Opinion / Top 10

The 10 least satisfying Columbo ‘gotchas’ of the 70s

Columbo Murder by the Book gotcha
When Columbo hones in on ya, there’s no escape!

A Columbo without a magnificent ‘gotcha’ is like a porcupine without quills; a snake without fangs; a cat without claws. In short, it lacks a certain clout.

Granted, not every episode can have a rousing finale in the mould of Suitable for Framing or Candidate for Crime, but the strength of the gotcha plays a big part in our overall enjoyment of the episode.

With that in mind, I’ve compiled my list of the 10 least satisfying gotchas of Columbo‘s classic era. I’ve based my decisions on the power of the reveal, the strength of the evidence, the plausibility of the deductions made by Columbo to position himself for the gotcha, and the actions he takes to force his suspects to reveal themselves.

You may not agree with all my choices but at least they ought to stimulate some red-hot debate, so please read on! Please note, these are in no particular order, except the top 3.

NB – I didn’t feature the uninspiring ending of Old Fashioned Murder here because I’m fatigued with it after writing a long review, and couldn’t be bothered to include it. Zzzzzzz…

Murder by the Book

Columbo Murder by the Book
Fast-talking Franklin caving in without a fight? NOT. A. CHANCE.

Controversial selection? Maybe, but many fans agree that the ending of this magnificent outing is by far its biggest weakness. So what if Jim Ferris scribbled down Ken’s original murder plot and squirreled it away for Columbo to find in his personal effects? As smooth an operator as Ken Franklin ought to have been able to sweet talk his way out of that one in a flash. His admission of guilt makes for a convenient but implausible finale.

Read my full review here.

A Matter of Honor

Columbo Luis Montoya
Luis Montoya was hard to beat at musical statues

Columbo’s elaborate set-piece deception to force Luis Montoya into revealing himself in bullring may be exciting, but it’s ultimately a load of old bull.

Yes, Montoya freezes in the ring and witnesses see it, but he could always say he was standing still to prevent attracting the bull’s attention because his leg had seized up due to the exertions of saving Curro days earlier. It would be hard to dispute and his precious honour would remain intact.

Much worse is that it doesn’t ring true to who Montoya is at heart. Even if Montoya did freeze on that first occasion with only Hector to witness it, would a man of his stature allow it to happen again in front of so many others? No way, Jose! The vain Don Luis Montoya would rather die than show such legacy-tarnishing weakness in public.

And let’s not even start on the highly implausible deductive leap Columbo takes to figure out Montoya’s weakness in the first place. Ay caramba!

Read my full review here.

The Most Dangerous Match

Columbo Most Dangerous Match
Only in the vacuum of space could Clayton have failed to notice the machine being shut off

Columbo trapping chess Grand Master Emmett Clayton with the old ‘switch-off-the-machine-to-trick-the-deaf-man’ gag is clever on paper, but it doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. Why? Because it’s a nonsense that a deaf man would fail to notice the lack of vibrations once the machine had been turned off. The machine was huge, and Clayton was right beside it for Pete’s sake!

It’s such a fatal flaw that I’m never quite able to get past it. Why didn’t anyone in the creative team point out this massive discrepancy?

Read my full review here.

Dagger of the Mind

Columbo Dagger of the Mind
The gotcha of this episode was about as convincing as the waxwork models…

Having somehow deduced that a pearl from a broken necklace might have entered murder victim Sir Roger Haversham’s umbrella on the night of his death, Columbo employed sleight of hand techniques to seal the fate of murderous acting duo Nick and Lilly (aka ‘The Ham’ and ‘The Tart’).

Flipping a pearl into the slightly open umbrella of a waxwork model of Sir Roger was enough to reduce Nick to babbling madman status and to elicit an immediate admission of guilt from Lilly. Too high-risk a strategy to be taken seriously, Dagger‘s gotcha was a very silly end to a very silly episode.

Read my full review here.

Lovely but Lethal

Columbo Viveca Scott
Viveca briefly contemplates clonking Columbo about the temple with the microscope

Another rather flat and tenuous gotcha helps condemn Lovely but Lethal to the good-but-not-great Columbo bracket – and there was a big chance missed to make the case against Viveca far stronger.

The cosmetics industry Empress could wriggle out of the poison ivy charge by saying she contracted it from Columbo himself upon their first meeting. No one could disprove it, so there’s plenty of reasonable doubt to go around.

Far more damning would have been matching her handwriting from the eyebrow pencil jottings she made on the magazine at Carl Lessing’s house before she fatally wonked his swede with a microscope. That would have been easy police work and had the case wrapped up after 25 minutes, leaving the dazzling redhead up the creek with no paddle and saving the life of chain-smoking second victim Shirley Blaine.

Read my full review here.

Identity Crisis

Columbo Steinmetz
This photo proves that YOUR GRAMPAPPY is Steinmetz. Doesn’t it…?

The denouement to an otherwise highly entertaining romp is easily the flattest aspect of the entire episode, leaving a vaguely anticlimactic feeling with the viewer as credits roll.

For starters, the theme of significant sounds caught (or not) on tape have been used before in Publish or Perish and The Most Crucial Game. And just like in Crucial GameColumbo has proved virtually nothing against Nelson Brenner by the end.

Brenner’s international espionage connections could have informed him that China was pulling out of the Olympics before the official announcement, and while he might not have been dictating a speech when he said he was, that’s a far cry from proof that he was under the pier committing murder. Similarly, there’s no weapon and no motive – so nothing to worry an ace spy.

That dodgy police photo fit of Brenner dressed up as Steinmetz also proves NOTHING AT ALL! Remove the hair and add a comedy beard and glasses to just about any man alive and you could have Steinmetz. All Columbo has against Brenner here is that he wears a hairpiece and that ain’t a crime! No sir, Brenner will remain a free man!

Read my full review here.

Requiem for a Falling Star

Columbo Anne Baxter Requiem for a Falling Star
*Inwardly screams while trying to maintain composure* “Well hellooooo, Lieutenant!”

You may have gathered that I’m not the biggest fan of Columbo testing a far-fetched theory and hitting the jackpot through the killer giving themselves away – and Requiem features one of the worst examples.

Columbo has managed to piece together several tit-bits (none of which are strong enough to be considered evidence) that lead him to conclude Nora Chandler killed her husband years before, disguised herself as him to fool eyewitnesses, and then buried him in her back garden before having an inoperational fountain fixed over the shallow grave.

