Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 6

Episode review: Columbo Fade in to Murder

Columbo Fade in to Murder opening titles

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…

Columbo Fade in to Murder cast

Dramatis personae

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.

Columbo Fade in to Murder William Shatner
I put it to you that this disguise is more likely to elicit gales of laughter than fear

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 Lieutenant Lucerne
Idiot ruins game!

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…

Columbo Fade into Murder Sid Daley
Sid didn’t fully accept the ‘man hug’ as a means of comfort until the mid-1980s

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.

Columbo Fade into Murder
**Heart bursts due to cuteness overload**

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.

Columbo Fade in to Murder gotcha
“Would you look at that, I’m an even better detective than Lieutenant Lucerne…”

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.

Columbo Ward Fowler
The ghost of Lucerne finally fades away under Columbo’s steely gaze

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.

Columbo Fade in to Murder GIF

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.

Columbo Fade in to Murder
Which Lieutenant wore it best?

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!

Columbo William Shatner
Raise your hands if you love William Shatner!

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.

Columbo Fade in to Murder William Shatner
These guys’ relationship is seriously cute!

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.”

Columbo Fade in to Murder
For $300,000 an episode I’d happily put up with a few digs at my expense, too!

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!

Columbo Lieutenant Lucerne
Lucerne/Fowler is several sandwiches short of a picnic

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.

Columbo Fade in to Murder VCR
Imagine paying $3000 for a VCR?!

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.

Columbo Fade in to Murder Shera Danese
Be still my beating heart… Shera Danese makes her Columbo debut

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…

Columbo Walter Koenig
Straight after this, Chekov resumed his search for the nuclear wessels

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!

Columbo Ward Fowler
Ward Fowler still holds the world record for largest brandy glasses

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.

Columbo Jaws
When Bruce the shark broke down, a work experience lad was given 15 minutes to create a new one, hence this pathetic effort…

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?

Columbo Enchanted Hill
The hollow tree where Fowler stashed the murder weapon is now kaput

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…

Check out the ultimate Columbo locations map here.

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!

  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. Now You See Him
  10. Double Exposure
  11. Lady in Waiting
  12. Troubled Waters
  13. Any Old Port in a Storm
  14. Prescription: Murder 
  15. A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
  16. An Exercise in Fatality
  17. Identity Crisis
  18. Swan Song
  19. The Most Crucial Game
  20. Etude in Black
  21. By Dawn’s Early Light
  22. Candidate for Crime
  23. Greenhouse Jungle
  24. Playback
  25. Forgotten Lady
  26. Requiem for a Falling Star
  27. Blueprint for Murder
  28. Fade in to Murder
  29. Ransom for a Dead Man
  30. A Case of Immunity
  31. Dead Weight —–C-List starts here——
  32. The Most Dangerous Match
  33. Lovely but Lethal 
  34. Short Fuse ———-D-List starts here—-
  35. A Matter of Honor
  36. Mind Over Mayhem
  37. Dagger of the Mind
  38. 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!

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Columbo Fade in to Murder
This is supposed to help HOW, precisely?
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141 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Fade in to Murder

  1. Storing a gun loaded with blanks in the prop locker must be an OSHA violation. A handgun firing a blank cartridge can do great harm and even be lethal. The actor Jon-Erik Hexum, unaware of the danger, killed himself while playing Russian roulette with a revolver loaded with a single blank.

  2. One thing I don’t understand is why Ward tries to frame Claire’s husband for the murder. Suppose his plan works out and Sid goes to jail. What will happen to the show (and by extension to Ward’s career) in that case? A huge scandal and both producers incapacitated. Will the network even want to continue with “Detective Lucerne” after that? Will it be possible to continue (who gets to control the rights)? And we are not given any reason to think that Ward has some kind of personal grudge against Sid the same way he has with Claire. Why is he so blind to his own interest (i.e. for the show to continue without Claire as smoothly as possible)?

    • I agree that Ward has no grudge against Sid, but if Clare’s murder was premeditated.he is the only other plausible suspect.

      And perhaps Ward just wants to be free of the whole Lucerne series? He would be in the clear and could move on to other roles.

      • Interesting, if we assume Ward does want to get rid of his Lucerne alter-ego then what does it tell us about him? Is he ultimately up to it or is he really just Claire’s creation and won’t be able to function without her and Lucerne’s image? A lot of questions the writers left unanswered. I think there might be a parallel with “Make me a perfect murder”. In this episode we are actually shown that Kay’s rebellion is ultimately futile and her lover is right – she is not really ready for executive position. Is Ward the same?

  3. Just watching this episode for the first time in a few years, and I haven’t read the review or comments here yet. Looking forward to reading!

    I just finished (finally!) the scene where Columbo first meets Shatner at the tv studio.
    I want to bash my head in!
    Not only does it take forever, but…..okay, I’ll say it………….I think Shatner is an awful actor.

    I was too young for Star Trek, and I never watched it on syndication because I am not a science fiction fan.
    Amazingly, the first time I remember seeing Shatner was in some tv commercials…maybe in very late 90s or early 2000s. I remember saying “This guy…this is not my type of guy.”

    He seems to be always “over-acting.” Is that his schtick? Does he do that on purpose?

    My goodness, I can’t take him in this episode.

    Wait, this scene isn’t over yet? Columbo just saw an obviously “fake” Jaws, and now goes back inside and he’s talking to Shatner again! Please, let it end!

    • Okay…I just finished the episode (thanks God!) and I read CP’s review. I think CP is correct in the review: if you don’t like Shatner’s acting, you’re not going to like this episode…and vice-versa.
      This episode, for me, is one I will never put on again…no matter how bored I am.
      Yes, I liked Falk in the dressing room, trying on the outfit.
      An, yes, I think Shatner has a few good lines that were nicely acted.
      But this episode made me feel just like Shatner told Columbo at one point: “I’m going to kill myself.”
      Going to read the comments from other fans now.
      CP- thanks for letting me vent!

    • I like William Shatner, but I think it would be fair to say that “over acting” is his “shtick”.
      As such, that is what he is doing here, sending himself up by playing a famous TV actor with a big ego.

      (In the sitcom “3rd Rock from the Sun” he played the alien leader “The Big Giant Head” in human form).

      Something you might have missed is that Walter Koenig, the younger detective at the deli crime scene, was also in Star Trek.

