Lock up yer daughters, folks, because the final episode of Columbo’s ninth season can only corrupt them through the undistilled animal magnetism of villainous gigolo Wayne Jennings.
Starring Andrew Stevens as the aforementioned lothario, Murder in Malibu is a sordid tale of womanising, betrayal, murder and… underwear. But before you get too excited, it’s worth remembering that this is one of the least popular, most derided Columbo episodes ever made.
Is Murder in Malibu so bad it’s good? Or is it just so bad it’s terrible? Let’s turn back the clock to May 14, 1990 and get ready to swoon – repeatedly – as we find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Wayne Jennings: Andrew Stevens
Jess McCurdy: Brenda Vaccaro
Theresa Goren: Janet Margolin
Lieutenant Schultz: Floyd Levine
Helen Ashcroft: Laurie Walters
Mrs Rocca: Sondra Currie
Mavis: Mary Margaret Lewis
Directed by: Walter Grauman
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Score by: Patrick Williams
Episode synopsis – Murder in Malibu
Playboy Wayne Jennings exudes such sex appeal that all women go dewy-eyed the second he enters the same zip code. He’s the kept man of best-selling novelist Theresa Goren, who is by some years his senior, and who funds his frivolous lifestyle of daring exploits, fast cars and high-level amateur sport.
Despite this bounteous arrangement, Jennings is unable to resist his primal urges and has numerous other women on the go at any one time. This is something that Theresa suspects and uses as a reason to hold back from accepting his proposal of marriage – until she succumbs to peer pressure from an audience of excitable ladies on a live TV talk show and decides there and then to marry her dream man.
Jennings is out of town in Palm Springs, ostensibly to compete in a celebrity tennis tournament (he’s actually bedding a film producer’s wife), when he receives a call late at night. It appears to be Theresa, and she’s hopping mad, claiming to hate him and that she’s dumping his shapely ass.
Refusing to accept this, Jennings hops in his sweet convertible Jag and vrooms back to LA – leaving an alibi-tastic message on his insurance agent’s answer machine at precisely 6.25am as he does so, claiming to be in heavy traffic on the freeway. His actual location, however, is Theresa’s beachfront house where we’re shown him standing in a doorway and twice firing a gun at an object or person off-screen.
When the camera angle switches, we see that it’s our mate Theresa who has attracted his ire, as she’s now lying dead (and partially clothed) by an open safe. He then streaks off in the Jag again to further establish alibi by ringing Theresa’s secretary Mavis at precisely 7.15am from a crowded diner. He tells her he’s on his way back from his trip early to surprise Theresa and will be there in 90 minutes’ time. Not just a pretty face, eh?
When he does arrive, it’ll be at a crime scene being spearheaded by Columbo and laconic Noo Yawk sidekick Lieutenant Schultz. The detectives have so far discovered that $100,000 in jewellery is missing from the safe, while Theresa’s gun is notably absent from its usual spot in a bedside table drawer. Columbo has also noticed that Theresa’s underwear drawer has been left open, so he starts fumbling through the silky items as Schultz relates his theory of a pro thief disturbing the dame early in the morning, and then slaying her with her own gun after she challenged them.
Upon Jennings’ arrival, he’s immediately sequestered by Columbo to help with inquiries, swiftly noticing that a $25,000 jade ashtray is missing, underscoring the notion that a pro thief was the killer. Their conviviality is blown apart by the arrival of Jess McCurdy, Theresa’s oldest sister and literary agent. She has no love for Jennings and turns the cold shoulder to his heartbroken proclamations – and the trunk full of flowers he intended to surprise Theresa with.
Columbo and Jennings take a potter about the neighbourhood to seek eye-witness information on strange people or vehicles spotted in the area that morning. They draw a big fat blank, except for learning that the cable TV company had some workmen up fixing lines nearby.
After this, Columbo is found lurking at Jess’s office and studying video footage of the previous evening’s talk show on which Theresa admitted her love for Jennings. A conversation with Jess ensues, from which Columbo discovers she is the sole beneficiary of Theresa’s life insurance policy – a big disincentive for Jennings to have murdered her.
