In-jokes abound greeted viewers for the opening episode of Columbo‘s sixth season, as the world’s leading TV detective investigated a murder carried out by… the world’s leading TV detective!
Yes folks, the meta-tastic Fade in to Murder pitted Lieutenant Columbo against highly paid TV actor Ward Fowler and his famous alter-ego Lieutenant Lucerne. Confused? You will be…
Still, with William Shatner leading a support cast that also included fellow Star Trek ace Walter Koenig, it’s a sure-fire bet that we can set our phasers for FUN. But is this the Columbo equivalent of The Wrath of Khan, or is it more like The Final Frontier? Let’s time travel back to 10 October, 1976 and find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Ward Fowler: William Shatner
Claire Daley: Lola Albright
Sid Daley: Alan Manson
Mark Davis: Bert Remsen
Molly: Shera Danese
Tony: Timothy Carey
Sergeant Johnston: Walter Koenig
Assistant director: John Finnegan
Joseph: Fred Draper
Written by: Lou Shaw & Peter S. Feibleman (story by Henry Garson)
Directed by: Bernard Kowalski
Score by: Bernardo Segall
Significant locations: Ward Fowler’s home (Enchanted Hill Estate, Beverly Hills 90210)
Episode synopsis: Columbo Fade in to Murder
Highly-paid TV actor Ward Fowler, star of hit crime drama Detective Lucerne, is being blackmailed by studio exec Claire Daley, who knows his shady past as a Korean War deserter – a fact certain to ruin his career if it ever got out.
Fed up of paying Claire a large share of his super-salary, Fowler strikes back. He drugs his faithful assistant Mark (a recovering alcoholic), who has come round to watch the ball game. When Mark is out for the count, Fowler hits record on his state-of-the-art VCR (Google it, millennials) and busts a groove: destination MURDERVILLE.
Concealing himself in a ski mask and puffer jacket from the studio wardrobe department, and using a pistol from the props department, he tracks Claire to her favourite deli. Disguising his voice, he robs the till and pistol whips the shop owner into unconsciousness (!) before popping a cap through Claire’s icy heart – although only after she figures out it was him.
Cutting up and binning his disguise, and hiding the gun for later retrieval, Fowler heads home to arouse the slumbering Mark. He rolls the time back on Mark’s watch and hits play on the recorded ball game. The groggy Mark is awoken and it looks for all the world like he’s only been out for the count for a few minutes. Clever work, Ward!
Mark is then ushered into the guest bedroom to sleep off his sore head. As soon as he’s napping again, Fowler resets his watch to the correct time and leaves him be. As alibis go, it’s a pretty commendable effort.
Back at the crime scene, Lieutenant Columbo is on the case. It looks like a robbery gone wrong, but, as per usual, Columbo spots the crucial clues that others miss. Namely, the bloody bullet hole in Claire’s dress is higher than the bullet hole in her body. Her hands were raised when she was shot. Plus the robber didn’t take the credit cards from her wallet, nor the diamond ring from her finger. Why not?
The accuracy of the shot to the heart could also suggest an expert marksman. Could it be premeditated murder, rather than a robbery? Maybe. All they know is what deli owner Tony tells them – the killer had a deep voice and was a little shorter than average height.
Columbo heads to the studios to do some probing – unwittingly blundering on to the set of Detective Lucerne and ruining a take, much to perfectionist Fowler’s annoyance. Columbo is looking for Sid Daley, Claire’s estranged husband, who police have yet to trace.
In one of the series’ least-convincing displays of grief, Fowler uses the opportunity to profess his heartfelt sadness at Claire’s death – and also to heavy-handedly slip in his alibi, which is confirmed by gofer Mark.
Switching into Lieutenant Lucerne mode, Fowler then begins to assist Columbo with his enquiries. Claire’s diamond ring, he says, was very tight and not easily removed (as she once demonstrated at a party – fun times!). And why would a killer risk fencing stolen credit cards, when police are known to bribe fences?
