Episode review: Columbo Cries Wolf

Columbo Cries Wolf opening titles

Columbo’s first foot in the 1990s was a thoroughly modern and unique outing, with the Lieutenant investigating a suspected murder within the Playboy-style ‘naughty magazine’ sector. Daring!

Starring the Cheshire Cat-grinning Ian Buchanon and Days of Our Lives legend Deirdre Hall, Columbo Cries Wolf is an episode apart from its peers in many ways. Awash with scantily clad models, and set against a Playboy mansion-style backdrop, the bashful detective can’t avoid getting an eyeful on multiple occasions. How will he cope?

More importantly, though, Columbo is thoroughly outsmarted – at least temporarily – for pretty much the first time in the series. A very brave move, but does it pay off? Let’s pack our tiniest swimsuits, leap into a stretch limo and shop till we drop like ’twere January 20, 1990 as we find out…

Columbo Cries Wolf cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Sean Brantley: Ian Buchanon
Dian Hunter: Deirdre Hall
Tina: Rebecca Staab
Sir Harry Matthews: Alan Scarfe
Cosner: Mark Margolis
Mayor: David Huddleston
Police Chief: John Finnegan
Sergeant Kramer: Bruce Kirby
Written by: William Reed Woodfield
Directed by: Daryl Duke
Score by: Dennis Dreith

Episode synopsis: Columbo Cries Wolf

Millionaire founder of men’s magazine Bachelor’s World, Sean Brantley is in hot water with business partner / lover, Dian Hunter. She’s sick of him drooling over the live-in models that share their luxury mansion – and the final straw is when he announces on a live TV interview that he’s engaged to upcoming ‘Nymph of the Month’, voluptuous blonde bombshell Tina.

Summoning Brantley to see her via the medium of PAGER (Google it, Millennials), Dian lays down the law as her secretary earwigs in from the outer office. She’s going to put a stop to his philandering by selling her majority share in the title to British media mogul, Sir Harry Matthews. Brantley claims his engagement to Tina is merely a publicity stunt to drive up sales, but Dian won’t be turned. She’s flying to London that night to close the deal – and Brantley can kiss goodbye to his life of luxury.

Columbo Sean Brantley Dian Hunter
Gissa kiss darlin’…

Later that evening, Dian departs the mansion (where a glitzy shindig is unfolding) and heads to the airport in her kilometre-long stretch limo. Her obedient driver, Cosner, stops off at her favourite restaurant on the way to pick her up some smoked salmon for the flight, and while he’s chatting to the chef he’s startled by what sounds like a gunshot outside.

Dashing out to the alleyway, Cosner sees no sign of trouble and returns inside. Two minutes later, salmon in hand, he’s back behind the wheel and a glance in his rear-view mirror confirms that Dian is still tucked away in the back – albeit now swaddled in a hat, scarf and huge sunglasses. The airport drop proceeds without further delay and for all intents and purposes, Dian is on her way to jolly old London.

Something goes wrong, though – a something that necessitates Lieutenant Columbo to pay a visit to the Bachelor’s World mansion three days later at the request of his old London-based Dagger of Mind mate, Chief Superintendent Durk. Dian, you see, cleared customs in the UK, but never showed up to be collected by Harry Matthews’ driver. She’s currently AWOL and no one knows where she is.

Smug Brantley appears utterly unconcerned. He knows Dian’s habits well and says that her slinking away on solo adventures is nothing new. Columbo’s interview with Cosner is more revealing as the ace chauffeur reveals all the occurred on the night of the flight. However, despite a possible gunshot, there seems not to have been enough time for an assailant to drag a corpse away and replace it with a decoy woman. It’s a puzzle, alright…

Columbo Cries Wolf
Columbo certainly enjoyed the ‘view’ from the mansion’s hilltop location

The detective’s contemplation is disturbed, however, by a helicopter landing on the mansion lawns. No one knows who the what now, but Columbo is summoned aboard and choppers off into LA at the behest of no less a luminary than Sir Harry Matthews. The publishing kingpin is certain Dian is dead – and he’s in no doubt that Sean Brantley is responsible in order to prevent the sale of Bachelor’s World. There’s no evidence to back up this claim, but the Lieutenant is duty-bound to investigate.

