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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!

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Columbo Now You See Him guillotine
Did this escape your memory, Lieutenant?
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105 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Goes to the Guillotine

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  2. Loved Anthony Zerbe in this, and Anthony Andrews who I believe was very “hot” at the time from masterpiece theater kind of stuff. I liked the joke gun at the end! I don’t know why I liked it, but I did.

  3. I wasn’t actively watching the beginning. It was just on in the background on Peacock as I was also checking emails. When Anthony Andrews first speaks, I swore I was listening to Dan O’Herlihy. Their voices sound identical.

  4. The author (CP) absolutely nails it in his review. I’ve just started watching the new ones (again!) and I share the same feelings.
    I’ve probably seen this episode six times, and I like it less each time. The only good thing is that I keep forgetting how Blake’s main “trick” is done; which makes it like scratching an itch when it’s revealed near the end.
    Oh, and it was painful to watch Falk keeping saying “it was a Phillip’s head” over and over and over to Blake during that LONG scene in Dyson’s apartment.
    I can totally see how a first-time Columbo viewer might have really enjoyed this episode. But, after you see all the 70’s episodes, you quickly learn that it’s nowhere near the same quality as the top of the heap.

  5. I am watching all the episodes in order. That Columbo introduction scene on the cheesy set rankled me also because the music is so skeevy, that sort of fake ’40s orchestra sound, as if they thought they were scoring Robert Mitchum in “Farewell, My Lovely.” Everything so artificial.

    Speaking of artificial, I was really jarred by Falk’s appearance — and I had lunch with Falk in the ’80s! (I also once interviewed Zerbe.) It just seems like Peter has had way too much work done on his face. Not to mention too much hair dye on his head — and even in his eyebrows. Since Falk was not a pretty boy in the first place, I don’t know why he felt he had to force so much plastic “youth” into his kisser.

    I guess I’ll get to used to it as these later episodes go on.

    Also, yes, I agree with Columbophile and everyone else who noted that this episode is painfully slow and pointlessly repetitious. It really could have been OK if a story editor had boiled it down to its essence. And kept Columbo out of the guillotine altogether!

    • I’ve never thought Peter looked like he’d had any work done. He always came across as very natural looking to me, right up to his final years. I agree about the hair dye, though. Unnecessary and at times extremely unnatural looking.

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  8. Consider myself spoilt by modern entertainment, but I was honestly expecting something far more elaborate for Blake to be able to “know” where each of the three drivers were during his experiment. Perhaps a savant-like knowledge of Los Angeles’ city streets and a pair of hidden morse code devices strapped to both Blake and Dyson’s legs sending out information about what street they’re on and which direction they’re looking. I think Blake took an enormous risk with the pre-printed maps, and would almost certainly have been rumbled in little time at all by real-life authority figures who would only have needed to turn a page to realize they’d been had.

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  10. One of the better episodes. Good kick off to the new era.Pity the main protagonists were not swapped. Zerbe is one of the greats and love watching him perform. Short lived here as he stuck his neck out once too often. That said Andrews is a fine actor, cocky and very British. Enjoyed the magic angle and the revelation of how the two old jailbirds concocted the trick at the heart of matters was fascinating. Daft ending though as there is no way Andrews would have hung around to put his head on the chopping block to an over confident Columbo. That should have made Andrews run for the hills. Not convincing as a climax. I would give this episode a 6/10.

  11. Just a quick follow-up comment now that I’m reading all the reviews in order and have just caught up to this one:

    * I absolutely agree with Columbophile that it looks and feels cheap when they film on the studio set of a street rather than an actual street. And it’s doubly unfortunate because this is Columbo’s dramatic entrance, his first on-screen appearance in 11 years. I thought I had said this my earlier comment but apparently not, so I’m saying it now. 🙂

    * Interestingly, the year previous to this episode, Peter Falk was in the movie “Vibes” with Cyndi Lauper, Jeff Goldblum, and Julian Sands. It’s a largely bad movie that mostly takes place in the South American jungle as competing teams race to find a psychic hotspot or a city of gold or a missing person. But the neat part is that the movie begins at a psychic research institute, like in this “Columbo” episode! It also ends with Cyndi Lauper’s character channeling the spirit of Peter Falk’s character. So maybe Peter Falk was inspired by his most recent film to tackle the paranormal for his big “Columbo” comeback? 🙂

    • Oh right. Also, PS, I agree that the ending with the comedy prop gun that shoots out a flag is a bad choice. Not only is it an unfunny cliché but it’s a terrible place to freeze-frame and end the episode, so it hurts us twice. What were they thinking? Well, it was a simpler, more innocent time.