To test this crazy hypothesis he borrows a Shriner’s Ring and delivers it to Nora on set, suggesting it was a piece of evidence Jerry Parks was planning to use against Nora given that her deceased husband was a known Shriner. The ring sends Nora into a panic and when she gallops home to check whether the fountain has been disturbed, Columbo is lying in wait to catch her in the act. That’s one helluva hunch, Lieutenant. Thank goodness Nora conveniently took the bait, eh?

Read my full review here.

And the big three…

3. The Most Crucial Game

Columbo Most Crucial Game
Seethe ye not, Sir Hanlon – there’s 0% chance of conviction!

The supposedly damning evidence Columbo cooks up against the furious Paul Hanlon may have been cleverly arrived at, but it’s so thin that even wafers seem muscular by comparison.

So, there are no sounds of clock chimes on the tape recording of Hanlon’s conversation with Eric Wagner? BIG DEAL! There could be a hundred plausible reasons why they weren’t picked up on tape, including (but not limited to), the chimes not being loud enough to be recorded; the clock running fractionally late; the radio in the box being too loud; and many more…

After a whole episode of running around, Columbo has only proved possible opportunity and still lacks any evidence regarding method or motive. There’s simply no case to answer here and because this is an otherwise hugely entertaining episode, the ending feels like even more of a letdown.

Read my full review here.

2. Dead Weight

Columbo Eddie Albert
Why does the General’s head appear several sizes too large for his body in this image?

The convoluted and confusing nature of the back-story to General ‘Iron Horseman’ Hollister’s iconic pearl-handled Colt 45 dooms Dead Weight‘s gotcha to sink without trace in murky depths.

Despite the General claiming to have lost the original gun in the Korean War, and subsequently donating a supposed duplicate to an exhibition in his honour, Columbo figures out that Hollister’s massive ego wouldn’t allow this to be true. Instead the Lieutenant deduces that the Colt was never lost, meaning the so-called duplicate on public display must be the murder weapon!

So it proves, but all this does is show up the episode’s poor writing regarding the central clue. On the back of a murder claim, every gun the General owned – including duplicate pearl-handled Colt – ought to have been run through ballistics days before the denouement. And the yarn that Hollister had lost the weapon years before only makes sense if he knew that he’d use it to murder someone in the future. Maybe fortune telling was another weapon in the four-star general’s armory?

Read my full review here.

1. Last Salute to the Commodore

Columbo Swanny Swanson
Swanny’s face neatly mirrors most viewers’ feelings at this wretched denouement

It had to be this one, didn’t it? The worst 70s’ Columbo episode by a nautical mile also features a truly dismal and nonsensical gotcha that served only to highlight the desperate levels of indulgence this madcap outing had sunk to.

Identifying himself as the murderer by saying “TISN’T” when Columbo held a mystery item to his ear and said “The Commodore’s watch”, Swanny Swanson was the victim of criminally poor mystery writing. Never you mind that Columbo had knack all else against him except supposition, or that saying TISN’T proves nothing to any right-minded individual. This absurdity may have tickled director Patrick McGoohan, but millions of viewers were left confused and enraged.

This blazing anticlimax arguably grants Last Salute the dubious honour of claiming TV’s least satisfying parlour room reveal of all time. Indeed Agatha Christie is still thought to be spinning in her grave because of it.

Read my full review here.

“The worst 70s’ Columbo episode by a nautical mile also features a truly dismal and nonsensical gotcha.”

Yes, you gorgeous gaggle of gals out there, it’s time to say goodbye for today! Do please let me which gotchas you feel are a bit of a flop, and whether you disagree with any that make my list.

You can also check out the companion piece to this article, the 10 best Columbo gotchas, which naturally makes for much more positive reading. Thanks, as ever, for your time and I look forward to seeing you again soon.


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103 thoughts on “The 10 least satisfying Columbo ‘gotchas’ of the 70s

  1. The most dangerous match is being aired today on 5 USA , its an okay episode but it s not one I go out of my way to watch , it just dosent satisfy the conclusion , I watched playback last weekend and i simply cannot fault the gotcha it has a very satisfying gotcha as does swan song , BY dawns early light ,Suitable for framing and loads more .

     
  2. Cozi TV reran “A Deadly State of Mind” last night. What an excellent example of the difference between a dramatically satisfying “gotcha” and a legally satisfying one. I was especially struck by the moment when the sighted Morris brother removed his sunglasses and returned them to Columbo (a telling gesture about Columbo’s full orchestration of the charade). And this isn’t a case where the villain’s final admission will supply the ultimate proof of guilt; unlike many Columbo villains, Dr. Collier admitted nothing after Columbo made his final accusation. In other words, the episode ends before Collier could say, “No, I thought he was blind because you told him to act like he was blind, even gave him sunglasses to wear indoors so he’d look to everyone like a blind man.”

    I started thinking: shouldn’t Columbo have asked David Morris (Fred Draper) to act completely normal? Wouldn’t that have cinched things tighter when Collier tagged him a blind man? Legally, certainly. But would it have made as dramatically effective an ending? I’m not so sure that it would.

     
  3. Let’s not equate Columbo villains with real criminals. Real criminals spend about five minutes planning their crimes, and even less figuring out how they’re going to get away with it. The premise of someone planning a perfect murder already excludes 99.9999% of the criminal world.

     
    • The Columbo series cherishes the fine art of killing someone in style, but it doesn’t do this without proving to the viewers that nonetheless killing is a wrong thing to do.

       
  4. Some of these were great episodes somewhat slightly let down by the gotcha
    Identity crisis my clear favorite of these but I actually like the ending especially the gag about the Chinese pulling out and re entering the Olympic games and the loving couple on the beach , murder by the book in 2nd and the most crucial game in 3rd .
    I dont Think The gotcha damaged the other episodes so much as some of them were poor in general Namely Dead Weight , Matter of honor , Dagger of the mind and of course last salute , lovely but lethal very Average , Requiem wasn’t poor but I never choose to watch it as it does very little for me. The Most Dangerous match Weak Ending but a watchable episode that I would call Slightly better than average .

