Episode review: Columbo Goes to the Guillotine

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine opening titles

After 11 years of reruns, the Man in the Mac was BACK – big time – on 6th February, 1989.

Make no mistakes, this was seriously big news as the eyes of the nation – indeed, the world – tuned in to see whether Columbo, with a 61-year-old Peter Falk in the title role, could still cut it.

Did the Lieutenant remain relevant to modern audiences, or was he an ageing relic left behind by a TV world that had moved on without him? What better way to find out than by risking his life and going head-to-head with a dastardly psychic in the extravagantly titled Columbo Goes to the Guillotine?

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Elliott Blake: Anthony Andrews
Max Dyson: Anthony Zerbe
Dr Paula Hall: Karen Austin
Mr Harrow: Alan Fudge
Bert Spindler: James Greene
Tommy: Michael Bacall
Sergeant Russo: Robert Costanzo
Written by: William Read Woodfield
Directed by: Leo Penn
Score by: John Cacavas

Episode synopsis: Columbo Goes to the Guillotine

Renowned psychic (i.e. fraud and charlatan) Elliott Blake is undergoing a series of tests in order to secure funding for the Anneman Institute, where he ‘works’ with his big-haired lover, Dr Paula Hall.

The two are attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of some government operatives by diddling a series of tests. However, Paula is bungling things under pressure, leaving egg on Blake’s face and leaving the future of the institute hanging in the balance.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine Anthony Andrews
White satin onesie? Mrrrrroooowr!

One final test is proposed and the government goons are bringing in outside help to adjudicate. Former magician Max ‘The Magnificent’ Dyson now makes a living from outing phony psychics – and he intends to do the same to Blake, even though the two were thick as thieves years before when they shared a cell in a Ugandan prison camp. Dyson even passed on all his magical know-how on to Blake, so no one seems better placed to put a stop to all the younger man’s fun and games.

Blake, however, leaves Dyson reeling the following day during the test. Achieving the seemingly impossible, he is able to psychically connect to four field operatives and draw accurate pictures of what they see from apparently random map locations. It’s an impressive feat, which wows the government men and looks set to discredit Max the Magnificent for good.

All, of course, is not what it seems. During a meeting between Blake and Dyson at the latter’s magic workshop, it’s suggested that the older man let his protege off the hook through guilt from leaving him to rot in the Ugandan prison. Dyson and Blake, you see, had concocted a daring escape from the prison, but Dyson squealed in order to get himself freed. Blake spent a further three years behind bars – and now he wants revenge.

He first scares Dyson by pointing a gun at him and accusing him of betrayal, but there’s still no admission of guilt. Blake dumps the bullets on a sideboard, but when Dyson resumes tinkering with his magician’s guillotine, Blake can’t resist the chance to get his own back in grisly fashion.

As Dyson lies back on the guillotine to tighten screws, Blake locks him in place with the neck brace, which is set in its lethal position. As he realises what lies in store, Dyson desperately admits to having stitched his former pal but it comes too late to save him. Blake drops the blade and Max the Magnificent is a head shorter.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine Max Dyson
Ha-ga-ga-ga-ga, Popeye has laughed his last

And so, in the 25th minute of the new Columbo series, the Lieutenant makes his long-awaited screen return. He’s been called in to investigate by the owner of a bar located directly below Dyson’s workshop who has discovered blood dripping through his ceiling.

Both the main entrance and the freight elevator to the workshop are locked from within, so all the signs point to a tragic accident – or perhaps a suicide. Dyson, after all, was known to have had his world turned upside down on the day of his death by his failure to expose Blake as a fraud.

This sends Columbo off to the Anneman Institute to track down Blake. The eloquent Englishman is only too happy to chat, claiming that he’d never met Dyson until his psychic test. He even amazes the Lieutenant by psychically identifying the shape he’d drawn on a piece of paper. There’s little reason to suspect him at this stage.

