The parting shot of Columbo’s stellar fourth season, A Deadly State of Mind arguably tops few fans’ favourite episode lists but it remains a strong entry into the canon nevertheless.
Buoyed by a fabulous performance by George Hamilton as the ultra-smooth and ambitious psychiatrist Dr Mark Collier, a cracking cast, one of the series’ most outlandish murders, and a majestic gotcha scene, Deadly State ticks a load of the boxes that keen Columbo viewers are looking for.
Just what are its highest highs? That’s what I’m considering today…
5. Showdown at the docks
A great Columbo episode is rarely without a classic ‘we both know I did it but you’ll never prove it’ clash between detective and villain, and A Deadly State of Mind offers us one of the best.
Feeling fresh and chipper after a morning’s sailing with his book publisher, Dr Collier encounters a dishevelled Columbo at the marina, who breaks the ‘news’ of Nadia Donner’s death. This leads to a juicy discussion about Collier’s whereabouts at the time of Karl Donner’s supposed killing at the hands of intruders as Columbo pours cold water on the psychiatrist’s perfect alibi.
Each man gives as good as he gets in the stand-off, with Columbo telling Collier that he’s not sure that “suspect is a strong enough word” to describe the doctor’s likely guilt, with Collier coolly falling back on the old killer’s refrain: “In that case I should be locked up. Of course I’m not, therefore I assume you have no proof.”
Reminiscent of similarly marvellous moments in the likes of Prescription: Murder, Dead Weight and Double Exposure, this is cat-and-mouse at its best and gives George Hamilton a chance to adroitly show off his smuggest acting manoeuvres.
4. Crashing the party
As Dr Collier enjoys a knees-up at home with a selection of well-to-do pals, who should rock up at 10pm for a cream soda but one Lieutenant Columbo?
Turning up at the killer’s home or place of work is a classic unsettling move by the detective, but one which the fiendish doctor manages to take completely in his stride, even making the ‘murder call’ to Nadia Donner while Columbo sits no more than 15 feet away from him.
Columbo, however, pays close attention to the call and is also able to coerce Collier into revealing that his lighter has a brand new flint in it, after the eagle-eyed Lieutenant noticed a worn-down flint on the carpet of the Donner beach house. It’s brazen stuff from both men, who are putting on an excellent show for the party guests.
3. Nadia’s demise
It takes longer than it ought for Dr Collier long to realise that Nadia Donner’s inherent instability will be the death knell for his professional ambitions if she cracks under police cross-examination, so he decides to off her in one of the most unashamedly preposterous TV murders of them all!
Pumping her with drugs and hypnotising her to attempt to dive into a swimming pool upon hearing the codeword ‘Charles Whelan’ during a later phone call, the powerless Nadia is overcome with a desire to cool down through a dip in her apartment complex pool – nestling five storeys below her balcony. Her eradication is guaranteed.
The concept of the this killing may be somewhat far-fetched and requires a heavy suspension of disbelief, but those viewers who that accept it for what it is – an audacious act of mental manipulation by a master in his field – are likely to gain the most pleasure from this episode.
2. Columbo rage!
After investigating the gruesome death of Nadia Donner and going a night without sleep, Columbo is in absolutely no mood to be trifled with. When Collier’s breezy colleague Dr Borden, therefore, treats him like an office junior she gets the roasting she deserves as the Lieutenant cuts the crap to get straight to the point – absolutely wiping the smirk off Borden’s face in the process.
As with all the cases of Columbo rage, this is tremendous viewing because it’s a rare glimpse into the real Columbo, who is usually hidden away under multiple layers of absent-minded obfuscation. Here, the mask slips and it’s utterly thrilling.
1. The double bluff
The take-down of Dr Collier is easily one of the greatest hits of the entire Columbo opus. Like some of the other very best gotcha moments, notably Suitable for Framing, A Friend in Deed and Candidate for Crime, it’s so good because the reveal is such a stunning revelation to Collier, who until that very moment has believed himself to be in total control.
