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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
- Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
- 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.
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…?
I wonder how Spielberg felt about this episode? I noticed that the writer of it, Richard Alan Simmons, who had a long career, never sold a script again after this.
Pretentious, contrived… the only adjective you missed was “masturbatory”. This was The Worst episode which is a shame, because the story and plot were pretty good and *could* have made for an episode memorable for something other than how bad it was. Sadly, ’tisn’t. It’s a few good bits sandwiched between endless navel-gazing tedium and Hollywood doing what it does best: narcissism. The only thing missing was a song & dance number, but that glub-awful Shadows & Light monologue makes me wish I was watching a Mrs Columbo marathon.
I’d watch “Commodre” 100 times in a row if it meant I’d never again see or hear of this episode anymore.
IMO, excepting “College” and “Agenda,” (the latter of which even has a couple of excruciating moments) the entire second run is a relative horror show. Closer to the inanity of “Murder, She Wrote” than the “Columbo” episodes of the seventies.
‘Turgid’ and ‘masturbatory’ appear only two paragraphs after ‘pretentious’ and ‘contrived’…
Sorry ’bout that, Chief. That episode sickens me as much as the Pied Tubist scene and I must’ve overlooked it while gagging.
I’d rather see Alex P. Keaton than Alex Brady. All I could think about was this was a poor man’s Michael J. Fox in the lead. Very poor. Homeless-under-a-bridge man’s Michael J. Fox.
Dear Columbophile, I would add the footage showing Jenny’s motor cycle accident looks sloppily staged and played. I know it’s supposed to be a student’s work but nonetheless Alex in panic looks far from convincing. For the rest I enjoyed Mr Stevens’ performance.
I don’t find his layered medium length hairstyle ‘criminal’ but still really nice and cool after 30 years.
Say, does anyone know why Alex Brady ordered the water truck? I mean, it helps show the wedge between the director and his secretary, and Columbo does use it with the weather report to put the pressure on, but what purpose did it serve in the murder? It passed by before the act, so it didn’t clean up any evidence. Maybe Brady thought the driver could say no one was out on the street when they drove through, but then Brady left his car parked right by the street, so if anything it provides a witness that Brady was nearby. Maybe … standing in a puddle makes it easier to be electrocuted? But there didn’t seem to be enough standing water by the gate, the shoes would have insulated Lenny anyway, etc. etc. The rest of this episode was generally so obvious … this detail seems a bit weird.
It was to create a wet environment / puddles so Lenny could easily be electrocuted via the standing water. A very contrived murder indeed…
Otherwise the asphalt itself would work as an isolate further. What I did not get it why the secretary was so bewildered about it, as he seemed to shoot at the same corner just a few hours later, so this could easily have been a lighting test with the DoP. A water trucks standing by anyway on the lot should still be less expensive than a crew waiting for the DoP to make up his mind about the light.
Columbophile is incorrect where he says the following:
“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.”
“Murder, Smoke & Shadows” isn’t Simmons’ first Columbo script. Simmons wrote the story and co-wrote the script for one the best Columbo episodes, “Try & Catch Me.” Yes, I know that Gene Thompson was credited for the story. And Thomson and Paul Tuckahoe were credited as the teleplay writers. But Gene Thomson and Paul Tuckahoe were actually pseudonyms for Richard Alan Simmons and Luther Davis, respectively.
Yeah, I know. You want proof. Okay. Here it is, provided this link continues to remain in effect when you check it: https://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/columbo-script-try-and-catch-me-mariette-hartley-1
Our dear Columbo didn’t located by chance the yearbook on the shelves. He might have seen Brady put it back earlier in the episode, attracting his attention.
Many Columbo fans don’t know that the movie director character in “Murder, Smoke & Shadows” is based on actual event involving Steven Speilberg and the electrocution of one of Speilberg’s childhood friends who came to visit him on a Hollywood set when Speilberg was just starting out as a film director, years after his stint as a director for one of the best Columbo episodes. The LAPD suspected foul play, but the studio executives paid off the police and the entire matter was hushed up. The electrocution was quietly ruled an accident.
No offense, but I think we’ll need a few more details on that story if you have them. I can’t even find that rumor listed on the Snopes website.
Absolutely. I think we would have heard something at this late stage. Perhaps it was far-reaching embellishments over time resulting from Spielberg sneaking onto the Universal lot when he was still a novice. Certainly the wunderkind character that Fisher Stevens played was a broad nod to Spielberg. I’ve worked in the industry for decades and have heard the same stories, big and small, and have never heard anything remotely untoward about Spielberg.
I should have known that I couldn’t pull the wool over the smart folks on this blog. But, as Ken Franklin put it (in Jack Cassidy’s first Columbo series role), “I had you going for a while.”
My source is impeccable: my imagination. Well, as Ken Franklin put it (in Jack Cassidy’s first Columbo series role), “I had you going for a while.”
Yes, kudos to you. I’m confident that you were going to let us all in on the joke very quickly even without mine and Tim’s prompting.
It’s amazing that the annoying magician kid from the guillotine grew up to be an adult movie director after only one episode!
I must have weird taste because I enjoyed the scenes with Columbo and the killer. Being long doesn’t matter if it’s entertaining, and while Brady’s spiels about shadows and light may have been circuitous non-sequitors, they successfully characterized him as a twisted egomaniac who thinks he can manipulate any situation to go his liking. The picket fence scene didn’t make me hate the episode or the screenwriting, it made me hate Brady, which is what is was supposed to do.
