Episode review: Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo

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Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo opening titles

A funeral took place on March 31, 1990, one to which we were all invited: Mrs Columbo’s!

Yes folks, this time it’s personal as the deranged Vivian Dimitri, the widow of one of the Lieutenant’s previous arrests, is out for revenge against the detective and his wife – and she doesn’t even care if she ends up in jail for it.

That’s a tight spot to be in, so how can Columbo foil her fiendish overtures? Let’s dress in funereal black and slather slices of toast with lemon marmalade as we find out…

Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Vivian Dimitri: Helen Shaver
Leland St John: Ian McShane
Charlie Chambers: Ed Winter
Sergeant Brady: Tom Isbell
Dr Steadman: Roscoe Lee Brown
Mitch Connelly: Michael Alldredge
Written by: Peter S. Fischer
Directed by: Vince McEveety
Score by: Richard Markowitz

Episode synopsis: Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo

Behind a mild-mannered exterior, real estate sales sensation Vivian Dimitri is a roiling ball of pent-up hatred. Her dearly beloved husband, Pete Garibaldi, died in prison of a heart attack and now she wants revenge on the two people she most blames for his incarceration: her current boss, Charlie Chambers, and the man who put Pete behind bars: Lieutenant Columbo.

It was Chambers whose snitching initially alerted the police to Pete’s wrongdoings (he was convicted of manslaughter) – and he’s first on Vivian’s hit list. While ostensibly celebrating a BIG sale with him alone in the office on a Friday night, Vivian slays him in cold blood with a silenced pistol, takes his wallet, and beats it.

Yo’ history, brah!

She then establishes her alibi by going on a dinner date with married lover, Leland St John. Excusing herself to powder her nose, Vivian scuttles out of a rear exit and jallops to a nearby ATM to withdraw $200 – using Chambers’ card. Quite why we don’t yet know, but it’s not long before she’s back at the restaurant, cooing happily with lover boy.

The two later slip away to a hotel for some illicit romping, but Vivian rouses herself at 2am and bids St John farewell. Rather than heading for home, though, her plan is to fix up the crime scene. She returns the wallet to Chambers body – neatly establishing a perfect alibi in the process. The ATM slip will suggest that Chambers withdrew the cash at the time she was out wining and dining. She also steals some files, then disposes of the murder weapon on her way home, where she burns said files in a roaring fire.

The following morning, Lieutenant Columbo is on the scene investigating – just as Vivian had planned, having established his return from vacation prior to putting her plan into action. She admits that she saw Chambers alive, alone, in the office before her dinner date and immediately goes on the faux defensive, feigning incredulity that she’s the de facto prime suspect.

The alibi Vivian reveals is a weak one: she claims to have gone home alone to a relaxing bath and early night, although her neighbours are unable to verify her movements when Columbo probes them. It forces her to ‘reluctantly’ admit her true alibi: the date with Leland St John, a rendezvous that the man himself even more reluctantly confirms.

While Vivian’s alibi looks pretty tight, Columbo is struggling to make sense of the case. For one thing, he found an envelope on Chambers’ body that leads him to a bookmaker at a seedy hotel. Here, he discovers the dead man had a big win on the basketball that very day – so much so that he had $1400 cash on him. Why, then, would he go to an ATM and withdraw an extra $200 prior to being murdered? The answer? He didn’t – the killer withdrew the cash to cover their tracks.

Vivian unashamedly rocking the side pony tail – what of it?

Vivian looms large in his suspicions again – even more so after St John admits that she did spend a few minutes away from his gaze in the ladies’ room at the restaurant. Those unaccounted minutes could easily have been used by Vivian to dash to the ATM, which means Chambers could well have been killed much earlier than the police believe.

Vivian’s planting of the murder weapon and destruction of client files are part of her dual plan to avert suspicion. She’s attempting to frame furious rotundo Mitch Connelly, who has an axe to grind with Chambers over a real estate deal gone sour. More pertinently, though, she goes to great efforts to befriend the Lieutenant, help with his enquiries and seek information about his life and marriage.

During a friendly chinwag, Columbo recalls that he met Vivian previously under her then-married name of Annette Garibaldi when he was investigating the case in which he arrested her husband Pete. The detective assures her that he was only doing his job and was sorry to hear of Pete’s passing as he’d always found him a likable chap, despite his crime. For her part, Vivian appears to hold no ill will towards Columbo.

