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…
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.
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!
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?
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.
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?
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
- Make Me a Perfect Murder
- 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 —C-List starts here—
- A Case of Immunity
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- How to Dial a Murder
- 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—
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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A great episode again.
I warn you, when it is with dogs, I love everything when it ends well for the dogs. Once again we can see that Columbo – Peter Falk – the plot writers – love dogs. And that is good.
The murderer in prison, the dogs free. Well, in an asylum probably, but they’ll be taken care of and adopted, hopefully. They kiss on command ! 🙂 (That was a beautiful moment!). Yes, they’ll get adopted.
And Dog also played and that was great fun too.
But this is a Columbo episode as well. I loved it. Rosebud is a mystery word, it has never been explained why he said Rosebud when he was dying, so a nice secret word.
Loved the trip in Callaghan.
Loved the heart rythm affair.
The word game.
Many passages and everything as a whole.
Really enjoyed it.
Yes, as Columbo said, ‘this is a simple case’ but I think many officers who just look at the evidence, would have thought, these dogs had gone mad, let them be killed and that’s it. So very good, Columbo dog lover.
It is nice that the murderer will be trialed for a murder and trying to kill a policeman as well – which is severly punished! – (how stupid can one be, Columbo writes reports, his colleagues know what he is doing, everyone would have known immediately how Columbo had died). He deserves it. He is really bad, he murdered his ex wife, there is no proof for that, and he also tried to kill that girl. Who knows, perhaps the girl will tell that in court but again there is no proof. But one proved premeditated murder and trying to kill a police officer… he’ll not be a free man again very soon.
Finally, liked this last sentence of Columbo: I enjoy to play the game (or something).
Columbo recognises the gate from Citizen Kane, he`s aware of Norah Chandler and Grace Wheeler`s film careers, but in Too Many Notes he doesn`t recognise the Jaws theme.
Appreciate the comments here but I think that Dr Mason only made one mistake…….
He didn’t realise he was in the Columboverse.
The police take a call from a hysterical woman about a dog attack? Come to the house and see 2 dogs presumably covered in blood, even if not next to the corpse.
Holster the gun and clean up the dogs so the good Lieutenant can play with them.
Where are we? In the Columboverse. Any other parallel universe would not have a living dog in it. No dogs and no reason to search for any evidence as it was only the impeccable doggy behaviour which alerted Columbo!
“I’m so brilliant and clever, no one else could have cooked up a plot like this!”
Yeah, and that makes you the only suspect, you ding-dong!
I liked this one. I don’t see how having a more restrained killer is a problem. They don’t all have to be flamboyant. It would be repetitive, cartoonish and grating. It’s great to have diverse personality types.
I agree the case was easy for Columbo to solve because Mason was very careless, but that can be logically explained by his arrogance. And he assumed cops would just never consider it would be more than a tragic accident, not bother investigating very deeply, and close the case quickly. Which doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me actually. His murder plan was really clever so he thought there was no need to be very cautious about covering up his tracks.
I just didn’t get Joanne, that character and storyline were very weird and felt like filler. In the end of the day her only real purpose in the plot is to let Columbo know about Mason’s weekends away. A maid could have done the trick. The scene where Mason almost strangles her is also weird, first he tells her to be silent about his wife’s affair and then immediately proceeds to strangle her ? What was the point in asking her to keep quiet then ?
But all in all that was quite an enjoyable episode. I did remember most of the plot from my previous viewing ~15 years ago.
It does my head in, the number of times Columbo says “Sir”. It’s ridiculous, & spoils the episode for me.
Please! We need a clip of the dogs jumping on Colombo on the pool table when Mason says rosebud. Series 7 episode 4 at the end
Not a comment on the quality of the episode but on the heinous nature of the killer: as a dog person I found him to be the most evil bad guy in the series. Anyone who would do that *to his stunning, perfect dogs* – who would set them up to be put down – well, I’d pull the switch on his execution myself.
Evidently, Peter Falk and Nicol Williamson got along well enough, because later in 1978, the two worked together (as detective and villain) in Neil Simon’s detective-film parody, The Cheap Detective.
Williamson was an interesting actor, in both a good and a bad way. In 1968-69, his performances as Hamlet took The West End and Broadway by storm. But then again, his role in I Hate Hamlet (playing the ghost of John Barrymore, in Hamlet costume) was something very different. Williamson treated everyone in the show badly, especially Evan Handler, playing an actor whom Barrymore’s ghost mentors in a Hamlet-playing role. Williamson started firing off ad-lib insults to Handler onstage during a performance. Handler blew his top, stormed offstage and quit the show. Williamson looked at the audience and asked, “What should I do? Tap dance?” Handler’s stand-in eventually came out and they picked up where the scene had broken.