     
  5. If you really think about it hardly any of Columbo’s gotchas would hold up.

    But while “Last Salute to the Commodore” deserves to be on that list–if Swanny had just said “Who cares?” lIke the other two did, no gotcha–this article does not mention two of the worst. “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case” has the bad guy simply demonstrate how the murder *could* have happened. It’s not a gotcha at all but everyone acts like it is, which is weird. And “Forgotten Lady” amounts to nothing more than Columbo showing there were ten unaccounted for minutes. All Janet Leigh has to say (if she remembered it, anyway) is “I fell asleep on the couch” or “I took a really long poop”, and boom, no gotcha.

     
    • But they didn’t. The fact that a guilty person could, given weeks to ponder it, come up with a creative explanation doesn’t change the fact that, at the moment of revelation, most can think of nothing exculpatory to offer and drop their pretense of innocence. Couldn’t Paul Galesko (“Negative Matter”) have said that he only picked the camera he did because, as an expert in the field, he recognized it as the model most likely to produce the photo it made? Couldn’t Dale Kingston (“Suitable for Framing”) have accused Columbo of finding and touching the Degas pastels earlier, while still in Aunt Edna’s closet — rather than “now” — and made Columbo’s gloved hands irrelevant? Yes and yes. But they didn’t, because they didn’t think of it. Because it wasn’t true. Because they were guilty.

       
      • Mr. Weill — you know as well as I do that plenty of people stick to their claims of innocence (sometimes truthfully) after the police, and, in some cases a jury, are finished with them.

         
      • Well as I said in my first sentence, almost none of Columbo’s gotchas would hold up for real. Maybe the fingerprint on the bullets in that first William Shatner episode.

        But if you take “Columbo” for what it is, a fun logic puzzle instead of a realistic police procedural, I submit that “Forgotten Lady” and “The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case” fail on those grounds. I was confused at the “gotcha” in the latter when Oliver just kind of flops down in his chair and acts like it’s all over. Columbo didn’t even catch him in a lie! All he can get Oliver for is embezzlement!

         
        • Vidor – You are right about the weakness of the gotcha in “IQ Murder Case” – it’s pure manipulation of the viewer’s minds to claim that Oliver’s reaction out of ego was his final downfall. I am curious how Columbophile is going to explain why this is his favourite episode in his upcoming review.
          But “Forgotten Lady” does never claim to have a gotcha at all, that’s why Columbo talks to Ned Diamond instead of the murderess about his thoughts. “Forgotten Lady” deals wonderfully with the fact that Columbo can’t prove anything. In this case he doesn’t have to and it’s a much greater, touching ending because of that.

           
    • yes I agree , I am a massive fan of the Bye -bye sky high IQ murder but i admit it is a weak gotcha if it even is a gotcha , its a very enjoyable episode on the whole but I dont rate it quite as high as columbophile does (IE) I rate Try and catch me , Negative reaction, prescription murder , and swan song higher, not only for the gotcha but bearing in mind The bye bye has marsh mallow man sized flaws such as why and how the police didnt find the gun up the chimney , how berties roaring didn’t raise the dead , they were out of the room together for about ten minutes , the reappearing soot on olivers face and of course the blatant line drawn on the dictionary . If u can forgive these bloops its just about the best episode however I just cant so its about 5th or 6th maybe 7th in my overall ratings .
      As for forgotten Lady I feel that should have been included in the least satisfying gotchas the difference being that it is Not one of my favorite 70s episodes , I find it a bit boring sorry..

       
  6. The thing about Nora Chandler is that even if she hadn’t taken the ring-bait, she knew Columbo had her because all he would have to do is get a warrant to dig up the backyard. He literally knew where the body was buried, and once he found it, there’d be no point in keeping up the pretense. Yes, Columbo has a far-fetched theory, but he’s a detective. Drawing big conclusions from small clues is kind of what he does. It’s much stronger than you give it credit for.

    My nominee for all-time worst gotcha has got to be Excercise in Fatality. Shoelaces, really? There is no way a blowup of a police photo would have enough resolution to tell unequivocally which was the “first loop.” Any good defense lawyer would easily confuse the issue. And shoelaces never line up as neatly as they do in this episode. Try it yourself sometime. Besides, as I’ve often pointed out, Phil Bruns, who played the victim, was left-handed. And Columbo’s long-winded demonstration is boring as all get out.

     
    • The shoelace aspect of Exercise in Fatality is only a small piece of evidence that helps Columbo crack the case. He’s amassed a tonne of strong evidence throughout, the most crucial but being Janus’s own testimony that Gene was in his gym gear. It’s one of Columbo’s most complete cases. Janus is toast!

       
  7. As I wrote on an earlier occasion, I don’t think the “Murder by the Book” gotcha is ridiculous at all. There is a ton of circumstantial evidence against him. 1) Telling a detective that the insurance would all go to the deceased’s estate upon his death, when you are in fact a major recipient is no small thing. Why would he lie except to cover up a motive. 2) The dumping of the body in his yard is also incriminating. The only possible explanation would be the mob threat idea, but since he really was not writing any expose on the mob, as his widow would surely testify, the only explanation for the body being dumped there was based on a supposed mafioso list that Franklin made up himself – a clear lie to get him an opportunity to get rid of the body and send the police on a wild goose chase. 3) The 15,000 withdrawal, and its deposit back into his account the day after LeSanka’s murder, is strong evidence that he blackmailed and then murdered her – esp. when you add in his blatant lie that he did not know her disproved by the book inscription indicating a romantic closeness and the champagne cork. Columbo mentions all this to Franklin before he admits. 4) You also have the small things like opening the mail, coming from SD by car, and no evidence the body was ever in the office. 5) But the real killer is, I think, Columbo’s last few words before Franklin confesses: “Do I need to read any more?” I think this is clearly meant to imply that there were many more details in the remaining mystery plot that mirrored the actual murder, and Franklin followed it all to the letter since he never assumed a written copy of this “tossed away” idea existed. That is why he did not want Columbo to continue and spell out all the damning details – from which he knew he could not talk his way out off. There are thousands of men sitting in American jails on murder convictions that were obtained on far less evidence. While few of them are rich writers like Franklin, this is certainly not an obviously disprovable case – certainly not when you consider what Bochco clearly meant was yet to come in the remainder of the deceased’s murder mystery plot.