Big Sid finally shows up to interrupt the love-in between the two ‘detectives’ – Fowler greeting the older man with a totes awkward hug, which was really done so he could steal a thread off Sid’s sweater. Devious so and so…
Sid explains that he was enjoying a ‘marathon chess session‘ with his lawyer the night before. They didn’t finish up until 5am – staying power that even Emmett Clayton would envy. Conveniently, the lawyer took a flight to Rome earlier that day so they’ll just have to take Sid’s word for it – and who could possibly distrust a TV exec, eh?
Columbo then has a short chat with Mark where he is gifted some crucial intel. Comparing times on their watches, Mark laments that his new $1000 watch has lost 5 minutes overnight! He always sets his watch 5 minutes ahead because he’s always racing the clock. Today it’s suspiciously set to the right time!
The Lieutenant gleans further vital deets after another quick chat with Sid, who tells him that Claire had to do things her way and even though they were partners she fought him on everything – including the new contract for Ward Fowler. Sid is livid that Fowler earns such a grand salary – but he let Claire talk him into it. See, she always sided with Fowler on matters like this. Sid also confirms that Claire and Ward used to be lovers. Those tit-bits would make any detective’s ears prick up.
The clues are starting to stack up – and fast. The shredded jacket and ski mask have been recovered and there are traces of make-up on the inside of the mask. Perhaps the killer was a WOMAN! Heartened to hear of this possibility, Fowler retrieves the murder weapon from a hollow tree and returns it to the studio props department, cleverly attaching the thread from Sid’s sweater to the trigger.
Rolling on to the next day we encounter Columbo, alone, in Fowler’s studio trailer. He can’t resist trying on the TV detective’s trademark hat and shoes – which he notices have a built-up heel to make Fowler appear taller on screen than he really is. Fowler busts in and catches Columbo in costume and the two men share a companionable chuckle – although the good Lieutenant squirrels the shoes clue away for later digestion.
He also reveals further analysis on the ski mask make-up show that it was actor’s pancake make-up – the style that Columbo has just noticed is in Fowler’s trailer. Where this led him to was the studio wardrobe department, where it was confirmed the mask and jacket came from.
It’s here that Fowler starts referring to himself as a suspect, based on how Lieutenant Lucerne would view the case. A handful of people knew that Claire was heading to Tony’s for food (Fowler included), but only Fowler would have been caked in actor’s make-up and have ready access to the wardrobe department. Columbo also blabs that the murder weapon has been found in the props department. It’s having tests run on it, but no fingerprints have been found at this stage.
Fowler’s not the only viable suspect, though. Columbo hasn’t been able to verify Sid’s alibi yet, but has found out that Claire had willed everything to him – including a small fortune in silver certificates and $500,000 in IOUs from Ward Fowler himself.
Before Columbo investigates further he gives Sid one last chance to confirm his ‘lawyer/chess’ alibi. Sid comes clean. For ‘lawyer’, read ‘scorching young secretary, Molly‘. While you’re at it, substitute ‘marathon chess session’ for ‘hours of red-hot love‘. Molly corroborates this filthy dalliance, leaving slimy Sid looking to be free as a bird.
That leaves us with Fowler as the only real contender in the ‘Claire Daley Murderer of the Year‘ competition – particularly now Columbo’s snooping has uncovered that Fowler was a US army deserter before Claire Daley discovered him in Canadian theatre. All these details are confirmed by Fowler (after he shows Columbo how a VCR works, natch), although he’s lapsed into referring to himself in third person from the perspective of Lieutenant Lucerne. As you do!
So why did Fowler owe Claire $500,000? Was she blackmailing him with the army desertion secret? Fowler (as Lucerne) says no. Instead she had bailed him out of financial difficulty early in his career, nothing more than that.
Predictably unsatisfied with Fowler’s nonsensical spouting, Columbo dishes further dirt. He’s learned from Fowler’s army records that he used to be an ace marksman – the sort that could effortlessly bust a dame’s heart from 20 paces. But that devilishly clever alibi of Fowler’s just can’t be beat, so Columbo remains stumped. OR DOES HE?
