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The most chilling Columbo murders of them all

Columbo Etude in Black
Maybe The Maestro just really didn’t like Chopin?

Columbo, for the most part, was a pretty family-friendly show. Negligible use of bad language and sex scenes allied with an absence of violence and gore ensured that even a show about murder – that darkest of human acts – rarely made for unsettling viewing.

There were exceptions, though. Sometimes the show dropped stark reminders that murder really is a most foul and grisly business – and at its worst could be cruel and disturbing to boot. That’s what we’ll be considering today, so if you’re of a nervous disposition it could be time to head over to this collection of charming images of Columbo and Dog.

If you’re still reading, I commend you on your fortitude and invite you to dive in to my assessment of the most chilling Columbo killings of them all, which are listed here in no particular order, apart from the terrifying top three…



Gene Stafford – An Exercise in Fatality

Columbo Exercise in Fatality
Aggressive negotiations were the order of the day between the sparring Milo and Gene

An unusually brutal murder by Columbo standards, this is also a chilling crime featuring the terrifying trope of a would-be killer chasing down their prey – at great speed!

Gene Stafford has already managed to extricate himself from being strangled against a wall by pouring a pot of hot coffee on Milo Janus’s arm. He then takes flight through the empty sports complex in a vain attempt to get away, but his pursuer is too fleet of foot to be outpaced. Milo swiftly catches Gene and throttles him to death with a metal pipe in one of the series’ most overtly violent killings.


Lily La Sanka – Murder by the Book

Ken Franklin’s second killing eclipses his first in the iciness stakes given the almost cheerful attitude he displays before bludgeoning Lily La Sanka with an empty Champagne bottle.

As Lily counts her blackmail money, Ken keeps up the small talk as he sneaks up behind her. His final words to her? A suggestion that she’ll soon be able to see her late husband again as he sends her off to the next life. His cavalier attitude to her life is so cold it’s positively sub-zero.


Edmund Galvin – Try and Catch Me

Columbo Edmund Galvin
Oh Edmund, you poor, sweet, innocent lamb…

Regardless of whether or not you feel he deserved it (let’s not start that debate again), Edmund’s fate in Try & Catch Me would be a desperate way to die. Trapped in an airtight safe, in total darkness, Edmund has no idea if he’ll be found before he suffocates, making his presence of mind to leave a hidden clue identifying Abigail Mitchell as his killer all the more laudable. His last moments, as his air – and hope – finally expired would have been truly terrifying.


Lisa Chambers – Double Shock

Columbo Lisa Chambers

The killing of Lisa Chambers is one of the series’ most despicable acts, which shows us what just what Dexter and Norman Paris are truly capable of – without showing us anything at all.

A spiritual young woman, cruelly robbed of her soul mate Clifford on the even of their wedding, Lisa dies a terrifying death at the hands of two grasping brothers that she barely knows. The horror of her final moments (being manhandled over a balcony to a death several storeys below) represents a senseless and heinous crime that retains a shock value despite it taking place completely off screen.


Carol Flemming – Prescription: Murder

Columbo Prescription Murder
Dr Flemming’s neck massage technique needed work

Squeezing the life out of someone is about as brutal a way of killing as I can imagine – even more so when it’s someone you supposedly love. This makes the first ever Columbo killing one of the most disturbing.

Moments after sharing a kiss and cuddle with wife Carol, Dr Ray Flemming locks his hands around her throat and constricts until she falls – seemingly lifeless – to the floor. Moments later, Ray’s lover Joan arrives to play her part in the crime cover-up, with the ‘good doctor’ never once batting an eyelid about the violent deed he’s just committed. Even though Carol is still faintly clinging to life, she never recovers from her injuries and dies days later after being in a coma.


Eric Wagner – The Most Crucial Game

Who’d have thought your friendly, neighbourhood Ding-A-Ling Ice Cream man could be so menacing? Not Eric Wagner, that’s for sure, who was unceremoniously despatched by a block of ice to the noggin by business associate Paul Hanlon in his own backyard pool.

A beautifully shot and scored murder scene ramps up the tension, as Hanlon strolls nonchalantly through Wagner’s garden before meeting him poolside to lump him over the swede with the ice. However, it is the silence of his stalking, the violence of the fatal blow and the absurdity of Hanlon’s costume that do most to make this such an unsettling act.


Frances Galesko – Negative Reaction

Columbo Frances Galesko
The unanswered question: whatever became of the divine tea set Frances hoped to nab at Lilleby’s?

The chilling nature of this crime is diluted somewhat by Frances’ perpetual chiding of husband Paul, but it remains one of the series’ most ruthless murders. It’s only at the last moment, when Paul levels the gun at the tied-up Frances, that she realises this really is the end. Her sense of fear at her imminent extinction is absolutely palpable.


Charles Hunter – How To Dial a Murder

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
Even the promise of a tummy tickle wouldn’t get these pups to chill out

Most people wouldn’t want their worst enemy to be torn apart by vicious dogs, but Dr Eric Mason isn’t most people. The mind-control guru has managed to program his Doberman Pinscher dogs to kill upon hearing the trigger word ‘Rosebud’ spoken twice in quick succession – a stunt he demonstrates on colleague Charles Hunter to pay him back for an affair with Mason’s late wife.

Coerced into saying “Rosebud” within earshot of the dogs, Hunter is promptly torn to shreds by the hounds of hell in a murder of shocking barbarity. Even more chilling is that Dr Mason, listening to the killing over an open phoneline, celebrates the downfall of his enemy with a fist pump. If it weren’t for the fact that Mason was connected to an ECG machine at the time of the killing, we’d be forgiven for thinking he didn’t have a heart at all.


