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…?
It is pretty enjoyable if you are NOT demanding “classic” Columbo. I do not know why, but I have always liked when Len really loses his temper and basically shouts something to the effect that he (Len) will see his ex-friend go to his grave in “one of [his] fancy new sports cars!”
Man, the first half of this episode showed such promise. The victim was well-acted (over the top in a fairly believable fashion, instead of the normal harsh overacting) and Fisher Stevens played a character who was–at least initially—one of the most interesting villains in the entire series. The way he showed interest in and enthusiasm for Columbo was great, as was his Machiavellian and ultra-pragmatic streak that had him not just hiring actors to try to fool Columbo, but also apparently (off-screen, earlier) playing Cupid for his ex-girlfriend apparently without any *deeply* nefarious intent, but rather simply because making everyone happy suited his interests. He preferred it if everyone were happy, it seems, it’s just that he was entirely selfish and calculating whenever he realized that he needed to be.
…which makes it all the more jarring when that ex-girlfriend finds out what he did and, spits venom and vows revenge, and then a studio head he tried to blow off does the same, seething and vowing to blackball him even as he offers to make it right. It’s all *quite* strange–superfluous and overblown–like the episode is trying to make not only Columbo catch up with him, but also karma catch up with him by having everyone around him become excessively enraged by relatively smaller sleights. Did I miss something here? Did he screw over the studio head in some other fashion? Did he run over his girlfriend’s dog? They should be somewhat annoyed at him, temporarily pissed perhaps, but instead they both snarl and go straight for the jugular. Very weird.
And then there’s the fact that he abruptly drops his interesting cat and mouse game with Columbo and goes to generic, overacted frustrated/yelling villain shtick that too many of Columbo’s villains degenerate into.
And then there’s all the rest of the overly garish junk going on, like the above mentioned fence scene and the climax.
Pity. I honestly think this one had the potential to be the best episode of the later seasons.
Very well put and couldn’t agree more. The fence scene and ending……yikes. But despite that i still fairly enjoy the episode.
Different strokes for different folks. I hear you on not liking big, deliberate showy-ness for what should be a fairly low-key crime drama, but for me, that’s really what makes this episode so memorable. The investigation isn’t what stands out about this episode—it’s the character of Brady, the atmosphere, the sounds and the scenery. It’s the fun of seeing Columbo on a mile-high chair and in ringmaster get-up (though it probably helps that I’m a fan of anything circus-related. Smoke and mirrors are pretty much my jam).
Some of the exchanges are definitely pretentious, at least on paper. But from a character like Brady, who excellently straddles that line between artistic bombast, detached genius, and utterly psychotic manchild, the larger-than-life dialogue is more or less believable (and Stevens’ performance goes a long way towards selling some of the stranger stuff). He comes off as almost the Columbo universe’s version of a cartoon supervillain, yet somehow never loses that sinister murderer aspect… even though, as you point out, he’s super careless.
That said, this kind of character and writing do require a certain suspension of disbelief that’s probably a stretch for typical Columbo. If you don’t go into a show expecting to watch something that is detached from reality, it kind of breaks its own illusion. Calling attention to one’s use of smoke and mirrors for the sake of it is not often an effective tactic for drama series.
I almost wonder if a Brady character would work better and be better received on a different kind of show than Columbo—maybe one with a straight-up magical realism setting, where you can take the smoke and mirrors element a lot further and still remain within the realm of plausibility. That actually sounds like a sweet creative premise. Note to my writerly self: see if I can work with this…
I see your point. Brady would’ve fit right in as a villain on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (In Columbo, he essentially monologues his victim to death. lol)
There may have been a way to better marry the surreal nature of Brady’s artistry/profession and the sane criminal investigation we expect from Columbo, but this episode doesn’t pull it off. And there was nothing surreal about Brady’s accidental killing of the student actress and his subsequent cover-up. It’s hard to weather the more nonsensical scenes when we are trying to follow Columbo’s path to busting this joker.
