Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 6

Episode review: Columbo Old Fashioned Murder

Columbo Old Fashioned Murder opening titles

The murky, potentially unexciting, world of family museums was explored in Old Fashioned Murder – the second episode of Columbo‘s sixth season, which aired on 28 November, 1976.

With a six-month break after this until the third and final episode of the truncated season, surely the creators would pull out all the stops to ensure viewers were left hankering for more by delivering a riveting adventure?

So, is Old Fashioned Murder a solid gold belt buckle of an episode, or is it more of a rusty old pot? Let’s turn our watches forward twice after midnight and stitch up our favourite nieces as we find out…

Columbo Old Fashioned Murder cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Ruth Lytton: Joyce Van Patten
Edward Lytton: Tim O’Connor
Phyllis Lytton-Brandt: Celeste Holm
Janie Brandt: Jeannie Berlin
Milton Schaeffer: Peter S. Feibleman
Sergeant Miller: Jon Miller
Dr Tim Schaeffer: Jeff Osuna
Darryl: Anthony Holland
Watch salesman: Gary Krawford
Written by: Peter S. Feibleman (from a story by Peter S. Fischer as Lawrence Vail)
Directed by: Robert Douglas
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Significant locations: Lytton Museum (Doheny Mansion, 10 Chester Place, LA)

Episode synopsis: Columbo Old Fashioned Murder

Middle-age spinstress Ruth Lytton’s decades-long devotion to her family museum is hanging by a thread. Sick of it losing money hand over fist, elder brother Edward has vowed to shut it down and sell off its assets so the three old-money Lytton siblings (including shallow, socialite sister Phyllis) can swim in loot for the rest of their days.

Ruthy won’t take this affront lying down. Instead she plots with down-on-his-luck museum security guard Milton Schaeffer. If he’ll break into the museum that night and steal some select, highly valuable relics, she’ll pay him $100,000 – ostensibly so she can claim them on insurance to solve the museum’s funding crisis.

Columo Old Fashioned Murder
Certainly I’ll agree to your far-fetched, hastily revealed plan. Why wouldn’t I?

To seal the deal, she also promises to supply Shaeffer with a phony passport so he can split the country and start a new life in in the tropics with his ill-gotten gains. All he needs to do is rob the museum at 2am, and meet her afterwards to swap the artifacts for cash and passport. What could go wrong?

Shaeffer, who is being tailed by thugs keen to recoup his gambling debts, agrees to this tomfoolery. He has to appear to be dead to get away clean, so, at Ruth’s behest, he rings his brother at 9pm and leaves an answer machine message in which he pretends to be in danger, and which he ends by firing a gun close to the receiver.

Meanwhile, back at Lytton HQ, sisters Ruth and Phyllis chat to young Janie – Phyllis’s daughter – who has returned home from a date with Schaeffer’s brother at 11pm. Janie should be helping Uncle Edward with his all-night inventory of the museum’s stock, but Ruth gave her niece a hall pass so she could put her murderous plan into action with no witnesses.

Once sister and niece are abed, Ruth heads to the museum. Schaeffer is there, stealing the items he was told to take like a good little puppy, and is surprised to see Ruth. He’s even more surprised when she guns him down in cold blood beside the museum’s payphone booth.

Columbo Tim O'Connor
“Categorise THAT, Edward!” Ruth sadly didn’t say…

Edward, who is still cataloging items on cassette, comes to investigate. He, too, is surprised to see Ruth and uktra-surprised as she pops a cap in his chest with the revolver she’s just taken from Shaeffer’s corpse. She then places the revolver in Schaeffer’s dead hand, puts the other gun in Edward’s hand, flips the phone off the hook and beats her retreat – turning off the room light as she leaves.

Columbo is on the case early next day. Schaeffer’s brother has uncovered the answer machine message and is in a PANIC, believing his luckless sibling to have been slain! Columbo’s investigations thus takes him to the Lytton house for he has heard Schaeffer was fired from his job by Edward the day before (a lie concocted by Ruth), and he wishes to speak to the fella.

Instead he is greeted by Ruth, who tells him that Edward is sleeping after a late night and she won’t wake him. She’s gracious enough to provide the Lieutenant with a cup of chamomile tea to help ease his spring hay fever sniffles before introducing the detective to Janie and Phyllis. The histrionic Phyllis promptly faints dead away on the living room floor. She has no head for foul play…

Still, the police have no corpus delicti to prove Schaeffer is dead, so Ruth puts the next phase of her plan into action. She and Janie head to the museum to continue the inventory so Edward can ‘sleep’. Knowing full well where the bodies are, Ruth rather cruelly sends Janie off on her own and the young woman duly finds the two stiffs – as well as a mother lode of fist-biting trauma! Columbo’s real investigation is about to begin.

Columbo Janie Brandt
How’s that knuckle sandwich, Janie?

Columbo’s dutiful underling, Sergeant Miller, has left the crime scene exactly as it was found. The Lieutenant is immediately puzzled by why the lights were off. It appears that Schaeffer and Edward shot each other at the exact same time. So who turned off the lights? In darkness, neither would have been able to see the other clearly enough to fire accurately – although no one ever suggests the obvious that Edward could have fallen against the switch when dropping dead.

Then there’s the matter of Schaeffer’s outfit. He’s wearing a tropical shirt, brand new shoes, a new calendar watch and has had a haircut and manicure. It looks for all the world like he’s heading off on holiday, but there was no luggage and no passport in his car outside, nor at his apartment. Miller thinks the victim was dressed for Vegas, but Columbo has noted the vaccination mark on his arm. Schaeffer was heading overseas.

The contents of Schaeffer’s brief case and pockets are also confusing – especially an enigmatic note that reads ‘Turn twice after midnight‘. Whatever could it mean? The Lieutenant believes the message could be directions Schaeffer was following within the museum to meet an accomplice. But at the moment it’s all guess work.

