Featuring a heavyweight clash between Columbo and Milo Janus, Season 4 opener An Exercise in Fatality is a muscular beast of an episode that packs quite a punch (fitness puns conclude here, you’ll be glad to hear).
With Janus easily being amongst the most despicable Columbo baddies of all, Fatality features many a memorable moment as the two antagonistic leads lock horns. But just what are its very best moments? That’s a tough question to answer.
Undaunted, I huffed and puffed on my rotten cigar until I was able to bring this list of episode highlights to you. Will you agree with my choices or roundly reject them like a fuming Gene Stafford flinging away Milo Janus brand paperclips? Read on to find out…
NB – I insist you read this with the Milo Janus jingle playing on loop in the background.
“Feeling flat? Tired and fat? Milo Janus is where it’s at.
Keeping trim, healthy and slim, with Milo Janus, you’re in the swim.
Yoo-ooour new life is waiting to begin at Milo Janus,
Gee-eet in shape, we’ll see you through thick and thin – everybody…
Start your day, shed pounds away, you’ll start to feel calm and well!
The only thing you have to gain is your health.”
Now read on – and this time I really mean it.
5. A cold-blooded killing
Gene Stafford may have been rather an abrasive character, who perhaps should have exercised a shade more caution when outlining his plans to expose Milo Janus’s shady business dealings, but he still deserved a lot better than the terrifying way he ultimately checked out at the gym franchise kingpin’s muscular hands.
After dodging Janus’s first attempt to crush his windpipe by tipping a pot of coffee over his arm, Gene took flight through his deserted health club in a doomed bid to outdistance his pursuer. It didn’t take long for Janus to track him down and choke him to death with an iron pipe, though, in what represents one of the series’ most ferocious, frightening and high-impact crimes.
4. Addled on the doorstep
What could have been a meaningless moment achieved iconic status when Milo J’s stunning lover Jessica Conroy opened the door to Columbo while wearing just a tiny, cherry-print bikini.
Echoing the likely reaction of a high proportion of viewers, the addled Lieutenant loses his chain of thought and burbles away on the doorstep while a smiling Jessica gently prods fun at his momentary lapse. It may not be one of the most important Columbo moments but it’s a whole lot of fun and goes a long way to explaining why Gretchen Corbett maintains a special place in the heart of millions of fans to this day.
3. Keeping up with the Janus
Too many cigars and too much chilli take their toll on Columbo when a Q&A session with Milo Janus takes an unwelcome twist. Collaring Janus during his morning workout at the beach, Columbo is unwittingly drawn into a long and arduous jog across punishing sands while fully attired in his usual wok outfit – raincoat and all.
The red-faced and sweaty Lieutenant that emerges at Janus’s home at the end of the jog is a spent force, while his foe symbolically remains bursting with energy. Luckily for Columbo, cracking the case is a marathon, not a sprint – and in the long run, we can be confident he’ll ultimately prevail.
2. Taking out the trash
Columbo can’t stand Milo Janus – a fact he doesn’t even try to hide, such is the low esteem he holds the man in. It makes the gotcha scene spectacularly satisfying, for both the viewer and the Lieutenant, as Columbo reveals a lengthy list of damning evidence.
From the broken alibi and shoelace knots that prove somebody else dressed Gene in his gym gear to the splices found in a tape recording of Gene ringing the office, Columbo has compiled a complete case that will give Janus no wriggle room in a court of law.
The best bit? Janus’s own sworn testimony that Gene was already in his gym clothes during the phony conversation after the murder is what will prove to be his undoing. “You tried to contrive a perfect alibi, sir,” Columbo chides. “And it’s your perfect alibi that’s going to hang ya.” That’s karma, baby!
1. The hospital showdown
Columbo losing his cool is such a rare thing that when it happens, it really matters. And when he loses his cool with Milo Janus at the hospital following Ruth Stafford’s overdose, it’s as angry as we ever see him.
