Grown men were playing with toy soldiers – repeatedly – when Columbo plodded back onto screens for the Season 8 finale on May 1, 1989.
After a distinctly underwhelming comeback season, could the sight of the Lieutenant getting to grips with an embezzling, adulterous, murderous former army Colonel give the series a much-needed shot in the arm? Or is it a flop that really needs to be humanely put out of its misery?
Let’s saddle up, people, and hope Grand Deceptions can buck the trend and be the first of its kind: a new Columbo adventure that proudly sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the best efforts from the 70s. Wishful thinking? Let’s see…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Colonel Frank Brailie: Robert Foxworth
General Jack Padget: Stephen Elliott
Jenny Padget: Janet Eilber
Sergeant Major Keegan: Andy Romano
Marcia: Lynn Clark
Tanzer: Michael McManus
Dog: As himself
Written by: Sy Salkowitz
Directed by: Sam Wanamaker
Score by: John Cacavas
Episode overview: Columbo Grand Deceptions
As well as running a military training camp allowing dangerously unhinged civilians to upskill to mercenaries, Colonel Frank Brailie is also channeling money from a philanthropic foundation to fund illicit arms deals in war-torn regions across the globe – and to line his own pockets.
And if that isn’t dastardly enough for you, Brailie is also having an affair with Jenny Padget – the wife of the foundation’s owner and founder, revered war hero General Jack Padget. Yes folks, Brailie’s a bad, bad man.
His wicked ways look to be under threat, though, when long-time underling Sergeant Major Lester Keegan threatens to rain on his parade. Turns out that General Padget has suspicions about Brailie’s conduct and asked Keegan to look into it. With help from his pals at the Pentagon, the turn-coat Sergeant knows all about Brailie’s shady business dealings – and he’s also found out about the love affair with the General’s wife.
Of course, Keegan won’t turn his superior officer in – as long as he gets a share of the illegally gained loot. Brailie agrees and begs for a couple of days to get his affairs in order. In reality, it’s the trigger he needs to put a murderous protection plan into place.
There’s a back-slapping dinner at the General’s house that evening to celebrate his birthday. The aim is to unveil a collection of rare war books and a detailed diorama of a Civil War battle to the old codger, courtesy of ‘loving’ wife Jenny. She’s entrusted Brailie with setting up the toy soldiers and filling the book shelf, and the clever Colonel plans to take advantage of this to go a-killing.
He’s diddled things to make it look like only the delivery of books has arrived, while the toy soldiers remain outstanding. In reality, the soldiers have been delivered and Brailie has placed them in a box marked BOOKS. He then painstakingly set them out on a diorama in the General’s pool house while pretending to be sad that they’re still AWOL.
In order to create an alibi, Brailie has all the military books put into a box emblazoned with the words MILITARY MINIATURES to fool folk into believing the toys have just arrived. He requests that the General’s party guests are kept away from the pool house while he sets up the battle scene, and after setting up the shelf of books in mere minutes, he’s able to scuttle off to the military training camp to open up a can of whup-ass on Sergeant Keegan.
Tonight, you see, also marks the final test of the latest wannabe mercenaries, who have three hours to make it back to base through woodland at night. There are a number of explosive charges throughout the route that Keegan is responsible for maintaining in order to keep the mercs on their toes – and it is one of these that Brailie plans to make use of.
Cosplaying as a ninja, Brailie sneaks up on Keegan in the woods and pierces his blackmailing heart with a knife. He then drags the corpse by the arms to one of the explosive charges and leaves it there, chest-down, where it’ll later be blown to shreds.
Finally, he utilises Keegan’s quarters to remove his ninja disguise and reveal a full military dress uniform beneath. The ninja suit is binned and our man is back at the General’s pool house in the nick of time to unveil the battlefield model amidst much ‘ooohing’ and ‘aaaahing’ from a rapturous crowd. At the same time, the explosive charges in the woods are blown, butchering what’s left of Sergeant Major Keegan. Boo-ruddy-hoo.
It looks like a clean victory for Brailie, but he’s unlucky enough to be pitted against ace investigating officer Lieutenant Columbo. Although Keegan’s mangled corpse no longer shows any visible trace of the knife wound, Columbo isn’t automatically buying the ‘tragic accident’ idea. For one thing, he immediately spots leaves and mud under Keegan’s collar. Could he have been incapacitated elsewhere and dragged to the site of his death?
