cassidy would have reappeared for one more outing as a Columbo killer in seasons 6 or 7 due to his death 10 months after Now You See Him aired.
The details of his death in a house fire, which he appears to have unwittingly started in a drunken slumber, make for grim reading and represent a truly tragic way for Cassidy to exit stage left. He had just five more acting credits to his name after this appearance – four of which came posthumously.
Now You See Him is a suitable send-off for one of Columbo‘s most admired and beloved guest stars, and the one who set the benchmark against which all other killers are compared.
How I rate ’em
A hugely enjoyable romp, Now You See Him is fabulous entertainment. It has so many memorable aspects that it’s easy to see why it ranks so highly with series’ aficianados and newcomers alike. As is the case with all Jack Cassidy episodes, I love it and could happily watch it any day of the week. While some readers may be disappointed to see it outside my top 5, the margins between every episode in the current top 10 are wafer thin, so rest assured I rate it extremely highly.
Feel the need to revisit previous episode reviews? Then click on 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
- Now You See Him
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
- 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
- Dead Weight —–C-List starts here——
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse ———-D-List starts here—-
- A Matter of Honor
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
Thanks for reading, and do let me know your thoughts on this episode in the comments section. The rollercoaster ride of episode reviews continues very soon with Season 5 finale Last Salute to the Commodore. Does this represent a thrilling high or a devastating low? My friends, all will soon be revealed.
“Now You See Him is a suitable send-off for one of Columbo‘s most admired and beloved guest stars.”