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
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.
A Matter of Honor
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!
The Most Dangerous Match
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?
Dagger of the Mind
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.
Lovely but Lethal
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.
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 Game, Columbo 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!
Requiem for a Falling Star
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?
And the big three…
3. The Most Crucial Game
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.
2. Dead Weight
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?
1. Last Salute to the Commodore
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.
“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.