Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 7

Episode review: Columbo The Conspirators

Columbo The Conspirators opening titles

May 13, 1978 truly marked the end of an epoch as the very final Columbo episode of the classic era, The Conspirators, hit the airwaves.

Starring Clive Revill as mercurial Irish poet Joe Devlin, set against a controversial backdrop of gunrunning for the Irish Republican Army and featuring more consumed whiskey than any other TV episode ever, all the elements are there for an explosive finale.

But is The Conspirators a celebration-sized ale of a send-off? Or were the studio and network execs right when they insisted the series would go ‘this far, and no farther?’ Let’s take a closer look…

Columbo The Conspirators cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Joe Devlin: Clive Revill
Vincent Pauley: Albert Paulsen
Kerry Malone: Michael Horton
Kate O’Connell: Jeanette Nolan
George O’Connell: Bernard Behrens
Chuck Jensen: LQ Jones
Angela (book store clerk): Deborah White
Written by: Howard Berk (based on an idea by Pat Robison)
Directed by: Leo Penn
Score by: Patrick Williams
Notable locations: O’Connell residence (Doheny Mansion, 10 Chester Place, LA); Port of Los Angeles; Vincent Thomas Bridge

Episode synopsis: Columbo The Conspirators

Cheeky Oirish poet Joe Devlin may appear to be a jovial leprechaun of a fella, but beneath the grinning exterior is a heart of steel. While professing to be an advocate for families torn apart by the troubles in Northern Ireland, the whelp actually raises illicit funds to put guns in the hands of the Irish Republican Army.

During a banjo-infused signing of his latest book, Devlin meets sinister gun supplier Vincent Pauley – the latter revealing his identity by handing over a book to be signed that has ‘Ourselves Alone‘ – the anglicised version of ‘Sinn Fein‘, the battle-cry of Irish rebels – written on an inside page.

Following the signing, Pauley makes a house call on Devlin to showcase his wares. The two strike a deal for 500 M11 machine guns at a cost of $150,000 – but there’s a catch. Devlin needs the guns to be ready by the 15th of the month in order for them to be shipped to Northern Ireland in time for operations. Pauley can only supply by the 30th – unless he gets an extra $50,000. Devlin has until that night to ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ the deal.

Disgusted by this treachery, Devlin has Pauley tailed and discovers the crooked gunrunner plans to take the money and run by boarding a flight to Lisbon immediately after their planned weapons exchange that evening. When Devlin confronts his foe at the rendezvous at Pauley’s hotel, Pauley reaches for a gun – but he’s too slow. Devlin drops his enemy with a shot from a silenced pistol.

As he collapses dead to the floor, Pauley clatters into a bottle of Devlin’s favourite tipple, Full’s Irish Dew, of which the mercurial poet has just been imbibing. With the whiskey maker’s tagline of ‘Let each man be paid in full’ in mind, Devlin symbolically rolls the bottle to Pauley’s side and makes good his escape.

Columbo The Conspirators
Pauley’s private lap dance for Devlin went down like a lead balloon

Reporting the outcome to his benefactors – and fellow IRA sympathisers – the O’Connell family, Devlin has to admit they’re now in a tight spot. The guns are desperately needed by the 15th, but the identity of Pauley’s gun supplier is unknown. Still, Devlin pinched every scrap of documentation from Pauley’s hotel room, so hope remains that the murderous cargo can still be secured in time.

That plan, of course, hasn’t factored in the wiles of one Lieutenant Columbo. Despite Devlin’s confidence that no one can connect either he or the O’Connells to Pauley, Columbo makes a house call to Devlin HQ seeking information on the murder victim. The detective even has evidence that Pauley and Devlin have met, in the shape of the signed book.

Devlin, shocked, pretends to have no recollection of meeting Pauley and denies recalling the ‘Ourselves Alone’ slogan, instead suggesting (rather feebly) that it must have been added in later by the victim.

“Pauley knew his killer at least well enough to know their preference for whiskey.”

Columbo’s next act is to visit the book store where Devlin and Pauley met. Here, in between ogling an erotic art book and chatting to a shop clerk who is clearly a dominatrix masquerading behind a bookish exterior, he uncovers no new information on Pauley, but does find out that ‘Ourselves Alone’ translates to Sinn Fein – the battle cry of the Irish rebellion. What it all means he doesn’t yet know, but it’s a useful snippet to tuck away.

It takes on greater significance shortly afterwards. While pondering what might have happened at the crime scene itself, who should interrupt Columbo but Devlin himself? The plucky Irishman wants to come clean and admits he does remember the inscription in Pauley’s book, but didn’t mention it earlier because he was flustered at having a policeman question him about a murder. Whatevs

Now that he has a captive audience, Columbo is able to think out some aspects of the case. He’s bothered by how and why the whiskey bottle was beside the body when it was spilled some metres away. But the booze has also been a source of inspiration. Turns out that Full’s Irish Dew wasn’t available in the hotel, so Pauley sent out for a bottle specifically. This means he knew his killer at least well enough to know their preference for whiskey. It’s a very telling sign.

Columbo The Conspirators
Geez, weren’t there any colours other than BROWN in the 70s?

He’s also found a scrap of evidence that eluded the ransacking Devlin on the night of the murder: a slip of paper hidden under a lamp with the initials LAP and numbers 213 written on it. What does it mean? Neither man knows, so they opt to lunch together to discuss things further.

This cosy tete-a-tete at an Oirish pub of Devlin’s choosing serves only one real plot purpose: to solidify Devlin as chief suspect. How? Because the serving wench ‘helpfully’ offers Devlin his personal bottle of whiskey from behind the bar, and, as sure as eggs is eggs, Columbo notices that it’s the same brand that was present at the killing of Pauley. Ergo, Devlin is da killer!

This setback doesn’t diminish Devlin’s resolve, though. Following up on a lead from Pauley’s paperwork, he makes a beeline for Jensen’s RV Yard, where he believes the proprietor could be in a position to fill his order for guns. Jensen, however, fails to respond to Devlin’s cryptic comments about being ‘in the market’ leaving the despondent Irishman to turn tail.

