The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 7: 40-31

Smirking IMP!
NB – If you’ve missed any of the previous instalments of the top 100 countdown, head here to check ’em out first.

Six parts down, four to go! Today we count down from #40-31 in the top 100 Columbo scenes of the 70s and I can guarantee you it’s all hits, no filler.

I do hope you’ll enjoy these latest selections, which include scenes from some of the series’ most enduringly popular episodes. If you can, do take the time to digest each scene in full to maximise your appreciation of these truly marvellous moments.

40. Tommy’s pool party – Swan Song

How does a music megastar bounce back from the tragic loss of his dear wife and a young backing singer? If you’re Tommy Brown, you party hard with bikini-clad scorchers to help sweeten the bitter pill – directly after the dual funeral!

This scene has everything: a bevvy of young hotties, booze galore, Johnny singing one of his best-loved songs in Sunday Morning Coming Down, a dust-up between Tommy and hated brother-in-law Luke, an Elvis lookalike and Columbo’s stomach-turning introduction to squirrel chilli.

Best of all, it’s a clear indication that Tommy’s ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rock star hedonism is to become his new norm, while giving the Lieutenant ample reason to suspect the apathetic singer of murder. Condensing all this into less than 3 minutes is some seriously good storytelling.

39. “I’ve had a haircut.” Now You See Him

One of the series’ best visual gags accompanies Columbo’s introduction in Now You See Him – as his hated new coat makes its short-lived appearance.

Emerging from his car at the Cabaret of Magic, viewers can instantly tell something ain’t quite right with the Lieutenant’s appearance and it doesn’t take long for the realisation to sink in that he’s not wearing his ever-present mac. When a uniformed officer fails to recognise him, Columbo’s straight-faced explanation that “I’ve had a haircut,” is therefore 24-carat comedy gold.

Peter Falk’s ability to come across as being stiff and self-conscious in the coat perfectly leads into an episode’s worth of rib-tickling asides as Columbo does his best to rid himself of the offending garment – even urging Dog to look away if someone attempts to lift it from his car later in the episode. No wonder Falk rated the gag as one of his very favourite from the 70s’ series.

38. Edith’s golden cameo – Requiem for a Falling Star

Fitting for an episode that features such luscious fashions throughout, legendary costumier Edith Head cameos here and comes up with a new tie for Columbo to help Nora spruce up his shabby appearance, while all the while her array of Oscars are clearly visible on the desk behind. Deliciously, one of these Oscars was won in 1951 for her costume work on All About Eve – a film for which Anne Baxter won a Best Actress nomination.

It’s a delightful Easter Egg of a scene, made even better by the fact that Peter Falk would present Head with a further Oscar the following year for her work on The Sting. Could it be that Falk was given this award to present because of Head’s Columbo appearance? I rather hope so.

37. No love lost – Murder Under Glass

The conclusion to Murder Under Glass is really rather tasty – due in no small measure to the mutual contempt Columbo and Paul Gerard hold each other in. They’ve disguised it well throughout, but in reality the two men are as incompatible as milk and melons.

Once he’s been busted, Gerard doesn’t bother to maintain the pretence any more, letting Columbo know outright that he doesn’t care for him very much. More unusual is that Columbo responds in kind, telling Gerard that while he respects his talent, he really doesn’t like him at all.

Such open antagonism is extremely rare from the mild-mannered Lieutenant, who generally keeps a very close guard on his true feelings. It ensures that the erudite Gerard is lumped in with Dr Barry Mayfield and Milo Janus as villains that Columbo – and the viewer – simply can’t stand. 

This scene is also significant in that Columbo reveals he’s been on to Gerard from the first moments they met – because the food critic didn’t head to hospital upon learning that his dinner companion Vito had died of poisoning. It’s a telling truth that has been hiding in plain sight throughout the episode and nicely comes full circle here.

36. Dale unleashed – Suitable for Framing

Episode writer Jackson Gillis was clearly poking some fun at the art scene of the time here, as Dale Kingston unleashes all his critical skills at the art exhibition of ‘that hack’ Sam Franklin to establish his alibi in AMAZING style.

Dale’s wisecracks and japes about the specific exhibits and art more widely have his tanked-up, shallow entourage bewitched and roaring with laughter. Big Dale ably exhibits his mammoth ego by laughing louder and longer than anyone else as he throws back the Champagne with gay abandon, while wearing a crushed velvet tuxedo.

Intercut with action from the crime scene of accomplice Tracey securing Dale’s alibi, all props to Ross Martin who is fabulously loathsome throughout this scene, which I can happily watch over and over again.

35. Dodging a bullet – Lady in Waiting

By episode’s end, Beth Chadwick is so far off the right path that she pulls a gun on Columbo when he confronts her at her home. The Lieutenant, however, manages to extricate himself from near-certain death through a winning combination of charm and guile.

“There’s no point in that, not with the police officers outside,” Columbo says as calmly as if he were passing the time of day with a grocery store clerk. “Besides,” he adds. “You’re too classy a woman.”

Won over by his chivalrous words, Beth smiles demurely, hands over the gun and heads off to slip into something less alluring before being taken downtown. Columbo, meanwhile, steps outside to light his cigar with an unshaking hand. The camera draws back through the dark garden to reveal that there’s not a single other officer present after all.