He’s soon given his first reason to suspect Brailie, too. The Colonel gives Keegan’s quarters a quick once-over and notices a splodge of wet mud on the floor. Did he leave it there the night before? In order to be safe, he hunkers down to clean it up – only for Columbo to march in and spot him. Although Brailie plausibly suggests he was doing it to honour the memory of clean freak Keegan, it’s an action the Lieutenant will remember.
Columbo does some nosing around Keegan’s pad and finds that the dead man had been cutting out ‘Help wanted’ ads every day from a local paper. Seems like he was looking for a new job – although the last of the ads he kept was from ‘last Monday’. What could it mean? What changed in his life on that Monday to put an end to his job search? But Brailie offers no help to the puzzled detective.
He does offer a suggestion as to how dirt and twigs ended up jammed under Keegan’s collar, though, simply (and sensibly) suggesting that the explosion would have been the cause – based on his own battlefield experience. It’s a hard argument to disagree with.
Following a summons from General Padget, Columbo soon uncovers some additional clues. While inspecting Padget’s new collection of war books, he finds a toy soldier hidden behind them. How could it have ended up there if the books were arranged before the soldiers?
The General has far more interesting news to share, though, as he reveals he’d requested Keegan look into Brailie’s ‘Special Projects Fund’ that had absorbed millions of foundation dollars. That conversation had taken place six days ago – the same day Keegan quit looking for a new job.
Padget also explains that it took several weeks and multiple requests for Brailie to finish and hand over a confidential report on the Special Projects Fund. This foot-dragging response was most unlike Brailie – and there’s nothing that’s going to pique Columbo’s curiosity quite like someone not behaving in their usual manner.
The Lieutenant catches a lucky break shortly afterwards when Keegan’s dry-cleaning is returned to his quarters. Among the items removed from the pockets of the garments prior to cleaning was a scrap of paper with the name L. Dunstan and an apartment address written on it. Columbo is duty-bound to investigate.
Turns out that the apartment is actually owned by, you guessed it, Colonel Brailie. It’s the secret love-nest where he manages his clandestine affair with Jenny Padget – and she’s on her way to meet him there just as Columbo arrives and starts asking questions.
Keen to see who Brailie’s planning to meet, Columbo overstays his welcome and refuses to take the hint that he should beat it. He even goes so far as to use the bathroom in order to rummage through the medicine cabinet – locating and pocketing a travel toothbrush in the process. There’s little doubt it belongs to the Colonel’s mystery lover.
The detective even drops a bombshell of his own on Brailie by letting him know that an autopsy has discovered a knife wound in Keegan’s heart. The man was murdered. How’s that for a libido-lowering surprise, Colonel?
Jenny does arrive during this prolonged interview, but after seeing Columbo’s old heap parked outside the apartment she puts the pedal to the metal before she can be recognised. Nevertheless, she receives a home visit from the Lieutenant that very evening – and he’s in confrontational mood.
Whipping out that travel toothbrush, Columbo explains that he’s had it dusted for prints – and hers are all over it. She can’t deny the affair, but she claims to have no knowledge of the Special Projects Fund – something Columbo takes her word for. He also agrees not to let the General know that Jenny has been a very naughty girl.
Instead, the now-contrite adulteress comes clean herself. She reveals the affair – but it’s OK, General, because she says she could never care for the mystery man the way she cares for him! Padget takes the blow nobly, only requesting that she never share the identity of the secret lover.
Attending Keegan’s funeral, Columbo has the fortune to meet one of the Sergeant Major’s Pentagon pals who tells the detective that he spoke to Keegan on the morning of his death. He doesn’t explain on-screen what their conversation was about – but it’s a safe bet it was to do with the Special Projects report, because Columbo heads over to the foundation to investigate further.
Using rarely displayed sleight-of-hand abilities that would impress even The Great Santini, he dispossesses Brailie’s ditzy secretary Marcia of an earlier version of the classified report and vanishes into thin air – and what he finds in it will blow the case as wide open as Keegan’s chest cavity!
Columbo, of course, hands the incriminating document to General Padget. The report details how Padget’s foundation has been funding illegal gun-running across the globe – and to say the army veteran is displeased is an understatement. He calls Brailie a ‘thieving bastard‘ to his face and promises he’ll see the fiendish Colonel behind bars.
Displaying ice-cold nerves under-fire, Brailie zaps back. If Padget blows his cover, Brailie will spill the juicy details about his illicit affair with Jenny. It’s the General who caves in. He returns his copy of the report – but mentions that Columbo’s copy is on his desk in the pool house.
Although not shown, we can assume Brailie gaily skips over to retrieve the report with a glow in his heart and a song on his lips. But his good mood won’t last because Columbo is lying in wait at the pool house – and he’s here to make an arrest.