Max Dyson – Columbo Goes to the Guillotine

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
Blood flecks rendered the cabbage inedible. Shame…

There’s something particularly disturbing about decapitations, making the death of Max Dyson in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine a truly skin-crawling moment. Dyson’s undisguised panic as he finds himself staring up at certain death is enhanced by a switch in camera angles to give a victim’s eye view as the blade plummets towards him. Ugh, it’s horrible stuff…


3. Freddy Brower – Death Hits the Jackpot

Columbo Freddy Brower
Families, eh? You can’t live with ’em. You *can* live without ’em…

Poor Freddy. All he wanted was a means of preventing his cheating wife from getting her hands on his lottery millions prior to divorce. Unfortunately he made a pact with the devil when conspiring with his uncle Leon, who viciously despatched his nephew in order to keep hold of the loot himself.

While ostensibly celebrating the success of their partnership with Champagne, Leon brained Freddy with the bottle in a move reminiscent of Ken Franklin’s eradication of Lily La Sanka in 1971. This time, though, the blow wasn’t fatal meaning that Leon was forced to forcibly hold Freddy’s head below water in a bathtub as the anguished young man struggled for life.

It’s a long scene, which makes for uncomfortable viewing and which marks Leon out as one of the most fiendish villains of Columbo’s revival period.


2. Geronimo – Identity Crisis

Columbo Nelson Brenner
Brenner can transform from placid to psycho in 0.1 seconds

The chill factor of this scene is Nelson Brenner’s complete and instantaneous transformation from convivial companion to pop-eyed psychopath. It’s so swift and unexpected that his long-time spy buddy ‘Geronimo’ has no hope of reacting in time to save his own life as he’s struck down with lethal severity by a tyre iron blow to the head.

After the initial strike, Brenner displays an eerie calm to deliver another whack to the back of Geronimo’s head as he lies prostrate in the sand in a scene that could well have influenced Jonathan Demme’s direction of Hannibal Lecter slaying a security guard in The Silence of the Lambs.


1. Sharon Martin – A Stitch in Crime

If psychopathic, cerebral menace has a name, it must be Dr Barry Mayfield – and his murder of kind-hearted nurse Sharon Martin is as chilling as they come.

Displaying the ruthless efficiency and poise of an experienced hitman, Mayfield emerges from the car park shadows to silently strike Sharon down with a tyre-iron. Leonard Nimoy’s portrayal of the murder is unbelievably cold and unemotional, while Hy Averback’s direction is as economic and striking as the doctor’s criminal act.

As is the case with many memorable Columbo killings, our imaginations are left to fill in the blanks as the camera cuts from Sharon’s horrified face to her handbag and keys clattering to the floor. In combination with a nerve-tingling Billy Goldenberg score, this scene is a work of art in its own right. Mayfield’s subsequent killing of Harry Alexander may be even more heart-wrenching, but for sheer chill nothing compares to this one.

“Displaying the ruthless efficiency and poise of an experienced hitman, Mayfield emerges from the car park shadows to silently strike Sharon down.”


Well gang, that’s my list. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on the subject. There are strong arguments to include murders from Columbo Goes to College, Suitable for Framing, A Friend in Deed, Etude in Black, Columbo Cries Wolf, A Deadly State of Mind, Make Me a Perfect Murder, Fade In To Murder, and Columbo Likes the Nightlife here, so your feedback will be most welcome.

I must dash, as I can hear the melodic strains of the Ding-A-Ling Ice Cream truck pulling up outside my house. The driver appears to be a friendly chap with a 70s-style handlebar ‘stash and I’m certain he’s holding a lovely treat for me behind his back. How thoughtful! See you soon…


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127 thoughts on “The most chilling Columbo murders of them all

  1. This show is where I learned that you can die in under 5 seconds if you can’t inhale (choke/drown). The human body in the 70’s was a frail thing.

     
    • Yes, it is a particularly horrible and cruel murder of a loyal friend. It’s heavily edited when it goes out on 5USA, possibly because it is so shocking when compared with the fairly light tone of the rest of the episode.

       
  2. National attention in America for CP and the Columbophile blog:

    This story posted just 2 hours ago (4/13/21) on the site for the popular GQ magazine….”How Columbo Became An Unlikely Quarantine Hit”.

    https://www.gq.com/story/columbo-quarantine-streaming

    About halfway through, there’s not just a mention, but a paragraph and links devoted to the “Columbophile digital empire….The community of Columbo die-hards is legion.” Congrats CP, the blog will be getting a whole lot more eyeballs!

     
  3. Until the next review, dropping a Columbo Haiku:

    Man in a raincoat
    Solves murders with little clues
    And just one more thing.

    Enjoy your week, everybody!

     
  4. I think that the murder in the final episode “Columbo Likes the Nightlife” is, if not the most brutal, probably the most realistic when we consider that most of the murders are not committed by trained killers.

     
    • And it’s a descent episode. Actually above average for me. Four reasons for that

      1 – The 2nd murder is realistically gruesome, because as you’ve pointed out, that is how it would be

      2 – Although slightly lacking in substance, we get two killers who are likeable but totally out of their death and so them getting ‘reeled in’ by Columbo is a delight

      3 – For me this is Columbo at his best since Season 4. No ‘dog’. No prolonged jokes about the car. No messing around or doing that OTT ‘bumbling’. This was a serious operator who simply did some brilliant detective work. I actually wonder if Falk had taken Columbo to a different place, in the hope of perhaps doing a couple more and using this new seriousness (post 911)

      4 – Great to have a truly modern episode. They got everything correct about society at this time, i.e. sleazy journalist (coinciding with the first phone hacking scandals)

      Anyone watching Columbo for the very first time, would simply have been curious about previous episodes. As was my, then, 13 year old daughter!!

       
      • I concur with your assessment. It’s a low-key, somewhat gritty-looking episode, fully grounded in its time. Falk’s performance mirrors this by being more straightforward, while never losing those character traits we cherish so much. I remember being pleasantly surprised the first time I watched it.

         
        • “Gritty” is a great description. Columbo reminded me of the no nonsense character we found in my favourite episode ‘A Friend in Deed’

          I bet your surprise was because after the risible ‘Murder With Too Many Notes’, which had easily the worst gotcha of all of the ‘traditional’ Columbo episodes – you dreaded how bad the next one would be. LOL!!