  12. What you say about the lack of any star power in your review is spot on. Having watched 1970s Columbo episodes as we lad with my mother, we were both excited to see his return in 1989. I remember my mother calling me afterwards to discuss the episode and complaining that the cast was non-descript. The return of Columbo after an 11 year hiatus deserved some star studded treatment and that was sorely lacking here.

  13. I don’t like to see innocent people defrauded, so I’m happy to see those who knowingly lie get debunked (a la Randi). But when it comes to sincere belief in the paranormal, I’m much more forgiving than Columbophile. I’m an agnostic on the subject of its existence. I don’t have any evidence of the paranormal, but it’s a lot of fun to think about. I’m definitely not going to disrespect anyone’s belief in it. If they ask for my money, though, then I’ll need to see proof!

    I get the feeling that at least some of the people at the institute and among the military were sincere truth-seekers; that is, they were willing to do the science and see how it turned out. Dr. Austin was using Blake’s tricks to keep the institute funded, which is morally grey; she’s definitely lying, which is bad, but maybe it’s because she thinks the institute can still do some real research. Otherwise, why wouldn’t she just let the institute fold and find a less stressful line of work where she doesn’t have to live a lie?

    Given his demonstration of remote viewing, another inspiration for Blake might have been Major Ed Dames, who says he learned remote viewing from Ingo Swann during Project Stargate. When I watched “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” I thought one of the characters might have been based on Dames.

    My best friend has the complete “Columbo,” old and new episodes, on DVD, but I watch it on TV, on our local “MeTV” channel. There are some severe cuts to the episodes in syndication, presumably so they can fit more commercials in. I wonder if this solves the dreaded 90-minute run-time problem? 🙂

    Agreed; I love Columbo’s entrance in this episode, sitting in darkness and then lighting his cigar. So cool!

    The only other thing I’ve ever seen Anthony Andrews in was the 1980s film adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s “The Holcroft Covenant,” in which Andrews plays the villain, Johann von Tiebolt/Jonathan Tennyson. The character is simplified compared to the novel, in that he does not have a third identity as the world’s greatest assassin named after a bird, but he’s still so evil that you absolutely despise him, and credit goes to Andrews for portraying that effectively. He was scary!

    As I mentioned in a comment on another article…how did Blake control which direction the drivers looked in? What if they hadn’t chosen to look at the landmark that he was planning to sketch from memory, and had faxed a photo of something from the opposite direction?

    I enjoyed the way the magicians paid their respects with tricks at the funeral.

    • You are so right about MeTV butchering Columbo episodes for more commercial time. I just re-watched Publish or Perish and they cut almost all of the “Chili at Chasen’s” scene, except for a brief clip after a commercial where Marriette Hartley spills the beans about the new ending for the book. It cuts out one of the better humorous scenes in the entire series, one that emphasizes the cultural distinction between Columbo and the high-and-mighty types he usually investigates. It also confuses a first-time viewer about where Columbo is (he’s suddenly sitting in a restaurant booth) or why he is there at all.

      I don’t recall this particular cut in previous MeTV broadcasts of the episode, so the channel might be getting more aggressive as time goes on. For me, it was disheartening. I was really looking forward to it.

      Why-oh-why didn’t they leave the Chasen’s scene intact and cut the Tuba Parade from Sex and the Married Detective? I’d sit through 5 extra minutes of commercials any time to be spared that particular torture. (Not really true. I record all episodes and fast-forward through the commercials, but I WOULD prefer the commercials to the tuba scene, if watching live.)

    • Audience member chose a direction aloud – e.g. ‘west’. There were 4 views memorised for each location, one for each of north, south, east, west.

  14. It’s so cool to have found this blog! I just bought the DVDs and watched this one last night with my dad. It’s been decades since I’ve seen it. I was 9 yrs. old when Columbo returned. I love the original series but we’d been watching them over and over on streaming. I clearly remembered this one, because of Anthony Andrews (forever the best Scarlet Pimpernel on film to me) and the whole guillotine gimmick.

    I got the impression, or it felt heavily implied that Max and Blake were more than just mentor and student. Perhaps it was the flamboyant way way the great Anthony Zerbe played Max, though that could be his take on how a Magician is supposed to act. And also the heavy, meaningful glares shared with Blake. Lots of insinuating banter too. Though honestly, Andrews can gaze at a wall with those huge brown eyes and you’d think he was in love with it.

