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…
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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…
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!
“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.
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!
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.
Fischer’s original version (which you can read here – thanks 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- A Friend in Deed
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Now You See Him
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Identity Crisis
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- By Dawn’s Early Light
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Forgotten Lady
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Fade in to Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- A Case of Immunity
- Dead Weight —–C-List starts here——
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse ———D-List starts here—-
- A Matter of Honor
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Old Fashioned Murder
- Dagger of the Mind
- Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here—
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!