Years before he directed the world’s most terrifying gourmand, Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Jonathan Demme was cutting his gastronomic teeth on the second episode of Columbo‘s seventh season – Murder Under Glass.
Starring Louis Jourdan as murderous food critic Paul Gerard, and notable for featuring more aspic per square yard of film than any other television production ever, this is an episode certain to expand waistlines merely through the process of watching.
But is Murder Under Glass a televisual banquet fit for a queen? Or is it more of a mystery meat kebab that you gulp down at 3am and live to regret? Let’s loosen our belts and roll back the clocks to January 30, 1978 to see how well it’s aged…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Paul Gerard: Louis Jourdan
Eve Plummer: Shera Danese
Vittorio Rossi: Michael V. Gazzo
Mario Deluca: Antony Alda
Mary Choy: France Nuyen
Max Duvall: Richard Dysart
Kanji Ousu: Mako
Sergeant Burke: Todd Martin
Albert: Larry D. Mann
Written by: Robert Van Scoyk
Directed by: Jonathan Demme
Score by: Jonathan Tunick
Episode synopsis: Columbo Murder Under Glass
Fuming Italian chef Vittorio Rossi has had it up to HERE with the antics of revered culinary critic Paul Gerard, who appears to single-handedly control the destinies of a trio of the city’s top restaurants.
Gerard, you see, is extorting the owners of said eateries. For a mere 25% of their profits (paid to the shadowy Restaurant Developers Association, which Gerard runs with naive accomplice Eve Plummer), he has used his clout to build up their reputations and make the establishments known hotbeds of haute cuisine.
There’s a catch, though. If the proprietors dare to stop paying, Gerard will drag their names through the gutters and pen enough poison about them to ensure no civilised diner will go within a mile of their front doors.
Vittorio is now regretting making such a pact, and over a brief meal with the critic leaves him in no doubt that the tables are about to turn. Indeed, the fuming Italian claims he’ll expose Gerard’s corrupt antics and leave him to ‘starve like a beggar in the streets’. Oof!
Gerard, playing it cool in a way that only a Gallic super-villain can, acts like the wronged party for the benefit of witnesses, but he’s the one that will be dissolving this particular partnership. You see, Gerard has secreted some deadly Japanese blow fish (fugu) poison within the nozzle of a pneumatic bottle opener that Vittorio will use to open a bottle of wine (although we only find that out at the end). Whomsoever drinks from that first glass will swiftly perish in unimaginable pain.
Calling time on the dinner, Gerard makes his exit while a raging Vittorio falls for the trap and opens the wine to enjoy a calming glass. Moments later – in front of the eyes of his hapless young nephew Mario – the restaurateur ceases slamming kitchen drawers, seizes his chest, gasps a bit and slumps dead to the floor. Unable to speak a word of English, poor Mario is forced to ring his own mother in Italy, and she, in turn, alerts the LAPD.
Our mate Columbo is the chief investigator on the scene, and is tucking into a bowl of cioppino when Gerard – having been summoned by the police – reappears at the restaurant. After eating the same meal as the deceased, Gerard is concerned to hear that Vittorio died of suspected poisoning – but not so concerned to have taken himself off to hospital as a precaution before answering the police summons: a fact Columbo will squirrel away for future reference.
With Gerard in tow, Columbo questions Mario and gives the trembling young wimp a torrid time, aggressively accusing him (in Italian) of murdering his own uncle. It’s a most un-Columbo-like approach, leaving the fragile waiter even more of a bundle of nerves.
However, while unable to explain why his uncle was slamming kitchen drawers just prior to his death, Mario does recollect that Vittorio and Gerard were engaged in a furious argument of their own. The critic is able to explain this away easily enough, though. The Restaurant Writers Awards have been held at Vittorio’s for the past three years, but this year they’re switching to a new venue. Gerard claims that Vittorio was livid at this perceived slight.