    I actually loved Columbo’s entrance and the music. He often had jaunty themes early on in the series, (perhaps not so obtrusive) particularly with “This old man.” I understand how the settings and scope feels cheaper. The glamour and class is missing, the side characters are bland and forgettable too, even the ones directly involved in the case. And I couldn’t believe how many times Columbo put himself in mortal danger. However, I watched Season 1 “Ransom for a Dead Man” again as I’d forgotten a lot of it, and was shocked Columbo even got the airplane with the killer.

    As for the films – I wish it didn’t take so long to get him onscreen. Going forward I know it’ll be a feature in nearly all 24 films. There’s so much padding, showing us the private lives of the killers. I realize it has to be done to fill the hour and 45 min, but I prefer the shorter episodes of the series. I find it kind of useless to know all this if the person’s going to jail by the end. I also feel there’s a “dumbing down” of the cases in terms of the clues and red herrings. With the early series I still get genuinely flummoxed by how Columbo finds his damning evidence even if I’ve seen the episode more than once.

    I just watched “Murder, Smoke and Shadows” with Fisher Stevens tonight. I remembered that one too, with Stevens as “Spielberg” type Director on the Universal set. I look forward to browsing your site and reading more reviews of the movies as I watch them.

  15. This was the first Columbo episode I can remember seeing. I have vague memories of The Whistler theme, but those movies were not something I watched back then.

    For some reason, my recollection of the “psychic” was that he was played by Roddy McDowall. So reading the actor’s name here was a surprise.

    I remember thinking the final scene was gutsy, as Columbo staked everything on the killer trying to kill him, and thus proving himself a murderer. But if the man had been innocent, Columbo would have given an innocent man nightmares for the rest of his life! That really bugged me. As I saw older episodes over the years, I came to agree with you. The younger Columbo would never have resorted to such a stunt.

    I just discovered that there are episodes available on YouTube, and just finished one you mention, “Etude in Black.” Interesting, but the bit with the flower seemed a bit weak. Still, a better episode than “Guillotine.”

    I like your way of writing a review. I’ll be back!

    • Agreed about the flower scene in “Etude.” The audience was given the clue right away with the flower. Too easy, and Columbo should not be easy. It usually never is.
      The flower was telegraphed.

  16. IMO Andrews hit – if not a home run – at least a triple as the inaugural 2nd generation villain. He was handsome, urbane, and slightly condescending. AND…this ep has one of the greatest scenes ever in Columbo – Karen Austin in a negligee. My DVD allows me to freeze-frame and zoom in. Thank God for digital technology!

  17. My thing is I was wondering once Blake was with the military, how was he going to explain his lack of psychic ability. He couldn’t hold up this charade forever. Either way, this is one of my fave episodes. Flaws and all.

    • It was stated that he was going to succeed in the military by forcing the guy who brought him in into the con. He was going to say: “You’ll look like a fool if I’m a fraud, so you better help me out.”

  18. Enjoyable review, as always. I laughed out loud at: “a set-piece so hammy that Blake could serve it up for a Christmas lunch.”

    I went into this episode not knowing who was in it and who was going to get murdered, so it took me a while to figure out. First I thought Dr. Hall was going to kill the psychic, then vice versa. However,when Anthony Zerbe showed up, I knew how it would go.

    The intro was entertaining as were both psychic demonstrations.

    I quite enjoyed Andrews as the murderer. I liked Tommy, too.

    The main thing that bothered me has bothered many others, based on the comments. How did Columbo know who the murderer was? It’s cheating, somewhat, to have him zero in on the murderer without letting the audience whyknow at some point.

    The only way that I can live with the ending in my mind is to believe that Columbo had set up the guillotine so that it was always in a safe configuration. Also, “shooting” the murderer at the end seems a little cruel; Columbo usually treats the suspects with some respect, even if he didn’t like them.

    • It is a bit of a cheat that he leaps to suspect Blake when he seems to completely trust magician Bert, who could very easily be the killer. But by the time he spots emotion at the funeral it would be reasonable enough to suspect him, and his ‘hammy’ act basically screamed his guilt.

  19. I agree this is more comparable to dagger of the mind than most dangerous match , very drawn out average acting , very silly and a rather unsatisfying ending

  20. After thinking about it for a few days – what else is there to do right now??? – I think CP’s assessment of the ABC run is correct in that even with good scripts and interesting guest stars, they’re played more and perhaps too broadly in comparison to the NBC years… I know they were trying to keep the series fresh with new ideas and approaches, but there’s an element of silliness in some of them that simply wouldn’t have been accepted in the 1970’s episodes.

    If it were up to me, we would have had two more seasons of the NBC run (with 5 episodes apiece), and then Peter Falk would hang up his rumpled mac permanently and walk into the sunset, never to return… leaving a (largely) peerless legacy and perhaps the single greatest murder-mystery series ever, bar none and second to no-one.