If I were to cut anything from this episode, it would have been the Mr. Marosco character. His scenes didn’t fit with anything else going on, and the scene at the end was too much a rip off of the limo scene from Make Me a Perfect Murder. And while we’re at it, Ruthie’s breakup was too similar to how Blake got dumped in the last episode, too. There’s some stuff to clean up in this episode, but overall it’s still very enjoyable.
For me no Columbo scene is ever too long. I wouldn’t mind if they just showed every discussion in real time over hours and hours.
I had the same thought – the bravado and the egocentricity of a child. It might have been a good running gag had he recommended his services for birthdays and bar mitzvahs after his tricks…
The most interesting character is Lenny’s sister Jenny. The actress is unidentified in any cast list on the internet. She is known as “unidentified actress 89A” on one website. The IMDB claims their cast list is “verified complete” despite the omission of Jenny.
By the way, I am writing this in February of 2021 in Kobe, Japan, where the national broadcasting network NHK has been showing one episode in order every Wednesday night for the last 46 weeks! Columbo is, as they say, Big in Japan.
Just don’t eat that ‘fugo,’ poison blowfish, if Paul Gerard has prepared it.
If you notice, the first two episodes of the “new” Columbo use that same phrase: “three years” over and over.
It’s said in “Guillotine,” referring to how long Elliot Blake had to stay in a Ugandan prison after Max Dyson was freed. “Three years, Max!”
And it is said COUNTLESS times in this second episode, too, as Alex Brady keeps saying things like: “Remember, Lieutenant, I haven’t seen Lenny in three years.”
Point? Nothing. I just find it interesting (and a bit annoying) that the writers chose the same time frame in the first two episodes in Columbo’s return to television.
Or that in the span of 15 episodes they had two killers with the first name of Nelson.
One of the first Columbo episodes I remember seeing. Probably seen this episode more than almost any other one, as for some reason, it’s televised A LOT in my tv market.
Couple of things: I agree that it’s ridiculous that Lenny would be so easily scared of the wimpy Alex. I mean, the way he just kept back up on the brownstone in fear.
I think this episode – which was the second of the “new” Columbo- was meant to draw in a “younger” audience.
Yes, the “gotcha” was extremely cheesy, but I thought it played out well. And I also liked ’89 Alex standing in front of the black and white ’79 Alex film cut.
I also liked the late scene where Alex pays off the two actresses in the cafe to make Columbo overhear the false rumor about Lenny. I found it to be creative misdirection.
Moving forward, I think it’s now for me) an episode that I won’t be viewing if it’s on tv. Maybe I’ll wait another 10 years to pass. I’ve just seen it too many times and it doesn’t get any better. Not one of the worst episodes, but definitely not “must see.”
Also, great review, as usual, by CP!
I agree with this review, but I also want to make some more points. Why the hell would there be an electrified fence capable of killing someone on the set? Also, the murder victim was so stupid. Why would he bring the film to the director and TELL him what he’s going to do to him instead of just doing it? Also, that scene where they’re hanging out, while otherwise fairly interesting, are horribly amateurish in their blocking. The shots don’t match up. Sometimes the characters are standing right next to each other but then in the next shot they’re across the room from each other. Finally, I’m still just as disturbed by the way Peter Falk looks as I was in the previous episode. He seems to have had so much face-lifting and Botox that he can no longer make most facial expressions. Since Falk’s facial expressions were so important to the original series, this is a bummer.
Btw, I was once on the Universal lot for a Spielberg movie promotion! And I later met Spielberg, who couldn’t have been less like Fisher Stevens, though admittedly he was considerably older by that point.
Oh — ONE MORE THING. Columbophile, nobody says or ever said “New Yoik.” But in any case, Albany is 152 miles from New York City, and the accents in the two cities have nothing in common.
I very much enjoyed the review of this episode which I remember watching when it first came out and have seen it a couple of times since, including another viewing today.
Ironically the things that have always stuck in my mind from the episode are the gimmicky visuals such as the picket fence scene, the ‘Blue Danube’ director’s chair and the Ring Master finale. However I have to say that I don’t remember any of the accompanying dialogue!
Alex Brady, the floppy haired Spielberg-esq director is a memorable character and well played. His panicked close up face on the old film after the motorbike accident is another memorable moment, although I was also irritated by the fact he didn’t look any different to his 10 years’ younger self – it’s a pet hate of mine when no effort is made to change the actor’s appearance in such scenes.
Thinking about it, the title of the episode is quite an an apt one really – it’s probaby advisable to just enjoy the smoke and mirrors and don’t dwell too much on the substance.
I agree with most of the review except for columbo not ‘earning’ the evidence. He very clearly notices the killer shift the book back from a horizontal position to a vertical position and even mimics the gesture later while alone…I think that is what he was after whilst alone and the sundae was just an excuse to check out that book.
This was the first Columbo I saw and it really sucked me in. Given the disappointment by our reviewer, I thought I’d talk about what I liked:
1) Columbo. Maybe he’s a bit over-the-top compared to some of his performances, but I think he’s OK for the most part
2) Fisher Stevens. Stevens has the combination of arrogance and affability that I like to see in a Columbo villain. He’s a terrible person, but he’s also a wunderkind in cinema (at least according to the story).