He’s figured out that Keegan was trying to blackmail Brailie, so there’s a strong motive for murder. But can he break Brailie’s alibi that he was setting up the intricate battlefield diorama while the murder was committed? Well actually he can, through his dazzling maths (not math, US readers) skillz.
He knows that the books weren’t delivered in the box marked BOOKS – because its cubic dimensions aren’t big enough to accommodate them all. Instead they were delivered later in the MILITARY MINIATURES box. Brailie had switched the toy soldiers into the books box and took his sweet time to set them up on the morning of the crime.
His alibi, therefore, ain’t worth squat because it would only have taken him five minutes to set up the books on the shelf that evening, leaving the best part of two hours to kill Keegan and get back undetected.
Faced with such irrefutable evidence, Brailie has no choice but to concede deafeat. Columbo reads the Colonel his rights while the camera pans across the battlefield diorama, finally stopping on a familiar-looking miniature in a scruffy beige raincoat, as credits roll…
My memories of Grand Deceptions
I couldn’t tell you when I first watched this one (likely on TV in the 90s if I had to hazard a guess), but Grand Deceptions is certainly amongst my least-viewed Columbo episodes.
Having not watched this for the best part of a decade, my hazy recollections rather centre on the lack of charisma of central antagonist Frank Brailie and how thoroughly ungripping an adventure this was despite the military-themed backdrop. In fact I’d be hard-pushed to name an episode I remember being as dull as this one.
That aside, my mind was a blank canvas. I didn’t remember any of the secondary characters much less have an emotional connection to them, nor could I recall the motive for murder. On the plus side, I can’t call back any memories of stupid or flashy scenes that have blighted the comeback series so far – so maybe this’ll be better than I remember? Wouldn’t that be a bonus!
My take on Grand Deceptions
Rather like the good Lieutenant, I’m in the habit of beating around the bush a little before delivering a verdict. I’m not going to waste my time or yours keeping you waiting here, though: Grand Deceptions is screamingly boring television and depressing viewing for Columbo fans.
Watching this I’m left with two burning questions. Firstly, what has happened to the show’s ambitions? And second, was this the type of dreary fare Peter Falk had in mind when he agreed to resurrect the good Lieutenant? He must have expected better.
When I watch Columbo I want to be gripped by the relationship between detective and a big-name killer, and by the cleverness of the murder. I want to care about the secondary characters and sub-plots; and to be dazzled by the setting and score. I want to see Columbo absolutely nail the perp with a thrilling final reveal, and I want it all to be fun without being condescending or stupid.
It’s a lot to expect all of those boxes to be ticked in a single episode, but normally we can expect several of the key elements to come together to boost the viewer experience. Grand Deceptions delivers none of the above.
We may as well start at the top and consider the cast, which is distinctly underwhelming. I’m absolutely not saying they have no talent, but there’s no box office appeal here. Falk aside, the cast list could be that of any bog-standard TV show from the era. It’s a real comedown from the hey-day of the 1970s when viewers could expect to see silver screen icons in every episode – even in relatively minor roles.
“Frank Brailie may be the single least interesting Columbo killer of them all.”
I have nothing against Robert Foxworth (whom I remember fondly from two episodes of Star Trek DS9), but his Colonel Frank Brailie is one of the series’ least charismatic and least memorable villains. He’s joyless to watch and there’s no spark between him and the Lieutenant.
I like there to be a bit of needle between the two leads, or for them to have some sort of common ground to base a relationship on. Viewers perennially treasure the confrontation between Columbo and the likes of Bart Keppell, Adrian Carsini, Ken Franklin, Milo Janus and Abigail Mitchell because there’s something to hang onto in every exchange between detective and suspect.
Colonel Brailie gives us nothing to get worked up about. Yes, he’s an unlikable chap who’s only out for himself, but he doesn’t garner any sort of emotional response. In fact he may be the single least interesting Columbo killer of them all.
And even though Columbo claims that the two men ‘don’t like each other’ during the snooze-inducing finale, we don’t gain any of the pleasure we’ve previously gained from antagonistic confrontations against the Barry Mayfields, Paul Gerards and Mark Colliers of the world. Brailie is such a non-entity that it’s not even satisfying to see him taken down.
As for the rest of the characters, with the possible exception of General Padget I couldn’t give a monkey’s about any of them. Sergeant Major Keegan is a blackmailing tool who deserves his comeuppance, while Jenny Padget is the worst type of TV wife, one who romps sinfully behind her husband’s back, but of course deeply regrets it when the truth comes out.