     
    • My beef is more that I don’t think it’d be in his character to confess. He’s committed murder to maintain the life he’s become accustomed to. I don’t believe he’d admit to anything, especially that a clue on a scrap of paper, written years before, was definite proof of his guilt. His whole job in the writing duo was to do the talking and promo of the books. He could talk his way out of tighter spots than Columbo has him in there.

       
      • Maybe Ken Franklin is a lot more like Oliver Brandt than you might think. Brandt revealed himself because he couldn’t stand anyone thinking that Danziger was the Sigma Society’s true “genius,” not he. Maybe Franklin similarly couldn’t stand anyone thinking that he “didn’t contribute to the writing” and had “no talent for mysteries.” Maybe his ego compelled him to take credit for his five-year-old idea.

         
        • Richard Weil:

          Sir. I am just curious if you, as a lawyer and former prosecutor, don’t believe that in at least two instances, Columbo outright frames the killers (the universally acclaimed “Death Lends a Hand” and the almost universally despised “Dagger of the Mind”). What is your opinion, given that such things have been alleged to occur in real life?

          Yours.

           
          • I disagree. “Framing” means that you create a false case against someone AND charge him based on that false evidence. Columbo never does that. He often creates a falsity (the phony suicide in “Prescription: Murder,” the contact lens in “Death Lends a Hand,” the bead in “Dagger of the Mind,” the cigar box in “Short Fuse,” the reversed photo in “Negative Reaction,” the son’s arrest in “Mind Over Mayhem,” the Shriner’s ring in “Requiem for a Falling Star,” the phony police file in “A Friend in Deed,” the phony witness in “Deadly State of Mind”) but that never serves as the “evidence” supporting his arrest. The arrest is always based on the truthful and reliable statements or actions the killer makes in response to this “evidence.” That’s not framing anyone. It’s no different than police telling an arrestee that his buddy in the next interview room just spilled the beans and blamed him for everything, to see how the arrestee will react. If he reacts by saying, “He beat her. I just held her down,” it doesn’t matter that his buddy actually had said nothing. He wasn’t framed.

             
      • I get what you are saying, and you have a good point. Indeed, when Columbo reminds him of all the other evidence, he laughs and says you can’t prove that in court. The point at which he gives up is when Columbo reads, ” ‘Idea for a Melville Book. Perfect alibi. A wants to kill B. Drives B to to a remote house and has him call his wife in city. Tells her he’ll be working late at the office. Bang, bang.’ Sounds familiar? That’s the part you used. Practically word for word. Should I read some more?” At that point, Franklin, with a look of utter resignation, says, “No.” I think Bochco intended for the viewers to assume that the perfectly matched details continued in the remaining part. And since even the first part is not that easy to talk your way out of, Franklin could not stand to hear Columbo read him the rest out loud and rub it in his nose. Hence, he said enough. Perhaps you can still argue whether an arrogant guy like him would still fight, but I certainly think this is sufficient to keep it clear of a gotcha that is unrealistic or would be laughed out of court.

         
        • Leo, scroll down to my “September 23, 2019 at 12:41 am” comment as to why the case against Ken Franklin certainly would not be “laughed out of court.”

          The real legal hole with the episode’s “gotcha” (which I consider almost irrelevant to its dramatic appeal) is the fact that you can’t make a convincing case that Ferris’ notes are “the part you used. Practically word for word,” unless you already can prove that Franklin drove Ferris “to a remote house and has him call his wife in city. Tells her he’ll be working late at the office. Bang, bang.” And if you already can prove that, what do you need the notes for?

          I made this point several years ago. See: https://columbophile.com/2017/05/17/what-happens-when-columbos-cases-go-to-court/

           
  8. I think to examine the episodes in this way is to miss the point. This isn’t a show about what happens in a courtroom, this is a show about a very smart man picking up on little things that lead him to the murderer. Sometimes the murderer helps out by confessing, usually because he’s so worn down, but the point is – he did it, and Columbo knows he did it. The high and mighty killer knows Columbo outwitted him.

    What the DA does with the case doesn’t matter. Lots happens between an arrest and a trial, including a lot of investigation and many interviews once the DA takes over. Columbo’s done his job.

    You can certainly argue that Viveca Scott in Lovely but Lethal was stupid. She could have claimed self-defense, that Martin Sheen came after her. She ruined that chance by killing the assistant. Abigail in Try and Catch Me – a lawyer could argue jury nullification and the little old lady would get off. You can go through each episode like that but hey, they did it, and we know murderers go free at times.

     
  9. Well, this time I have to disagree with several points of your (as usual) very nicely written article.
    First, I do like the Montoya and Clayton gotchas – especially the latter one, when the villain who has been falling into pieces inside throughout the entire episode finally explodes and shows his weakness. I like both of those entire episodes anyway.
    Second, I would definitely put the Dagger ending in the top three instead of the Hanlon ending. The latter may not be able to convict the villain, but it is so perfectly played by the two leads: the facial expressions, the tension, the music – it’s great! One of the best in my opinion because of this.
    Third, I would take the Hollister ending out of the top three because I quite enjoyed it, like I did the episode itself. The clue may be weak (why didn’t they examine the gun right away?), but the contrast of the reveal (the “iron” ex-soldier vs the fragile and shocked Helen Stewart) gives it the necessary load of emotions and energy.
    Fourth, I do like the Old-Fashioned Murder ending, just like the entire episode, which is one of my favorites, but I guess that’s a topic for a comment under the relevant review.

     
  10. 1} “Prescription: Murder” – No way that Dr. Flemming makes that mistake.
    Flemming knows Columbo knows,. there’s no way he gives him the satisfaction of confessing.

    2} “Now You See Him” – You wouldn’t/didn’t dust the bullets?

     
  11. I love all of these comments. They’re awesome! Okay, here’s my two cents. When I see the ‘gotcha’ moments, I think of them this way, Lt Columbo wears them down. Chip by chip he cracks their defenses. As his noose slowly closes, Columbo simply shows the murderers that he won’t back down. Ever. No matter how lame the clue is, he will persist. To me, the results are the same- he simply breaks them down. He’s that terrier on your pant leg that won’t let go.
    So, really, aren’t all these ‘gotchas’ his way of telling these killers, I’ve got you in my sights. I won’t let up.
    It may not be that one ‘gotcha’ clue that does it, but the culmination of so many loose ends, that yes, I think he wears the killers down to a nub, and they know, either give in, give up, or…spend another few days with a toothy mutt attached to your pants.