The killer’s emotional descent from mild irritation and complete self-satisfaction through to panic and despair is wonderfully portrayed by Hamilton, and it’s a scene that just leaves the viewer wanting to jump to their feet and roar their approval. It’s one of the top 5 Columbo gotchas, ergo one of the greatest TV scenes ever recorded!
“The take-down of Dr Collier is easily one of the greatest hits of the entire Columbo opus.”
Let me know your views on the above hot takes, as well as hitting me up with your own favourite moments should they have missed out on inclusion.
As always for articles of this type, you can check out my in-depth review of A Deadly State of Mind if you’ve now got a yearning for more red-hot debate on this episode. You can also find out where I rate Dr Collier in the best-dressed Columbo villains stakes here.
Until next time, adios muchachos!
Probably my favourite ending to any episode. Though A Friend in Deed pushes it close, with an idea that would be re-used many times over the years.
Just watched this episode. “I don’t have a Willy!” 🤣 Great read
George Hamlton has something of a maligned reputation as an actor. I think Peter Falk brought out the best in him. From what I’ve read of Hamilton, his appearances on Columbo are among his favorite performances.
No argument with your top 5, just the order. Columbo losing it with Dr. Borden ranks #1 with me. When you can count the number of times Columbo blew up at someone on one hand over the course of the entire run, that’s a pretty special moment.
I have to think that the episode with Leonard Nimoy was one that showed how angry Columbo could get when pushed. Nimoys’ character, a doctor who had murdered a nurse who was looking into whether or not he deliberately used the wrong kind of sutures on another doctor, was laughing at Columbo and his theories when Columbo grabs an object on Nimoys’ desk and slams it down hard on the desk and threatens Nimoy that the other doctor had better stay healthy for his own sake. That scene really stood out to me how Columbo had a line that once crossed, watch out.
Yes that was a classic! Certainly wiped the smirk of Nimoy’s face 🙂
Even I watching got a fright.
Terrific episode, mysteriously underrated. The only things that don’t work are the fortunate spotting of the lighter flint and the trerrible judgment Collier displays in entrusting Nadia to keep the secret of Karl’s killing. Hamilton is awesome in this.
Columbo’s takedown of Mark Collier was brilliantly executed. And we’re likely willing to forgive the legally problematic nature of Columbo’s dishonesty because Collier’s murder of Nadia Donner was so purely evil. (Ironically, his bludgeoning on Karl Donner probably was justified given Donner’s conduct at the moment Collier struck him.)
But I’m a purist. I have to deduct points from the “Deadly State of Mind” gotcha for its fungibility. The best of Columbo gotchas are rooted in that specific story. Could the gotcha in “Playback” have occurred anywhere else? Could the cider in “By Dawn’s Early Light” have been moved to another episode? Could anyone have incriminated himself with that red magic marker except Oliver Brandt?
On the other hand, Daniel Morris could have been walking with his guide dog through the hospital parking garage in “A Stitch in Crime,” or on the street of Nelson Hayward’s beach house or Harold Nicholson’s driveway in “Mind Over Mayhem.” Columbo could have confronted each of those killers — and maybe others — with the identical “witness” just as easily. Dr. Mayfield would have parrotted Dr. Collier’s reference to his having “a little medical training” to explain recognizing a blind man when he sees one. Hayward would have explained, “I know people, Lieutenant. I certainly shake enough of their hands”; or Dr. Cahill simply: “I’m a scientist.” The result would have been exactly the same: a murderer placing himself at the scene of a crime by identifying someone else who also was there.
So, while I applaud the DSOM “blind man’s bluff,” a legendary gotcha should be episode-specific, and this one isn’t.