Columbo’s investigations continue the next day at Chez Duvall, another world-class eatery owned by Vittorio’s mate Max Duvall. There the Lieutenant enquires about Vittorio’s frame of mind the day before and receives some telling insight. According to Duvall, there was nothing to suggest Vittorio was about to become a victim. “On the contrary, he seemed like a man about ready to commit murder himself.”
As luck would have it, Gerard is also at Chez Duvall – tucking merrily into some spew-inducing meat in aspic on the rear terrace. Columbo sidles up and reveals that the poison that killed Vittorio wasn’t in the food – it was in the wine. This strikes Gerard off the list of suspects, because Mario has testified that the wine wasn’t even opened until after Gerard left the premises. But how did the poison get in the wine?
In one of the most sensible suggestions ever put forward by a Columbo killer, Gerard suggests that perhaps an insecticide spill at a French vinyard could have contaminated the bottle. But the Lieutenant has already checked on that, and the World Health Organisation has reported no such incidents.
Columbo even suggests a theory of his own: perhaps Vittorio was planning to murder Gerard with the poisoned wine! And once Gerard left, the angry Vittorio made the fatal error of drinking the wine himself! Both agree it’s a ridiculous suggestion.
However, Gerard is sufficiently spooked by Columbo’s investigations to order his lover / personal assistant Eve to close down the Restaurant Developers Association account, which is made out under her nom de plume, Irene DeMilo. He then shoos her away to prepare for a hastily-arranged trip to Europe, where the two will revisit the continent’s great restaurants.
Columbo, meanwhile, is back at the crime scene trying to understand Vittorio’s final moments. Just why was he slamming drawers? It’s then that the detective finds a drawer stuffed full of cancelled checks made out to the Restaurant Developers Association – nearly $100,000 worth!
Columbo also takes Vittorio’s pneumatic bottle opener away to examine after Albert tells him that he replaced its gas cartridge on the night of the killing. Strangely, it’s now empty. Perhaps there was poison in the gas cartridge? The proverbial plot thickens…
“The plot is now so thick that even ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson would struggle to punch his way through it.”
Hoping for a lead on the association, Columbo takes one of the cancelled checks with him to Vittorio’s funeral and (disrespectfully) has it passed around the attendees as the eulogy is read. Interestingly, Max Duvall takes one look at the check and dashes away. Mary Choy keeps hold of it, before tearing it up and (disrespectfully) littering the cemetary with it as she bustles away! Is funeral etiquette a lost art?
Columbo, therefore, makes a beeline to Chinatown to grill Mary. She admits to being the President of the association, and reveals that Duvall is Vice Prez and Vittorio was the Treasurer. But she claims no knowledge of the cancelled checks. To her knowledge, there was only $175 in the association’s commercial account. The plot is now so thick that even ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson would struggle to punch his way through it…
Anyways, Columbo amscrays to the bank, where he discovers the association also has a SAVINGS ACCOUNT into which checks were routinely paid by Vittorio, Duvall and Choy. But the account was closed three days before by one Irene DeMilo, who cleared out everything except $3000, which she converted into travellers checks.
I tell ya, this association sub-plot is now even thicker than Albert and Vittorio’s eyebrows combined. Not sure how thick that is? Look below…
To fathom it out, Columbo goes on a ‘fishing expedition’ to Gerard’s home – and gets a lot more than he bargained for. Gerard and Eve deny any knowledge of the association, but Columbo does get to sample some fugu, which Gerard had prepared for his Japanese dinner guest, Kanji Ousu. Mr Ousu gleefully reveals to Columbo that fugu is deadly poisonous – unless prepared by an expert like Paul Gerard.
Gerard also, and rather clumsily, drops into conversation that Eve is heading off to Europe the following day. And before you can say ‘travellers checks’, Columbo has the majority of the case figured out. He confirms his suspicions the next day by tricking Eve into revealing herself as Irene DeMilo. Her trip to Europe is officially off!