3) The ride on the crane. Reminded me of Peter O’Toole in The Stuntman.
4) The murder: while ridiculous, it demonstrated a level of mind control and prediction by Fisher Stevens that I was impressed by.
Mind you, when I first saw this episode, I did not see the last 15-30 minutes. So I thought it was a terrific story.
Imagine my surprise when, decades later, I finally saw the whole thing.
Oh. My. God.
The ending is easily the worst of any Columbo story, ever. I have no idea what the writers were thinking. What if I’d see the whole story back in the early ’90s when it was first aired? I might not have fallen in love with Columbo’s classic episodes on the A&E Mystery Theater broadcasts. But the first half of this episode was enough to get me into all the classic episodes.
In terms of careful plotting, discovery of clues, etc., I agree that way too much falls into the Lieutenant’s lap. It’s not a great episode by any means. But I still think Fisher Stevens is fine in his role. These days, Stevens is doing a supporting role in HBO’s excellent “Succesion”. We’ve both aged the same amount, but he’s really showing it. Still a fine actor, though.
The one thing that strikes me about this episode, and there’s a LOT of comments so I haven’t looked at each one so sorry if I’m recovering old ground, but this episode is a great callback to ‘Murder by the Book’ as Alex Brady is very clearly based on Steven Spielberg who directed the first episode of Season 1 way back in 1971. oh, and Fisher Stevens can also be seen in late 70’s/early 80’s slasher film ‘The Burning’ – a film that scared me so much i couldn’t climb off the couch to turn the VCR off.
I also found this a very weak episode for the reasons mentioned in the review. Obvious clues which would enable even Barney Fife to solve this case. An overdone and very unlikely murder. The awful smoke and mirrors rants. An absurd ending. And the endless and often pointless cat and mouse exchanges between Columbo and Alex.
But two other things really turned me off. Despite the long-winded dialogue exchanges we don’t get information about characters which we should have gotten, in my judgment. Most importantly, what was the motive of the cameraman? He was at the scene of Jenny’s death and so went along with negligent manslaughter, but kept a film even though he is just as guilty as Alex. On his deathbed he gives the film to Lenny. We should have found out why he did any of this? And why didn’t Lenny go to the police? No one ever asks that, unless I missed something.
Another thing which bothered me is that all the characters were unpleasant. Alex of course is loathsome. But Rose and Morosco also seem to be motivated only by getting back at Alex. Worse for me was Ruthie. Okay, she was manipulated by Alex. But no one can manipulate you into having an affair. Alex only got her and the actor together. It would certainly have added nuance to her character if she would have at least acknowledged her responsibility for her actions rather than placing all the blame on Alex and then like everyone else going for revenge.
On the up side, Fisher Stevens was good and I liked seeing the Universal lot.
Well, it *is* Hollywood, and they are ALL scumbags. It’s just that some are bigger scumbags than others.
But you are right about Lenny. This was a case that was almost over before it began. The authorities in Lenny’s hometown already had the relevant information and the travel belt revealed Lenny’s identity. Along with his call to Alex’s office, it would have been pretty easy for, as you say, Barney Fife to figure it out.
However, I think Lenny’s motivation (however foolish) is pretty clear. He WANTS to torture Alex. He want’s to see his squirm and crack.
Who doesn’t make sense to me is Mr. Morosco. Alex is dragging his feet and doesn’t think he can make a film for an Easter release (I think) and Morosco is annoyed, but not particularly upset. Then, he just fires Alex, not from the studio (assuming he is bound by a contract) but from making any more films. Okay, so Morosco doesn’t want Alex making films for a competitor: cool. But Alex had been described earlier as the “most successful director” (or words to similar effect). Does it make ANY financial sense to lock Alex down in such a way? Why didn’t Morosco press him harder before things got to the breaking point?
Though perhaps it was just a bluff on Morosco’s part to light a fire under Alex to sweat him a bit. Joke’s on him though, Alex is going away for MURDER!
I have to laugh though, as the “Genius” Alex’s optical illusions are laughably poor. Not unlike the “Great Santini’s” tricks are more befitting a kid’s birthday party.
Lordy. As one who works in the film-and-TV industry, your assertion that everyone in Hollywood is a scumbag is preposterous. It’d be akin to asserting that all cops are corrupt or all athletes are imbeciles. Or that all Columbo fans are petulant. It’s a grey world.
You know how I know? Because I worked in Hollywood for 12 years in Film, Broadcast, Commercials and Animation, much of it either in the Valley or right down the street from the Capitol Records building. I shudder to think about all the abuse, back-stabbing, insecurity, pea-cocking, bullshit selling, over-promising/under delivering, drug use, elitism, sanctimony, narcissism, duplicity, cost-overruns and fiscal mismanagement, creative accounting, and general malaise that industry fosters.
And let’s not forget the grift of SAG-AFTRA of which only something like 15% of dues-paying members actually earn a “living”, and even then it’s something like a $16,000 per year threshold. In other words around 85% earn less than $16,000 per year.
Does the union protect against people like Harvey Weinstein? Evidently not. That may be an extreme case, but hardly unique.
Do I use hyperbole to describe everyone in the industry a scumbag? Sure. There are probably 6 production assistants, 4 grips, 5 gaffers, 2 actors, 11 craft service personnel, and about two dozen set designers who are incorruptible, sweet, hardworking people.