The investigation returns to Theresa’s home where Columbo reveals to Jennings that there is no record of him being registered at the hotel hosting the celebrity tennis tournament – although a call to the film producer’s wife Mrs Rocca confirms he’d been in her presence. She can’t vouch for what time he received the phone call that summoned him back to LA, though.
It’s left for Jess to drop a minor bombshell and blow the investigation wide open when she confirms that Jennings received the call from Theresa at around 3am. Jess knows this because (she says) she was with Theresa at the time. The police have also picked up a PI hired by Jess to snoop on Jennings, who further points blame at the handsome love machine by revealing that his distinctive Jag had been spotted near the crime scene at 7am that morning.
Jennings now totally loses his cool and admits to having raced back to LA in a passion and shooting Theresa through the heart with her .25 pistol. As he’s read his rights by Lieutenant Schultz, however, another officer arrives with a ballistics report for Columbo. STOP THE PRESS! Theresa was actually killed by a bullet to the head fired from a different calibre gun half an hour before Jennings shot her. It ain’t a crime to shoot a dead body (says Columbo), so Jennings didn’t murder her after all! It’s such a stunning revelation that Action Man Wayne faints dead away.
The enfeebled Jennings is driven off downtown while Columbo grills Jess about Theresa’s fateful phone call. According to Jess, she drove by the house at about midnight and found Theresa drunk and bitter, raving about her lover’s rascally ways. Jess provided her with the Roccas’ number and convinced her to make the call to Jennings before driving herself home. Whether it’s true or not, one thing’s for sure: Columbo’s investigation is back to square one.
He’s quickly given a new lead, however, when he pays a visit to Jennings’ insurance agent/lover, Helen. She provides not only the answer machine tape from his call to her at 6.25am that morning, but also the inside line on Theresa’s other life insurance policy, which will see Jennings pick up a cool $1million pay-out. Maybe he did have an incentive to kill her after all…
Next up, Columbo and Jennings are given a sky ride in the cherry picker that was being used for cable repairs in the area on the morning of Theresa’s slaying. The operators had a sweet view of the surrounding houses from between 5.50-6.25am. Although they were troubled by flocks of squawking crows, they can swear that no cars were seen on the roads during that time. They can’t rule out pedestrians skulking in the bushes, or strolling on the beach, though.
As it happens, Jess lives just a couple of miles away along the beach, so Columbo takes a leisurely stroll to her not-so-humble abode to get his investigation back on the front foot. Phone records show that Theresa did not make a call to Palm Springs overnight. Would Jess mind terribly if he checked her phone records for such a call instead? Although furious, Jess caves in. She admits she was the one who made the 3am call to Jennings in a desperate bid to end the relationship after Theresa refused to ditch him.
Columbo is then called away by Schultz. The murder weapon has been found buried on the beach on a direct path Jess would have taken if she’d shot Theresa and returned to her own home via the seafront. All of a sudden, things are looking pretty dark for Miss McCurdy.
Back at Jess’s home, however, Jennings emerges after being admitted by a latina housemaid who, predictably, has the hots for him. He’s been listening in to Jess’s chat with Columbo and knows she made the call to him, pretending to be Theresa. The two argue, but just when you think Jess might become the episode’s second victim, they instead enter into a passionate embrace with Jennings claiming he’d always had a soft spot for her – and she somehow accepting this!
Meanwhile, Columbo pays a visit to the medical examiner. He’s spotted something on the photo of Theresa’s body that makes him want to check the underwear she was found dead in. Once done, he’s off to Jess’s house again – only to find she ain’t home. She’s out shopping in Beverly Hills, and she’s with Wayne Jennings. When Columbo finally tracks them down, they’re canoodling in a fashion store and planning a filthy getaway. That won’t be happening, though, because the Lieutenant is here to make an arrest.
The lab reports indicate that Theresa was likely killed in her sleep. When found, she was wearing knee-high socks, which she only wore with slacks. She only wore slacks to travel or laze around the house in, and the only people who knew Theresa was set to fly to Philly for the next leg of her book-signing tour on the day she was slain were Jess and Jennings. One of them is guilty of pre-meditated murderer and of dressing the corpse to indicate a burglary gone awry.
“Theresa was found with her underwear on backwards – and only a man could have made such an amateurish mistake.”