He does have some hard evidence, though, that leads him to a hairdressing salon (where Schaeffer had had a trim and manicure) and a watch seller’s, where Columbo learns that ‘turn twice after midnight’ was not a set of directions, but was actually a reminder Schaeffer wrote himself to wind his watch forward twice in order to set the correct date of 1 May (not 31 April) on his calendar.

Columbo haircut
Columbo’s Beatles wig was a hit!

While this is all a little confusing, Columbo does at least extrapolate that Schaeffer was very likely alive until after midnight on the night of his murder, and that his 9pm call to his brother was bogus (duuuude).

He reveals this tid-bit to Ruth, who is savvy enough to realise that all the female Lyttons are now viable suspects as none of them had alibis after midnight. So part three of her plan goes into action: divert suspicion onto poor, innocent Janie! To do so, she plants a solid gold belt buckle in Janie’s wardrobe – an item she tells Columbo has been missing from the museum for 2 weeks.

Adding up various pieces of evidence, the Lieutenant requests a search warrant, which throws up the belt buckle in Janie’s wardrobe. As Janie is read her rights by Sergeant Miller, Phyllis helpfully passes out…

Visiting Janie in her cell, Columbo brings a variety of items with him – including food, cigarettes and the gold belt buckle, which Janie uses as an ashtray. He then starts talking about the many skeletons in the Lytton family closet – namely the relationship between Phyllis and Ruth, and the death of Janie’s father.

Columbo has discovered that Janie was born 6 months after Phyllis married Peter Brandt. This means she must have been three months pregnant at the time they wed – rather scandalous for a socialite, no?

He’s also looked into the conditions surrounding the death of Peter Brandt when Janie was just 7. He was recovering from a heart attack and being nursed at the Lytton home by Ruth. Could Ruth, bitter and resentful at past humiliation, have caused his second, fatal, heart attack? The very suggestion infuriates Janie, who closes down the conversation for good.

Columbo Old Fashioned Murder Janie Brandt
Columbo has serious work to do on his bedside manner…

Later that evening, Columbo interrupts the Lytton sisters’ dinner. He’s releasing Janie into their custody because he doesn’t think she’s had any part to play in the double homicide. Why? Because she was using the supposedly stolen belt buckle as an ashtray all afternoon. She had no idea what it was, let alone whether it was a valuable antique.

He also has evidence to suggest that Ruth’s story that the buckle has been missing for 2 weeks is a load of baloney. After spending hours listening to Edward’s inventory on cassette, Columbo finds a description of the buckle recorded on the night of the murders. Ruth has been lying. And when the case goes to court, all the family’s secrets will be laid bare.

In order to save Janie from further heartache, Ruth insists Columbo admit he had lied about implicating Ruth in the death of Peter Brandt. The detective retracts his statement and Ruth turns herself over to him. Columbo takes Ruth’s arm and escorts her out of the house with her dignity intact as credits roll…

Columbo Old Fashioned Murder
Oh it’s a jolly holiday with Maa-aaary, Mary makes your heart so light!

Old Fashioned Murder‘s best moment: the sensitive stylist

Columbo was in for a shock to the system when he paid an innocent visit to Darryl’s hair salon seeking information on murder victim Milton Schaeffer’s new haircut and manicure.

Keen to interview Darryl in the middle of a busy working day, the stylist is having none of it. When Columbo duly informs him that it’s a murder investigation, and if Darryl won’t be more helpful he’ll have to accompany the detective downtown, the crazed coiffeur goes into meltdown!

Columbo Old Fashioned Murder Darryl
Darryl’s diatribe is TV GOLD!

“Well, go right ahead. Arrest me!” he taunts. “Do you have the handcuffs with you? Why don’t you handcuff me? I’m surprised you don’t beat me unconscious so you can carry me out so I don’t cause trouble!”

A bemused and embarrassed Columbo only manages to defuse the pressure-cooker situation by requesting a haircut – cue a very different, sleek look for the Lieutenant’s usually unruly mop. The piece de resistance? He doesn’t have enough money to pay for the styling and manicure, so has to ask the dapper Sergeant Miller to cover him!

Even more fun follows when the watch shop assistant recognises Darryl’s handiwork, pouts suggestively at Columbo and compliments him on his new look! These are the only genuinely funny moments in the whole episode, and Darryl’s histrionics add much-needed energy to a plodding outing. Enjoy a snippet below…

My take on Old Fashioned Murder

If ever an episode premise was going to disinterest viewers from the get-go, a tale of an ageing spinster committing murder to safeguard a family museum was going to be it.

It hardly sounds gripping, and despite the best efforts of the capable and likable Joyce Van Patten, I imagine Old Fashioned Murder struggles to gauge any sort of strong emotional reaction from the average viewer, who is more likely to be quietly bored than on the edge of their seat throughout.

Columbo Old Fashioned Murder Ruth Lytton
Unlikely serial killer: Joyce Van Patten’s bookish Ruth Lytton

That’s a great shame for Van Patten, who can’t be faulted in the role of Ruth Lytton. She ably portrays a sympathetic, intelligent killer, giving Ruth both dignity and smarts. One could even argue that she’s the closest of all killers to mentally matching the good Lieutenant, never underestimating him for a moment and giving him no real reason to suspect her.

Thematically she’s similar to two other popular Columbo killers: Lady in Waiting‘s Beth Chadwick, who was also oppressed by her family members; and Any Old Port‘s Adrian Carsini, who shares her single-minded zeal for safeguarding the family business. On paper, it sounds promising.

However, the confrontation between murderer and detective is never permitted to sizzle due to the docile nature of the story and some senseless writing that betrays the Ruth character and ultimately renders the episode a dud. Where it falters most is in the illogical actions Ruth takes in the second half of the episode with regard to Janie. In short, Ruth stitches up the only person she loves – and it makes no sense at all!

Aunt Ruth and niece Janie have a special relationship. Janie even admits early on that she prefers her aunt to her own mother, Phyllis. Reading between the lines later on, we can even infer that Janie is Ruth’s secret daughter – the offspring of the love between Ruth and former fiance Peter Brandt before wretched sister Phyllis stole him away.