        • Oh yes, William Shatner is a fine actor. I enjoyed his appearances on Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. But I think he has made a career out of playing larger than life characters.

    • Shatner s acting is far from great in this but it doesn’t do it too much of an injustice as
      I Dont consider the episode overall one of the better of the seventies episodes which is a shame because it started quite well but the descent into silliness and playacting really ruins it for me.

      • I think that Shatner is acting well here. He’s sending himself up by playing a TV actor who takes himself very seriously. It’s my old theory about a good actor playing a bad actor.

    • Shatner is playing an actor. With that in mind, over-acting isn’t only forgivable, but it’s appropriate!

      • William Shatner did some fine work in the early 1960’s in an episode of The Outer Limits, two episodes of Twilight Zone and a guest spot on The Man From UNCLE. In each case he played a nice young husband with a nice young wife.

        But I think it is fair to say that his reputation for “overacting” began on Star Trek, which is understandable give the bizarre circumstances Captain Kirk often found himself in.

        None more so than in the final episode, “Turnabout Intruder” where for most of the story Shatner is playing an evil woman who has traded bodies with Kirk. Due to the nature of the story, it is perfectly justifiable that Shatner went right over the top!

        Incidentally, the “evil woman” was played by Sandra Smith (the spiteful wife from “Greenhouse Jungle”) who for most of the episode plays heroic Captain Kirk in a female body. As such, she is the only other person to play Kirk in the original Star Trek.

  4. I’ve often wondered if Ward Fowler’s supposed descent into madness wasn’t a ploy to try to confuse the evidence and cloud Columbo’s investigation. Fowler didn’t strike me as a man who did anything without cold calculations. Or perhaps it was just part of the gamesmanship going on between the 2 characters. Just thoughts.

    • I think it’s just that Ward Fowler enjoys playing Lucerne and enjoys matching wits with a real detective. He can also hide within the persona of Lucerne, who is a hero and not a killer.

    • Love this episode..its on right now. The play between Shatner and Falk makes it all worthwhile, even if it does go off the rails.

  5. I am rather late to the party, but only discovered this blog last week. I would agree, this episode isn’t the best 70’s Columbo, but for me it’s entirely watchable due to the presence of the great William Shatner. Yes, I am a Star Trek fan, and Mr Shatners presence elevates this episode for me just below the all time favourite Jack Cassidy episodes !… Watched it again today on 5USA and still enjoyed it… Falk and Shatner, does it get any better than that !!.

      • I don’t quite get what Koenig is doing in this episode. Did Shatner owe him a favor for some reason? I don’t think they’ve ever been buddies.

        • It might be a coincidence, but I think it more likely that the casting director was a Star Trek fan and knew that Walter Koenig would be good in the role of the police detective at the crime scene. He worked well with Peter Falk and It’s a shame he didn’t become a recurring character, turning up at the crime scenes from time to time.

        • In an interview about his Columbo appearance, Koenig mentioned that Shatner didn’t even acknowledge him when they took a buggy ride together to get lunch at the studio.

  6. Another brilliant review. Probably because the episode is a bit crazy I actually find it all very entertaining. I do like the camaraderie between Falk and Shatner which adds to my enjoyment. It’s not hard to see what attracted Peter to Shera.

  7. Great episode! Great website! After viewing it, I realised that the writers on Star Trek: The Next Generation missed a great opportunity. With all the holodeck ‘Dixon Hill’ nonsense, they could’ve had Picard travel back to this episode to ‘save’ Capt. Kirk and Chekov or the episode with Nimoy for a similar story. Lt. Columbo was more of a threat to the crew ot the Enterprise than Khaaaan! Speaking of Ricardo Montalbán, it would be an ‘honor’ to have Khan locked up by Columbo in his ‘disguise’ as an old matador! Or saved a ‘stitch’ in script writing time and and ‘saved’ Spock from the cigar wielding curmudgeon!

  8. I’m always curious about legit businesses used for scenes in shows. Here, the murder scene (deli) is fascinating to me for several reasons:

    1) I’m old enough and young enough to have one foot in both our digitally insane world and yet still recall cigarette machines, console 20″ TVs, Diners Club placards;

    2) AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, I’d love to know the name and location of this obviously real-life deli so I’d know who to laugh at for THE TWO WALL-MOUNTED PHONES directly over and behind Columbo, as he bends down to check the murder victim’s body. I mean, who puts TWO phones like that on the wall and why? Pay phones were everywhere back then and probably a couple were within 10 yds of this restaurant out the door. Also, the location renders THEM all but useless to guy behind counter. “It’s the small things,” as they say. Love to know.

  9. Part of the fun of watching so much Columbo and Star Trek recently is spotting the actors who are in both series. The most obvious example is both William Shatner and Walter Koenig appearing here in “Fade in to Murder”, as well as Leonard Nimoy in “A Stitch in Crime”.

    I was watching “The Greenhouse Jungle” some years ago, when it suddenly struck me that “Gloria” was “T’Pring” from “Amok Time, but it was only last week that I realised her co-star Sandra Smith had played a female version of Captain Kirk in “Turnabout Intruder”!

    Jackie Cooper’s wife from “Candidate For Crime” is a sexy Romulan commander in “The Enterprise Incident”. Mariette Hartley from “Publish or Perish” and “Try and catch Me” is a sexy time traveller in “All our Yesterdays”. Jose Ferrer’s son from “Mind Over Mayhem” is a murderous teenager in “Charlie X”. Dick Van Dyke’s wife in “Negative Reaction” is a sexy alien in “Catspaw”. Perhaps most famously, Ricardo Montalban from “A Matter of Honor” is Khan in “Space Seed” (and “Star Trek II:The Wrath of Khaaaan”).

    And Theodore Bikel and Samantha Egger from “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case” both turn up in the same episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Family”, but as unconnected characters who never meet.

    If only Peter Falk had appeared in an episode of Star Trek! He would have made a great villain.

      • No, I don’t want to forget the TV series “Mrs Columbo”, which I always enjoyed as it was about a bright and beautiful young mother solving murders. I agree though that from the start it should never have been connected with the “Columbo” series in any way.

        My original comment was solely about actors from the original 1960’s Star Trek appearing in the original Columbo. Come to think of it, William Windom was another actor who appeared in both series.

