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Five best moments from By Dawn’s Early Light

Columbo Colonel Rumford By Dawn's Early Light
CHECKMATE, COLONEL!

Patrick McGoohan made his first Columbo appearance in By Dawn’s Early Light, casting an immense shadow in the process.

So enamoured was he with his series debut – and so impressed was Peter Falk by his co-star’s contribution – that McGoohan would go on to have a 25-year connection to the show that incorporated four appearances as a killer, five as a director, and a further two writing credits to boot.

Cast here as patriotic Military Academy leader Colonel Lyle C. Rumford, McGoohan won critical acclaim for a restrained performance that earned him an Emmy Award in 1975 – the first such accolade for a guest star on Columbo.

By Dawn’s Early Light is certainly deserving of high praise in its own right. Filmed almost entirely on location at The Citadel Military College in South Carolina, with an unhurried pace and no score to speak of other than military chanting and bands, it’s an episode with a unique, sombre feel – appropriate at a time when the spectre of the Vietnam War hung over the US like a pall.

And while it’s a bit more straight-faced than the average Columbo, there is no shortage of magical moments. My personal highlights are chronicled below…



5. A rude awakening

Columbo By Dawn's Early Light
Get that man black coffee, STAT!

After a largely sleepless night caused by his overactive mind racing through elements of the case, the call of reveille at dawn is anything but welcome for the sleepy Lieutenant.

If the trill of a bugle wasn’t irksome enough, Columbo was given the rudest awakening imaginable as an energetic young cadet burst into his room and roused him with a sharp crack to the buttocks and a roar of: “Up and at ’em, trooper! Let’s get with the program!

Falk’s look of bleary-eyed bewilderment is so authentic, I wouldn’t be surprised if he really had chosen to stay up all night in order to make it all as authentic as possible.


4. Enter the cult favourite

Columbo Boodle Boy
Boodle Boy Miller would later thrive in the armed forces, and have Boodle Boys of his own

No article about By Dawn’s Early Light is complete without a reference to Boodle Boy Miller – the wimpy cabin boy cadet who has gone on to become a firm favourite with Columbo fans the world over.

While Miller’s coffee-serving skillz win the Colonel’s approval, the same cannot be said of his shoe shining, with the cleft-chinned cadet earning a severe reproach for failing to have adequately buffed his boots on Founder’s Day – the most important day of the year at the Haynes Military Academy. Tut, tut…

A small role that ought to have been relatively forgettable was catapulted to cult status thanks to the earnest performance of Robert Clotworthy (give him a follow on twitter, ya rascal!) and the use of the phrase BOODLE BOY, which I have never heard of or read anywhere else but here.


3. Messing around

Columbo By Dawn's Early Light
“Have you ever heard of a guy named Steinmetz?”

An extended conversation between the two leads in the mess hall makes for an interesting encounter as both men are carefully sizing the other up and looking for chinks in their armour ahead of potential conflict (military puns one jillion per cent intended).

It’s a slightly awkward, stilted exchange as Rumford attempts to gather intel on the state of the case and the likelihood of innocent Cadet Springer carrying the can for the death of William Haynes, while Columbo is up to his usual routine of attempting to appear as simple and harmless as possible while attempting to gulp down a rudimentary meal after a long day investigating.

The scene features one of Columbo’s best self-deprecating lines: “You’ll have to forgive me – it’s not me, it’s my mind. It’s very slow and I have to pin everything down.” The Colonel will come to realise just what an empty phrase that is over the course of the next hour or so of screen time.


2. Rumford routed

Colonel Rumford’s hard-wired aversion to lapses of discipline in his cadets allows Columbo to force his public surrender in unforgettable fashion.

Having been alerted to the presence of the contraband cider, Rumford believes he’s about to savour the victory he’d craved over the misbehaving cadets. Instead, Columbo utterly routs him, proving beyond doubt that the Colonel had to have been at the rigged ceremonial cannon on the morning it was used to kill William Haynes. Had Rumford not been such a stickler for the rules, he could have avoided the trap, but Columbo understood the mind of his suspect so well that he was able to mentally outflank him.