Do other industries have their problems? Probably.
But I have worked in Retail, Software Sales, Amusement Parks, Live Events, Video Games, and Freelance, and I can say without hyperbole that while all of those industries and companies have their share of troubles, nothing comes close to Hollywood.
And then there is the quality. For every Columbo, there are about two dozen “Big Bang Theories” or ” “Toddlers and Tiaras”.
I could go on, but you get the point. I have no trouble besmirching Hollywood as an industry. For the longer I worked there, the more Peg Entwistle made sense to me.
Haaaaa. OK. Lucky for you that you never worked in NYC advertising. Your knuckles would be deprived of blood.
I worked in Hollywood from 2007-2019 and from my experience, 99% of the people working in the industry are absolute scumbags. It’s why I finally left the industry.
My friends and I have been watching the original “Mission: Impossible” in reruns on TV and it made me want to see more of Steven Hill (the cool, almost robotic team leader, Daniel Briggs). I re-watched the Arnold Schwarzenegger contractual-obligation film “Raw Deal” (1986) the other day specifically to enjoy the Steven Hill parts (although he isn’t in it very much). Fun fact: although “Raw Deal” was made in Chicago, neither Siskel nor Ebert liked it.
There isn’t as much Steven Hill filmography to track down and watch as you’d expect, apparently because (according to Wikipedia) he was strictly observant of the Sabbath and that interefered with his ability to commit to a series, even when he warned his employers in advance about his availability. (What, filming can only take place on Saturdays?) So I’ll be looking forward to watching this episode of “Columbo” again to catch a rare glimpse of some Steven Hill content!
I love glass bricks. So 1980s! As seen here in Alex Brady’s private lounge. An interior designer friend told me that he doesn’t recommend glass bricks because they expand in the summer and then shrink in the winter, which loosens them, and then one day they pop out and start falling on you like a game of real-life Tetris. I still want some, though. I just won’t put them where they can launch themselves at unsuspecting passers-by. 🙂
Alex can compare notes with Kay Freestone about how it feels when the studio boss kills your career. (And then as if that weren’t enough, Columbo gets you.)
Had I seen this episode when it came out, at which time I would have been in high school, I probably would have liked the “light and shadow” speech, instead of finding it pretentious. Ditto for Alex’s “blow your reality” blurb to Lenny.
There is never, ever an excuse to use the Blue Danube Waltz. Though it’s not the fault of Johann Strauss II, and as fine a piece of music as it may be on its own terms, it is now so cliché that it must lie fallow for a thousand years before it can ever be used again without sounding agonisingly corny.
The circus music and bowing are also a tone-deaf way to end this episode. After the joke gun from the last episode, we’re two for two so far when it comes to cringeworthy endings in this season.
Alex Brady doesn’t quite feel like a villain, even though the script does make an effort to show that he’s not a nice person, and therefore we shouldn’t feel sorry for him as he gets closer and closer to being caught by Columbo. Maybe I just like Fisher Stevens too much and so a part of me is stressed out on his behalf.
Which is not to say this is not a good episode. This is a good episode! I like the 1989 “Columbo.” 🙂
No clue who Fisher Stevens was/is then or now lol. Im sure I saw this when it was first broadcast.
Me too. I watched “short circuit” as a boy, I had no idea it was this guy.
I thought Fisher Stevens carried this episode. He made it worth watching, and almost got away with the pretensious dialogue – his character is hugely overconfident and flamboyant. It made me think of a young Steve Jobs.
The murder is weak, the clues are a bit convenient and I agree with the criticisms above. For a single watch episode though I found it enjoyable.
The only good think about the lockdown is watching Columbo. I only have 4-5 left to watch now. There are still gems in the later episodes. I’ve been suprised how many of them I’ve liked.
Look forward to reading the reviews.
Good call! He even looks like a young Steve Jobs! Mid-1980s, after he shaved the facial hair, but still had the medium-long head hair! 🙂
I would only add that the surreal ending is not totally unique to the series reboot. (Of course we also have the Columbo figurine in Grand Decpetions) But at the end of Make Me A Perfect Murder, Columbo is taught the ins and outs of film projections. Namely, he is told about the “cigarette burn” markers put on films to indicate an upcoming film-reel change. Anyway, at the very end of the episode, Columbo is in freeframe, pushing a button on a control console, as though he is pausing himself, but in the corner of the freezeframe, there is a tell-tale cigarette burn. It’s really just a simple sight gag that ties to a minor detail earlier in the episode, but it does present as a sort of “breaking the fourth wall” show-within-a-show exclamation mark at the end.
Does it absolve Murder Smoke and Shadows of its sins? Not really, but it demonstrates that its ending isn’t quite as unprecedented as it would first appear.
Maybe it’s just me but I liked the over the top circus ending.
Just saw this episode for the first time. As with all the second gen Columbos it views more dated compared to the original run. I think it has to do with the money spent on production (fewer location shoots seems to be a theme). The most bothersome aspect of this episode was the murder itself. If my friend left my sister to die I would not be afraid of a bit of backlot trickery and would have, in the words of Tony Soprano, taken a hands-on approach so to speak. The murderer should have brandished a prop gun to intimidate the victim to run to make the final outcome a bit more believable.
The corona-crisis makes me view all the Columbo-episodes for the umptieth time. A kind of ceremony, and not the worst. Yesterday I viewed Murder, Smoke and Shadows, and the day before yesterday it was Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.