Turns out that closer inspection of the gun has revealed the presence of a blue mohair thread on the trigger – and police have tracked down the sweater to Sid Daley’s wardrobe. Sid (plus Molly and a police officer) promptly arrives at Fowler HQ to demand answers about why his home was ransacked. Columbo is happy to provide them.
You see, he remembers the sweater well from his first meeting with Sid, because Fowler got snagged on it when the two cuddled. Fowler could easily have planted the thread on the gun to incriminate Sid.
More than that, Columbo has deduced (although not in any way proved) that Fowler’s home video system could have been used in creating his elaborate alibi. After all, why was Mark so hungover after a single drink during the ball game? He could well have been drugged. The fact his watch lost 5 minutes is a telling indication that a third party tampered with it.
Add to that, Fowler’s natural height (without platform heels) was a match for the eyewitness’s description of the killer, while his known skills as a marksman stiffen Columbo’s suspicions. Still, none of this is actual proof, so Fowler still isn’t in the least alarmed – until Columbo produces the piece de resistance that seals his fate.
Whipping out the murder weapon from his pocket, Columbo confirms that there were no prints left on the gun itself. There were, however, prints left on the bullets – Fowler’s prints that he had forgotten to wipe clean. A stunned Fowler is left with nowhere to hide and admits his guilt as credits roll…
Fade in to Murder‘s best moment: playing Lieutenant
Finding himself alone in Ward Fowler’s trailer, Columbo can’t resist a little snoop – and what he finds will have a material bearing on the case.
The wily detective notices that the shoes Fowler wears in Lieutenant Lucerne mode are platforms, handily giving him a lift of a few inches in height. Given that the eye witness to the killer stated that it was a man of average height or below, Fowler now becomes a very real physical fit for the murderer of Claire Daley.
“Falk’s reaction is a delight, providing one of those unforgettably human moments when we see Columbo for who he truly is.”
Far more enjoyable, though, is Falk’s playing of the scene. He slips on the shoes himself, seemingly enjoying the height advantage they provide. He then proceeds to place Lucerne’s trademark white fedora on his head, and take up the TV detective’s ever-present cane.
When busted by Fowler, who has returned silently to the trailer and is now looking on with a straight face, Falk’s reaction is a delight, providing one of those unforgettably human moments when we see Columbo for who he truly is – an abashed fanboy caught out in the heat of the moment. He’s rarely been more adorable.
Fowler’s lapse into good-humoured laughter also highlights the genuine camaraderie and warmth between the two leads – arguably the strongest thread running throughout the entire episode.
My take on Fade in to Murder
Columbo‘s fifth season ended on such a bizarre note with Last Salute to the Commodore that its creators were going to be hard pushed to ever get close to such silliness again – but, boy, did they have a good go at doing so with Fade in to Murder!
And while Fade never threatens to scrape the bottom of the barrel in the same way Last Salute does, viewer enjoyment is highly likely to hinge on three factors: how much they like William Shatner; how many meta-references to Peter Falk’s own run-ins with Universal they can stomach; and how they handle the episode’s descent into madness. A lesser appetite for any of these aspects may seriously dampen your enthusiasm for this frankly bonkers adventure.
We may as well tackle the presence of Mr Shatner first – a figure much lampooned for his toupee wearing and his deliberate, breathy, over-the-top acting style. Personally speaking, I love the guy. I find him both charming and interesting, with just the right amount of eccentricity. He may not be the world’s most naturally gifted thespian, but you know what you’re going to get with Shatner, and there’s very rarely (if ever) a time that he doesn’t provide outstanding entertainment when on screen.
“Shatner and Falk hit it off marvellously and seem to be genuinely revelling in one another’s company.”
That much is definitely true of his performance in Fade in to Murder. Shatner and Falk hit it off marvellously and seem to be genuinely revelling in one another’s company. Both are blessed with an inherent likability, and both put that to excellent use here in a number of scenes where the two men bond in a natural, believable fashion.