The wily Lieutenant isn’t fooled, though. He’s wary about why Vivian is so keen to arrange a meeting with Mrs Columbo, although does accept a gift of lemon marmalade from her to pass on to Mrs Columbo. His feeling of unease is only heightened after a lunch meeting with Vivian’s former psychiatrist, Dr Steadman. Although unwilling to break doctor/patient confidentiality, Steadman does broadly hint at Vivian’s unhinged state of mind, and how it wouldn’t be sensible to let her anywhere near the detective’s wife.

Hey putz, I ordered the chilli and crackers!

Steadman also highlights a troubling scenario: if such a troubled mind as Vivian were to gain revenge on those who wronged her – say, by killing the wife of the man who put her husband behind bars – she would want him to know she did it in order to cause as much pain as possible, even at the price of life behind bars.

It’s a chilling thought, but Columbo maintains the mask of friendship and appears to play Vivian’s game, letting her believe that he’s fallen for her scheme to frame Connelly for the killing. But that’s just the start of his deception. A short while later, Columbo receives devastating news while in Vivian’s company: Mrs Columbo is in hospital after being found unconscious at home by a neighbour. He flees the scene to be with his wife, leaving Vivian barely able to conceal a faint look of triumph.

We then fade to the funeral that we’ve intermittently been seeing betwixt the episode’s flashbacks. Mrs Columbo is interred and a sad Columbo seeks solace in Vivian, who is amongst a sea of guests. He says he just needs to talk, and she understands his situation better than most having recently lost her own beloved husband. It’s the invitation Vivian has been looking for.

Before the two head off to Chez Columbo, however, the Lieutenant is stopped by a fellow officer who tells him that the filling in of the grave will have to be delayed. Mrs Columbo’s autopsy has shown some sort of irregularity, which will need to be investigated. Columbo nods a weary acceptance and then heads for home with Vivian.

You can’t say marmalade without saying mmmmm…

And it is there that the depth of his sting operation is finally revealed. Columbo helps himself to some of the lemon marmalade on the kitchen table, commenting that it looks like his wife had already sampled it. He then tucks in as Vivian casts an interested eye over proceedings.

Complaining of suddenly feeling hot, Columbo fields a phone call. It’s the coroner’s office, who tell him the cause of his wife’s death was poisoning. The stunned detective cannot believe his ears, slumping into a kitchen chair and appearing disorientated and confused.

Believing that Columbo’s comeuppance is upon him, and that he’ll soon perish in front of her eyes due to the poisoned marmalade he’s just eaten, Vivian can’t resist the opportunity to gloat. She admits to the killing of Mrs Columbo and goes into detail about how and why she slew Charlie Chambers. Smiling, she tells him that he, too, will soon be dead – thanks to her.

I don’t think so, ma’am,” he responds, snapping out of his haze and calling for Sergeant Brady in the next room. Brady duly appears, having tape recorded Vivian’s entire admission of guilt. This isn’t Columbo’s house at all – it’s the Sergeant’s, and it’s the culmination of the Lieutenant’s carefully worked charade to draw her out.

“You’ll never believe it. You know young Sergeant Brady? His house is decorated like a grandmother’s…”

Mrs Columbo, of course, is alive and well. Columbo never even gave her the marmalade in the first place because he suspected Vivian’s ill intent and had it checked by the forensics team. He’s been onto her from the start and her bid for revenge never had a chance of success. That’s gotta hurt!

The now-livid Vivian at least has the satisfaction of delivering an almighty slap to Columbo’s cheek before being taken into custody. All that’s left is for the Lieutenant to call his wife and murmur some sweet nothings to her over the phone as credits roll…



My memories of Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo

My first encounter with Rest in Peace came in the 1990s, when I caught the episode airing on terrestrial TV at home. Although I didn’t know the series particularly well at that stage, I knew enough to be instantly gutted at the thought of Mrs Columbo’s death – especially as the dear Lieutenant seemed to be genuinely devastated during the funeral scenes.

“HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO COLUMBO?” raged the younger, innocent me

I recall being both surprised, delighted and relieved at the table-turning gotcha moment, although little else from the episode sticks with me. I know it better from watching on DVD from the mid-2000s onward and have always thought of it as one of the better revival episodes, although not one without some overly melodramatic moments.

However, having not watched this for at least five years prior to reviewing, there were a lot of mental gaps I needed to fill in on plot points so I can honestly say I was viewing about 80% of this with comparatively fresh eyes.

Episode analysis

For the first-time viewer, the opening scenes of Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo make for seriously bleak viewing. A wretched Lieutenant Columbo, dressed all in black, stands at a graveside getting soaked to the skin in a raging downpour as a priest mumbles empty platitudes nearby.