“Ruth is arguably the closest of all Columbo killers to mentally matching the good Lieutenant.”

The way I see it, jealous Phyllis couldn’t stand to see her sister finding love, so lured Peter into her foxy lair. Once it was discovered that Ruth was pregnant (scandal alert!), Phyllis and Peter escaped to the country to be out of the public eye and to wed, while Ruth was cooped up at Lytton HQ to see out the pregnancy. Once little Janie was born, she was handed to Phyllis and Peter to raise as their own in order to deny society columnists a scandalous scoop. It’s heartbreaking stuff, and would explain why Ruth has no love for anyone but Janie.

Granted, not all viewers interpret Janie’s lineage this way. It could well be that Phyllis is the biological mother, but there’s enough murkiness to make it pleasingly ambiguous. Still, by Janie’s own admission, Ruth has been the glue that kept the family together, and has been the most protective and supportive of Janie. So why does Ruth attempt to frame Janie for the double murder?

Planting the belt buckle in Janie’s wardrobe was a calculated act to direct suspicion away from herself on to the younger woman. This can only lead to (at best) acute stress and trauma for the poor, innocent lass – and possibly (at worst) life behind bars! This after Ruth already made sure that Janie was the one who discovered the traumatising dead bodies in the museum. That’s some seriously tough love Ruth’s dishing out!

Columbo Jeannie Berlin
Janie’s attempt to rock the Popeye look fell flat

Ruth’s actions are actually more suggestive of hating Janie than loving her. With that in mind, I put forward a tantalising alternative plot that would have had Ruth playing the long-game of revenge against the family that wronged her, and in which Janie is definitely not her daughter.

Hear me out! It’s heavily implied that Ruth killed Peter Brandt years before, hiding her act behind ministrations to a sick man. Edward’s determination to sell the museum was the trigger Ruth needed to finally rid herself of him, and by framing hated niece Janie she could have completed her decades-long mission of revenge, leaving Phyllis to feel the sting of isolation and desperation that Ruth herself had felt years earlier.

This would have given the episode a deliciously hard edge. As it is, the indecision and inconsistency in the script suggests that story writer Peter S. Feibleman (who also starred as victim Milton Schaeffer) didn’t have a full grasp on who Ruth was supposed to be and how she should plausibly act. The framing of Janie is the prime example, but not the only one.

For a quiet, bookish woman, Ruth has ice-cold presence of mind under pressure. Note how casually she gunned down brother Edward moments after dispatching the hapless Schaeffer. She displayed hired hit-man levels of coolness. Given that it’s heavily implied Ruth caused the death of Peter Brandt years earlier and we’re presented with a scheming, inconspicuous and remorseless serial killer, who might be one of the series’ most dangerous criminals if you’re on her wrong side!

“For a quiet, bookish woman, Ruth has ice-cold presence of mind under pressure.”

Does this correlate with the quiet, unassuming woman Ruth is shown as being? It’s certainly a stretch, although serial killers can be entirely unobtrusive when not carrying out heinous crimes. However, the sympathetic treatment Ruth receives from Columbo, and the glowing character references she gets from Janie, clearly signpost that we should feel kindly towards her.

The writing’s to blame for Ruth’s inconsistent characterisation, and much of that is a likely result of Feibleman’s major rewrite to an original story written by Peter S. Fischer – the legendary Columbo writer responsible for classics including Publish or Perish, A Friend in Deed, Negative Reaction and A Deadly State of Mind.

Feibleman, on the other hand, had only one Columbo writing credit to his name – Fade in to Murder, which was co-penned. Entrusting him to rework a master craftsman’s efforts is perhaps a key reason why Old Fashioned Murder is as flawed as it is.

Columbo Peter S Feibleman
Feibleman’s writing was feeble, man

Fischer’s original version (which you can read herethanks to Rich Weill for drawing my attention to it) was entitled In Deadly Hate and was a riff on Shakespeare’s Richard III. In it, the Bard-quoting Richard Costaine is sidelined from his role as curator at his beloved family museum by business-minded nephew Edward, whom Richard pays a private investigator $100,000 to bump off.

Richard himself then kills the PI at a family residence in the mountains and frames the second nephew for the double homicide. Phyllis (who doesn’t faint once in the draft) is the strong and determined mother of the nephews, but there is no Ruth equivalent.

Reading it, you can see there are a lot of the same beats that made it into the final script, but there are significant differences. For one thing, Columbo is one of two cops investigating separate murders; nephew James is having a clandestine love affair with a Las Vegas showgirl, who ultimately provides his alibi; while the PI is keen to ditch a loveless marriage by faking his own death. There’s also no sub-plot about shady family secrets.

“Casting Van Patten was a good move given the comparative scarcity of female leads in the series.”

Would In Deadly Hate have been a top episode? Unlikely, but it would have been an improvement on how Old Fashioned Murder panned out – not least because Richard wasn’t burdened by any actual affection for his wider family, so behaved consistently throughout. Certainly Fischer was unimpressed by the final result, refusing to be credited as the story writer, instead going by the pseudonym Lawrence Vail.

The one improvement made (in my opinion) was to have a female killer. Burgess Meredith (The Penguin in 60s’ Batman!) was in Fischer’s mind’s eye to play Richard Costaine, and while he could have been a fine villain, having Van Patten play such an atypical killer was a good move given the comparative scarcity of female leads in the series.

Columbo Joyce Van Patten
Ruth’s previous career as a nun at St Mathews’ Mission strangely wasn’t referenced

I only wish the talented Van Patten had been given a stronger episode to star in. The sad fact is that Columbo fans probably better remember her few minutes of screen time as the comic nun in Negative Reaction than for her leading role here.