Columbo concludes that Jennings is the culprit. For one thing, the noise in background of the answer machine message he left for Helen has been analysed. It’s not highway traffic as claimed. In fact it’s more likely to be the cawing of a large number of crows. From this, Columbo has deduced that Jennings planned to murder Theresa and race back to Palm Springs in time to play his tennis tournament – but the presence of the work crew on the cherry picker put a fly in the ointment.
After killing Theresa, Jennings had to quickly come up with a new plan, resulting in his message to Helen pretending to be caught in traffic. Once the work crew departed, he shot Theresa again and split – stopping at the diner to make a further call to Secretary Mavis to enhance the illusion that he was still on his way back from Palm Springs.
These are plausible deductions, but not damning enough to draw out a confession. But Columbo has further proof: Theresa was found with her underwear on backwards – and only a man could have made an amateurish mistake like that. Jess goes ape, slapping Jennings into submission before police officers drag him away and escort her home.
All that’s left is for Columbo to explain to a dumbfounded Schultz how the hell he reached his conclusions. Using a scantily clad mannequin, Columbo is able to demonstrate (saying ‘panties’ six times in 90 seconds) how the label on Theresa’s undies was on the left side in the photo, but on the right side of the actual garment. They were on backwards. A woman would never have made such an error, so Jennings just had to be the murderer.
The Lieutenant’s pantie identification skillz have cracked the case, but the two men aren’t long able to bask in the successful closure of the case. A hoard of disgusted female shoppers look on at Columbo fumbling with the mannequin’s knickers until the shamefaced cops beat a hasty retreat as credits thankfully roll…
My memories of Murder in Malibu
Although I hadn’t watched it for the best part of a decade prior to this review, Murder in Malibu sounds mental warning bells whenever I give it a thought.
Primarily, I recall detesting the episode’s cheap and tacky production values and finding Wayne Jennings to be a laughably bad villain. Columbo’s multiple uses of the word ‘panties’ has always been a serious cause of discomfort, while I regard the gotcha as one of the series’ very worst.
Fortunately, time is a healer and there are many aspects of the episode that have faded from memory, including the sub-plot about Jess McLurdy’s potential involvement and the ‘stunning’ twist when it’s revealed that Jennings shot Theresa’s dead body, so couldn’t be guilty of her murder (even though desecration of a corpse is surely still an arrestable offence).
I’ve been clinging to the hope that this might somehow fall into the ‘so bad it’s good’ category, but I have a feeling that Last Salute to the Commodore’s long run as my least favourite Columbo episode may be about to end.
Oh. My. Actual. God.
You’ll have gathered that my expectations for Murder in Malibu were not exactly sky high, yet I was hoping against hope to be moderately and pleasantly surprised after such a long hiatus between viewings. Devastatingly, though, Murder in Malibu is far worse than I remember and is an episode that redefines how low a Columbo can go.
To put it bluntly, this is cheap, disposable swill featuring laughably poor performances across the cast, a miserable plot and a lamentable gotcha. One gets the impression it was filmed in a hurry with none of the series’ usual finesse. Indeed, this is what a daily soap opera version of Columbo would look like – and it’s a terrifying sight.
I’m at a loss as to how this pitiful adventure was allowed to come about, but I have a theory about Season 9 for which I have no proof, but which fits the facts nevertheless. See what you think…
I suspect that this was originally intended to be a season of just four episodes, as was the case for Season 8. The atypical nature of Rest In Peace, Mrs Columbo had ‘season finale’ written all over it, so I strongly believe it was meant to draw the curtain on the season by putting viewers through the emotional wringer before leaving them cock-a-hoop that Mrs Columbo was alive and well after all.
At some point, however, it was decided that it was necessary to extend the season by two further episodes (perhaps at network insistence), leaving the production team in one heck of a hurry to plug up the gaps in the schedule. That would explain why the script for fifth episode Uneasy Lies the Crown was dug up after nearly 20 years in mothballs, and would also offer a reason for why Malibu feels in every way to be such a rush job.