I recongnize (or repeat my opinion): Columbo being a TV-series, it’s the impression made during the first view that must count. Columbo was not made to be a collection of DVD’s.
And I have to admit that my first view of Guillotine, years ago, impressed me a lot: what’s the trick with the telepathic views, why does Max Dyson loose the competition with Elliot Blake, why did he help him, etc.
But this time, Guillotine annoyed me a lot. I stopped viewing it after about 20 minutes (Max was still alive!), and thought about all the scenes that still had to come. It discouraged me. (Did you notice the way they speak the one to the other?)
And yesterday, I had great pleasure to view Murder, Smoke and Shadow. It pleases me still, and I think it can please me still several times, even if it’s not a Great one.
I don’t like Alex Brady, really don’t like him, and am glad nobody I know is like him. But I can afford him as a “hero” in a television-episode.
I knew this episode wouldn’t go down well. It used to be one of my favourites from the later ones, but it does get less appealing to me every time i watch it. It’s gimmicky and doesn’t have much substance, but i’d still much rather watch it than about 25 other episodes. Including 5 or 6 “classic” episodes. If taking episodes seriously is going to be the criteria, you’re in for a tough job reviewing the rest of the new episodes!
If you can properly review Grand Deceptions i will be impressed. My review? It starts off with a nice enough tune, some toy soldiers, then i fell asleep. And that applies to every single time i’ve watched it! Give me gimmicky ahead of flat out boring.
CP’s write-up is really entertaining.
I’m fortunate to have the DVD collection. This ep doesn’t make it onscreen too often for the reasons CP examined. On occasions I do watch it, I simply skip the “flying director chairs” sequence, along with Alex and Jenny’s heart-to-heart talks (he’s a scoundrel, we get it).
I will admit, however, I like the slate-fence/shadows scene. Maybe it reminds me of “Night Gallery” or some other childhood TV show (or movie), I don’t know, but it appeals to me.
In conclusion, I have a soft spot for this ep for one reason: the date of Lenny’s trip to the studio, and his date of death – so prominently displayed for all to see – was my 20th birthday.
I really enjoyed the „shadow and light” monologue. Interesring how differently it can be received. But I cant say the same about the ending spectacle…
Also, Colombo didn’t find the book by pure luck. The book stood out (literally) on the shelf, lieutenant noticed that and followed that trail, perhaps even without anything in mind – which fits perfectly his attention to detail and inconsistencies, and urge to figure them out.
How many of the new episodes had elaborate murder weapons? The majority of the classic killers used guns (yes they came up with clever plans to cover their tracks, but the actual killing was more straightforward than, say, decapitating someone with a guillotine or throwing them off the roof with the aid of a lift).
… strangling, an ice-block, a stone, an ashtray, a bottle, a poker or whatever on the head, a burning car, the explosion of a cigar or of a cannon, drowning, an electric shock in the bath, hypnosis, a bull, two dogs, poison, suffocation in a safe or in a winecellar, a car accident, a plane-crash, a waste-treating-machine… for the old episodes.
May be the difference you mean is the presence or the absence of the killer at the very moment of the killing: it must be “easier” to poison, to provoke an explosion, a hypnosis or a suffocation, than to strangle, shoot or beat.
There are even knifes in the new episodes (and several revolvers: “sex…”, “agenda…”, “rest in peace…”, “…Malibu”, “…college”, “a bird…”, “all in the game”, “butterfly…”, “bedfellows”, “trace…”). I don’t think there are knifes in the old ones.
Sorry, I should have written “guns” instead of “revolvers”. English is not my mother tongue, as you must have noticed 🙂
And we mustn’t forget using dissolving suture in a heart value, and breaking someone’s neck with a pipe.
Clearly there was a rich variety of killings in both series (and true. no stabbings in the early series (even the one called ‘dagger of the mind’).
And no worries, revolver means the same 🙂
I dont mind watching this episode, but it definitley misses a few stand out scenes on that note i would like to point out that cp stated that thos was the first epispde that a best moment couldnt be dug out , but if i recall correctly a matter of honors best moment wasnt a single scene either but the relationship between columbo and sanchez ,that consstituted a best moment
You’re right, the Sanchez Columbo relationship wasn’t a single scene, although they had several good ones together I could have selected in their own right. Smoke and Shadows doesn’t even have a strong thread or relationship running through it to fall back on.
Thanks for the response CP , I t is hard to diagnose this one , I imagine it is a lot more difficult to pick a best moment fom new episodes , I wonder will cp be able to pick one from next up sex and the married detective , as sure as day it WONT be the tuba march scene.
Perhaps the people behind this episode were trying to attract a younger audience without knowing how to do so. It would explain the ice cream, the train set, the jeans and sneakers wardrobe of Alex Brady. I can remember ‘shadows and light’ type monologues from school which I considered deep and insightful at the time but recognized as puerile and pretentious by graduation. Alex is out of school but still spouts such nonsense. Everything about the guy screams arrested development.
Is this just a clumsy attempt by the producers to give the youngsters what they think they want? Could they have given us that awful gotcha scene because they thought that kids all love a circus? I even thought I heard some circus music in the musical score while Alex was moving around the lot. It doesn’t explain everything wrong with this episode but it does cover some problems.