We’ve seen flashes of temper from Columbo before, notably in Prescription: Murder and A Stitch in Crime. The first – his tirade at Joan Hudson – was not real rage at all, but a calculated act designed to intimidate the weak link in his investigation. The latter, when he slammed a pitcher down on the desk of the laughing Dr Mayfield, seemed genuine, although Columbo’s ulterior motive of forcing Mayfield into showing his hand was certainly a factor in his reaction.
There’s no such subterfuge here as the disgusted Lieutenant enters into a prolonged diatribe against Janus that has nothing to do with furthering his case and has everything to do with letting the world know what he really thinks of his chief suspect. It’s raw, it’s authentic and it makes for utterly gripping viewing.
“Columbo losing his cool is such a rare thing that when it happens, it really matters.”
Well guys and gals, that concludes our exercise program for today. As always, I’d be most interested to hear from you about your own highlights. This is an episode packed with ’em, so narrowing it down was quite a challenge.
If you’re now desperate for more of a fitness fix, you can read my full review of An Exercise in Fatality here. You can also read up on where the dastardly Milo Janus ranks in the list of most loathsome Columbo killers right here. Spoiler: it’s very high.
Until next time, farewell. If you’d care to share this article on your social media channels, I’d be most grateful. After all, when I grow, you grow. Oh, and those cigars you smoke? They’re gonna kill ya…
Ever notice when Lt Columbo is in the ER that the Hospital PA system is paging Nurse Colbert twice and the PA address voice sounds like guest star Grethen Colbert.
This episode is brilliant, perhaps the best. The villain is the exact opposite of Columbo in every way, and the only one who sincerely makes Coluumbo lose his cool and reveal that he thinks he is the murderer before he even has the convicting evidence in hand. All good comments here on how a defense lawyer could spin Columbo’s evidence. But as someone noted already, Janis is a dead duck at trial because of one thing. There would be no record of Stafford’s 9:00pm call originating from the health spa in the phone record, but from the Janis house instead. The staged conversation Milo had is really what would have convicted him with the jury. 12-0.
But there would have been no record of either call at that time, if they were both local calls. Glenn Stewart did an excellent deep dive into this issue, which CP posted on the blog, as it comes up so often. Local calls simply were not logged by the phone company in this era (because subscribers paid a flat fee for their local calls, and the phone company only logged calls for which subscribers were billed extra).
Has anyone else noticed the exaggeration regarding Milo’s age? I mean, the actor was not even 40 at the time the filming took place (being born in 1935), clearly looked 45-48 (by today’s standards), but they even went further to state that he’s 53! I guess that in 1974, people aged 53 were looking quite bad.
Actually, the actor was looking much older than his real age, which makes this even funnier.
Archie Bunker is a perfect example of what men looked like in their late 40’s and 50’s. Hope this helps put things in perspective.
Does anyone know who the actress is that plays the computer operator that Columbo feels dismissed by? She looks like Maggie from The Walking Dead (but 20 years before her time).
Her name is Susan Jacoby
This would have been a perfect episode if Robert Conrad’s character’s name was Hugh instead of Milo.
Yes, the scripts so often come from the headlines, and I agree with you and Jef from AntWerp that the episodes are fascinating as historical testimonials. The inspiration has got to be that Jerry Lewis scandal, thanks for the info. The writers were probably loathe to overcomplicate things, and they must have mentioned the SEC for simplicity. But there’s no indication Milo’s company was public or that the fraud related to the exchange of securities, so his fraudery would have been outside the SEC’s regulatory authority. Rather, it looks like this was FTC stuff – either the Franchise Rule, which is about franchisee disclosures, or possibly laws barring monopolization, if he was concealing ownership of vertical companies. (Back then, rules against vertical ownership and other antitrust laws were actually enforced, which they aren’t today – google is a case in point.) But it looks like it has more to do with franchisee fraud. Maybe we can get some regulatory supergenius to weigh in.
Anyway I couldn’t agree more that the historical stuff – material, cultural, and everything else – is just kickass.
sorry, this was supposed to be in reply to Tony Goddard, May 24: https://columbophile.com/2020/05/24/five-best-moments-from-an-exercise-in-fatality/#comment-46261
oh dear, this was supposed to be in reply to Tom Goddard, May 24: https://columbophile.com/2020/05/24/five-best-moments-from-an-exercise-in-fatality/#comment-46261
The jogging scene on the beach is also mirrored in columbo cries wolfwhen colimbo is quizzing tina cries wolf airs shortly on 5 usa shortly there are few memorable moments amid this 90s caper .