The first real suggestion of foul play shows up as a forensics team investigates the alley behind the restaurant. A bullet casing is found amidst the detritus, and it’s from a .25 automatic. And guess what? Brantley owns just such a gun, and when Columbo takes a look at it, the old nose tells him that it’s recently been fired.

Brantley is looking decidedly less smug now and his face continues to fall when Columbo shows him videotape footage that supposedly shows Dian drinking a coffee in the airport lounge; only it’s almost certainly not her because Dian always took her coffee black. The lady in the footage is adding cream to it. Ergo, she’s a phony!

Using his unparalleled deductive skillz, Columbo figures out a plausible means for Dian’s disappearance. He believes an unknown woman was hiding under the bench seat in the limo. When Cosner nipped out for salmon, the mystery woman emerged, slew Dian, and bundled her body under the seat. Once the limo was back at the mansion, the woman’s accomplice, i.e. our mate Brantley, stashed the corpse somewhere on the property’s sprawling, llama-strewn five acres.

Columbo Cries Wolf
That’s a good look, Harry High-Pants!

Irked, a simmering Brantley challenges the Lieutenant to unearth the body and subsequently takes delight in the police team’s fruitless search. And, being a consummate publicity hound, he also milks the occasion for all its worth, tipping off the media to the search and forcing Columbo to confront the thronging press masses.

The media hoo-hah surrounding the case becomes a global circus. The Mayor of LA even demands a showdown with the Chief of Police to receive assurances that the hunt for Dian is not just a wild goose chase. Columbo manages to convince him but all agree that unless Brantley’s accomplice can be identified, the case will go nowhere. Luckily, our favourite Lieutenant believes he knows just who the decoy woman is: the lovely Tina.

Although she claims to have been at the party on the night Dian vanished, no one recalls having seen Tina there. In fact Columbo’s investigations have turned up a 28-hour black hole in her whereabouts – more than enough time to fly to London as Dian and return home using a different identity. It sounds far-fetched, but Columbo believes Tina and Brantley did in for Dian together. But until he finds a body, he can’t tie anything to them.

A spanner in the works soon emerges, too, when Brantley reveals that he’s received a postcard from Dian sent from Milan, Italy, several days earlier. Although police handwriting analysts can’t confirm it was written by Dian, smug Brantley is able to spin the development to his advantage in the eyes of the press.

Tiring of the games, Columbo has Tina arrested for questioning but before she can be taken away he is given the shock of his life when Dian Hunter herself pulls up in a taxi outside the mansion with the world’s cameras pointed directly at her. She faked her own disappearance, right down to deliberately creaming her coffee at the airport. Not only is she not dead, Dian even publicly thanks Columbo for all he’s done to boost Bachelor’s World’s global profile. The detective has been made an absolute fool of.

Columbo Cries Wolf
Columbo’s developed a drinking problem!

Co-conspirators Brantley and Dian then explain their stunt to Harry Matthews. Her disappearance, coupled with the murder investigation, has had a major impact on the magazine’s circulation and profile. Bachelor’s World has never been a more valuable asset, and Matthews has been duped just as badly as Columbo.

However, rather than raging about being used as a pawn in their game, Matthews instead ups his bid for Dian’s share of the business by $2 million. Brantley, smug as a very smug thing, tells him it’s not for sale. But Dian interjects. If Matthews will up his bid by two million pounds, then she’ll consider his offer. For Brantley, it’s the ultimate double-cross. The perma-grin is gone, his face now as droopy as a cocker spaniel’s ears/granny’s boobs (delete as applicable).

Brantley is left with a small window of opportunity to put a stop to the sale before Dian’s meeting with Matthews the next morning. He gives his nymphs 10 minutes to prepare for a shopping spree, then heads up to Dian’s luxury suite at the mansion. Finding her at her dressing table, he swiftly snaps her neck. Revenge is SWEET!

While we don’t immediately see what happens to the corpse, what we do see is a woman swaddled in Dian’s clothes (again) driving out of the mansion gates and being clocked by the security team. And next day the police are stunned to learn that Dian is missing (again) and that her car has been abandoned.

Against orders from the Police Chief, Columbo races over to the Bachelor’s World mansion in an attempt to prove belated foul play. He secures CCTV footage from the security gate that interests him greatly. Dian is shown waving farewell to the guards, but her prominent and ever-present WRIST WATCH/PAGER is conspicuous by its absence. Even stranger, there’s no sign of it in her jewellery boxes.