The bland nature of Old Fashioned Murder also does few favours for the supporting cast, which, on paper, is outstanding. Like Van Patten, Tim O’Connor is making his second series’ appearance after a fine turn as scheming lawyer Michael Hathaway in season 2’s Double Shock. His role as Edward here is short-lived and one-dimensional.

As Phyllis Brandt-Lytton, Celeste Holm is the script’s biggest casualty. As head of the household and a noted beauty and socialite, her role ought to be an intriguing one. Instead she’s one of the entire series’ most annoying support characters, reduced to performing multiple ‘comedy’ faints and setting back the course of women’s lib by 50 years with her insistence on never leaving a room without being on a man’s arm.

It’s evident she’s supposed to be adding comic relief, but frankly it’s an embarrassing waste of an Oscar-winning actress. If only Ruth had slain Phyllis as well, the audience could have been roaring their approval! Instead, any time Holm is on screen I’m quietly seething at what a weak, shallow, fool she comes across as – although her presence admittedly helps ramp up sympathy for Ruth, who deserves our pity for having such an idiotic sibling if nothing else.

Columbo Ruth Lytton
I’d be downcast if I had a sister this stupid, too…

As Janie, Jeannie Berlin is really the best-of-the-rest in the support cast and is the least let-down by the story. She performs well in a decent role that gives her a chance to showcase her range from sweet naivety to icy disdain (notwithstanding her unintentionally hilarious reaction to finding two dead bodies). A Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee in 1973 for her turn in The Heartbreak Kid, Berlin really can act and she comes out of the episode with credit.

Berlin’s real-life mother, the renowned and ground-breaking director Elaine May, directed Peter Falk and John Cassavetes in acclaimed gangster flick Mikey & Nicky, which was released earlier in 1976. I wouldn’t be surprised if this connection was responsible for Berlin being cast in Old Fashioned Murder. Interestingly, though, she had a 14-year acting hiatus after this episode was filmed. Hopefully her Columbo experience wasn’t the reason!

Elsewhere, Feibleman even lets himself down by his own writing of the Milton Schaeffer character. Accepting that he was saddled with gambling debts and being tracked by hired goons, it’s still one hell of a leap of faith to play along with Ruth’s scheme. Why would he think a bookish spinster would be able to secure him a fake passport? Why make such life-altering decisions in a heartbeat? Act in haste repent at leisure, eh, Milton? It’s hardly plausible and is further evidence of the weak writing.

“Falk’s performance veers, at times, closer to Last Salute to the Commodore than is comfortable.”

The episode doesn’t even go out on a high. Many lesser Columbo outings have been partly redeemed by a memorable gotcha scene. Old Fashioned Murder doesn’t have one. Instead it just peters out.

Columbo can prove Ruth lied about the whereabouts of the gold belt buckle. She quietly gives herself over after he agrees to her request to backtrack on his earlier insinuations that Ruth may have killed Janie’s father. There’s no great revelation or a stunning admission that we should have been building towards. It’s all very flat – although Ruth leaving the room on a man’s arm on her own terms was a nice touch.

The tepid finale points to further uncertainties within the story. I wonder if it was a late decision to try to redeem Ruth by having her save Janie from further pain? I think it would have been vastly more interesting to have Columbo alone foil Ruth’s dastardly long-term revenge plan, saving Janie from a life behind bars but leaving her emotionally crippled, realising she was a mere pawn in a decades-long betrayal game. This could have packed some real emotional punch – something the episode totally lacks.

So how does Peter Falk fare in this ocean of mediocrity? Presumably he had a major role to play in having the episode so thoroughly reworked, although quite how much is unknown. He’s certainly not bad in this, but it’s not a vintage performance.

He seems to be trying to amuse himself throughout with a performance that veers, at times, closer to Last Salute to the Commodore than is comfortable. The exaggerated mannerisms and expressions he adopted there are in evidence, and he’s annoyingly cryptic with sidekick Sergeant Miller when the direct approach would be more appropriate.

Columbo Celeste Holm
How the mighty have fallen: Celeste Holm was reduced to comedy faints – UGH!

Still, he and Van Patten made for an interesting pairing and for once all of Columbo’s obfuscating and sham incompetence doesn’t fool his quarry for a moment. I can only repeat what I said earlier that this confrontation should have been far more gripping than it ultimately was.

Despite many problems, viewers that successfully combat the ennui can still glean shreds of enjoyment. For one thing, the dark and gothic nature of the museum is nicely done and is an apt setting for a tale of murder and betrayal. Dick De Benedictis returns to score his 15th Columbo episode and his spooky, medieval, harpsichord-laden arrangement is a perfect accompaniment.

The skeletons in the Lytton family closet provide a heavy cloak of deception surrounding lost love, revenge and the lineage of Janie, and to the episode’s credit it’s never too heavy-handed in what it reveals about Ruth’s past life. Yes, we can speculate that she killed Peter Brandt and that she’s Janie’s biological mother, but it’s left open to interpretation. I think that’s for the best and Feibleman deserves some props for that, if it was done deliberately.

The pickings are too slim to get excited about, however, and Old Fashioned Murder is mirthless and unremarkable when compared to pretty much every episode that’s come before it. Aside from Columbo’s haircut, the humour is lowest-common-denominator stuff, so there’s very little to help it stand tall in the memory. Casual fans most likely hardly remember it at all.

Columbo’s new look is almost worth the admission fee alone

To conclude, Old Fashioned Murder is not a terrible piece of television in the grand scheme of things, but by Columbo standards it’s a disappointment. With Falk such a stickler for quality scripts, it’s also something of an anomaly. The series’ lead man scaled back his commitment to Columbo to concentrate on his movie career in 1976, but spoke of his intent to place quality above quantity in the few episodes he would appear in.

Slow and unexciting, at times a confused mess, and with a central villain who’s only partially realised, Old Fashioned Murder blows Falk’s ambitions out of the water. For a season featuring only three episodes, actors and viewers alike had a right to have expected much better than this.

