Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 7

Episode review: Columbo How to Dial a Murder

Columbo How to Dial a Murder opening titles

Columbo continued to surprise and (possibly) delight viewers with innovative murder methods in How to Dial a Murder – the penultimate episode of the show’s seventh season.

The murder ‘weapon’ in this tale of ghastly revenge was in fact a pair of doberman pinschers, named Laurel and Hardy, who tore a man to shreds after being conditioned to kill upon hearing the code word ROSEBUD.

Sounds intriguing, but is How to Dial a Murder a suitably thrilling, snarling attack dog of an episode? Or is it more of an irritating yapping pooch ready to be kicked into next week? Let’s travel back to 5th April, 1978 and have a look…

Columbo How to Dial a Murder cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dr Eric Mason: Nicol Williamson
Joanne Nicholls: Kim Cattrall
Miss Cochrane: Trish O’Neil
Dr Charles Hunter: Joel Fabiani
Officer Stein: Ed Begley Jr
Dr Garrison: Frank Aletter
Dog: As himself
Written by: Tom Lazarus and Anthony Lawrence
Directed by: James Frawley
Score by: Patrick Williams

Episode synopsis: Columbo How to Dial a Murder

Renowned behavioural psychologist (and film memorabilia fanatic) Dr Eric Mason knows that his colleague, Charlie Hunter, had been enjoying a fling with his now-dead wife. Six months earlier, Mason’s wife died in a ‘mysterious’ car crash (i.e. Mason caused it). Now the dastardly doctor is about to complete his revenge by offing the treacherous Charlie, too.

Mason cooks up a truly diabolical murder method. He’s spent months training his neckerchiefed dobermans, Laurel and Hardy, to respond to a phone ringing and use of the code word ‘Rosebud‘. Upon hearing these audio triggers the placid pups fly into a preternatural rage, tearing apart whomever is luckless enough to be in their way. And today Charlie Hunter’s on the menu.

Columbo Dr Eric Mason
Revenge is sweet for the shirtless Dr Mason

Lured to Mason’s house to play tennis, Charlie is making himself at home when the kitchen phone rings. Mason is calling him from the hospital, where he’s having his annual heart check-up and is conveniently (for plot purposes) attached to the electrocardiogram machine.

With his dogs on high alert after hearing the phone ring, Mason is able to finagle Charlie into calling out ‘Rosebud‘ in their presence. The dogs go berserk, laying into the luckless Charlie as Mason punches the air with glee at the other end of the line. As Columbo killings go, this is as frightening as they come.

Back at home after his check-up, Mason finds his house the scene of a major police investigation headed up by one Lieutenant Columbo, who is merrily playing with the killer dogs before they’re packed off into a police van and sent off to doggy jail.

Mason, of course, claims he can’t believe that the beloved hounds could turn rogue like that. Charlie must have provoked them somehow, he muses. Columbo doesn’t think so. In fact he’s already got a pretty clear picture of what went down in Mason’s kitchen.

The wall phone receiver is dangling off the hook. Charlie must have been talking to someone. Couldn’t it just have been knocked off in the attack, Mason asks quite reasonably. No. Because the intermittent tone audible through the receiver is only heard when someone else has dialled in. This bothers the soft-hearted investigator immensely. Whoever rung the house must have heard Charlie’s death screams and done nothing about it. That’s stone cold!

Columbo Kim Cattrall
“Can you tell me what the cuddly-wuddly teddy bear heard when Dr Hunter was being torn to shreds?”

Someone had alerted the police, mind you, and that person is scorching young psychology student Joanne Nicholls, who lives in the guest house on Mason’s property. Columbo pays her a visit, and finds her cuddled up with favourite teddy bear, Sigmund, struggling to cope with the effects of a traumatic day.

During a brief interview, Columbo discovers that Joanne didn’t hear any phone ringing, although she had been swimming underwater so her testimony is largely valueless. He does, however, hear from her that Mason has spent many weekends away since the loss of his wife with just the dogs for company – an interesting snippet for Columbo to mentally file away.

As the Lieutenant departs, he finds Mason hovering on the threshold. It’s the lanky doctor’s turn to parley with Joanne – and it’s immediately clear he no longer wants her around. Turns out that Joanne has the hots for him, but he rejected her bid for them to be lovers. He suggests she ought to leave and go back home to her parents to help get over these dual setbacks, but she doesn’t seem to be in the mood to comply.

Columbo, meanwhile, is eliciting the help of police dog training ace Miss Cochrane. Through her, he learns that any dog can be trained to respond in a particular way to particular words – a feat she demonstrates with a police Alsatian, who can attack or shower with affection on command.

Mason makes a living out of control words. It certainly seems possible that his dogs could have been programmed to kill through the correct command word. There’s a long way to go in this case, but things are swiftly starting to compute for the Lieutenant. Only problem is that there are millions of possible command words to choose from. Where to begin?

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
Dog’s career as a protector was over before it began

Realising that his dogs are a potential weak link in his plan, Mason heads to the LAPD’s dog-handling unit to seek info on the fate of Laurel and Hardy. They’re scheduled for termination, but Mason receives ‘reassurance’ from a young officer that Columbo is doing everything in his power to win them a stay of execution. It’s the exact opposite of music to Mason’s ears.

Columbo comes down to meet Mason, and has a few questions he needs help with. Mason unhelpfully explains that he spent his weekends with the dogs walking on the beach and thinking. He also explains that straw found on the floor of his kitchen must have come from a crate of wine he recently received – and certainly not a straw-filled decoy Charlie he trained his dogs to kill in the kitchen, no sirree Bob!

Columbo pays Mason a visit at work the next day with more queries. He’s hooked on the idea that someone might have wanted to kill Mason himself through programming the dogs to attack him on command over a phone call. The detective even mentions the mysterious death of Mrs Mason, which was never solved. Could someone have it in for both of them?

Mason rejects Columbo’s hypothesis – and is starting to see through the Lieutenant’s clueless act. “You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat, happily running around the yard, digging holes all over the garden,” he says. “Only, you’re laying a minefield and wagging your tail.” As critical assessments of Columbo go, he’s pretty close to the mark.

Next stop for Columbo is chez Mason (again), and another conversation with Joanne. She reveals that, amongst his death screams, she heard Charlie calling out Eric’s name. The eagle-eyed sleuth then spots a hook erroneously fixed into the kitchen ceiling. What on earth could that be for? And finally, he notices an identifying mark on a rusty old spotlight Mason claims to have picked up on a weekend away. This leads him to a disused movie lot mocked up to look the Old West.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
For once the car matched its surroundings

Here, amidst tumbleweeds, rickety wooden shacks and a whole load of detritus, Columbo finds a hook hanging from an old saloon. There’s also evidence that something large was hung on a frame from this hook, and he even finds a broken speaker lying on the ground. Curiouser and curiouser. Nevertheless, it’s an impressive day’s work for LA’s finest officer!

His day gets better still when he encounters Mason at Charlie’s house later. The psychologist has snuck in to retrieve incriminating photos of Charlie with Mrs Mason – and he pockets them just as Columbo emerges, unannounced, from a bedroom. He’s puzzled to have found a trousers and waistcoat set, but no matching jacket. Mason offers no help and swiftly retreats.

