Episode review: Columbo Murder, Smoke and Shadows

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows  opening titles

You could be forgiven a flash of déjà vu when tuning into Murder, Smoke & Shadows, with Lieutenant Columbo yet again investigating crime on a movie lot.

This time, though, the killer isn’t an actor but hotshot young movie director Alex Brady, portrayed by Hollywood starlet Fisher Stevens, who, at 25 years of age, became the youngest killer in Columbo history.

But is Murder, Smoke & Shadows the Columbo equivalent of a silver-screen classic, or is it more of a straight-to-DVD fiasco, certain to heap shame on the studio? Let’s travel back to 27th February, 1989 and find out…

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Alex Brady: Fisher Stevens
Ruthie Jernigan: Molly Hagan
Lenny Fisher: Jeff Parry
Mr Marosco: Steven Hill
Rose Walker: Nan Martin
Sergeant Burke: Jerome Guardino
Dog: As himself
Written by: Richard Alan Simmons
Directed by: James Frawley
Score by: Patrick Williams

Episode synopsis: Columbo Murder, Smoke & Shadows

Prodigious movie director Alex Brady has got it good. With a string of blockbuster motion pictures to his name by the tender age of 25, and a blossoming romance with his favourite leading lady Ruthie Jernigan, his life is looking pretty sweet.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows Fisher Stevens
Milkshakes at 10 paces for these duelling former BFFs

That is until his former BFF Lenny Fisher (on a day trip from Noo Yoik) escapes from a studio tour and pays him a visit at his luxury pad on the lot. Initially a pally chat over ice cream sodas, things head south fast when Lenny reveals the real reason for his visit: he’s been given lost footage of a fatal motor cycle accident that killed his sister Jenny while she was starring in a student film, shot by Brady.

For years Lenny had believed his sister died on the way to the shoot. The footage, however, reveals that Brady saw it all happen and just left her to die. Full of vengeance, Lenny now plans to bring Brady’s perfect life crashing down by splashing the footage to the press.

Thinking quick, Brady attempts to convince Lenny that the film is a fake. If Lenny will only hang out in his man-cave for a few hours, Brady will gather some expert tech and prove it. Lenny reluctantly agrees – a move that will seal his fate.

Despite an impending rainstorm, Brady orders the water truck to douse down the city set of the film he’s currently shooting. He takes Lenny to see it and before you can say “LENNY, YOU’RE ABOUT TO BE MURDERED – RUN!”, Brady manoeuvres his former pal into a dead end and electrocutes him to death through the combination of wet ground and electrified metal gate. The quarterback is toast! He then packs the stiff into the boot of his Roller and deposits it at a quiet beach.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows
Burn Lenny, burn – disco inferno!

The next morning, who should Brady find in his studio cubby-house but Lieutenant Columbo? The detective is investigating the death of a John Doe (i.e. Lenny), but he’s been drawn to Brady after finding a book about the director’s films close to the corpse. Seems like it slipped out of Lenny’s jacket pocket as his lifeless frame was placed on the sands. Clutz, Brady

Sensibly playing the incredulity card, Brady shrugs off the killing and instead makes a show of wanting to know exactly how a police Lieutenant thinks and acts, so he can create an authentic cop for a movie. He soon learns to be careful what he wishes for as Columbo analyses the unwashed ice-cream soda glasses Brady and Lenny swug from the day before.

Columbo deduces that two pals were chatting, but the conversation must’ve been pretty dark as both drinks were barely touched. It’s all a little too close to the mark for Brady, who smashes the glasses in a rage at his own carelessness as soon as the Lieutenant makes his exit.

As Columbo continues his investigations at the beach, Brady has a brace of meetings that will have a big impact on his future. First, his mentor and sponsor at the studio, Mr Marosco, needs an urgent favour: to appease the board, Brady’s new film must be ready for an Easter release rather than summer as planned. To Marasco’s chagrin, Brady says it cannot be done.