How I rate ’em

For all of Joyce Van Patten’s quiet dignity, Old Fashioned Murder is too flawed to earn a recommendation. It’s poorly plotted, it’s dull, it’s hugely forgettable and is deservedly one of the least regarded episodes of the classic era. While I don’t hate it, I’m certainly in no hurry to view it again.

Feel the need to revisit previous episode reviews? Then click on any link below and saddle up!

  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. Old Fashioned Murder
  38. Dagger of the Mind
  39. Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here
This episode just isn’t my cup of tea *roars with laughter*

That’s it for now, dear readers. As always I want to hear your views on this episode. Have you read the script for the original incarnation of this story? If so, let me know if you think it would have been a better bet, or where Old Fashioned Murder went wrong. And do you share my opinion that Janie was actually Ruth’s daughter?

After a somewhat lacklustre pair of episodes, can season 6 round out on a high with the preposterously titled The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case? Viewers of the day would have to wait 6 months for their next Columbo hit to find out. You won’t have to, so check back in again soon!


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53 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Old Fashioned Murder

  1. Pingback: The 10 least satisfying Columbo ‘gotchas’ of the 70s | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  2. The scene in the salon is always edited out whenever I’ve seen this episode broadcast. When you see it on American TV, Columbo suddenly has this new hair style. It’s all very confusing.

     
  3. Very low ranking seventies episode in my opinion , very forgettable in my opinion , Dead weight , mind over mayhem , Murder under glass and requiem for a falling star only slightly better episodes but they are in the bottom club of the seventies.

     
  4. I know it’s a bit late to weigh in, but as far as the identify of Janie’s mother is concerned, the vague hints that Ruth might be her real mother irritated me rather than otherwise. Doubts about the paternity of a child has fueled many dramatic conflicts, but doubts about the identity of someone’s mother are much more difficult to pull off — the device rings a bit hollow even in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, let alone in this uninspired script.

    I think it’s perfectly understandable that Ruth, underneath a facade of affection, actively resents and dislikes her niece as a walking reminder of her failed romance. Ruth, it seems to me, is a character rather like Balzac’s Cousine Bette:
    that is, while putting on a long-life act of being the angel in the house, she secretly loathes her entire family and is delighted to contrive her relatives’ downfall. This would explain why she has no hesitation in framing Janie for the murders, but the hints that Janie is her own daughter and the sole emotional outlet in her life make Ruth’s behavior seem very inconsistent.

    Then, too, Columbo’s reasoning for dismissing Janie as a suspect is questionable, to say the least. During the interview with Columbo she uses the stolen belt buckle as an ashtray; therefore, the Lieutenant concludes, she has no idea of its value. If Janie were in fact the murderer, what is to stop her from recognizing the buckle on the spot and feigning ignorance by treating it as an ordinary ashtray? If she is able to plot an elaborate double murder, she should be conniving enough to divert suspicion when an important clue is thrust under her nose.

    I’m bound to say I’m a bit puzzled by the accolades bestowed on Jeannie Berlin’s performance. She seemed to me to be phoning it in. Indeed, this episode has one of the weakest supporting casts in the entire series. Celeste Holm’s supposedly comic faints were simply an embarrassment. Peter Feibleman’s acting skills are on a par with his screenwriting. Even the actress who played the nervous maid was stagy and unconvincing. Anthony Holland’s cameo as Darryl was certainly entertaining but it could not, on its own, redeem an entire episode.

    It’s a shame, because Joyce Van Patten is a splendid actress and she turned in a wonderful performance. As Columbophile points out, she is one of the few suspects who is not fooled for a moment by the good Lieutenant’s obfuscations. One of the few weaknesses of the series as a whole is that several of the murderers seem to have surprisingly little sense of self-preservation. Few of them appear to be aware that when a detective makes it clear that you’re a prime suspect, the best course of action is to sit on your hands and refrain from compromising yourself further. Ruth is much more canny than the majority of the murderers. She carefully monitors the Lieutenant’s maneuvers before making her next move. She could have proved to be a worthy opponent, every bit as cunning as the Lieutenant himself, which would have made for some delicious confrontations between the two. But the confrontations rarely materialize, and the characterization is unraveled by the weak writing and the sub-par performances of nearly everyone else in the cast.

    An Old-Fashioned Murder is not a fiasco on the level of Last Salute to the Commodore, but it’s sadly marred by the inconsistencies in characterization of the antagonist and the cartoon-like behavior of all of the others. It makes for disappointing viewing.

     
    • I too at first believed that Ruth loved Janie, but later on I realized that Ruth was an angry, bitter, resentful woman who played the long game. As Janie says, “Detective Columbo says that you hate us” – I believe she hated everyone and her heart was closed. The museum was all she had.

      I actually like this episode because I love the fact that, so cost-conscious, she turns the lights off after the murder, a major mistake, but also part of her personality.

       
    • COLUMBOPHILE::

      “That’s some serious tough love Ruth’s dishing out.” — SO FUNNY.

      I ENJOYED THE SNARKY COMMENTS THROUGHOUT BUT THAT ONE LINE HAD ME LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY. THANKS!!

       
  5. I’m glad you mentioned the sailor dress! Myrna Loy rocks the look much better in Etude in Black.
    I think Columbo looks like Davy Jones in the haircut pic! I have to wonder why a society girl like Janie looks so at home in jail…

     
    • Agreed — except that Janie Brandt is not “a society girl” by any stretch of the imagination. Her mother, Phyllis, is a socialite but not wealthy enough to ensure that lifestyle for Janie, who has no interest in it anyway. Janie works in the family business, dates blue collar (and possibly even lower than that, economically) guys, is not beautiful (or even conventionally pretty) and has a very fixed income. Not a “society girl”.