You would think that a man who was such an avid collector of movie memorabilia would be more lively, but Mason is the most soulless killer of them all. Perhaps we should infer that realizing his wife’s infidelity with his best friend has killed his soul. But he’s not very interesting to watch.
I don’t totally understand how Kim Catrall doesn’t realize that Mason is trying to kill her.
Also, I must point out a serious problem with the gotcha. Mason points to Columbo and commands “Rosebud!” But we have seen that Mason programmed the dogs to attack the person who SAID the “kill” command-word. So the dogs should have jumped Mason and torn him apart. (Had they not been reprogrammed.)
Add my vote in the plus column. Falk was at his best ; ‘My father taught me’, playing pool rather than the same game the villain was. Williamson I found very seriously convincing. And I only wish I was a dog fancier so that I could spend a night and watch the sun come up with Trish O’Neill, lol
Anyone else here remember Joel Fabiani from the great British closed-mystery Department S ?
I’m not entirely in agreement on this one. Nicol Williamson may come off as a bit bland, but honestly, I didn’t feel we needed to see him move to grand heights of villainy after the opening sequence. We get to see Mason goad his “friend,” let him know exactly what’s coming, and as said “friend” begs for Mason to stop the attack, he grins, fist bumps, and hangs up the phone. That’s one of the most psychopathically chilling reactions to a murder that we’ve ever seen on the series. It’s like he was celebrating a game-winning touchdown, rather than listening to his dogs tear a human to shreds.
But as for the investigation, 100 percent agree. Mason couldn’t have made himself look any more guilty if he’d purchased a neon sign and stuck it outside his house exclaiming, “Yes, Columbo! I’m the murderer!” I mean, even as a casual viewer, I remember at the initial killing sequence thinking, ‘isn’t that spike on your EKG going to look a little obvious when they determine when Charlie was killed?’ That’s not something I usually pick up on, so glaringly, when watching the other episodes.
When you think of Mason, and his desire for control, it makes sense that he’s in control of everything, including his emotions. He’s a bit like Dr. Bart Keppel, or Dr. Ray Flemming, in a way, in that both know pretty early on that Columbo knows they did it, and both recognize the threat, Keppel just takes a more goading approach to it, He’s super intelligent like Mason, but he doesn’t have the psychological need for control. He’s happy to tag along down whatever path Columbo wants to take him on so he can gleefully rub it in Columbo’s face when Columbo can either, not corroborate what he needs, or has no evidence to prove it.
Flemming was less gleeful, but still, he was enjoying the opportunity to play cat-and-mouse with Columbo, albeit in a more reserved way.
Because of his control of emotions, while I’m sure Mason feels intellectual superiority, He’s a cold, passionless man, with no desire for games. He doesn’t want to play the game like Keppel and Flemming do. He just wants Columbo to give up and go away.
I’m still amazed that this scenario was plagiariazed in one of the Detective Conan’s episodes.
I took the time to really watch this episode closely and it has become one of my favorites. Columbo clearly suspected Mason from the very start and his thinly disguised skepticism was fun to watch….the way his eyes just drilled into Mason when he said “you must enjoy games” or “we’d really like to find the person who made the call.” or (my fave) the first scene near the telephone. It was gamesmanship all the way.
Mason was clearly a sociopath (chocolate kills dogs! AUGH!), but his performance/interpretation was so subtle you could blink and miss it most of the time. I liked the direction and the camera work in this one, too…plenty of time and space to see Falk’s wonderfully expressive face, and nice work letting the camera do the exposition (like the closeups of the shiny part of the rusty hinges at the ranch). The way he baited Mason at the end was awesome. I thought the whole Kim C. subplot was kind of unnecessary though. However, Falk’s wonderfully expressive performance makes up for it, and Mason nailed his personality: comes on like a puppy dog digging holes in the garden but really planting land mines.
I agree with almost
all of your points,
except Kim C. It’s all gamesmanship
including the deadly final showdown.
At which point, Columbo unloads all
of his evidence, accusations, and
insults on Mason. In an all-out effort
to get him to remove the last obstacle
to his getting off scot-free.
Really gripping intense stuff!