The fiendish shrink makes a beeline straight to the guest house where he finds Joanne all packed up and ready to head for home after all. During a farewell chat, Joanne reveals that she knew about the affair between Charlie and Mrs Mason. Shocked that she kept it quiet, Mason swears her to silence, even dropping his hands threateningly to her throat. She’s saved from being his third victim by the arrival of Columbo.

He’s keen to cash in Mason’s promise of a character assessment, so over a bottle of good red wine the two men play a word association game – each trying to glean some crucial insight on the other. When the game is up, Mason walks Columbo to his car and the Lieutenant is amazed to see the actual gate from the movie Citizen Kane is one of the doctor’s most treasured possessions. He also happens to own the famous sled, emblazoned with the word ‘Rosebud’, hanging on his study wall.

Convivial chat over, Columbo has another try at coaxing a reaction out of Laurel and Hardy. He has secretly recorded the word association game, hoping against hope that Mason will have dropped his command word into conversation. He plays the tape to the dogs to no avail.

That’s until the dog handler’s phone rings. The dobermans’ heckles rise, and Columbo leaves the tape playing as he goes to speak to the judge to beg for a stay of execution for the dogs. And it’s during that conversation that the magic happens. The dogs go fully primal, transforming into Hounds of Hell. But what was the trigger?

Columbo Ed Begley Jr
A combination of cigar smoke and rustling sandwich wrapper drove the dogs wild

We find out the next day. After a sleepless night in the company of Miss Cochrane (all above board, you filthy-minded beast!), Columbo is ready to confront Mason – and he does so in confident fashion, rigging up a straw man dressed in Charlie’s clothes in Mason’s own kitchen.

He theorises that Mason programmed the dogs to kill Charlie and over a game of pool outlines to the doctor all the evidence he has amassed against him – not least the fact that he knows Mason took the photos from Charlie’s house, because he had taken one himself just before the doctor arrived.

He’s also managed to get hold of Mason’s ECG results from the day of the crime. At 3pm – the precise time Charlie was slain – there was a massive spike in Mason’s heart rate.

Slotting home pool balls with abandon, Columbo concludes that Mason committed the killing via the phone call. The detective goads the psychologist, saying: “I must say I found you disappointing. I mean, your incompetence. And for a man of your intelligence, sir, you got caught in a lot of stupid lies.”

Mason, however, believes he’ll be the one having the last laugh. “I think you deserve the whole package, Lieutenant,” he retorts, bringing the dogs to heel. “Everything you need to make your case complete.” Pointing at Columbo, Mason roars ‘ROSEBUD!’ At once the dogs are snarling monsters, who rush at and leap up on the detective, pushing him back on the pool table. Surely it’s a grisly end for our TV hero?

Columbo How to Dial a Murder pool
Even a bent cue didn’t stop Columbo spanking Dr Mason at pool

Not a bit of it! It’s Mason who gets a shock when he sees that instead of tearing Columbo’s throat out, they’re actually licking his face. You see, with Miss Cochrane’s help, the dogs were reprogrammed to ‘kiss not kill’ when they heard the code word. And Columbo had discovered the word when his voice-activated tape recorder had picked up Mason’s reference to ‘Rosebud’ during their conversation about Citizen Kane.

Thoroughly outmatched, Mason admits defeat. Columbo, meanwhile, makes one last, failed attempt to pot a pool ball using WC Fields’ bent cue as credits roll…

How to Dial‘s best moment – kiss not kill

Columbo How to Dial a Murder gotcha
Columbo’s raincoat waterproofing was tested by a quart of doggy slobber

For the second episode in a row, a murderer attempts the unthinkable in doing their best to kill off the dear Lieutenant. Last time round it was Paul Gerard’s poisoned glass of wine, but this time it’s a far more robust effort: Dr Mason is hoping to see Columbo torn to ribbons by his attack dogs.

We know that Columbo has figured out great swathes of the case (including motive and opportunity), but we don’t know yet that he’s entirely cracked the code word that controls the murderous mood of the dobermans. So he has to wheedle it out of Mason, whom he expertly manoeuvers into a corner to force the doctor’s hand.

Believing in his own mental superiority until the last, Mason indeed applies the final evidence eluding the Lieutenant, calling out ‘Rosebud’ and ordering the dogs to attack. Given that the viewer hasn’t seen how Columbo reprogrammed the dogs to ‘kiss not kill’ when they heard the command word, this is a supremely tense moment that really gets the blood pumping.

My thoughts on How to Dial a Murder

To give the writers of Columbo‘s seventh season due credit, they came up with some delightfully creative murder methods to keep viewers guessing. Three prior episodes have served up an airtight safe and blow fish poison as murder weapons alongside a common-or-garden shooting – and they pushed the boat out again here with pre-programmed killer dogs.

It’s a gruesome and terrifying method of killing that’s unique to the series, making it a very memorable murder for Columbo fans. But if I’m being totally honest, I find that the rest of the episode struggles to live up to this level of promise and excitement, and ultimately delivers one of the least thrilling cases of the classic era.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
The Mason vs Columbo blink battle went on for a 7 hours before the Doc realised the detective was cheating by relying on his glass eye

The Lieutenant himself arguably summarises my own feelings towards this episode best when he describes Dr Mason as ‘disappointing’ and ‘incompetent’. Those two adjectives rather sum up to me why this episode is no fun to watch: Mason is a lifeless killer whose carelessness hands the case to Columbo on a plate. It hardly makes for a satisfying spectacle.

I keep it simple when reviewing and ranking Columbo episodes: I want to be entertained and enjoy the viewing experience. It’s one reason why By Dawn’s Early Light, admittedly a brilliantly written, filmed and performed piece of television, is less to my liking than a more accessible, rib-tickling tale such as Double Shock or Negative Reaction.

How to Dial a Murder combines the cardinal Columbo sins of a boring killer and an open-and-shut case. There’s no thrill of the chase at all. And worse, there’s negligible chemistry between the leads.

How to Dial a Murder ultimately delivers one of the least thrilling cases of the classic era.”

Cast as Dr Eric Mason, Nicol Williamson makes for an interesting study. Legendary British playwright John Osborne him as “the greatest actor since Marlon Brando”. Similarly, revered Irish writer, poet and theatre director Samuel Beckett said Williamson was “touched by genius”. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I am saying his performance here doesn’t justify any such grand statements. It’s a very flat effort.

Williamson’s Mason is a charisma-free zone and I haven’t felt less interested in a Columbo killer since Jose Ferrer’s Dr Cahill in season 3’s Mind Over Mayhem. I accept that the series needs killers of all personality types, but compare Williamson’s turn to the joie de vivre of Jack Cassidy, the simmering rage of Robert Culp, the cheekiness of Ruth Gordon or the dangerous mania of Laurence Harvey and there’s nothing to write home about.

I find it interesting to note that when Williamson was interviewed about his Columbo experiences by Mark Dawidziak for The Columbo Phile book in the 1980s that he could barely remember his appearance here. He had undergone a divorce in 1977 and claimed he had taken the role because he “had to have the money”. He certainly doesn’t seem to have been the most enthusiastic of participants.

Columbo Nicol Williamson
“Can we get this over with? I’ve got a divorce to pay for.”