Reporting his failure to the O’Connells, Devlin receives a roasting for his bungling and addiction to drink but the down-dressing is interrupted by a visit from – you guessed it – Lieutenant Columbo! It’s little more than a fishing expedition, although the detective is impressed to learn he’s meeting the owners of the renowned O’Connell Industries, and finds time to compliment matriarch Kate O’Connell on her enviable needlepoint skillz.

We next see Devlin striking out in several attempts to secure guns from alternate sources, leaving him no option but to head to the Port of Los Angeles and beg the captain of the boat ship that will smuggle out the guns to delay his departure. Predictably, the skipper gives Devlin short shrift and his angst is exacerbated when (who friggin’ else?) Columbo miraculously turns up dockside.

The Lieutenant has cracked the LAP 213 conundrum – it stands for LA Pier 213, the spot where the gunrunning vessel is moored. Caught out, Devlin has to explain his presence there as conducting his own investigations into the crime after coincidentally also figuring out the code, so at this stage he might as well be wearing a luminous t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I DID IT!” in large font.

Columbo Joe Devlin
Is it his conscience that’s weighing Devlin down, or his CHUNKY KNITWEAR and MILE-THICK CORDUROY?

Devlin is able to shake Columbo off by fleeing to his next appointment – a live interview with actual radio talk show host Carol Hemingway (nice touch). Listening in to the show from, Columbo rings in and grills Devlin about a poem he had been quoting about delivering ‘justice to the many’.

The poem had in fact been penned by one Michael Dolan, and had been scratched on the wall of an Irish prison cell where Devlin had been jailed as an idealistic 14-year-old for attempting terrorist acts against The Crown. This info seems unimportant now, but it’ll come back to haunt Devlin as surely as ’twere the ghost of Dolan himself.

Immediately after his interview, Devlin is accosted in the radio station car park by RV salesman Jensen. The cowboy-hat wearing moustachio heard Devlin on air and screeched straight over to the station in an attempt to close a deal – but it ain’t the luxury RV he’s trying to shift, no sir, it’s the $150,000 worth of machine guns. Devlin was right all along – Jensen was Pauley’s dealer, and his bid to arm his IRA brethren is now back on track.

Columbo and Devlin meet up later that day at another pub. Around a live ‘limerick off’, the Lieutenant provides an update on the case. As well as securing FBI assistance to thoroughly search the vessel at LAP 213, he believes he’s close to identifying Pauley’s murderer.

He’s more interested, however, in discussing Michael Dolan. Devlin spoke warmly of the man on radio, but a little research shows he was a cold-hearted IRA killer, with the blood of women and children on his hands. How could Devlin hero worship a monster like that? Not for the first time, the poet spins an unconvincing yarn about failing memory and not realising the true measure of the man. In Columbo’s eyes, though, Devlin’s now looking as guilty as an extraordinarily guilty thing!

Columbo is also witness to a habit of Devlin’s that is certain to cause him trouble. When he switches from ‘celebration-sized’ ales to Full’s Irish Dew, Devlin marks the bottle with his diamond ring. “This far and no farther,” he explains as being his way of ensuring he doesn’t overindulge in his favourite tipple. It’ll be the act that ultimately damns him.

Columbo The Conspirators
“Me? An alcoholic? Sure, whatever would give you such a notion?”

The Lieutenant has multiple fish to fry, though, trying to catch a killer and prevent a shipment of guns leaving LA. The latter seems to be beyond him as a search reveals no guns aboard ship leaving the Coast Guard with no choice but to allow the vessel to embark. Viewing the ship being tugged out to sea via telescope pays dividends for Columbo, though, and what he sees will sound the death knell for Devlin’s plans to bolster IRA fortunes.

It’s time for the final confrontation between detective and poet. Devlin has remained port side all afternoon, swigging his Full’s Irish Dew. Columbo drops by with big news. He knows Devlin is the killer – and he can prove it beyond doubt via the scratches on the whiskey bottles.

Columbo has had the scratches on the bottle at the crime scene compared against those on the other bottles Devlin drinks in various haunts across town. They’re all identical, created by the diamond in Devlin’s ring. It’s as good as fingerprint evidence, so Devlin’s luck of the Irish has finally run out.

True to form, Devlin takes the news philosophically. He has no regrets. And anyway, as he watches the fated ship chug away from the port he can relax in the knowledge that his greater goal has been achieved. That’s until the sound of helicopters and speed boats interrupt his reverie.

Columbo, you see, has figured out that the illegal guns are actually on the tug boat pulling the larger ship out to see and has called in the Coast Guard. He knows because the tug has the emblem of O’Connell Industries flying from its mast – the same emblem he noticed Kate O’Connell assiduously stitching earlier in the episode. The guns will never reach Belfast.

Columbo This far and no farther

Impressed, Devlin offers Columbo one last chance to share a drop of the good stuff with him. The Lieutenant agrees, marking the bottle himself and stating “This far and no farther,” as credits roll…

The Conspirators‘ best moment: RV having fun yet?

For all the frivolity and fun shared between Devlin and Columbo, the episode’s most truly entertaining moment comes courtesy of magnetic bit-part player, Chuck Jensen – the silver-tongued RV salesman perfectly captured by LQ Jones.

Columbo LQ Jones
Chuck Jensen is my kind of villain!

Jensen is the actual arms supplier for whom Vincent Pauley was acting as go-between and the scene when he tracks Devlin down to complete the deal is pure gold.

As Jensen gleefully reveals hundreds of machine guns stowed in the RV’s cupboards, drawers, oven and microwave, being wicked never seemed such fun. And in an episode packed with unconvincing Irish caricatures, this mesmerising southerner feels both authentic and intriguing.