The wily Lieutenant also notices that one of Dian’s fur coat storage bags is missing from the clothing rack. The lady on the CCTV footage was wearing Dian’s mink coat. So why would its bag be missing? Just one reason, Columbo deduces: because this time Brantley really did kill her.

Columbo Cries Wolf gotcha
Translation: You’re nicked, me old China!

The raging killer denies the claim and brays at Columbo to ‘get the hell out’, but before he goes the Lieutenant requests to make a quick phone call. Brantley agrees, sealing his own fate in the process. Columbo, you see, sends a message to Dian’s pager. The audible beep leads him to her bathroom, in which workmen are finishing a refurb job. Levering a panel aside with a crowbar, Columbo makes the macabre discovery of the corpse of Dian enclosed in her mink coat storage bag.

Columbo had wagered on the fact that Brantley had forgotten to remove Dian’s pager before hiding her body. He was right. The camera zooms in on the single word ‘GOTCHA’ on the pager’s screen as credits roll…

My memories of Columbo Cries Wolf

Another episode on the periphery of my awareness prior to owning the DVD collection, I must have initially caught Columbo Cries Wolf sometime in the mid-2000s.

Columbo Ian Buchanon
PLEASE someone wipe the smirk off that toad’s face!

Being a 70s’ purist, I remember it being quite an attack on the senses, from the poppy soundtrack to the garish fashions, as well as being replete with loathsome characters, trashy women and an oily villain who may be the series’ most punchable.

I was sucked in by the twist of Dian showing up alive, although always found the ending, with Columbo paging the word ‘Gotcha’ to Dian’s pager, to be a little too on the nose. Overall, my memories of this one are that it’s OK but not great. However, with a number of fans telling me they rate it very highly by ‘new Columbo standards’, I was keen to watch again after a break of several years.

Episode analysis

From its opening seconds, featuring The Fine Young Cannibals’ pop hit She Drives Me Crazy, as well as a bevy of scantily clad hotties being snapped poolside, Columbo Cries Wolf fairly screams to the viewer that it’s taking the series in a daring new direction.

I’m no fan of change for the sake of change but given the rather lacklustre start to Columbo’s reincarnation in the 80s, giving the series a shot in the arm to mark its 90s’ debut seems like a sensible move. But more than just fully committing to a contemporary setting, Cries Wolf also smashes viewer expectations with one of the biggest twists in the show’s history, and one of the extremely rare examples of Columbo being absolutely outfoxed.

Columbo Deirdre Hall
Orange was in vogue for 5 seconds in January 1990 it seems…

Until the moment Dian Hunter emerges, unharmed, from the taxi after enjoying her European vacation, we, like the good Lieutenant, surely never doubted that she was dead. Granted, we never actually saw her killed, but if Columbo believes a murder has taken place who are we to doubt it? Instead of a whodunnit, we get a neverdunnitatall. It’s a brilliant twist, a complete sucker punch, and the series’ most successful surprise since chief suspect Charles Clay turned up dead in 1976’s Last Salute to the Commodore.

A brave move, then, but it absolutely pays off. And while Columbo Cries Wolf is far from perfect (and still adrift of matching the best 70s’ episodes), it’s a big return to form for the series and the first real indication that, just maybe, the Lieutenant does belong in this era after all.

I’ve previously written that a big issue I have with the ‘new’ Columbo episodes are the calibre of the guest stars, who, as a rule, were a few rungs lower on the stardom ladder than they were in the 70s. The same should apply to Columbo Cries Wolf, with leads Ian Buchanon and Deirdre Hall best known at the time (and probably still) as day-time soap stars in General Hospital and Days of Our Lives respectively. However, a potential defect is made into a virtue here with the pair totally nailing the roles of Sean Brantley and Dian Hunter.

Columbo Cries Wolf smashes viewer expectations with one of the biggest twists in the show’s history.”

The trashy, unreal world the two inhabit seems tailor-made for soap opera stars to shine in and so it proves as Buchanon gives us one of the most loathsome killers ever seen in the Columbo universe, with the high-falutin’, manipulative Hall a perfect foil. I’m not convinced the pairing would have worked in a more subdued episode, but in the sleazy realm of top shelf magazine publishing, their casting feels inspired.