Not only does this scene give a magnificent insight into how well Columbo understands Beth’s needs and frailties after years of male oppression, he also gives a masterclass in staying cool under pressure. Plaudits to Susan Clark, too, who completely convinces as a woman seized with doubt at a crucial moment.

34. Brandt blows it – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case

One of the best Columbo gotchas provides us with a fine example of the Lieutenant’s inherent ability to pull the right strings to force the hand of his suspect.

Feeling tortured and truly alone after killing his only real friend, Oliver Brandt is manipulated into revealing his guilt simply by being unable to resist the urge to prove his mental superiority over his fellow Sigma Society geniuses through solving the unsolvable murder (which, lest we forget, even the viewer doesn’t fully understand until Brandt shows us here).

A scene boasting dramatic staging (complete with thunder and lightning), and employing simple yet effective face-to-face cuts between the leads to ramp up the tension, the engrossing turn of Theo Bikel as Brandt is central to its success. He accelerates through several emotions (including howling indignity) before triumph gives way to a horrible realisation that he’s given the game away. It’s a frenzied performance that takes the breath away.

Rich Weill expert analysis: “A great example of Columbo knowing exactly what makes his adversary tick. He plays Oliver Brandt like a Stradivarius. Brandt admits what little regard has for his fellow Sigma Society “geniuses.” He must prove his superiority, and Columbo pushes him to do just that.”

33. From the heart – Try & Catch Me

After being thrown under the bus when the cheeky Abigail Mitchell summons him on stage to deliver an impromptu speech to the ladies’ luncheon, Columbo rises to the occasion to deliver one of the series’ most memorable monologues.

In a simple, honest speech, Columbo reveals more about his mindset and motivations in 90 seconds than we’ve seen in most of the previous six seasons combined. Meanwhile, his admission that there’s something to like in everyone – even the killers he meets – gives Abi reason to regard him hopefully as a figure who may be sympathetic to her should the truth about Edmund’s death be revealed.

All in all, then, this is a fascinating, fleeting glimpse of the man behind the mysterious facade.

Jenn Zuko expert analysis: “Abigail Mitchell is that rare murderer whose game is all about out-Columbo-ing Columbo. As such, it’s delightful to see her patter her way into forcing the bashful Lieutenant onstage to speak to a group of murder mystery lovers. It’s telling that she begins by talking about duels between adversaries before handing the mic to Columbo, and when he does speak, it’s a beautiful (and also rare) window into his true feelings about his job. It’s a wonderful, sincere Columbo moment.”

32. Music to murder by – Etude in Black

Philandering music Maestro Alex Benedict has a problem on his hands in the shape of beautiful pianist, Jennifer Welles. The two have been having a love affair, and Jennifer is now threatening to blow the whistle if Benedict doesn’t leave his young wife Janice.

Benedict loves money too much to remove himself from the wealthy Fielding family bosom, which can only mean one thing: murder! So, after sneaking round to Jennifer’s house (in broad daylight, wearing a conspicuous disguise, and driving a very recognisable car) he shows his sheer ruthlessness by braining her with an ashtray as she lovingly soothes him with a piano ditty.

Beautifully staged and edited to spare viewers the sight of any actual violence, this is one of the series’ most powerful and memorable murders.

Aurora Bugallo expert analysis: “As far as murders go, the one in Etude in Black is as memorable as they come. The dramatics of it are fantastic. We do not see the actual blow to the young pianist’s head but as soon as it happens, we hear sudden, loud music and the cockatoo’s shriek. It is constructed beautifully and the effects are chilling. The mistake of the boutonnière left behind also adds to the suspense.”

31. Murder on the glass – Death Lends a Hand

A double-whammy of TV excellence, the artistically portrayed killing of Lenore Kennicut is followed up by one of the series’ most iconic examples of innovative editing.

The murder itself is gorgeously filmed and edited to show Brimmer losing his cool and delivering a fatal blow to Lenore. As she topples backwards to strike her head on table corner, we’re mercifully spared the sight of the impact as the footage cuts to shattering glass in another of the series’ great Hitchcockian moments.

Brimmer’s horrified realisation at what he’s done is shown by a slow zoom and freeze on his face, while his cleaning up of the crime scene is presented to viewers via montage projected on his spectacles set against a chilling Gil Melle score.

The work of late master editor Edward M Abroms, the montage is routinely cut from network showings, making it all the more important that as many Columbo fans as possible are able to appreciate its brilliance.

“The murder itself is gorgeously filmed and edited to show Brimmer losing his cool and delivering a fatal blow to Lenore.”

Alright gang, that’s your lot for today. Thanks, as always, for taking the time to visit the site and I’ll see you on Thursday for Part 8. Until then, adios, and do share your thoughts on the latest entries below…

Read Part 8 of the countdown here

Top 100 previous installments

Thanks to my fellow expert panellists: Steven Moffat, Mark Dawidziak, Aurora Bugallo, Alex Deane, Jenny Hammerton, Paul Hughes, Dean Matthews, Theo Solorio, David van den Bosch, Rich Weill and Jenn Zuko. Read more about ’em all here.

I don’t claim to own the copyright of the videos featured in this article, which are the property of NBCUniversal. The clips accompanying this article are either already in the public domain via the official Columbo YouTube channel, or being used under Fair Use legislation as part of my on-going efforts to thoroughly critique and analyse the series. I encourage readers to invest in the DVD box-set if financially viable.

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Gun, scotch and lacy negligee? Beth Chadwick is my kind of woman!
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