Next he has an ice-cream infused date with Ruthie to discuss their romantic future. She’s recently been romping with a co-star in an attempt to make Brady jealous, but is now keen to win back his affections. Their little tryst is interrupted by Columbo, though, who has exciting news about the case!

The police have been able to make a positive ID of Lenny after finding a traveller’s check in his strictly-for-cool-cats money belt. Acting stunned, Brady reveals that he did know the man, but claims not to have heard from him for three years. He also tearfully admits years of guilt over the supposed accident that resulted in Jenny’s death.

Why is there so much ice-cream in this episode?

Bizarrely allowing Columbo to stay in his den as he himself departs, Brady is livid as his murdering ineptness dishes out clues like candy on Halloween. The Lieutenant, meanwhile, helps himself to an ice-cream soda and settles back to leaf through Brady’s college yearbook.

More crucial evidence is gained the next day on the movie set itself. Conveniently left completely alone once the cast and crew depart, Columbo follows a power cord that leads him to the metal gate where Lenny met his demise. Snuffling about, the Lieutenant founds a BURNT SHOE HEEL lying on the ground. That’s some quality cover-up work, Señor Brady…

As the police noose tightens around him, Brady’s love life is becoming similarly troubled. During a fireside wine swigathon with Ruthie, the actress stuns him by revealing she has figured out that he manipulated her into having an affair with her film co-star in order to ensure the love scenes between the two were suitably scorching. She storms out on the rat-bag after giving him a sizeable piece of her mind.

The appearance of Columbo is therefore extremely cold comfort to Brady – even more so when the detective reveals more intrigue about the case. He’s brought Kim’s taxi-driving father Mr Kardashian with him and the cabbie recounts how he picked Lenny up at the airport and drove him to the studio. That gives Columbo method and opportunity against Brady, but as yet he can discern no motive.

That all appears to change the next day when Columbo grabs a bite to eat at the studio restaurant. Sandwiched between two chopsy actresses, he overhears their conversation about how one of them knew Lenny from years before, and how she’d heard that he was in LA for one day to score a load of cocaine. Columbo attempts to grill the dames, but is detained by a security guard. By the time he breaks free, the actresses have disappeared.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows
Foiled again…

Still, it’s an interesting lead that he’s duty-bound to follow up on, so for now Columbo says farewell to Brady, leaving the relieved director finally able to give his attention to the day job.

His first order of business is to sack his hated, aged secretary, Rose. The two are chalk and cheese, but when Brady suggests a parting of the ways over a splendid lunch she ain’t having any of it. She reminds him that she fielded a call to him from Lenny days before, making a mockery of Brady’s claim not to have heard from the man for three years. Mysteriously, she adds, the phone records sheet from that day has gone missing.

Stung into action, Brady backtracks entirely. Instead of firing Rose he instead agrees to cover the costs for her to go on a long, paid vacation. It’s a complete defeat for the young maestro, but his day is about to get worse when he’s collared by studio boss Mr Marosco.

The older man is extremely unhappy that Brady refused to fast-track his new film for an Easter release. Marosco is pulling the plug on the project entirely and Brady’s film will never be completed. Yowch!

Dejected and irritated after this double reverse, the last thing Brady needs is a further encounter with the meddling Lieutenant – but that’s exactly what he’s going to get! And, quelle surprise, the encounter rather proves that bad luck comes in threes.

Columbo Fisher Stevens
Brady’s 1989 haircut was unnervingly similar to his 1979 ‘do’. Please explain!

There in front of him, larger than life on a big screen, is the footage of a younger Brady witnessing the tragic death of Jenny Fisher. With the help of the New York police, Columbo has got hold of the reel of film from Lenny’s apartment. It seems a justifiable reason for Lenny to visit Brady, and a strong motive for Brady to have committed murder.