        And I’ve just seen the pilot episode of the original Battlestar Galactica, and who should turn up but Lew Ayres, Wilfred Hyde-Whyte and Ray Milland! (Not to mention future Columbo stage actor Dirk Benedict).

        • Oh, and of course Herbert Jefferson Jr, who I always refer to as “Boomer” when I comment on the Columbo episode “Playback”.

  10. I agree; this one is enjoyable, but not a great episode. We enter into the realm of the surreal when Columbo asks “Lucerne” if he could ask Fowler some questions. A few thoughts:
    1. Timothy Carey was always an interesting presence. He is so strange and menacing in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing,” that he’s unforgettable. He also appeared in John Voigt’s “Lookin’ to Get Out” which also featured Bert Remsen (Mark Davis here) in a key role.
    2. While the shark in the Universal backlot sequence here is not the one used in the film, the Orca is. Steven Spielberg has spoken about how he would sit in the boat on occasion in order to remind himself of how far he had come from the gruelling experience filming Jaws at Martha’s Vineyard. One day, he noticed the Orca was gone and was casually informed that someone ordered the boat unceremoniously scrapped as it had deteriorated over the years. A sad end to an iconic piece of film history!

  11. It’s funny that an earlier draft of the script had Columbo lying about the fingerprints on the bullets, because that’s exactly what I was expecting to happen when I saw the episode. There have been several times when Columbo has lied to make the killer think it’s hopeless and he might as well confess. If you’re the killer in a “Columbo” episode, you should never believe anything Columbo says!

    I was pleased with myself for figuring out that Ward Fowler must have worn lifts as Lucerne before the episode told me, thanks to the fact that Tony described the killer as being Columbo’s height, but when we saw Fowler and Columbo together on the “Lucerne” set, Fowler was taller than Columbo.

    I’m glad you interpret Fowler’s behaviour as a descent into madness, because his behaviour gets weirder as the episode goes on and Columbo doesn’t seem to notice, and I was starting to think it was just me. It’s not episode-ruiningly weird—in fact, I like this episode—but it’s disturbing.

    If you take the episode as a meta depiction of Peter Falk, and you imagine yourself, a huge “Columbo” fan, somehow magically becoming a homicide detective, time travelling back to the 1970s, and then having to investigate Peter Falk…well, I guess you can see how you’d be so in awe of your hero that you would be reluctant to shatter the illusion and tell him to stop being Columbo around you. Usually, actors *don’t* like it when fans expect them to be their character in real life. For once, an actor *does* want to be the character for you! How could you waste the opportunity to hang out with your favourite TV detective in real life?! He even lets you try on the famous trenchcoat!

    And then if “Columbo” said to you, “I’m going to investigate Peter Falk for you!” you’d be thinking, “Well, this is just fantastic! I have to see where this is going!”

    Or maybe Fowler is just an extreme method actor who never leaves character like Kirk Lazarus in “Tropic Thunder.” No, that can’t be it; then he wouldn’t have gone back to being Fowler when talking to Claire Daley in his trailer.

    I do find Fowler a sympathetic murderer, or at least, I find Clare an unsympathetic victim. Not only is she blackmailing him, but he tries to be gracious about it and she still treats him badly. I don’t understand how Tony could think she was a beautiful soul. However another commenter raised a good point about how Fowler frames Sid and knocks Mark off the wagon. That makes Fowler much less sympathetic. The same could be said of Hayden Danziger in “Troubled Waters.” We can understand killing Rosanna Wells, but not framing poor Lloyd Harrington.

    Did Walter Koenig use a Russian accent as Bester on “Babylon 5”? Sometimes I find that I associate Koenig’s voice with the accent so closely that even when he’s not doing the accent, I hear it!

    I *thought* Fowler’s living room looked similar to Brenner’s! It was changed enough that I wasn’t sure. Good to know I was on the right track.

    There’s some nice foreshadowing in this episode, both within the episode and then between this episode and “Butterfly in Shades of Grey.” In the opening, Lucerne has figured out that his opponent has created the illusion of being somewhere that he wasn’t, so he could sneak off to do the murder. Fowler does the same. Fowler uses the new and trendy VCR technology to create his alibi; Fielding Chase uses the new and trendy cellular phone. Both Fowler and Chase wear loud sportswear to disguise themselves during the murder. Fowler tapes the game to watch later; Chase uses his satellite dish to time-shift his viewing of the TV news. As mentioned by another commenter, actor’s makeup is part of the evidence.

    The ending does seem to come very suddenly. At the point where Columbo and Fowler are talking in Fowler’s house and there’s a mention of a search warrant and a knock at the door—it feels like there’s a lot more episode left than there is.

    • I can’t say I really enjoyed Shatners performance in any shows especially TJ Hooker. I mean what cop looks like that? Tight pants that stupid puffed up hairdo and good gracious that other Italian looking dude with dark puffed up hair totally laughable.

  12. Not sure if it qualifies as another meta touch, but Fred Draper’s opening scene in which the fumbling actor he plays is fired could be read as a response to “Last Salute” and his less-than-memorable turn as the killer in that episode.

    Also (and correct me if I’m wrong), I believe this is the only time in the show’s history that an actor playing the killer appeared in the following episode. So Fred Draper has at least one singular achievement to his name.

  13. I’ll always remember this episode for the VCR reference … the first time I’d seen one as a home appliance.

    Walter Koenig did some TV work before Star Trek. The only substantial appearance I recall was an episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour which IMBD tells me is titled ”Memo from Purgatory” (Series3) where he co-starred with a very young James Caan. I recall him as being very charismatic … a star in the making.
    I think most of the Alfred Hitchcock episodes are now on Youtube so you can probably go check him out there.

  14. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo How to Dial a Murder | THE COLUMBOPHILE

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  17. Having not read all the comments, I’m not sure this has been brought up and I apologize if it has. One of the biggest little things that got under my skin while watching is the number of times Columbo refers to Fowler/Lucerne as “sir”.

    I know it is something the ever polite Columbo does, but it is way over the top in this episode. He must say sir more than a hundred times, if not it sure seems like it.

    I was watching the episode while my wife was working on an art project. She was listening, but not watching. Three quarters through the shows she shouted out, “Would you stop saying sir!”

    And Fowler himself makes a similar statement at the end, doesn’t he?