Columbo enlists the help of magician – and devoted Dyson groupie – Bert Spindler to get to grips with the guillotine trick (because he’s obviously totally forgotten the time he tested one out in Now You See Him 13 years earlier). Bert doesn’t explain how it works, but he does give Columbo a handy demonstration – by strapping him into the guillotine and dropping the blade on him! Luckily Bert is trustworthy. Columbo keeps his head.

In what has become a time-honoured tradition for the series, Columbo next tags along to the funeral of the victim. And while he doesn’t do his usual trick of ruining the event through some sort of police trickery, he is surprised to see Blake in attendance – and fighting back the tears. Strange behaviour considering he didn’t even know Dyson.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
For once, Columbo didn’t ruin a funeral he was attending

The wily detective inveigles Blake into helping him out at the crime scene. He’s read that some parapsychologists can harness extrasensory perception skillz to determine how the recently deceased met their end, and wonders if Blake could do the same. Sensing a chance to lead Columbo down a blind alley, Blake agrees.

So ensues a set-piece so hammy that Blake could serve it up for a Christmas lunch. Removing his jacket, he rubs his palms together as if charging them up, then wanders around Dyson’s workshop attempting to sense any residual emotions that might have been left behind. At one point he even pockets a revolver bullet that he’d left behind on that pesky sideboard on the night of the crime.

He spouts some baloney about sensing ‘despair, hopelessness and pain beyond belief’ and a ‘passion to escape from life itself’. Obviously Dyson’s shame at being bested by Blake caused him to commit suicide.

Columbo looks on with with a look of bemusement as befits one who has just witnessed such ineffable twaddle. He bursts Blake’s bubble instantly. “It couldn’t have been suicide,” he explains – and he can prove it through Dyson’s grocery shopping.

On the night of the crime, the Lieutenant found a bag of groceries near the guillotine. In it was a head of cabbage and a 3lb corned beef. These were bought shortly before he died according to the time on the receipt. A man who had turned his intentions towards a hearty repast was hardly likely to be thinking of suicide, were they?

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
Maybe it was the thought of a corned beef dinner that drove Max to suicide?

Blake has to start back-tracking PDQ, blathering on about how Dyson perhaps contrived an accident to satisfy a sub-conscious suicidal desire. Again, Columbo ain’t buying it. This time he reveals that a screwdriver found in the dead hand of Dyson was the wrong type for the screws he was working on. No, someone else was there and they mistakenly put the wrong screwdriver in the hand to make it look like an accident.

He has further proof, too. Lab tests on the guillotine neck brace revealed traces of blood. Dyson was certainly murdered, and all Blake has achieved is to make himself look like a buffoon (and possibly a murderer) to LA’s sharpest sleuth. The only stumbling block for Columbo is how the murderer got away with both workshop exits locked from within.

Doubtless realising what a clown he just made of himself, Blake leaps at the chance to put some distance between himself at the Lieutenant. Government stooge ‘Mr Harrow’ presents him with just such an opportunity. After being dazzled by Blake’s psychic abilities, Harrow offers him a role within the military, a new name and a new life. Blake accepts. He’ll jet off to his new life the next day.

This seems just as well, because Columbo appears to be tightening the noose about him. He’s discovered that Blake was born in Uganda – the same place where Max Dyson was imprisoned years before. It’s another reason to suspect the men knew each other. But when he finds out that Blake is set to up sticks to a secret new life, Columbo needs to take swift action to stop it.

Luckily, he hits the jackpot with the help of boy magician Tommy. Between them, they’ve figured out how Blake pulled off the psychic photo trick, and Columbo is able to get a court order to stop Blake and Harrow flying off to places unknown.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
“I can feeeeeel the spirits, brah!”

So Columbo himself plays an elaborate charade and is able to accurately draw images that match what four field operatives are able to see from their car windows. Columbo won’t explain to Harrow how he did it, but does say that it’s a relatively simple magic trick. Blake now finds himself with nowhere to run – except back to Dyson’s workshop following an invitation from the Lieutenant.

