It’s an episode that tends to fly somewhat beneath the radar when compared to classics such as Murder by the Book and Any Old Port in a Storm, but Season 4’s penultimate outing, Playback, still packs quite a punch.
Starring Oskar Werner (in his only US TV appearance) and the always-awesome Gena Rowlands as husband-and-wife duo Harold and Elizabeth Van Wick, Playback is an intriguing drama featuring some truly cutting-edge 70s technology that has aged much better than the Columbo norm.
It also boasts a thoroughly modern murder, a loathsome victim and a finale packed with emotion, ticking many essential boxes along the way. Just what are its greatest moments? Here’s what I reckon…
NB – Due to inclement weather and a prolonged absence from home in a feeble internet area, I am miles behind on full episode reviews. Columbo Goes to College analysis is now likely to be published in January. Thanks for your patience during this trying time when I am stranded far from home by flood waters and impassable roads!
5. The ‘super watch’
Is there a better way to establish an unforgettable alibi than by wowing a scorching brunette with a mind-imprinting DIGITAL WATCH? Harold Van Wick proves that, no, there’s really isn’t, as he dazzles Marcy ‘hubba-hubba’ Hubbard at the art show with his cutting-edge wrist watch.
A fun scene, notable for the drop-dead gorgeous Marcy being instantly smitten by Van Wick despite his being a complete drip, it sets a similarly strong alibi for our killer as was concocted by Dale Kingston at an art show four years earlier. Allied with the modernity of the murder itself, and the stall is set out early as being a case that even Columbo will be taxed by.
4. The clown experiment
Columbo ably demonstrates his mental acuity through a clever experiment involving Elizabeth Van Wick’s ghastly CLOWN DOLL!
The detective recalls that Elizabeth had claimed to have woken up at 9pm, groggy after taking a sleeping pill, on the night of the killing, believing she’d heard a noise, but settling back to kip when she noticed the blood-chilling clown in its rightful place on her bedroom chair.
In a house full of sound-activated doors, Columbo infers that the fact the clown was visible must have meant that Elizabeth’s bedroom door was open, casting light from the hallway onto the chair. Only a loud noise could have caused the door to open. Given that Elizabeth says this all happened before Van Wick was known to have left the property, the experiment goes a long way to satisfying Columbo’s hunch that he could have murdered Margaret before he left for the art show.
It’s fabulous deductive policework from the Lieutenant and a rare heroic moment from a TV/film clown toy, which are invariably better known for their acts of evil.
3. A very modern murder
Fiendishly clever manipulation of his in-house CCTV system allows Van Wick to pull of what is almost the perfect murder, as he guns down his hated mother-in-law Margaret as an empty room is being broadcast to the unusually attentive security guard in his watch room.
The crime has been recorded, though, and will play back via the CCTV some half-hour later when Van Wick is hob-nobbing with lovely Marcy at the art show downtown. It’s seriously clever stuff and a cut above the average Columbo crime in terms of cutting-edge tech.
Indeed, this staggeringly modern murder would still be impressive today and only Van Wick’s slip-up of leaving his art show invite on display on the desk behind Margaret’s corpse prevented him from getting away with it.
2. Spirit of a Dead Dog
One can’t help but feel that Columbo writers hated the art scene of the 70s, with Playback following on from Suitable for Framing in making an absolute mockery of it all. This is never more apparent than when Columbo goes to the gallery to check up on Van Wick’s alibi. Mistaken for a classless oik by prissy curator Francine, the Lieutenant is given a whistle-stop tour of the exhibit ‘highlights’ – all of which leave him absolutely unmoved.
The best moment? Francine’s straight-faced explanation of the sculpture entitled ‘Espirit d’un chien mort’ – or Spirit of a Dead Dog – is delightfully juxtaposed against Columbo’s bafflement that such tosh could be valued at $1200 – approximately 10% of his annual income! She is subsequently appalled when he mistakes an air vent for an artwork, and again when he compares Mrs Columbo’s penchant for painting by numbers to the expensive landscapes on display.
The scene’s not quite as damning of the vacuity of the art world encapsulated by Dale Kingston’s Champagne-infused love-in at the gallery in Suitable for Framing, but it’s pretty cutting all the same, and never fails to amuse.
1. The tear-stained finale
Van Wick is certain that his manipulation of CCTV footage showing the shooting of his crone-like mother-in-law will leave him in the clear and free to continue running the family’s electronics empire into the ground. After all, as his flashy digital watch clearly demonstrated, he was eyeing up brunettes at an art show at the supposed time of the crime.
Naturally, Columbo’s inquisitive mind (and good eye) hones in on the only fatal flaw in Harold’s dastardly video scheme: his invite to the art show could be seen on the sideboard behind the mother-in-law’s dead body; yet it is gone in the rigged footage he used to establish his alibi. Ergo, the murder occurred before Harold left the building.
It’s some great detective work by Columbo, who has managed to overcome his unfamiliarity of the cutting-edge video technology to spot a detail everyone else missed. However, the real beauty of this gotcha is in the contrasting reactions between Harold and his wheelchair-bound wife, Elizabeth.
Harold’s quivering, barely controlled rage at being foiled is starkly set against the shock and despair of Elizabeth’s tear-stained face. It’s a masterclass from both Oskar Werner and Gena Rowlands, giving this closing scene an emotional punch few other episodes get close to.
“The real beauty of this gotcha is in the contrasting reactions between Harold and Elizabeth.”
That’s your lot for today, folks. As always I welcome your own thoughts on the highlights of the episode, and if you need a more detailed overview of Playback you can read my in-depth review here. You can also find out where I rank Playback’s closing scene amongst the top 10 greatest Columbo gotchas here.
Until next time, keep your noses clean and don’t trust bowl-haired man with flashy digital watches. You have been warned…