The mystery of how the poison got into the wine continues to elude him, though, until just before that night’s Restaurant Writers Awards dinner. Playing around with the bottle opener, he has a moment of clarity: the poison could have been in the opener’s nozzle. And who’d been to the restaurant and could have switched the openers? Paul Gerard…
“Gerard proposes a toast, and Columbo takes a good swig from his wine glass. Is it game over for our favourite detective?”
As a result, he creates an elaborate set-up to draw Gerard out. Promising the crowd at the awards bash that Vittorio’s murderer will be in police custody within 24 hours, he then invites Gerard to a farewell lunch, which he’ll prepare at Vittorio’s restaurant the following day. Seeing an opportunity to rid himself of the pesky detective once and for all, Gerard agrees.
And so we reach the denouement of the episode, as Columbo prepares a dish of veal scaloppine for Gerard in Vittorio’s kitchen. The two men chat amiably, and Columbo divulges key details of the case. He’s figured out that the murderer was a silent partner in the Restaurant Developers Association, and was evidently someone who had the power to boost the reputation of its members. And he believes fugu poison was used in the bottle opener to poison the wine.
The problem with his theory? It’s impossible to prove. So instead the two sit down to a meal and a glass of red wine – the bottle opened by Gerard using the same pre-prepared opener that he has again laced with fugu poison. Gerard proposes a toast and Columbo takes a good swig from his wine glass. Is it game over for our favourite detective?
No! Columbo is, as usual, two steps ahead. He suspected Gerard of switching bottle openers, so put a nick in the top of the one in Vittorio’s kitchen prior to cooking dinner. But there’s no nick on the top of the one on the table right now. It must be a different opener.
Gerard shrugs this off and is about to knock back a celebratory mouthful of wine from his own glass when Columbo sharply stops him. Gerard switched the bottle openers, but the Lieutenant switched the wine glasses! Once the lab boys can examine the wine, he’ll have the proof he needs to convict.
And the trigger to his initial suspicions? The fact that Gerard didn’t seek medical advice when police informed him that Vittorio had been poisoned, and instead came immediately to the restaurant to help with enquiries. “That’s the damnedest example of good citizenship I’ve ever seen,” Columbo explains.
“You’re a very able man, Lieutenant. But I really don’t care for you very much,” concedes a mildly shirty Gerard. “You know sir, I was thinking the same thing about you,” counters Columbo. “I respect your talent, but I don’t like anything else about you.”
Finally Gerard tastes the food that Columbo has prepared. “Lieutenant, I wish you had been a chef,” he laments, as credits roll…
Murder Under Glass‘s best moment: parting is bitter sweet
The conclusion to Murder Under Glass is really rather delicious – due in no small measure to the mutual contempt the two men hold each other in. They’ve disguised it well throughout, but in reality Columbo and Gerard are as incompatible as milk and melons.
Once he’s been busted, Gerard doesn’t bother to maintain the pretence any more, letting Columbo know outright that he doesn’t care for him very much. More unusual is that Columbo responds in kind, telling Gerard that while he respects his talent, he really doesn’t like him at all.
Such open antagonism is extremely rare from the mild-mannered Lieutenant, who generally keeps a very close guard on his true feelings. It ensures that the erudite Gerard is lumped in with Dr Barry Mayfield and Milo Janus as villains that Columbo – and the viewer – simply can’t stand. Enjoy the bitterness of the exchange below…
My take on Murder Under Glass
On paper, Murder Under Glass sounds like an absolute rip-roarer of an episode. Bond villain Louis Jourdan playing a food critic who murders a restaurant owner using blow fish poison injected into a glass of wine? Fantastico! That’s a scenario we haven’t even come close to seeing in the series up to now.
Thanks to hindsight, we also know that multi-Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme was at the helm. Stupendo! Surely those are all the ingredients required to serve up a tasty slice of detective drama? Alas, not quite. There’s a lot wrong with Murder Under Glass, which, much as it pains me to say it, gets less palatable with every viewing.