I have my theory about how this gotcha got into the episode (maybe you as an author yourself can tell if I am right or wrong). I think Columbo authors generally had two approaches to writing episodes. First approach is you begin with the main character (possibly already with some specific charismatic actor to do the job in mind) and his traits, the plot then gets built around him/her (maybe even with some reusable gotchas or murder methods tacked on, that every detective fiction author must have in store). The second approach is you start with some particularly original/clever/audacious murder method (which might in turn determine what kind of a gotcha you should have) and then think of a character to execute it.
“DSOM” is an example of the first kind I think. The authors must have thought “Let’s have a literal Svengali as our murderer and let’s see where it leads us”. The result was not that great I think. First George Hamilton is not that good of an actor for the part, second we do get an unusual method of murder but of a very particular kind – it is impossible to prove in court, even if Collier confesses to it, no jury would ever believe him (which in my view disqualifies this method from detective fiction as a sort of Deus ex machina), and third we get a clever but possibly ready-made gotcha that, as you said, could have been used in any number of different plots.
I suspect that most Columbos started with the character of the murderer, or the murderer’s milieu: a magician, a mystery writer, a police commissioner, the head of a military academy, a wine connoisseur, etc. Occasionally, the setting was the germ, like with “Troubled Waters.” The plot generally flows from there. Hopefully, the gotcha, too.
I would list “Malibu”, “Uneasy lies the crown”, “Murder can be hazardous for your health”, “Double Exposure”, “Candidate for Crime”, “Playback”, “A Matter of Honor”, “Murder Under Glass”, “Mind over mayhem” and “College” as episodes that I guess were created with the murder plot as a starting point. The lead characters are just to bland and uninspiring for it to be the other way around.
I agree on “Malibu”; that one seems to originate from the “shooting a dead body” idea. But the others are very milieu-centric — murders by: a dentist, a TV crime-solver, an electronics guru, a Mexican bullfighter, a food connoisseur, a computer expert, and Leopold-and-Loeb clones. Everything else follows from that character-based premise.
“Double Exposure?” Bart Keppel was bland? I didn’t get bland at all. I think the “We both know I did it but you’ll never prove it.” has never been as perfectly executed as it was in that episode. He definitely felt he was intellectually superior to Columbo, and in a way, he kind of was, as Columbo only manages to bust him by using his own technique against him.
“The Most Dangerous Match” is a good example of the “two approaches” you mention — in a single episode. I believe that TMDM started out as a chess champion story. The Fischer-Spassky matches the prior summer had captured the nation’s attention. Chess grandmasters are notoriously both brilliant and arrogant, a perfect combination for a Columbo murderer. But something else was needed to allow Columbo to catch his man. And so it’s my guess that at some point Clayton, the chess grandmaster, had to become Clayton, the near-deaf chess grandmaster. The grandmaster part of his character got the episode started; the deafness part got it finished. That’s my speculation anyway.
Joking (but only in part) I would say that “Mind over mayhem” was conceived when one of the writers caught a rerun of “Forbidden planet” on late night tv and said to himself “Wouldn’t it be crazy cool if we make this robot a murder weapon” (because I bet Robby the Robot got downgraded to just an alibi device later by producers who decided that would much too much). The whole plot feels like a 50’s sci-fi b-movie transplanted to Columbo world: a crazy scientist goes on crime rampage aided by his robot sidekick.
Or take “Candidate”. Is there much more to it than a clever gimmick – duping the victim into being an unwitting accomplice in his own murder (later used with much better effect in “Cry wolf”)? I feel “Agenda” does a much better job of describing political world. Characters of Montgomery and Mackey feel much more authentic to me than Hayward and are very effective for a dual job – both providing Oscar Finch with a motive and revealing to the viewer the inner workings of a political campaign.
As a plot device, don’t sell “duping the victim into being an unwitting accomplice to his own murder” short. In Columbo, it started with “Murder by the Book.” Before Columbo, it was a key element in “Sleuth.” What makes “Candidate” memorable is how a single plot line — “threats” have been made against Hayward’s life — controlled all aspects of the mystery: the motive (it was one of the “bodies” that gave Stone power over Hayward), the crime (it was the red herring), and the gotcha (it was what Hayward was trying to stage). That kind of thematic consistency is commendable.