I could be completely wrong about all this, but Murder in Malibu is such an aberration that I’m desperate to come up with plausible justification for its many, many shortcomings. A half-baked plot idea that had to be hurriedly completed and filmed would certainly go a long way to explaining why the 55th Columbo outing became such a steaming pile of
However it happened and whoever’s to blame, it’s difficult to know where to start the dissection of Murder in Malibu because so much of it is so bad. I’ll wager, though, that for most fans the chief talking point is the performance of leading man Andrew Stevens as Wayne ‘LOVE GOD’ Jennings, so why not let’s begin there and see where it leads us.
I must admit to being unfamiliar with Stevens’ body of work aside from Columbo, so I was surprised to learn that he’s had a solid, if unspectacular, acting career since the early 70s – including appearing in 33 episodes of Dallas between 1987-89. My jaw hit the deck, though, when I discovered he’d been nominated for a Golden Globe in 1979 for his performance in Vietnam War flick The Boys In Company C.
And although he’s been more prolific as a producer or executive producer (being involved in several blockbusters including Get Carter and The Whole Nine Yards), it’s evident that in his earlier career Stevens was regarded as quite an acting talent. Yet his Wayne Jennings is as cardboard as a man-size box of Ryvita – and extremely unconvincing as an irresistible lothario.
“Murder in Malibu is what a daily soap opera version of Columbo would look like – and it’s a terrifying sight.”
Stevens is a fairly good-looking chap with a decent bod. However, he’s neither handsome nor charismatic enough to pull off the character as written; a man whose mere presence has every red-blooded woman within a five-mile radius clamouring to lure him into their foxy lair. Much as I hate to say it (and I apologise to Andrew Stevens if he’s reading, as I’m sure he’s a lovely bloke), he could be any one of dozens of identikit hire-a-hunks who appeared in trashy US TV shows in the 80s and 90s.
Chief amongst the performance lowlights is his wretched ‘comedy faint’ after Columbo reveals that Theresa was already dead when Jennings shot her through the heart. It’s cringeworthy viewing, yet only fractionally worse than Jennings’ sham displays of grief and fury, which are about as believable as a Sarah Sanders press briefing.
Every one of Jennings’ scenes has a ‘shot-in-a-single-take’ feel about it, with overblown, melodramatic line deliveries and artificially expansive body language gestures. If it’s nuance you’re after, look elsewhere. However, it’s not only Jennings who’s guilty of these misdemeanours. Just about every significant player in this is suffering from the same malaise, with Brenda Vaccaro giving Stevens an excellent run for his money in the ham stakes.
Vaccaro’s Jess McCurdy is borderline unwatchable at times, all popping eyes and hissing vitriol in her scenes with Jennings. The moment where she gives Jennings a b*tch slapping may be the least credible acting I’ve ever seen anywhere (and I used to be part of a talentless drama group as a teen) and again feels like it was done in a single take while racing the clock – a far cry from Columbo’s 70s heyday when Falk and co. would refilm scenes ad infinitum in order to make them as strong as possible. The comparative lack of quality control here breaks this purist’s heart.
Rest assured that I take no pleasure in delivering such stinging critique. The cast may not actually be bad actors, but they are acting badly here – almost to a man/woman. No opportunity to overplay a situation or scene was turned down, from breathless housewife Mrs Rocca to Jess’s receptionist, whose tearful, arm-wagging walk between elevator and office is something straight out of a dire sitcom.
“There are several highly uncomfortable moments regarding Columbo’s interactions with women’s underwear.”
Even Falk is far from faultless. He’s better than Stevens and Vaccaro, but this version of Columbo is swaying too near to the caricature we saw in Seasons 7 and 8 for my liking. Perhaps in a bid to disguise the feeble plot, Falk seems to be playing it for laughs from the start as he repeatedly seeks a way to rid himself of some eggshells before simply pressing the whole egg into Schultz’s hands. We’ve seen it before, and a lot better, in the 70s.
Things don’t improve, culminating in his appalling explanation to Schultz about how he was able to crack the case through Theresa’s underwear being on backwards. The aghast faces on the watching female shoppers combined with the cops’ shameful retreat to a comical ditty all add to what is certainly one of the most painful Columbo scenes ever filmed – especially as we hear Columbo say ‘panties’ so often in so short a time.
