Episode review: Columbo Agenda for Murder

Columbo Agenda for Murder

February 10, 1990 was the day ‘new Columbo’ got serious as it marked the RETURN OF THE MAC (or Mc, anyway): Patrick McGoohan!

The two-time killer from Columbo’s 70s’ era was back in a big way, both starring in and directing Agenda for Murder – a tale of political skulduggery on an even grander scale than Candidate for Crime 17 years earlier.

Having a man of McGoohan’s stature back in Columbo colours was a huge boost for a series that had struggled to live up to the hype since its revival a year earlier. But is the episode actually any good, or is it a load of popp-ee-cock? Let’s chomp on some cheese and fake laugh at bad jokes as we find out…

Columbo Agenda for Murder cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Oscar Finch: Patrick McGoohan
Paul Mackey: Denis Arndt
Frank Staplin: Louis Zorich
Sgt George Kramer: Bruce Kirby
Mrs Finch: Penny Fuller
Louise: Anne Haney
Governor Montgomery: Arthur Hill
Tim Haines: Stanley Kamel
Mr Amir: Shaun Toub
Rebecca Christy: Annie Stewart
Written by: Jeffrey Bloom
Directed by: Patrick McGoohan
Score by: David Michael Frank

Episode synopsis: Columbo Agenda for Murder

Renowned defence attorney Oscar Finch has grand ambitions of becoming Attorney General by helping long-time crony, Congressman Paul Mackey, secure a Vice Presidential running ticket alongside White House hopeful Governor Montgomery.

Yet mere days ahead of the Californian State Primary a cloud appears on the horizon: a cloud in the shape of crooked businessman Frank Staplin. The jolly Santa lookalike has a history with Finch from 20 years before, when Finch successfully helped Staplin avoid jail time. However, to achieve this, Finch had to coerce then-Assistant District Attorney Paul Mackey to ‘lose’ a piece of crucial evidence.

Columbo Agenda for Murder Frank Staplin
How to solve a problem like Frank Staplin in one easy lesson

Now, Staplin is in trouble with the law again and makes a late-night call to Finch’s residence to beg an audience with the lawyer. Evidently expecting just such a showdown, Finch drives to his office to set a deadly plan into action.

First, he crumbles and burns an entire cigar in an ashtray before extricating gunpowder from a .32 bullet, containing it in some tin foil, and then setting it alight. The wily legal eagle then dons a Columbo-style trench coat (less wrinkled, mind you) and walks to Staplin’s house to avoid his car being seen at the soon-to-be crime scene.

Staplin is interrupted from FAXING A MESSAGE (consult Google, everyone born after 1990) by a ringy-ding at the door. It’s that man Finch, who is warmly welcomed, although it’s clear that Finch is highly wary of the jovial beardo – for good reason. Staplin is facing a five-year jail term and is desperate for Finch’s help to beat the rap.

The attorney firmly rebuffs Staplin’s advances, at which point any pretence of frivolity is over. If Finch won’t help, Staplin will blow the whistle on how Mackey and Finch combined to get him off the hook 20 years earlier. Quick as a flash, Finch steps up to Staplin’s side and blows him away with a gunshot to the temple – a lone drop of blood plopping onto the wooden floor, as Finch sets down the square of cheese he’d been nibbling.

Finch then creates a scene suggesting suicide, placing Staplin’s prints on the gun and depositing some of that burnt gunpowder on his cold, dead hand. The gun falls from Staplin’s dangling hand and clatters on the floor as Finch makes good his escape.

The weather has taken a turn for the worse since he arrived, though. It’s now sheeting down with rain, crinkling Finch’s suit trousers and soaking him to the marrow as he walks back to the office. The rain stops as he dries off, however, revealing a conspicuous dry patch under his car as he finally heads for home. Gee, I wonder if that’ll be noticed?

Columbo car
I spy a dry patch below that oxidised relic

Early the next day, the police investigation is well underway at Staplin HQ after his body was discovered by a security detail at 4am. Lieutenant Columbo and his old stomping buddy Sergeant Kramer are the men in charge. As well as being pleased to find a block of fine Reggiano cheese on Staplin’s desk, Columbo is immediately bothered by aspects of the crime scene.