To me one clear sign of an episode that started around a murder plot is that you look at the main character and think “How on earth a person like that could ever come up with the idea?”.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that a character should have Oliver Brandt’s IQ for it to be the other way around.The genius of “Murder by the book” is that the writers understood this problem and (freely aknowledging it) made it an integral part of the plot and Ken Franklin’s character fatal flaw. Franklin’s bitter final exchange with Columbo about a clever murder (his partner) and a sloppy one (poor miss LaSanka) is pure gold. The murderous couple from “Trace of murder” are no brainiacs either but we literally see how the idea clicks for them.
An opposite example is “Uneasy lies the crown”. This murderous dentist is so bland I never seem to remember his name let alone understand how any original idea could ever enter his mind.
I agree 100% about “Murder by the Book.” I love that final scene (“Then I got it. The first one, the clever one, that wasn’t yours. The second one, the sloppy one, that was yours. But not the first.”). Some consider it a poor ending; I think it’s brilliant. Especially the final line: “You wanna know the irony of all this? That is my idea. The only really good one I ever had. I must’ve told it to Jim over five years ago. Whoever thought that idiot would write it down?”
Ferropasha, I’ve been thinking more about your character vs. plot distinction. While I don’t necessarily subscribe to your test for differentiating between the two, it may be fair to conclude this: The best Columbo episodes originate with a compelling villain — a strong, distinct professional in some interesting field from which all else flows. (“Swan Song” and “Troubled Waters” are excellent examples of murderers who crimes don’t seem directly linked to their professions, but whose special skills nonetheless play an important part.) Conversely, when the story appears to have originated with a plot device (like “Last Salute to the Commodore,” “Murder in Malibu,” or “Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo”), it will usually be a poorer Columbo.
Ah, but Collier was a clinical hypnotist, and Columbo beat him at his own game. Like Bart Keppel with the subliminal cut, Abigail Mitchell’s scripted accident, etc…
I try some explanations why this episode, however its quality and the strength of some scenes, isn’t liked that much by the viewers.
First, the discussions between Columbo and dr Collier are less interesting than they are in several other episodes (Prescription, Death Lends a Hand, a Stitch in Crime, Swan Song, How to Dial a Murder, Troubled Waters…).
Second, the interesting killing in this episode is the second one, not the first, which is almost an accident. And the discussions and evidence about the first killing are rather common (the lights of the car, the smoking burglars, the flint of the lighter, the tires..). The socks in the shoes etc. of the second killing are much more interesting.
Finally, the link of the gotcha (which is very strong) with the other scenes is rather weak. (Compare it with the gotcha in The Most Crucial Game, where we see Columbo is trying to find a noise on the tape.)
Absolutely agree – I think the story would have benefitted from a restructuring, by having Collier’s hypnotic killer phone call to Nadia be the first murder and not the second. I know that some folks find that murder a bit far-fetched, but Columbo magically finding a tiny lighter flint nub in the carpet is, frankly, boring. Much more interesting would be, 20 minutes into the ep, Columbo seeing the Nadia murder scene and thinking about those “loose ends” (stripping naked, the bundled valuables in the shoe, the phone off the hook) before Collier even makes his appearance. Then, when the doctor inevitably shows up, Columbo could start putting the puzzle pieces together when he gradually realizes that hypnotism could have been involved.
That could have made for a classic episode.
I’m trying to envision this restructured episode. There are a host of reasons Collier might want to murder Nadia from the outset: Nadia learns that Collier intends to publish all the intimate details Nadia revealed while under hypnosis, and she vows to stop him by revealing his use of experimental drugs, and blowing the whistle on their professionally unethical relationship to her husband (who, say, has the power to cut off Collier’s funding).