    In my humble opinion, it may not be that one perfect clue in the end, but that last frayed nerve. Maybe, as some of you say, the suspect would still battle or fight, and not roll over, but if you had that L-T on your butt, do you think he’d just lose interest and let you go? Nope. 🙂

     
    • In theory, the “gotcha” (or “pop” clue) defies an innocent explanation (at least not one the killer can concoct on the spot). All the little “loose ends” Columbo pursues throughout the episode generally can be explained away, with varying degrees of credibility to be sure. But the “gotcha” is supposed to be different.

      Take “Swan Song,” for example. Again and again, Columbo confronts Tommy Brown with a curious fact that looks fishy. And each time Brown has a plausible explanation. But when Columbo catches Brown in the woods clutching his parachute … not so much.

       
  12. Tough business to be in here, but thanks for venturing forth.
    I guess I don’t get hung up on the evidence as much, unless it’s seriously awry. With Hanlon, the entertainment is that he didn’t “miss the best part.” The best part is that he didn’t refute the chime: he was stopped dead in his tracks by it — a cousin of the subliminal cut. To liken it to chess, you rarely see an actual checkmate; in an impending loss, the player almost always resigns. If the actual end was played out, it might very well be tracing the call to that phone booth. A “gotcha” need not be an on-the-spot execution or a barrage of damning evidence, but a key turning point toward the killer being outwitted. Hanlon is pretty solid up to the end, until the rug is pulled out. Good stuff. Not like, say, Try and Catch Me, where Abigail enters into a severe positional deficit at the outset when she walks in and calls the death an accident.

     
      • Why call it anything? She flops hard by playing that card. Columbo pounces. Followed by her feigning confusion and Columbo’s classic “Oh, I can’t really imagine you confused, Miss Mitchell.” It’s an early sack for a loss. Her attempted recovery with the accident theory during coffee time with the Lieutenant only makes it worse. Plus, all these cops are in and out of the safe and no one changes the light bulb? Come on. But yes, the episode if brilliant in many ways. That she is a murder writer against the detective makes for some great dynamics.

         
  13. The IQ murder case,too..come on,what had Columbo proved? Embezxzement and that the suspect giessed how it could have been done. This is a far cry to prove he pushed the trigger of a gun not found! As for the motive, how can Columbo prove Bernie had disvoveted his partner dishonesty and had intentions to expose him? Another case of unjustified surrender!

     
      • Very sad indeed. Besides, Harassing and belittling your business partner and “friend” and stealing behind his back is not the best method to maintain friendship. And after Oliver killed bernie “I’ve really loved you” some love!

         
      • CP: I am not sure how much money Oliver Brandt has but there won’t be much left, I suspect, after the lawyers. His trophy wife (Samantha Eggar) is breathtakingly beautiful but without money or status, he’ll also be without her. He has no true friends apparently because of his arrogance and egotism. Whether the gotcha holds up in court, however, is another matter.

         
  14. You’re all going to hate me for this because I know you love the episode, but I’d add Try and Catch Me to that list.

    The gotcha was clever, but why did it take till the end of the episode for Columbo to notice the arrow scratched on the boxes? The very first time we saw him he was walking out of the vault!

    Didn’t he bother looking around the first time he was in there? Or, if the police had already moved the boxes (unlikely), they’d first have taken photos that Columbo could have looked at.

    And it’s not just a plot hole; those are forgivable. It’s a real aesthetic problem with the story. In a good Columbo story, the clues lead one to another, or pile up cumulatively one with another, up to the conclusion. There’s a satisfying connection. Here, though, everything that came before is virtually irrelevant once Columbo sees the arrow at the end and follows it to the light bulb. That’s all it took, one self-contained, isolated clue.

     
    • I’m really looking forward to the next three Columbophile reviews, because each of the next three episodes (“The Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case,” “Try and Catch Me,” and “Murder Under Glass”) is such a mixed bag. A lot to like, but a lot to question, too.

      “Try and Catch Me” may be the most interesting of the three. A crime that should have been solved during the commercial break before Columbo makes his first appearance. A cartoonish solution. Inexplicably hiding the victim’s keys. But, yet, one of the most memorable Columbo murderers.

      Most interesting to me, however, is the episode’s first Columbo appearance of an Ellery Queen-like dying clue (in a Columbo story written by an ex-Ellery Queen writer). How did that come about? In “Troubled Waters,” the murderer left a fake “dying clue” (the “L” in lipstick to try to frame Lloyd Harrington), but that’s the closest Columbo previously came to using this old mystery trope.

       
    • Oh—uh, one other thing.

      In the gotcha for “Try and Catch Me,” Columbo discovers the incriminating evidence, the scrap of paper, while he and the murderer are the only people present. Only two people in the world know that the incriminating piece of paper exists, Columbo and the murderer.

      So what does Columbo do? He hands the incriminating evidence to the murderer and asks her to read it out loud. Dramatic!

      I mean, if I were the murderer, I would’ve just swallowed it. What’s there to lose at that point? Like, at least make Columbo tell his story to the jury: how he found a scrap of paper from a title page in a light bulb socket and the first two words were crossed out but no, he doesn’t actually have the piece of paper to show the court, because he gave it to the accused and she ate it.

      Not one of the better gotchas.

       
      • And Tommy Brown could have doused his parachute with lighter fluid and set it on fire, or simpler still, Oliver Brandt denied ever doing with the red magic marker what only he and Columbo witnessed. But is that really the point?

        Although it is nice when Columbo can say, as in “Negative Reaction”: “Were YOU a witness to what he just did? Were YOU a witness to what he just did? Were YOU a witness to what he just did?”

         
  15. That wasn’t even the worst part about the gotcha in The Most Dangerous Match. Remember that it’s only when Columbo’s dog runs up there, in the final minutes of the episode, that he finds out the machine switches off automatically.

    But are we supposed to believe that Columbo never bothered talking to the doctors or looking at their report to find out the details of Dudek’s injuries? If Columbo had done so, the doctors would have explained why he wasn’t killed: because the machine switched off.

    So if Columbo had done his job with even a fraction of his usual carefulness, the crime would’ve been solved in the first 20 minutes.