As well as accentuating the Lieutenant’s intellectual acuity, this scene is notable for the mutual respect each man affords the other. Rumford congratulates Columbo on a job well done, while the detective repays the favour by allowing the Colonel one last chance to address the cadets: an unashamed nod towards the historic chivalry of warfare.


1. Cigars and white roses

McGoohan’s excellence during his companiable chat with Columbo really warrants the highest praise. One suspects there isn’t a lot of small talk and bonhomie in Rumford’s life, and that’s what makes his honest and friendly exchange with the detective in his palatial office all the more memorable.

As well as providing us with insight into Rumford’s absolute commitment to US national interests, we’re also given a hint of the man behind the uniform, the man who would hang up that uniform and tend his roses if wars didn’t need to be fought. It’s a humanising moment for Rumford, strangely sad, and one that I suspect quietly impresses Columbo, who has a soft spot for excellence and dedication in others regardless of their crimes (think Adrian Carsini and Tommy Brown).

Rumford is candid enough to offer the Lieutenant a quality cigar and even becomes the first character to overtly ask whether Columbo has a first name. “I do,” the detective concedes. “My wife is about the only one that uses it.”

A quiet, underplayed scene, but one I take considerable pleasure in viewing. McGoohan might have won his subsequent Emmy Award for this scene alone.

“It’s a humanising moment for Rumford, strangely sad, and one that I suspect quietly impresses Columbo.”


By Dawn’s Early Light is relatively rarely aired compared to a lot of Columbo episodes, so if you’d like to refresh yourself of its finer details you can read my full episode review right here.

I’d love to hear what your own personal highlights of the episode are, so do bust a comment in the section below and let’s get the red-hot debate on the go!

Thanks for reading, and until next time stay out of trouble and away from potentially explosive First World War cannons…


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Columbo By Dawn's Early Light
Would you look at that, it’s Mrs Kennicut’s missing contact lens…
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34 thoughts on “Five best moments from By Dawn’s Early Light

  1. Really luv Columbo and this intriguing one.. w Patrick M is great great actor along w Peter Falk…
    See this was done in ’74 .. kind of revealing foreshadow of real world back then.. Jimmy C became Pres ’76 signed into law allow females to attend fed academies like
    West Pt.. too bad.. huge mistake.. next year was sitting in Mitchell Hall am breakfast w other doolies cadets eating breakfast.. or trying w upperclassmen(not all) ..and good looking blonde 3rd classcadet sitting 2 seats down.. one of first female new cadets class of ’80… (shock to see)… wonder what Col Rumford woulda done if he was there to see that her that day..
    When i first heard and saw the ring emblem of ’79 class.. LCWB .. maybe u can figure that one out.
    Out there at Usafa.. heard many times how look down at places like here in Columbo…The Citadel (here) and VMI , etc…funny. Hearing cadence and scene of cadets in shorts platoon running and Columbo blocking sidewalk (so funny) brings back many memories of huge long grueling constant runs in thinair of ColSprgs.
    Columbo is The BEST.
    Thanks to MEtv for keeping his great great series and Peter Falk alive today.
    This too… this a great tribute forum to all Peter Falk and Columbo… so great !! Thank you.
    Pray for USA and our Country and our military…. esp now we need it.

     
  2. Excellent summary of the 5 best moments from a very subtle episode with a, for once, understated performance by McGoogan.

     
  3. I’ve watched Columbo ever since it first aired on t.v. This show is my all time favorite and is always my first choice to watch in reruns. Way to go, Peter Falk. One of the few actors I admire … and miss.

     
  4. I love CP’s humour of out of place quotes – “Have you ever heard of a guy named Steinmetz?” and “Would you look at that, it’s Mrs Kennicut’s missing contact lens…”
    Yes it’s a great episode this one.

     
  5. A quiet, subtle, slow-burning ‘Columbo’ episode – and for my money, still one of the best – there’s no way such an episode like this (or ‘A Friend in Deed’ as another example) could have been made during the later run… where everything was played much more broadly to the effect of caricature more often than not.