       
  6. I also liked this episode. Not a favourite but pretty good. Of course I loved the haircut scene and how right away he fixed his hair back to normal. Also Elaine May was a friend of Peter Falk. They were in the movie LUV 1967 together , and Jeannie Berlin and Elaine were in the film In the Spirit with Peter Falk. Joyce Van Patten who was married to Mac (Dennis Dugan) was also in Mikey and Nicky.
    Also I thought Celeste Holm was funny in the episode . Very good actors

     
    • There is a good cast in this as is normally the case with seventies episiode but the writing in this leaves it down and it just plods to much , has little humor and has a Rather flat ending , Short fuse also had a wasted cast and a messy plot but id rather it any day than OFM , this along with dead weight, matter of honor and murder under glass are in my 10 least favorite of the seventies run .
      The Bye – Bye sky High IQ murder is next up to be reviewed , Trust me it is a much much more enjoyable episode than OFM .

       
  7. I can’t help wondering if our first look at the Lytton estate at the 20 minute mark is exactly the same as stately Wayne Manor on BATMAN! Curiously, another episode I like more than most, few actual duds from the 70s.

     
  8. I happen to love this episode, it’s a top Columbo fav of mine, and I love the in-depth review provided above! Yes, Fiebleman’s writing may be feeble man (very good!) but, talk about murky storylines: how about that Dick DeBenedictis score, huh? It’s perhaps one of the best, if not the best, music to accompany the killer and episode (other fav scores include Adrian Carsini, Bart Kepple, Abagail Mitchell and Kay Freestone). Music score is huge, it makes the episode…this score framed cold, stodgy Ruth Lytton and her dank family museum perfectly, starting from the F minor-chorded piano intro. I love DeBenedictis’ symphony of unsetted high piano notes and bars simulating Ruth’s lone footsteps through the cavernous museum, it adds mystery to the story. I agree that the biggest inconsistency here is how Ruth could manage to frame Janie (the only one she cares about in the family) for the murders. Deserving of adoration are the Chamomile tea plot, and the portrait of a young Ruth on the wall (that element would return seasons later as Victoria from Butterfly in Shades Of Gray).

    You can tell the distinguished JVP gave it her all in this one as one of her finest performances ever. It’s as if she was trying to be a “baddie” version of Jessica Fletcher, nearly ten years before Fletcher’s time. Fiebleman’s Milton Schafer character is cartoonish and laughably pathetic, I love how he plays off that he’s not dumb during Ruth’s proposition to save face, and eventually just goes for the scheme. Tim O’Connor’s “Uncle Edward” and his million-dollar voice are simply priceless. Straight-laced Sergeant Miller adds comic relief to the dank, tense and dreary tone of the main characters and museum. Janie plays out as a very naive and childlike character. Phyllis has the best line in the episode (“I am not without certain influence, LIEUTENANT COLUMBUS!”). Yes the third act and final scene fall short, but this is still a fantastic, and perhaps the most drearily-set Columbo episode.

     
    • I kind of loved the last bit: Lieutenant, may I take your arm? Kind of like Blanche Dubois heading for the asylum.

       
    • Good for you Greg. For one, I share your appreciation of the importance of musical accompaniment. Second, I’m watching “Old Fashioned Murder” now and agree that Joyce VP gives a great performance; enabling me to feel her pain through what might have appeared to be simply the persona of a cold blooded murderess. She is exceptional. Certainly comparable to the way Donald Pleasance carries “Any Old Port….” I believe Columbophile is a genius; however, I hope he could rewatch; possibly reconsider and bump this up some slots in the overall list. Perhaps when he has the time, after completing the reviews we’re all waiting for. That said, I haven’t yet read his review of this episode. But he can’t change my mind about JVP.

       
  9. This exchange:

    Columbo: The coroner’s report on your father said that his condition was bad, and that he had other minor complications. Not big ones. Little ones that the doctor knew about, and your Aunt Ruth knew about because she was nursing him. He had asthma, he was susceptible to infection, it’s why he had a bad cold the week that he died.
    Janie: So what?
    Columbo: So she probably gave him a lot of chamomile tea.

    .. reminded me of this famous exchange:

    Lady Nancy Astor: Winston, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.
    Churchill: Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.

     
  10. I don’t disagree with your overall assessment, but I would put it a few slots up on the list- not even Phyllis’ fainting spells are as annoying as is the character of Little Stevie Spellberg, Boy Genius, in Mind Over Mayhem. Only the endless parade of English stereotypes in Dagger of the Mind can really compete with Little Stevie for annoyingness. A Matter of Honor is as dull and forgettable, and Ricardo Montalban’s wooden performance, coupled with the embarrassingly stereotypical depiction of Mexico, also pulls that one below Old Fashioned Murder.

     
    • yes I would put a matter of honor lower than this Old fashioned murder starts off okay and has some good clues but gets very un- interesting half way through and is very dreary and falls flat on its feet There are some new ones i would choose over this , death hits the jackpot , agenda for murder , goes to college , murder smoke and shadows , Caution with George Hamilton and murder of a rock star .

       
  11. Hi columbophile good to see the review finally out . Running out of time at the moment so I will just say Glad to see it ranked where it is with only Dagger and last salute below it .
    I dont hate this episode either but its just far too dull and boring and un funny to enjoy it ,thats what other readers should take into account , Fade in to murder wasn’t great but 3 time more colorful than this , Mind over mayhem dull but still edges this one and the dreary dead weight a long way back in season 1 slightly better writing and also edges this sludge , just not one to treasure No pun intended , co incidentally it was on last Sunday On 5 USA and I didnt interrupt my afternoon to watch it .

    The Bye – Bye Sky high IQ murder review up next , one of the best and in my own top 5 and galaxies better than this one we look forward .

     
  12. I don’t have much to add to everyone’s excellent comments, but one thing that has always bugged me abut this episode is Columbo’s haircut–ever notice how, after the scene in the jeweler’s shop, he’s shaggy again? The new hairstyle simply goes away. Don’t know if the scenes with the haircut were filmed last, or it was felt that having Peter Falk nicely coiffed for the rest of the episode would be too distracting, but it’s a noticeable lapse in continuity.