    • I think the overabundance of “sirs” is due to Columbo being a genuine fan of Ward Fowler and that “Detective Lucerne” is his favourite show..

    • I think the reason is a more practical one: Columbo and Fowler/Lucerne share LOADS of screen time in this one, so Columbo would naturally be using ‘sir’ more times than usual. Not sure if the ‘sirs-per-minute’ ratio is higher than usual, but I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary myself.

  18. Once again, fantastic review. This episode, like Dagger and a few others, I like better with each viewing. As for MRS Columbo, she is no Meryl but I think she did a fine job in all her appearances- favorite is her performance in Murder, a Self Portrait, second is Murder of a Rock Star, third Trace of Murder. All these are quality ‘new’ Columbos. Love William Shatner. He is a treasure. I wish Columbophile could get in touch with all the living lucid Columbo stars and do a forum or an interview with some or all of them.

  19. Hi, I’d like to know some more about the silver certificates that Claire so dearly loved. This episode was produced in 1976 and from the info I’ve read, redemption of silver certificates ended in 1968. And it doesn’t seem that they were of much value after that. What was the importance and value of these certificates?

    • TT-Tourist, you are correct, silver certificates could be redeemed for an equivalent amount in silver coinage until 1964. However, they were still worth their face value in ordinary U.S. Treasury paper money after that, even today. Still, it is odd that she would specify being paid in silver certificates in the mid-70s.

    • She might be one of the people who believe that precious metals hold their value against inflation better than cash, in which case she should have asked for silver bullion.

  20. I would rate this as a better than average episode. I like Shatner as an intelligent but not-all-there psychologically killer. One thing that bothered me that hasn’t been mentioned – Claire doesn’t have a real motive to blackmail Ward except perhaps to punish him. She’s just buying silver certificates and keeping them in a safe deposit box. Aren’t blackmailers supposed to have fun with their money?

  21. A few more random thoughts on “Fade In To Murder” . . .

    It’s a nice touch that “Detective Lucerne” does not have a first name.

    Claire Daley is not all bad, or totally unmourned, as Tony (he runs the deli) is clearly a nice guy and thinks the world of her.

    Even if we make allowances for the blackmail, Ward Fowler is not a sympathetic murderer. He knocks poor Tony unconscious, embarrasses Mark and tries to frame Sid Daley. These are all good men who never did him any harm.

    Surely Mark would have mentioned to Ward at some point that he always sets his watch 5 minutes fast? It doesn’t seem to be any sort of big secret when he tells this to Columbo and if anyone would know, Ward Fowler would.

    There are some similarities with the plot of “Fade in to Murder” and the later William Shatner episode “Butterfly in Shades of Grey” (“Shade In To Murder”?). In both episodes
    the Shatner character kills his victim by shooting them in the back, he tries to frame someone else, and there is a clue involving an item covered in makeup, which turns out to be theatrical makeup (the former lover of the victim in “Butterfly” is a TV soap actor).

    Ward Fowler is having the time of his life! Not only has he got rid of his blackmailer, he relishes the chance to show off how much he has learnt about detective work to a real homicide detective, who he has clearly been expecting to meet.

    He and Columbo really do like each other, and he is merely playing a friendly game with Columbo when he speaks as Lucerne, as he is convinced that despite his motives being discovered, there is no real evidence to convict him and he has put Sid Daley securely in the frame.

    His downfall is that what he knows about detective work comes solely from his show and he’s not a real, experienced homicide detective. I’m sure that Peter Falk learnt a lot from playing Columbo, but he never tried to solve a crime in real life.

  22. Thanks for the review. It’s been a while since I watched this (I got a bit ahead of your reviews) but I enjoyed it. As mentioned, Shatner is great doing Shatner and this was so much of an improvement over Last Salute, that even with the light tone and jokes, it still works reasonably well. Not a top episode, but very watchable. Thanks again

  23. Another great review and article! I especially like Fowler’s line, as both men know that Columbo is getting way too close to breaking the case: “Why don’t we stop pretending that I’m brilliant and you’re simple.”

  24. Fade in to murder is a difficult episode to review , there are some funny moments , a good alibi good murder plot but at times it can be a bit lacklustre and dosent have that memorable ending that some of the best 70s had , an episode I dont hate but certainly not in my top 10 probably not in my top 20 overall either much better than Old fashioned murder and Murder under glass though .

    • Its also refreshing to read a review of a 70s episode where the murderer is still with us , William shatner I beleive is 80 now there isn’t many left I think Dick van dyke ( negative reaction ) Trisha van devere Make Me a Perfect Murder George Hamilton ( A deadly state of mind ) Clive revill The conspirators Lee Grant from ransom for a dead man and joyce van patten Old fashioned Murder and Susan Clark lady in waiting if anyone knows any more please add
      Fade in to murder is not one of the very best of the 70s but id prefer it than shatners new episode Butterfly in shades of grey .

      • Honor Blackman (“Dagger of the Mind”); Vera Miles (“Lovely But Lethal”); Robert Conrad (“Exercise In Fatality”); and Hector Elizondo (“Case of Immunity”).

        • Thank You these murderers slipped my mind ,, none of the episodes were among the best of the seventies A case of immunity would be my choice to watch out of these 4 .

  25. Having discarded normal tv,my Columbo box set given as a Christmas present by my wide keeps the unit from disintegrating. Every weekend is a Columbo event. When the box is finished, it’s back to the beginning we go. I read the reviews to gain added insight. Quite a few older series of of those times were enjoyable. People were almost normal and the object was entertainment not pc propaganda.

    I love Shatner and think he is quite the clown.

    The only episode I skip is the one with Faye Dunaway.

    Just one more thing…stop being so star struck and referring to Mrs Columbo as an ardent fan , Columbo.

    • The “one with Faye Dunaway” is not just the only Columbo written by Peter Falk, it is also the only work of any kind, other than his autobiography, that Falk is credited with writing.

  26. Re: the chalk circle being on the back of Columbo’s coat BEFORE Ward Fowler draws it there. It is likely that Columbo had already tried out his raised hands theory with someone else (possibly the Walter Koenig character) and remembered to erase the first circle before going to see Ward Fowler.

      • Oh, I’m sure that the chalk circle is a continuity error really, but this is perhaps the only time in Columbo where an explanation might be found in the story. I still can’t figure out why Laurence Harvey changes his shoes in the elevator in “The Most Dangerous Match”.