    Ah, the 1970’s… how we miss thee…

     
  6. I agree with the highest rated scene here, although only part is included. But Columbo isn’t impressed. And he really doesn’t seem to appreciate Rummy’s chummy shift. See the Lt’s wheels turn in the part of the scene that is shown. In fact, he’s about to nail this guy for murder. Next stop: the square – to discuss the urinal-less plans.

     
  7. If you have not yet had the pleasure, McGoohan fans must watch The Prisoner to fully appreciate his performance in Dawn’s Early Light. The Prisoner revolved around McGoohan’s fiery, uber-dramatic portrayal of Number 6; I love it, but the role didn’t call for a whole lot of subtlety. In Dawn’s Early Light, though, he dials back the confrontational elements and we’re left with a lower-key intensity that gives Falk a different kind of villain to play off. This is not a Jack Cassidy killer. It’s an outstanding performance, minus the quirky stuff later on that IMHO gets a bit in the way.

     
    • It ranks as No. 3 on my list (after “Murder by the Book” and “A Friend in Deed”), and features, in my opinion, Columbo’s most principled killer — because I have no doubt Col. Rumford sincerely believed that saving the Haynes Academy as a military institution was a national security imperative (“It had to be done.”). Rumford approached his crime and its aftermath like a soldier might approach a military mission: as an unpleasant but necessary job. And McGoohan captures Rumford’s inner conflict perfectly.

      I am also a huge fan of any Columbo where the solution is inextricably intertwined with the essence of who the killer is (here, someone constitutionally incapable of overlooking a breach of discipline). If only the core of Rumford’s character had allowed him to forget all about that rule-breaking cider.

       
      • A favorite episode for me too. Having reached middle age myself, I understand Rumford’s desperation to save a declining institution that he loves.

         
        • Well, I suppose Rumford does make sure that nobody else is killed, and he doesn’t commit a second murder of a blackmailer or a patsy, but I’d have more sympathy for him if he hadn’t tried to put the blame on Cadet Springer. Of course if he had admitted murder and appealed to the school governors not to close the academy, it would not have been as good an ending as the one we got.

           
          • Same here – I’d have found his motives genuinely sympathetic if he hadn’t tried to frame one of the students. That was utterly beneath him as a man of ‘principle’. Still one of my favourite episodes, however.

             
            • It only just struck me that when Columbo reads Haynes’ old report to Rumford, and the colonel assumes he is talking about Springer, it reveals he holds both the former and current cadet in equal contempt, which is why he chose Springer as the fall guy.

              Springer’s life would have been ruined, but at least he would only have been charged with manslaughter, rather than murder.

              Boodle Boy was probably relieved that the low opinion Rumford had of him didn’t amount to a hill of beans, and went on to become a successful motivational counsellor.

               
      • Not so much a military mission as a military coup. It is the duty of the military to obey the civilian commanders, after all. (I see the episode as a kind of allegory.) The fact he’d do it again is all the more reason he belongs in prison. Principled, perhaps, but dangerous. What I love about the last scene is the look of contempt on Bruno Kirby’s face. A lot of people miss that. … And I still think a B rating for this episode is an insult.

         
        • I’m not knocking Bruno Kirby’s acting here, but I just had a look at the closing scene and I think that’s a look of stunned amazement on his face, rather than contempt. Cadet Spring has the same reaction.

           
      • A principled murderer is still a murderer. Principles are not a defense. They’re merely a factor when weighing relative despicability.

         
        • I think the most principled killer on Columbo is in an episode not yet reviewed by CP. Thus killer is still a killer, but has a noble motive, and does not try to frame an innocent person.
          No spoilers, but it was Perter Falk’s idea.

           
          • She acted less out of principle, i.e., a higher purpose, and more out of necessity. She may be more sympathetic for the reasons you give, but her motives were still personal. Rumford thought he was acting in the best interests of the nation.

             
            • I take your point Richard (and thanks for keeping quite about the murderer I am referring to) but I would suggest that it’s precisely because her motives are personnel that she has a much more noble motive than Rumford, something that outweighs even genuine patriotism.