    But that would be in a perfect world and an ideal situation… and as we know of late, we live in neither, alas…

  21. Thanks again for the entertainment. I nearly choked on my cornflakes when I read the ‘I can feel the spirits, brah’ caption, and again with the ‘no one likes Tommy’ one. He certainly was an irritating little so and so. This is so much more diverting than constant Coronavirus updates, your really providing an excellent service here.

  22. Almost as absurd as Columbo sticking his head in a guillotine, was every person assigned to go to the various locations, not feathering through the Thomas Guide map books, just because they had a rubber band around them. Someone would of got curious and looked at the other pages to discover the pages were all the same. I thought this episode was a horrible start to the return of Columbo. I’m surprised Peter Falk didn’t object to the total implausibility of this episode. However, I did like Karen Austin and her line about her vulgar thoughts, but why did she suddenly find religion and realize what an awful person Elliot Blake was ?

    • They missed an easy fix to that. Top-ranking military officers want the story to be true, and the junior officers who went out in the field could easily have figured out that their career prospects wouldn’t have benefited from giving them bad news. So if they’d taken two or three minutes for a conversation between Columbo and one of those guys, it would have been taken care of.

    • Was the dealbreaker for her that Blake was planning to abandon her and leave forever to take the job with the army?

  23. One things bother me…the killer said he paid Max to fix the test that convinced the military guys. Yet Max was famous as a relentles debunker of paranormal frauds. He certainly did not earn that fame by letting himself be bribed to cover fraudsters. But maybe he made ann exception drven by guilt feelings?

    • I don’t want to coarsen the level of the conversation, but I always assumed the “closeness” of the two characters implied a sexual relationship while in the prison After all, Kiss of the Spider Woman had come out only a few years earlier. (Turkish prison, Brazilian prison, Ugandan prison. What’s the diff?). That would go a long way toward explaining why Max was willing to compromise himself. It would also explain why Blake had such a strong sense of betrayal by Max. Moreover, debunking psychics was probably not that reliable a gig. Max certainly didn’t seem to be raking in the big bucks, given that he was still operating a local magic shop and personally constructing elaborate effects for other magicians in his upstairs workshop. Doesn’t sound like David Copperfield to me.

      • I don’t think you’re coarsening the conversation. I think it’s very strongly implied that Max and Blake were lovers in prison. There’s a line from Max when Blake pulls the gun–“Remember what we meant to each other, remember what we gave each other.”

      • I got that sense too. Between Zerbe’s sometimes-campy portrayal of Max and the line about “what we meant to each other” in prison, there was some celluloid-closet subtext happening there. It’s there for those who can pick up on it, but it’s also vague enough that it doesn’t have to be interpreted that way.

    • The way I read it, Blake simply made up the story that he’d paid Max to fix the test as it couldn’t be disproved. It was Max’s guilt alone that allowed him to let Blake pass the test.

  24. Had forgotton he won an emmy for agenda, he delivered his quirky lines very well and has great chemisttry whith columbo , its fair to say a much better episode all roind than guillotine which i just will never be a fan of

  25. Karen Austin was the original female lead on “Night Court”, but for whatever reason did not even make it all the way through the first season. There was a revolving door for a while before the luscious Markie Post finally joined the cast.

    I think this is a solid episode. I’ve said this before but all the people wishing that Columbo hadn’t come back are just wrong. Is the ending iffy? Yes, but some of the endings to the original run didn’t make any sense, like with one of the best Columbos ever, “Forgotten Lady”. I noticed that when the boy is doing his magic trick, you can see that all the cards in the deck are identical. Was that a child actor being sloppy with a prop, or subtle foreshadowing over how the trick with the maps was done? Dunno.

    It’s true that the budgets seemed to be tighter. It’s true that, Faye Dunaway aside, the guest stars were mostly of a lower wattage. It’s true that the bad revival episodes of the new Columbo are REALLY bad, worse than anything in the original run–“Murder in Malibu” and the two 87th Precinct episodes are absolute stinkers. That’s if one even counts the 87th Precinct episodes as Columbo, which arguably we should not. But there was some good Columbo in the 1990s and I’d rather live in the world where we got those episodes than one where we didn’t.

    PS: The Faye Dunaway episode, maybe not coincidentally, is probably the best one. I never can remember episode titles.

    • You might want to add Rod Steiger to the A-listers. Maybe even, Shatner, Culp and McGoohan, all of whom return in the second iteration of the series. True, there were no Golden-Age stars like Lupino, Loy and Milland, but few from that era were still active (or even alive) in the 1990’s.