It’s there that Columbo tells all about how he rumbled Blake’s trick, but also why he believes Blake slew Dyson. The Lieutenant has read State Department documents about an American and an Englishman being fellow captives in a Ugandan jail, and how one sold out the other to get free. That’s a strong motive for murder. He also proves how the freight elevator door could be seemingly locked from within by a simple rope trick.

Columbo’s next trump card is the revolver cartridge that he knows Blake palmed when he was doing his ESP act around the workshop days earlier. All he needs to collar the killer is to be able to prove they knew how to operate the magic guillotine. Columbo, you see, has figured out how it works and invites Blake to participate in another little demonstration.

The Lieutenant asks Blake to lock him into place with the guillotine neck brace – urging him to remember to put it in the ‘safe’ position as he does so. As sure as eggs is eggs, Blake jumps at the opportunity to rid himself of Columbo. He fits the neck brace on the lethal way and sends the guillotine blade on its way – but is left agog when the detective sits up, right as rain, without so much as a scratch where a gaping, bloody hole should be.

After accurately predicting Blake’s course of action, Columbo reversed the safety labels on the neck brace. Had he not done so, his head would be rolling round on the workshop floor. As it is, he has the final piece of evidence he needs to put Blake behind bars.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine gotcha
Take that, you fiend!

There’s still time for one last trick, though. Reaching into his inside pocket, Columbo produces a long-barrelled revolver and aims it at Blake. “You’re under arrest for the crime of murder, and I’ll have to apply the penalty,” he says. Columbo pulls the trigger, sending a pop-out ‘BANG‘ flag unfurling from the gun barrel, as credits roll…

Guillotine‘s best bit – Blake hams it up

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine Elliott Blake
“This house… is clean.”

Although the entire scene stretches out for a ridiculous 15 minutes, I can’t help but enjoy the hokey action as Blake shambles around Dyson’s workshop attempting to detect the dead man’s residual emotions.

One senses that writer William Read Woodfield was poking more than a little fun at the bonkers quackery of the parapsychology sector as Blake adopts pained and hang-dog expressions throughout his hand-trembling ESP examination of the tools of Dyson’s trade.

The best of it is that after all Blake’s theatrics, Columbo instantly rains on his parade by scorning the suggestion that Dyson might have killed himself. Blake has made an ass of himself and only succeeded in giving the detective a real reason to suspect him. Not too smart, Elliott, not too smart…

My memories of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine

In this new featurette, I’ll be briefly describing my memories of each of the ‘new’ Columbo episodes based on the fact I haven’t watched them for so many moons, so am coming in relatively fresh.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine is one of the very first episodes I remember seeing. It was likely in 1989, or soon afterwards, and not long after I first encountered the series on TV at my granddad’s house. As a lad of 11 or 12, I found the mystery a real thriller and I was amazed when Columbo repeated Blake’s feat of parapsychology to ace the isolation chamber test.

I also found the finale terrifying and exhilarating at the same time and was cock-a-hoop at Columbo’s high-risk strategy coming good. Admittedly I didn’t have a whole lot to compare it to in terms of my knowledge of other Columbo tales (I couldn’t even tell between old and new episodes) but for the young me, Guillotine was a smash hit.

Episode analysis

Nailing the subject matter for a beloved film or TV franchise’s comeback is no easy feat. Remember the furore regarding the premise of trade taxes and the virgin birth of Anakin Skywalker in 1999’s The Phantom Menace? Fans were distinctly unmoved.

A similar problem was faced by Columbo in 1989: namely where to turn for fresh ideas after covering so many different arenas during the series’ original run from 1968-78? We’ve pretty much seen it all, from murderous movie stars, magicians and mystery writers to crooked surgeons, singers, soldiers and scientists. There weren’t many professional stones the writers left unturned when it came to central villains.

For Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, the production team seem to have come up with a sort of halfway house. Elliott Blake contains elements of Drs Ray Flemming, Mark Collier and Marshall Cahill, as well as a side order of The Great Santini, making him a sort of scientist/magician hybrid.