Most importantly, the gun is found directly on top of a blob of dried blood. But there’s no blood on the gun at all. How could that be? It’s a puzzle that will bother him. Another mystery regards the state-of-the-art fax machine, which Staplin had evidently been using. With the help of Staplin’s secretary, he’s able to determine that the victim had faxed a hand-written message to his wife at her hotel in Hawaii shortly before he was killed. He also discovers that the last person Staplin called on his phone was Oscar Finch.

Racing over to Finch’s office, Columbo instantly notices the dry spot on the car park surface. Upon entering the building, he confronts an officious secretary spraying air freshener with avengeance to mask the aroma of an offensive cigar that had been smoked there at some point after closing time the night before. She eyes the cigar-holding detective with distaste.

Finch bustles in, bristling about the “decomposing rattle trap” that has been parked in his space, which is, of course, Columbo’s dilapidated Peugeot. Although vaguely irritated, Finch is not surprised by Columbo’s visit. Indeed, he’s been expecting a visit from the police because (he claims) he was called by an agitated Frank Staplin the night before.

According to Finch, there was no personal meeting. Staplin rang him pleading for help and bordering on despair. Finch rejected his pleas and hung up. The resulting rejection – and fear of incarceration – must have driven the man to suicide. Columbo does receive confirmation that Finch held a meeting at his office after the call from Staplin, but attorney/client privilege means that he won’t reveal who the meeting was with. At any rate, it gives him an alibi of sorts.

The Lieutenant later tracks the ever-busy Finch down at the courthouse to grill him further. Although Finch claims Staplin was in despair, the fax he’d been sending his wife right before his death contained two jokes – one of which Columbo reads to the lawyer, who roars with hysterical laughter for nigh-on 20 seconds. Yet Columbo has a serious point to make: why would a man who was faxing jokes commit suicide shortly after?

Columbo Agenda for Murder
Haven’t seen this much fake laughter since the barmaid wet herself while howling at limericks in The Conspirators

Although things seem suspicious, Columbo needs some hard proof so widens his investigation to include Congressman Mackey. However, he gleans nothing useful from the politician except his autograph for Mrs Columbo. Mackey, however, is rattled by the questions and, in turn, grills Finch about Staplin’s death. Finch continues to deny his involvement.

Columbo, meanwhile, finally has something to go on. He manages to track down Finch’s dry cleaner (?) and gets his trotters on the suit Finch was wearing on the night of the Staplin murder. Strangely, it doesn’t smell of cigar smoke (unlike the office where he claimed he was holding a meeting) and the lower trouser legs are all wrinkly – a sure-fire sign that they were worn outdoors in the rain.

Still, Columbo’s focus on Finch is unwavering and his unwelcome attentions drive the lawyer to finally bring Mackey into his confidence. Finch admits the killing of Staplin in order to keep the his and Mackey’s White House juggernaut on the road. Mackey is livid – and things only get worse when Finch reveals that the Congressman will have to provide him with an alibi.

This gives Columbo an additional headache, which he’s able to cure through some old skool snooping at Finch’s office. While a secretary is distracted, the Lieutenant sneaks a wad of chewing gum from Finch’s bin and places it in an evidence bag. We don’t know why yet, but this find will blow the case right open.

It’s now the night of the California Primary. Columbo shows up to the after party, where confidence is high that the Montgomery/Mackey dream ticket has taken its first real step towards the White House. But Columbo has plans to rain on the parade, first taking Mackey aside for some severely tough talking.

Columbo Agenda for Murder Paul Mackey
Lieutenant Columbo: tough talking crooked politicians since 1973

During an earlier inteview, Mackey had told Columbo not to smoke in his office. Turns out he’d given up cigars just three weeks earlier. So how come Finch’s office smelled so strongly of cigars the next morning, the Lieutenant asks. Ever ready with a quick reply, Mackey spins a yarn about only having given up in public because smoking is bad for the image.