Better yet, Columbo can place Lenny in Brady’s man-cave on the day of his death. The detective borrowed Brady’s college yearbook and in it he found a studio tour ticket being used as a bookmark. The ticket was purchased just two minutes after Lenny was dropped off by cabbie Kardashian on that fateful day. It’s very strong evidence that Lenny and Brady were together.

The director tries to tough it out, though. “Do you really think some underpaid policeman is going to arrest me with all that circumstantial clap-trap?” he seethes. But Columbo isn’t finished yet.

He reveals his involvement in the lunch Brady held with his secretary earlier that day. Inspired after figuring out Brady’s own stunt of having the two actresses at the restaurant spout the phony story of Lenny’s drug purchasing, Columbo had put Rose up to it and her testimony against Brady is going to be very damning.

Still defiant, Brady refuses to yield. “It’ll be her word against mine,” he zaps back – only for the Lieutenant to reveal the final ace in his hand. Using a spotlight, he introduces three witnesses who he’d placed in the restaurant to serve at Brady’s lunch table with Rose, and who’d overheard everything. Two are police detectives, the third is Brady’s jilted lover Ruthie. What a sting in the tail!

Columbo ringmaster costume
Ta-daaaaaaaaa! *booooooooos ring out*

Taking a bow himself, Columbo briefly appears to be wearing a full circus ringmaster costume to Brady’s disbelieving eyes, as credits roll…

My memories of Murder, Smoke & Shadows

Unlike its immediate predecessor Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, I have no clear memory of when I first saw Murder, Smoke & Shadows. I suspect I will have seen it on TV at a relatively early age, but don’t remember really watching it until I owned the DVD collection in the mid-2000s.

Columbo Alex Brady

Despite having a soft spot for Fisher Stevens (I liked him in Short Circuit), I recall being only moderately impressed by this episode. There were far too many contrivances in the script (especially Brady’s shadows and light monologue); the murder seemed impossible for the killer to be in control of; and the final reveal always struck me as being preposterously showy.

Yet for all this I never hated the episode and believe it features some good moments and strong performances, so I was looking forward to watching again after at least a five-year gap.

My take on Murder, Smoke & Shadows

Save for recasting Bobby Culp or Patrick McGoohan as a killer, there could be few more familiar sights for 70s’ Columbo fans than to see the Lieutenant once again nosing his way around a movie lot.

The main settings for Requiem for a Falling Star and Fade in to Murder, and passing locations in Prescription: Murder, Make Me a Perfect Murder and Suitable for Framing, Columbo’s as comfortable on the lot and in the studio as he is gulping chilli at Bert’s diner.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows
Well, here we are… AGAIN!

Returning to such a familiar stomping ground so quickly into the show’s second coming could therefore be read two ways: a bid to rekindle nostalgic memories of the series’ golden age; or an attempt to economise by making the most of the Universal lot. Sadly, I rather suspect the latter was the key driver.

With Peter Falk commanding a rumoured $600,000 per episode in 1989, the budget for Murder, Smoke & Shadows would have been further stretched by the presence of Fisher Stevens, who was, lest we forget, one of the hottest young tickets in Hollywood at the time.

Although his career never hit the heights that might have been expected, Stevens was on the up-and-up in the late 80s, buoyed by having appeared in robot comedy Shirt Circuit and its sequel, and in popular comedy The Boss’s Wife alongside the likes of Christopher Plummer.

He was by some margin the top-billing guest star of Columbo‘s comeback until Patrick McGoohan’s Season 9 return in Agenda for Murder, and his profile would soar yet higher in late ’89 when he entered into a relationship with no less a star than Michelle Pfeiffer. I know, right?

So, yes, between Stevens and Falk, Murder, Smoke & Shadows was going to be a dear do, so why not cushion the financial blow by making maximum use of the Universal lot, and saving a fortune on pesky location shooting in the process? And while I may not love the idea of yet another Columbo adventure set in the showbiz world, Murder, Smoke & Shadows manages to avoid feeling too much like a retread.