    • @VIDOR: Nice catch … I didn’t initially notice that Tommy lifted one or two of the Ace of diamonds cards too high and angled towards the camera, so that it revealed how the trick was done (all the cards were apparently the same). However, based on where Colombo was standing, I assume it might have been harder for him to notice the error that was perhaps easier to see from our viewing angle (albeit just slightly off-center to the right of where Colombo was standing).

      I am also thinking that perhaps it was too good a foreshadowing trick (for the duplicate map pages trick) to be unintentional, unless that card trick was there as an insider clue to help people familiar with that card trick, figure out the map trick a little bit quicker than the rest of us.

      However, what still bothers me is that just seconds before Tommy does the pick-a-card (Ace of diamonds) trick, he clearly is cutting a different deck of cards that shows a 6 of hearts (or something close to that) as part of the deck. So how did Tommy switch the deck of cards so quickly (even though his hands were off-screen briefly) without an obvious camera-angle-change edit? Did somebody else off-camera quickly hand him the ALL Ace of diamonds deck, was it just a great standard edit, or was Tommy even better skilled with his sleight-of-hand trickery than we are giving him credit for ?

  26. A middle of the pack later years episode. It is a somewhat ambitious episode but it did have it’s flaws, the ending was ridiculous having Columbo put the killers life in his hands. All in all though it was somewhat entertaining but there are much better shows from the newer series.

  27. I’m glad you included the autobiographical bit about how you reacted to it when you saw it in 1989. In those days, Anthony Zerbe’s acting style may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but it was a mainstream thing and it was interesting to watch the contrast between his deliberately exaggerated manner and Antony Andrews’ equally extreme understatement. Nowadays, though, the Zerbe style has been so far out of fashion for so long that it is difficult to watch him.

    I would also say that the funeral is a problem. Columbo works best when he’s shown as a person with a rather conventional morality; I think of your remarks about the strength of the scene in “Suitable for Framing” when he can’t bear to be in the room with the nude model as opposed to the weakness of the scene in “The Conspirators” when he leers at the book of nude paintings. In “Agenda for Murder,” we will see that his morals very definitely extend to reverence for religious propriety, when he can’t bring himself to quote a sentence using the name “Jesus” as an expletive. So to see him participating comfortably in what is to all outward appearances a Satanist ceremony is pretty weird.

    • Where did you get ‘Satanist’ from? All they did was perform a few common magic tricks, in honour of the fact that the deceased was a magician (a stage musician that is, not a would-be black magic practitioner). Columbo may be somewhat old-fashioned in terms of morals, but surely he can tell the difference between a simple magic trick and devil-worship. I actually liked the funeral scene and found it quite touching.

  28. I think it was for by dawns early light he wo the emmy for not sure about agenfa for murder i will have to look into it

  29. I haven’t seen this episode, but it actually sounds quite fun for the most part (if a little too similar to ‘Now You See Him’). However the ending is completely crazy.

    • Following on from this: I just found a load of Columbo episodes uploaded on archive.org (legally, AFAIK) and started to watch the new episodes. They’re a bit low-res and blurry, but it’s much better than having to wait weeks for a physical DVD set to be delivered! And now I have something else to do during the lockdown. 😛

      Anyway, I just finished this episode and… I like it! I agree with many of the criticisms – it’s far too long, many scenes are unnecessarily drawn-out, and Columbo isn’t exactly on top form – but I liked the somewhat darker atmosphere, and the actor playing Blake gives an excellent performance. Certainly not up there with the best of the 70s, but it’s a decent start to the new series, apart from the ridiculous ending.

      Off to watch some more of the 90s episodes now…

  30. I agree, Max Dyson is almost certainly a takeoff on James Randi. At one point, the Amazing Randi put up a $1 million prize to anyone who could perform a paranormal feat that he (Randi) could not explain or duplicate. That million dollars is still collecting dust, by the way, if you’re interested…

      • The Amazing Randi recently passed away, and the Million Dollar challenge with him. However, it’s telling that after many years nobody succeeded in winning the million dollars, and in fact the only people to even attempt it were were the self-deluded true believers, and never the famous psychics. Perhaps their psychic abilities told them how it would turn out.

  31. I wanted to make a comment or two on this review… but that photo of Marilyn in the pool just… uh, what was I talking about again… is it warm in here or just me???

  32. The psychotic overtones of Elliott Blake are a fresh and interesting touch for a Columbo killer. Apart from the fact they’re murderers and some of them seem to think of themselves as superior to the rest of the world, most of Columbo’s adversaries generally come across as normal people, both in their regular lives and in their interactions with the Lieutenant. Blake, on the other hand, has a more pronounced air of uneasiness and danger to him.