If the episode title wasn’t confirmation enough, we’re soon given the information we need via voice-over: this is Mrs Columbo’s funeral, and her killer – Vivian Dimitri – is also planning to bump off the Lieutenant himself. That’s quite the opening gambit, and as there’s nothing to suggest it’s not the real McCoy, it makes for an unsettling, disheartening experience. It looks for all the world like ‘her indoors’ really is dead!

How many times do I have to tell you, NEVER trust a woman who wears a comedy hat to a solemn occasion…

So begins a very different Columbo adventure, and one in which the main crime – the murder of Charlie Chambers – is ultimately of secondary importance to the viewer, whose attention has been fixated on the fate of Mrs Columbo, and what exactly can have happened to lead us into this ghastly situation.

To give the episode due credit, the illusion of her demise is well done. On the downside, though, the shock impact of the story line is a one-off. The overall strength of the episode, therefore, can really only be assessed during subsequent viewings as we pick apart the Lieutenant’s double dealing and look for the clues that tell us Mrs Columbo is never truly in jeopardy.

Unfortunately, one doesn’t need to search too hard to find the indicators that the funeral is all a sham. Knowing what we know of Columbo’s devious nature, and how quickly he sees through Vivian’s alibi, it actually ought not to be a surprise to us at all that Mrs Columbo is alive and well.

I can’t help but feel that the episode would have been stronger if there had been more room for doubt in Columbo’s mind over Vivian’s guilt and fiendish schemes, but it’s very unambiguous. He never falls for her attempts to frame Mitch Connelly for the murder of Charlie Chambers, he swiftly deduces she withdrew the money from the ATM when supposedly in the restaurant ladies’ room, and is always non-committal towards Vivian’s overtures to meet Mrs Columbo in the flesh.

A lesser killer wouldn’t be able to pull off a blouse like this

Not only that, we are spoon-fed his level of distrust towards Vivian through his detailed (and unusual for the series) conversations with young Sergeant Brady, who is essentially the surrogate audience and the one Columbo uses to relay to us in easy-to-follow terms just how on top of the case he actually is.

The idea, therefore, that he’d pass on anything Vivian gave him to Mrs Columbo – especially after being warned of her parlous mental state by Dr Steadman – is too far-fetched to be considered. Because of all this, a more knowledgeable fan simply must smell a rat, making the gimmick of the funeral and of Columbo appearing to be dying of marmalade poisoning aspects that really only work for the uninitiated viewer.

Does this matter? Yes and no. I think a more casual fan, who perhaps doesn’t realise how important Mrs Columbo is to the series, could fall for the set-up hook, line and sinker – just as I did when I first viewed this as a teen – and go through the emotional wringer. The more you know about Columbo and the depth of his relationship with his wife, however, the less surprised you’ll be at the twist in the tail.

It’s for this reason, I’m sure, that the episode puts us in the shoes and mind of the killer more than ever before. Even if we know Mrs Columbo is fit and well, Vivian doesn’t, and we can certainly enjoy her fury and devastation when she learns that it was she, not Columbo, who has been played like a fiddle throughout.

Tortured soul: Vivian’s downfall is packed with emotion

Helen Shaver’s performance during the denouement is particularly impressive. We’ve seen earlier glimpses of Vivian’s instability (including the remarkable scene when she dances and weeps alone in front of a projected image of her husband), but here at the end all the pent-up rage and hatred pours forth, and Vivian’s swift descent from gloating triumph to agonising defeat is very nicely played.

I give Shaver props here, because when she strikes the Lieutenant across the face, tears in her eyes, I feel real sympathy for her despite her callous attempts to kill off the Columbo clan. We’re reminded that this is a woman whose life was turned upside down when her husband was jailed, and who was plunged into depression and a negative spiral following his death. She didn’t ask for any of this.

Unlike most Columbo killers, Vivian isn’t merely out to safeguard her way of life or get her hands on oodles of loot. She’s mentally ill and has been seeing a psychiatrist since her husband’s death in a bid to deal with the hand fate has dealt her. Ultimately, she finds that her only way of dealing with it is to hurt the ones who hurt her. In doing so, she becomes a shadowy reflection of what anyone might become if cruelly robbed of a loved one, and she feels dangerous because she doesn’t care what happens to her.

While I’ve never researched this, I’d wager that Vivian gets more screen time than any other killer we encounter in the series. Fortunately, Shaver is a good enough actress to carry the role. There are a few shades of soapy melodrama later in the episode, but she largely succeeds in balancing the dangerous, deranged Vivian with the fragile flower.

As a murderer, she’s competent and the way in which she draws out having to reveal her dinner date alibi is the work of a careful and clever schemer, and would almost certainly have fooled any other detective within the LAPD. It was arguably only the misfortune of her not realising Chambers had a wad of cash on him from his basketball bets when she killed him that scuppered her grand plans.