           
          • This is the only example we have of XXI Century Columbo and that is saying a lot. I believe the producers were fully aware of the need of stepping the Lieutenant in “new times”. While never as flamboyant as previous outings, its sternness pays off, at least for me.

             
      • Thanks for realising that I was referring to the second murder in “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”. In fact, I had forgotten about the first murder!

         
        • There is a great deal to like about this episode, especially because it ended the series with a bang. It was Columbo returning to his roots, no silliness, just great detective work. And I love that Columbo got a final walk-off, once again solving the case, surrounded by people trying to grasp the genius they just watched. It was a fitting end.

           
  5. Hi i hate to sound pushy and a all posts are highly repected but however
    Some people like me pay access fees and have limited time
    But can cp ay least tell is when caution murder can be hazardos
    Might be reviewd which was a very decent outing

     
  6. Hi i would like to re illirerate that i never intend to be rude or complacent to columbophile however me and
    My dad structure our odd sundays over the qualtry of episodes aired
    Anf he loves columbo and cannot shut up .

     
  7. Hi i hope everybody had a good easter either inLA or in gloomy britain , murder a self portait was airwdeon 5 usa easter sunday and i have to say no i didnt enjoy it actually i think its one of the worst new episodes ever made and when is caution murder can be hazardous to your health which was a very decent new one going to be reviewd , i dont want to sound rude but only 1 episode has been rwviewed thos year

     
  8. Fade in to murder isnt a poor episode by any means and starts quite well but for me is let down by its silly nature and rather dissapointing ending , which is why it would struggle even to make my tip 30 seventies.

     
  9. There we go Columbophile. The jury is in: its Nightlife. It’s a violent, long lasting scene and well acted. Moreover it’s a 21sr century killing in a solidly 20th c series, so more shocking because of it.

     
  10. I thought of another one. Apologies if it has already been mentioned. But, in Suitable For Framing, Dale Kingston brains Tracy with a rock! have been in some relationships that ended badly but that has to take the cake? Did she deserve it a la Lily LaSanka? Prob not. But she could not refrain from calling him – which would have sunk them both – so I guess in a way she did. Look, Columbo accomplices, when someone tells you not to call – DON’T! 🙂

     
  11. Then again, fighting back hand to hand also has its potential downsides for the later, post-DNA Columbos. The more direct contact, the greater the likelihood of leaving too many forensic markers behind. Columbo isn’t C.S.I. Columbo-watchers want their cases solved with a clever bit of lateral thinking, not a lab report on fingernail scraping analysis. (Yes, I know that forensics have always played a part in Columbo solutions, like the fingerprint comparisons in “Suitable for Framing” and “Troubled Waters.” But those were lateral fingerprint analyses: Columbo’s fingerprints, not the killer’s; leaving fingerprints inside the very gloves worn to protect against leaving fingerprints. The straighter the forensic solution (e.g., “Agenda for Murder”), the poorer the ending.)

     
    • I like your analysis, Richard. A show of the same era… Hawaii 5-0- relied a lot about what the lab would come up with! I think the guru’s name there was Chin but I may be wrong about the name.

       
      • The example that most comes to mind is the blood splatter on the car windshield after the execution of Professor Rusk in ‘Columbo Goes to College’.

         
      • Before Columbo went to College, Max Dyson’s blood was dripping from the ceiling in “Columbo goes to the Guillotine”.

         
  12. Swan song? Cmon.. Pilot abandoning the flight to leave 2 to die in a plane crash? That’s pretty chill.. Although they were unconscious.. Still messed up.. But Mr. Cash.. I understand

     
    • I would have understood him dying in the crash himself as a release from that horrific woman:)

       
  13. Continuing the discussion about Columbo and media violence, and to provide fresh content for restless Columbophile readers:

    In the late 60s-70s, as the TV violence debate raged, there were similar concerns about movie brutality. 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde”, 1969’s “The Wild Bunch” and 1971’s “A Clockwork Orange” were singled out for their “stylized violence” portrayed with slo-motion action, graphic details, and artistic ambitions. Next on the hit list were TV cartoons, and I’ll let The Simpsons’ 1990 ep “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” provide the mic drop on that issue.

    Whether artistic or not, increased violence was no impediment to making the studios money. This was the capitalist model for American cable TV. Beyond the “free” networks, for a flat fee there were additional “basic cable” channels that were available (think FX, ESPN, TBS, etc), and for an additional subscription charge, the ad-free “premium” channels like HBO. And while you’d think that the model of having to pay extra for commercial-free adult content (sex/violence) would stop the worrywarts, in 1982 HBO was defending itself against charges that it broadcast too much violence (a VP said there were few complaints to them, but “record levels of satisfaction”). It was different for the basic cable channels, however, as they were still advertiser-supported, and dared push the envelope only by small degrees. It wasn’t until FX’s “The Shield” (find it and binge it) that basic cable really started losing its’ inhibitions.

    So now its Jan 2003, “The Shield” was starting its second season by graphically setting two drug dealers on fire, “The Sopranos” was in its 4th season of premium-priced violence – and ABC aired “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”. Being a New Columbo skeptic, I hadn’t gotten around to this episode, but was intrigued by the many commenters who thought its paparazzi murder should be on CP’s list of chill kills.

    So I watched. And there’s no doubt that it’s unlike anything in Columbo history. The scene is actually quite well-directed and intense, even staging a piece of the drawn-out action as a one-take, with a clever between-the-legs shot of the crotch-kick. Matthew Rhys is terrific – a star-in-the-making who was, finally, a wise choice of a relative-unknown to play the villain. Objectively, I thought the scene was damn good.

    And yet….why was it in a Columbo? It didn’t add anything to the Lieutenant’s clue-gathering. He discounts a suicide without even remarking that there was clearly a fight in the room. At least in “Exercise in Fatality” the gym fight provides Columbo with valuable intel. I can only speculate that producers felt the need to keep up with the cable-TV times, and that those brief, limited-action murders from years past that relied on suggestion and eerie music were thought to be outmoded and old-fashioned. Yeah, they probably were.

    I miss them.