    I still prefer this performance by Peter Falk to most of his work in season 7, plus a few other episodes of the seventies. For some reason, I find his hammier acting traits (that started to surface most prominently in season 7) suit him much better now that he’s older. His age seems to make the eccentricity much more palatable for me, though I still certainly prefer his more restrained performances. And there is a lived-in quality to his performance that I find more pronounced and vivid than ever before. Strangely enough, as theatrical as he can sometimes get in his gestures, I get the feeling he isn’t playing a part, but just “being” the character. I think to some extent, this has to do with the fact ABC-era Columbo appears so relaxed and comfortable, while NBC-era Columbo could sometimes be more intense as a product of his restless curiosity and obsessive desire to solve the mystery.

    It’s worth pointing out ABC-era Columbo isn’t always Guillotine-level hammy. Falk’s performance in Agenda for Murder is much more restrained. I think it’s one of his absolute best of any era. Quiet, subtle brilliance, with a particularly enjoyable moment midway through the episode. Whether you agree or not, I do look forward to reading your thoughts on the matter.

    I agree with your comments regarding the final scene and Columbo risking his life. I admit there is a touch of excitement to it, but it goes too far into implausible territory.

    • Barry Mayfield (Leonard Nimoy) in A Stitch In Crime fits that mold, too, which is part of the reasons he is my favourite Columbo killer.
      I don’t have enough memories of Falk’s performance in Agenda For Murder to corroborate your statement about that, but if it’s true, that would be kind of funny since McGoohan’s first directorial effort (Identity Crisis) was most likely responsible for the change in Falk’s acting and his second one (Last Salute To The Commodore) was notoriously the episode he went the furthest into the new direction.

      • Patrick McGoohan’s performance on Agenda for Murder was one of the best. He won an Emmy Award for that role.

  33. Gunni beat me to it. Why does Columbo ask Blake to come to the murder scene and assist him? In Columbo-speak, that’s synonymous with: “I know you did it, but don’t yet have the proof.” All Columbo knew about Blake to this point was that, the day before Dyson’s death, Blake had passed Dyson’s ESP test (the first to do so). How does this make Blake Columbo’s chief suspect? Was it the ridiculous “draw a shape on your notepad” gambit? That seems a bit far-fetched, too. So what was the clue that turned Columbo’s focus of attention into Blake? I don’t know.

    As for Columbo’s “daft old codger” routine, I note that the original Columbo from the 1962 “Prescription: Murder” stage play (played by 70-year-old Thomas Mitchell) was supposed to be an old codger. That’s why Link and Levinson wanted then 64-year-old Bing Crosby to play the role in the 1968 TV movie. So, in a sense, a 61-year-old Peter Falk was just growing into the role as originally conceived.

    I agree with everything said here about the ending of this episode. The notion that Columbo would risk his life on the assumption that Blake would try to kill him is moronic. After all, if this was not Blake’s intent, apparently Columbo would have been a dead man. I never liked the similar ending to “Murder Under Glass,” and liked this one less.

    What makes the episode enjoyable for me is everything about the “viewing at a distance” illusion. In fact, since then, whenever I see a magician at work, I think of the words of the kid Tommy: “It’s a trick. You remember it’s a trick and never forget it’s a trick. And then you can start figuring it out.” For my money, it’s the best line of “Guillotine.”

  34. I like a lot of new episodes not so much this one the episode is very drawn out in parts and the ending is unsatisfactory , i prefer next one murder smoke and shadows

    • Agree the next episode is more entertaining and easier to watch, the characters are more interesting and the back story much more emotional.

  35. After many years, I’m know watching Columbo comeback episodes along with Columbophile’s reviews and agree with his assessment on this one. Decent enough but with two plot lines that don’t mesh ideally and a rather goofy lieutenant. I also feel Karen Austin was somewhat underused.

  36. This was below average even for the new episodes!!

    How @columbophile thinks that this ranks the same as a great old episode like ‘The Most Dangerous Match’ defies logic

    • given a choice out of the 2 episodes i would pick the most dangerous match over this guillotine caper any day of the week even though most dangerous match wasn’t among the very best of the seventies run .

  37. A bit of context about William Read Woodfield….His real TV claim to fame was his work with Allan Balter in the first 2.5 years of Mission: Impossible. He and Balter created the template for the most successful M:I episodes. Bruce Geller originated the show, but he only wrote the pilot episode, and needed other more talented scribes to make the program successful. The complex plotting, ingenious devices, and elaborate con jobs were hatched from the mind of Woodfield/Balter. Woodfield’s writing was never the same after Balter passed away, which is demonstrated by this Columbo ep. Oh, and Woodfield was fascinated by magic, which is essentially a con job in itself, and explains why Woodfield concocted truly great M:I episodes in those first 3 years of the show.