Having such a youthful killer was a sensible move for the series (Brady being the youngest murderer since Beth Chadwick in 1971’s Lady in Waiting) and one that, when combined with the perceived thrill of a Spielberg-esque chief villain, would very likely have piqued the interest of a youthful audience perhaps unacquainted with the dear Lieutenant.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows
Harnessing Fisher Stevens’ appeal to young viewers was a smart move for the series

As a premise, then, Murder, Smoke & Shadows seems sound enough. In practice, however, it’s badly let down by ponderous pacing and a script that relies far too heavily on ridiculously contrived set pieces, which are already looking like being the bane of the comeback series after some ludicrous high-jinks in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.

It’s interesting to note that the writer of this episode was Richard Alan Simmons, the series’ Executive Producer, who had also worked as producer on the final six episodes of Columbo‘s classic era in 1977-78. Although he had dozens of writing credits to his name, this was the only Columbo mystery Simmons ever penned – although (shock, horror) he did write an episode of the dreaded Mrs Columbo in 1979.

Sad to say, I don’t think his efforts here represent Simmons’ strongest Columbo contribution. While there are some nice touches and clever deductions in the script, they are buried under an avalanche of overblown, overdrawn and nonsensical scenes that making viewing a pain.

Let’s start by looking at juuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuust hooooooooooooow loooooooooooooooong-wiiiiiiinded maaaaaaaany ooooooooof theeeeeeese sceeeeeenes aaaaaaaaaaaaaare. Columbo pays multiple visits to see Brady on the lot. On each occasion he has questions or a snippet of information about the case that could swiftly be delivered, but the 90-minute running time of the episode doesn’t allow for it.

On their first meeting (which stretches for 11 minutes), Columbo spends half his time rolling around on Brady’s water bed looking vaguely uncomfortable, and a lot of the rest puffing his chest out at the prospect that Brady might base a movie character on what he learns from the detective.

Their next meeting (weighing in at more than 7 minutes) sees Columbo deliver the news that Lenny has been identified. The amount of obfuscating, arm waving and pocket searching that goes on in this scene is beyond a joke. I’m generally a fan of Columbo’s absent-minded act but there are limits (mate), and Murder, Smoke & Shadows seems oblivious to them.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows
CUT (this nonsense from the episode – PLEASE!)

Next, the two spend literally minutes boobing around on elevated directors’ chairs, the queasy Lieutenant dabbing his forehead with a kerchief while Brady (hair billowing in the breeze like a mainsail) ogles him through an eyepiece – all to the soundtrack of The Blue Danube.

Other than to allow the viewer to share in ‘the magic of show business’ (to quote Grace Wheeler), there’s nothing in this scene (and several others) that couldn’t have been delivered in 30 seconds. The story in Murder, Smoke & Shadows is far too weedy to warrant the 90-minute running time. It’s easily 20 minutes too long.

It’s not just the length of scenes that exasperates, either. There are a number of scenes and monologues that are so pretentious and so contrived that I’m almost embarrassed to watch them.

The first of these occurs when Brady is walking Lenny towards his doom on the lot while spouting such bollocks as: “This is where we make movies; shadows on the handy-dandy screen. This is where we kid you with illusion. This is where we BLOW your reality!” He’s tap-dancing as he says this, too, underscoring what a load of stagy swill is being dished up. Who would ever say this sort of thing to anyone anyway?

This, however, pales in comparison to his ‘shadows and light’ lecture to Columbo from one side of a picket fence in the studio. One of my absolute least favourite scenes from any episode, this is turgid, masturbatory screenwriting at its worst. Rather than extract some of the dismal quotes, you can view the entire debacle for yourself below…

Yet – amazingly – even this isn’t the episode’s nadir. That ‘honour’ must be reserved for the gotcha moment, which is so excruciating that I damn near yell every time I see it.