I didn’t use to feel this way. Years ago I really liked Murder Under Glass and would have considered it a top 20 outing. The interplay between Gerard and Columbo amused me no end and the unique nature of the crime helped it stand tall in the memory. Now that I watch with a more analytical eye to pen these reviews, though, its failings become all too apparent.
In a nutshell, Murder Under Glass has a highly flawed and confusing sub-plot about the Restaurant Developers Association; the Columbo characterisation borders on infuriating; and the interactions between detective and suspect are, at times, so overdone it’s like watching an amateur dramatic society at work. And while it’s by no means all bad, these issues take plenty of shine off what could’ve been a really grand adventure.
I think the best place to start is to examine the Columbo portrayal in detail. If you read my recent review of Try & Catch Me, you may recall I bewailed how far the evolution of Columbo had removed him from the charming and natural character we knew and loved from the first 4-and-a-half seasons.
By season 7, Falk’s interpretation of the role had veered towards pastiche and is more akin to someone pretending to be Columbo, rather than actually being him. There were some indications of this in Try & Catch Me but Murder Under Glass ramps it all up to 11 to deliver the most annoying Columbo representation since Last Salute to the Commodore.
As an example, have a look at the clip below of Columbo first meeting Gerard. The overblown movements, expressions and style of line delivery are pretty hard to to digest. And the episode is stuffed full of ’em…
The weirdness that affected Columbo in Last Salute is out in force here, too. Take the scene when he roars at Mario in Italian, accusing him of killing his own uncle before cupping the lad’s face in both hands in an attempt to quell the panic that he himself caused. It’s truly bizarre.
Since when does Columbo treat an emotionally fragile material witness so cruelly? Poor Mario has just seen his uncle die horribly in front of his eyes. He speaks no English and the rest of his family is thousands of miles away. I get that the Lieutenant is putting on an act for Gerard, but it’s waaaaaay out of character and makes for uncomfortable viewing.
Columbo also ruins Vittorio’s funeral with his thoroughly disrespectful passing around of the check while an emotional eulogy is being read out. Admittedly the Lieutenant has previous here after being similarly impish at Frances Galesko’s funeral in Negative Reaction, but it’s not exactly what I’d call considerate behaviour.
“In terms of the Lieutenant’s portrayal, this isn’t far off Last Salute V2.0.”
But really, every scene featuring Columbo suffers from Falk’s over-acting. The arm gestures have never been bigger; we’ve never seen as many puzzled ‘out-to-lunch’ expressions, or pouts, on his face; and the ponderous line delivery is like a stand-in deputising (poorly) for the star of the show. Seriously, if you were directing an am dram stage version of Columbo and your lead man was fooling around like Falk was here, you’d be bellowing at him to rein it in – yet no one stopped it!
Worse yet, it seems like Jourdan caught the malaise, too – although if we assume he’s merely an expressive Frenchman it’s more acceptable. However, when the two are on screen together it’s as if they’re having a competition to see who can produce the most flamboyant gestures. There are more hand movements here than in a Punch & Judy re-enactment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It raises the question: is this what Demme wanted, or was Falk calling the shots? I have my suspicions…
It’s a shame, because French ace Jourdan is actually rather good as Gerard and is well cast as the aloof and slimy food critic. He oozes aristocratic Gallic arrogance and is wonderfully acerbic towards the Lieutenant at episode’s end once he no longer has to keep up the pretence of civility. He’s certainly one of the series’ most loathsome killers, and if he and Falk had toned down the tomfoolery, Gerard could well have been considered amongst the great Columbo baddies. Le sigh…
Now to the plot, which is awash with holes that tighter writing could have salvaged. Let’s start with the murder itself, shall we? Because it’s evident that Gerard is also clairvoyant in being able to predict that Vittorio would proceed with opening (and drinking) the wine once he had departed from the scene.
Who knows, perhaps Gerard knew that Vittorio was a raging alcoholic who could never refuse a glass of the good stuff, regardless of mood? If not, then there’s a lethal weapon lying around Vittorio’s kitchen that could kill any innocent stooge at a later date. A pretty risky strategy, non?