  38. In my opinion this was one of the weaker later episodes. The final ending is by itself a killer, because it is utterly ridiculous to imagine Columbo putting his head at risk based on the highly uncertain assumption that Blake would certainly try to commit another cold-blooded murder, especially since he would probably be at greater risk of conviction if he succeeded in doing so, since the kid knew about the cooperation with Dyson and that Columbo had uncovered the testing scam, and since chopping off Columbo’s head would make it obvious that Dyson’s wasn’t an accident either. Moreover, I think one must be an utter doofus to believe that US intelligence would not ask to see the booklets from the drivers as soon as Blake completed the test, or figure out on their own what the kid magician figured out, or find the Blake-Dyson Uganda connection that Columbo could find in one day. The endless dragging out of these scenes, as well as the wasted time on so many childish magic tricks, makes all this even more unbearable. Finally, I personally dislike Blake’s style of exaggerated acting, which he duplicated in Scarlet Pimpernel, though I should note that coming off his success in Pimpernel and Ivanhoe in 1982, Andrews was considered pretty hot at the time.

    • Re. Andrews’ level of fame, I’m aware he was well known for Brideshead Revisited and The Scarlet Pimpernel, but those were 7-8 years before Columbo and he doesn’t appear to have any other blockbuster success in between. He certainly wasn’t a zero, but not as high profile a comeback killer as might have been expected.

  39. I do think the episode is quite enjoyable, but it’s definitely a minor one. The guillotine ending really is silly, but I like the toy gun. All in all, I can agree with your assessment, I just don’t have a problem with Falk’s portrayal and the episode length.

    • To add to that, I also question what exactly makes Blake even suspect to Columbo in the beginning. Since he succeeded in his test and there is nothing else linking the two it seems really far-fetched. I could imagine that Columbo concludes from him succeeding that they really knew each because otherwise he couldn’t have done that. But it all seems somewhat tenuous here, which is a problem I have with Murder, Smoke and Shadows, too.
      Columbo did seem to develop a somewhat supernatural feeling for always showing up at exactly the right time in season 7 already, so this seems like a continuation of that.

  40. As always, interesting reading. I don’t dislike this episode but I agree with your comments about the ending. As for Columbo risking his life, I have convinced myself that he wasn’t quite so foolhardy because he had the guillotine prop ‘doctored’ so that both ways would in fact be safe. He just wanted to see which way round Blake would put it.

    I would welcome it if anyone can go on to explain away the toy gun and/or why Blake didn’t try to kill Columbo by other means. This might, at least in my mind, go some way to salvage this otherwise decent episode.

    (Aside: is there a list of murderers that have thought about, or actually attempted, doing the lieutenant in?)

    • I’d have been much happier if Columbo has revealed it was a completely safe blade with dummy labels, but that Blake choosing the lethal blade proved intent to kill. That would have been far more sensible.

      As for a list of murderers who had ambitions to end Columbo’s life, you can read about them here: http://bit.ly/2GHqEuZ

      • That was my thought too. Surely a detective with Columbo’s brains would have found a safer way to do it than how it’s portrayed in the episode.

        By the way, have you ever played the Ace Attorney games? Their lead writer was heavily influenced by Columbo, and while the main characters are quite different than the rumpled detective, the mysteries have a very similar feel. You might enjoy them, particularly the earlier ones.

          • They’re simple point and click/choose the correct dialogue option visual novels. You play as a defense lawyer for homicide cases in a very biased legal system (parodying Japan’s actual legal system) where the police and prosecutors openly work together to get guilty verdicts. Since the legal system is so biased, you have to investigate the cases yourself and expose the real culprits in court to exonerate your clients.

            All the games are up on youtube, and since they’re entirely story driven, you can get most of the experience by watching a playthrough, if you don’t mind reading. Like Columbo, some cases are better than others, but the first three games are pretty solid. Unlike Columbo, they’re bigger on continuity, with returning characters, so you’d want to start at the beginning (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney) if you’re interested.

      • Colombophile,

        Good idea about the safe blade, that would have worked well. Wasnt Columbo always really squeemish in the 70s? He hated gore, guns and blades. I dont mind a character changing, but he could never be reckless – like risking a rather horrible death!

        I would have loved to have sorted the ending out , and spend some time in the editing suite to trim this episode down. (Although in my opinion – it’s no where near as padded and as bad as “Make me a perfect murder”, which I think could have been much better).