Brantley is the type of yuppie oik that sends chills down my spine. Lecherous, smarmy, full of himself and wickedly insincere, the man is the very personification of ‘sleazeball’, with his wet-gelled hair and perpetual 1000-watt smile constantly invoking viewer incredulity at just how this slimy Hugh Hefner wannabe could be considered the world’s most eligible bachelor.

Columbo Cries Wolf Sean Brantley
So, Tina, what is it that attracts you to MULTI-MILLIONAIRE Sean Brantley?

It’s easy for the viewer to despise Brantley for who he is and what he represents, but it’s his cavalier treatment of Columbo that most gets our goat – and is also a major reason why this episode sizzles. The Lieutenant is an unwitting puppet and is duped so completely that it’s as stunning a blow for us as it is for him. This is, after all, the man who has outwitted bona fide geniuses time and again. How has grinning goon Brantley, of all people, got the better of Columbo when Oliver Brandt, Ray Flemming, Marshall Cahill et al failed to do so?

Predictably, when Brantley’s downfall comes it feels suitably sweet because he’s been such a douche throughout. However, the episode finale doesn’t match the excellence of the twist and actually feels rather shoe-horned in after the extended intrigue we’ve enjoyed up to this point. Although pleasingly reminiscent of 1971’s Blueprint for Murder, it’s all wrapped up in a hurry, and Columbo’s lightning-fast deduction that Dian really was dead this time round feels a little forced. The close proximity of Dian’s body to where Columbo called her pager is all a little bit convenient, too.

The ending also erodes any suggestion that Brantley was, in fact, a worthy adversary for Columbo. His error in leaving Dian’s pager watch on her wrist was incredibly amateurish, showing that he himself was just another pawn in Dian’s great hoax – something that was subtly foreshadowed earlier in the episode when Brantley told Columbo that Dian was ‘the brains’ of their operation. At the end, we can see just how true that statement was.

“The Lieutenant is duped so completely that it’s as stunning a blow for us as it is for him.”

I’m not crazy about the Lieutenant sending the word ‘GOTCHA’ to Dian’s pager, either. It’s another ‘new Columbo’ example of a needlessly flamboyant flourish being added where it wasn’t needed. It’s certainly nowhere near as ghastly as the toy soldier Columbo from Grand Deceptions, or the Ringmaster suit from Murder, Smoke and Shadows, but the point didn’t have to be underlined in such a heavy-handed fashion.

Still, a lesser gotcha doesn’t have to damn an episode, and Columbo Cries Wolf has more than enough going for it to be considered a compelling addition to the canon. Peter Falk is on particularly good form, his Columbo displaying a gritty edge without ever fully succumbing to the sort of tomfoolery that blighted the likes of Sex & The Married Detective. There are only two silly moments that I’d have cut: Columbo jogging along with Tina in a short-lived attempt to unsettle her; and his bewilderingly wooden reaction to her splashing him with a bomb dive.

I’d have preferred a bit more discomfort at his being surrounded by partially clothed women for so much of the episode, too (he even indulges in an uncharacteristic ogle at one swimsuit model), but this is certainly the best characterisation since his 1989 comeback. The mutual dislike between the two leading men is also nicely portrayed and makes for gripping viewing.

Columbo Cries Wolf Dian Hunter
No YOU’RE creeped out and cringing

The hard edge shown by the detective is also mirrored in some of the episode’s set-pieces, notably the brutal snapping of Dian’s neck, and the subsequent reveal of her bagged body behind the wall insulation. This is a genuinely creepy moment and a nice nod to the plastic-wrapped corpse behind the revolving wall panel in Season 1’s Dead Weight.

I also enjoyed the Easter Egg reference to Chief Superintendent Durk, who has asked Columbo for some LA intel to help his own London-based investigation into Dian’s disappearance. There had to be a valid, plausible reason for Columbo to become involved in the case and this was a very good way of doing it, doubling up as a reward for fans who know Durk from his 1972 appearance in Dagger of the Mind. References to Columbo’s previous cases are rare, so this is something of a collector’s item.