Columbo as a show has always done secondary characters well and Jensen is a fine example. Here’s a man with less than 5 minutes’ screen time in the whole episode who somehow steals the show. I want to know more about this guy – and who wouldn’t? An RV-salesman-cum-gunrunner could have been one heck of an adversary for the good Lieutenant.

My take on The Conspirators

Before writing this review, I hadn’t watched The Conspirators for an estimated 5 years. One reason was that I wanted to view it with fresh eyes for the blog. But another was that, historically, it’s never really set my heart alight and isn’t one I casually choose to watch from the DVD set.

I don’t think Columbo, as a show, deals with international social and political issues very well. Season 5 duo A Case of Immunity and A Matter of Honor, which examine Middle Eastern skulduggery and Mexican bull-fighting respectively, are amongst my least loved 70s episodes, and I’ve traditionally lumped The Conspirators in the same bracket.

Alas, revisiting it after such a long hiatus has done little to change my overall opinion. The Conspirators is a perfectly fine piece of television when compared to most other shows of the day, but it falls a long way short of Columbo at its peak.

Columbo The Conspirators
Yep, Columbo’s in *that* kind of mood again…

My complaints will be familiar ones to regular readers: the longer running time hampers proceedings, with a lot of filler to churn through; and Falk’s central characterisation is indicative of a man who was desperately seeking inspiration in a role that had become too familiar.

Yes, the Lieutenant’s season 7 malaise is back in full swing here with oafish expressions and mannerisms galore, as well as that laboured way of delivering lines that has done so much to quell the pleasure of simply watching Columbo go about his business over the course of the season’s five episodes.

I won’t rehash all those old arguments again here, but if you’ve read my previous reviews of season 7 episodes you’ll know that I’m not overly enamoured with Falk’s current portrayal of Columbo, which has too often overstepped into an annoying parody. The same applies here.

Worse than this, though, are the foolhardy blunders Devlin makes in his approach to killing, while his his non-existent attempts to cover his tracks make for a hollow mystery. Like the season’s previous outing, the disappointing How to Dial a Murder, it’s far too easy for Columbo to crack the case.

Let’s first consider Devlin’s symbolic (and stupid) rolling of the Full’s Irish Dew bottle over to the corpse of Vincent Pauley. Who was this stunt for? In Northern Ireland such an act might have been understood to signal an execution for treachery. But in LA? It’s a meaningless act unless the killer deliberately wants to advertise their involvement in the crime – which Devlin most assuredly did not wish to do.

Since its inception Columbo has been rightly lauded for the quality of the clues created for the wily detective to unravel. This one’s a poor one and is reminiscent of the time Dr Cahill left a burnt match at the crime scene in Mind Over Mayheman illogical, entirely avoidable move that only served to incriminate him during police investigations.

Columbo Full's Irish Dew
Mmm, nice manicure!

We know Devlin has crime in his past (he served jail time for plotting terrorist acts), but his actions at Pauley’s hotel room smack of idiocy. He’s already aware that Pauley is planning to take the money and run, and he comes along armed, ready to kill. With this likely eventuality in mind, wouldn’t you then do absolutely everything to minimise the likelihood of your presence ever being discovered?

The cautious approach obviously isn’t in Devlin’s make-up. He not only accepts the offer of a glass of whiskey, but he leaves fingerprints all over it and marks it with his diamond ring before being unable to resist leaving it corpse-side as his calling card. A sensible man would have refused to touch a drop and taken the full bottle away with them. Columbo could never have caught him if he’d done that!

If we’re being generous, we could explain this away by citing Devlin’s poetic nature. There was certainly poetry, romance and idealism in the whiskey bottle placement – but it was still REALLY STOOPID!

“Devlin makes it so obvious he’s the killer that Columbo hardly has to break sweat.”

To compound this senseless act, Devlin later takes Columbo to lunch to discuss the case. Instead of taking the detective somewhere where nobody knows him (or his drinking habits), Devlin takes him to an Irish bar where he’s a known regular, and where he keeps a bottle of Full’s Irish Dew behind the bar! Naturally, the barmaid whips out the bottle and presents it to Devlin – at which point Columbo has only one viable suspect.

For all the back-and-forth banter between the two leads, the great disappointment is there’s no thrill of the chase with The Conspirators. Devlin makes it so obvious he’s the killer that Columbo hardly has to break sweat. Indeed he could and should have closed the case much sooner – through use of fingerprints.

As can be shown in the image below, Devlin had his trotters all over the bottle of Dew at Pauley’s hotel room. The first thing the cops should have done at the crime scene was dust the bottle for prints. Then it’s GAME OVER, MAN, GAME OVER before Devlin ever gets the guns, and we can all live happily ever after. Certainly that would make the episode a lot shorter, but come on, this is police work at its most shoddy and inept!

Columbo Joe Devlin
Leprechaun-sized Devlin!

And it actually would have been easy to right this fundamental flaw in the teleplay. If Devlin was so attached to the idea of placing the bottle beside the dead body, he could have been shown taking a few seconds to wipe his prints from the bottle. That would have made Columbo’s eventual brainwave to match the scratches on the bottles with Devlin’s ring feel a lot more revelatory.

The sometimes dodgy and implausible writing is tough on Clive Revill, who puts in an energetic, quasi-charming turn as Devlin. He comes across as a fun-loving and mischievous little imp and his level of expressiveness is invigorating. Certainly he convinces as a poet / entertainer and you feel that he and Falk had a good time filming together.

The character is let down, however, by the script’s heavy weighting towards his joviality ahead of his common sense and by constantly placing him in suspicious situations that could only result in providing a police officer with additional reason to suspect him.

Case in point: Devlin simply shows up unannounced at the murder scene where Columbo is investigating. He never explains why he’s there and Columbo doesn’t ask him – even though his uninvited presence virtually screams out that he’s frigging guilty! It’s another serious flaw that could have been easily remedied with tighter writing.