A lot of the publicity that Steven Spielberg got in the 80s played up his fondness for precisely those things, so I think that they are included here as part of the spoof. I agree they lean on it way too heavily.
I didn’t know that about Steven Spielberg. That which puzzled me so makes sense when seen as Steven’s favorite things. Is he known for ‘shadows and light’ monologues? I recall hearing him sounding very down to earth when interviewed but I don’t really follow him closely.
The best way to look at episodes like this – especially the ‘ringmaster’ finale – is to ask yourself if such a scene would EVER have been conceived much less included in one of the 1970’s episodes.
I think we all know the answer to that one already, though…
Very true, that’s why the later years are on a separate grading curve. There are more than a few scenes in the later years that would have been shelved in the classic era run. Heck the entire “Murder In Malibu” episode would have been laughed out of the writers room.
A very relevant question, and one that I keep coming back to when watching these new episodes. The next episode ‘Sex and the Married Detective’ raises the question several times.
If there was a first prize for biggest blooper , it would have to be the magically dissapearing millshakes , which i will explain at another time in detail but its worth revisiting ,
There is alot of nonsence in this episode that it would have been better without but be warned next episode sex and the married detective has plenty ridiculous padding ( especialy the tuba scene ) it will be intetrsting to see if it rates higher or lower than smoke and shadows.
Hi, don’t you think the biggest blooper is in “Play Back”, with the reappearing invitation card, at 16’13” ? It’s the clue of the episode, and If you look good, the director (or the script-girl or boy, or whoever else) missed it.
Great review columbophile , a liitle bit more critical to msas , murder smoke and shadows than , i expected , i agree not one of the best new ones , i perspnally prefer this tha n under the guillotine but neither are great but we all agree there was a huge gulf in class , im sure most would dive on to a weaker seventies episode such as lovley but lethal , greenhouse jungle or case of immunity for example than a mid tier new episode such as the 2 reviewed so far .
I do agree that the script is at times too convenient with its clues, but I do like this episode very much (#39 in my episode ranking). I’ve said at other times, that I consider James Frawley the best Columbo director and this episode definitely has its fair share in that. I find it to be very appealing and stylish visually (and I include the Blue Danube and the shadows and lights scenes in that assessment). As a cineaste, I usually value stuff like that higher than the actual story. The shadows and light-monologue might be pretentious, but that seems to me more like a character trait of Brady that the sign of pretentious screenwriting.
I also do agree that the ending isn’t very satisfactory, I don’t dislike it, but it’s not a very special final clue and the showiness definitely feels a bit out of place here. Favourite moment, of the whole episode is in the end, though, when Brady enters the room and the projector starts playing the old video. Very chilling and a visual that I still vividly remember from my childhood (in general, season 8 gives me big nostalgia, I must have seen those episodes more often back then than the others).
I also agree about the music, Patrick Williams was easily my favourite Columbo composer and this is my second favourite score of his, my favourite one coming up now with one of the best ABC episodes, the also Frawley-helmed Sex and the Married Detective.
Fame is a weird bubble. I’d certainly seen Short Circuit in the 80’s, but I had no idea Fisher Stevens was ‘famous’, either when I first saw this episode, or indeed now.
I agree. I remember seeing parts of this episode when it came out.
After i realized that it was a new Columbo, I remember thinking, who is that guy who is the star? They usually have big stars as the murderer, hmmm.
When later I found out that he was in Short Circuit I was still surprised that he was the star of a Columbo episode. That feeling hasn’t passed.
I agree with many an opinion here, and even the review un general, but as a true Hungarian, I will not hide how much I like the “Blue Danube In The Elevator Seats” scene, and that it is not a second too long. 😀
I must also point out that, we portuguese manufacture some of the best shoes in the world. They might have been cheaper back then, but today we compete with the Italians.
I wonder about that every time I’ve seen the ep. Why pick “Portugal” as a cheap shoe maker? My conspiracy brain says it’s b/c no Asians would be offended, whereas claiming they were made in China or Taiwan might’ve raised hackles.
“I’m generally a fan of Columbo’s absent-minded act but there are limits (mate)…”
I see what you did there and I lol’d, sir!
I’m delighted to hear it! I do like to leave the odd Easter Egg for keen fans to pick up on as they read, so well done to you for the pick-up!
Indeed! I just read this aloud to my significant other and we laughed because it’s one of the dozens of lines from the classic run that we throw out in conversation.
I noticed that Easter egg, too. Made me smile. Clever! ‘’Must be his ‘nibs again!’’
Oh dear, this episode… it started so well but went downhill very quickly. Let me count the ways:
1) The murder scene is *ludicrously* over the top. It’s over-complicated, way too theatrical, and overall completely implausible (I’ve seen characters in teen slasher movies with more common sense than Lenny).
2) As Columbophile says, the pacing is atrocious. Almost every scene felt like it went on twice as long as it should, and several scenes seemed like they didn’t need to be there at all (such as the part in the director’s chair and the terrible ‘shadows and light’ monologue).
3) That final scene… good grief, and I thought the ending of the previous episode was absurd! What were they thinking?
There are still some enjoyable bits, though. The setup is good, I liked the part with the soda glasses, and Brady’s performance was generally decent, especially in the exchanges with his girlfriend. Still not enough to redeem the episode in my eyes.