If that’s plausible, the rest of his spiel is not. Mackey claims he and Finch arrived at and left the office at around the same time, and both had parked in the car lot. It was not raining at the time they both left, he swears. Add in the fact that Columbo has deduced the past connection between Staplin, Finch and Mackey and the Congressman is on shaky ground. Unsatisfied, Columbo delivers a stern warning to Mackey: “If I were you, I wouldn’t perjure myself for Mr Oscar Finch.”

Columbo next confronts Finch, who is out hallooing with the masses as word of Montgomery’s victory is confirmed. Rather than beating around the bush, Columbo outright (albeit politely) accuses Finch of murder and the two scuttle off to a side room for a private conference.

Columbo produces the dry-cleaned suit, which Finch admits is his and that it did indeed get wet in the rain. But Columbo pushes further. Finch killed Staplin to prevent him blabbing about their previous agreement 20 years earlier, he states. Finch walked to his office from Staplin’s home getting wet in the process, but the rain had stopped before he drove home, explaining the dry patch in the parking lot.

It’s sound police work, but Finch is utterly unfazed. An accusation of this type requires definite proof of presence at the scene of the crime and Columbo doesn’t have it. In Finch’s words, all the detective has “is a load of unsubstantiated, circumstantial POPP-EE-COCK!

What Columbo might have more accurately said was that he didn’t have the proof yet. Minutes later he does, crossing a stream of revellers to snatch an arrest warrant from Sergeant Kramer’s reaching hand before brandishing it under Finch’s nose. This time, there’s no where for Finch to run. Columbo has him bang to rights.

Columbo Agenda for Murder
Not laughing now are we, cheese boy?

The Lieutenant’s earlier snooping paid off. He was able to match teeth impressions on the wad of gum from Finch’s bin and an x-ray of his teeth with bite marks on a piece of cheese left at the scene of Staplin’s murder. There’s no doubt that Finch was at the crime scene on the night Staplin was killed. He’s placed under arrest on suspicion of murder.

What should have been a night of triumph for Finch has become a disaster. “One bite of cheese…” he rues in disbelief, as credits roll…

My memories of Agenda for Murder

I clearly remember watching and enjoying Agenda for Murder on TV in the early 2000s. It stuck with me because McGoohan (even though I didn’t realise it was McGoohan, or what a Columbo legacy the man had) was so watchable and delivered his lines in such an amusing fashion.

Columbo Oscar Finch
Awesome villain: Oscar Finch

I was delighted with the cleverness of the cheese-nibbling clue and would often quote Finch’s ‘one bite of cheese’ lament to my sister, who had viewed the episode at the same time. We would also bust out Finch-style howls of laughter at bad jokes for many years afterwards. It made quite the impression on us.

Being a relatively uninitiated viewer at the time, I gave no thought to whether this was a ‘classic’ or ‘new’ episode, and enjoyed it as much as any of the 70s’ outings I had watched up to that point. In short, I’ve always found this to be a cracking romp, so approached watching it again after a long, self-imposed interval with no small measure of anticipation.

Episode analysis

Of Columbo’s Great Triumvirate of baddies, I’ve always favoured Cassidy and Culp over McGoohan. Something about the supreme contrast they offer to Peter Falk’s crumpled earthiness just can’t be beaten.

However, as far as Columbo’s revival goes, the return of McGoohan heralds a turning point for the series. Here’s a star with a big enough name to turn the heads of a new audience, while appealing to die-hard fans who remembered his stellar contribution to the 70s’ series (Last Salute to the Commodore excepted).

Columbo Agenda for Murder
Finch was stunned by Columbo’s unexpected proposal of marriage

Falk placed great trust in McGoohan, both as an actor and director. Indeed, some of his fondest Columbo memories from the 70s were intrinsically linked to his positive relationship with McGoohan. First working together on By Dawn’s Early Light in 1974, the pair hit it off straight away both on and off-screen. Welcoming McGoohan back to the fold here, therefore, feels like something of a landmark moment – for Falk and for us.

