Good things come in small packages. At least that’s what Columbo’s creative team must have been hoping when the Lieutenant swept back onto screens on 21 November, 1977.
Try & Catch Me, the opening episode of the show’s seventh season, featured pocked-sized octogenarian Ruth Gordon as murderous mystery writer
Agatha Christie Abigail Mitchell. Small in stature, but with a big reputation and personality, here was a Columbo killer like no other and a character so adorably cheeky that viewer sympathy was sure to be torn asunder.
But is Try & Catch Me as much fun as a scotch-fuelled flight to New York with Abigail Mitchell? Or does it need to be locked away in an air-tight safe to think about its failings? Let’s see…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Abigail Mitchell: Ruth Gordon
Veronica Bryce: Mariette Hartley
Edmund Galvin: Charles Frank
Martin Hammond: GD Spradlin
Annie: Mary Jackson
Sergeant Burke: Jerome Guardino
Dog: As himself
Written by: Gene Thompson and Paul Tuckahoe
Directed by: James Frawley
Score by: Patrick Williams
Significant locations: Abigail Mitchell residence (880 La Loma Rd, Pasadena); Ladies’ Club Lunch (Riviera Country Club, 1250 Capri Dr, Pacific Palisades)
Episode synopsis: Columbo Try & Catch Me
World-renowned murder mystery writer Abigail Mitchell has it in for her young nephew-in-law, Edmund Galvin. She believes, rightly or wrongly, that he murdered her only living relative, niece Phyllis, in what police have determined was a tragic boating accident. The body was never found.
Still, in her murder-addled mind Edmund is guilty and if the police aren’t going to see justice done, Abi is willing to take things into her own ancient hands. So she makes Edmund her sole heir – a request Edmund is happy to facilitate – and makes a show of having her new will signed by Edmund in front of her lawyer Martin Hammond immediately before a trip to New York.
There’s a catch – but it’s no biggie. If octogenarian Abi outlives Edmund, all his estate will come to her, but with the old coffin dodger surely having only a short time left on this earth, Edmund signs his life away without even reading the small print.
Job done, Edmund drives away – but only after Abi urges him to secretly return via the service road and side entrance to discuss confidential matters. The dear old duck wants to teach Edmund the combination to her walk-in, air-tight, cash-filled safe in case anything happens to her, and the obliging young fella caves in to her demands.
After a quick demonstration of how it all works, Abi asks Edmund to stash the newly signed wills in the safe. Little does he realise he’ll never leave it alive. Dispensing with the lovable old dear act, Abi roars to Edmund: “You murdered my Phyllis. Did you really think I didn’t know?” before slamming the door on him, leaving him to lingering suffocation in pitch blackness. Tough break!
Of course there’s a fly in the ointment. Edmund left his car keys on Abi’s desk, which she spots only when Martin comes in to summon her to her flight. Sweeping them up, Abi desperately buries them in a large, sand-filled ashtray in the entrance hall before dashing to the plane, where she knocks back celebratory scotches with gay abandon.
Abi’s trip is curtailed the next day after a desperate call from her PA, Veronica. She’s found Edmund’s dead body in the safe as part of her daily duties and pleads for Abi’s return. As a result, more congratulatory scotch is swug by the embittered old crone as she about turns and jets back to good old LA.
There’s a predictable hubbub at the mystery writer’s home as police rush hither and thither during preliminary investigations. Columbo, of course, is in charge at the scene and he’s already making deductive strides. For one thing, he doesn’t believe Edmund’s death was an accident, as Abi suggests. The burglar alarm was switched on, after all. How could Edmund have got into the safe when the alarm was on?
Edmund has also left detectives with matters to ponder. Why had he removed his belt, which was found with black paint on the buckle? Why had he laid out one of Abi’s manuscripts on the floor and burned six matches? Plus there are two scraps of paper with torn edges lying around. What could it mean?