    While I’m here, I must say I’ve always like Joyce Van Patten in this episode. She makes Ruth Lytton is a tower of repressed rage. Very calm, professional, and accommodating on the ouside, but inside there’s a slow boil, and every couple of years she has to let off steam by dispatching a member of her family. Certainly, Phyllis and Janie would have been next … after a while.

     
  13. PS – I never thought anything other than Janie being Ruth’s secret daughter. I think it’s subtly hinted at enough throughout for viewers to reach this conclusion.

     
  14. Again I waited until your review to watch this episode and again you hit the nail on the head. The inconsistency with Ruth really spoils things. They should have made her really wicked (which would have been a load more fun) or really noble and sympathetic. I’d have preferred her to have been taken away by police after revealing her long-term revenge plan to Janie and Phyllis, finishing by saying something along the lines of ‘And I would have got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for this meddling Lieutenant.’ As it is, the ending is so flat that one could forget about it almost entirely. I’d love to know more about the production of this episode, because the end result is such a mess that I cant imagine any of those involved could be really happy with it.

     
  15. I didn’t like this episode either. The whole setup for the murder was badly flawed. It would have quickly unraveled if a medical examiner had determined the time of death or someone checked the phone records (why weren’t those things done?). Those supposedly valuable museum artifacts all looked cheap and unimpressive to me.

     
  16. I love this episode. I’d say that Ruth is one of the most interesting and evil of all Columbo killers if you just realize she’s two-faced. On the outside she pretends to be the perfect daughter/ aunt/ sister, but inside she’s a mess.

    It’s plain that Janie is not her daughter, but her nieces. Her very existence is a constant slap-in-the-face to Ruth, who grieves the loss of the “daughter she might have had” ever time she looks at her. Just the fact that she was dumped for her sister is a well known humiliation she can do nothing about for the sake of appearances.

    So she keeps her enemies close, and plans a way to inflict as much pain onto her sister as possible without anyone knowing she is the guilty party.

    First she kills Peter Brandt, but since her sister Phylis only married him to spite her there is ultimately little satisfaction in it. So she waits for another opportunity while keeping Janie close so that when she does plunge the knife it will have the most impact.

    That opportunity comes when Edward notices items missing from the museum. I don’t think the murder of her brother had anything to do with saving the museum. I’m certain she hates the museum too for taking her youth away (“I was expected to be here then too.”). It’s a commitment she was pressured into taking that cost her time for a family of her own, but Edward’s plan to shut it down provides her the opportunity to kill him and possibly frame Janie if caught. Then she would have a socially suitable excuse to close the museum he was murdered in, and she can watch as Phylis goes through the trail of her daughter, suffering along without realizing Ruth was behind it.

    As we see, this doesn’t work out and in the end it is likely who she really is (a triple murderer) will be revealed. She’s done everything in the shadows up to this point to keep up appearances, and Columbo knows it. In order to keep that false image of the dutiful sister she confesses, assuming her family will believe she only did it to protect her niece.

     
  17. In my opinion, I think Janie is not the daughter of Ruth. I think Ruth sees Janie as what could’ve been. Ruth tells columbo what happened with Peter, her sister and her. She says she could’ve been hers but her sister stole her lover. She probably loves her niece but may also hold resentment towards her as well. Ruth sees what she missed and perhaps hates Janie for it. Is it rational? Perhaps not but we never really know what they’re really thinking. We pretty much know that Ruth killed Peter for revenge. She hated him, probably wanted to get rid of and frame Janie and maybe was going to off the sister too. Who knows? Maybe she wanted to make her sister feel how she’s felt all these years. Alone and miserable. So no I don’t think Janie was Ruth’s daughter.

     
  18. Sad to say, I only saw this episode for the first time this year on Vision TV in Canada, and they had cut out the entire barber scene… so I missed the one highlight of the episode.

    A reminder that the best way to watch Columbo is on DVD, not on television, as the editors cut out critical scenes so they can fit in all their tv advertisements.

    I found this episode dull and boring and have no reason to view it again, unlike episodes such as Troubled Waters, By Dawn’s Early Light, Now You See Him, Negative Reaction, Agenda for Murder, etc which I enjoy watching over and over (and over!).

    Shockingly, I would even prefer Murder in Malibu!!! Andrew Steven’s acting is such a bad joke it is unintentionally humourous to watch the train wreck, and not dull and boring like Old Fashioned Murder (anyone want a trunk full of flowers??! LOL).

     
  19. Despite Joyce Van Patten’s valiant effort, this episode is rather boring, dramatically being somewhat ineffective. Celeste Holm’s character is pure dreck.

    As of today, the bottom four entries in Columbophile’s ranking match my own ratings.

     
  20. Let me get this straight. Ruth ultimately agrees to except the blame for this double murder because a trial would unearth old secrets painful to Janie? After all, that’s apparently the principal reason she surrenders to Columbo. Not because of the belt buckle, but in order for Columbo to retract his theory about how Peter died; in order to avoid a trial in which her past crime is likely to be revealed. So she surrenders to spare pain — to the very person she just tried to frame for the two new murders!? Figure that one out.

    At least when Dr. Cahill confessed to protect his son in “Mind over Mayhem,” it was consistent with the rest of the story.

    My only quarrel with this review is rating “Old Fashioned Murder” above “Dagger of the Mind” and “Last Salute to the Commodore.” DOTM and LSTTC have redeeming features. DOTM is a quaint homage to the classic British mystery. LSTTC provides a clever reversal of the Columbo formula. OFM has nothing to recommend it. It was filmed, I believe, because a two-episode season wouldn’t fly, and time ran out trying to find a way to fix Peter Fischer’s original script (which every Columbo devotee should read). Even Joyce Van Patten’s performance doesn’t help the episode, because you can’t make a star turn out of a senseless character.

     
  21. A well written script and a fairly good plot is diminished by the sheer dullness of this episode. While i respect this episode i rarely watch it because it fails to entertain.