Acording to my guidee double exppsure , etude in black , forgotton lady, fade in to murder and identity crisis ( star pick ) are all on how about that for a line up ¿
My top 5 moments of An Exercise in Fatality:
1) Jessica Conroy (Gretchen Corbett) in a bikini
2) Columbo’s reaction to Jessica Conroy in a bikini
3) See #1
4) See #1
5) See #1
Definitely a strong episode. I didn’t mind seeing Gene getting off’d by Milo, at all. It was so stupid for him to repeatedly throw in Milo’s face how he was going to bust him. When Gene’s ex threw water on Milo’s face in the restaurant, Milo gets smarmy with a waitress, like he wanted to fight her. That showed how lame and inferior he was, which was totally opposite of his egomaniacal facade.
It was a perfect role for Robert Conrad, who always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder, like the Eveready battery commercials of the late ’70’s, where he would “dare you” to knock a battery off his shoulder. Conrad clearly had a Napolean style short man’s syndrome. (Duracell batteries are far superior to Eveready’s)
Yeah, Gene definitely deserved what he got. Besides, Milo looked so hot as he tracked down and killed him. 🙂
Hi good weather here in the uk and easing out of lockdown but if u choose to stay in this sunday heres 5 usa line up from 9,35
Uneasy lies the crown
Any old port in a storm
Ashes to ashes
The the bye bye sky high iq murder (star pick)
Columbo cries wolf
Plenty of good stuff , the bye and double exposure easily my fav 2 uneasy lies the crown also very decent , but i will make sure i miss ashes to ashes as i consider it one of the worts new ones .
Always thought it was interesting that Jessica was absent from the final scene, and as a result Milo had to answer the phone, hearing Gene Stafford’s voice. I suspect there may have been an additional scene, either deleted or never filmed in the first place, where Columbo tells Jessica to get lost, possibly in angry fashion, possibly even threatening her with being charged as an accessory ala “Deadly State of Mind”, or the above mentioned “Prescription: Murder”.
The way I see it, after Columbo found out how the tape player worked, he laid out his case to Jessica, who would’ve helped him get the info he needed. She wasn’t a bad gal, so I think Columbo would have easily made an ally of her.
An additional scene is unlikely. You want the audience to react to Stafford’s voice on the phone exactly like Janus reacts. You don’t want anything preceding the scene that tips Columbo’s hand to the audience. When that phone rings, before Janus, answers, you don’t want the viewer knowing it was something Columbo set up.
Janus does notice Jessica’s absence. He walks in the office, sees she’s not there, checks his watch, and also looks at the wall clock: 9:30. So it’s clear she’s late. That’s enough, and doesn’t give anything away.
As soon as Columbo asks Jessica : “why wasn’t he surprised when
you answered the phone in the house?”, we see that a complete change of mood from her, probably realizing the conversation may have been a fake.
Columbo could have told her he strongly suspects MJ of murder. IMHO, she’s not late at work, she simply doesn’t want to come to work for someone who is about to be arrested for murder!
Remember, MJ asks her not to tape the conversation with Gene Stafford.at the beginning of the episode. Jessica can also pieces things together…
OK, I give up. I’ve had that jingle in my head for days trying to figure out that 2nd-to-last line, and it finally broke me. Maybe we can make this a group-think. Here are my thoughts: I don’t buy that the final word or phrase is “commonwealth”. This is a bright and cheery motivational jingle to get people to fork over their money to Milo Janus, and if people are scratching their heads wondering what an arcane word like “commonwealth” is doing there, then the point of the jingle is lost. It’s like they say in politics – if you’re explaining, you’re losing. And I’ve seen some pretty torturous explanations for “commonwealth” being there. I don’t believe that it has to be an exact rhyme with “health”. In fact, I don’t detect the “th” sound in that word at all, which is why “well” makes more sense to me.