Fortunately, few people on earth seem better qualified to help with the Lieutenant’s enquiries than one of the world’s leading mystery writers, and Abi is only too happy to help tie up some loose ends. She reveals that she herself had forgotten to turn the alarm on, and had rung maid Annie to ask her to do so. Edmund must have heard Annie’s approach, panicked, and shut himself in – sealing his own fate in the process.
Sounds plausible enough, but investigations continue out in the garden. A footprint out back is a match for Edmund’s shoe size, but how did he get in the house? Quick as a flash, Abi plays the doddery old dear act. Maybe Edmund used this key I keep hidden under a plant pot, she suggests, smothering it in her own fingerprints, rendering it useless to police. Oopsie!
But keys remain forefront in Columbo’s mind. Police know Edmund drove back to the house, but his car keys were not on his body and are nowhere to be seen! It’s a very great puzzle that the Lieutenant is in no position to crack just now.
Abi, of course, knows full well where the keys are – or at least where they should be. But after digging around in the sandy ashtray the keys are nowhere to be found. Housemaid Annie has the explanation. Because of all the cigar butts Columbo left in it, she tipped the sand away. She found some keys in it which, interestingly, Veronica claimed as her own. But when Abi pops upstairs to chat to Veronica, her secretary doesn’t even reference the keys! What is going on?
It’s not until the following afternoon that Veronica comes clean. She catches up with Abi in the garden to let her know that Columbo has returned. “What does he expect to find?” muses Abi. “These?” suggests Veronica, whipping out the keys, which she uses as an indelicate means of suggesting Abi might want to match her wage ambitions PDQ! No fool, Abi agrees to let Veronica join her on an imminent luxury cruise, where the two will plot the PA’s presumably lucrative future career.
Now the keys are back in her wrinkled hands, Abi finally has the chance to rid herself of the incriminating evidence for good. After all, Columbo has told her that finding them is absolutely crucial to his chances of breaking the case. They must vanish off the face of the earth.
So Abi does what any sensible mystery writer would do: she takes the keys to the docks to fling them into the drink. “Suck eggs, Columbo!” she’s clearly thinking, even as she reaches through the railings to carry out the deed. BUT NO! At the supreme moment she’s disturbed by Columbo, who is ‘coincidentally’ there walking his dog. It’s a wonder the aged dame’s ticker didn’t pack in on the spot, such was the extreme tension.
Columbo, however, is in an amiable mood, although he does reveal that the blessed keys are still playing on his mind. “When I find the keys, I’ll find the murderer,” he confides. It’s here that Abi commits virtual suicide as the audience screams for her to keep the keys hidden! “These are the car keys,” she says, dangling them in front of the stooping detective. “And I didn’t murder Edmund. He drove away, I went to New York.”
She goes on to explain that she found them beside a sprinkler head while gardening, the clear indication being that butter-fingered Edmund dropped them there while blundering through the flowerbeds. Surely this closes the case and she can head off on her cruise with a clear conscience? “The ship hasn’t sailed yet, ma’am,” is Columbo’s impassive response. Translation: Yo’ goin’ down, grandma…
Still, when we next encounter Abi she’s having a roaring good time at a farewell party aboard ship. Even the usually taciturn Martin is all smiles, having doubtless knocked back a few too many piña coladas. It looks like Abi’s going to get away with murder after all! But just at the moment of departure who should turn up at her luxury suite door but Lieutenant Columbo. And he’s not here to say ‘cheerio’ – he has a warrant that will prevent her taking off into the deep blue yonder.
You see, police photographs of Abi’s back garden clearly show there were no keys near the sprinkler head where she claimed to find them. And even her ‘I’m a forgetful old woman‘ excuse isn’t going to help her now. Abigail has been officially grounded – and even her lawyer can’t prevent it.
While Veronica is left to enjoy the cruise by herself (assuming a juiced-up Martin isn’t galloping about deck in just his holiday posing pouch), Abi and Columbo return to her home to further nut out what happened on that fateful night. And now everything’s falling into place for the good Lieutenant as he uses the mystery writer as a sounding board.