     
    • Never thought of That a machine fitted with a safety device would be clearly marked either on the machine or the switch itself which any detective would either notice or ask about , Also there are regulations in place in all Major hospitals Not to administer any Drugs from Outside for these reasons of foul play Clayton wouldn’t have been able to get the fatal drugs inside . I dont consider it poor but it is very Hard to rate The most dangerous match highly when compared with other top seventies episodes .

       
    • Yeah — “The Most Dangerous Match” is ludicrous. Columbo is already on the case when the killer finishes the job? Laurence Harvey was dying as he played the role. You can tell there’s a lot more wrong with Clayton than deafness. Hard to watch knowing that. And the “gotcha” amounts to arresting Clayton (although neither the arrest nor, more importantly, any confession, is shown) simply for being deaf. Absurd.

       
  16. I would defend Requiem for a Falling Star- sooner or later that yard is going to be dug up, and once Columbo has confronted her with his theories she knows he’ll be watching when it is. So it makes sense that she would confess at that point.

     
    • It makes sense that she’d confess at that point, but it was a pretty extraordinary leap for Columbo to deduce that a Shriner’s ring would be the trigger for her panicked flight.

       
      • But it wasn’t the ring alone, but the ring in the context of what Columbo told Nora at the time. As Columbo presented it, the ring was a piece of “new evidence” Jerry Parks — with established investigative credentials of his own — had unearthed (pun intended) relating to Nora (and hence kept in an envelope marked “N.C.”). Nora already was paranoid about her yard. Her urgent desire to see if anything back there had been disturbed seems quite reasonable to me.

        And remember, Columbo is quite open about this rouse being a long shot (“I was just playing hunches. I had nothing to go on. I was just guessing. I had nothing concrete. I just wanted to see what you’d do.”).

        I quite like this ending.

         
        • I also think it’s important to remember that Nora is a big movie star, and the secret she’s trying to protect is that she’s buried the body of a man she murdered in a very conspicuously located plot of land. Once any measure of suspicion of her leaks out to the public, she will be exposed on every side. Once Columbo figures out that secret, he knows that she must have been half a millimeter from a panic attack for a decade or more, and all he has to do is nudge her ever so slightly. If anything, the ring is too strong a ruse.

           
      • Sorry — that SHOULD read, “That skeleton under the lawn is one gotcha that cannot be denied.” (Too bad we — except CP, I guess — cannot edit published comments.)

         
  17. The gotcha in Last Salute to the Commodore didnt rankle me , in fact i enjoyed the whole episode. Fine acting by everybody , good direction by Patrick McGhooen, its setting is water & boats , i do agree with you the Lieutenant is pushy & obnoxious in 2 or 3 scenes trying to throw his weight around , i believe that’s the term . Otherwise , a good episode .

     
  18. The only 70’s episodes featuring a relly weak gotcha are, in my opinion, Dead Weight, for the reasons mentioned above; Fade in to murder, because of the evidence (finger prints on the bullets) popping up out of nowhere; and to some lesser extent The most crucial game. Yes, of course there could have been many reasons why the clock didn’t chime on the tape, but it was still cleverly thought of by the lieutenant.
    The other “weak ones” in the list I really like: Columbo trapping the deaf man in A most dangerous match, having him on the edge of his nerves; the fountain that could not move in Requiem I think is terrific; not to mention triggering the fear of Montoya in A matter of honour. Even the ending of the perfectly dreadful Last Salute isn’t that bad in my opinion, perhaps a bit slow, but the watch of the commadore is a nice touch and the killer isn’t revealed until the end (unless you picked up on the clues).

     
  19. I agree with some of these, but I concur with the commenter who stated that the real enjoyment of the gotcha moments was in Columbo solving it and the criminal knowing Columbo figured it out.

     
  20. I agree with what Paul said about the gotchas being the weakest part of an overall very entertaining show.

    But then again, would a police detective really take the time (even during the wee hours – *ahem* The Greenhouse Jungle) to explain how he deduced the workings of the crime? Not to mention, he usually does this alone without backup and brings the actual retrieved evidence.

    But goodness, what an entertaining show inspite of this.

     
  21. Please keep in mind that what makes a mystery solution dramatically satisfying is not its legal force and effect. What makes a mystery solution satisfying is its unforeseeable inevitability. Something that leaves you with that “Of course!—but why didn’t I see it coming?” reaction.

    Because the opposite is also true. Finding legal proof is usually fairly undramatic.

    “Murder by the Book” is full of legal proof against Ken Franklin, but much of it takes a back seat to the much more dramatic revelation that the Ferris murder was based on an unused Ferris-Franklin story idea. [Pick up a copy of the Frederick Knott (of “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” and “Wait Until Dark” fame) play “Write Me a Murder,” an Edgar Award-winning Best Play. Using a mystery fiction idea for a “real” murder has a long, widely varied dramatic history.] What’s that back-seat proof? Phone records.

    Columbo already knows from “phone company records in San Diego” that “on the day of murder, there was a record of a call from the [Franklin] cabin … to the Ferris house in Los Angeles.” If so, then Columbo also knows the exact time of that call. And we also know that Joanna Ferris called the police immediately after that call ended (“Jimmy? Jimmy! Operator, get me the police!”)—where the police will have a record of this call’s exact time, too. [Joanna also knows that Franklin’s call reporting “that Jim and I had patched up our differences” was an earlier call, not the one that immediately preceded her calling the police. And once Columbo realizes that Franklin “killed the witness” who placed Ferris in San Diego, he is sure to investigate calls from Lily LaSanka’s store and discover the second San Diego-to-Ferris house call on the day of the murder.]

    So phone records will prove that Jim Ferris’ “working late at the office” phone call—ending two or three seconds before Joanna’s call to the police—came from Ken Franklin’s San Diego cabin. Let’s see Ferris explain away Ferris’ story notes now!

     
  22. I may be in the minority here but I often find the gotcha’s the weakest and most disappointing part of the show. Lady In Waiting (No way are we getting a conviction here. We have even had a coroners inquest) Etude In Black (a flower???? Seriously? He could have picked that up any time) even the great Stitch In Time (the search has already been conducted. All the police have left. How is he going to convince anyone he went back in alone and found the evidence without planting it?)

    I think you could compile a top 25 list of poor gotchas without much difficulty.