When we find out that she and the Colonel are up to no good together, she swiftly establishes the nature of their relationship. “You know I don’t love you,” she nakedly whispers to Brailie from betwixt silk sheets. “What I love is being here with you, like this. Does that make me a bad woman?”
Before the Colonel can answer, I’ll step in. YES, IT DOES MAKE YOU A BAD WOMAN. And I don’t buy your later waterworks when the secret gets out. You knew what you were doing and deserve a damn good divorcing for it! Even your birthday gift to the General was a cruel joke because the wheelchair-bound bodger can’t even reach the middle of the battlefield model! I like to think Padget turfed her out immediately after the episode ended, but I rather suspect the soft-hearted old timer chose to forgive and forget.
Speaking of which, General Padget at least feels like a character with some depth and vulnerability – and not just because he’s in a wheelchair. It’s a good performance from Stephen Elliott, whom I only realised on this viewing is making his second Columbo appearance after starring as loathsome wife-beater Karl Donner in 1975’s A Deadly State of Mind. On both occasions his wife was having an affair, luckless chap.
His two Columbo performances are poles apart, so I have to give Elliott some credit. His Padget comes the closest to being a character to care about – although given the dearth of anyone else to give a damn about in this tepid adventure, that’s perhaps damning him with faint praise.
It places more than the usual onus on Falk to elevate proceedings, and I’m pleased to report that he’s pretty good in this one. He’s been toning the theatrics down the longer the season has gone on, and here seems to be back in his stride and playing the character as less of a pastiche and more of a natural extension of where an older Columbo ought to be.
He never really plays the fool in this one and is pretty direct by his standards – notably when forcing Jenny to admit her love affair, his thieving of the confidential report and during the episode finale when he slams Brailie with fact after mathematical fact.
There’s none of the usual fawning towards the chief suspect and Columbo even swiftly builds a strong and believable relationship with Padget, who appreciates his Civil War knowledge and trusts his deductive abilities. It’s another good example of how the real Columbo is able to effortlessly associate with prince or pauper – as long as they’re not a suspect.
There are signs, however, of softness setting in at the heart of the character and that worries me slightly. The Lieutenant has always been kindly by nature, but never soft. Think how he told Abigail Mitchell not to count on him being a nice man in Try & Catch Me – easily one of the greatest Columbo moments.
Here we see him simpering to Dog and burbling about how much he loves the scamp. No great sin, perhaps, but it’s a more tender take on the relationship between man and beast than we saw in the 70s. Back then, the love affair between the two seemed more charming and genuine precisely because it wasn’t overtly lovey. Another lovely subtlety gone west.
Still, that’s a very minor gripe and this is certainly Falk’s strongest single performance of the comeback season. If only the episode weren’t so miserably dull! In fact, Grand Deceptions is as boring to behold as it would be to actually sit and watch a war enthusiast solemnly tinkering with toy soldiers for 90 minutes.
As now seems to be the series norm the episode is achingly slow to unravel, and with so much emphasis on a corporate report, a battlefield diorama and the cubic capacity of packing boxes, there’s literally nothing to get excited about.
This is particularly true of the gotcha scene. Even though it’s very damning evidence, having Columbo laboriously explain the mathematics that show how the size of boxes bust Brailie’s alibi is a whole new level of tedium. I’ve encountered several fans who don’t understand the ending at all, although I surmise that’s not because it’s complicated – it’s just so uninteresting they switched off. The ending’s as flat as all that comes before it.
“Grand Deceptions is as boring to behold as it would be to actually sit and watch a war enthusiast solemnly tinkering with toy soldiers for 90 minutes.”
There are a few attempts to inject a little fun into proceedings, and while they’re not nearly as crippling as some of the appalling filler that blighted Sex & The Married Detective and Murder, Smoke & Shadows, the humour still fails to hit the mark – a pity, because this is an episode that desperately needed a little quality levity.
Attempt one sees Columbo interviewing a selection of the wannabe mercenaries about their experiences at the military camp. All are cliched loonies who offer nothing relevant to the plot whatsoever, while eliciting the sort of dumbfounded facial expressions from Falk that ought to have been accompanied by ‘sad trombone’ sound effects.
There’s also a dismal scene in the chapel during Keegan’s funeral where Columbo and Pentagon ‘ace’ Tanzer shuffle around and talk out of the sides of their mouths to each other for 4 mind-numbing minutes. To quote Adrian Carsini, “This… is… dreadful…“. Still, it’s more palatable than Columbo playing a frigging tuba, so that’s progress, right?