Far more ridiculous, though, is that Gerard would try the exact same stunt to bump off Columbo! Obviously the fella’s risk management skillz are in dire need of assessment, because a person would have to be TRULY SIMPLE or DANGEROUSLY FOOLHARDY to attempt such a manoeuvre and expect to get away with it.
Did Gerard forget that Columbo is a police officer, and that it’s highly likely other officers would know about their little lunch tête-à-tête? If Columbo had wound up dead following this meeting even the Keystone Cops would’ve been able to pinpoint Gerard as the only viable suspect. It’s a reminder to us all that blind arrogance and a smug sense of superiority need to be kept in check at all times!
It’s also worth noting that it’s not until the gotcha that the viewer finds out precisely how Gerard managed to get the fugu poison into the glass. We never saw him syringe it into the nozzle, and the switcheroos he did with the bottle openers also were done off-screen. I’m guessing this subterfuge was meant to amaze the viewers at point of reveal, but I personally think it adds to the confusion and would have helped the viewer to see it all pan out on screen.
The biggest fault of the lot, though, is the confusion surrounding of the Restaurant Developers Association sub-plot. Almost every aspect of it wilts like a limp lettuce under closer examination, starting with why Vittorio finally decided the time was ripe to expose Gerard’s shady dealings?
We never find out. He acts as if he’s only just found out that Gerard is the mastermind behind the association extortion. This makes no sense, though, because during the opening scene of the episode Vittorio and fellow association members Max Duvall and Mary Choy seem entirely aware of how the set-up works, and comment that Gerard has ‘done alright for us’. Why is Vittorio the only furious one?
This leads to a bigger beef: all three restaurateurs have benefited from Gerard’s patronage to the extent that their establishments are considered amongst LA’s finest. So why not collectively stop paying Gerard the 25%? They don’t need him anymore, and if he tries to trash their reputations now they could either sue him or expose his fraudulent ways.
“For all its failings Murder Under Glass is still fun to watch.”
And even if they did take a short-term hit in profits after ditching Gerard, they’d presumably still be making more money than when they were paying him the 25%, and their restaurants would still be, y’know, as good as ever, so they’d soon be raking it in once more.
Finally, the time-scale surrounding the creation of the association is very murky. It would have needed at least a few years’ commitment for Vittorio et al to become a central destination for LA’s foodies, yet the Restaurant Developers Association appears to be some sort of scam cooked up by Gerard and Eve Plummer, under her pseudonym Irene DeMilo.
Eve – a naive 20-something – seems to be relatively new in Gerard’s life judging by her uncertainty about the status of their relationship, so it doesn’t ring true that she’s a long-term associate on this scheme. This confused writing raises so many questions! And it matters, because the poorly sketched premise is what the whole murder is built around.
Max Duvall also needs a roasting, because although he tells Columbo that Vittorio was in the mood to commit murder, he doesn’t then reference that Vittorio was due to confront Gerard that same evening. WHY, Max? Don’t you want your buddy to be avenged? It’s pretty inconsistent stuff.
Still, there must be a few crumbs of comfort, right? Well, thankfully yes because for all its failings Murder Under Glass is still fun to watch. Jarring characterisations aside, the script serves up several gems; the cat-and-mouse elements work; and Columbo never tires in his attempts to trip up his prey.
He plays Gerard like a fiddle when asking the critic whether Vittorio might have poisoned the wine to kill Gerard, before forgetfully imbibing it himself. Desperate to divert suspicion, Gerard says he can see how that might happen. “You can, sir?” asks Columbo in sham amazement. “Maybe you could explain it to me. I mean, how could a man make a mistake like that?” The critic is forced to backtrack pretty quickly.
Columbo later seizes on Gerard’s explanation for missing Vittorio’s funeral, which he claims is because he likes to remember his friends as he last saw them. “I believe Mr Rossi was yelling at you when you saw him last, isn’t that right sir?” the detective asks with a playful wag of the finger.