A double murderer who’s also willing to let his supposedly cherished pets be put to sleep to protect his own back ought to be a seriously loathsome presence. On-screen, Mason is sadistic, sure, not to mention more than a little sinister, but I don’t feel anything when watching him other than a mild sense of ennui – even though he’s arguably got a better motive for murder than most.

The best Columbo killers wring an emotional response from the audience. We can love to hate the likes of the slimy Paul Gerard and the uncompromising Milo Janus just as we can sympathise with the terminally ill Grace Wheeler and the oppressed Beth Chadwick. Mason’s character can perhaps best be described in a single word: Meh.

This absence of charisma makes it easier to notice the weaknesses inherent in Mason’s crime – and the distinct lack of effort he put in to suitably covering his tracks. Admittedly Columbo catches on to the programmed dogs’ idea more quickly than anyone could rightly assume, but Mason could have been a lot more thorough in stemming the flow of evidence.

Certainly it was clumsy to bring home an incriminating spotlight back from the abandoned movie lot, then leave it conspicuously round his house for a snooping detective to uncover. The same applies to unplugging the living room phone and leaving straw from the Charlie dummy on his kitchen floor (terrible sweeping skillz, Doc). Far worse, though, was the idiotic decision to remove the photos of Hunter and Mrs Mason from Hunter’s desk drawer after the murder was committed.

If Mason knew they were there, why not remove them all beforehand and deny police the chance of stumbling onto them? His long-term revenge plot against wife and friend appears to have been time consuming and intricately plotted, making his amateurish oversights seem at best a display of incongruous lackadaisicality and at worse poor writing.

Indeed it’s interesting that Columbo referenced the ‘incompetence’ of these shortcomings verbally during the gotcha scene, because it’s exactly as if he’s addressing viewer concerns about the logicality of the writing. I have no proof of it, but I can imagine those lines were added in to the script late on at Falk’s request to cover the episode’s back.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
In this showdown, Columbo ran out an easy winner

As for Falk, I’d say his performance is OK but no more than that. It’s a much more restrained turn than his overcooked, irritating theatrics in Murder Under Glass, but is a few steps further down the road towards pastiche than we saw in Make Me a Perfect Murder. Similar to a lot of what’s going on here, there’s little that stands out in his work.

How to Dial‘s Columbo seems more like a force of nature than a real human being. It’s not uncommon for killers to run into the Lieutenant here and there throughout the course of an episode, but here he pops up everywhere Dr Mason is. Can we read into this that he’s embodying the revered behavioural psychologist’s conscience? Perhaps, although I’m not convinced Mason has a conscience.

More likely than not, his continual presence at Mason’s shoulder is the episode’s way of showing us that Columbo is playing mental games with the doctor – a theme of the episode that underscores much of the action, whether that be the control of the dogs, Mason’s supposed mastery over weaker minds and the cerebral sparring he enjoys with the Lieutenant.

“As for Falk, I’d say his performance is OK but no more than that.”

Their confrontation ought to have been a firecracker, with both men ‘playing the game’ as they say, but it peters out rather than sizzles as Mason’s trail of breadcrumbs leads Columbo directly to his door. There is, however, a nice exchange between the two as they enjoy a bottle of good wine by a blazing fire and endeavour to get the measure of each other through a word association game.

And even though that contest ends with honours even, Columbo’s bright idea to record the conversation with a voice-activated tape recorder ultimately pays dividends and allows him to outflank and rout his celebrated opponent and indulge in a somewhat melodramatic reveal over a game of pool at Mason’s home.

I wouldn’t rate the gotcha as a classic, especially given Mason’s negligence throughout, but there’s something satisfying about watching Columbo symbolically slam home pool balls as he brings his adversary’s world crashing down. And of course that does lead to Mason’s efforts to rid himself of Columbo via the attack dogs – arguably the only really satisfying moment of the whole episode.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
“You’ll have to speak up… I can’t hear you over the snarling and screaming… Hello? HELLOOO-OOOO?”

The murder itself is also worthy of mention due to its unique nature. The dogs we’ve seen in Columbo up to now have been almost entirely of the cute and cuddly persuasion, so it’s quite a novelty to see some truly terrifying killing machines baring their fangs. Indeed, I attribute my lifelong wariness around dobermans to having seen How to Dial a Murder at an early age. I’d certainly never say ‘Rosebud’ in earshot of one, just in case…

I wonder, too, whether How to Dial‘s murder method was an influence to Thomas Harris when he used an eerily similar technique – only with killer pigs – in his book Hannibal as a prospective fate for Dr Hannibal Lecter. His arch-villain in that book was one Mason Vergere. Coincidence? Surely not. If you’re reading this, Thomas, fill us in on your secret Columbo fandom!

Elsewhere, it’s good to see two rising stars of the televisual world given roles here: namely Kim Cattrall and Ed Begley Jr. As the fragile psychology student Joanne Nicholls, 21-year-old Cattrall has long referred to this as a breakthrough role for her on her journey to Sex & The City mega stardom via Mannequin and Star Trek VI.

Spurned by Dr Mason, she’s in very real danger of becoming his third victim towards the end of the episode as his hands rest on her throat while he warns her against ever telling anyone about the affair between Dr Hunter and Mrs Mason. She has a very lucky escape when Columbo comes a-knocking.

It is a rather odd relationship between Mason and Joanne, mind you. She has developed a romantic attachment to him, but he’s not interested – perhaps another example of Mason sadistically gaining pleasure through control of another being. Interesting, too, that Mrs Mason apparently sanctioned Joanne’s move into the guest house. Perhaps she was too occupied by romping with Dr Hunter to care that a bikini-clad hottie was eyeing up her husband…?

Begley Jr, meanwhile, in the small role as Officer Stein, is notable in that he is one of only two Columbo guest stars to be cast as both a police officer and a murderer in different episodes. He would return as Irving Krutch in 1994’s Undercover, joining Dabney Coleman in the exclusive club after the latter starred as a sergeant in 1973’s Double Shock and a murderous attorney in 1991’s Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
Gotta work on that neck massage technique, Doc

We must also not overlook the presence of the lovable ‘Dog’, who adds a splash of fun to an otherwise largely humour-free episode when Columbo queries whether the basset hound has what it takes to become a guard dog capable of protecting Mrs Columbo while the Lieutenant works night shifts.

Predictably the slovenly mutt doesn’t seem cut out for such a life, instead preferring to give Columbo a good old licking when urged to ‘kill’ in what is a lighthearted foreshadowing of the episode finale.

How to Dial a Murder is also a loving nod towards the golden age of cinema, playing ample homage to comedy great WC Fields, Citizen Kane, classic horror flicks and more through Mason’s collection of movie memorabilia. The irony of it all is that Mason, for all his focus on mental control, can’t resist feeding his addiction by picking up a baby spotlight that will ultimately doom him, the silly boy. Perhaps he doesn’t practice what he preaches?

There’s not much else to say. For the most part, How to Dial leaves me so unmoved that I’m struggling to even come up with ‘side-splitting’ one liners about its shortcomings. I won’t claim that it’s a dreadful piece of television, but with a dialled-in performance from a dreary antagonist and a case so straightforward that even Sergeant Grover could crack it, How to Dial a Murder is a million miles from being considered the Citizen Kane of the Columbo opus.