I propose that Guillotine more nimbly incorporates the power of illusion into its story. In that, we can be fascinated by the key magic trick before learning it was an utter con, which Columbo exposes to jolt us back to cold reality. Now, the ending of Guillotine is indeed dumb as rocks, but I’d take that ep on the whole over the steady silliness of Smoke and Shadows.
Well even though I agree the ending scene of Guillotine is one of the worst of any episode, the thing is… in sheer stupidity it was actually thoroughly upstaged by an earlier scene. The convoluted magic trick “test” that convinced the NSA dudes was so oppressively and aggressively stupid I felt like my skull was going to cave in. I’m fine with suspending disbelief a bit. Comes with the territory with Columbo. But this one crossed line line into childish inanity, and then crossed yet another line into self-parody, then crossed a third line into some other hitherto undreamt-of realm of infinite absurdity.
If three letter agencies are testing whether or not you’re psychic (and if the result is positive they’re gonna whisk you away and spend millions of dollars and all that jazz), why the hell are they going to agree to have the primary testers blindfolded? I think the guy said it was to “prevent distractions” or something. I mean… that’s just a stupendously bad magic trick. I actually recognize the underlying trick–it’s a rather lame one–and it’s usually done with a Svengali deck, but for some reason they made it even dumber and had all the pages be the same.
So none of the CIA/NSA/etc bosses looked at the map books at all? AND none of the multiple agents bothered to flip through the books, not even idly? Nobody tried to use those markers for any other purpose?
I get that the setup was organized and supervised by a guy who was trying to help him cheat, but there were so many other people involved who WEREN’T in on it, and none of them said “um, what? we’re blindfolding ourselves? why does this all feel like a really lame magic trick?”, nor bothered even cursorily examining the props.
By comparison, for all the garish weirdness and overacting in Smoke and Mirrors, in terms of suspension of disbelief I thought it was entirely bearable. I think it could’ve been a truly great episode if they did less theatrics and more layered interactions between the villain and Columbo (like they had early on.) One thing about the theatrics of Smoke & Mirrors that I note above that I haven’t seen others comment on is that overwrought theatrical angle weirdly extends to how two people suddenly turn on the villain for fairly trivial reasons and try to utterly destroy him. It was very strange; felt like they were trying to drive home a karma angle or something.
I have always admired this episode, not just because of the stellar performances of the cast, but because of the eccentricities of the writing, the very thing the author dislikes. That bit of metaphysical noodling that Alex Brady entertains–“I am the substance, you are the shadow”–underscores just how removed Brady is from reality.
I liked this one just like the previous episode. There’s some padding, sure, but it remains bearable, there were worst offenders in that area in the 70’s. It still remained entertaining all throughout.
The director chairs scene reminded me of Leslie Williams taking Columbo for a shaky flight in Ransom For A Dead Man : a passive agressive attempt to unsettle Columbo and try to show him who’s boss.
I think all those scenes of Alex Brady going on and on with his ridiculous cheesy blabber were done on purpose to establish the character as the unsufferable douche he is. Which makes seeing him get nailed all the more satisfying.
Alex crying when “learning” about Lenny’s demise was hilarious. Even Columbo looked embarrassed by those lousy fake tears 🤣
We (my bf and I) thought the circus-style gotcha scene was very funny. Yes it’s very over-the-top, but it works as a very fun self-aware campy moment.
Having read every analysis to date, I get the distinct impression that there are very few episodes that the Columbophile actually likes. He puts a lot into each analysis, impressively so. But with the exception of a few early episodes, he doesn’t seem to enjoy very many. That’s an awful lot of time to spend on something you don’t appear to enjoy.
I can’t speak for him, but I’m much the same way. Unrealistically high standards, or whatever. 99.9%+ of things have aspects that significantly irritate me. The number of movies I could write a review about without ranting heavily I could count on two hands, or maybe just one.