The script also makes Devlin come across, at times, as an annoying berk, whose silver tongue and penchant for quoting poetry (including awful limericks) and swigging whiskey mark him out as one of those irritating barflies who you can’t wait to escape after a minute or two’s conversation. Or maybe I’m just too hard-hearted…?

Still, Revill can’t be accused of not fully committing to the character and he handles the switches between darkness and light reasonably well as befits the duplicitous nature of his work as a fundraiser for a terrorist organisation that he espouses to abhor.

Columbo  Joe Devlin The Conspirators
Warning: this man’s accent is about as Belfastian as The Queen’s

What’s less forgivable is Revill’s dreadful accent. As the son of two Belfast-born parents, I can tell you with absolute confidence that his accent is all over the place. He has much more of a southern Irish lilt about him (as does Kate O’Connell), but its patchy application varies greatly throughout and sometimes lapses almost entirely.

Most viewers won’t care or notice, but Belfast natives (as Devlin claims to be) will be roaring their disapproval while watching this. On the plus side, Devlin’s chunky knitwear might have been plucked off the very back of a Kilkeel fisherman, giving an authentic feel to his wardrobe if nothing else.

Devlin’s cheerful nature and predilection towards alcohol-infused high-jinks allows The Conspirators to indulge in a goodly amount of nonsense to offset the darker theme – including the darts match and ‘limericks at 20 paces’ section of the episode, where Columbo and Devlin have the barmaid in stitches as they trade rhyming couplets.

However, much of the humour is hit and miss. Columbo’s visit to the book store to seek info on the identity of Vincent Pauley is a particularly bad moment. The Lieutenant ogling erotic art while a bookish assistant eyes him knowingly is a shudder-inducing glimpse of the heavy-handed humour the comeback episodes will be packed with 11 years later.

Personally I much prefer the bashful Columbo of the earlier seasons who couldn’t look at the life model, or bring himself to follow Viveca Scott into the nude sunbathing area. A leering fool gawping unashamedly at such forbidden fruit isn’t the Lieutenant I know and love…

Columbo The Conspirators
Columbo’s confidence has soared in the 7 years since he couldn’t look a nude model in the eye!

All of this points towards a distinctly disheartening final bow for Lieutenant Columbo, yet there is much to commend The Conspirators for – not least the scope and ambition of the story line. Tackling a real-world topic such as the Northern Ireland troubles was a brave move for the series – especially when you consider that the months preceding the episode airing was a brutal time in the conflict.

In December 1977, the IRA went on a ‘bombing blitz’ where more than 30 devices were used against transport, commercial and industrial targets. 1978 was ushered in with a deluge of violent attacks against British soldiers and the Ulster Defence Regiment. Worse still, on February 17 the IRA perpetuated one of the single worst events of the entire conflict – the La Mons restaurant bombing, which killed 12 and badly burned dozens more.

It was therefore pretty hardcore for Columbo to prominently feature IRA sympathisers and show the Lieutenant enjoying the company of a murderer and terrorist – yet it’s a move I applaud them for. It’s a much more interesting take on a baddie than the rather unadventurous portrayal of treacherous Arab Hassan Salah in A Case of Immunity.

The Conspirators is also one of the few episodes in which Columbo is part of a much bigger story than mere murder, and the scale of his accomplishment is at a much higher level. Although secondary to his task of nabbing a killer, Columbo figuring out where the guns were hidden and derailing the shipment was far more inspiring police work than collaring Devlin.

In preventing the shipment reaching enemy hands, Columbo potentially saved hundreds of innocent lives. It’s arguably his crowning achievement and the magnitude of his success is absolutely fitting for the 70s’ series’ final chapter.

So, too, is the closing scene, which beautifully draws a line under the series. When he said “This far and no farther,” Peter Falk didn’t whether Columbo would ever return to screens, but it gave the series a subtle and suitable sense of finality.

Columbo The Conspirators
This far and no farther: The Conspirators’ finale hits all the right notes

But was this the right time to call time on Columbo as a series? It’s a question that splits opinion to this day. The show was no longer pivotal to the network in the way it was when Columbo formed part of the ‘Mystery Movie’ wheel in earlier years, and NBC was increasingly reluctant to pick up the tab on the frequent budget over-runs.

As a result, negotiations on whether the Lieutenant would return for a further season simply petered out and the show was quietly shelved. Disappointing? Undoubtedly for many. But in my opinion, this was the right juncture to call it quits.

With the ratio of Columbo hits to misses (or middle-of-the-roads) substantially decreasing since season 5, and Falk obviously looking for ways to keep himself interested in the role while his big-screen ambitions soared, this really feels like the optimum time for an amicable separation.

“If not ending the series on a momentous high, The Conspirators is at least not scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

For me, having closely charted the evolution of the Columbo character on this blog, the very integrity of the good Lieutenant was at stake as Falk’s portrayal veered ever more towards overblown theatrics and clumsy humour. Season 7 Columbo was nowhere near as watchable as the perfectly honed character from seasons 2-4. Extending the series further would surely have had further detrimental impacts on our favourite sleuth.

So where does this leave The Conspirators? Well, if not ending the series on a momentous high it’s at least not scraping the bottom of the barrel. But I find it a strangely lacklustre outing, and for a series as revered as Columbo, near enough isn’t good enough.

I treasure the enduring excellence of Columbo above all other TV offerings, but at this point in the Lieutenant’s career ‘this far and no farther’ seems, to me at least, to be entirely apt.

Columbo Conspirators
Cheers Lieutenant! It’s been an amazing journey!

Did you know?

The Conspirators didn’t start its life as a Columbo episode at all – the basic premise was cooked up by Pat Robison and was originally intended to be a pilot for a completely different program (although I know not which). The man entrusted with Columbo-fying the adventure was Howard Berk, best known as the writer of season 4’s By Dawn’s Early Light.