I also will disagree with the blog author’s review for this one.
Which I regard as one of the very best episodes.
Firstly, the killer’s original personality, was probably a lot
more frightening than what was shown.
Without the killings, Dr. Mason appears to be a self-absorbed,
stuffy, control freak. But WITH the killings, and attempted
killings (4 in all, either shown, or alluded to in the episode),
he is undeniably a serial killer. Perhaps the first of the series.
And the worst possible kind of serial killer. The kind that appears
outwardly normal most of the time, punctuated with sudden bursts
of violence and rage. Thus like Ted Bundy, never giving victims
an inkling of his true nature, catching them always off guard.
Thus the killer dobermans in this episode are a perfect metaphor
for Dr. Mason’s true nature. Their terrifying presence throughout
the whole episode ratchets it up to a whole new level of viewer
Alas, not much of the killer’s own sudden violent outbursts made
it into the final cut. This is 70’s public network television, after
all. Even the scene of Mason’s punching the air while his
colleague is being torn to shreds, was cut for 70’s TV.
Nor, as Columbo admits, does it take much to figure out the killer’s
identity and motive. Mason’s house, dogs, colleague,…. and wife.
Nor is Dr. Mason particularly careful about hiding clues that show
his methods. Biggest gaffe of all perhaps, was his choosing the
best known word from film fandom, his obvious obsession, as the
All this is true. But it is still all only circumstantial evidence.
Columbo knows this. So he must put his own life on the line to catch
his wily opponent in the act. There’s no guarantee that the police trainer’s
conditioning will hold up against Dr. Mason’s voice and own training.
This is the episode that best proves Columbo’s own personal courage.
Making the final showdown, when Columbo shows Dr, Mason his
evidence, the most tense and suspenseful in the entire series.
Entertainment: 5.5/5 (bonus 0.5 for
cranked up dread level)
Final Gotcha: 2.5/2.5
Final Clues Leading Columbo to Killer: 1.5/2.5
(deduction -0.5 for rather obvious kill command
deduction -0.5 for Columbo’s earlier playing
with the killer dogs. Yice!)
Agreed! This episode is on top 10, mayhaps even top 5. The killer as a true serial one, killed 2, attempt another 2 + the 2 dogs. The acting was really amazing, very subtle, yet intense. And I liked his take, instead of always being pleasant to Columbo, he was rather blatant and annoyed, which is a rare behavior for a murderer in the Columboverse.
And the murdering scene, I found really enthralling and unique!
Man, how can you glaze over the graceful direction by Frawley and the excellent score by Patrick Williams? That heartbeat motif was enthralling!
Even if it saved his life didn’t Columbo’s deprogramming erase a key piece of evidence? Indeed his whole case might have gone to the dogs.
Yes, but he is
taping the whole
showdown with his voice-activated
Admissions like: “You knew the
kill command!”, stand up in court.
I found it interesting the the trigger word was Rosebud, with this being the title of a film Kim Cattrall appeared in 3 years before this episode.
Did anyone else notice this link?
I’m glad to see many comments with more favorable reviews than that of the author. This is also my sentiment. Mr. blog manager has been outvoted on this one.
I watched this episode just after ‘Conspirators,’ and I can’t understand how you can rank that one more highly — it’s unwatchable with all the lame limericks and phony-baloney Irish accents. That one should be at or near rock-bottom.
By contrast, this one has some enjoyable scenes with the dogs and a satisfying ending. It would have been even more suspenseful, possibly, if the viewers had learned only afterwards that Columbo had stumbled across the trigger word. And, finally, I disagree that this was an ‘easy’ case for the investigator — I rather doubt the average detective would think of an attack word triggered over the phone.
Although Conspirators had some goofy stuff in it, and some ridiculous self-incriminating actions by the killer, I enjoyed watching it.
But I agree with you 100% about How to Dial a Murder. It’s one of my favorite episodes — clever, unusual murder method, a clue (kill word) that was probably impossible to uncover (without having the dogs in custody), Kim Cattral, Ed Begley, Jr., Columbo playing pool, truly devious, cold-blooded murderer, among other things.
I agree how to dial murder is underrated and id place it about 10 places higher up the seventies chart than the conspirators noth were on yesterday on 5 usa , i missed the conspirators but i just cant get
To like that one very much mainly joe devlin s charachter grates me , however eric mason
Is okay for me despite not being
one of the most memorable killers and kim catralls charachter was a nice addition