Columbo outdoes the ace director by introducing the trio of helpers who overheard Brady’s ruinous lunch-time chat with secretary Rose – all of whom jallop into a spotlight and bow amidst trumpet fanfares and canned applause. The Lieutenant also sketches a bow to Brady and for a moment appears resplendent in full circus ringmaster regalia! Brady’s horrified look is, coincidentally, exactly the same as mine at home.

And yes, I get that Columbo wasn’t really in a ringmaster suit and that we’re supposed to be gaining a glimpse of what’s running through Brady’s flabbergasted mind, but the insertion of such flashy hogwash in Columbo represents a chilling low for the series. If the show jumped a shark at the end of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, it’s jumping a whale here.

Again, I feel the question must be asked: why did the creative team feel the need to include scenes such as these? Did they fear the new episodes would lack sufficient ‘oomph’ to win new viewers without these high-impact moments?

Alas, my criticism of the episode doesn’t end there. Can we talk about the murder itself – and about how far removed from any sort of reality it is? How can Brady predict exactly how Lenny will react to his menacing actions by backing himself into a corner on a gargantuan set, then launching himself on to the electrified fence? The odds would be thousands to one against.

If you watch the murder carefully you can even see that Lenny is initially blown back by the fence – but then grabs it firmly with both hands to ensure he’s roasted to death! Where was the critical eye during the editing of this scene? Gee whizz, I’d say that this episode was taking the mick out of lazy movie making but I don’t think it’s that self-aware.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows Fisher Stevens
Alex Brady: ace director, terrible criminal, criminal hair

Brady also makes for an unsatisfying criminal given the blunders he makes when covering his tracks. It wasn’t real smart to leave the soda glasses lying about his den; or to have failed to notice the book fall from Lenny’s jacket while he was lumbering the corpse about the beach. Similarly, neglecting to spot the smouldering shoe heel at the crime scene was staggeringly inept.

These gaffes made it too easy for Columbo to suspect his involvement, although it was really only a series of coincidences that allowed him to gain the crucial evidence he needed. Every policeman needs a slice of luck, but the examples we get here provide too easy a get-out for the episode, ultimately reducing the pleasure we gain from knowing Columbo has out-thought his opponent.

Key example: Columbo being left completely alone to shamble about the brownstone movie lot after filming was complete. Quite apart from a shocking lack of security protocols, the detective was also magnetically attracted to a power cord (presumably one of trillions on the set) that led him directly to the electrified gate and the burnt shoe heel. Convenient

Brady’s staggering decision to allow Columbo to remain in his den after taking flight also smacked of an episode grasping desperately at ways to allow the case to be solved.

Instead of sending him home, Brady permitted a snooping detective to stay behind in his private quarters to make an ice-cream soda – at which point the Lieutenant coincidentally located Brady’s college yearbook on a massive, full book shelf. The yearbook was later revealed to have Lenny’s studio tour ticked tucked within it – a cast iron connection between victim and suspect.

This fails to satisfy because Columbo didn’t do anything to earn the evidence. It feels like a cheat – a bit like how he handily stumbled cross the feather in Troubled Waters and the lighter flint in A Deadly State of Mind, and was set off on a whole new course of deductive reasoning.

It didn’t have to be this way. There’s so much time wasted in this episode that could have been better spent on Columbo earning the evidence he gains through happenstance. It’s desperately unsatisfying.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows
Columbo rarely had to be at his best to solve this tepid mystery

Anyway, as I’m sure you’ve gathered, I don’t hold the writing of Murder, Smoke & Shadows in the highest regard and that necessarily equates to a disappointing Columbo experience. But does the episode have any redeeming features? Thankfully, yes it does.

For all the failings of the script, Fisher Stevens puts in a commendable turn as Alex Brady. He has the boyish exuberance that the role demands, as well as a core of steel that would be required for someone to have achieved so much in their profession at so early an age. I enjoyed watching him (for the most part) and can’t fault the gusto with which he carried out his duties.

Elsewhere, the rest of the cast support him ably without being especially memorable. As Brady’s love interest Ruthie Jernigan, Molly Hagan has some good moments, but the most interesting secondary character is his duplicitous secretary, Rose, whose disdain for her egocentric boss is icily depicted by veteran actress Nan Martin.