But what am I going to do, not watch or read anything ever again? Nah that’s a bit dull. Moderate irritation over boredom. However, just because someone rants about something at length doesn’t mean it ruined the episode for that person. There’s usually more to say when it comes to negative stuff. When you say XYZ was fantastic, there’s only so many words you can throw at that point. Something that was awesome tends to be self-evidently awesome. But when you say XYZ was infuriating, there’s often a lot you can say to explain precisely why it was infuriating.
I am watching this and “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine” on my birthday, fueled with Manhattans, and having watched “Guillotine” closely many fewer times than “Murder Smoke …I think they’re both fine, albeit soooo different from the originals. Unlike Columbophile, I give “Smoke and Shadows” an edge (in the B category) except I can’t swallow the tricky wet pavement metal-gate murder; in much the same way I find it hard to believe the accuracy of the shot from under the hood of the pick up truck in the murder in “College”, an otherwise very appealing episode.
It’s a bit convoluted to set up and scaring him into was a bit eye-rolling, but the electrocution is WAY more realistic and easy to swallow than the guillotine.
First off, the trick is simply physically impossible. It just can’t work like it’s shown, period. The blade goes all the way through, in the same manner, both times. You can’t flip that thing around and suddenly it magically bypasses the head hole. …maybe if the blade came apart somehow (while still being heavy enough to NOT come apart while in normal mode), but I just can’t see a way of that working out.
Secondly, even if it could work like it was shown, no sane magician would do that. Even the ones who like to live a little dangerously wouldn’t go that far; there are a hundred safe ways to do the same basic effect perfectly safely.
Thirdly, the guy’s naivete in trusting the murderer–and immediately after he had fake (…but it turns out actually not fake) outrage against him, is just ridiculous. Especially since he did, in fact, betray him and knew the other guy had every reason to be enraged. How were his adrenaline levels not sky high? Why was he lying down on a guillotine and not edging towards the door?
I actually was able to suspend disbelief despite all those objections, but I was not able to do the same for the final test of the psychic powers. It was such a good idea in principle, but the trick was so stupid and obviously a magic trick, and the outcome relied on no one asking any questions (“ummmm… I’m sorry, *why* do they all have to be blindfolded again?”) or examining any of the props.
What you (and the other critics) said!
Three of the most annoying characters in this episode. One, am I the only one who’s glad Lenny got whacked? Because there wasn’t a second I felt compassion for him at all. And I wouldn’t ave sniffled once had I heard that somehow, this two actresses lunching near Colombo were somehow also electrocuted later either.
I can’t stand Lenny. For one thing he has several inches and, what, at least 40 lbs (more?) on Alex and yet he runs from Alex like a Whitechapel prostitute from Jack the Ripper. Grow a backbone, Lenny. Not to mention he’s kind of an idiot for the fact that he knows in his heart of hearts that Alex is guilty but still shows up to the late night rendezvous for…reasons? What a dope.
Yes, Alex Brady is also extremely irritating. (I’ve known just a few too many self-aggrandizing film students who spoke in the same pretentious way about film, so Alex hit a little close to home)
And while I’m at it, I’m not too crazy about Mr. Marosco either.
I don’t understand how the sister was left for dead. Someone was making the film. Wouldn’t they have gone for help? At a minimum, Lenny would have known his sister was killed during the shoot.
Can anyone help me here? It seems the entire premise was off.
He apparently staged it so that she was killed on her way to the shoot. I think you do have a point about the cameraman; apparently that person was ok with the coverup and if my memory serves me the cameraman wasn’t mentioned or identified. It’s an unexplored plot hole, though not one that poses serious logical challenges if one wanted to mentally fill it in.
The camera man was the third friend mentioned in the beginning – Buddy. Len says Jenny died on the way to Alex and Buddy’s film, and Alex says Buddy should have stuck with film. Buddy died of hepatitis and gave Len the film he had been hiding for however long, which was in his possession because he filmed it. I could be totally reading into it, but I took away that Buddy was traumatized enough by the event that he dropped film as a hobby/career and Alex as a friend, then turned to drinking to cope resulting in the hepatitis.