A prime example is the ‘best of’ moment chronicled in greater detail above, when Fowler finds Columbo in his trailer trying on his hat and shoes. The interchange between the two is really rather lovely and feels authentic. The same can be said when Columbo is baffled by Fowler’s intricate door locks, and later in a largely ad-libbed scene when the actor films Columbo with his video camera and the two chummily view back the footage on the VCR. In each example, the chemistry between the two is unmistakable.
So what about the abundance of in-jokes peppered throughout that poke fun at Peter Falk’s own relationship with Universal? There’s certainly no shortage of them and it’s crystal clear that the Ward Fowler character – the highly-paid, Emmy Award-winning star of the most successful detective drama on TV – is the Columbo universe equivalent of Falk himself.
Falk had an often fraught relationship with network and studio execs over his penchant for perfection, which resulted in endless re-shoots, with budgets and time schedules continually blown. He played hardball when it came to renegotiating his contract – never more so, it seems, than between seasons 5 and 6. After being prepared to hang up the raincoat forever at the end of Last Salute to the Commodore, Falk was eventually tempted back by one of the highest-ever TV pay cheques of $300,000 per episode (the equivalent of $1.35m today).
So that scene in the restaurant early on, when Sid and Claire are discussing the future of Detective Lucerne, and Fowler’s wage demands, with studio execs, is very likely not far off the actual conversations that took place about Columbo and Falk.
“It’s crystal clear that the Ward Fowler character is the Columbo universe equivalent of Peter Falk himself.”
“Who does Ward Fowler think he is?” asks one exasperated studio stooge. “As a representative of this studio, I will not stand for this precedent. There is no actor in the business who is irreplaceable.” His flustered colleague chimes in: “Ward Fowler is not the first actor on this network to win an Emmy!”
The Emmy dig is unmistakably aimed at Falk, who won back-to-back awards in 1975-76 for his portrayal of Columbo. Therefore Claire’s defence of the wage increase must have had real Universal execs not knowing whether to laugh or cry at how close to home she was hitting. “Without Ward Fowler there isn’t going to be any next year for this show,” she says. “Ward Fowler is the show.”
The good-natured barbs continue later in a conversation between Columbo and Sid about Fowler’s new contract. “Paying an actor that kind of money is insanity,” Sid growls. “I think they [the studio] should have turned him down. I think he would have folded.”
Few could begrudge Falk an indulgent smile or two when reading this script. He was, after all, the guy who bossed the studio over his own wage demands and won every time. Is it all a bit too knowing and self-referential? Arguably so, but I think they just about get away without the in-jokes dominating proceedings too much.
I guess the production team were being careful not to over-egg the pudding, too, because one further joke at the expense of the Columbo character was even ditched from the original script (read it here). “Before I decided to play Lucerne as an intelligent-sounding detective, I thought of one other possibility,” Fowler confides to Columbo. “To play him like you.” It was evidently a gag too far.
This restraint is admirable, but where I’m less charitable towards Fade in to Murder is the ludicrous veer it takes as Fowler seemingly descends into madness. This kicks in at about the 50-minute mark when he begins referring to himself (Fowler) as a suspect, from the perspective of Lieutenant Lucerne – and it doesn’t let up.
Up until this point, Fowler has been helping Columbo with the case using the expertise he’s picked up as a TV detective. This seems fair enough. But when he shears off and compartmentalises the Fowler persona the episode become seriously weird. Columbo is conversing with Lucerne, not Fowler, and Lucerne becomes the middle man in their relationship.
Prime example: when Columbo is seeking answers on whether Claire was blackmailing Fowler, Lucerne responds with. “I asked him. He claims not.” HOW IS THAT AN ACCEPTABLE RESPONSE!? When then asked by Columbo if Lucerne believes Fowler, the response is: “I think so. I’m not sure.” If I were Columbo I’d be shaking him by the lapels by now!