I can’t allow the Columbo-model-on-the-battlefield nonsense to go unmentioned, either. Despite toning the gotcha waaaaaaaaay down compared to Season 8’s previous three outings, they couldn’t quite resist the urge to include a flamboyant final touch, could they? That stupid model! Yes, I’d like to own it, but it has no place in a serious detective drama and is another example of the questionable production decisions being made.
To compound all this, I can’t even take solace in the quality of the score, which I honestly believe is the worst of the entire Columbo saga to date. Composer John Cacavas is undoubtedly a man of great ability, having created film and TV scores from the early 70s into the 2000s (including 12 episodes of Mrs Columbo), but I don’t feel his efforts here hit the mark at all.
“I honestly believe the score to Grand Deceptions is the worst of the entire Columbo saga to date.”
Cacavas also scored Columbo Goes to the Guillotine and has fallen into the same trap of making the music far too light and jolly, and therefore completely at odds with the mood of the episode. It’s predictably military-themed, but a twee and jaunty take that immediately grates and never improves.
To my fury, This Old Man has also been woven into the score on three occasions, moving it fully on from what was once a charming ditty Columbo would hum to himself to what is now essentially (and gracelessly) the character’s official theme. The crowning ‘glory’ is the accordion-infused closing tune that would be better suited to a French farce or a night at the circus. It’s a shocker! See for yourself…
Just about the only aspects of this episode I enjoy are both atypical for the series: namely the violent killing, and the series’ first incidence of bad language being used.
The killing is enjoyably action-packed and shows that the ninja-licious Colonel Brailie is actually still a bit of a bad-ass, despite now being more of a paper-pusher. The cursing, when Padget refers to Brailie as a ‘thieving bastard‘, comes as something of a surprise given the show’s traditionally gentle scripting, but is certainly warranted and doesn’t feel like it was thrown in too gratuitously. A good move.
That aside, though, there’s genuinely nothing else that stands out. Grand Deceptions is a thoroughly forgettable and unremarkable story that does nothing to enhance the reputation of one of TV’s brightest ever stars. If anything, it exemplifies how far standards have dropped.
“Grand Deceptions is the poorest component of a return season that had its moments, but all too often disappointed.”
In an interview in early 1989, series creator and Executive Producer William Link waxed lyrical about the continuing efforts to ensure Columbo mysteries remaining at TV’s cutting edge, assuring readers: “We are sticklers about the best material.”
Unfortunately for viewers, Grand Deceptions is anything but the best material. It’s the poorest component of a return season that had its moments, but all too often disappointed. If this is the best the Columbo creative team can come up with, the question must be asked: was it worth bringing the Lieutenant out of retirement at all?
Did you know?
Grand Deceptions is one of the very few episodes that supports the premise that Columbo’s first name is Frank. If you look closely at the evidence bag he shows to Colonel Brailie (at approx 43 mins into the episode), ‘Lt Frank Columbo‘ can just about be made out.
This follows on from the name Frank (or Franck) also being legible on Columbo’s police ID badge in 70s’ episodes Dead Weight and A Matter of Honor. Despite this, however, Peter Falk, Dick Levinson and William Link always stipulated that the Lieutenant’s first name was unknown, so it’s up to you whether to accept it as canon or not.
How I rate ’em
When an episode is this DULL, DULL, DULL you can bet it won’t come close to troubling the top of the leader board – and so it proves as Grand Deceptions plummets to the foot of the early standings. While I’m not directly comparing the new episodes to the classic era at this stage, Grand Deceptions would be in the D-List – way down with the likes of Dagger of the Mind and the similarly uninspiring Old Fashioned Murder.
It’s all the more disappointing when you consider that episode director Sam Wanamaker also helmed my very favourite Columbo outing – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case from 1977. How the mighty have fallen.
Missed any of my earlier Season 8 episode reviews? Then simply click the links below.
If you want to check out any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews, or see how I rank them in order, they can all be accessed here. And if you’re a relative of Robert Foxworth and want to boost his morale after this press savaging, you can vote for Grand Deceptions in the fans’ favourite episode poll here. Virtually no one has up ’til now…
Now it’s over to you. Am I being unfair on what you consider to be a hidden gem of the Columbo universe? Or are you just as underwhelmed as I am by this vanilla offering? All (polite) opinions are welcome.
And so we move on to Columbo’s ninth season, with my focus next to switch to Murder, A Self Portrait. Featuring a Bond villain as a moody, murderous, polyamorous European artist, it at least sounds fairly promising. Can it deliver? Fingers crossed…