Keen fans of the 70s’ series will also enjoy seeing regular bit-part players John Finnegan and Bruce Kirby reappearing in the series. Although uncredited, Kirby was reprising the Sergeant Kramer role that endeared him to millions at Columbo’s peak. It’s nice to have them both back.

Columbo Cries Wolf is so unashamedly a product of its times that it’s really rather endearing.”

Those hark backs, though, are probably the only things about Columbo Cries Wolf that don’t thoroughly represent a love-in with the ‘ultra-modern’ world of the late 80s/early 90s. CCTV and pagers are technical wonders Columbo has to get his head around, while we also see mobile phones (in the form of humongous bricks) in use for the first time in the series by the nouveau riche pillocks of the day.

The fashions are ridiculously 80s, with Brantley’s wardrobe, in particular, a dodgy assortment of oversized double-breasted blazers, puffy-sleeved shirts and collars the size of Italy. What a time to be alive! The women fare little better, with Tina, especially, guilty of fashion crimes against humanity. Her barely-covering-the-chest scarlet crop top, allied with multicoloured skintight leggings, has to be seen to be believed. Can any reader confirm that people ever wore outfits like this in real life without inducing strokes?

(As an aside, Rebecca Staab, starring as Tina, is H-to-the-O-to-the-T in that tacky 80s/90s way, which I mean as a compliment to her appearance and performance. She’s no Kay Freestone, Beth Chadwick or Jessica Conroy, but if you dig bottle blondes in figure-hugging attire, Tina will almost certainly float your boat.)

Columbo Rebecca Staab
Put that underboob away, this is a family show!

The episode’s wholehearted embrace of the late 80s may be the reason why my subconscious has, historically, tried to resist the urge to like Columbo Cries Wolf. So many elements are so jarring that it can be hard to take seriously, especially for viewers, like me, who treasure the enduring class of Columbo’s 70s era. But while it has aged terribly from an aesthetic standpoint, Wolf has done so in a way that manages to make it an awesome snapshot of the times rather than an out-and-out joke.

Indeed, Columbo Cries Wolf is so unashamedly a product of its times that it’s really rather endearing. It’s as cheesy as Sean Brantley’s grin and as sleazy as an ageing male in a limousine full of lithe, young beauties, but it works – helped in no small measure by the cleverness of the bait-and-switch, and an entirely successful mix up of the formula.

This is an episode sure to divide opinion, but if the viewer can overcome their natural repulsion at the characters, settings and stylings, there’s a cracking mystery to savour. It’s taken a while for the Lieutenant to truly make his mark since coming out of his 11-year hibernation, but he does so here in arresting fashion that raises hopes that the second coming of Columbo could yet blossom into a golden age.

Did you know?

The opening sequence of Columbo Cries Wolf contains two very obvious continuity bloopers within its first minute.

Firstly, Columbo’s car can be seen pulling a U-turn on the road behind the Bachelor’s World stretch limo within 20 seconds, while the Lieutenant himself can soon after be seen wandering by the mansion pool behind the frolicking models. Try harder, editing team…

How I rate ’em

Hot diggity! It feels good to be enjoying Columbo again after a quintet of more or less average efforts. It’s a shame that Columbo Cries Wolf wasn’t in the can a year earlier because it would have been a brave way to reintroduce the Lieutenant to a new audience and era. It’s much better than I remember and sits head and shoulders above the rest of the comeback outings so far. HUZZAH and HURRAH!

Missed any of my earlier new Columbo episode reviews? Then simply click the links below.

  1. Columbo Cries Wolf
  2. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  3. Sex & The Married Detective
  4. Murder, A Self Portrait
  5. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  6. Grand Deceptions

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 lover of Mr Brantley and his Nymphs, you can vote for Columbo Cries Wolf in the fans’ favourite episode poll here.

Columbo Cries Wolf
A high quality new Columbo episode? I’ll drink to that…

Now it’s over to you. What do you make of Columbo Cries Wolf? A step too far into 80s cheese, or an ideal time capsule of the day? All (polite) views are welcome, so get typing away into the comments section below.

Imbued by a new-found enthusiasm for the task in hand, I’ll be back soon for a deep-dive into Agenda for Murder – the episode that reintroduces Columbo icon Patrick McGoohan back into the series. That has to be a winner, right? Check back soon to find out…

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Columbo Cries Wolf nymphs
What would Mrs Columbo say?
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