How I rate ’em

For all the energy of Clive Revill’s performance, The Conspirators remains too flawed to take a place in the upper echelons of my leader board. I consider this a lower mid-tier adventure by 70s’ standards. How will it compare with the ‘new episodes’ that commenced 11 years later? Time, my dear friends, will tell…

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 Conspirators
  37. The Most Dangerous Match
  38. Lovely but Lethal 
  39. How to Dial a Murder
  40. Short Fuse ———D-List starts here—-
  41. A Matter of Honor
  42. Mind Over Mayhem
  43. Old Fashioned Murder
  44. Dagger of the Mind
  45. Last Salute to the Commodore —Z-List starts here
Columbo Clive Revill
Only 36th position? Where’s me dynamite, I’ll show ‘im!

Rest assured you won’t have to wait 11 years until I start tackling Columbo’s comeback episodes, so check back soon as I lurch in time to 1989 to give Columbo Goes to the Guillotine a damn good going over.

In the meantime, please share your own views on The Conspirators below. From social media interactions with fans, I’m aware this is one that many love, but almost as many don’t care for. Where do you sit on the subject? And how does Joe Devlin compare to the killers that came before him?

As always, thanks so much for reading. And if you can bring yourself to make a small donation to the American Friends for Northern Ireland I’m sure they’ll put the cash to very good use…

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Columbo The Conspirators
Nothing on earth is as funny as this woman makes average limericks out to be – GO FIGURE!
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210 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo The Conspirators

  1. I recently saw a 1977 episode of The New Avengers TV series called “Dead Men Are Dangerous”, in which Clive Revill gives an intense performance as an English villain with a grudge against John Steed (Patrick McNee).

    There are some similarities with the Joe Devlin character, so if you like Revill’s performance here, I think you will like this episode too.

    (My friend showed it to me because he knew I liked the actress guest star, and had no idea that Clive Revill had been in Columbo).

  2. Two things about this episode were really annoying to me:

    1) Every time Devlin marks his bottles, he marks with a reasonable amount. When Columbo marks the bottles, he marks off about a pint of whiskey.

    2) Columbo talks about recognizing the emblem from Mrs. O’Connel’s needlepoint. Except that he has just been talking to her son, who is standing in front of a big picture of the emblem on the wall.

    3) Columbo spends a lot of effort and explanation on the “Let Each Man Be Paid in Full”. But he already knows that the bottle was not Pauley’s, so why the bottle was left behind is basically irrelevant to the case.

    • Hi Ernie. Which two things on your list annoy you the most?

      I’m not sure about “a pint of whiskey” but when Columbo marks the bottles I think he is either just demonstrating, or pouring out drinks for both himself and Devlin.

      Columbo might well have seen the O’Connell emblem on the wall, but he also saw it in Kate’s needlepoint and either explanation is equally valid.

      And I think that the bottle is Pauley’s? Didn’t he order it for Devlin? And it’s placement is hardly irrelevant.

      A bottle of whiskey ordered by a man who couldn’t drink, and of Devlin’s favourite brand? A bottle with an advertising slogan in the form of a pun, left next to the body by somebody with a good sense of humour?

      You might as well say that “the curious incident of the dog in the night” is irrelevant, because “the dog did nothing in the night”.

  3. While I don’t have a book signed by Joe Devlin, I do happen to have an old Bible bearing the signature of one Dr. Ian Richard Kyle Paisley. And the author is correct. His accent sounded nothing like Mr. Devlin’s.

    • Within the context of the story, Devlin is a showman who has spent many years in America. He may have developed a “fine both o’ a boy” Irish accent to appeal to his US fan-base?

  4. Annnnnnd done. Took nearly two years, but I finished the 70s run. It’s a beautiful thing.

    Conspirators is a top tier episode, lots of fun and the one I remembered most from my childhood (despite growing up during the new Columbo era). I fall squarely in the camp that the intended challenge was finding the guns as opposed to solving the murder, which Devlin plans on the fly and carries little pretension of brilliance. Acknowledging to his reflection after his first encounter with Columbo that he’s done left himself the only logical suspect drives home this foreshadowing. Something more must be afoot. Understanding this tweak lifts the gotcha/pop into truly excellent territory, with Devlin’s forlorn staring at the tugboat giving us shades of the quivering lip invoked by none other than Dale Kingston himself.

    There may be flaws in both the gun-running and murder mysteries — I agree that Devlin’s specific preference for Full’s Dew should have been introduced more gracefully — but these are easily wallpapered over by the fun cat/mouse exchanges and stellar supporting performances (RV dude, sleazy Pauley, IRA matron). That slots this ep’s shortcomings in the company of the Double Shock twins’ inexplicable decision to kill Julie Newmar to frame their lawyer who would then spill the beans on them or Old Port’s Carsini expecting his brother to die at the perfect time via sealed wine cellar. These outings were meant to live in the “funny Columbo” echelon, and all three succeed IMO.

    Now that I’ve finally completed my journey through the 70s, I’ll post a personal “best of” list on the episode menu page. Bated breath, I’m sure. 🙂

  5. Clive Revill is so good in the role of Joe Devlin, that I would have liked to see more of him. The charming Devlin that is.

    Columbo and Devlin work so well together as a detective team, and as friends, that I always think it’s a pity that Joe Devlin is actually the murderer.

    How cool would it have been if Joe really had been a “violently non-violent” reformed character, and he and Kerry were being duped by the O’Connell’s into helping them to raise funds for weapons? (With George O’Connell being the one who shot Pauley).

    That way, Devlin would have helped to foil the gun running plot and, having gotten a taste for detective work, gone on to have (with Kerry’s help) a series of darkly humorous adventures of his own?

    This episode could have been the back door pilot for Columbo’s replacement “The Irish Poet Detective”. OK, maybe just “Devlin” would have been better.

  6. I watched this episode on 5USA on Sunday and two things struck me that I never noticed before (one of the joys of Columbo being that there is something to learn from repeated viewings).