There are several highly uncomfortable moments regarding Columbo’s interactions with women’s underwear – an unwelcome theme of the episode. The worst comes first, when he simply starts toying with a pair of Theresa’s pants from her bedroom drawer, seemingly more interested in them, and how they’re the same brand worn by Mrs Columbo, than listening to Schultz’s appraisal of the crime. UGH!
Later, he closely studies the lingerie taken from Theresa’s body in a police examination room, where his actions are viewed with incredulity by Schultz, who then promptly picks up the undies himself once Columbo leaves the room! The scene plays out like we’re supposed to find it funny. It is anything but. And while I know Columbo is pure of heart, this is treading dangerously close to presenting him as a perv and I absolutely hate it.
While it’s true that the performances are less than we’ve come to expect, actors can only play the parts that have been written for them and on this occasion they’ve been on the receiving end of some pretty ropey characterisations: Columbo with his pants fetish; Jennings with his preening mannishness; Jess with a crazy about-face in which she willingly enters into a romance with a man she espouses to hate, and whom she believes had tried to kill her own sister.
“Pretty much every woman in the episode is made out to be insultingly shallow.”
All three leads can feel hard done by with the script – especially given that Columbo doyen Jackson Gillis is the credited writer. Gillis conceived, scripted or adapted stories for 11 episodes between 1971 and 1992 – including popular classics Suitable for Framing, Double Shock and Troubled Waters. He also scripted Last Salute to the Commodore, although under Patrick McGoohan’s madcap direction Gillis’s promising story became a total shambles.
Gillis had been serving as Executive Story Editor or Consultant since the series was rekindled in 1989, but Malibu was his first Columbo writing credit since Last Salute – and it plumbs similar depths. I’d love to know more about the background to this episode and how much time Gillis had to craft the story because it bears none of the qualities he was renowned for.
Quite aside from the poorly written lead characters, pretty much every woman in the episode is made out to be insultingly shallow, while the overall plot is a mess and nowhere near as clever as it tries to be. Indeed, I suspect a rather more straightforward story was hastily adapted, twisted and padded out to help it reach its unbearable 98-minute running time.
Rather than showing us exactly how the murder happened, Malibu attempts to pull the wool over the viewers’ eyes with the faint-inducing mid-episode twist when we learn that Theresa was already dead when we saw Jennings shoot her. We’re then meant to believe that Jess could be the killer based on the murder weapon being found buried on the beach, and the proximity of her house to her sister’s along the seafront.
That’s all well and good on paper. On screen, though, the execution is so botched that any intrigue goes out the window. For starters, the phone call to Jennings that prompts him to murder is so obviously not from Theresa that the episode’s premise is ruined from the get-go. The viewer sees a shadow of the caller that is clearly Jess, while the voice is also totally different. Jennings would have to be a total halfwit to fall for this (not a great stretch, I admit).
And why would this act alone drive him to murder? It makes no sense. A smooth-talker like Jennings would surely at least have tried to reason with Theresa. However, from what we’re told by lab reports Theresa was killed while she was sleeping. Nice work, Wayne, you twit! If he’d decided to ask questions first and shoot later, Theresa would still be alive and his lifestyle secure, as it would have taken about 2 seconds to learn that she never made a call to him and that jealous Jess had done it instead.
Still, the viewer is nominally kept in the dark about the true identity of the killer until the department store gotcha scene, which I’m guessing was meant to be a modern version of the classic parlour-room murder mystery reveals of a by-gone era. Gillis tried this before on Last Salute – and failed miserably. The results in Malibu are just as bad.
The evidence Columbo uses to pin the murder on Jennings is the fact that Theresa’s pants were on backwards when she was found dead. No woman could have made such a mistake herself, he reasons, ergo Jennings killed her and partially dressed her himself. Try harder, Columbo! This is weak on so many levels.
If Theresa had been startled by the noise of a thief downstairs, and was lying unclothed in bed at the time, she might well have thrown on a few items in her hurry to investigate. It’s conceivable, albeit unlikely, she might have pulled on underwear the wrong way in her mild state of panic.