I think the first hint at Spielberg (though I think the character is also a composite with George Lucas and John Landis) is the shark rearing up in the theme park very early on.
The showy elements in the episode: the merry-go-round camera seats, the fence shadows, the ring of lights, the circus master costume, are Federico Fellini references, I believe. Circus motifs abound in Fellini’s work (La Strada), he shows the backstage of filmmaking (Otto e mezzo), as well as featuring wonderful black and white cinematography (La Dolce Vita). Perhaps it’s that as an Italian-American older character, Columbo creates the atmosphere of that Italian older director in this episode, set against the young American director Brady, with some implication about their contrasting approaches to work and personality types.
Agreed about Alex Brady being a composite of Steven Spielberg and John Landis–he has the love of special effects of Steven Spielberg but the fatal filming accident in his past of John Landis.
Yes, to our knowledge Steven Speilberg and George Lucas weren’t involved in deadly accidents while filming, but director John Landis was. Many year before “Murder, Smoke and Shadows” was written, there was the horrible accident on July 23, 1982, where a helicopter crashed during the making of “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The crash killed actor Vic Morrow–a favorite actor of mine at the time–and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, who were on the ground, and injured 6 helicopter passengers. The terrible accident led to years of civil and criminal action against the personnel overseeing the shoot, including John Landis. As is usual with human nature, safety standards, which had been previously ignored by Hollywood, were finally introduced–but only after the fact.
I meant George Lucas specifically for the part about Brady being a director known for special effects. That’s really more of a Lucas thing than a Spielberg thing. Fisher Stevens physically looks more like Spielberg here, though. And the accident thing is Landis, of course.
The lieutenant does have a reason to look at the yearbook. He watched Stevens re-shelve it in earlier scene, putting it back from where the murder victim himself left it.
I remember 1989. Star Trek Next Generation and Cheers were popular shows. Johnny Carson ruled late night. I believe this episode of Columbo pandered too much to a younger audience. A 25 year old man having a soda fountain, rather than an alcoholic beverage bar, seemed really strange. Yes. Very slow paced. But to me the biggest drawback was that Peter Faulk almost seemed to be just there. Columbo seemed to be part of the show, rather than the star. Dramatic scenes were few and far between. Fisher Stevens was good at playing the villain, but also falsely presenting himself as a “nice guy” to outsiders. It did not work. Columbo got his man.
I must confess, being a teetotaler having a soda fountain sounds pretty awesome to me.
Agreed! Also, I think the writers wanted to emphasize that the director is just an overgrown, spoiled child, and Hollywood is not helping him grow up.
The best part of this episode was Colunbo’s ice cream soda. Looked mighty tastey! Fisher Stevens was a lame killer, the only good thing about him was his stylish 90s haircut!
Indeed. That also explains Stevens’ character trying to appear like that grown up artist and his lack of respect. I love the scene where Columbo bought him a chocolate bar – like one would do it for a kid.
Mixing in George Lucas’ 1950s obsession, perhaps, exemplified a few years later with Dexter Jettster.
I’ve been going through the episode list, watching each one and then reading the review to see if I agree. I’ve seen them all multiple times over the years. This is the first one I got to that I remembered as being both so boring and so preposterous that I just couldn’t watch it again. Bleh. At least it was memorable, I didn’t need to rewatch to recall how much I disliked it.
Just watched this episode and you encapsulated my own impressions, both good and bad, perfectly!