It seems to also say “you’re” or “your”, and whatever it is that sounds like “common”. It’s hard to get a song word or phrase unstuck from your head when you’re convinced of it – just ask everyone who was sure that Creedence Clearwater was singing “There’s a bathroom on the right”. So I think folks are stuck on “common”, when “calm and…” or “coming” might also fit. The only other thing to add would be that the second syllable would seem to start with the “s” sound. Other commenters have suggested ” To Salvage” or “diScover”, so I think my instincts are sound on that.
Whatever the line is, it has to slide neatly into simple lyrics that motivate people to lose weight and stay fit. If the line feels clunky and forced, it’s not the right line. Having said all this, I still have no real clue what they’re singing, and I need to get some other songs in my head or I’ll go nuts.
“Feeling flat, tired and fat, Milo Janus is where it’s at”
“Keeping trim, healthy and slim, with Milo Janus you’re in the swim”
“Your new life is waiting to begin at Milo Janus”
“Get in shape, we’ll see you soon fit and thin!”
“Start your day, shed pounds away, you’ll start to feel calm and well”
“The only thing you have to gain is your health!”
I believe you’ve finally cracked the mystery of the hard-to-decipher penultimate line. Well done, sir!
Matt, thank you for the reply to that 5/29 blog entry! I posted that a few months ago when I was still contributing to threads in my wife’s name Cyndi, and it seems we agree that “calm” and “well” are the magic words. I went through jingle hell to take a tentative stab at that, so I feel vindicated with your confirmation and – of course – CP’s official stamp of approval to what you’ve written for the final verdict on that lyric.
HI Nice to see another 5 best moments , I am not a Tremendous fan of An exercise in fatality and it falls outside my overall top 10 but its a very solid episode and I think CP has got it bang on , the Hospital is NO doubt the best moment even one of the best in the entire series ,
I like the carrot juice moment after the morning jog , I wonder did CP consider including it ? I place it second to the anger moment in a stitch in crime though IF there was a worst moment it would have to be columbo waiting for the fax details at the information centre , it goes on for ages and is not that funny . one thing though i didnt know smoking was allowed in hospital waiting rooms unless sit was ok in 70s LA
I’m pretty sure the penultimate line of Milo Janus’ STIRRING ANTHEM is “discover you’re coming well”…
…that’s what we always sing in our house anyway.
I never noticed the design on the bikini. Other aspects of that scene always, umm, distracted me.
By the bye, isn’t it “train of thought” rather than “chain of thought”?
1 – In the many, many times I have seen either this entire episode or the accusation scene at the hospital, I have only now noticed the tidbit the writer(s) weave in here of Janus saying that Columbo must have misunderstood his *verbal statement* about the car dealership, giving Columbo the impetus to ask, emphatically and clearly, if Janus avers his sworn statement in the Gotcha scene. Beautifully done.
2 – About those shoelaces: I read quite awhile ago (on another Columbo fan site whose name escapes me at the moment) that, technically speaking, Gene Stafford is, in fact, left-handed when we see him writing at his desk in the scene where he threatens Janus. Personally, I find it to be nothing more than an interesting tidbit about the actor, as opposed to a failure on Columbo’s part.
Although once you start down that road, where the later disavowal of an earlier statement (however that disavowal is phrased) somehow nullifies the prior statement, then no unrecorded oral statement is safe. What makes “Janus aver[ring orally] his sworn statement” any more permanent and valuable than his “‘verbal statement’ about the car dealership”? If Janus is allowed to disavow one, he can also disavow the other.
In truth, whatever claims Janus makes, Columbo can still testify to what he heard, Janus can then give his version, and the jury will decide.
Regarding the disavowal in the hospital, I always thought that Columbo was making sure this took place in front of witnesses as well as himself, hence him asking for a light and a magazine from the surrounding people. This is somewhat undercut by Columbo simply taking off immediately after the confrontation but he does spend a moment exchanging glances with the strangers surrounding him and appears to want to verify that the exchange was heard by others.
Left-handedness is not an issue at all, as Stafford’s still-tied brown shoes that Columbo retrieved displayed the reverse orientation to those found on the corpse.