Columbo Elliott Blake
Elliott Blake: as psychic as a rock

The big difference was in making him a so-called psychic – a profession as yet uninvestigated by the doughty detective. And, interestingly enough, it seems that this idea may have been influenced by real-life events.

A decade earlier, magician James Randi had established a set of principles to police parapsychology tests in order to expose fraudulent individuals. In 1988, the US National Academy of Sciences published a major report that concluded “no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” In short: IT’S ALL A LOAD OF CODSWALLOP! From these events, I rather suspect Elliott Blake and Max Dyson were conceived.

It’s evident, too, that the production team shared a low opinion of parapsychology because they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying dragging the ‘noble art’ through the muck.

“It’s a decent turn from Anthony Andrews, who feels suitably dangerous and coolly aloof in equal measure.”

It’s very quickly established through his and Paula Hall’s attempt to fix the government tests that Blake is a snake oil salesman who’s as psychic as a rock. As outlined above, he’s later given ample opportunities to show off his ESP skills, which involve nothing more than quivering his hands over work surfaces, rubbing his forehead and looking perplexed.

There’s also a hilarious scene early in the episode when a cigarette lighter is held close to a pot plant at the Anneman Insitute, eliciting a (computer simulated) shriek and excessive trembling from the lily-livered evergreen! It’s one step away from the Singing Bush in The Three Amigos. Cynical much, writing team?

Blake is, nevertheless, a rather good baddie. I wouldn’t say Anthony Andrews is in the Culp or Cassidy class, but he’s as urbane and accomplished as any killer we know from the 70s, and he also has a chillingly icy, even slightly deranged, side that is genuinely disturbing when unleashed during the killing of Dyson and attempted killing of Columbo.

Columbo Anthony Andrews
Don’t make Blake mad. You wouldn’t like him when he’s mad…

All in all, then, it’s a strong turn from Andrews who feels suitably dangerous and coolly aloof in equal measure. But he’s also a complex character who still mourns the loss of his former mentor despite being driven to murder him by years of suppressed rage. He’s pretty deep by Columbo standards.

While the episode may poke fun at psychics, Andrews himself always plays it with a straight face and is really rather convincing. I have no axe guillotine to grind with him, even though one might have hoped for a bigger name to kick off the new Columbo killing season.

If Andrews had big shoes to fill as a Columbo killer, that was nothing compared to Peter Falk, who had the almighty task of having to outdo – or at least match – audience expectations of the character who had defined his career in the 1970s. It was an impossible task. The Columbo of 1989 isn’t a bad sort, but he’s nowhere near as watchable as he was 15 years earlier.

Regular readers will know that I’ve been lamenting the slippage of the Columbo character towards pastiche, which started with 1976’s Last Salute to the Commodore and continued, to a greater or lesser extent, until the end of season 7. As expected, a number of less desirable traits made the jump with the Lieutenant to 1989.

“The Columbo of 1989 isn’t a bad sort, but he’s nowhere near as watchable as he was 15 years earlier.”

And this time, you don’t just have to listen to my now-standard criticism of Falk’s portrayal. In his review of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg hit the nail on the head when he wrote: “Falk seems to be trying so hard to live up to the old Columbo that at times he is almost a caricature, laying it on too thick with the shuffling feet and phony politeness, even getting on your nerves. As he creeps along ever so slowly, you wish he’d just shut up, get on with it and make the arrest.”

Part of this criticism can be countered by the age of the character. Falk was now 61 years of age, so his Columbo was longer in the tooth and had perhaps added extra layers of dithering to his ‘shopworn bag of tricks’ to help ensure his suspects had every reason to underestimate him as a doddering old fool.

However, this explanation only partly satisfies. Consider the scene where a cigar-wielding Columbo attempts to calm down the juddering pot plant at the institute through repeated assurances that he means it no harm. He’s on his own at this stage, so it’s clearly not his intention to lull a suspect into a false sense of security. He simply comes across as a daft old codger.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
The ability to effortlessly sooth agitated pot plants was Columbo’s new special move in 1989

The long 90-minute running time of this episode – and, indeed, all the ‘new’ Columbo episodes – is another reason why the Lieutenant begins to grate here. There are endless repetitions of the same ideas and lines, as well as countless meetings between the same characters at the same locations. The big set-pieces of the psychic test and heads in guillotines are both recycled – the latter three times.