    First, there is a theory that Kerry is Devlin’s young gay lover. I have never believed this, but I think it might stem from a line of Devlin’s when he is talking to Kerry just before Pauley’s unexpected visit. Devlin says something about Kerry giving him a disapproving look, “I know you want to love me, but you think I drink too much”. I think that this is simply Devlin the poet making a joke about how the younger man’s hero worship of him is diminished somewhat by Joe’s fondness for Full’s Irish Dew. And going by the respectful way that bachelor Devlin always refers to Kerry’s mother, I am starting to wonder if he is not Kerry’s uncle, as I once thought, but possibly his father?

    Second, Columbo goes to the bookstore and talks to the nice lady clerk. She doesn’t remember Mr Pauley and tells Columbo that she’s asked the other clerks and they don’t remember him either. Fair enough, but there were a lot of Devlin’s devoted fans present when Devlin first met Pauley, who gave his real name. Their verbal exchange was innocuous enough, but some envious fan might have remembered wishing that they could have had a drink with Joe Devlin and discussed his work? In other words, there were plenty of people who knew that Joe did more than just sign another book, and intended to meet Pauley soon?

    • I know nothing about this, but I assume that LA is relatively near the Panama Canal, from which the ship could reach the Atlantic and head north east to Ireland?

  7. I don’t have a problem with the seemingly overlooked fingerprints on the bottle. We do not see how Devlin searches Pauley’s hotel room after the name of his gunrunner right after the murder. So why would we see how he wipes all his fingerprints off of everything he has touched, before he leaves the scene of the crime? Wiping off fingerprints is a very conventional criminal’s act and therefore uninteresting, so it doesn’t have to be shown in every “Columbo”. We can presuppose that an expert in clever gun dealings wouldn’t be so stupid and leave his fingerprints next to his victim, especially after the next scene, in which we hear Devlin say with such self confidence that nothing connects the victim to the killer. Surely forgotten fingerprints cannot be a topic in this smart case. That’s why they come short, not because of Howard Berk’s bad writing.
    And I don’t have a problem with Devlin coming back to the hotel room, because he didn’t find the name Chuck Jensen in all the papers he took with him the first time. By running into Columbo, Devlin takes the chance to undo his earlier mistake: Devlin realizes that he made himself a suspect by claiming to not recall the writing “Ourselves alone” and he must try to destroy Columbo’s suspicion by changing his statement. So Devlin covers up his initial idea to revisit the hotel room and pretends to be there for Columbo to show him his regrets for his mistakenly false statement.

  8. It gets overlooked, but Albert Paulsen’s performance here was excellent. He nailed that cryptic undertaker-like demeanor perfectly, and the subtle way his face lit up when trying to swindle Devlin was a nice touch.

    • NBC was not right in ending Columbo. Flash forward 6 years to the “Perry Mason Movies” and you see how Columbo could have been handled and continued. Periodic movies, 4 to 5 a year would have been perfect, as ABC did in the very late 80’s. I didn’t like the way ABC handled the show, I thought nearly every episode was inferior to every classic era episode. No, NBC totally mishandled Columbo. It never needed to end.

    • It’s certainly an excellent performance, but, sorry if I am misunderstanding you, I think the point of the story is that Pauley is not really trying to swindle the hot headed Devlin and his murder was unnecessary. The guns did exist and Pauley couldn’t share a drink with Devlin as he was a diabetic. He was trying to get more money out of Devlin, but I think that’s as far as the swindle went.

  9. The “Kerry” character could have been better developed/explained. he was too subservient for my liking.
    Although not a Top 10 episode for me, it’s definitely not one I’ll change the channel on if it comes on tv.
    I thought Revill was outstanding in the first 60 minutes of the episode, before things got darker.
    I didn’t like the “flag on the tug boat” part. It wasn’t very “shocking,” for lack of a better word.
    And Columbo kept going back to the hotel room about the bottle falling? Enough with the bottle placement…concentrate on the fingerprints!

    • It doesn’t sound like you understand Columbo very much. He never takes the “traditional” approach. When the other police are looking at the most obvious items, Columbo is looking at dirt on a wall, or a night gown under a pillow, or in this case, the placement of a bottle that helps him understand the killer’s mindset.

    • Kerry and Devlin’s relationship is glossed over. Devlin’s favorite pub sure looks like a gay bar.

      • I think that Kerry is Devlin’s nephew. Either that, or Kerry’s mother is an old friend of Devlin. I don’t think there is anything to suggest a gay relationship, Kerry simply hero worships Devlin.

            • I have said elsewhere on these pages (perhaps a little too emphatically) that with the exception of two minor characters in “Old Fashioned Murder”, there are no gay characters or subplots in any episode of Columbo. I would not object if there were, but it just never happened. Perhaps some of the actors were gay, but apart from “Daryl” or the watch salesman, there are no gay themes depicted, however subtle. (There is however a gay male couple in the original Columbo novel “A Christmas Killing”).

              In the case of Joe Devlin and his aide Kerry, I’m reminded of Dr Frederick Wertham’s assertion in “Seduction of the Innocent” that Batman and Robin are a wish dream of two homosexuals living together, the cover story for this being that Dick Grayson is Bruce Wayne’s ward. But this was never the intention of the writers. With both Bruce and Dick being orphaned by crime, Dick becomes Bruce’s surrogate son or kid brother. (Of course, there is the fact that Batman not only keeps Robin out late at night, but he’s constantly responsible for endangering a minor by encouraging him to fight criminals).

              • Chris, you must have missed watching “Butterfly in Shades of Grey” in early 1994. Jerry Winters, the victim, was all gay and it is mentioned a lot of times.

                • Yes, you are quite right. Thanks for the correction. The victim in “Butterfly In Shades of Grey” is gay and the killer tries to frame his ex boyfriend. I must have been only thinking of the original series and not the later episodes

                  I think my original point was that none of the killers in Columbo were gay, and that a character being gay was never a motive for a murder, including in “Butterfly”.