And even if the killer did dress Theresa, the underwear doesn’t prove that it was Jennings. If Jess was trying to frame him, she could have cleverly dressed Theresa incorrectly as a means of removing herself from suspicion. Not only that, are we supposed to overlook the well-established fact that Jennings is a consummate ladies’ man? This guy knows his way around women’s knickers. It seems unlikely he’d make that type of error himself. It all adds up to one of the flimsiest gotchas of any Columbo era.
I actually think it would have been far more interesting if Jess had been the killer, murdering her own sister and framing Jennings to prevent him from claiming the $1m life insurance pay out. While justice would be served by Jess being arrested, Jennings would still be a major slime ball who would be free to go about his life with a tonne of cash at his disposal: a Pyrrhic victory for Columbo if ever there was one.
That would have been too dark an ending for how this episode played out though, for this is a murder mystery presented as light-hearted pap, akin to Murder, She Wrote or Diagnosis Murder, although at twice their length and with none of their charm. Those shows never took themselves too seriously, and had Murder in Malibu been a 45-minute case involving Jessica Fletcher or Dr Sloan, it might’ve made for a tolerable entry in their universes.
I hold Columbo to higher standards. It ought never to come across as this sort of pseudo-comedic drivel. The series’ whole ethos has always been to deliver quality writing and world-class performances from stellar casts. With that in mind, Malibu is a disaster. The single best indicator of just how poor a production this is may be the stock footage of bats masquerading as the flock of crows cut into the cherry picker scene. This epitomises the episode’s cheapness and is an insult to viewer intelligence.
If there are positives to take from Malibu, I would count the respective performances of Janet Margolin and Floyd Levine as Theresa and Lieutenant Schultz amongst them. I can’t fault them for what they bring to proceedings. Elsewhere, there are some really lovely locations that showcase the best of LA’s beachfront living, while Jennings’ convertible Jaguar is a beauty. But that really is all I can come up with. Even Patrick Williams’ score is soap opera cheese.
I can only conclude by confirming that this is the worst Columbo I’ve encountered during this complete run-through – snatching the wooden spoon from Last Salute. I shudder to think that another could be so bad, but with the spectre of No Time to Die lurking on the not-too-distant horizon, we may not yet have scraped bottom. That really is a thought worth fainting over.
Did you know?
As well as some aspects of the plot mimicking those of Last Salute to the Commodore, Malibu’s main location was also a straight lift from the 1975 episode. Theresa’s beachfront mansion is the exact same house that Charles and Joanna Clay lived in in Last Salute. It’s actually in Malibu, too, at 33148 Pacific Coast Hwy. Nice!
How I rate ’em
This is a Columbo that should never have been made – at least not in this dreadful fashion. Of course it takes bottom spot in the current standings – but it would even sit below Last Salute if the ‘new’ and ‘classic’ lists were combined. It’s rough on Jackson Gillis, who has the ignominy of having penned both of my least favourite Columbo episodes up to now.
I took one for the team here and watched Murder in Malibu so you don’t have to. If you ever come across it on TV, just skip right on by and don’t give this classless BILGE the chance to ruin your day.
If you missed any of my earlier ‘new Columbo‘ reviews, access them via the links below.
- Agenda for Murder
- Columbo Cries Wolf
- Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
- Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
- Sex & The Married Detective
- Murder, A Self Portrait
- Murder, Smoke & Shadows
- Uneasy Lies the Crown
- Grand Deceptions
- Murder in Malibu
If you want to check out any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews, or see how I rank them all in order, click here. If Murder in Malibu somehow floats your boat, you can vote for it in the fans’ favourite episode poll here. However, I’d recommend seeking urgent medical attention first.
Just in case I was being too harsh in my judgement, I asked my good friend (and noted appreciator of the finer things in life) Adrian Carsini for a second opinion. This was his terse response: –
If you disagree with us both I’d love to know why, so please state your case in the comments section. Conversely, if you’re also a hater of Murder in Malibu, feel free to chip in with your thoughts about what makes this such a stinker. I have a feeling the debate about this one could get quite heated!
With that, we say farewell to Columbo’s ninth season from a low ebb. Hearteningly, the next outing is Columbo Goes to College – an absolutely terrific tale of inter-generational horn locking that is sure to be the perfect pick-me-up after the Malibu-sized debacle. But can the series ever fully recover from this knock-out blow?