Did you know?

Despite his continual reliance on his trusty raincoat, How to Dial a Murder is one of only three classic era episodes in which we see the Lieutenant actually caught in the rain.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
The mac looks about as water resistant as a tissue here!

The only other times we see Columbo getting a drenching are during his visit to gloomy London in 1972’s Dagger of the Mind, and in The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case four years later, when he instead shelters beneath an umbrella as the heavens open.

The episode’s multiple nods to the golden age of cinema were more ostentatiously recognised in the original version of the story, too, which was rather heavy-handedly entitled The Laurel and Hardy WC Fields Citizen Kane Murder Case.

How I rate ’em

How to Dial a Murder is one of the first episodes I can remember watching, but unlike several others in that category that I still treasure (Bye-Bye Sky High, Try & Catch Me, Deadly State of Mind chief amongst them), I’ve never warmed to this one – largely because of Williamson’s uninteresting portrayal of Eric Mason.

There may be elements of it that are technically ‘better’ than a number of episodes rated immediately above it in my chart but in terms of personal enjoyment, this one leaves me stone cold and it’s one I almost never choose to view from my collection.

Check out any of my previous reviews via the links below.

  1. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
  2. Suitable for Framing
  3. Publish or Perish
  4. Double Shock
  5. Murder by the Book
  6. Negative Reaction
  7. A Friend in Deed
  8. Try & Catch Me
  9. Death Lends a Hand
  10. A Stitch in Crime
  11. Now You See Him
  12. Double Exposure
  13. Lady in Waiting
  14. Troubled Waters
  15. Any Old Port in a Storm
  16. Prescription: Murder 
  17. A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
  18. An Exercise in Fatality
  19. Make Me a Perfect Murder
  20. Identity Crisis
  21. Swan Song
  22. The Most Crucial Game
  23. Etude in Black
  24. By Dawn’s Early Light
  25. Candidate for Crime
  26. Greenhouse Jungle
  27. Playback
  28. Forgotten Lady
  29. Requiem for a Falling Star
  30. Blueprint for Murder
  31. Fade in to Murder
  32. Ransom for a Dead Man
  33. Murder Under Glass —C-List starts here—
  34. A Case of Immunity
  35. Dead Weight
  36. The Most Dangerous Match
  37. Lovely but Lethal 
  38. How to Dial a Murder
  39. Short Fuse ———D-List starts here—-
  40. A Matter of Honor
  41. Mind Over Mayhem
  42. Old Fashioned Murder
  43. Dagger of the Mind
  44. Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here
Columbo Dog
Did the nasty man barely rate this in his top 40? KILL!

Love or hate How to Dial a Murder, share your opinions of it below. I’m aware that many fans enjoy it a whole lot more than I do, so if that’s you please let us all know what it is that floats your boat.

The next episode marks the end of a televisual era as the Columbo curtain falls for what looked like forever in the form of IRA drama The Conspirators. A blockbuster finale for the classic era, or about as much fun as a live ‘limerick-off’ with a whisky-totting drunk in an Irish pub (which, come to think of it, actually sounds like a riot!)? Check back soon…


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Columbo WC Fields
Bumbling genius pays homage to bumbling genius
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61 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo How to Dial a Murder

  1. With a better cast villain I think this could have been much better. There needed to be a glint of madness and megalomania in Eric Mason’s eyes, Nicol Williamson just doesn’t radiate any of the charisma (or chutzpah) these ‘power of positive thinking’ types need to make their self-help schtick actually work.

    And call me a filthy-minded beast but I think Miss Cochrane is one of the hottest females to grace Columbo. It’s the jeans and boots, I think… I’ll stop there.

     
  2. As there is not a lot happening on columbophile lately , For anyone who is inside tomorrow Sunday 2nd February here is tomorrows lineup on 5 USA

    12.10 A trace of murder
    2.05 Blueprint for murder
    3.40 Murder with too many notes
    5 .30 Old fashioned murder

    Oh dear Not the best lie up Blueprint for murder would easily be my top pick with A trace of murder in 2nd then one of the worst of the seventies in Old fashioned murder a dull one and one of the worst new ones in murder with too many notes which i Never actively choose to watch (I think ill take a walk in the park or go for pint instead)
    oh well better luck next weekend .

     
  3. Sundays 26 January line up on 5 USA

    12 .10 A friend in Deed
    2 . 10 A matter of honor
    3 .45 Requiem for a Falling star
    5 .15 A trace of murder

    Not the greatest line up A friend in deed is very comfortably the top pick followed by A trace of Murder one of the better new ones , Requiem for a falling star a boring and forgettable one from the seventies and A matter of honor which is even more unexciting and poorest from the seventies , hopefully a better schedule Next weekend but at least they didn’t air Last salute ,Dagger of the mind or Murder with too many notes .

     
    • Apart from “A Matter of Honor” which, despite the potential of its setting, doesn’t measure up to the majority of the other 70’s episodes, I enjoy the remaining entries. In my opinion, “Requiem for a Falling Star” has one of the most foolproof plans by a murderer in the entire series, although it doesn’t translate as it should script-wise.

       
      • I agree what Hugo says about “Requiem”. It doesn’t get any cleverer than what Nora Chandler did: Making Columbo think that the murderer killed the wrong victim by accident (although it was the premeditated one) and then proving to Columbo, that she had no reason to kill either the factual or the intended victim is a shrewd, intriguing plot twist that awaits the viewer as the ending comes closer. I just don’t get it how anyone can be bored by this.

         
      • I haven’t seen A matter of Honor or
        Requiem for a falling star in full for an Absolute age , My dad watched them both yesterday on 5 USA and enjoyed it more than before , some episodes are better when re watched a couple of times after a long lay off I found this the case with A matter of honour and even strange bedfellows and murder of a rock star which were aired 2 or 3 times over the Christmas period and a few more but Dagger of the mind and last salute , Murder in Malibu and Murder with too many notes just seem to get worse with every watch .
        As for requiem I dont dislike it but it does very little for me and is towards the foot of the seventies but still higher than a mater of honour, Murder under glass and dead weight and I am Not a fan of The Conspirators which is Next up for review .

         
  4. Mixed feelings about “The conspirators”. A cool episode with a killer I find distasteful he and his friends O’Connells posing as pacifists but distracting funds “for the victims of terrorism” to buy arms to enable terrorists make still more victims. And a weapons shipment for Ireland sailing from Los Angeles will have to circumnavigate North America…was the episode set on the East Coadt it would have been more plausible

     
    • I just never liked The conspirators its an episode I never chose to watch , I find the formula dfoes not suit columbo on the whole , I find it also a disappointing script placing the whisky bottle next to the victim as a joke is poor writing , bar a few funny scenes/limericks in the pub and a half decent end scene , I have to say this was one of the worst episodes of the seventies run , a lot of people like this one but not me , I was a bit surprised to see How to dial a murder rated so low and I agree its far from one of the best but I would choose it any day over The conspirators , we will have to wait and see how it fairs in the next review .