This is followed by another fine moment around the dining table when the excitable Kenji Ousu asks Columbo whether he has a hot suspect. “Weeeell, I’ve got my eyes on one,” the detective beams, slowly swinging his gaze round to land on Gerard. Even the Frenchman seems to enjoy that one!
The performance of Shera Danese is also an unexpected bonus. I’m not a huge fan of hers (particularly her far-too-many guest slots in the 90s), but she’s actually pretty good. Sure, there’s not a lot of depth to the role but she’s spot on as the not-too-bright-but-a-bit-sassy Eve Plummer. Of the main cast she arguably puts in the most believable turn – who could have predicted that?
Gold stars also go to the ingenious and unique murder method, as well as Columbo’s clever switching of the wine glasses at the end – a stunt that was totally stolen by The Princess Bride and is almost certainly the reason Peter Falk ended up being cast as the lovable grampappy in that splendid film.
And of course we get the very real pleasure of seeing Columbo tuck in to all that delicious food. Whether it’s calorie-rich foie gras canapes, eggs in jelly (blurgh), or a 20-course banquet, the Lieutenant has never enjoyed his grub more. And he doesn’t get an upset stomach – proof that his digestive system has toughened up after so much rich food with LA’s jet-setters. Plus we even see him sporting a chef’s hat as he cooks up a storm. HOT STUFF!
These bright spots can’t paper over the cracks, though. Murder Under Glass isn’t too far from vintage Columbo, but it’s hampered more than most by Falk’s theatrics. I so wish he’d toned it down, because if you were to insert season 3’s Lieutenant Columbo into this it would have been 10 times the episode.
Murder Under Glass also has the ignominious honour of being the first episode (I believe) to elevate This Old Man beyond a ditty Falk would hum or whistle to himself into a full-blown part of the score – and it’s as camp as a row of pink, floral tents!
The brisk, military-style rendition forms the backing track to a montage of Columbo and co. being served endless dishes at the Restaurant Writers Dinner. I consider this an ominous portent of what the show will become in the 1990s, when This Old Man was routinely worked into episode scores, making it Columbo‘s de facto – but increasingly charmless – theme tune. If you can’t recall this particular scene, take a look below…
All in all, Murder Under Glass is a tricky episode to assess, being neither the best nor worst of Columbo. In its own right it’s an enjoyable, if flawed, piece of television. Compare it critically against the entire Columbo back catalog, however, and it’s a sandwich short of a picnic.
If you’re the sort that simply loves any Columbo without worrying too much about the minutiae, it’s likely you’ll rate this one highly. For me, though, Murder Under Glass is more of a cafeteria dining experience when it ought to have been striving for a Michelin Star.
Did you know?
Paul Gerard is part of a select group of just six Columbo killers who tried to do exactly that – kill Columbo!
The frowning Frenchman is joined in this dubious club by Beth Chadwick (Lady in Waiting); Dr Eric Mason (How to Dial a Murder); Elliott Blake (Columbo Goes to the Guillotine); Vivian Dimitri (RIP Mrs Columbo); and Fielding Chase (Butterfly in Shades of Gray). Read more about this sinister sextet right here.
Incidentally, France Nuyen (who played Mary Choy) was the real-life wife of three-time Columbo murderer Robert Culp, from 1967-70. And what a smoking hot couple they were!
How I rate ’em
After the back-to-back euphoria of Bye-Bye Sky High and Try & Catch Me, reality bites back here with a distinctly average adventure that never gets close to hitting the heights of the very best episodes.
Missed any previous reviews? Then hit ’em up via 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
- Murder Under Glass
- 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—
Hit me with your opinion on Murder Under Glass below. I can quite believe that many readers enjoy it far more than I, so please share your thoughts as freely as a French chef shares his crab-stuffed mushrooms.
Next up on our Columbo journey is Make Me a Perfect Murder, which takes us into the shadowy realm of ambition, betrayal and murder in the cut-throat world of network television. Check back soon, and until then bonjour and Bon Snax!