        I have a trivia question:
        Columbo appears 25 min in. I wonder which episodes do we see the least of columbo (in terms of screen time)? In which episodes do we see the most of him?

        • That’s a good (and tough) question. I know that the latest Columbo appears is at 31 minutes in Death Hits the Jackpot, and 30 mins in Prescription: Murder. They’re both 90-minute episodes, though. No idea which episode he’d have the most overall screen time, but I’d suggest one of the ones he appears in right from the start – perhaps Troubled Waters, Make Me a Perfect Murder, Candidate for Crime or Murder, A Self Portrait. Maybe even the dire No Time to Die.

          • Thanks good list of suggestions!

            I think a couple of those that you mentioned (certainly troubled waters and candidate for crime) are the only episodes where columbo meets the murderer prior to the crime.

            I was also trying to think of an episode where columbo genuinely suspects the wrong person. Sometimes he goes along with a theory he knows is false, but I wondered if he ever made a real mistake.

            • “I was also trying to think of an episode where columbo genuinely suspects the wrong person. Sometimes he goes along with a theory he knows is false, but I wondered if he ever made a real mistake.”

              Columbo Cries Wolf.

              • The unnecessary excavating that Columbo did in “Wolf” is Columbo being less fortunate than he was in “Blueprint for Murder” (in which Columbo was forced to dig up the foundation of the building and not find the body, but it wasn’t a wasted effort since the killer showed up to bury the body there).

                Is this the narrowest comment ever? 🙂

  41. ‘It’s Columbo, Jim, just not as we know it.’
    Did we accidentily learn Columbophile’s first name here? (And will he later say no, no such thing as a first name?)

  42. We never discovered in this episode why they were both in prison in Uganda – I suppose we can use our imagination.
    Also, I haven’t seen this episode for a while, but I could have sworn the motive for the murder was that Dyson was threatening, at least implicitly, to blackmail Blake by revealing his secrets.

  43. One of the most interesting later episodes, the stuff in the magician’s workshop wasn’t as good as the government paranormal remote viewing stuff. The big let down as you rightly point out was Columbo putting his head in the guillotine! Not believable at all.

  44. I agree with your review, Columbophile.
    My most important criticism is that this episode gives us two different movies in one, with weak links between them. The one concerns the test for the government operatives, the second all the scenes in the magician’s workshop. The first interested me a lot, the second repeated what we had already seen (and better seen!) in former episodes. In fact we are more interested in the way Columbo breaks the former mystery than in how he gets the murderer.
    One detail I don’t agree completely is when you write “The fact that Columbo was obviously pulling his car up on a set on the Universal lot”. Because, in the former 45 and in the later 24, scenes in poor (urban) areas are always filmed in cardboard sites. And several houses in the former 45 are in cardboard too (one can see the painted landscapes through the windows or through the doors, or even differences in architectural details between outdoor images and indoor images, a cardboard interior being combined with a real exterior).
    What you write about the score is, as always, right and very relevant. Thanks, it makes me listen with more attention to the episodes.

    • Columbo’s car was often seen on actual LA streets, even in lower socioeconomic areas in the original series. Key example in Death Lends a Hand when Columbo’s intro is him being pulled over on the highway. That was a much more impressive way to introduce the character than having him pull up on a set. There are many other examples, too, including Candidate for Crime and Negative Reaction.

      • I agree, Columbophile, I admit.
        You’re right and I was wrong.
        My memory for “Negative Reaction” was wrong (very wrong). And I also looked for “A Friend Indeed”: the outside scene of Mark Halperin arriving at the old building is a real street-scene, and only the inside of the building is studio-work. (And the card-board street in “Dead Weight” is not necessary in a poor neighbourhood).
        And, I agree, the arrival of Columbus in “Dead Lends a Hand” is one of my favourite scenes, too.
        The great number of L.A.street scenes is one of the qualities of the feuilleton. (However, in “A Bird in the Hand”, you will see a street scene which was already used in a former episode.)

    • I have said elsewhere that I have often wondered how Thomas Mitchell played Columbo. If Falk’s senior-citizen version of Columbo is any indication, we can all be thankful that Der Bingle turned Levison and Link down when the series was cast.

    • I thoroughly enjoyed this episode i recall Anthony zerbe coming to a grisly ending in the Bond movie License to kill which came out around the same time. Great blog I tend to read the review as I’m watching lol!!!

      • Indeed! And then there’s his death in “Star Trek: Insurrection” which is like Katherine Helmond’s facelift in “Brazil” but scarier (if you can imagine).


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