  27. I think I like this episode. I certainly like the players, but I’m distracted by the thought of those watching it back in 1976. I imagine they breathed a sigh of relief to see the real Columbo return to his senses after The Last Salute to the Commodore debacle.

  28. To those who’ve commented that the fingerprints-on-the-bullets gotcha is a common trope, I just watched an episode of Endeavour (S05E03: “Passenger”) in which Morse confronts one of the murderers with this: “Who dropped the torch [translation: flashlight] at Gibbet’s End? You or Noel? There are no fingerprints, of course. I imagine you both wore gloves on the night in question, but did you wear gloves when you put the batteries in?”

    For me, this is much more effective than prints on bullets because bullets are loaded in anticipation of the crime. Batteries are installed long before.

  29. I love this episode and never get tired of watching it…but I am a Shatner/Trek fan.

    And as such, part of what fascinates is Shatner playing a vain, temperamental actor – his reputation as such now established during his 3 years of Star Trek e.g. we know Shatner too wore lifts during Star Trek due to height issues with the taller Nimoy. It’s interesting (?!) to see both Shatner and Falk sitting side by side on the coffee table and they appear to be the same height. Nimoy towers over Falk in “Stitch…”.

    And plenty of pictures of Shatner around Ward Fowler’s house to seek out.

    You’d think the episode was written with Shatner in mind. Or did someone in casting think – Shatner for the role! And what went through Shatner’s mind when reading the script?

    I enjoy the humour e.g. Columbo’s trouble with the lock, Columbo caught dressing up as Lucerne and the playing around with the video camera – that seems to be Shatner’s genuine laugh (check out the Star Trek blooper reels). I sense a genuine rapport and ad libbing too between the two.

    Columbo seems starstruck through out the episode…he seems pleased and laps up Fowler’s/Lucerne’s praise after his comments about the dress/bullet hole.

    But Columbo is all business for the gotcha.

    Has anyone any thoughts about at what point Columbo latches onto Fowler as the murderer or is it just an accumulation of clues?

    • I would say an accumulation…. the gophers watch being correct (not 5 minutes fast)…Fowlers need to provide an alibi so quickly, his height, being in the trailer when the victim called the deli….etc….

  30. One thing about Columbo and other detective series I’ve noticed is how frequently the victim goes unmourned. With the mystery front and center, there is apparently no time for grief. Even those closest to the victim are too busy establishing their alibis to do much more than register their initial shock. This oh-well attitude reaches its zenith in Fade in to Murder, which, of all the Columbo episodes, must take the award for sheer nobody-gives-a-damn-this-person-is-dead-ness. Here, the woman who owns a show, the one who signs everyone’s checks, is killed, apparently in a senseless robbery, and the next day, when Columbo visits the set, life is going on as if nothing has happened. No one suggests shutting down production for a day. The director doesn’t make a little speech about the need to soldier on because Claire would have wanted it that way.There’s not even a moment of silence.

      • And, of course, the ex-husband is out somewhere out on the lot, where Colubo finds him with the sharks…

    • A very interesting observation. It caused me to go back and think of any stray moments of grief. I thought of Margaret Williams and Columbo at the cemetery in “Ransom for a Dead Man,” Arthur Kennicut in “Death Lends a Hand,” and Mrs. Chadwick slapping her daughter in “Lady in Waiting” because Beth “killed my son.” Both Ruth Stafford (“Exercise in Fatality”) and Joanna Clay (“Last Salute to the Commodore”) had breakdowns fueled by alcohol. Aunt Edna clearly mourns Uncle Rudy in “Suitable for Framing.” Conversely, Ken Franklin’s lack of grief in “Murder by the Book” was one thing that triggered Columbo’s initial suspicions (“Never showing any genuine emotion for a man that you worked with for ten years.”).

      So grief and mourning aren’t entirely ignored. But, more than anything else, Columbo is a cat-and-mouse game between Columbo and the killer. And who expects “genuine emotion” from a killer?

      • Don’t forget Paul Galesko mourning the loss of his beloved wife at her funeral in Negative Reaction.

      • Also the secretary in Agenda For Murder (she was crying, saying that Staplin was such a kind man) and though not seen, Staplin’s wife would’ve mourned had she been on-screen as Columbo said she was nuts about him. However, this episode takes the cake for no one giving a hoot.

        The tree in which Fowler hid the gun is interesting. I wonder if it was a prop taken from a set in one of his episodes. It’s not mentioned and of course, it’s very unusual for a tree to have such a snug secret compartment.

        I really enjoyed looking at this episode again, first time I’ve looked at it from the angle of being so much fun – thanks to Columbophile’s review. 🙂

    • I noticed that too, in quite a few episodes. When your family member dies, I expect a lot more grief than displayed by the husband in this episode and quite a few other episodes. In real life, people don’t recover that quickly from bad news. Even if the marriage had cooled at this point, the husband should still be mildly disturbed that his business partner and long term associate had just been murdered a few hours before.

      I do wonder if the writers were so intent on showcasing the mystery and the humor of the various episodes that they didn’t want to drag the episodes down with excessive displays of grief. Except for Diane Lane in the previous episode!

      I did find it amusing that after pronouncing his profound grief, he switched rather rapidly to establishing his own alibi, followed by humiliating his “good friend” and gofer. Yet, Columbo still seems to like him after that…

    • In this case, the victim is mourned twice, though unconvincingly. Fowler pretends to be sad, then later admits that he was just doing what he thought was expected of him. Tony inexplicably thinks Claire was a good person. (Maybe it was the head injury?) 🙂

  31. So…did anyone notice that it was business as usual on the set of Detective Lucerne? I’m now at this part:- In one of the series’ least-convincing displays of grief where Fowler says that he heard it on the radio. Then he just shows up to work and everyone is carrying on like normal. She must’ve been clearly not liked. Well, back to the program…!

    • Yes, I just left a similar comment. Apprently, nobody cared about Claire. Indeed, no one really cares about most murder victims on these shows. And Ward’s expression of grief was so phony that Columbo suspect him immediately.

      • Yes, Fowler was so fake he gave himself away immediately. And so shocked that he was able to continue working and reciting lines. He should’ve been arrested right then and there…

    • the characterization of the victim bothered me. As an actress, you take the personality of the character from the script. “What a soul this woman had,” the deli guy tells someone. But she never once acted that way, she was always all business and rather cold to boot.