     
    • I disagree here. There are so many amazing gotchas, and when a gotcha’s good it’s often the episode highlight. The gotchas in Suitable for Framing, Friend in Deed, Candidate for Crime, Deadly State of Mind, Negative Reaction, Prescription: Murder, Playback are some of the best TV moments I’ve ever seen!

       
      • To me, the gotcha is the second thing I remember about every 70’s episode. The first is the villain’s profession. I often remember more about the gotcha than I do about the crime. “Deadly State of Mind” is a great example. A (1) psychiatrist who’s (2) tricked into revealing he knows that the man outside the house was blind. How Carl Donner was killed? The flint in the carpet? Far less memorable. [The never-solved murder of Nadia Donner is far more interesting than the murder Columbo actually solves.]

         
      • I dont know why Try and catch me gotchas is often undermentioned its a great ending to in my opinion the best episode , How could Abigail even begin to explain to a jury how the deleted words with a burnt match which doomed her as Edmund was the only one who smoked and was in the safe?

         
      • Yes I Agree a gotcha Makes a Great episode especially those mentioned but for me not in every case ,an example of this for me would be An exercise in fatality which I dont rate highly on the whole but very good gotcha Much like Short Fuse , Candidate for crime is slow and full of time wasting moments not among my true favorites but has a great gotcha . , Deadly state of mind and playback are sort of mid -tier but excellent/ top ten gotchas, However I absolutely love Negative reaction , Suitable for framing , prescription murder and try and catch Me Throughout and very very good gotchas , there are more but these are the stand out ones from the seventies for me. .

         
        • Swan song is one of the best seventies episodes and has a great gotcha very similar to blueprint for murders gotcha , however blueprint is a good episode but not in the same league as swan song .

           
  23. Uneasy lies the crown: Columbo lies, murderer loses his bottle (as the English say); how it really would have gone

    Murderer: go on, pull out the crown and try it out

    Columbo: Oh &£?#, looks like you got away with it then!

    Big fail from Bochco

     
  24. How could you not include “Any Old Port In A Storm”? I still have yet to understand how proving that the AC went out in the wine cellar proved that Carsini killed his brother. Not seeing ANY connection. Very disappointing gotcha, IMO.

    But, I agree with most of your other choices. Very enjoyable read, thank you!

     
  25. “Columbo trapping chess Grand Master Emmett Clayton with the old ‘switch-off-the-machine-to-trick-the-deaf-man’ gag is clever on paper, but it doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. Why? Because it’s a nonsense that a deaf man would fail to notice the lack of vibrations once the machine had been turned off. The machine was huge, and Clayton was right beside it for Pete’s sake! It’s such a fatal flaw that I’m never quite able to get past it. Why didn’t anyone in the creative team point out this massive discrepancy?” —

    Yep. “The Most Dangerous Match” was a very bad episode, possibly the worst. I would never watch it again. Unable to even suspend disbelief. Laurence Harvey was dying of cancer when he made it and you can tell he is in bad shape. Lloyd Bochner makes a fool of himself in a one-dimensional hysterical role as a Soviet bureautard with an absurd Russian accent. Columbo has really no evidence against Clayton, who somehow manages to finish the job and kill the victim (who survived the first assassination attempt and is in the hospital) even after the police are on the job!! Also, this isn’t even geographically part of Columbo’s assigned area. Impossible to imagine any self-respecting DA taking the case.

     
      • The most dangerous match is a low tier episode but i dont call it poor I find it more enjoyable than Dead weight, Old fashioned Murder and Requiem for a falling star though .

         
    • I wouldnt go as far as to say most dangerous match was the worst its just sort of down towards the bottom end of the seventies , Harvey shouldn’t have been given the role as he was dying , the Murder and ending could have been done much better and it definetley lacks humor and chemistry between mureder and columbo so yes I agree not one of the best But its much better than Dead Weight and murder Under Glass, dagger and lasrt salute though.

       
    • just some trivia. When Patty Duke played Helen Keller on stage, a sandbag crashed to the floor – everyone looked in its direction except her.

       
  26. I would swap ‘The Most Dangerous Match’ here with ‘A Stitch in Crime’ because I’ve always felt that ending was too abrupt. Considering how Dr. Barry Mayfield is widely considered to be one of, if not THE most heinous murderer in the entire series, I would have liked to see him squirm. But that wasn’t the case.

    The Most Dangerous Game on the other hand had an entertaining ending. While the gotcha itself may have been weak, I enjoy the scene at the final gathering where Columbo breaks Emmett Clayton down and find myself watching it from time to time.

     
    • Columboophile s point with the most dangerous match is that the final gathering is enjoyable which I also like but the actual gotcha itself regarding the machine is weak .

       
  27. Wouldn’t a waste compactor in a hotel have some major sound and vibration proofing, to prevent disturbing the guests? Just wondering…

     
    • There was no evidence of that in the episode. It seemed extremely loud, and even if there was some dampening going on, they were so close to it that it would have been totally noticeable.

       
      • Why would anyone in anger, in an argument, in stress, and in fear be capable of sensing a machine’s vibrations? The only vibrations Clayton could notice at that very moment were Columbo’s hostile energies.
        The gotcha in “Most Dangerous Match” is a very satisfying one, because Columbo takes advantage of the antagonist’s weakness.

         
        • Because the machine was HUUUUUGE and turning it off would be like transferring from rough seas to calm waters. Even in state of agitation Clayton would be suitably attuned to notice this massive vibrational shift.

           
  28. Fully agree with Murder By The Book, though this is still one of my top 5 episodes the supposed “gotcha” would have been laughed out of court. I also remember the first time i watched The Most Crucial Game and wondered why Hanlon didn’t just say it was turned off at the time because he was cleaning it or something in that line. Anyway very good list and well done as usual.

     
  29. From my perch, the gotcha in “Dagger of the Mind” is easily the weakest in all of the 1970’s Columbo episodes. The pearl ploy is downright silly and would be destroyed in any court of law by even the least experienced of defense attorneys. Frame’s zero-to-sixty emotional descent is wholly unbelievable. It is to gotchas what “Last Salute” is to overall episodes. (Ironically, the Commodore’s watch never bothered me, although it representing the end of the torture that is that episode might be why I’m accepting of it.)