I really didn’t buy the murder. Lenny outweighs Brady by at least 50 lbs. What’s he so afraid of? Maybe Lenny is just a big pushover, but what if he zigged instead of zagged? How could Brady channel Lenny’s escape route where there were so many directions in which to run?
And there’s the shoe. Yes, some shoes can fall apart, but a heel falling off at the murder scene is pretty implausible. I guess the implication was that the electricity melted the glue or something, even though rubber is not a conductor, but it still seemed rather convenient.
For Lenny to be electrocuted the current had to pass through the shoe and out the heel. At high enough voltage everything conducts electricity, especially if it’s wet. So it’s plausible the current passing around the heal, or thorough nails in the heel, melted it.
Pulling out that double entendre from your side of the pond may not go unchaste.
Overall more entertaining that the previous episode and with Fisher Stevens having a heck of a time, the way Columbo assembles evidence still feels much too convenient with many of his scenes with the murdered following to same pattern. As for the monologue, despite the pretentiousness, it’s the best sequence in the episode, at least, from a visual point of view.
The “Star Wars” scene on the rear projection screen is actually a recycled shot from the original 1978 Battlestar Galactica series, also made by Universal.
Alex is so over the top it almost makes it enjoyable . Are you also taking into account the extra fluffing they had to make an hour and a half? I’m not saying without it it would even a top 40 episode but definitely more watchable.
A 70-minute version without all the meandering and cutting back on some of the flashy rubbish would have worked an awful lot better. The story here wasn’t deep enough to stretch to 90 mins.
First, the episode isn’t bad by any means? Compared to what ~ reruns of Hello, Larry?
And second: who the hell is (WAS) Fisher Stevens?? Star of the month for April 1991?
Another middle of the road later years episode, but i do enjoy it more that Guillotine. Fisher Stevens was pretty solid in this and Molly Hagan did a great job, and later on is in my favorite later years episode Butterflies In Shades Of Grey. An all around enjoyable episode even with its faults, At the very beginning i recognized the tour with the shark, i was on the exact same tour several years earlier (circa 1986), seems like a lifetime ago.
Too bad. The premise of this episode was sound: Steven Spielberg’s entire career is threatened over something that happened when he was a fledgling filmmaker. (The self-referential nature of Alex Brady’s character to a Columbo icon was also nice, much like how Ward Fowler was keyed into Falk himself in “Fade In to Murder.”) As motives go, self-preservation is number one, and it is entirely credible that Alex would perceive Lenny’s threat as existential.
But the realization of the premise left a lot to be desired, and CP’s review nails it (once again). I’ll only add two small points. The more elaborate the murder plan, the more time it requires, both in conception and execution. This was a fairly elaborate plan — but Brady seems to have put it in motion almost immediately, and while juggling numerous other things. Okay, we’re supposed to believe that Brady is a boy genius — but as a filmmaker, not necessarily as a murderer. Perhaps this explains all of his mistakes. (For me, “Agenda for Murder” is the classic example of an intricate murder plot put in motion instantaneously, without any apparent planning. It’s a head-scratcher.) I find it much more credible when the complexity of the plan is proportional to the time allotted to the killer to pull it off.
Second, I would have found this episode much more satisfying if ice cream sodas figured prominently in the gotcha. Under the principles of “Chekhov’s gun” (“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”), the exaggerated focus on ice cream sodas at the beginning of the episode deserved a bigger payoff than it got. If not, why so many ice cream sodas?
Good point re ice cream sodas. Columbo even came back into Brady’s pad immediately after he smashed the glasses in rage but didn’t mention that he’d heard the sound. A lot more could have been made of that moment alone, but it was never referenced again.
yes it is blatantly obvious , the smashing of the glasses was very loud and almost instantaneous , im suprised the writers didnt amend this , another theory of mine is that perhaps columbo did hear this but as it was at an early stage in the investigation perhaps columbo let it pass as he may not have had Brady under too much suspicion at this point but it is definetley a major and avoidable bloop .
Apart from the plot point, I always thought the presence of a soda fountain in Alex’ bungalow also served a character-development purpose. For all his professional success, he’s still a child emotionally–not even an adolescent.
Did you see “The Irishman”? Al Pacino (as Jimmy Hoffa) and his ice cream? I don’t know if I buy the correlation between a love of ice cream and a stunted development, but I see your point.
It’s a very interesting point. I think the meaning of the ice cream soda’s is the cold of betrayal. Brady shares the ice cream with the man he’s about to kill, probably deciding to kill him while making the soda’s. The first time I saw the scene I immediately had to think of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, where a similar method is used when two friends on a bus are nearing Roncevalles, high up in the mountains:
‘It’s cold up here’, said Bill. ‘It’s awful cold.”
Now Roncevalles is the place from the Song of Roland where Roland is betrayed. And the cold here mentioned is the cold from the heart. The ice cream soda’s serve a similar purpose.
And to get to the second part of the argument, I think Chekhov’s Gun applies here. The soda’s have already served their purpose by announcing the crime and are then used by Columbo to, in a way, accept the challenge Brady has set him. I love Brady’s crushing of the glass when the lieutenant has left: it’s anger and frustration but he also symbolically kills his friend for the second time. Columbo would have been a fool to comment on hearing the noise – Brady’s not telling, so Columbo’s not telling. From that moment on, as Sherlock Holmes would have said, the game is afoot.