All the Columbo episodes are on NBC’s Peacock network, including the first two movies. So I’ve been happily watching and enjoying all of them in order. Then Season 8 started, and in came the new episodes. I remember when these shows originally aired that I was both excited to see new Columbo episodes, and disappointed at the quality of the new shows. Still, the Guillotine episode was at least watchable. This one I literally turned off the episode after Brady asked Lenny if there were any other copies of the film then told him to wait around, out of sight, for several hours while he prepared “proof” that the HOMEMADE 8MM STUDENT FILM in his possession was a high tech forgery. And Lenny, who wanted to have Brady arrested because he MURDERED HIS SISTER, said, “Sure, I’ll wait around for you to prove this film is fake.” I mean, not only does it make no sense that someone so convinced that their sister was murdered that they flew to CA from NY to confront the murderer in person to then just suddenly be like, “Gee, if you say the movie is fake then maybe I’m wrong”, but on top of that he’d have to be mentally disabled not to see that Brady was setting him up to be murdered. One of those tribesmen living in the Amazon that have had no contact with the outside world whatsoever their entire life could see that murder attempt coming from a mile away. This is an EXTREMELY disappointing, and unwatchable, episode before Columbo even makes an appearance. I’ve never turned off a Columbo episode before, and I hope I never have to again (we’ll see, I guess, depending on how the other new episodes fare), but I doubt if I can even force myself to try and finish this episode. Judging by the Columbophile review, maybe that’s for the best.
That’s a heluvva good explanation. I couldn’t even gt to that point since the set-up was so SO bad. “Look ma! I’m in Hollywood! Look at the toys and dumbassery-tude-iness available. Holy moly it’s a KLIEG light! On wheels!! Shining even though it’s not plugged in!
Of all of the navel-gaving episodes trying to prop up the career of his squeeze (who really wasn’t/isn’t a bad actress), this was the navel-gazing-est.
The gritty detective from 1974 was the unmistakable best, as eight Emmy nominations showed. NBC’s suits can never be forgiven for wrecking the show to eke out a few extra dollars off their Sunday night fare (which also spared us Brady Reunion and other hellish time fillers that evening. As a kid then it made the piles of homework due on Monday look an absolute godsend.
I agree he was a dope but I dunno, personally I found his uncertainty somewhat believable–he seemed so angry that he wasn’t thinking straight, yet at the same time he was fundamentally a timid man, not the type of person to fly off of the handle… so he ended up confused and half-willing to entertain the possibility that he was wrong. I’m usually quick to criticize people doing stupid stuff but I thought the victim’s part was well-acted. He was a naive dope, sure, but to me it seemed like he was a fairly *realistic* portrayal of a naive dope who had, until that moment, never experienced a moment of genuine rage in his life, didn’t know what to expect, didn’t have a plan for handling it, and simply didn’t know what to do with all that adrenaline. Lenny’s killer kept a relaxed and pseudo-empathetic demeanor at all times and he simply didn’t know how to react or what to do with himself.
Compare that to the magician lying down on a functional guillotine in front of the guy he betrayed, just moments after that guy blew up at him. (“nah nah nah, I’m not really angry!” “Oh, whew. I’m glad that’s over with. Here, let me stick my head underneath this 20 pound blade.”) That was very stupid, but in my opinion it was a different sort of stupid. It’s the sort of stupid that I have a hard time believing in. It violates really deep-seated primal instincts to lie down in front of a man who just moments before was enraged with you (and that would be true even if you weren’t lying on a frickin’ guillotine.)
As for Smoke and Shadows, I really enjoyed the first half. The killer is a unique jovial-Machiavellian character and (initially) very well acted. He has some very solid moments with Columbo early on. But yeah, it does go off the rails, and pretty hard.
I understand the criticisms but I still like this episode. Fisher Stevens is really good and there is a lot of fun things in his clubhouse plus they make good use of being on a movie studio.
Same – it is obvious they don’t have the budget from last weeks episode. So the choice of filming on their home turf and making the most of it is not the worst idea. When accepting that this is about Columbo solving crimes rather than looking at it from the meta level of a broadcaster reviving and old show featuring Peter Falk, it is a surprisingly lush setting, showing all the director’s gimmicks he loves presenting like a child presents his new toy. That worked a lot better for me than the introduction of Columbo in the previous episode, which was filmed in a very cinematic style and then failed because a few hundred dollars for the correct environment were missing.