     
    • I’ll try to answer that question, ‘why was it in Columbo?’ To show how improvised the whole murder actually was.
      This was not done by a professional killer or an old hand at the job, but by someone who saw an opportunity and acted upon it without knowing what he was in for or what it would be like to kill a fellow human being, despicable as he might be. I agree with you, it was well done, and I also think it added to the character development of the murderer and with that it helped along the story. When it comes to the aspect of violence, I don’t see much difference between this killing and some of the most chilling murders as listed by CP in this article (for example the one in Exercise in Fatality) and cannot draw the same conclusion as you have, namely that a production team was deliberatly breaking with a tradition of ‘brief, limited-action murders’. I think it was just fitting for the episode.

       
    • There were 35 years between the first and last episodes. Columbo began at an elegant party with middle-aged people wearing tuxedos and ended at a rave. Many writers and producers during those years had to decide what elements of the series to preserve and what to innovate or modernize.

      You can make a mistake breaking a formula, and you can make a mistake following a formula too long. I am quicker to forgive the former. Was the murder in Nightlife unnecessarily violent? Maybe, but I was glad to see a victim fight back. Few victims in Columbo got that chance.

       
  14. I came today hoping for another Columbo thought but am disappointed! Oh well, I think, Columbophile, that ,maybe you should open up the forum to guest columns? That way there is always new content! I love your site – obviously, I am here – but the lack of posts or reviews is frustrating. If you cannot keep up with it (which is understandable) then let others post a review, comment, guest column, etc.

     
    • Feel free to write your own “Fade in to Murder” review in the comments section and everybody will be pleased to read it 🙂
      But I wouldn’t like to see a wild mixture of original reviews and guest reviews.

       
      • I;m not sure if you’re teasing me/mocking me but I would love to do it. Do you think I should? I’m pretty sure that Columbophile has covered that episode……but I could do Butterfly in Shades of Grey? Also a William Shatner episode….and PS – he turned 90 on March 22……..raise glass to Cpt. Kirk!!

         
        • Of course you should. As you call yourself Inspector Lucerne, I must expect a review that could finally lift “Fade in to Murder” into my A list, and I would appreciate this, after it already ascended into my B list after I first read Columbophile’s fine review.
          I missed the 90th birthday. I don’t care about Captain Kirk but I do care about Ward Fowler and Fielding Chase, so have a go at it to honor the aging William Shatner!

           
        • This is completely off-topic, but last Friday (Mar. 26), a new movie starring Shatner (“Senior Moment”) was released. According to IMDb, it was filmed when he was 86. He plays a 72-year-old character, and looks no older. He has aged very, very well.

           
  15. Aaarrrrgh! “Death Lends a Hand” is on MeTV (in the U.S., mountain time zone) right now, and they chopped out the vast majority of the classic scene where Inspector Brimmer (Robert Culp) cleans up the crime scene after accidentally killing Lenore Kennicut. They went to a commercial break just as the scene zoomed in on Culp’s eyeglasses, deleting the entire cleanup scene, and only showed him pick up Lenore’s body from his car trunk and dump it unceremoniously at a deserted site. Of course, MeTV filled this deleted time with several minutes of commercials. Thank Heaven’s I can watch the full un-edited episodes on DVD!

     
    • Ha! I know what you mean. Watching old shows like M*A*S*H it is the same thing. They were made in an era when less commercials were allowed so they chop out huge parts of the show now. Same with StarTrek when an n episode in the 60’s ran 52 mins – now it runs 42. rgh!!1 Thank goodness for streaming!

       
    • Sumo, I feel your pain! As much as I hate MeTV for chopping up Columbo, I can’t help but to still watch. Same with Sundance, altho they included the deleted scenes you’re talking about during a recent airing of the same episode. Columbo on TV is still better than none at all! It could be a lot worse, remember TV Land?

       
  16. I believe you’re combining two different quotes: my “no action scenes of any kind” and Levinson’s “refused to put any violence into the show.” In fact, there are no action scenes, as that term is conventionally used; and nothing violent was added (“put … into”) the show. Murder mysteries are about violent deaths, and solving these cases required the depiction of essential clues. (The scene to which you refer was one such scene, revealing essential information.) That’s very different from tossing in a bar fight just for its entertainment value. I will concede that the strangulation scene in “Prescription: Murder” may have been gratuitous. But that was pre-series, and a holdover from the stage version. “Ransom” went in a different direction.

     
    • Yes, and remember that in “Ransom”, Columbo noted the killer’s use of a .22 caliber bullet so it wouldn’t leave the kind of open wound that would cause a bloody mess (more specifically, he suspected, a bloody mess all over Leslie Williams’ pricy carpeted living room). That was a nice nod to the “sanitized murder” issue, but once that clue was used, it would be hard to use it again for the other 37 shootings in Columbo’s history.

       
      • Actually, Columbo suspected that the .22, with less velocity, was intended to prevent the bullet from going through the body, and thereby leave traces (bullet damage?) of the crime in the room where he was shot. Ironically, a lower velocity bullet is ordinarily less lethal. Living gunshot victims bleed; dead ones don’t. The victim of a mere wound bleeds far more than the victim of a kill shot. In fact, the former is more likely to die of prolonged blood loss.

        So the forensic explanation for all the bloodless Columbo murders by gunfire is that death was instantaneous in each case. Meet Leslie “Annie Oakley” Williams.

         
    • What about being gored to death by a savage bull in A mater of Honour
      there was a comment made by either columbo or one of the police team about the body being in a bad state , Montoya also said he could have been tossed around the ring several times
      Lenny fishers electrocution by the iron railing all be it far fetched in murder smoke and shadows I found shocking ( no pun intended )

       
      • Actually, “A Matter of Honor” shows practically nothing of the goring. The bull charges, makes initial contact, and then the scene cuts immediately to Columbo’s car accident in the town square. (Cinematically, the bull is swapped for the Peugeot.) The rest is left to the viewer’s imagination. (I don’t count later verbal descriptions. This is a murder investigation. Columbo is probing a violent act.) As for “Murder, Smoke and Shadows,” we see none of the grievous injuries an electrocution causes. Lenny’s death is not as stylized as a 70’s Columbo murder might be, but it is far from graphic. We get essential information; no gratuitous violence is thrown in. Could it have been depicted without showing Lenny at all — with only sound effects? Maybe. But this also may have left some viewers confused.