She’s behiiiiiiiiiiiiind you!

I guess we can put any discrepancies in the plot down to Vivian’s mental state. However, a tougher critic than I might pick fault in her approach to eradicating Mrs Columbo. Unlike her murder of Chambers, Vivian appears to have had no clear plan to destroy the Columbos’ lives. Her high-risk decision to proffer up poisoned marmalade appears to have been an off-the-cuff move based on the Lieutenant commenting that his wife liked the stuff.

This all seems a little at odds with the meticulous planning involved in the Chambers killing, and her careful timing to ensure Columbo was back from vacation to lead the investigation. Vivian’s attempts to inveigle Columbo into arranging a meeting between her and Mrs C seem similarly uninspired, as if Vivian was groping for the right opportunity, rather than forcing one.

One would think it would have been easier for Vivian to tail Columbo home one night (or hire a PI) to find out his home address, gun down Mrs Columbo at her leisure, wait there for the Lieutenant to return and then send him to join her after divulging the entire plan. Problem solved! Still, that would have made for one hell of a dark way to sign off the series, eh? Indeed, had this been the last ever Columbo episode, it would have thematically worked very well as a farewell.

As well as the unusually high amount of screen time for the killer, Rest in Peace is noteworthy for being the first Columbo story largely told in flashback form. The episode starts in the present, at the phony funeral, before launching into a series of four flashbacks, each of which is introduced by a character at the funeral via internal monologue (groo!), and which relays a hefty chunk of the story.

While I find this an intriguing enough concept initially, it soon wears thin. Indeed, two of these monologues are delivered by characters so unconnected to Columbo that it’s bizarre to think they’d have been invited to the funeral at all: Leland St John (whom Columbo met once, and who was relatively surly to him) and the ruddy secretary of Chambers’ real estate office, who is of zero relevance to the plot!

WHY ARE YOU EVEN HERE?

The two flashbacks introduced by Vivian are acceptable, but the other two represent another example of ‘new Columbo‘ flogging a dead horse and searching for ways to artistically extend an episode’s running time. It’s too much for me, but then I do detest internal monologues, which are almost never done convincingly.

As is the usual with the revival episodes, there’s too little story to warrant the 90+ minutes’ running time and I did occasionally find my attention wandering. I’m not going to bang on too much about this today (it’s a complaint I have about pretty much every episode from 1989 onward) but to paraphrase Bilbo Baggins, the story is stretched, like butter over too much bread.

It’s particularly irksome as the sub-plots go nowhere. The framing of Mitch Connelly is dismissed so swiftly by Columbo that it was hardly worth the effort of including. Similarly undercooked is Vivian’s dalliance with St John, which had the potential to be a lot more pivotal and entertaining, especially with an actor of the calibre of Ian McShane in the role.

Both McShane and Roscoe Lee Brown as Dr Steadman are underused given the length of the episode. Brown, in particular, could have been harnessed far more effectively than the single scene he was given. Who knows, maybe his schedule didn’t allow for it, but when you have an actor of his standing available, the more screen time the better.

Either of Brown or McShane would have made for an excellent killer in their own right, both offering a suitable contrast to Falk and a hard edge, as well as having delightfully distinct voices. Alas, it was never to be. Perhaps McShane was too wrapped up in playing antique-selling rogue Lovejoy on UK television instead?

Ya silk shirt-wearing buttercups…

With a strong cast to play off, it’s little wonder that Peter Falk is on good form. When in detective mode, he’s grittier than normal, displaying a sharp edge in his interactions with fellow officers and never falling into the sort of puerile antics we’ve seen too often in the comeback series. This Columbo feels like the real deal, not a caricature. His stern but restrained treatment of Vivian at episode’s end is spot on, and seems fitting for a man who’s got to be simmering with fury at her murderous intents, while still recognising the pain he has caused her. Bravo, Peter.

The portrayal of a grieving husband / poisoning victim is less believable (some might say a little hammy), but overall you feel the writer has really got a grip on the character – as well should be the case, because 70s’ Columbo regular Peter S. Fischer was back on writing duties for the first time since A Deadly State of Mind 15 years earlier (he disowned his involvement in Old Fashioned Murder in 1976).

As well as Deadly State, Fischer conceived or wrote the teleplay for some of the best-loved Columbos of all: Publish or Perish, A Friend in Deed, An Exercise in Fatality and Negative Reaction. He’s widely recognised as one of the series’ best writers, and someone who ate, breathed and slept the character. Certainly, Falk had great faith in Fischer’s abilities. Having one of his former favourites back must have been a terrific boost for him.

Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo is also notable in welcoming a new player to the fold who would go on to make a considerable contribution over the next seven years: the late Vince McEveety. A veteran of both TV (including Star Trek TOS) and film direction (including 2 x Herbie films), McEveety would eventually helm seven Columbo episodes – more than any other director.

There’s some nice camerawork in evidence on his debut here, with the extensive use of locations helping make Rest in Peace feel like a lavish production – something which can’t always be said of the seven previous episodes. Heck, even the sombre, sparse score has dated well, enhancing the episode and blissfully sidestepping any twee use of This Old Man.

<insert internal monologue here>

All in all, it’s a classy production and a much more sober time capsule of the era than Columbo Cries Wolf, with its poppy score and trashy wardrobes. Vivian Dimitri is the best-dressed killer of the new Columbo era so far, who rocks countless looks throughout the episode – notably that little red dress. Just about the only dodgy aesthetic element is Columbo’s hair, which is terribly dyed. Knowing what a silver fox Falk would become, I do wish they’d not bothered trying to conceal his ageing process.

Despite the many elements of Rest in Peace that do work, in my opinion it still falls short of the series’ very best efforts and underscores an issue I have with the revival episodes: you just never know what you’re going to get from one episode to the next.

The change in format here is pretty significant, and while the odd departure is OK, the last four episodes have all been markedly different. Think of the black and white dream sequences in Murder, A Self Portrait; the stylistic 90s’ assault and complete fooling of the Lieutenant in Columbo Cries Wolf; the classic style of Agenda for Murder; and now this ‘is-she-or-isn’t-she-dead?’ bait-and-switch.

It’s by no means all bad, but I can’t shake the feeling that the creative team (which included Falk and William Link in Executive Producer roles) still wasn’t confident enough in the traditional strengths of the show to appeal to a modern audience, hence the continual tinkering with the formula. It’s no coincidence to me that Agenda for Murder, the standout ‘new’ episode to date, is the most faithful to the original style and format.

The Columbo finger wag always means someone’s in BIG trouble

Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo is admittedly one of the better latter-day departures, which starts and ends memorably (Vivian’s slap to Columbo’s face being a great moment) and has a pleasing darkness at its heart. However, once the novelty value has worn away, it’s a fairly run-of-the-mill outing that lacks the rewatchability of the very best episodes.

Still, we should count our blessings. We’ve now gone three decent episodes in a row, including one very good one in Agenda for Murder. After a sluggish restart, Columbo seems to be hitting its stride, and its central star is back on sizzling form, looking like he’s got the bit between his teeth once more. Onwards and upwards? We can but hope.

Did you know?

Welcome back, Mrs Dick Levinson!

Shera Danese wasn’t the only wife of a Columbo heavyweight who secured multiple acting roles on the show – as can be seen from Rosanna Huffman’s cameo as home buyer Mrs Thornwood early in the episode.

Rosanna was married to series co-creator Dick Levinson from 1969 until his untimely death in 1987. She previously starred as Dale Kingston’s accomplice (and second victim) Tracy O’Connor in Suitable for Framing way back in 1971 – sporting the single-most 70s’ haircut in history in the process.

How I rate ’em

A commendable and reasonably compelling addition to the timeline, Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo is boosted by good writing and fine performances from our leads. I just wish I could view it again for the first time, but from the perspective of a knowledgeable fan, in order to better assess the effectiveness of the surprise twist in the tail.

Missed any of my earlier ‘new Columbo’ episode reviews? You’ll find them via the links below.

  1. Agenda for Murder
  2. Columbo Cries Wolf
  3. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  4. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  5. Sex & The Married Detective
  6. Murder, A Self Portrait
  7. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  8. 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 Rest in Peace rocks your world as much as Vivian’s red dress rocks mine, you can vote for it in the fans’ favourite episode poll here.

Vivian Dimitri – literally smoking hot!

As always, I now invite you to share your own opinions on the crushing lows and dizzying highs of today’s episode of choice. I’m particularly interested in your first opinions of this episode, whether the funeral sham had you hooked, and how the adventure holds up under repeat viewing. Thoughts on Helen Shaver’s performance as the tortured Vivian Dimitri would also be most welcome.

I’ve gotta dash now, as a kindly neighbour is coming round to drop off a few jars of lemon marmalade for me, my wife, and the Columbo juniors. What fun! Once we’ve feasted, I’ll be able to turn my attentions to the next episode in our saga: Uneasy Lies the Crown, which revives a script written in the early 1970s by no less a luminary than Steven Bochco. Does a four-peat of cracking episodes await? Check back soon…


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