       
  5. HI FOLKS GOOD TO KNOW COLUMBOPHILE is on the way back from holidays January is a very cold and depressing month but anything columbo related always is a treat , I just bought a brand new 32 inch ultra HD tv set and have seen some great episodes namely my absolute favorite Try and Catch me which was aired twice last weekend on 5 USA and prescription murder yesterday , Here is today’s tasty line up on 5 USA

    10 .50 Prescription murder
    1.00 Ransom for a dead man
    3.00 Caution ! murder can be hazardous to your health
    5.00 A friend in deed

    A very tasty line up my favorite of these is caution murder can be hazardous an episode with great chemistry between columbo and killer which unfortunately we couldn’t say about How to dial a murder but its still a good episode, my second choice would be prescription murder the acting and music score is top notch , my third would be a friend in deed which is a block buster but im not as big a fan of it as most are , and ransom for a dead man which is not one of the best but still a very decent watch .

     
  6. Surprised to see the review out so early and I will first of all say happy new year
    I haven’t seen how to dial a Murder for a good while now , It was aired a couple of times over the Xmas period on 5 USA but i wasn’t in to see it , which I would have liked to as it is not a bad episode v, I wasn’t expecting columbophile to speak very well of this episode but i didn’t think it would be rated quite as low , I imagined columbophile would prefer it to the most dangerous match and Dead weight , I would and i would definetley prefer it to Murder under glass which I consider poor . I admit the killer isn’t much fun and it the it could have been better written but I think there is a lot to like about this one ill state my case.
    A the whole canine theme which was different but believable and quite well done compared with dudek being pushed into the trash grinder in the most dangerous match which fails to convince me B Kim catrall was a nice addition compared with other quest stars Margaret in ransom for a dead man character was very annoying so was Nadia donners in a deadly state of mind C the funny scene in the dog training facility I always enjoy D the word game exchange was a nice touch and D the wild west scene/setting was quite memorable , I am however not a big fan of the ending.
    In all certainly how to dial a murder is Not one of the best seventies episodes but what i fear most is that columbophile has rated this so low that The Conspirators which I almost hate, one of the poorest 70,s episodes in my opinion will be placed higher it will also be the last seventies episode to be reviewed which were leagues better than a lot of the comeback episodes we will have to wait and see.

     
  7. I’ll have to rewatch the episode, then reread your review, but I recall having a reaction very similar to yours. It felt like a reasonably good episode — it did the job, but it didn’t delight in quite the same way that the best Columbo’s do. Anyway, well written, as always!

     
  8. The Hollywood tie-in here seems forced and unnecessary, a shaky excuse to have Columbo visit an abandoned Wild West set clue-hunting. But since the plot has Mason using “Rosebud” as the Kill word, let me suggest a better resolution. What if Columbo had used Mason’s Hollywood obsession against him by surmising that the Kill word would have a film connection? This would not be an outrageous reach, and would have been significantly more satisfying, much as Robert Culp’s advertising techniques were used against him, or Dick Van Dyke’s knowledge of photography, or Carsini’s expertise in wines. The villain’s obsession becomes their downfall…..imagine Columbo recording while getting Mason to walk around his house bragging about his many artifacts. This is essentially what happened at the end of their wine-and-character discussion, so Columbo gets the word by accident. How much more rewarding for the viewer if Columbo had actually planned it that way.

     
  9. I agree with some of the comments above: I thought Williamson, whose performances I usually enjoy, was going for the aloof, stone-hearted killer. But he does not hit the note like Nimoy does.

    The one thing I would wish: We knew why Mason is not interested in Joanne. I think this would get to the heart of his character more.

    Did he have an affair with her to try to make his wife jealous, and he failed? Could she have been a bounce-back after his wife’s death, and now that his wife is gone, has he become colder, even toward someone he was having an affair with? Did he just use her and discard her? Any sort of insight into Mason’s psychological makeup, beyond being cold-hearted, could have really turned this episode.

    But still I like the episode. This is a Columbo for the late 1970s. This episode to me feels like it’s perfect for its era more than any other. The gimmicky psychology. The dog-food commercial training montage. Even the dobermans, which had a surge in popularity in the 1970s.

    The one important thing to remember is, while Mason is sloppy and disappointing at times, like many real cases, Columbo needed a little luck to crack this. When his recorder keeps playing through to the Citizen Kane portion of his conversation, he had a stroke of luck. Without, he might not figure the key word for the dogs and never catch Mason.

     
  10. A different kind of Columbo, not bad but not an episode i watch as much as a lot of others. The killer does not have a great chemistry with Columbo like a lot of others and i agree there is a certain laziness to the performance. I do remember my one daughter who loves dogs saying she loved this episode (yes i would sometimes bribe my kids to watch when they were younger) so i do like it for that reason. Great review as always.

     
  11. Thanks, CP, for doing the digging on Nicol Williamson’s esteemed reputation, that was well worth learning (idea for a future piece: rank the Columbo guest stars, murdered and murderer, by their acting ability).

    I rate this episode way higher, for me the only bits that lag are when Dr. Eric is doing his behaviourist / new age shtick. Also, most of the scenes involving Joanne and Miss Cochrane with Columbo to me seem tacked on for eye-candy purposes.

    Mischievous thought: how weak would our favourite lieutenant’s case have been if Dr. Eric, instead of falling back on the kill command, had said that actually he, his wife and Charlie had a much more liberated lifestyle than 1970s mores allowed for?

     
  12. It’s a flawed episode but I would rate it much higher. Dr. Eric Mason may be the most evil killer in the whole series. He spends months plotting the murder, never revealing to his victim that he is aware of the victim’s affair with Mason’s late wife. Up until his very last word, the victim thinks he has a friendly relationship with his murderer. Mason thoroughly enjoys the murder and has no qualms about doing more killing. He may have killed his wife (Columbo thinks so), tries to get his loyal dogs euthanized, and he ends the episode by trying to kill Columbo. I got a chill watching the dogs perk up every time the phone rang. It’s a good reminder of the horror of what Columbo has to investigate.

    I am not bothered by Mason’s lack of charisma. There is supposed to be some diversity among the villains, and I would think that murderers are rarely charming. This episode came very late in the series, when some of the old formulas were in danger of becoming stale. A murderer who was rather miserable and, post-murder, seemed to have no positive relationship with any human being, was a good contrast to much of the rest of the series.

     
  13. I think you’re too hard on this one. I agree, it’s not among the best outings of the show, but an enjoyable 75-minute ride. I especially like the gotcha scene. I’d place it in the higher levels of mid-tier overall.

     
  14. I’m in complete agreement. Williamson’s performance is so lazy he barely tries to fake an American accent. He just talks a bit slowly and sounds his Rs. Not only is that a distraction when he’s on the screen, but it also calls attention to the minor imperfections in on Kim Cattrall’s dialect.

    While the review quite rightly notes that Nicol Williamson’s perfunctory effort puts him at the opposite pole from the ever-strenuous Laurence Harvey, this episode does have a important similarity to “The Most Dangerous Match.” Both of the are dramatizations of situations and personalities that were very prominent in the USA in the 1970s, though not so widely remembered today. “The Most Dangerous Match” begins with the question “What if Bobby Fischer were even crazier than he in fact was, and had murdered Boris Spassky rather than risk losing a match to him?” Fischer/ Spassky was such a big deal in the early 70s that a question like that would have seemed like a natural to much of the audience, and would have carried them through many of the episode’s weaker points.