         
        • I always found the Murder Smoke and Shadows death problematic. A guy who was electrocuted then dumped on a beach where there is no electrical cause at all just screams “hey, there’s a murder here!” Would have been far smarter for Alex to konk him on the head then dump the body and at least then it could have passed for a random mugging or such.

           
  17. The quick and bloodless nature of Columbo’s murders has been noted upon, and here’s some context for the “younger” fans among us.

    The late 60s-70s was prime hand-wringing time for American critics’ anxieties about the media’s effects upon its consumers, particularly children. Most prominently, there was a seemingly endless national debate over Violence On Television. Being free, available to all, and with only a few channels to choose from pre-cable, the issue was low-hanging fruit for alarmist culture warriors who demanded that networks limit the amount of violence on their shows. The issue was of course political catnip, and a Congressional subcommittee was formed (really, no kidding) to look into the problem. Throwing a bone to the nay-sayers, CBS cancelled “The Wild Wild West”, which had been cited as one of TV’s most violent shows (and would later give us both Milo Janus and Dale Kingston).

    In 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General weighed in to warn of “a casual relation between viewing violence on television and aggressive behavior.” This anti-violence panic was not, as you might imagine, over shows depicting anything gory or messy. In the case of “West”, it was about gun-pointing and rowdy barroom brawls. It was really a counting exercise, of so-called “violent acts”, which had a very wide and flexible definition to bump up the numbers. No seventies television show actually did – or was ever going to – show the real bloody aftermath of violent acts, even “the most violent show of the decade” (S.W.A.T.) That was left to the movies, where you had to actually pay to see blood on the screen.

    And that’s exactly why the sanitized murders of Columbo weren’t ever mocked or questioned in their day. That’s how these killings were expected to be seen. (This provided an advantage to the writers who never had to worry about blood evidence or villains taking too long to clean up their messes). The irony is, a case could be made that the very bloodless nature of TV killings might actually encourage people to imitate that “violence”. Minus the blood-spattered consequences, it may have seemed all too easy.

     
    • Except that Columbo went much farther than bloodless murder. There were no action scenes of any kind. No car chases, no foot chases, no fistfights, no police guns drawn in anger. In Mark Dawidziak’s book, he quotes Dick Levinson on the pressure this placed on the writers: “since Bill and I refused to put any violence into the show, we had to have a conversation between two individuals for ninety minutes. The cat-and-mouse dialogue would create the tension. Well, there aren’t many writers who can do all that, which we found out.”

       
    • That is a very interesting analysis. I love it. I think it is also worthy of note that American movies in that era were definitely pushing boundaries of language, subject matter and sexuality. It could be that TV decided to double down and shows like Columbo offered the same ride but without all the blood, gore and language. Just my two cents.

       
    • whatever the decade there is always something to blame…first it was rock ‘n roll music, then TV, then video games and now social media. I imagine as we continue to progress the next culprit will be holograms and virtual reality. But Columbo will continue to delight!

       
      • Continue to delight – definitely. But maybe in the 2020’s, logical, sceptical and reasonable thinking will be the main thing to blame and therefore Columbo will be forbidden to investigate on TV, if dumbing down the society is the TV makers’ target number one.

         
  18. This is a fine article and features worthy selections on this gruesome subject. But the article omits one of the most chilling murder scenes: from “Ashes to Ashes.” Here’s the link to the scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yOY6qWb1UI

    The chilling murder and fine acting in the scene are enhanced by Patrick McGoohan’s first-rate direction and editing decisions. We can palpably feel the anger building up within Eric (Patrick McGoohan) as Verity (Rue McClanahan) lays it on, and as Eric’s eyes shift and twitch in shock and rage; a sequence that perfectly captures the point in time when mens rea (guilty mind) concurrently meets actus reus (guilty act). There’s no blood in the sequence, as you might expect under the circumstances, but that fact takes little away from the overall effectiveness of the scene.

    Also, this is probably the best murder motive “reveal” scene in the entire Columbo oeuvre where the homicide was an on-the-spot decision, though still premeditated. Even though the necessary story information is revealed through exposition, as it often must, it is written here with great economy and flows naturally from the inherent conflict between the two characters, Verity and Eric, where we learn about Eric’s dark past, how he used and dumped Verity, how Eric illicitly profited from his position, and what Verity was going to do with her knowledge. Although it’s always a mistake to tell someone in advance about something you’re going to do that will cause that individual great harm (as many a victim learns the hard way), here Verity’s decision to take the risk is understandable. Verity is bitter, angry, and outraged at Eric and wants to personally see him squirm and panic and experience fear. She also felt safe enough to take the risk of inciting Eric to violence because there were so many people nearby.

     
    • Not as grisly as it could have been on screen. Despite Eric Prince whacking her twice in the head with that mortician’s tool, when you see her body in the aftermath of those two powerful head blows, there’s not even a single fleck of blood anywhere. She looks perfectly peaceful and unscathed as we see her (fairly close-up, too) lying there dead. I know television had restrictive codes back then, but there’s no way she’d look anything like that after such a savage attack.

       
      • I had anticipated that some readers would expect to see blood from the blow. But I stand by what I wrote: “There’s no blood in the sequence, as you might expect under the circumstances, but that fact takes little away from the overall effectiveness of the scene.” That said, I don’t believe that the blow that Eric dealt using the super drain tube (which I think is the mortician’s tool used as a blunt instrument/weapon in this case) would necessarily result in breaking the skin of Verity’s head, which would be a requirement for external bleeding. A traumatic brain injury (“TBI”) could conceivably result from such a blow without breaking the skin, even though there would be extensive internal bleeding. Not every such blow is going to mean that “Dexter” has to be called in. Nonetheless, whether external bleeding would necessarily result from the blow is a question for a experienced forensic pathologist.