I think the song says “…to salvage your common wealth…” I think.
I believe it’s “Discover your common wealth!”
I always think that the killers have clearly never watched an episode of Columbo, if they think he won’t ever be able to prove they are guilty! If only Columbo could give him some dvd’s, so he could see what he’s up against! If i was writing a reboot, i’d have that in one scene. And everybody would hate it! It would be my tuba moment, a bit of absurdity for my own amusement.
That hospital scene reveals a Lieutenant as “unfiltered” as one would ever get. A precious moment.
Super enjoyable episode, but the series is so good it doesn’t crack my top ten. The gym is hilarious, it’s so 70’s with the awful wood paneling and carpet. I’m surprised they didn’t have a bar in it!
For those who look for reliable indicators of the Columbo backstory, Columbo’s phone call to his wife, while alone in Stafford’s office, is a notable event. Let no one say Mrs. Columbo is only a figment of Columbo’s imagination, used for investigative purposes.
Actually I think Gretchen in her Cherry bikini will make the top 100 moments. She is so natural and beautiful!
Love the “gotcha” in this episode because it’s so simple,he tripped himself up in his sworn statement, there’s no way he can get out of that!
Wow, you nailed this one. Before I started reading I said to myself, “Jessica opens the door, and Columbo loses it at Janus in the hospital.” You did not disappoint.
This is an excellent episode all around, one of my favorites.
Exercise in Fatality is of the very best episodes, and Robert Conrad is superbly believable as both murderer and fraudster. I find it amazing this doesn’t regularly appear at or near top of favourite lists !
Franchising was the hot sector of the era, and I suspect this story may be based on real events. As with the Robert Culp episodes, there is a strong sense of authenticity, but Conrad replaces charm and style with alpha male menace.
As is often the case, the denouement (shoe lace thing) is somewhat ridiculous and would hardly hold up in court. But, hey ho, the SEC would certainly have secured lengthy jail term plus disgorgement of illegally obtained riches !
I think the denouement is rock solid! The shoelaces account for approx. 2% of the evidence Columbo has against Janus, and his ‘Gene in gym clobber’ sworn statement is very damning. There are few killers more demonstrably guilty than Milo J. He’s going down for a looooooong time!
I agree with Mark. It’s weak. Columbo still hasn’t placed Janus at the scene, and his sworn statement isn’t as damning at it might seem. There’s another interpretation of the facts that could be brought up in court: Suppose Gene did call Milo and tell him he was in his gym clothes. He does his workout, changes back into his street clothes, and is then killed by an intruder, who puts him back into his gym clothes a second time. Far-fetched, but no more so than Columbo’s theory. The case hinges on proving Gene was dressed by someone else, and I still insist a good lawyer would be able to confuse any number of jurors about all that top loop and big toe nonsense. I’ve always thought this was a strong episode until the last fifteen minutes.
I agree with CP on this. We’re too accustomed to the case against a Columbo villain centering on one fatal blow. In many criminal cases, particularly homicide cases (as there is no living victim who witnessed the crime), the evidence of guilt is a totality of lots of small pieces. And the weigh given to each piece increases immeasurably the more it fits seamlessly together with all the other pieces. [By the way, jurors, particularly as they can only convict or acquit when they’re unanimous, aren’t so easily fooled. The myth of the clever lawyer bamboozling a jury with cheap theatrics is fairly unrealistic.]
The problem though is that all the small pieces have to fit, and one of those critical small pieces is convincing the jury that the conversion is fake and staged, I think a decent lawyer is able to a wrench to the prosecution’s strategy. A good lawyer will be able to make the statement about the gym clothes seem circumstancial, it could be argued easily that Gene told Milo he was working out and the next logical guess is the guy is in gym clothes. It’s an entertaining story of Columbo cracking the case, but to get a conviction is a different story. Like the majority of Columbo stories, we never see past the arrest, so theres a good chance all these killers are free
If anyone else had changed Stafford’s clothes there would have been signs of a forced entry, but the building was locked. Janus also told the five people at his party that he had driven out to that guy’s business that was supposedly closed. Also the telephone company would have no record of Stafford ringing Janus. The prosecution case is water-tight.