                  • Your exact words were >> With the exception of two minor characters in “Old Fashioned Murder”, there are no gay characters or subplots in any episode of Columbo. << This is definitely a false statement regarding the second Shatner episode, which is a good one written by Peter S. Fischer. But even if we remain within the 70's run, aren't there hints of a lesbian character, namely Valerie Kirk, in "Make Me a Perfect Murder"? It has been discussed already and I have to add: I don't care about Valerie Kirk at all, because in my preferred edited 72-minutes-version (which aired in Germany in 1984), the character of Valerie Kirk has been deleted completely, not because she might be lesbian but because this subplot is simply boring and doesn't bring forward Columbo's investigation.

                    • It wasn’t a “false statement”, merely a lapse of memory. I’m happy to ague my corner on matters of opinion, but I am also happy to be corrected over matters of undeniable fact.

                      And, in my opinion, Valerie Kirk is not a lesbian, but rather somebody who is dependent on the good will of her female friend. And her subplot does show that while Kaye is not necessarily a bad person, she really wasn’t ready for the top job, replacing her friend’s suddenly cancelled special with a first run movie that nobody was expecting.

  10. This is one of my favourite episodes even though as rightly outlined it is deeply flawed. I somehow find Joe Devlin enjoyable company and eminently purchase at the same time. Though Peter Falk definitely overacts with Columbo’s mannerisms I enjoy their relationship.

    Have just noticed on a rewatch that Joe Devlin refers to Hegel, the Berlin native, as a famous Irish philosopher. I have decided to charitably attribute this to another example of Joe being half as smart as he thinks he is.

    • Good catch Doug. I have never noticed this reference to Hegel being Irish before, as it comes immediately after a favourite piece of dialogue: “Non violent?” “Violently”.

      However, I don’t think that Devlin is showing up his ignorance. There is a short pause before he says “Irish” and I think he is just making a little joke, in much the same way that Ensign Chekhov would have claimed that Hegel was “Russian”.

    • Just one more thing. Within the context of the story, I think that Columbo is deliberately overdoing his folksy mannerisms in order to ingratiate himself with the folksy side of Joe Devlin’s personality, which he genuinely likes.

        • No, I don’t think so. Whatever else he may be, Devlin is a convivial man, and in order to get close to him, Columbo must turn up the charm, even imitating his “Oirish” accent at one point. Unlike most of the murderers, Devlin never complains about Columbo harassing him. If Peter Falk is overacting, it’s only because Columbo is overacting.

          • I think it’s a terrific episode. LQ Jones is great as the RV dealer (can’t recall his name), and it really captures the spirit of the IRA conflict which was very fresh and strong in 1978. If you were an under 30 person watching that episode today, you most likely wouldn’t be aware of just how powerful a movement the IRA was and the passions surrounding Northern Ireland. Conspirators was the last episode of the classic era and I think a very strong entry.

            • Agreed. This was probably the most important case that Columbo ever solved. And yet when the series returned 11 years later, still nobody had ever heard of him.

              • I was really disappointed with the revival era. When it was announced by ABC, I was very excited. Most of the episodes, and my wife and I have watched them all, are poor in comparison the the NBC era, and I don’t think the new era did justice to Columbo. My wife and I watch 1 episode a week on Saturday nights, and we watch them in order. We went through the new era once and have never revisited it.

                • What, not even “Columbo Goes to College”? That’s a really good episode, regardless of which era. Looking forward to the upcoming review.

                    • I take your point, but for fans of the original 1970’s series, “College” does feature Robert Culp, who is always good value.

            • It is a very entertaining episode, but the frequently unhappy Coumbophile has to rip it to shreds.It’s in his nature. The accents are bad? Come on, now. How was he supposed to sound? Polonesian? Same thing with A Matter of Honor. Their Mexican accents were bad. How were Mexicans supossed to sound like? Icelandic? You were disapointed with season seven. Of couse you were. It was too close to your ultimate horror. The ABC years. You nitpick things to death. Overanalyizing to the enth degree.

              • Going by the names of the actors and the authentic looking Mexico locations, I was under the impression that Peter Falk was the only “gringo” in the cast of “A Matter of Honor” and that everyone else was a genuine Mexican? Or am I confusing the cast with the characters?

  11. I kind of liked this episode. Personally would put it on the B list. Although Devlin was one of the all time most bumbling Columbo antagonists – he made A LOT of dumb mistakes as outlined by Columbophile – he was charming and due to him the episode is one of the more quotable ones. The ‘gotcha’ was also one of the more memorable ones; the scratch across the bottle really stuck in my mind since the perhaps 25 years since I viewed it originally. I’ve looked at whiskey bottles more than once and said “this far and no farther.” Also agreed that the scope of solving this crime far transcends the accomplishment of solving a single murder.

  12. Difficult to disagree with the excellent exegesis of this critique. However, it’s also difficult to agree with the final assessment. This episode is probably my favorite. One of the repliers got at the reason this episode deserves more love from the blogger: It’s not the factuality of Columbo that makes it entertaining; it’s the nuances, caricature and typology of Columbo the man and the franchise. This episode delivers huge. The additional characters, the scene locations, the cat-and-mouse, the plot, the premise, the period and cultural relevance, the stich, the subplots and narratives, the tomfoolery, et al, makes this a classic and much beloved episode. I’d also put Case of Immunity much higher along with Forgotten Lady, Dawn’s Early Light, Blueprint for Murder and Swan Song– each I find to be eponymous Columbo offerings. Dead on about about Last Salute to the Crapodore, though. Pure refuse at best. Could have easily had David Hasselhoff take the lead in that clunker.

    • I always rated this episode towards the bottom of the 70’s run, but by coincidence i watched it on ME TV several weeks ago for the fist time in years. I was pleasantly reminded that it was a solid Columbo episode, and forgotten how original it was for this superb series. I really liked the job LQ Jones did as the RV/gun salesman, he was great. I sure don’t have it in my top 15 or so but with so many great episodes that’s not easy.

  13. On YouTube is 10 minutes or so of the background score…really great stuff. That jig that is quoted (paraphrased, really) as a recurring motif is The Walls of Liscarroll, which is a great choice because its tonality is neither major nor minor, which sets up a lot of tension, like a lot of traditional Irish music.