Regular readers will known I’ve been less than enamoured by the overall quality of Columbo’s comeback. The mere presence of McGoohan here would have gone a long way to validating the very existence of the revived series. That he slam dunks a performance and directs a gripping story with aplomb ensures Agenda for Murder becomes the first ‘new Columbo‘ to comfortably compare with the best efforts from the 70s.

“Welcoming McGoohan back to the fold feels like something of a landmark moment.”

McGoohan can never be accused of half-heartedness when it comes to his Columbo contributions, and he once again gives his all in his portrayal of crooked lawyer Oscar Finch, whom I find to be a riveting villain. He sits in a sort of halfway house between McGoohan’s past two Columbo killers: the quietly dignified Colonel Rumford from By Dawn’s Early Light, and the overtly eccentric Nelson Brenner in Identity Crisis.

Certainly, Finch is a lot more fun to watch than the humourless Rumford, but he’s also a lot more grounded in reality than Brenner. What eccentricities McGoohan does bring to the role centre around Finch’s whirlwind nature, his immaculate turn of phrase and his habitual nibbling of whatever foodstuffs he can lay his hands on.

Agenda for Murder Patrick McGoohan
Finch gets his nibble on within the episode’s opening three minutes

It’s the latter that finally dooms his character, the bite marks Finch leaves on a piece of cheese on victim Frank Staplin’s desk firmly placing him at the scene of the crime. Yet what could have been a clumsy and obvious clue was nicely disguised by McGoohan constantly having Finch snacking on little tidbits throughout the episode.

It becomes such a part and parcel of his character that it’s probable many viewers don’t ever think about the incriminating cheese again until Columbo reveals the bite mark evidence in the closing scene. I have to give McGoohan credit for some nice directorial sleight of hand.

Indeed, he’s on solid form as director, here helming his third – and most conventional – Columbo episode. McGoohan’s previous directorial efforts were the bonkers Identity Crisis and the woeful Last Salute – both of which showcased his love of oddity and invention. And while Agenda for Murder is less beautiful to observe cinematically than those two, its got both its feet on the ground (thankfully) when it comes to characters and story.

McGoohan the director does well to rein in his wilder instincts throughout, offering up only a couple of silly missteps in an otherwise businesslike outing. Just about the only scenes I bristle at are Columbo and Sergeant Kramer fighting the tide of political revellers to exchange the arrest warrant late on, the conversation between the Lieutenant and the comedic laundry van driver (why?), and Columbo’s dog-like sniffing around the desk of dead Staplin before he notices the giant block of entirely visible cheese sitting right in front of him. How we laughed

Columbo Agenda for Murder

Still, by ‘new Columbo‘ standards, a sprinkle of puerile moments represents a pretty acceptable average, and there’s nothing to compare to the Circus Ringmaster/head-in-a-guillotine/tuba parping/bin rummaging/black-and-white dream-style DROSS that the comeback episodes have dished up so far. I consider that a win.

Commendable as his efforts behind the camera are, it’s his performance as Oscar Finch that really demonstrates the value and bravura of McGoohan. He’s really good in this, striking the perfect balance between playful and poised, and bolstering that with the cold edge of a man who won’t let anything come between him and his ambitions – least of all a crook like Frank Staplin.

If I had to hazard a guess, I’d wager that McGoohan did a fair amount of tinkering with Jeffrey Bloom’s teleplay in order to give himself more opportunities to put his exquisite elocution skills to better use. If so, it was time well spent because Finch has some cracking lines in the final script, and McGoohan delivers them like no one else could.

Among the aural highlights are his barbs towards Columbo’s car (describing it as a ‘decomposing rattle trap’ and an ‘oxidised relic’ in quick succession), while his dismissal of the Lieutenant’s insinuations that he killed Staplin are the stuff of legend. I’m not convinced that any actor could have come up with a more enthralling recital of the words “unsubstantiated, circumstantial poppycock” than he does here (see below).

In my opinion, Finch is by some margin the best, most watchable villain of Columbo’s second coming so far. Heck, I’d go so far as to say Finch is my single favourite McGoohan baddie amidst some seriously hot competition. Erudite and intelligent, he also never makes the mistake of underestimating Columbo, nor of being overly helpful or suggesting far-fetched theories. He’s a keeper.