I don’t entirely agree with this. Columbo has, on many occasions, called out suspicious activity immediately, or prominently referred to it later, as a means of unsettling his suspect and showing the audience he’s onto them. Examples include Benedict picking up the flower in Etude; Stanford looking repeatedly at his watch in Short Fuse; Hanlon turning the radio down in Crucial Game; Dr Collier using matches to light cigarette in Deadly State of Mind etc. Having not watched Smoke & Shadows for some years, I was surprised that Columbo didn’t reference the crash of glasses. It would have been entirely Columbo-like to have feigned concern for Alex and wonder if he’d fallen or cut himself. Having the moment pass and then never be referenced at all again seemed at odds with the character’s usual style.
I see your point and your examples are spot on. But if Columbo changed tactics here for once I think he it was very fitting on this occassion. Besides there’s always the chance he didn’t hear the noise (though, admittedly, a very slim chance).
I know what you mean by Al Pacino, ice cream, and stunted development, as evident by the following scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfDoDWlSp1o
I really liked the Alex Brady character and the actor who portrayed him — and also the secretary character, she was great! “Youth and enthusiasm will always be overcome by old age and treachery” …. But, yeah, as a murder mystery, the premise is great but the script didn’t live up to it. Really a shame. So much potential in the premise. I find myself wondering why there was not more vetting of scripts.
It seems that in the extended Columbo episodes sometimes scenes are there just for padding and are not crucial to the story so if cut they don’t matter. The Ice Cream Sodas are kind of superfluous that way.
Everything you say is true (and glaringly apparent when I first watched it in 1989), but I like this episode.anyway.
1) Fisher Stevens as Alex Brady. He gives a superb characterization of a wonder boy with a spectacular, but narrow talent who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is. If you view the episode from that perspective, all the “stupid” mistakes Alex makes are an integral part of the script. Columbo has marked his man (man-boy?) at their first meeting. For the rest of the flick, Columbo is a cat playing with a mouse. (Yes, for much too long, but that’s what cats do.) He wants to humiliate Alex as completely as possible.
2) Molly Hagan as Ruthie Jernigan. What can I say? I like the “type”.
3) The Universal Studios lot as itself. I love all the episodes where the lot is featured en flagrante. I’ve been sentimental about it since 1972, when my buddy and I were “arrested” there for trespassing after jumping the tour, just like Lenny. (Don Knotts was officially the “sheriff” according to a framed poster on the wall of the security office.) We even got pics (long lost) of us sitting on the stoop of Peter Falk’s.bungalow (not nearly as posh as Alex’s, at least from the outside). I even took a pic of my bud leaning against the Macmillan-and-Wife MG (sadly, not our beloved Peugeot).
P.S. Studio cop to us: “Where are your badges.” His exact words. If we were as smooth as we thought we were, we would have replied, “We don’t need…”. Like Alex himself, we weren’t anywhere near.that smooth.
Cracking anecdote, sir! I like to think that Lenny escaping from the tour was a homage to the now-legendary occasion when you and your buddy ran AWOL around the lot and had to be forcibly removed by the studio cop!
They held us for two hours, then told us our names were now “on a list”. The next time we were found on the lot, we would be turned over to the LAPD. I like to think my name is still “on a list” somewhere at Universal Studios, Los Angeles.
I was a pathologist once in Austin, MN, HQ of Hormel Foods, and one time a drug rep and I went over to pick up the company physician for lunch. We were talking about Sierra Madre on the way and, lo, the Hormel guard, at the gate, lumbered over to our car and informed us we needed to have badges – out came the line (the guard must not have seen the movie – the explained why we needed them). The rep had a big, big laugh. Another chance came years late, at a VA hospital, where we received an email saying the IT dept needed to put in some “patches.” The young lady sending the email also had not seen the movie – indignant at me for a while.
What utter drivel (the episode, not your review CP!). It’s only the second episode of the new run and we already have an episode at least as bad as ‘Last Salute’.
I almost agree, CP, unless I liked the shadow scene, and although I bought a money-belt… for my travels to the States.
One must have courage to play a pedantic, unbearable, disagreeable movie-maker in his younger years, at the daybreak of one’s own career in the movie-business. Let’s hope for Fisher Stevens his colleagues could distinguish the actor from the character. Which is not easy when the role is so near to real life.
One of the photo captions states that “Brady’s planned Star Wars challenger never saw the light of day”. In reality, that footage comes from the original TV series Battlestar Galactica. Those would be Cylon vessels.
loving the Die Hard reference….the quarterback is toast!.
Nice pick-up, sir!
I’m curious, since I didn’t find this in the comment section: how do you think this would rank overall so far? Better than last salute to the commodore? And compared to the others between the worst of the first ranking?
This would be above Last Salute, but down at the foot of the rankings with the likes of Old Fashioned Murder and Mind Over Mayhem.
I’m not sure if my comment went through, I never posted here before, if I’m doing it wrong, sorry, but I was wondering how this would compare to the worst episodes of the first ranking in your opinion, wondering if it’s up there with last salute to the commodore or which other episode?
I’ve now replied to your original post. Questions from new posters need to approved before they appear, but your future comments should go straight up now.
Ah, thanks, just so you know it’s still me, was new, so hadn’t set up the right name yet back then. I have a curiosity about this episode, and I haven’t found any info literally anywhere on the internet: what was the reason why Alex left Jenny to die instead of helping her? I’ve seen some hint in the early part of the movie, but nothing very definite.