    Chess aficionados remember Fischer/ Spassky, and the lurid tragedy of Fischer’s later years has kept him from being completely forgotten by general public. Far fewer people remember the real-life figure whom most viewers would have thought of when Eric Mason first drifted onto the screen, Werner Erhart, founder of est. Erhart is still alive, and his methods still have a following in California, but the days are long past when millions of people felt strongly enough about him to take a grim satisfaction from a national television show presenting a thinly-disguised version of him as a sadistic, conceited, and incompetent murderer.

     
    • I’d put one other episode in that category: “Try and Catch Me.” Agatha Christie’s popularity hit one of its peaks in the mid-1970’s with the release of the Sidney Lumet “Murder on the Orient Express” in 1974, Poirot’s front-page New York Times obituary in August 1975, Christie’s own death in January 1976, and the 25th anniversary of “The Mousetrap” in 1977, only a month before “Try and Catch Me” aired.

       
        • You might add “Identity crisis” to this “ripped from the headlines” list of episodes. I think it’s negative image of intelligence operatives was obviously informed by scandalous congressional investigations into various CIA shenanigans in the mid 70’s. “Grand deceptions” looks like a reference to Iran-Contra affair.

           
  15. Sooner than expected, your new review, hope you enjoyed your holidays and had some well deserved rest!
    I like this episode more than you do. In my top 69 Columbo episodes it’s number 31. What I like best is the things NOT said, but made clear by looks and suggestions, such as Mason never accusing his victim of sleeping with his wife, but it’s there and it creates a very tense atmosphere.
    The other thing is that this episode has clearly inspired many detective/cop shows then yet to come. Not just the ingenuity used to perform the murder and the intelligence needed to solve the crime, but the whole psychological aspect of the crime was very new at the time.
    Finally I think Kim Cathrall’s part as Joanne is fascinating, and made me think a lot about dr Mason’s motives. He doesn’t seem to be interested in her sexually, but his attitude towards her can’t be described as fatherly either. And for a protegé she lacks stability. Was it his intention to make his wife jealous perhaps, because he knew about her affair?
    For me this is an episode worth rewatching often.

     
    • Number 31, wow. It’s #61 on my list, and it rates that high only because of Columbo telling the dogs “When I say that’s it, that’s it!” after Mason expects them to have killed him. Well, and also because Kim Cattrall and Tricia O’Neil are both superhot in it.

       
      • Fair enough! To be honest this was one of the hardest episodes to rate, but it’s one I often watch, more often than an episode like Double Shock, for example (one I rank higher), and it fascinates me every time. From memory my nr 61 is A bird in the hand, still very enjoyable but not as good as this one, well, in my opinion.

         
  16. Thanks, Columbophile. You are a brave man.
    Cause this is a very cruel murder. I often hesitated to view the episode, because I fear the dogs, even when they are in the conference room or in the office. (They are IN the television, I know, but it’s as if they could jump out.)
    I think the weakest point of the episode is the attempt to murder on Joanne Nicholls. (It reminds me of the second murder in “Murder by the Book”.) It’s clumsy. Mason has a mobile and no alibi.
    But I understand why Eric Mason is careless in the murder of Charles Hunter. He must be very, very conscient of his intellectual and psychological superiority above all other people, he doesn’t think anyone can understand what happened and how he did. [“Hunter was killed, it was an accident, the dogs will be killed. Over and out.”] He must have wanted a (very) long preparation of the murder, and have had a lot of pleasure in that preparation. Not the murder but its (very long) preparation was his greatest satisfaction. May be the baby spot and other elements are part of his pleasure in reminding himself of the murder and its preparation.
    The dog-training by Miss Chocrane is a pleasant scene; it’s a pretty parody of advertising spots for dog meals.
    I should have ranked this episode a little bit higher than you did.

     
    • I always wondered what the dog-training scene was doing in the episode; it makes perfect sense that it’s a “parody of advertising spots for dog meals.”

       
  17. I think the two female killers in Season 7 (Abigail and Kay) are the best of the season, but i like this one more than Under Glass and Conspirators, so if i was ranking Season 7 episodes only it ends up in the middle. This is my season 7 rankings

    1. Make me a Perfect Murder
    2. Try and Catch Me
    3. How to dial a Murder
    4. Under Glass
    5. The Conspirators

     
    • Nice, and totally agree, How to dial a murder would be my middle choice as well. Considering the whole list it would be almost the opposite for me:
      1. The conspirators
      2. Murder under glass
      3. How to dial a murder
      4. Make me a perfect murder
      5. Try and catch me
      Love all of them though!

       
      • Nice to read that I am not the only one who puts “The Conspirators” on top of his Season 7 ranking. My order is:
        1. The Conspirators
        2. Try and Catch me
        3. Murder Under Glass
        4. Make Me a Perfect Murder
        5. How to Dial a Murder

         
          • Indeed any cut to shorten “The Conspirators” would hurt me. It’s even a Top Ten entry in my book. They saved the best for last when they decided to finish the series with this one. That’s one of those longer episodes that need to run for 90 minutes, while “Make Me a Perfect Murder” benefits from an edited version. Where I live (Germany), the complete subplot about Valerie Kirk has been cut out when the episode first aired in 1984 – and the edited version lifts that one into my Top 30.

             
            • Interesting, I didn’t know some networks actually edited some of the episodes. I don’t think they did it where I live (The Netherlands) but then I was only a very small child in 1984.

               
              • In Germany, the main channel aired 8 episodes in an edited version: They shortened “Dead Weight”, “The Greenhouse Jungle” and “Requiem for a Falling Star” down to 60 minutes in 1975, they shortened the syndicated Canadian edit of “Etude in Black” down to 67 minutes, they cut out Emmet Clayton’s paranoia visions from “The Most Dangerous Match”, they cut out Columbo’s art gallery scene from “Playback” and by 1980, Germany still couldn’t live with the Nazi topic in “Now You See Him” and turned Santini into an English bank robber named Stanley Matthews and cut out Jesse Jerome’s Hitler salute and the typed letter showing the words “…an ex-nazi named Stefan Mueller.”

                 
                  • The network didn’t think so. They only cut some seconds from “The Most Dangerous Match”, but 17 years later, they threw away the first dubbed version with the original voice talents and made a new one just because 50 seconds were missing from the US version and they wanted to show the full movies. How about that?

                     
                    • Great knowledge, didn’t know that. And I disagree with Craig here, I think The most dangerous match is terrific.

                       
                    • I see “The Most Dangerous Match” safe in the Top 15 as well. A friend of mine, who contacted me (after I offered the nowadays non-available original German 1976 dubbing version as a giveaway) even ranks it in his Top 3.
                      Needless to say that the new dubbing versions made a lot of fans in my country angry because Peter Falk’s dubbing voice talent was a different actor by 1993.

                       
                    • OK, I guess I’m outvoted. Maybe I just don’t have the attachment to it that I do some others like “Stitch in Crime” and “A Friend in Deed”. I felt Harvey, much like Williamson in this episode, didn’t bring it with full force. He should have been cool, calculating, and a real match for Columbo. I found him to be less than that, but that’s just my opinion.