    Btw, if Devlin and the O’Connells had been actually talking like Belfastians, American audiences would’ve needed subtitles!

    • I love the music in this episode, both how it sounds and how it is cued. Also, love any chance to see LQ Jones. Just looked him up – he’s still alive at 93!

      • So is Clive Revill at 90, almost 91 in three weeks. I am happy that a Columbo killer who causes so many joyful moments in his only appearance is allowed to be around for so long.

  14. I’m in the minority, but I love this episode–it definitely makes my top 5 at least. I’m not bothered by the plot holes–every Columbo has plot holes; we accept them because the episodes are generally so good. This one gives us a different kind of villain, one who does what he does because of his belief in a cause greater than himself. That alone is a refreshing change from those who kill for some personal gain. I like the character of Devlin more than most of the other killers in the show. A poet who quotes poetry throughout the episode, even while he’s plotting evil things. Love the dialogue and the chemistry between him and Columbo, especially in their darts game and their brief “limerick challenge.” I think Revill’s performance is outstanding, and Falk is at his best here (excepting of few of the a-little-too-quirky moments, like his slapping his forehead when he sees the company logo on the wall). I loved Devlin’s story of the poem he memorized on the prison cell wall, even if it was phony, and seeing that line on the whiskey bottle. The RV/gun dealer was a hoot–I took him for just an obnoxiously aggressive car salesman and wondered why he was chasing down Devlin. (He also reminded me of Dennis Weaver’s McCloud, which shared Sunday night space with Columbo.) Finally the “gotcha” was, in my opinion, one of the best. From the first indication that Columbo might have been outfoxed, to learning about the individuality of diamonds, to the hint that Devlin might have “won” through the successful transportation of the guns, to the appearance of the Coast Guard boat and helicopter–and finally their sharing of a final whiskey–“so far and no farther.” Just great all the way through. I’m glad that the regular season ending on such a high note.

    • Agree!!!!

      Despite leaving the bottle with the scratch and his fingerprints (!!!) on it at the murder scene. And then showing up at the murder scene where Columbo is with the bogus excuse that he had remembered the inscription in the book being there before he signed it!

      It was entertaining, with plenty of fun scenes and excellent chemistry between Columbo and his suspect.

      Padding notwithstanding, a fun episode to watch. Unlike one of my favorites, like A Stitch in Crime, it has a serious and fun feel throughout.


  15. I just finished watching “The Conspirators” on MeTV. My initial impression is that this was a mediocre episode. I agree with the Columbophile that there are too many plot holes to make the detective work interesting or to make the story very credible. In my opinion, the most annoying part of the episode was the constant playing of stereotypical Irish music between scenes and the constant portrayal of the main character Joe Devlin as an Irish drunk. Nearly every scene shows him drinking whiskey, day or night. The episode very quickly became a caricature for me. It’s too bad, because I enjoyed the interplay between Peter Falk and Clive Revill, who seemed like they must have been good friends off stage. Revill easily shifts his personality and expressions from his role of a fanatical IRA arms supplier to a banjo-playing poet and fun-loving entertainer with ease. It’s too bad the plot line was so weak – I think his talents were wasted. The scene with Columbo leering at the nude art book was beyond ridiculous and made me cringe. This season 7 episode was the first Columbo episode that I’ve ever seen that came after season 4, and it does not hold up at all by comparison. Sadly, I found it a silly and off putting affair.

    • Yes, the episode is a caricature, but it’s symbolic and deliberate. It’s all part of Devlin’s disguise (or secret identity) as an affable Irish poet. As you said, Clive Revill shifts between Devlin’s two personas with ease.

    • It’s from Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Hunting of the Snark”.

      You may charge me with murder — or want of sense –
      (We are all of us weak at times):
      But the slightest approach to a false pretence
      Was never among my crimes!

      I said it in Hebrew — I said it in Dutch —
      I said it in German and Greek:
      But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
      That English is what you speak!

  16. Why do we love Columbo in the first place? Because of the perfectly plausible plot? No, because hardly any of the Columbo entries can really deliver it. Episodes as e.g. Lady in Waiting is just a gigantic, albeit entertaining plothole. But we don’t let those plotholes spoil or fun. We are fascinated by the cat and mouse game between the villain and the detective, and can’t get enough of that.
    Here the “who’s done it” is a no-brainer from the get-go. And Devlin knows that Columknows it. But he is a gambler and besides, he wants his job done, hoping that Columbo could not prevent the guns from reaching their destination. And as long as the detective does not come to the point, Devlin can merrily join the fun. And so can we, in a delightful episode.

  17. Flat out incorrect in your review on two counts: a) Columbo found Devlin NOT because of the bottle, but because of the book. Devlin had taken the time to remove all papers that connected the himself to Pauley, but he forgot about the book. So when you claim that if he hadn’t left the bottle he never would have been caught, that is completely false. Although it may have taken more work for Columbo to prove he did it.
    And b) Devlin did not show up unannounced to the crime scene. That would have made no sense. Columbo invited him to get his (insincerely) assistance.

    This and By Dawn’s Early Light are my favorite episodes, due to how well he gets to know the suspects.

    • It’s not false to say Devlin was caught because of the bottle. The diamond cut being a match to the other cuts he made on bottles across town placed at him at the crime scene. The book was a reason to suspect him, but wasn’t going to convict in a million years. Devlin May have been invited to the crime scene, but there is no mention from either man that that was the case (usually it’s overtly referenced that Columbo was seeking help). So I think your rather aggressive ‘flat out incorrect’ comment is a tad unfair.

      • Columbo stated it was the poem (on the radio show) that helped him solve the crime. However, it was the bottle that gave definitive evidence with the diamond cut that lynched Devlin. The book led Columbo to Devlin at the beginning. The poem convinced Columbo of Devlin’s guilt. The bottle hung Devlin.


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