Falk, of course, is a key beneficiary of the presence of his good pal and the two have undeniable chemistry brought about by their long-standing friendship. One senses they’re enjoying one another’s company immensely, their easy rapport paving the way to a confrontation between detective and killer that’s as absorbing as any we’ve enjoyed in earlier seasons.

Columbo and Finch have a relationship that is nine-tenths respectful cordiality, but which occasionally gives way to tough talking and moments of merriment. The best respective examples would be the prolonged showdown at the Montgomery/Mackey victory party, at which both men rightly feel they have the upper hand at different times, and the extraordinary scene outside the courthouse when Columbo shares Staplin’s faxed joke with Finch.

Upon hearing the punchline, Finch’s face remains a picture of pop-eyed scepticism for a full five seconds before he emits a single bark of mirth, which gives way to gales of laughter that last almost 20 seconds. It’s remarkable stuff from McGoohan in a moment that could have been ghastly in the hands of a less able and charismatic actor. It’s the most memorable moment in an episode generously stuffed with goodness.

Columbo Agenda for Murder Oscar Finch
All it took was one racist joke to melt Finch’s icy heart

Further delights are to be found in the rather delicious, hard edge Columbo demonstrates throughout, most notably in his handling of Congressman Mackey. Although initially displaying his usual fawning act, even going as far as to secure an autograph for Mrs Columbo (that old chestnut), he later takes a much more uncompromising position – even warning Mackey in no uncertain terms not to perjure himself for Oscar Finch.

It’s always enjoyable to see Columbo drop the act and tell it like it is, and at a time when crooked politicians routinely lie to the public every time they open their mouths, it’s extra sweet to see the little guy tackling corruption at the highest levels.

Speaking of which, Denis Arndt is excellent as Mackey, bringing that sort of slimy insincerity that is all too easy for the viewer to associate with an ambitious politician. But this episode is far more than a three-horse race. Just like the best episodes from the 70s, Agenda for Murder has strength in depth and everyone adds value to proceedings.

It’s particularly nostalgic to see Anne Haney in the role of Finch’s fussy secretary Louise, as I seem to remember seeing her in hundreds of things growing up, while the return of Bruce Kirby as Sergeant Kramer is an additional, welcome tether to the 70s’ series.

This won’t be Kirby’s last Columbo (he’ll return in Strange Bedfellows five years later) but this does mark his sixth and final appearance as Kramer – the series’ single-most recurring character aside from Columbo and Dog. Probably not coincidentally, Kirby first appeared as Kramer alongside Falk and McGoohan in By Dawn’s Early Light 16 years earlier. His Columbo legacy is a proud one.

Columbo Agenda for Murder Sergeant Kramer
Partners in crime…solving: Columbo and Kramer reunited again

Performances-wise, Agenda for Murder is certainly a cut above its Columbo contemporaries. Pleasingly, it’s also a strong mystery in its own right, albeit it one with a few limitations. For starters, the cover-up-a-murder-as-suicide routine is as old as the genre itself, as well as being one we’ve seen in the series a few times before in various guises. It works here, however, because Finch is able to apply his legal know-how to create a very intricate crime scene right down to the gunpowder residue on Staplin’s hands.

Perhaps because of this, the episode has more of a standard police procedural feel to it than many others, with Columbo needing help from the forensics team on a variety of technical matters, including blood-drying times and dental records. It ain’t CSI, but is further along the path to it than just about any other Columbo episode I can think of. Fans who take delight in the Lieutenant eschewing modern police techniques to plough his own furrow may find this sits slightly uneasily with them.

The bigger issue for me, though, is that a lot of the evidence Columbo gathers is rendered meaningless. He traps Mackey in a few lies, sure, but none of the dry patch in the car park, the blood under the gun, or Finch’s soaked suit sent to the dry cleaners ever have a pay-off.