Whether or not this evasion could be classed as obstruction of justice I don’t know, but it certainly has no grounding in reality. The key questions is: why is Columbo being complicit with such lunacy? He wouldn’t have accepted such third-person silliness from Ken Franklin or Tommy Brown. It’s a little bit exasperating, truth be told. The writers must have realised viewers would be scratching their heads, because they have an annoyed Sid Daley reprimand Columbo for indulging Fowler’s mania.
“Will you stop calling him Lieutenant Lucerne?” cries the desperate producer. “He’s a television detective. You can’t conduct an investigation based on his suspicions.” At this moment, we are all Sid Daley!
Must we conclude that Columbo has cottoned on to Fowler’s burgeoning insanity, and is treating him as gently as possible to avoid setting off an aneurysm? It’s hard to see another plausible solution, because Fowler is behaving so erratically, and has such a shaky grasp on reality, that he genuinely appears to have lost his mind. Maybe he has split personality disorder? Maybe the pressure of the case, allied with his huge insecurities, pushed him over the mental brink?
Whatever the reason, it makes for an unsatisfying conclusion and robs us of what could have been a classic encounter of minds, for Fowler’s plotting and covering up of the murder really was first class. His skillful manipulation of Mark and clever use of cutting-edge VCR technology created a masterful alibi, which Columbo doubts but can’t disprove.
Even Fowler’s motive would seem to be iffy to a jury, because Claire blackmailing him doesn’t make sense. Consider how high-risk her strategy is: if she blows Fowler’s cover as a war deserter she’ll have no more hit show and no more hold over him. Columbo even asks the question himself: why does an intelligent woman go and destroy her only means of income? It’s a question never clearly answered, although obsessive greed and control would be my interpretation.
Fortunately for Columbo he’s able to retrieve definitive proof of Fowler handling the murder weapon through the prints on the replaced cartridges. It’s hard evidence, but as a gotcha it lacks clout because there’s not enough build-up to the final reveal. We never saw Fowler replacing the bullets, so it’s intel the audience wasn’t in on, and it’s so swiftly delivered as to make it rather anticlimactic. Fowler’s plotting had been so good up to then. The bubble of impregnability is burst too quickly.
The gotcha we see on-screen is another variation from the original script (again, view it here – see page 82) – and this time it’s a significant change. In it, Fowler’s prints aren’t really on the bullets at all – it’s a ruse used by Columbo to get his suspect to admit his guilt, which he does instantly. The TV detective, you see, wasn’t au fait enough with actual police techniques to do anything other than take Columbo at his word.
“Fowler’s plotting and covering up of the murder really was first class.”
“Do you know how difficult it is to raise a clear fingerprint?” Columbo asks the stunned TV star. “Do you know how seldom it’s done? Do you know how hard it is to raise a fingerprint off a bullet? Too hard for us to do.” Fowler’s TV ‘training’ was no good to him here.
I’m glad they dropped this aspect and allowed real evidence to collar the criminal. Pretty much every episode in season 5 featured trickery or deception on Columbo’s part to make the killers reveal themselves. Here the cold, hard facts do the talking and Columbo’s conscience can remain entirely clear.
Speaking of which, our mate Fowler’s conscience hasn’t pricked him throughout the episode. Indeed, he regards himself as a sympathetic murderer. Certainly he was wronged by Claire, who is herself one of the series’ least sympathetic victims, but if Fowler deserves our sympathy it’s for his mental frailty, not for silencing a would-be blackmailer.
Fowler may yet be able to escape justice in court by implicating big Sid Daley. He’d been trying to throw the balding producer under the bus throughout the episode. He could claim he and Sid were in on it together – he to free himself from his debt to Claire; Sid to rid himself of a battleaxe who fought him tooth and nail on everything. Try it, Ward! Sid’s alibi will count for naught then, regardless of what secretary Molly says.
Molly, as no knowledgeable viewer will need telling, is played by Peter Falk’s future wife Shera Danese, who is making her first of six guest-star appearances over a 21-year period. A harsher critic than I might say that this small role is her best Columbo appearance, and it’s admittedly hard to find fault in her 28-word cameo.