  32. Hello columbophile , Great to see another review dished out , creeping closer to having all of the seventies reviewed Which I have contented myself with . ( not going to loose too much sleep over the new batch ,after all the seventies were the Best )

    Enjoyed The Review , and I think You Have done it Justice , Its Far from one one of my Favorites ,I dont have anything against this episode but I am of the same opinion ,It Has a great Murder plot and the alibi is first Class but it seems to get bogged down in this silliness of playing into lucerne , fowler and colombo although its quite funny at times , it gets sort of predictable , Off putting and a bit silly for it to be a Great episode and it has a very forgettable ending , I feel the Gotcha could have been improved and other blogs will say the same its just a bit too bonkers and silly and there are a lot better colombo,s to choose from if choosing.
    However columbophile has rated it spot on in the list , definetley better than those below it a 100 times better than last salute , However I would place it lower than Ransom for a dead man as it is more straight laced and I enjoy The plane flying scene in ransom ,
    I Imagine Old fashioned Murder will fair worse next time round.

  33. That lovely house also appeared in an episode of Hart to Hart (A Couple of Harts). A pity it was demolished. I’m sure it probably appeared in other television shows, it’s appealing as part of a set. I wonder who were the owners?

    A difficulty I have with some episodes of detective series is the strange rationale of the culprit seemingly “destroying” evidence. After playing a clever detective on so many episodes of a series, didn’t Fowler think that disposing of the garments where they would be found with make-up on them was a poor idea!??! I’m sure there are more examples as well.

    Perhaps the writers are showing that there’s no such thing as a perfect murder, which Columbo himself said.

    Thanks again for such a good review, I’m inspired to watch again!

  34. I mentioned it elsewhere but this episode has one of the biggest in-your-face continuity errors of all Columbo episodes and you even made a screen shot of it. 🙂 When Columbo shows up on the Jaws attraction on the Universal studio lot there is a shot of him from behind watching that carnival shark bursting out of the water. You can clearly see that chalk drawn circle on the back of his rain coat. Problem is it shouldnt be there unless Columbo is a time traveller because that circle will be drawn on his coat not until two or three scenes later. Modern TV airings of that episode will have sometimes have that little scene cut out to remove the error (it was missing on AXNs airing of the episode here in Germany), the sequence starts in that case immediately with Columbo talking to Sid on the studio lot. Falks arriving, getting out his car and running to the the lake to watch the shark is cut because that is where that circle can clearly be seen..

      • Thats the most memorable scene from the episode in my opinion along with columbo clumsily interrupting the shoot in the early part , pity they didn’t use a more convincing mechanical shark though .

    • I had never picked up on this till now , I dont own a DVD collection but have often watched Fade in to murder on 5 USA

  35. As always I enjoyed reading your review! I also enjoy reading the comments posted. Been following you for years now. I like how you linked to the script.
    I actually liked this episode less when it first came out (I like all Columbo, so it’s just a case of more or less) but for some reason I’ve come to like this one more over the years. Unfortunately, it’s hard to articulate why. One note: I do think Fowler’s idea for creating his alibi was clever and unique. Not many alibis set up like that.

  36. Yes I love this episode.I have always loved William Shatner because he is so self depreciating.. A Canadian who makes fun of himself. Ward Fowler is to me an example to of how actors can lose their identity when they play a character. Just like people think Peter Falk is Columbo. The episode is very good but not in my top ten just because there are so many good episides. I worry about the sexist overtones on picking on Shera Danese who is a not a bad actor and very funny with very sarky humour.. she was good in all the episodes she was in. Obviously peter falk knew the script was also making fun of himself. He ain’t fecking stupid as he would sayl..He wouldnt actually say fecking but this is a prime time show in the States.

  37. I liked this episode a lot more than you did.

    For me, this was not “The Wrath of Khan”, nor was it “The Final Frontier”. It was “The Trouble With Tribbles”…or the even better “A Piece of the Action”. I do not think this episode was ever intended to be taken seriously, and the casting of Shatner was quite deliberately intended to convey that simple fact. I smiled the whole way through his episode and I still do each time I re-watch it. (If it were a 90’s episode, might Leslie Nielsen have been cast?)

    Truth be told, I have long gotten over James T. Kirk, and I have never even watched a full episode of T.J. Hooker. The image conjured up in my mind by any mention of Bill Shatner is now and will forever be Denny Crane–a brilliant characterization, which his Ward Fowler prefigures.

    I never saw Ward Fowler as descending into madness (a la Nicholas Frame) in this episode. I did see him as pathologically narcissistic and one whose entire sense of self-worth was bound up in the Inspector Lucerne character. Fowler is fully aware of his own limitations and knowingly drapes himself in the cloak of Inspector Lucerne when convenient. It is willful and deliberate. He knows that his audience (here, Columbo) sees this as well. I found Shatner’s back and forth fluctuations between the two characters to be utterly convincing and ultimately endearing. (Denny Crane, indeed.)

    As to…Shatner’s characteristic…even,…dare I say, odd…verbal cadence, itseemstomethat…this would have…been…a 45 minute episode… without…it. As filler goes, its better than Columbo Plays the Tuba.

    P.S. Fingerprints on the bullets is an old and tired cliche. I actually prefer the original script on that one.

    • I agree with you, I think you nailed it. I feel this was indeed meant to be more like “The trouble with tribbles”, lighthearted and fun. To me, your point is underscored by the conversation Columbo has next to the ride with Jaws. This episode is not so tense and gritty like some of the other episodes. (for example, ones with Robert Culp) It’s supposed to be fun.