As a result, the episode takes ages to get anywhere. Everything is drawn out to the nth degree, and listening to Columbo banging on in slow motion about what a great detective he’d be if he was psychic, about the relevance of cabbage and corned beef, about how to figure out all sorts of magic tricks does test the patience. A 75-minute version would be so much more palatable.

When Columbo’s mental acuity does cut through is when the episode is at its most watchable. This is particularly true during Blake’s ESP act at the workshop when Columbo gives the man enough rope to hang himself before repeatedly and utterly showing his suggestions of suicide to be nonsense. The good Lieutenant has lost none of his observational astuteness.

What I really can’t tolerate are the outrageous risks Columbo takes to solve the case – literally putting his neck on the line and his life in the hands of potential killers on two occasions.

Firstly, he lets Dyson fan boy Bert show him how the guillotine works. For all Columbo knows at this early stage in his investigation, Bert could be the killer! Letting the scrawny magician drop the blade on him was a huge and uncharacteristic leap of faith for the squeamish Lieutenant.

At the conclusion, his trapping of Blake by switching the safety labels on the guillotine neck brace was audacious, yes, but also an act that represents a seismic shift for the series and the character, and one that, sadly, rather plunges the show into murky waters.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
Don’t look now, things are about to get CRAZY!

This show-stopping climax has undoubted impact but if you look at it in the context of the entire Columbo saga, it’s crazily far-fetched. Would a police detective who has talked a killer down from shooting him in cold blood, and calmly outmanoeuvred a would-be poisoner really feel his only option to close the case was to risk a gruesome death? What tosh!

I get that this is a TV show with a priority to entertain, but surely not at the expense of the show’s integrity? The Lieutenant putting his head in the guillotine is Columbo‘s ‘jump the shark’ moment: an indication that implausible novelty events may be taking the upper hand over sensible storytelling.

Admittedly, the 70s had its share of showy gotchas that placed spectacle at a premium. A Matter of Honor, Now You See Him and How to Dial a Murder immediately spring to mind, but Columbo didn’t put his life on the line there. What it suggests to me is that the show’s creators had lost faith in the Lieutenant’s ability to hold a modern audience without a gargantuan closing stunt. It’s dangerous territory to be entering into. Where will it end?

To make matters worse, the closing guillotine antics are compounded by Columbo firing the comedy gun at a gawping Blake as credits roll. What has happened to the Lieutenant in the last 11 years? Why is this moment being played for laughs? It’s Columbo, Jim, just not as we know it…

This is a great pity, because until the finale throws all credibility out the window, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine is actually quite enjoyable. Although drawn out, I rather like the mystery surrounding how Blake aced the psychic test. It’s clever stuff and dramatically presented.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
Blood in Columbo? This show is going HARDCORE!

The execution of Dyson is a chilling moment, the magician’s terror a stunning contrast to Blake’s softly spoken fury. Although a lot more gruesome than the Columbo killings of the classic era, I don’t mind it a bit and this certainly seems like a well-measured attempt to move with the times and give the audience an unexpected jolt.

We also mustn’t forget that it’s just nice to have Columbo back. Yes, he’s a bit more circumlocutious but it’s like welcoming an old pal back into our lives. I can only imagine how heartening it must have been for fans of the original series to reacquaint themselves with their favourite fella after more than a decade.

The Lieutenant hits the screen in the 25th minute of the episode and it’s a very stylish intro as our man parks his beat-up car on a dark city street and is shown only in silhouette until his cigar lighter illuminates the face we know so well. Director Leo Penn previously helmed Any Old Port in a Storm and The Conspirators and he handles this pivotal moment with the skill of a Columbo connoisseur.