Putting himself in Edmund’s shoes, Columbo postulates that the dead man would have wanted to find some way of alerting authorities as to who killed him, but not knowing whether the killer would be the one that next opened the safe, he’d have to very clever to keep the alert secret from them. So how would he achieve that?
“Deathbed testimony,” concludes Columbo. “That’s considered very strong evidence.”
The paint on Edmund’s belt buckle leads the Lieutenant to a stack of black deposit boxes Abi kept in the safe. On closer inspection they all have vertical scratches on them, which, when rearranged, appear to reveal an upwards-pointing arrow. This leads Columbo to investigate the light fitting, and remove the burnt-out bulb.
And there, hidden in the bulb socket is a strip of paper – and it’s a perfect fit for the two strips he found in there the day Edmund’s body was found. It is, in fact, a torn-out piece from the manuscript’s title page – and on it is Edmund’s message from the grave that will do in for Abi.
He had used one of his precious matches to score out part of the book’s title. All that is left is a statement that reads: I was murdered by Abigail Mitchell. “Deathbed testimony,” concludes Columbo. “That’s considered very strong evidence.”
Abi makes no attempt to deny it. Instead she tries to appeal to the sweeter side of the Lieutenant’s nature, becoming the first killer to outright ask him to overlook the crime. “I don’t suppose you would consider making an exception in my case? An old woman, quite harmless all in all?” But Columbo is firm. “You’re a very professional person in your work, and so am I,” he replies.
Abi’s final act is to lament that Columbo wasn’t the chief investigator in the death of Phyllis, before she submits to his custody as credits roll…
Try & Catch Me‘s best bit: can she count on Columbo?
As discussed in the review of The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case, one of the key features introduced there by new series producer Richard Alan Simmons was to allow Columbo to gain a level of understanding and sympathy with the killer through a genuine meeting of minds. As was the case in Bye-Bye, the writers absolutely aced this aspect of Try & Catch Me, too, and this scene at the docks is the prime example.
Columbo clearly has his doubts about the old duck – so much so that he’s willing to trail her to the docks to catch her off guard at a supposedly coincidental meeting. And, naturally, it’s not long before the conversation turns to subjects relevant to the investigation – and to the death of Phyllis.
“That must have been very hard losing someone you love like that,” says Columbo. “I’ve been very lucky. I lost my parents, that’s the way of the world. But to lose someone that young, that’s like being cheated.”
Sensing a sympathetic ear, Abi is suitably charmed. “I’m beginning to be very fond of you, Lieutenant. I think you’re a very kind man,” she beams. But the detective’s response would have been enough to send alarms bells coursing through her tiny frame. “Don’t count on that, Miss Mitchell,” he replies. “Don’t count on it.”
There’s no menace in Columbo’s tone, but the message is crystal clear: he may be courteous; he may understand her pain; but he’s still got a job to do – and that job is to bring her down. There’s a lot of meaning packed into a short exchange, making this a candidate for best scene of the entire season.
My take on Try & Catch Me
Who’d have thought that 1977 would be such a vintage year for Columbo? Throughout 1976, we only had a single really good outing for the Lieutenant in the magic-tinged Now You See Him. That was followed by the DISMAL Last Salute; the frankly average Fade in to Murder; and the rather tedious Old Fashioned Murder.
Columbo fans, therefore, could be forgiven for thinking that their favourite show was on the wane. But then along came 1977 and kicked that doubt into touch. May’s The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case brilliantly salvaged Columbo‘s sixth season. Six months later Try & Catch Me continued in the same vein, providing the strongest Columbo season opener since Murder by the Book.
Ruth Gordon’s charming turn as diminutive mystery writer Abigail Mitchell helps boost this episode to genuine heights. Aged 80 at the time of filming, the venerable Gordon was the oldest Columbo killer by a stretch. This offered the opportunity to serve up a different type of detective/suspect dynamic, and the writers duly obliged.
The chief success at the heart of Abigail Mitchell is her playful nature allied with her shrewdness in playing the ‘doddering old dear’ trump card to convince those around her of her utter harmlessness. If this sounds familiar, it’s supposed to. Because, to put it succinctly, old Abi ‘pulls a Columbo‘ on a number of occasions to ensure her threat level is thoroughly underestimated.
Amongst the best examples is Abi ‘accidentally’ covering the spare key in the garden with her own fingerprints, denying police a chance to see whether Edmund himself used it to re-enter the house. What a mistake-ah to make-ah, eh Abi? Columbo lets her off the hook there, but no doubt made a swift mental assessment of her rascally ways.
“Try & Catch Me delivers the strongest Columbo season opener since Murder by the Book in 1971.”
He’s certainly not going to let her get away with it twice. When she lies about finding Edmund’s car keys by a sprinkler head in the garden he pores through police photos to disprove it. Despite her attempts to blame the frailty of an old woman’s memory, it’s the evidence Columbo needs to get a warrant.
It’s just a pity for Abi that she’s matched against a master craftsman in the art of such subterfuge, because under no circumstances is Columbo going to be blind-sided by the same act he’s made famous. Despite this, the relationship between them is rather sweet and the rapport shared by the leads seems genuine.
Time and again, Columbo is amused or abashed by Abi’s antics, not least when she throws him under the bus by making him give an off-the-cuff speech to the Ladies’ Club. He does handle it splendidly, though, delivering some revealing insight into his own character in a monologue always worth revisiting.
“Even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them, too,” he says, pointedly staring directly at Abi. “Like them and even respect them – not for what they did, certainly not for that, but for that part of them which is intelligent or funny or just nice.”
Reminiscent of the heart-to-heart the Lieutenant shared with Oliver Brandt in Bye-Bye Sky High, this is a highly effective means of giving the audience a glimpse of the man behind the mysterious facade, while giving Abi reason to regard him hopefully as a sympathetic figure. All in all, a really good scene.
Further affability follows when Columbo gets behind the steering wheel of Abi’s Roller and the two speak about their respective childhoods. “Shall we compare poverty stories, Lieutenant?” she asks playfully. “Not in a Rolls Royce, ma’am,” his poker-faced response.
These examples, and more besides, paint such a pleasing picture of camaraderie between the two that it’s easy for the viewer to fall for Abi’s charms and really root for her. Her cause is helped by the fact that her crime was borne out of love for her lost niece and the desire for vengeance against the man she believed was responsible for that loss.
“The ambiguity around Edmund’s guilt is one of the episode’s great strengths.”
If you buy into Abi’s belief, then it’s quite likely you’re secretly hoping she’ll get away with it. But for me, the ambiguity around Edmund’s guilt is one of the episode’s great strengths. She clearly believes he offed dear Phyllis, but who knows? Perhaps after 60 years of writing murder mysteries, Abi sees foul play where none exists and her vivid imagination is what condemns Edmund to a slow, terrifying death.
Nothing we see of Edmund on-screen is overtly suggestive that he killed Phyllis. Sure there’s some double meaning in the conversation on the beach when Abi says to him “I know what you did – everything you did,” and he has an uncomfortable look on his face, but you can read that either way. It could be guilt, or it could be a heavy heart at the thought of his dear wife.
Likewise, some viewers believe that Edmund ‘sneers’ when he looks at a photo of Phyllis at Abi’s house prior to signing the new will. I enter into evidence Exhibit A below. What some see as a sneer could easily be a rueful smile tinged with gladness that nephew and great aunt have found a way to move forward after months of despair.
Consider, too, what we do see of Edmund (who is nicely portrayed by Charles Frank). He’s a polite young man who is happy to acquiesce to Abi’s requests, and who seems to have genuine affection for her. He states clearly that he doesn’t want anything from her and hopes she lives for ever. He even has sufficient trust in her good nature to sign a will she has drawn up on his behalf without even reading it.
Not only that, he returns to the house in good faith at Abi’s request, not because he has any intention of stealing from her. In fact he tells her he doesn’t want to know the combination to the safe that she’s so desperate to give him as part of her fiendish plan. I ask you: are his actions those of a calculating killer, or of an obliging young chap keen to put a terrible chapter of his life behind him?
Personally, I like not knowing, which is why the scene between Columbo and Abi at Edmund’s apartment comes close to enraging me. It seems to have been included solely to ensure the audience sides with Abi’s worldview on Edmund’s guilt. To that I say: WAKE UP SHEEPLE! I, for one, refuse to comply!
Columbo states that Edmund and Phyllis must have had ‘a very poor relationship’ based on the fact that no photos of Phyllis were on show at the apartment. What a senseless observation! What if Edmund felt her loss so keenly that he couldn’t bear to even see images of her? That would be entirely plausible, so for once Columbo can take his opinion and shove it! The discerning viewer doesn’t need to be clumsily guided in this way.
Far more daring would have been to go the other way completely and have Columbo tell a colleague at the end that the saddest part of the whole case was that he took a look at Phyllis’s file and saw no evidence of foul play. That would have given proceedings a fascinating, bitter finish that could have left searching questions in the mind of the viewer long after the closing credits. Alas, it wasn’t to be…
As you can tell, I’ve given the Edmund conundrum a lot of thought but I shall now put it behind me in order to focus on wider aspects of the episode – and what better time to consider a belting performance by Mariette Hartley as Abi’s duplicitous secretary Veronica?
Hartley previously appeared in season 3’s Publish or Perish, although her character wasn’t much to write home about. Veronica, though, is a whole different animal. She is ICE COLD and wonderfully calculating, keeping hold of Edmund’s car keys until she figures out to use them to her best advantage i.e. to GET RICH!
Veronica puts Abi in a seriously tight spot, yet handles negotiations with a smile on her face as she dangles the Sword of Damocles over her boss’s head. Hartley does this so well that one senses she could have been an excellent Columbo killer in her own right. Clearly a friend of the show, it seems a missed opportunity not to have made a murderess of her in subsequent seasons.
“Just about the only characterisation I’m not crazy about here is the Lieutenant himself.”
Staying with the cast, also excellent is GD Spradlin as Abi’s lawyer-cum-handyman, Martin Hammond. He plays the stern legal eagle to a tee, but his best bit is unquestionably aboard ship. “Take care love,” he smiles, just before his face assumes its normal, serious mask. “And call me anytime you find a body in your safe.” Seems like everyone knows Abi’s guilty in this one – a pretty poor show for such a prolific mystery writer.
Just about the only characterisation I’m not crazy about here is the Lieutenant himself, because season 7 Columbo is a far cry from his best incarnation. He’s far more theatrical and seems less of a real person, with his bigger gestures, more forced facial expressions and a more laboured way of speaking. The impression I get, dare I say it, is of someone impersonating Columbo, rather than being Columbo. It’s an important distinction.
From a Columbo in-universe perspective, we could interpret this as being an example of the Lieutenant evolving the ‘act’ he uses to unsettle suspects. The reality, of course, was that Falk was likely tiring of the role and looking to mix things up as he sporadically did throughout the 70s.
Consider: in season 1 he was getting to grip with the role. His Columbo there is more direct and more openly knowing. In seasons 2-4 (what I consider Prime Columbo), he has mastered every nuance of the character and delivers the most natural, easy and charming characterisation.
Then we came to season 5, when perhaps a shade of over-familiarity had crept in. The first signs of tinkering with the Columbo character’s make-up came in Identity Crisis, where director and co-star Patrick McGoohan was keen to push the Lieutenant in ‘interesting’ new directions (weirdness, distractedness, shouting, odd mannerisms/expressions, invading personal space, more cryptic with colleagues etc) – few of which were an improvement on the Columbo we knew and loved.
These undesirable traits were more or less evident for the rest of the 70s, (most noticeably in the LAMENTABLE Last Salute), and Try & Catch Me features its fair share. Much as I admire this episode, I do think how much more enjoyable it could have been with a season 2-4 Columbo in the lead role. I suspect this will become a consistent refrain from here on out in these reviews.
Try & Catch Me also suffers from a rather gaping plot hole that has a major impact on the whole episode, so is worth examining here – namely Abi’s actions regarding Edmund’s car keys, which were, to put it mildly, REALLY STOOPID.
Fresh from locking Edmund in the safe, Abi is startled by lawyer Martin entering the room to hurry her away to the airport. At this crucial stage Abi realises Edmund’s car keys are in plain sight on the edge of a table. She has two options: leave them and hope Martin didn’t see them (risky!), or swipe them up to dispose of later. She chose the latter, which I believe was the sensible choice.
What was not sensible, however, was to hide the friggin’ keys in a giant sand-filled ashtray in her entrance hall when there were literally millions of better options available. Here’s a few I just came up with off the top of my head: –
- Stow them in her coat pocket or handbag, take them to Noo Yoik and fling ’em in the trash / river / Atlantic
- Drop the keys in the front garden on way to her car
- Fling them from the car window while en route to the airport
- Flush them down the bogs at the airport or – better yet – while airborne
- Swallow the keys and allow nature to take its (painful) course in Noo Yoik – ain’t nobody going to be searching there!
- Secret them in her snake-like coil of ancient hair
- Take the long and dangerous path to Mordor and cast the keys into the fires of Mount Doom. Problem solved!
Anyway, you get the picture. Burying the keys in the sand was a bad call, Abi, a bad call. And it would ultimately prove to be her undoing. The saving grace is that Columbo makes it clear that Abi writes her murder mysteries from the point of view of the detective, not the killer. So perhaps it was her subconscious that overruled her good sense in leaving such a dangerous clue to scupper her perfect murder.
That aside, there’s not a lot wrong with Try & Catch Me. If one was to be ultra-critical, one might reference the poor police work in not discovering the obvious arrow mark on the safe deposit boxes; or in not replacing the burnt-out bulb in the safe and discovering Edmund’s note straight away, but this is only TV, so where would be the fun in that?
For that, ultimately, is what Try & Catch Me is all about. Interspersing the fun are some outstandingly tense scenes, and numerous nice, subtle touches in the script to enhance the humour, such as Abi regularly using Columbo’s ‘just one more thing’ catchphrase against him.
Throw in a Dog cameo and one of the best, most atmospheric episode scores of the 1970s (kudos to Patrick Williams, who would ultimately score nine Columbo outings) and you have an episode to treasure. Best in murder? Not quite, but it’s a highly commendable outing that gladdens the heart and proves that Columbo, as a show, still had it where it counts.
Did you know?
Try & Catch Me features a very rare example of Columbo actually referring to one of his previous cases – although you’d have to be pretty quick on the uptake to notice it.
When the Lieutenant gatecrashes Abigail Mitchell’s cruise ship departure to drag her back to ‘help’ him close the case at her house, Abi asks whether the Lieutenant is planning to join the voyage himself. “Oh, it’s not that I wouldn’t like that, ma’am, ” Columbo explains. “Mrs. Columbo and I tried it. It was terrific.”
This is, of course, a reference to his adventure on the high seas in Troubled Waters in 1975. According to my reckoning it’s one of only seven occasions when Columbo alludes to his previous cases. You can check out the other six here.
How I rate ’em
Massively enjoyable, and boosted by a delightful turn from Ruth Gordon, Try & Catch Me gets Columbo‘s seventh season off to a cracking start. It’s a firm favourite with many fans and I’m no exception. Time will tell, but I have a feeling Try & Catch Me may ultimately be the last truly great Columbo episode ever made once all the rest have been reviewed.
Missed any past episode reviews? Then revisit any of the links below…
- The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- A Friend in Deed
- Try & Catch Me
- 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—
Please share your own opinions on Try & Catch Me‘s hits and misses – and do let me know your thoughts on Edmund. Was he guilty of Phyllis’s death, or was Abi’s mind so mired in murder mysteries that she condemned an innocent tyke to a gruesome demise?
Thanks, as always, for reading and do come back to play again soon when I turn my attentions to Murder Under Glass – an episode so full of food that my waistline expands simply by watching. Until then, take a leaf out of Edmund’s book and STAY SAFE!