                       
                    • Not quite right. Emmet Clayton is the only killer in Columbo who would have a fair reason not to be as cool as you expect him to, because at first he fails in murdering his victim due to his deafness. Nonetheless he is capable of delivering a verbal chess match with the Lieutenant. In the end, after he finally succeeds, he is pretty cool – until he loses his public chess game and is faced with Columbo’s suspicions.

                       
    • I agree definitely better than murder under glass and The conspirators which for me are comparatively dreadful for seventies columbo , I would also prefer watching this than The most dangerous match and lovely but lethal and requiem for a falling star and has to How and why Dead weight is ranked above this Just cant get past , In fact I had a feeling this wouldn’t fair too well in columbophiles world but I did not except it to be rated as low ,for me it would/should be at least 6 places higher , mainly because the murder was different and horrific ,. not the most memorable killer but there wouldn’t be memorable killers if there weren’t a few un -memorable killers mixed in the rest of the episode is decent without being great .

       
  18. First of all, you guys are the best! I love the reviews and I love the comments. All so smart and insightful.

    This was never one of my favorites and I think you nailed the reasons why. I blame Williamson the most, though I think it also wasn’t the best-written episode. Williamson is lifeless. I didn’t know the tidbit about his divorce and that “he had to have the money” but it certainly shows through in his performance.

    I think he’s trying to come off as stone-cold and in total control, but it plays as just sleepy. Nimoy was the Columbia standard for the emotionless, self-absorbed murderer. Williamson’s performance shows just how difficult it is to play that role and still make it interesting.

     
    • I agree that Williamson’s lackluster performance brings this episode down. You don’t like him, you don’t dislike him, he is just there. When there is no emotional response to the villain, the outcome doesn’t matter. If the viewer hated the killer, he would want to set Laurel and Hardy on him, but instead the lack of emotional involvement keeps the viewer detached from the killer’s fate. The neutral attitude left by this episode makes all who sees it a perfect juror at the killer’s trial except for the fact that they have witnessed the murder.

      As for Williamson’s excuse that he needed the money, I would draw your attention to Suzanne Pleshette’s performance in “Dead Weight”. (See the video clip of her in the recap on this site.) She needed the money, not because of a divorce but because her house was half destroyed by one of California’s natural disasters. Unfortunately for her, Peter Falk was feuding with the producers while filming her episode and had staged a sick-out. She had to do her scenes with Peter Falk without Peter Falk but still managed to portray a sympathetic character. So why couldn’t Williamson do the same?

       
  19. As an aside, does anyone know if the two doberman’s are the same pair that played Higgins’ dogs Apollo & Zeus in Magnum PI, this episode is from ’77 and Magnum ran from ’80-’88 so it fits in the conceivable lifespan of the dogs.

     
  20. CP, you have proved once again that the viewer’s feeling about the Columbo murderer’s performance has a huge effect on his or her opinion of the episode – perhaps second only to the murder and detection plots themselves. However, different people react differently to different actors. I rated Troubled Waters several notches lower than you did because I thought Robert Vaughn was one of the most dull and monotonous actors I ever saw (in that episode, in Commodore, and in practically any role I can recall seeing him in), whereas you seemed to love him. By contrast, while there are holes in this episode, I thought Williamson was the perfect actor for this role, because every word he utters from start to finish (in almost every setting) reeks of a sinister, creepy guy who would be a prime suspect to check out whenever a serial killer was on the loose. When he says “I think you need to see the whole package” you can already hear the glee in his voice of seeing Columbo torn to shreds, just as he had a joyous catharsis while listening to his best friend Charlie being torn to pieces as he shouted his name. The whole mood control business, as well as having a young girl who is crazy about him camping out at his house without willing to offer her even a \n ounce of affection, all fits the picture of an utter creep who can justify the most vile conduct possible. Which is why you believe he could actually do it to Columbo. And although it would surely arouse suspicions about him if Columbo also died at the hand of his dogs, he couldn’t care less as long as no one could prove it, which would likely be the case w/o anyone else knowing the “Rosebud” buzzword. And while there were indeed sloppy clues left behind, Columbo had to figure out a ton of stuff that was far from obvious and that would likely have been overlooked by 95% of detectives. So all in all, I certainly found it highly entertaining, with a number of great moments, even if this would certainly not make my top ten list.

     
    • If the reprogramming had failed and Columbo were torn to shreds, Mason would still have been brought to justice because Columbo’s dog trainer would certainly have known the tigger word. Of course, Mason himself was unaware of this, so he could well have felt safe, as you indicated.

      LIke CP, I am unimpressed with this episode.

       
  21. Aw I dunno, I think this one is a bit better than you give it credit for. Dr. Mason is a smug contemptible killer with no redeeming qualities and the worse the killer the more gratifying the take down. Your reviews are always spot on and any minor difference of opinion is a matter of subjective reactions.

    Thanks to Nadia Donner, Joanne Nichols is spared the label of the biggest basket case in the history of the original series. While I get that she’s upset about witnessing a gruesome murder, the rest of her brooding bothers me. Geez, forget ol’ Dr. Mason, you can have any guy on campus you want.

    Such is my gestalting over this episode 🙂

     
  22. My two cents:

    Falk’s Columbo hits an unnatural, cartoonish peak in this episode — but it’s hard to blame Peter, because the script is equally goofy. The goofiness starts with Columbo’s first appearance, when he shows absolutely no wariness surrounded by two Dobermans who, minutes before, literally ripped a man to shreds (“Here I am, playing away with these dogs as if nothing happened.”). In fact, Columbo shows more apprehension with trainer Cochran’s German shepherd — BEFORE this dog shows any sign of violence; when the trainer tells Columbo “to show him that you’re friendly,” Columbo replies, “Why doesn’t he show me first?” Yet he innocently plays without caution with the killer Dobermans.

    I know it’s a plot point that, if Laurel and Hardy simply were “reverting dogs,” they wouldn’t have become playful again, but there must have been another way to show this, without Columbo looking like a naive bonehead.

    Then take Columbo’s goofy exchange with the trainer over Dog: “This dog could be a lethal weapon. He’s already partly trained” — as he pushes his hound to the ground. It was as if the spirit of Laurel and Hardy was present in more ways than just as the names of Mason’s dogs.

    These weren’t simply lighter moments like those we welcome in a Columbo. Columbo humor often makes fun of Columbo’s lack of sophistication. But not his lack of common sense. Columbo never lacks common sense.

    I’m also not quite sure what function Joanne serves in this story — other than to underscore Dr. Eric Mason’s undeniable weirdness. Is she there only so someone will find Charlie’s body and call the police before Mason comes home? So Mason can’t hang up the phone before the cops arrive? What other purpose has she?

    All of this is unfortunate because “How to Dial a Murder” had the tools for an excellent episode: a wonderfully cinematic opening, a clever (albeit utterly gruesome) murder method, some excellent clues (even if an elevated heart rate was a repeat from “Troubled Waters”), an interesting investigative approach (with Columbo getting Mason to play a word association game to try to ferret out and record the kill command), and a nice resolution (although Columbo’s accusation — “That’s why you killed your wife, Dr. Mason” — comes entirely out of the blue, and I’d also lose pulling evidence from pool table pockets). [I would have loved it if the actual kill command could have been concealed until the end; with the audience knowing from the beginning that there was a kill word, but not which word. Maybe there was no way to do this.]