Most of that is circumstantial, but there would have been a telephone record of the internal call from his home too, when he called from one line in his house to the second line to set up his alibi. That was a dead giveaway.
I know we’ve been through this before, but Columbo’s job is not to convict anyone. He only needs enough for an indictment. Then it’s up to the lawyers. In this case, Milo’s alibi is blown (the phone call was a phony) and there’s the shady business dealings that the victim was investigating, That should be enough for a grand jury, IMO.
Right. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand time, Columbo’s arrest is just the start of the investigation, it’s hardly the end. In the case of Janus, the DA’s office would have investigated Janus’ business dealings and eventually it would have be found that Gene Stafford was also investigating and on the verge of discovering the racket Janus running. That would have established a strong motive for Janus to kill Stafford. Add that up with everything else and you have a conviction.
I think people get hung up on the shoelace clue in this episode because it’s Columbo’s trigger clue and because he takes a loooooong time to explain it to Janus at the end. They make the mistake of believing it’s the single most damning piece of evidence, which it certainly isn’t. Columbo has Janus banged to rights here and there’s simply no way the guy will go free. HURRAH!
Policemen don’t convict. Prosecutors don’t convict. Jurors convict. But it is the job of the police to gather sufficient evidence to convict. Not just to arrest, not just to indict, but to convict. Because once there is an arrest, a clock starts, and the opportunity for further investigation is limited. The prosecutor can use the grand jury to gather evidence, but that’s usually for long-term investigations that precede an arrest. In homicide cases, using the grand jury post-arrest to help build a case does happen, but usually for simple things like phone and bank records, or if there is an uncooperative witness who needs to be compelled to testify.
And then there are the cases where public safety requires that police get a dangerous killer off the street before he kills again, even if the case against him, while sufficient to arrest, is not yet complete. Columbo’s cases never seem to involve that consideration (even though many of his murderers do kill again).
But even in cases where the DA determines that further investigation is warranted, that investigation is usually conducted by the police who originally handled the case. Both parties prefer it that way. The police resent anyone pulling a case out from under them; and the DA wants to send the message that police who’ve only gathered enough evidence to arrest haven’t done their job.
The evidence against Janis is much more than just the “shoe lace thing”. I think some people get too caught up on that, acting as if it’s the only piece of evidence that Columbo has to hang Janus with.
I love the scene when columbo visits Janus at his house for the first time and notices the burn on his hand. Janus says he got it while shaving BUT columbo, already knowing better, says the same thing happened to him when he spilled hot coffee on himself. There was that first dig from columbo implying Columbo already suspects Janus. 😏 We love figuring out in Columbos at exactly what point he suspects the murderers.
That is so true Nancy!
One of the worst killers in the series, moved only by greed.
A superb and very strong episode, and one i’ve always enjoyed. It stands regular repeated viewing. At the time there was something of a scandal in America surrounding the Jerry Lewis Cinema franchise scheme, (Jerry unwisely lent his name to a franchise company). Many of the franchisees where complaining bitterly about having to buy rubbish equipment from approved suppliers and being forced to screen B pictures and kids movies at peak time.
This was being covered in the US press at the time this episode was scripted, and i’ve always wondered whether this was a comment on that, and other, dubious franchise schemes.
As a fan of vintage tech in Columbo episodes, Gretchen’s reel to reel recorder in the drawer, her IBM selectric mk1 typewriter and Milo messing around with the line indicating lamps on some classic Western Electric phones of the period doesn’t disappoint.
You’re right. Technology is a very important and interesting issue in most of Columbo episodes (telephones, recorders, telephone answerers, videotapes, computers, camera’s, etc.).
The episodes (and this one in particular) are interesting historic testimonies: not only the tech, not only the development of franchise, but also the growing importance of physical training was a new thing. People didn’t run in the streets, in the parcs or on the beach until the 70ties, when physical condition became a hot item, and people started to pay for the sweat they left. (Until then, it was more common to get money for the sweat one leaves.)