But what makes Nadia’s murder interesting is its commission by remote control. Collier was elsewhere. No “witness” can place him at the scene of the crime because he truthfully was miles away. So you’ll have to save Daniel and David Morris for another episode (which, as I said earlier, should be fairly easy to do) and come up with a Nadia-based gotcha (for a crime Columbo says he can’t prove).
Hmmm….interesting thought experiment. For the suicide-by-hypnosis to work, I would think Nadia would need to have total trust in Collier to be open to suggestion, so my notion is that blackmail not be involved, or any anger at all towards Doc. This makes motive a bit trickier, though.
If Jackson Gillis were writing it, he’d have both Collier and Karl Donner be psychiatrists, and Columbo (and the viewer) would have to figure out which Doc induced the balcony swan dive. Come to think of it, that might actually be a nifty formula twist.
Except that the drugs Collier administered may have broken down Nadia’s resistence to hypnotic suggestion far more effectively than would be the case with ordinary hypnosis. I also think that audiences would readily accept that a drug-induced hypnosis has more power over the patient, including the hypnotist’s ability to trrigger later post-hypnotic suggestions implanted earlier with the drug’s assistance.
In a Gillis-inspired restructuring, perhaps psychiatrist Donner was using the hypnosis-drugs and psychiatrist Collier discovered this and took advantage of it for his own evil ends.
Just spinning some possibilities….I do think there was potential for a more interesting story than the original, in the hands of a good writer like you, Richard!
Great stuff. I have mixed feelings about the confrontation with Dr Borden, she is after all not involved in the crime, and it’s not for her to pay a price because Columbo went without sleep. Instead I’d suggest the scene where the lieutenant tells Dr Collier he suspects Nadia Donner is not telling him the truth (because she and her husband would have seen any car’s approaching headlights), and Collier tries to explain it away.
Can’t fault your top 5 picks Columbphile, and reading about (and watching) them again confirms my belief that this episode is very much underapprecaited. Love it when Columbo gets all serious with Dr Borden and that gotcha makes for a satisfying conclusion. I like George Hamilton as a Columbo villain, just the right amount of charm and smarm. On a good day this episode creeps into my top 10 which basically means I absolutely love it…
Paraphrasing some of my thoughts from a July 2020 thread about this episode:
1) I really like the gotcha, but I do wish it had been slightly better executed. I totally understand why some people say that brother David could easily be pegged by anyone as a blind man, which would let Dr. Collier off the hook. But I would argue that for the first part of the charade, this is hard to assume. The problem comes when there is movement in the room, and sighted David’s eyes do not do the natural thing in such a situation – they do not follow the movement. Watch the above clip carefully. When Columbo moves away from David and toward Collier, David’s eyes do not shift, even for a millisecond. Alone, this is not conclusive. But when Collier comes forward to approach David and reaches his side, the man is staring straight ahead and continues to do so even while Collier bends over for the magazine, steps to the side, and says, “Read a few pages of this…” The brother continues to sit stiffly in the chair, which, when paired with the lack of motion awareness, could conceivably lead one to the Blind Man conclusion, which would ruin Columbo’s gambit.
2) The “We have a witness to the crime” trap is pure Columbo psychology in action. With any “sighted witness” produced by Columbo, Collier would not have given the game away by saying, “Hey that person wasn’t there!” because that would be a really dumb admission of his presence at the scene. But Columbo producing a “blind man” to “prove” guilt…. aha, that’s going to draw the doctor into the trap. Columbo has already accused Collier of murder, which puts the Doc on the defensive – his natural instinct is to find a way out of the accusation. And as his “proof”, Columbo produces the “blind man”. This blinds (pun intended) Collier, who, now provoked, grasps at this easy way out of the accusation by exposing Columbo’s phony “blind man bluff” charade – and in the process thereby exposing the Doc’s own guilt. Genius!