               
              • Is Rumford primarily motivated by the threat to academy or to his own position and by his personal conflict with Haynes? By the same token you might say that Roger Stanford is driven by his opposition to proposed conglomerate acqusition that would have put an end to the firm’s history as a family business, the same about Adrian Carsini and Sean Brantley. How much of his motive is patriotism, and how much is egoism? Does he even see a difference (to quote a villain from a Russian thriller novel: “I do not separate myself and the country. What’s good for the country is good for me and vice versa”)?

                 
  8. I think Rumford is the first killer to ask Columbo his name because he is the only one who never sees the badge, Sgt Kramer having to explain to him who Columbo is. (Ironically, the suspicious schoolgirl would tell us that Columbo’s first name is Frank, as that’s what it says on the badge).

    I agree that Columbo has a genuine respect for Rumford as a patriot, and so would I if it wasn’t for his cynical framing of the innocent Cadet Springer.

     
    • The only one who never sees Columbo’s badge- wow, that is quite a catch! You’re very observant.

      Interesting, too, given the militaristic setting- you’d think people would be flashing their credentials all over the place.

       
      • Thanks. I think all the other plain clothes cops would have shown their ID, but the first time Rumford sees Columbo, he’s looking around the crime scene and Rumford tells him to leave the area clear for the police. Sgt Kramer has to tell a him that this man is actually in charge of the investigation. It’s a comedy moment, but I think it’s a set up for the later scene where Rumford tries to bond by asking Columbo his first name. The other killers don’t do that because regardless of if it’s Frank, Philip or Irving, they’ve already seen it on the badge.

         
  9. The Cadet Roy Springer story produced several moments that, in my view, rivaled some of these (below the top 2, with which there should be little debate). The first was where Col. Rumford employed his proven talent for reverse psychology (previously used on victim Bill Haynes) on Springer (“I can assure you that you can rely on me and the Academy to stand behind you.”), prompting Roy to flee. Not only did the resulting flight create a red herring for Columbo, it foreshadowed Columbo’s mini-gotcha, where he reveals the contrarian similarity between Springer and Haynes (“tell him that snow is white and he’ll say that it’s black”), a major plot development (and a top-tier moment in and of itself).

    Another was perhaps the episode’s funniest exchange — between Columbo and a Valley Stream Girls School student about Susan Gerard, Roy’s girlfriend: “Sure doesn’t look like a police car? … Are you sure that badge is real?” Can you really blame her for her suspicions?

     
    • I liked the consecutive scenes at the girl’s school and then on the boat with Springer and his girlfriend, as it’s the only part of the story that doesn’t take place at the academy.

      It’s a good idea to set a story at such a large and diverse place, but it’s good to see the outside world for a few minutes. The Columbo series usually had at least one scene with a pretty girl and I guess this was the only way it could be done in this particular episode.

       
  10. Patrick McGoohan was my absolute, favorite Colombo villain!! A consummate actor in every sense of the word, he portrayed these characters as if he were them!

     
    • I agree. He is one of those Chameleon kind of actors who can submerge his own personality into any role he plays. In fact I had to look at his resume on Wikipedia to remember all the parts he has played!

       
  11. I’m glad you recognized Boodle Boy Miller. I always loved the way he closed his eyes and gave a big gulp in his “Oh $hit“ moment when his dirty shoes were discovered.

     
  12. Excellent choices by Columbophile from a unique and brilliant episode, ranging from subtle humour to moving moments that I love. It’s interesting to observe the contrast between Colonel Rumford and Nelson Brenner, the former puts national interest first and the latter is quite the opposite. Brenner likes to play games for the adrenalin and to stave off boredom, whereas Rumford could do without all that and would be happy to quietly tend to his roses. They are such contrasting characters and performances by Patrick McGoohan that you could be forgiven for thinking they were played by two different actors if you didn’t know better.

     
  13. By Dawns Early Light is one of my favourites. For some reason I enjoy a lot of the slower paced Columbo episodes. I agree with Columbophile’s choices, it’s the sombre, character revealing moments that make this episode work for me. I also liked Columbo’s first meeting with Springer.

     

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