         
    • Speaking of Patrick McGoohan, here’s something I just thought of while watching the murder in “By Dawn’s Early Light”. Sure, William probably died before he could even think, but just imagine what Rumford’s troops must be thinking.

      Here they are, honoring the academy with a ceremony they’ve done a hundred times. They’re even letting the founder’s grandson do the honors…

      …and then BANG! The cannon explodes and rips the guy into chunks. War is already traumatizing, but now the kids can get PTSD before they ever even step on a battlefield. That kid put on cannon cleaning probably would feel even worse, since the possibility that he got the guy killed can’t be good for someone his age.

      And what’s Rumford’s expression? Calm, and perhaps a bit relieved. Certainly not remorseful, though.

       
      • Oh yeah, McGoohan made quite a cold-blooded killer! Along with the Jack Cassidy, he made the perfect villain in Columbo. Wonderful actors that are sadly missed!

         
  19. I recently watched Negative Reaction and as much as the bossy Frances Galesko frustrates me with her constant belittling, I can’t help but feel sorrow for her impending death. I haven’t really looked beyond Paul Galesko’s callousness, other than that he’s like other Columbo murderers, selfish, arrogant and wants it all but something the other day made the penny drop and I thought, do you know what? Paul Galesko, you’re an absolute (insert 4 letter word of your choice). In other Columbo killers, there’s been something about them I’ve liked, whether it’s their charm, wit, overt intelligence etc but not Galesko. There is nothing at all. I think this is potentially what makes it a harder catch for the Lieutenant.

    I have a similar outlook on Mark Halperin too, even though I’ve recently modelled my facial hair on that of Richard Kiley! How his wife in A Friend In Deed – whose marriage, up until that point, had been a constant joy – met her end, abruptly. I don’t even think money was the driving factor behind it, rather to make it a level playing field against Caldwell.

     
  20. What makes a murder “most chilling”? Is it the cruel way it was executed? As depicted, or as imagined? Or is it the callousness behind the crime, regardless of the swiftness and painlessness of the murder itself? And is it more chilling to kill a blameless victim than a victim who, someone might believe, “had it coming”?

    Spielberg’s depiction of Lily LaSanka’s silent scream was indeed chilling. But Franklin wanted to take her by surprise, with no warning, no anticipation, no scream. He fired at Jim Ferris face to face. Ferris was supposed to see it coming. Why is his LaSanka killing considered more chilling? After all, she was a blackmailer. What had Ferris done?

    Edmund Galvin (“Try and Catch Me”) and Ric Carsini (“Any Old Port in a Storm”) both died via cruel suffocation. Neither death was shown. Galvin may have been a murderer; Ric Carsini was not. Why is the Galvin murder considered more chilling? Because initially (but probably only initially) Ric was unconscious?

    What makes Sharon Martin’s murder any more chilling than Barry Mayfield’s other crimes? He treated Harry Alexander with no humanity whatsoever. And what he tried to do to Dr. Heideman was diabolic.

    But is diabolic “chilling”? If so, where should Nadia Donner’s murder in “A Deadly State of Mind” be ranked? That one was icily diabolic.

    Lisa Chambers (“Double Shock”) makes the list because of what we imagine may have preceded her death. But we don’t know what preceded Bo Williamson’s or the Commodore’s death either.

    Obviously, this is not a scientific comparison, and quite subjective. “Chilling” may speak more to our emotional response when watching the event rather than any definite criteria. Although in Columbo, there was often a deliberate attempt to de-chill the murder scenes. Much is suggested, less is shown.

    Of course, one need not be shown someone being mauled to death by killer dogs to find the act repulsively wanton and cruel.

     
    • Have to admit I’m a little baffled by some of these choices as well. Lily LaSanka had brought it on herself at least somewhat (how stupid do you have to be to blackmail a cold-blooded murderer?) Nelson Brenner may be a psychopath, but at least Geronimo died quickly. For me the creepiest murders by far are those that are drawn-out and agonising, followed by those where the victim is totally innocent and had no way to see it coming (for the “it could happen to you some day” factor, if nothing else).

       
      • How about poor little Chopin? Talk about a true innocent. His desperate cries have haunted me for years. Damn you, Maestro!

         
        • I have never thought of Chopin’s death as chilling but he was as innocent and blameless as a victim could be. In death though, he helped show that his owner was a victim of murder and not suicide. Columbo would get a lot of help from a wide variety of animals during the series.

           
          • Claude, I especially liked how Columbo mentioned how sad it was that Chopin was also killed. I’m just glad they didn’t show his little body in the cage. It would have been way too much!

             
            • I hope this blog will do a special post or feature sometime about the animals of Columbo. Chopin the cockatoo, several dogs (of course!), a bull, a chimp, a cat, plus crows and koi all played a role in making sure a murderer didn’t get away with it.

               
              • Yes! I’m sure Columbophile can make it happen, we just gotta wait until his busy schedule allows. Speaking of our animal friends, how adorable was it seeing all those Bassett hounds at the beginning of “Murder: A Self Portrait”? Talk about cuteness overload!

                 
  21. I was sure this article would mention the last ever “Columbo” murder, in “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”. Let’s see…try to strangle a guy with a garotte, but he elbows you in the gut and escapes, so you fight for a while, but eventually you kick him in the nuts and that allows you to kick him in the groin and strangle him to death. But he isn’t quite dead, and in fact he gets back to his feet while your back is turned, so you tie the radiator cord around his neck and chuck him out of the window…which yanks the radiator out of the wall, so after your guy falls four stories to the ground the radiator falls on top of him.

    That’s got to win.

     
        • Thanks Nancy, I mentioned Linwood’s murder earlier in the thread. Vidor, thanks for agreeing. I also accidentally posted a comment at bottom of thread that should’ve been NEW. Whoooooops!

           
  22. Rod, yes! And Columbo himself was especially pissed at Nimoy’s callousness. It was great seeing him slam his fist on the evil doctor’s desk and put him in his place. This was one of the few times we got to see Columbo show outrage at the killers he’s trying to bring to justice and it was very gratifying!