     
  22. I love reading your reviews. They are spot on. The fact you rate Suitable for Framing as the #1 Columbo episodes puzzles me though. That episode does not stand out to me as memorable.

     
    • Suitable for Framing has the best-ever Columbo gotcha; a memorable early kill; a wonderfully slimy baddie in Ross Martin; a many-levelled murder and framing plot; several terrifically funny scenes (Dale at the art show, nude model, Columbo meets the busybody landlady); an awesome musical score; plus roles for Kim Hunter and Don Ameche. There’s nothing not to like in my opinion!

       
      • I agree columbophile but myself at this stage of reviews would have Negative reaction and swan song ahead of suitable for framing as I think negatives gotcha is very memorable and has so many funny scenes and also a double murder , were expecting the bye bye to go very high in the ratings which would be a tonic as they have been low scorers recently apart from now you see him that reached 9th.

         
  23. I hate this episode.

    I think it’s actually a good plot and script. Joyce Van Patton does an excellent job. I have no problem with Celeste Holme.

    My problem is with Peter Falk. Rather than play Lt. Columbo he whispers, mumbles, and otherwise sleep walks through the entire episode. If he brought even a fraction of the usual verve and energy to the character as he did in previous episodes “Old Fashioned” wouldn’t be a bottom three episode as you correctly ranked it. Instead we get Lt. Columbo sucking the life and energy out of every scene. I get that this is supposed to be “dark and gothic”. That doesn’t mean Falk had to be utterly lifeless and showing no interest at all in trying to give us an entertaining installment of “Columbo”.

    Fortunately things pick up for the final episodes after this and we get to see Lt. Columbo in action again instead whoever it was he played in this episode.

     
    • I wonder if there was some underlying discontent from Falk about this one. It used to annoy the hell out of him that quality scripts weren’t ready way in advance of filming, and if this one required heavy reworking at short notice it must have grated. I don’t think he’s terrible in this, but he’s not on vintage form by a long shot.

       
  24. thank you, Columbophile,
    I was impatient to read your analysis of this episode, because I understood you don’t like it, and I do.
    The character of Ruth Lytton is much more coherent than you think.
    For instance her attitude towards her niece (or daughter) Janie Brandt. Ruth has lost her lover, Peter Brandt, she’s loosing her museum (which is her actual identity and social existence), and she knows she’ll soon loose Janie (who carries the name ‘Brandt’ of her former lover). Janie is having a love-affair, and may be that affair (with a married man) will not last, but her emotional dependency towards Ruth certainly is weakening. The official (administrative) link with her daughter never having been recognized, Ruth will be nobody any more. (Unless the sister of her sister!) So pulling and pushing Janie in a new dependency (the finding of the two bodies, which creates emotional dependency; and the imprisonment, with physical and emotional dependency) is rather coherent with her identity and history. We should remember hate and love are close feelings. After having loved Janie, Ruth can hate her once she’s leaving and getting her independency.
    And also: for years and years, or decades and decades, Ruth has learned how to self-control. To control herself because of the bourgeois way of life. To control herself to hide her feelings for Peter Brandt, her feelings for her sister and her feelings for her daughter (while those three people didn’t have to hide theirs). And to control herself from spending to much money. So it is very credible that she controls herself in the double murder scene. Self-control is all her life.
    This is a much more better role than the one of the nun.

    The only incredible thing in the episode is how Ruth Lytton and Milton Schaeffer immediately trust each other. But this is linked to a weakness in MOST OF Columbo episodes, where we first see a reason, a mobile to kill, and immediately after that discover how the murderer has a very elaborated plan (and often: the means) to commit the crime.

    You seem to find that Peter Falks play in this episode is close to his in “Last Salute…”. I don’t think, and I even don’t see it. I hope I can review the episode soon (I viewed it recently, but don’t have the DVD in this apartment), but I remember I liked very much the scenes with him and Sergeant Miller.

    Finally, I appreciate (like, or even love) very much the small humour which is present throughout all the episode, from Victor Hugo and Oscar Wilde in the beginning towards Ruth Lytton leaving the scene at Columbo’s arm. That’s very good.

    So, if you don’t like the episode (after all, it’s your website, not mine), do you really think “Mind over Mayhem” is better than it?

     
    • Hi Jeff, thanks for such a thorough comment and you make some excellent points. As for preferring Mind Over Mayhem to this, yes I do, nominally. It’s not a great episode but for me it’s more enjoyable to watch overall than this one. I like a bit of fun in my Columbo episodes and Old Fashioned Murder has very little.

       
  25. I think this is a pretty fair review of an episode which is solid but never really comes to the boil. A couple of touches I feel are worth a mention are the way Ruth suddenly seems to materialise in a room without anyone being aware of her presence. A comment on her being overlooked all her life, but it also gives her a sinister quality. Also, while it’s true the climactic ‘gotcha’ scene is underplayed, Ruth has been so controlled throughout the film the very fact that she takes a handkerchief and calmly mops her brow and face is the equivalent of Roddy McDowall’s hysterics at the end of ‘Short Fuse’.

    Not a stellar entry, but worthwhile viewing.

     
    • Excellent review! I think you’ve captured the basic difficulty with this episode. The hiding of the belt buckle in the closet seemed hastily contrived and you gave it the context of a failure to develop Ruth’s character thoroughly. And, obviously, Celeste Holm’s character is entirely forgettable.
      I did enjoy, however, the scene in which our good lieutenant’s imagination is captured in the museum room. I found it to reveal a different, more spiritual, side of him as he says he could linger there forever. Also, there are other valuable scenes such as Ruth and Edward in their material v. sentiment argument ala Adrian and Rick Carsini.

       
  26. Thank you for your thorough review – good work as always . It’s hard not to agree with all your points on a personal level though I do find the episode rather entertaining with the cameos , haircut scenes etc. Also old money on hard times is always a good theme and I think reflects the uncertain times of the mid 70s in the USA. It’s a shame it’s not better though with script still watchable nonetheless !

     

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