  38. Thank you for another great review, a joy to read as always, and glad to see Fade in to Murder still made your B-list despite some of your critical notes. I agree, this episode isn’t perfect by any means, but what fun it is to watch! It has the same amount of lunacy, or absurdistic fun, if you like, as your own personal favourite, Bye Bye Sky High. Your conclusion ‘not an episode to be taken too seriously’ applies to that one even more than to Fade In. For me, the weakest part of the episode is the gotcha: I totally agree with you here, the fingerprint business coming right out of the blue, perhaps the weakest gotcha of the 70’s run.
    I’d like to go into the ‘lunacy bit’ for a moment though. You’re writing about Ward Fowler’s ‘descent into madness’ and ask ‘why is Columbo being complicit with such lunacy’, pointing out that Columbo would never have taken this attitude with Ken Franklin and the likes. I don’t think this is strange behaviour though, simply because Columbo does what he’s always doing: playing their game. Sure, Fowler’s game is a strange one, playing, and preying, heavily on the bond between the actor cop and the real one, taking it one, two, three steps too far, but hey, that’s his nature. And Columbo plays along, because he knows that the very moment he quits playing (or will break the fourth wall if you like), Fowler will be beyong his reach. Everything he has done so far to connect with the suspect will be gone and will force Columbo to start over again. As usual he has played the part of the slouchy and humble cop, admiring the great actor, appearing honored in his presence (“You’re amazing”) constantly inviting him to play; it’s Columbo himself who suggests that a great cop like detective Lucerne would have been a great help in this case. And how can Fowler, a man with such ego, resist? And once the game has started Columbo can’t quit until he has nailed him.
    That’s what makes the gotcha even more dissatisfying, by the way, because it’s not a result of the act Columbo has had to perform. But as for playing along with Fowler’s ‘lunacy’, I think that was very typically Columbo, to play along like that.

    • “Perhaps the weakest gotcha of the 70’s run”? Watch “Dead Weight” again and see if you still feel this way.

      • Hi, I agree that one is a serious contender for the weakest gotcha as well. Only general Hollister’s gun haf already featured in that episode and I didn’t believe it either, like Columbo, when he said the gun was lost and good riddance too. It eas less out of the blue for me, but I see where you’re coming from.

        • yes I agree its not a great gotcha , could have been made a lot better but its still better than dead weights pathetic ending .
          Fade in to murder is not one of my favourites but its a lot more enjoyable than dead weight and Old fashioned murder .

    • I am a big fan of The Bye Bye sky High , it definetley makes my overall top 10 although I rate Try and catch Me ( my favorite ) and Negative reaction higher .
      I agree the Bye – Bye has a rather weak gotcha but the difference for me is that any lunacy comes off better in the bye – bye and Negative reaction , I find them more Genuinely funny rather than silly , for example the driving instructor scene , the Nun in the soup kitchen and various moments through the Bye -Bye , these scenes or moments may not technically be crucial to the plot but there so enjoyable they enhance the Episode and make them better , Where as in Fade in to Murder they damage the episode in my view ( this also applied to Short Fuse and Dagger of the Mind .), fade in to murder still a good episode though.
      Also a few years Later episodes such as Agenda for Murder with patrick mc goohan Death hits the jackpot , And Caution Murder can be hazardous with George hamilton Had several funny or ludicrous moments which Enhanced the episodes and made them better episodes of the New Run . ,

  39. Just one more thing…William Shatner probably improvised a line for his second appearance in the 90s, one that no doubt a great many killers would have loved to utter: “there’s always one more thing, Columbo!”

    • I was about to say; George Wendt gets to be the one person to tell Columbo “No! No more things! Goodbye!” and then lock the door on him 🙂

  40. The script’s writers: Lou Shaw was a competent scripter (wrote a couple decent Mission:Impossibles too), but co-writer Peter Fiebleman was an unimpressive bit actor who somehow wound up having a hand in writing 2 of Season 6’s episodes. I can’t fault this ep too much….but as has been noted, the next episode, Old Fashioned Murder, is firmly in the Bottom 5 of all the 70s Columbos. Fiebleman wrote the teleplay to that one and was also the small-time crook who gets offed by Joyce Van Patten’s character. It’s dull, bland and sub-par, but since all the worst episode-descriptive adjectives were already taken by Last Salute, the episode might not look too horrible by comparison.

    • Yes here is a quick list of my bottom 5 seventies

      5 ) A matter of honor
      4) Murder under Glass
      3) Old fashioned Murder
      2) Dagger of the mind
      1) Last salute to the commodore

  41. I liked when they were interviewing the deli owner and he mentioned how short the perp was, stating he was about Lt. Columbo’s height. Columbo responded “average height” and Walter Koenig tried not to laugh. I’m thinking that might have been an ad-lib. Columbo also referred to his height in “Swan Song” when he was speaking to Mr. Pangborn.
    Good stuff.

    • I loved that! Then the priceless expression on Columbo’s face when he tried on the shoe-lifts. Great fun. Awesome review…

    • I’ve seen an interview with Walter Koenig, in which he talks briefly about this episode. He mentions that Peter Falk ad-libbed the entire scene. He took him aside, and asked ‘What if we just throw away the script, I do my stuff, and you follow me?’ Because of the ad-libbing, they did the entire scene in one long shot, never doing coverage.
      Koenig also mentions that Shatner couldn’t remember his name. However, he invited him for lunch, and asked about how he’s been since Star Trek ended.

    • I stood in line with Walter Koenig once in a line at Jerry’s Deli. He came up to my waist. Just some trivia.

  42. It’s always difficult to argue with your analysis because it’s always so well thought out.

    I appreciate the moments of humor in this episode, particularly Columbo’s inability to unlock Fowler’s door, however these moments lose their effectiveness when they are not juxtaposed with equal moments of seriousness. The whole episode has this silly tone. Columbo had no qualms showing his contempt for certain killers in previous episodes, despite how much he played along with them. There was an underlying seriousness to what he was doing. Not so in this episode. It’s as if the whole episode is one big inside joke and Columbo laughs his way through it. This is not the same Columbo who slammed the water pitcher on to Dr. Mayfield’s desk or told Milo Janus what he thought of his fake concern for Ruth Stafford.

    Fortunately the ship gets righted as the series draws to a conclusion, but not before one more awful episode which will be next on the list of reviews.

  43. I’m an unabashed fan of William Shatner, warts and all. He has several immortal portrayals, including one of the most frightening and oft-repeated “Twilight Zone” episodes (“Nightmare at 20000 Feet”) ever. He had a tough time right after the end of Star Trek; he was living in a truck-bed camper for a while. His willingness to do small roles and keep working allowed him to keep working and the Columbo role helped him return back to stardom. Finally I love his hamminess. Anyone who has no talent for music that releases a record has gumption (I love Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds). What can I say? He does it well.