     
  23. I found the murder in ‘Fade In to Murder’ pretty nasty – not so much for the killing itself, but the way Fowler holds an innocent shop owner at gunpoint and then beats him unconscious. Nasty stuff.

     
  24. Pingback: The most chilling Columbo murders of them all – Lt. Columbo

  25. First off, great blog! Very insightful and entertaining. As for the topic at hand, one murder you didn’t mention was the junkie Leonard Nimoy brutally kills in the episode “Stitch in Crime”. I’ve always found it particularly ruthless and cold-blooded. How terrifying for that poor guy who never saw it coming, only to die of the very same poison he was addicted to. Bottom line: Drugs will get you one way or another. Anyway, thank you for keeping the legacy of Columbo alive!

     
    • Yes I agree with you A.A. – and this made the terrific gotcha at the end so much more satisfying!

       
  26. These are all great, I’d also add the brutal murder of Lenore Kennicutt by Brimmer in “Death Lends A Hand”. Filmed a bit bizarrely but brilliantly done.

     
  27. I’d put the murder of poor Lisa Chambers at the top of my list. As I said in my comments on the episode, that fact that we *didn’t* see it makes it so terrible. We are left to our own imagination the type of horror she felt, and the violence of the act. Our imaginations, unfortunately in this case, can conjure up a scene far more terrifying than anything a directer can produce.

    Your observations on the rest of the murders are, as usual, spot on.

     
  28. All great choices! The Exercise in Fatality one certainly stands out. Ironically, however, I think one of the most horrifying killings came from someone who is perhaps the series most sympathetic killer – Adrian Carsini in Any Old Port in a Storm. Rick is not killed outright by the blow to the head but only stunned. Carsini then trusses him up like a turkey and leaves him to die slowly over days in his wine cellar while he hobnobs in New York. It happens offscreen but in imagining the process for the victim RIck – well, it’s quite horrific!

     
    • I immediately thought of ‘Any Old Port in a Storm’ too and I couldn’t have described it better than Inspector Lucerne. It somehow makes it worse that Adrian Carsini is not a psychopath and hadn’t planned the murder and yet it was so coldly executed.

       
    • I always thought Adrian Carsini gets off very lightly from viewers because they like the actor so much. It really was a truly hideous way to kill someone – let alone his own brother, whose only crime was wanting him to stop wasting their JOINT inheritance! We can only hope Rick never fully regained consciousness before suffocating (which I assume happened within hours, otherwise wouldn’t the ME be able to tell that he hadn’t eaten or drunk for days?)

       
      • Rick must have regained consciousness before suffocating and thrashed around since there were signs of a struggle in the wine cellar. It must have taken a while for him to die since the ME found that he hadn’t eaten for about 2 days. Columbo questioned why Rick would have been diving on an empty stomach.

         
  29. I nominate Mark Halperin’s murdering his own wife by drowning her in her bathtub for this list. Just prior to the deed, he is talking lovingly to her, and trying to act like a sweetheart. That was disturbing to watch. She didn’t appear to struggle, and it was over with so unrealistically quick, but the thought of the happening in real life is brutal.

    But I think “How To Dial a Murder”‘s death by being torn to shreds by two Doberman dogs was the most terrifying. That type of death would have been brutally painful and terrifyingly slow.

     
  30. I’m actually watching ‘Now You See Him’ whilst reading this, which is a bit surreal. Yes, I’ve done my cenus return.

     
      • The twins were trying to frame the attorney because the attorney alluded to knowing what the twins did to their uncle. Also Lisa Chambers was the sole heir to Clifford’s will so they needed her gone.

         
  31. In his post, CP notes the role of music in some of these killings. Indeed, while we all know how critical the writing, plotting, characterization, acting, and guest stars were to each of the 70s episodes, the music scores were perhaps the most underappreciated element of Columbo’s Golden Era.

    If it’s a chilling murder, it’s a good bet that the moment, and the lead-up to it, is scored with chilling music. Billy Goldenberg created the model in the early years with experimental soundtracks that used a pastiche of sounds – eerie electronics, dissonant strings, multi-tracked synth effects, exotic percussion instruments – to construct tension. “Suitable for Framing”, “A Stitch in Crime”, and “Publish or Perish” are all high-bar standards merging dramatic deaths with unnerving compositions.

    Goldenberg protégé Dick DeBenedictis scored 15 eps from the seventies. In the clip CP provides, it’s DeBenedictis’ dreamy cascading notes set against the ice-cold clubbing of Eric Wagner; DeBenedictis supplies a more dramatic tone when Milo Janus chases Gene Stafford through the gym and brutally chokes him.

    For me, the most glaring omission from CP’s list is Robert Culp’s sudden and violent whacking of Lenore Kennicut in “Death Lends a Hand”, featuring a mix of creepy score (from accomplished composer Gil Melle) and dramatic direction (Bernard Kowalski). The two collaborated perfectly in the glass-shattering killing, plus the clean-up of the murder scene as reflected in Investigator Brimmer’s eyewear. It’s one of the highwater marks of the entire series….have another look: https://youtu.be/S1rLbO6RcCg

     
    • Glenn,

      Thank you for your comments and for reminding me of how brilliant the “Death Lends a Hand” scene was constructed, with the incredibly effective mixing of a chilling music score, with fantastic cinematography and direction. That scene was incredibly well done.

       
      • That scene is brilliantly composed and constructed. It’s a less chilling crime for me because of its lack of premeditation, but it’s certainly very chillingly represented.

         
        • Glenn, thank you for mentioning the music! I just watched the Ruth Gordon episode the other night on MeTV and was struck by how beautiful and melancholic it was, especially during the scene when Columbo finally busts her. So tragic and lovely!