It was nice to Steven Hill (best known for his 10-year role as DA Schiff in Law & Order) cast as Mr Marosco, although his character was largely superfluous. And call me pedantic if you must, but wasn’t his punishment of Brady for not agreeing to an Easter release for his new movie a bit harsh? Easter 1989 was only a month down the line! What self-respecting studio boss would ever expect such a request to be accepted?

To be honest, I was more excited to see the return of two familiar faces from the classic Columbo era: namely ‘Dog’ and Sergeant Burke! Whether we’re meant to believe that this is the same basset hound from the original series is unclear (an impossibility given the beasts’ lifespans), but knowing that there’s still a lovable mutt in the Lieutenant’s life is reassuring nevertheless.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows Dog
This guy’s still just as cute as ever!

Sergeant Burke, however, was a definite carry-over from the 70s’ series, being portrayed by Jerome Guardino for the third time after he also popped up in Try & Catch Me and Make Me a Perfect Murder. Guardino’s presence was a welcome hint that other regulars from the past might yet grace the comeback adventures.

Also back in Columbo colours were director James Frawley (who helmed Try & Catch Me, How to Dial a Murder and Make Me a Perfect Murder) and composer Patrick Williams, who scored every episode of season 7 except Murder Under Glass. Williams was a big talent and the score here is a huge step up from the underwhelming effort that backed up Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.

Overall, though, one can’t help but feel disheartened by Murder, Smoke & Shadows. It’s not all bad by any means, but this is the first episode that I haven’t been able to pinpoint one really excellent scene to highlight in my review – something I’ve never previously struggled with.

Even the strength of the evidence Columbo has amassed by episode’s end – usually a source of satisfaction – is so overshadowed by the glitzy finale that it really fades into the background shadows.

Overall, too much shadow, not enough light

And that’s really the abiding take-out from Murder, Smoke & Shadows. Coming off the back of the outlandish denouement to Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, viewers can only be left with the conclusion that the show they knew and loved has changed forever.

Columbo may not be a write-off, and there may still be much to enjoy ahead, but make no mistake: the game done changed – and at this stage it doesn’t appear to be for the better.

Did you know?

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine Lenny Fisher

Murder, Smoke & Shadows is the first Columbo episode to clearly identify the date of death of the victim. According to his studio tour ticket, poor, wimpy Lenny was reduced to charcoal on 20th February 1989 – one week before the episode actually aired on ABC.

How I rate ’em

Taken on face value, Murder, Smoke & Shadows is a relatively entertaining, if implausible and flashy, murder mystery. However, it’s so far removed from the best of the series – especially in terms of writing – that it feels more like a spin-off or homage than a canonical adventure.

A lesser effort than the tolerable Guillotine, Murder, Smoke & Shadows has flaws by the dozen meaning the new series certainly isn’t off to the most encouraging of starts. Still, it’s far too early to abandon all hope, right?

If you missed my review of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, click the link below.

  1. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  2. Murder, Smoke & Shadows

If you want to check out any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews, they can all be accessed here. And if you adore Murder, Smoke & Shadows you can vote for it in the fans’ favourite episode poll here.

Columbo Murder Smoke and Shadows
Brady’s planned Star Wars challenger sadly never saw the light of day

I’d be most interested to hear your take on Murder, Smoke & Shadows. Is this really a hidden gem of the Columbo legendarium, or does it horribly sacrifice substance on the altar of supposedly slick set-pieces? All opinions welcome…

Despite this disappointment, rest assured I’ll keep my pecker up and come back strong to review the season’s third adventure, Sex & The Married Detective. With a title so deliberately provocative, what could possibly go wrong…?

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Columbo Molly Hagan
Fear not! I’ll be back to pen a 5,000-word review of this episode’s his ‘n’ hers chunky knitwear real soon!
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