Elsewhere the cast does its job admirably, although Columbo and Fowler share so much screen time that everyone else is really relegated to the background. As usual, though, Columbo aficionados will enjoy spotting the cameos by series’ regulars John Finnegan and Fred Draper, while Timothy Carey, as deli owner Tony, makes his third appearance in the show.
We also can’t overlook the small role for Star Trek‘s Pavel Chekov, aka Walter Koenig, as one of Columbo’s colleagues at the crime scene. This remains the only time ever I’ve seen Koenig on-screen not using a Russian accent. His presence allows viewers to imagine that Kirk and Chekov have had to travel back in time to right a wrong from earth’s ancient past. That just might explain Fowler’s erratic behaviour…
The script itself is light-hearted and there’s plenty of fun to be found in the many exchanges between Fowler and Columbo. I particularly enjoy Fowler’s casual response of “If you tell me that one more time I’m going to kill myself,” when praised by Columbo for the umpteenth time. Later, in a moment of rare lucidity, he tells Columbo “Why don’t we stop pretending that I’m brilliant and you’re simple.”
Part of the pleasure is the way Shatner delivers these lines in his trademark, ‘Shatnerian’ style. Indeed, without his drawn-out recital technique the episode may only have lasted 40 minutes! His wardrobe is similarly entertaining, switching between different, matching satin shirts and slacks as he drains brandy from glasses the size of goldfish bowls. He even sports something I could swear was a denim onesie! H-to-the-O-to-the-T!
I’m also pleased to report that dear Lieutenant Columbo is much more back to his old self than he was in the shambolic Last Salute. There, his weird creepiness played a big part in ruining the episode. Here, Falk is playing it much more by the book and is showing welcome moderation despite the craziness going on around him. What a relief!
We can also enjoy a laugh at the lameness of the Jaws model on the Universal back lot (blatantly not the one from the film, despite Sid’s claims to the contrary) and the fact that Fowler’s VCR – now hopelessly antiquated – came with a $3000 price tag, the equivalent of more than $13,000 today!
So how do we rate Fade in to Murder against all that’s come before it? It’s a hard one to assess, because it delights and frustrates in equal measure. The mystery hidden behind all the absurdity is really rather good and the rapport between leads is top notch. But overall it leaves me feeling flat.
Too much nonsense got in the way of a fine story. The way the creative team chose to tell it, Shatner was the perfect choice to play Fowler/Lucerne. However, had it all been played straighter, and with a more cultured lead antagonist, this could have been a fascinating addition to the series.
As it stands, Fade in to Murder is something of an acquired taste and is not an episode to be taken too seriously. Compared to Last Salute, however, it’s a masterpiece and one that shows there’s life in the Columbo dog yet.
Did you know?
Ward Fowler’s house represents the third time LA’s legendary Enchanted Hill estate was used in the series. Evidently ownership of the palatial home passed from Double Shock‘s Clifford Paris to Nelson Brenner in Identity Crisis before being snapped up by Fowler.
Given that one of the above is dead and the other two are in prison, we can only ask: who’ll be its next owner?
All jokes aside, the sad fact is that this stunning building has long since been demolished and the Enchanted Hill location is now simply 120 ares of prime real estate (owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen) awaiting redevelopment. How thoroughly unromantic…
How I rate ’em
Although undoubtedly enjoyable, Fade in to Murder is a little too preposterous for its own good. I’m all for a bit of fun, but not at the expense of the mystery itself. As a result, Fade slips into the lower portion of my B-List. This means, of course, that I still rate it highly in the grand Columbo scheme.
Feel the need to revisit previous episode reviews? Then click on any link below and fill yer boots!
- 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
- Fade in to 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
- Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here—
Let me know where you stand on Fade in to Murder. Bonkers brilliance, or mystifying over-indulgence? Shoot me a comment below! And of course, don’t forget to check back in soon when I revisit one of 70s’ series least-remembered outings: Old Fashioned Murder.
Thanks to regular contributor Rich Weill for alerting me to the differences in the draft episode script!