    I also wish two issues had been explored in more depth: First, I would have expected Columbo to question Mason’s complete lack of emotion when learning that his two pet dogs savagely mauled his “best friend.” Mason also seems to have recovered completely from his wife’s sudden, tragic death remarkably quickly. Is this all about Mason’s field of psychology (“And the point is: take control. Take control of your own space, your own lives, your own responses.”)? Regardless, it’s something Columbo ordinarily would ask about. But Mason’s robotic reactions never come up except tangentially (“It certainly has been a tragic year for you, hasn’t it, sir? I mean, with your wife’s death just six months ago, and now this.” “Well, you know, we all have to deal with our emotions and my first instinct is always to turn to a friend. And the first friend I think of is Charlie.”).

    Second, is the part Mason’s obsession with movie memorabilia plays in his downfall. As you note, the “baby spot” labeled “Property of Callaghan Film Ranch, Peach Tree, California,” that Mason “picked up last week,” led Columbo to key clues against Mason. So, even when rehearsing a murder, Mason could not restrain himself from grabbing some telltale movie prop. It’s reminiscent of Col. Rumford’s inability to ignore the sight of fermenting cider when committing his murder in “By Dawn’s Early Light”; or Gen. Hollister in “Dead Weight” holding onto a murder weapon because it was his favorite gun; or Paul Galesko (“Negative Reaction”) tossing in the fireplace the imperfect photograph he took moments before murdering his wife. At least when Adrian Carsini identified the Fermier Vintage Port, 1945 as overheated (“Any Old Port in a Storm”), he didn’t know the bottle’s relationship with his crime. But Mason knew he was bringing home a souvenir from a murder’s dry run. It’s especially nice when a Columbo murderer is undone by his compulsions. This aspect of the crime’s solution could have been emphasized much more.

    All in all, “How to Dial a Murder” belongs in the “disappointing” category — a promising story that never reached its full potential. The elements were there, but needed at least one further rewrite.

     
    • I think you can interpret Joanne’s role as an additional window into Mason’s character and motivations. Take the murder sequence as a starting point. Yes technically her character is necessary because Mason needs an alibi and has to arrange for someone to find Charlie while he is out of the house. But why Joanne?
      You can come up with a dozen other ways to set this up, but he deliberately uses her, an emotionally fragile young woman who would be severely traumatized by what she has to see according to Mason’s plan. “I’ve got a new one, a new secret word. Blood!”. Is he punishing her as well for something we don’t know? Trying to shock her out of her childish dependence on him? Staging a cruel psychological experiment?
      You can argue she is just collateral damage for him. By I don’t buy the theory that Mason is a cold-hearted killer in the style of Nimoy’s dr. Mayfield who kills just because that’s the most efficient way to achieve his career goals. After all this guy concocts a revenge plot of truly Old-Testament style brutality. Nobody can do this unless some crazy passion is ripping him apart from the inside. Also note his fist pumping the minute he knows the dogs got to Charlie. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any other Columbo murderer expressing his glee at what he/she has done. Despite his otherwise aloof manner Mason is obviously passionate about what he is doing to the extent of becoming irrational.
      I think that’s the best explanation for all his mistakes.Of all people you would expect a psychologist (if he is in his right mind) to understand that marital infidelity is a perfectly ordinary pattern of human behaviour and not a crime that warrants death penalty in a most cruel way imaginable. But amid all this talk about control the reality is Mason is loosing it and semi-conciously understands it. First he looses control over people around him (his wife, Charlie, Joanne) and then his own attempt to reassert control by avenging himself gets out of hand. That’s why he overreacts to Joanne saying she knew about Charlie and mrs. Mason. Not because she can provide Columbo with a motive (without the “kill command” there is no way to prove anything and any sane person would understand that) but because her telling anybody about the affair would undermine his self-image of control and success.
      As Leosmart above says Mason “would be a prime suspect to check out whenever a serial killer was on the loose”. That’s exactly how I think of him. Not as a typical rational Columbo murderer but as the show’s only true serial killer style murderer (discard cartoonish Strassa guy from “No time to die”). He even exibits classic serial killer’s behaviour traits. He actively toys with police. And he is collecting mementos from his victims/crime scenes. That’s how you explain the baby spot. As Jef notes “may be the baby spot and other elements are part of his pleasure in reminding himself of the murder and its preparation”. Also note how Mason handles Charlie and mrs. Mason pictures. He doesn’t immediately destroy them (as a rational killer would do) but puts the stack in his pocket wrapping it with a band to keep them in place as if he intends to use it later.
      So I think that our host Columbophile is perfectly right and maybe this episode was an inspiration for Thomas Harris not only as a source for Mason Verger’s sadistic ways of killing off his enemies but as a source for legendary Hannibal Lecter chararcter himself.

       
  23. Have the same feeling-a blah performance by the villain depresses an interesting plot. I feel it could have been better.

    Cassidy provides a great contrast. He was always animated and compelling. Also appreciated Susan Clark, Richard Kiley, Theodore Bikel, Ross Martin, Ruth Gordon, John Cassavetes, Patrick O’ Neil, Donald Pleasance, Leonard Nimoy and probably a couple of others I’m forgetting as villains.

    Falk seeemed to have the best rapport with Cassidy and Cassavetes

     
  24. I remember this one mainly because of the unique and rather disturbing murder method. The explanation of how dogs respond to commands was interesting, but otherwise I have to agree, it’s not a very good episode.

     
  25. So surprised you rate this episode at only 38 and a bigger surprise to see Short Fuse at 39! Dear me, I enjoyed the performances as well as all the movie buff stuff. Not in my top 10 but an excellent and enjoyable episode!

     
  26. All points well taken! Let’s just say your review was infinitely more sparkling than this disappointingly charisma-low episode. Kim Cattrall was quite compelling in her brunette pulchritude, though!

     
  27. Great and rational review even though I seem to find more of an enjoyable sinister atmosphere in it than you do. Plot holes are there but I didn’t find the rest of the episode dreary. It’s more middle of the pack than bad one. Kim Cattrall appeared in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, not Star Trek IV. She is great in the episode. Not surprised at all it was her breakthrough. Thanks, Columbophile.

     
  28. I am one of those fans who cherish the surprise that “How to Dial a Murder” is ranked so low here. Although it seems to be one of the most remembered and hailed episodes of the series (largely due to its unique murder method), there are too many weaknesses in it to satisfy me, for example how Mason can be sure not to be attacked by his own dogs when he enjoys to reveal the Rosebud command in the final scene. Although the ending is meant to be a bull’s eye, it’s a dazzler, easy to fall for when you’re young and deceivable.

     
  29. Another great review, I must admit that this episode remains very dear to me as it was the first one I ever watched aged 8 in 1987. The old rust studio light that Mason picks up at the film ranch to restore prompted in my early teens to pick up a similar light in a junk shop – and from that started an interest that gave rise to my career as a theatre lighting technician – so it’s an episode that means a lot, despite it’s failings.

     
    • That’s very cool, Tony! It’s really something how that scene changed your life. It also shows how, for all of us, a TV show can strike a cord based as much on our personal situation as it does the quality of the show. It’s a very personal medium.

       

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