The dry cleaning sub-plot is the worst aspect of the episode, mainly because Columbo does nothing to earn it and it goes nowhere. Merely seeing a laundry van driving around near Staplin’s home somehow triggers a deductive leap to check out all the dry cleaners in the area in case Finch is a client? Sheesh, it feels like a mighty stretch that I can only attribute to no one being able to come up with a decent reason for him to be seeking evidence of this type.

On top of that, the damp suit being thrown in the dry cleaning machine is set up to be a major disappointment for Columbo’s investigation, but it actually has no impact whatsoever. So what was the point in including the sub-plot at all, other than to bump up the running time? Fiddledeedee

Columbo Agenda for Murder
A little cheese with your murder, sir?

Ultimately, despite a lot of leg-work, it’s only the bite-mark evidence that can be considered damning, which in retrospect makes the gotcha slightly more anticlimactic than I remember as one senses this probably should have been arrived at earlier if the police were doing their job properly.

It could be the fact that bite-mark evidence has largely been debunked in recent years that makes the gotcha feel a little hollow today, although for the time it was a hot topic. Indeed, the Police Chief magazine article Columbo references to Finch during the finale was a genuine article that Peter Falk is said to have been so interested in that it was the peg the entire episode was hung on.

My final gripe is that it seems a bit far-fetched that as shrewd an attorney as Finch wouldn’t have concocted a tighter alibi with Mackey. Finch has made a living out of getting folk off the hook in court, so presumably must be an expert in helping his clients create rock-solid responses to aggressive cross-examinations. The holes in Mackey’s account of his supposed clandestine meeting with Finch, their arrival and departure times, and the state of the weather, therefore, seem positively amateurish.

Some viewers have also questioned how unlikely it would be for Finch not to have been aware of Columbo’s stellar arrest record. It’s a valid point and a concern that could have been effortlessly by-passed in the script by a reference to Candidate for Crime, which would have thrilled hardcore fans in the process.

How good would it have been for Finch and Mackey to have been discussing Columbo’s investigation and have Mackey say: “We’ll have to be careful because this is the guy who brought down Nelson Hayward back in ’73.” Finch’s response could have been something along the lines of: “If Hayward had hired me he’d have been out of jail in five years,” underlining his supreme confidence in his abilities, while also acknowledging one of Columbo’s highest-profile cases. It’s a crying shame this didn’t happen.

Columbo Agenda for Murder
“No, I love YOU more…”

Still, I don’t want to be too hard on an episode that has as many plus-points as Agenda for Murder. It’s taken seven outings and a whole year to really find its feet, but Columbo is finally back to something approaching its very best.

Not for the first time, then, fans of the series have every reason to celebrate the enduring excellence of one of its key collaborators. Patrick McGoohan, we salute you.

Did you know?

Falk and McGoohan doubled up again in September of 1990 to scoop prizes at the 42nd Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles.

Falk picked up his fourth and final Lead Actor Emmy for Columbo, while McGoohan was honoured for his portrayal of Oscar Finch in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series category. It was the second Emmy for McGoohan’s Columbo work after he scooped the same accolade in 1975 for his performance of Colonel Rumford in By Dawn’s Early Light.

As far as I can ascertain, McGoohan wasn’t present to receive his award but you can enjoy Peter’s acceptance speech below…

How I rate ’em

The first of the new breed to really sit comfortably amongst the best of the 70s’ episodes, Agenda for Murder would have been a fine episode at any time. Compared to the rest of the comeback episodes, it’s in an absolute league of its own.

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

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

If you want to check out any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews, or see how I rank them all in order, they can be accessed here. If Agenda for Murder floats your boat, you can vote for it in the fans’ favourite episode poll here.

Columbo Patrick McGoohan
“You call that a lining?”

Well folks, let me know what your own take on Agenda for Murder is. A modern classic, or still a pale impersonation of the show’s finest hours? All opinions are most welcome.

Do check back in again soon when the next stop on our voyage of rediscovery will be the potentially heart-breaking Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo, a unique episode featuring a vengeful widow and some jars of poisoned marmalade. Sounds tasty. See you then…

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You surely didn’t think I’d leave you without sharing this celebratory scene, did you?
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