    That said, this isn’t my favorite Columbo either, but I didn’t think it was all Shatner’s fault. After all, he’s only an actor playing a role. I thought the script was more clunky than the actors. I agree, there was a real chemistry between Shatner and Falk, and I wished the script had been as good as a year two or three. Still, they had their moments. The line “Why don’t we stop pretending that I’m brilliant and you’re simple” is a hallmark line in the series.

    Finally, I thought the “dissent into madness” was not a dissent because I always thought Shatner played him as actually being mad, or the more appropriate term, unbalanced. I thought Ward Fowler had descended into the only reality under his control, the stage. On stage, the world was his; off-stage he was a pawn. The murder was his part to create a play where he destroyed his enemy and went off to live happily ever after. His smoothness with Columbo was another role that he controlled. The final reveal revealed his director’s opinion of his role; he in this play was the sympathetic character. While a Columbo only slightly above average, the more I have watched this episode the more I have appreciated it.

    • I agree that the script bears most of the responsibility for these kinds of issues. But here is an example of where Shatner’s overacting, and not the script, is to blame. When Columbo reveals his gotcha about the fingerprints on the bullets, Fowler reacts with a dramatic “Damn!” snapping his fingers for extra emphasis, “I had to forget something.” The stagey response is among Fowler’s cringeworthy moments.

      The script (linked to in CP’s review) has Fowler “quietly” say: “I had to forget something, didn’t I?” No “Damn!” No finger snapping. No melodrama. The staginess is all on Shatner.

      • How tastes differ! I love that bit of improv by Shatner here, the ‘damn’ and the finger snapping, because at that point Fowler and Lucerne are practically one and the same and Fowler reacts how he would have done were he on stage, or in front of a camera. For me that’s the best part of an otherwise weak gotcha, not cringeworthy at all.

    • This episode is one of the few where the killer doesn’t get frustrated with Columbo.
      Overall, a terrible gotcha and a terrible episode in general…for me at least. To each their own!
      For me, this episode gets WORSE with each viewing.
      Couldn’t take another minute of Shatner.

  44. I so love reading these emails and your FB posts.

    My partner would also like to receive them. Please add riverbirds777@hotmail.com (Caryl L) to your list. If there’s a signup page, I’ve lost it so send me that link.

    Thanks so much!

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Hi Donna, anyone can sign up for email notifications via the website homepage. If viewing on desktop, the sign-up box is in top right corner, just below the black and white image of Columbo. If viewing on mobile, it’s still below the photo, but is at the foot of the page, just below the reader comments section.

  45. You wrote: “Namely, the bloody bullet hole in Claire’s dress is higher than the bullet hole in her body.”
    Sorry, it should be: “is lower than the bullet hole in her body”.

  46. Another utterly thorough and highly entertaining review that leaves no stone unturned. Although I love ALL your reviews, I quite often disagree with your views about the quality of the episode. However, here, as in the Commodore episode, I pretty much agree with every aspect of your review. I probably dislike Shatner and his caricature-style of acting even more than you seem to, and his exaggerated facial tics drive me nuts. Actually, the fact that he was “play-acting” here, made it a bit more believable and palatable than if he was merely doing “serious” acting. Still, I couldn’t agree more with your conclusion that a great murder plot and superb detective work were offset by all the excessive shenanigans, making this an ok but not great episode.

  47. We are spoilt! Getting already a new episode review.
    Thank you, Columbophile.

    With two remarks: a little disagreement, and an additional “analysis”.

    The little disagreement. I think Columbo is right to continue to discuss with Detective Lucerne when he talks about Ward Fowler.
    Pride and self-satisfaction (or self-sufficiency) are two of the principle weaknesses of most of the “Columbo-murderers”. (We will see a good example in “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case”). Playing (“being”) Detective Lucerne, Ward Fowler will try to be the best detective ever was, and give away some essential information.
    You write that the conclusion of the episode is unsatisfying, and you’re right. I think a more satisfying conclusion would have been Detective Lucerne getting Ward Fowler stuck. And being proud of it! Just as Oliver Brandt (IQ…) will be very proud. (I try to remember other “Columbo-murderers” who are to proud of their intelligence. I’m sure there are.)

    The additional analysis, about Shera Danese.
    This episode is from 1976. In 1977 Peter Falk and Shera Danese will marry (it seems they met a few months before this episode, on another set). Shera is present in 6 episodes. Let’s forget “Undercover” (n°64). In the 5 other ones (“Fade in to Murder”; “Murder under Glass”; “Murder, a Selfportrait”; “Murder of a Rock Star”; “Trace of Murder”) she is a very ambitious young woman who uses her charms for her social promotion. Fiction and reality seem to meet. In this episode, William Shatner in some ways “plays” Peter Falk, a well-paid actor and TV-detective, and Shera Danese plays… herself. With great success.

  48. I’ve never understood the logic of Fowler’s purported alibi. According to Columbo, Clare Daley was murdered at “about ten minutes to nine.” When Fowler returns from the crime, he resets Mark’s watch from 10:15 back to 8:50, and the VCR clock from 10:25 back to 8:50. [I thought Mark kept his watch “five minutes fast.” According to this, he kept it 10 minutes slow.] Was this supposed to be the time when Mark first drifted off? Then how could it be the time of the murder? Did Scotty beam Ward Fowler up to Tony’s delicatessen? [And if Mark is as “very responsible about time” as Fowler says he is, he knows exactly what time he arrived at Fowler’s house, and exactly where the game stood when he arrived.]

    Then Fowler wakes Mark up — and less than a minute later (actually 48 seconds; I timed it), puts him back to bed in a spare bedroom. Mark never looks at his watch during this interval. In fact, Fowler is holding onto his left arm as he leads him from the couch to the bedroom, so Mark couldn’t see his watch on his left wrist if he wanted to.

    How is this an alibi? A 48-second alibi? Without the VCR trick, Mark could alibi Fowler up to the point he drifted off on the couch, well before the murder. With the VCR trick, Mark can alibi Fowler up to the point he went back to sleep in the bedroom — from Mark’s perspective, only 48 seconds later. I don’t get it. If Fowler had woken Mark up, and kept him awake for the remainder of the game, that’s something I could understand.

    • Definitely agree. This script had some major plot lines that were not well thought out. I wonder if they had the time to really work it out before they had to start filming.

  49. Pingback: Columbo episode review: Last Salute to the Commodore | The Columbophile

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