If only the music had matched the excellence of the camera work! I really feel this moment should have had great gravitas. Sadly, the effect is partly ruined by the jaunty background ditty, which seems more suited to a bad comedy and is absolutely at odds with the power of the Columbo comeback reveal. Have a look below and you’ll see exactly what I mean…

The fact that Columbo was obviously pulling his car up on a set on the Universal lot (the same one he’d revisit in Murder, Smoke & Shadows), rather than on the actual streets of Los Angeles is also a bit of a let-down and is indicative of another beef I have with this episode: it looks and feels cheap.

That was a criticism that could only very rarely be levelled at the 70s’ episodes, which were often gloriously lavish with no expense spared on glamour locations and sumptuous sets. Here, with the chief settings being the gloomy institute interiors and the far-too-dark magic workshop, there’s no sense of awe at our surroundings.

The same can be said of the cast. Guillotine fails to deliver a line-up to die for, and it feels like a let-down for so anticipated a TV moment. To give this criticism some context, the best equivalent I can come up with is to compare Guillotine to 1972’s Etude in Black.

Columbo‘s second season needed to set out its stall to impress after the stellar success of season 1. So it packed its opening episode with a tremendous cast, including John Cassavetes, Myrna Loy, Blythe Danner, James McEachin and George Gaynes, and spared no expense with some seriously big-budget shooting locations.

Compared to this splendour, Guillotine seems like a very poor relation. And that’s not meant to denigrate the abilities of the supporting cast here. They do the job, but it’s not the megastar-tinged outing fans might’ve hoped for. Cocky young magician Tommy is particularly annoying, joining Etude‘s precocious Audrey as pre-teen characters we could happily live without.

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine Tommy
Just go away, Tommy. NO ONE LIKES YOU!

Overall I think it’s fair to say time has been less kind to Guillotine than almost any of the 45 preceding episodes. While I thoroughly enjoyed it as an unenlightened young imp, its failings now stand out all too clearly.

Perhaps the creative team can be forgiven for going a little OTT on this occasion to ensure Columbo’s revival went with a bang. However, the prominence given to flamboyance over substance here doesn’t augur well for what lies ahead.

Did you know?

William Read Woodfield Marilyn Monroe

Episode writer William Read Woodfield was better known for his photography work than his screenwriting. In 1962, he was amongst three photographers (along with Lawrence Schiller and Jimmy Mitchell) invited to a photo shoot with Marilyn Monroe on the set of her unfinished film, Something’s Got to Give.

The now-iconic photographs of Monroe at a swimming pool on the 20th Century Fox studio lot chronicled the first nude scene ever shot by a major Hollywood star. The film, however, was never finished after Monroe took her own life months later.

How I rate ’em

Rather than slotting them in piecemeal amongst the ‘classic era’ episodes, I’m going to rank the new episodes separately to more clearly compare apples with apples. When all 24 of the comeback adventures are reviewed, I’ll create a master list with every episode ranked.

By default, Guillotine instantly assumes the top spot. I wonder how long for? If you twisted my arm and demanded to know where it would fit into the big picture, I’d say lower mid-tier alongside the Lovely but Lethals and Most Dangerous Matches of the Columbo universe. Not terrible by any means, but not a patch on the series’ finest outings.

  1. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine

If you want to check out any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews, they can all be accessed here. And if you HEART Columbo Goes to the Guillotine you can vote for it in the fans’ favourite episode poll here.

Columbo Elliott Blake
Lower-mid tier’? I’ll have his head for that…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on Columbo Goes to the Guillotine! How do you rate it compared to the 70s’ classics? What do you think of the showy conclusion? And does Elliott Blake cut the mustard alongside the likes of Dale Kingston, Abigail Mitchell and The Great Santini in the pantheon of Columbo killers?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below and look out for a full review of the Lieutenant’s next adventure, Murder, Smoke & Shadows, starring Fisher Stevens as prodigious movie director Alex Brady, coming soon!

Contribute to this site’s upkeep from just $3

Dozens of Columbo gift ideas right here

Columbo Now You See Him guillotine
Did this escape your memory, Lieutenant?
%d bloggers like this: