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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Mayhem – an illogical, entirely avoidable move that only served to incriminate him during police investigations.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
- 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 Conspirators
- 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—
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…