     
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  31. “Legacy-tarnishing weakness”! Plot so thin that wafers seem muscular in comparison! I love your writing, Mr. Columbophile, it’s always such a joy. & all points well taken on these flabby endings. But while I’m watching Columbo I generally go into a blissful suspension of disbelief & don’t realize the laziness until you bring it to light. Kudos, good sir!

     
  32. Thank you, Columbophile, for openly inviting “red-hot debate” on this topic, as that’s exactly what you’re going to get.

    Let me begin by saying that, not only is “Murder by the Book” my all-time favorite Columbo, but the final confrontation between Columbo and Ken Franklin — the gotcha scene — is my all-time favorite Columbo scene. It’s not just Columbo’s final reveal (“‘Idea for a Melville book. Perfect alibi. A wants to kill B. Drives B to a remote house and has him call his wife in city. Tells her he’s working late at the office. Bang, bang.’ Sound familiar? That’s the part you used, practically word for word.”), it’s also the prelude to the final reveal:

    F: Oh, come on, get to the climax, Lieutenant. You’re talking to a writer.
    C: Am I? That’s not what I heard. And that’s the key, that you’re not a writer. When Mrs.
    Ferris told me that you didn’t contribute to the writing, that her husband did all the work—
    F: That’s a lie.
    C: I had to say to myself, how could a man with no talent for mysteries make up such a clever murder? If you were that ingenious, you’d be able to write your own books.
    F: Go ahead, I’m fascinated, as boring as it may be.
    C: Then I got it. The first one, the clever one, that wasn’t yours. The second one, the sloppy one, that was yours. But not the first.
    F: And whose idea was that then?
    C: Your partner’s. Hadda be.

    Brilliant! Why? Because it connects directly to the essence of the character of Ken Franklin, including the fundamental reason for the Ferris-Franklin breakup that set Franklin’s entire crime into motion. It explains Jim Ferris’ deja vu experience we witnessed in the opening scenes. And to top it off, Steven Bochco’s scripts adds a further terrific ironic twist: “You want to know the irony of all this? That is my idea. The only really good one I ever had. I must’ve told it to Jim over five years ago. Who ever thought that idiot would write it down?”

    No, the gotcha for “Murder for the Book” belongs on the list of “The 10 most satisfying Columbo ‘gotchas’ of the 70s.”

    Nor would I include “The Most Crucial Game” or “Requiem for a Falling Star” on the “least” list. The former is a “perfect alibi” mystery, and the negative clue of the clock that didn’t chime is interwoven into the story nicely. In the latter, we saw the fountain throughout but, unlike Columbo, were never bothered by: “Fountain. Why fountain doesn’t run?” I find those touches very satisfying.

    Least satisfying gotchas, in my view, generally fall into the following two categories:

    Category 1: Gotchas that are the tack-ons. Gotchas that have little to do with the rest of the story. The poison ivy in “Lovely But Lethal.” The “Commodore’s watch” in “Last Salute to the Commodore.” The gun in the elevator in “Make Me a Perfect Murder.” All of these are gotchas for a gotcha’s sake alone. They’re totally superficial. They could have been swapped for something else without changing a word of the rest of the script.

    Category 2: Gotchas that logically should have been revealed within the episode’s first 30 minutes. This article mentions one of these: “Dead Weight” (“On the back of a murder claim, every gun the General owned – including duplicate pearl-handled Colt – ought to have been run through ballistics days before the denouement.”). But there are plenty of other examples. Why didn’t anyone notice that Peter Hamilton’s statement (“He heard the shots first, then the alarm.”) eviscerated Beth Chandler’s claim of innocence in the first 30 minutes of “Lady in Waiting”? Why didn’t anyone notice in the first 30 minutes of “Etude in Black” that there was a white carnation under Jennifer Welles’ piano? Any (forgive me if I trespass here in sacred ground) why, in the first 30 minutes, did no one thoroughly search the Sigma Society library, fireplace included (“The Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case”) or Abigail Mitchell’s safe (“Try and Catch Me”)?

     
    • It is distressing to watch an actor dying of cancer (Laurence Harvey here, and Jessie Royce Landis in “Lady in Waiting”) onscreen. You have to respect their bravery and gumption to keep going but …

       
      • “The Most Dangerous Match” was filmed in summer 1972, while Laurence Harvey’s death day was in late November 1973. It’s probable that he heard the diagnosis of his cancer somewhere in between. My father received his diagnosis on my 29th birthday and didn’t live to see my 30th.

         
        • Reading your comment got me curious as to actually when he was diagnosed. After digging around, I found the answer on an ancestry site of all places.

          Harvey was diagnosed 18 months before his death, so he had been battling it for a few months at the time of filming the Columbo.

           
          • Now that’s what I call digging deeper! Well done, Brett. Still we do not know exactly when Harvey signed his contract with the network to portray Emmet Clayton for the Columbo series. Was he willing to do the job before or after the diagnosis? I’m afraid this we will never know.

             
  33. well done columbophile , they definetley are the some of the weakest gotchas but I would like to know does this post cover new episodes as well or is it just concentrated on the seventies run.

     
    • “The 10 least satisfying Columbo ‘gotchas’ of the 70s” is your answer. Even Sgt. Grover wouldn’t dispute that.

       
  34. Where is “Mind Over Mayhem” in this interesting Top Ten? Confessing to a murder based on fake evidence is purely unnecessary. A wants-to-be-genius such as Dr. Cahill should have thought twice before doing so. Columbo couldn’t count on that.

     
    • I give that one a hall pass, but it’s certainly a lesser light, along with Greenhouse Jungle and Etude in Black that could almost have been included, too. I find that Columbo’s hunch that a father would protect his son is much less of a deductive leap than some of the others included here.

       
      • To me, “Greenhouse Jungle” is an example of a totally unmemorable plot almost saved by a good “gotcha.” Not the best, perhaps, but quite clever. If only Jarvis Goodland hadn’t mentioned shooting into a “pile of dirt over there.”

         
        • yes I agree i am not a big fan of the greenhouse jungle either , its ending saves its bacon from being a poor seventies episode and itsd ending is not highly memorable either .

           
          • That’s because, while clever, it still doesn’t link directly to the essence of (and fatal flaw in) the victim’s character, like the endings in “Any Old Port in a Storm,” “By Dawn’s Early Light,” “The Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case,” and, yes, “Murder by the Book.”

             

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