           
    • Sumo, the good news is that your concise description of that scene just as easily fits many many more scenes from 70s Columbo. They are distinguishing traits of the Classic Era, so that even when the plotting, writing and gotcha came up short – as they were sometimes bound to do – the episode wouldn’t suffer irreparable damage (**insert usual disclaimer about “Last Salute to the Commodore”**). The high quality of those music/production choices and the ability to strike the right balance of serious crime-solving, characterization and humor were common threads through the 70s that elevated the whole era’s 45 episodes. It was that essence that New Columbo failed to grasp, and it meant that there was, generally, no safety net to cushion a 90s episode that fell short of being perfectly scripted.

       
  32. I nominate the killing of Freddy Brower as the most brutal murder in “Columbo”, especially when you consider how easily somebody can be drowned in a bathtub –> Mark Halperin needed only three, four seconds and his wife was history.
    And my award for the most gentle murder with two victims, who fall asleep and do not suffer at all, goes to Tommy Brown.

     
    • I’m pretty sure that they suffered (sedated or not) while they burned to death with multiple impact injuries added in from the crash. Even if they died minutes after impact, they suffered a painful and grotesque death.

       
      • Don’t you think they were dead instantly after the crash? I suppose if you fall down from the clouds at high speed, you do not just injure yourself. In my view it was not the fire that killed Edna and Maryann, it was the impact itself.

         
  33. It always struck me how easy and lucky so many of the murders were – one shot, or one blow – no struggle and no blood. But they go with the psychotic nature of the acts, often premeditated and elaborately planned and coolly carried off with no hesitation, no regret and no feelings. The very definition of psychopath. I think we often lose this in the very civil cat and mouse game that subsequently unfolds between the murderer and Columbo as the investigation is pursued. It is the cold, premeditated, carefully planned and executed nature of the the crime, followed with no remorse but continued attempts at manipulating Columbo off their trail (or committing additional murders to cover up their first crime) that is the most chilling nature of the subject revealed so that we do not need to be shocked by scenes of the violence that occurs to be satisfied (usually) at the justice that Columbo ultimately attains. The nature of such murderers is seen in Columbo’s comment to Leslie Williams in the gotcha scene of Ransom for a Dead Man – “see, you have no conscience.”

    The murder in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine is the most gruesome and disturbing one for me. The depiction is a very difficult scene for me to watch (aside from the whole episode being difficult to watch – but that’s a different matter…) Charles Hunter is the ultimate depiction of the cold, heartless psychopath who so easily kills – he would have dispassionately murdered Joanne Nichols with his bare hands if Columbo hadn’t walked in on them and he was set to relish Columbo being torn to shreds by his Dobermans before his very eyes.

     
    • 70s TV was much less realistic about the vitality of a human being. It was fairly common for people to drop dead instantly when killed, no matter what the cause was.

      For me, that approach to murder started to change with Peter Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures”. It takes a while for Kate Winslet and Melanie Lysensky to do in their victim. One bonk on the head doesn’t suffice.

      I think the CSI franchise made the real change, as the actual biological causes of death were explained in great detail. No more “grab the heart and fall down, dead.”

       
    • “Easy and lucky”? More accurately, unrealistic. Sir Roger Haversham dying from the impact of a thrown cold cream jar is the most extreme case — but, as you say, there are plenty of single shot or single blow murders in Columbo.

      At the other extreme was the murder scene in Hitchcock’s “Torn Curtain” — which was specifically designed to show how hard it is to kill another human being.

      Then again, Columbo was never about the victim. It was always about the interplay between the murderer and his or her pursuer. This left little room to dwell on the suffering of the victim. I was always struck by the scene in “Etude in Black” where Columbo talks about the sadness of suicide. As if murder does not stir similar emotions. But that rarely happened in Columbo.

       
  34. I would add the 2nd murder of Linwood in Columbo Likes the Nightlife. I am always creeped out when his weight on the rope he is hanging out of the building from forces the heater to become dislodged. He was just a paparazzi schlub who was totally blindsided.

     
      • Yes… I am surprised Columbophile did not include that one. The second murder in Columbo Likes The Nightlife is the most gruesome, chilling, and violent of them all.
        But otherwise the list includes many great picks

         
  35. I’ve always felt terrible for poor James Ferris. What was his major offense? Making do nothing, untalented Ken Franklin millions?

    Ken demonstrates his gratitude by killing him in a jarring phone call his wife will never forget, and THEN offs poor Lily La Sanka [Who was murdered in real life]. Disgracia!

    [PS-Glad you included Hapless Freddy Brower, Columbo did a great job cracking that one with an assist from the Monkey]

     
  36. I nominate the death by bull goring in ‘A Matter of Honor’. Hector’s death grizzly beyond words.

     
  37. Exercise in Fatality is certainly the most brutal Columbo murder, and it’s quite surprising it was allowed on prime-time tv. (I think it’s also one of the very best early Columbos.) This is followed by Prescription Murder.
    I recently re-watched Death Hits the Jackpot, and it’s quite an unusual mix of the macabre and whimsical – all set within a basically believable plot.

     
  38. One I absolutely would have on this list is the killing of Roger the projectionist by Doctor Bart Kepple. When Kepple goes to kill Roger, he doesn’t just walk in and shoot. He toys with Roger. He wants Roger to know that this is because of his blackmail attempt. He lets Roger plead for his life. See how slowly Kepple draws the gun and points it. All the while he’s telling Roger this will be the only solution. I think this is one of the darkest scenes in Columbo history.

     
  39. Glad you mentioned “How to Dial a Murder.” That was chilling because of the manner of death, but also because of the long, extensive planning. The murderer spent months training naturally friendly dogs to become attack animals.

     
  40. I think another brutal murder was Jean Davis in Requiem for a falling star. Nora Chandler has her burned to death in her car. Nora pours gas around the driveway and where she’d park her car, lights a match and swoosh! Terrible.

     
    • I was just checking on here to see if anyone else mentions that one. The poor thing was burned to death like a deep fried turkey on Thanksgiving! And one cares the next day. Brutal.

       
      • Jean Davis’s murder was mentioned in an earlier comment( I loved the fried turkey quip).
        I feel that I need to add the murders of: David Buckner and Quincy the chauffeur in Short Fuse and Fernando the gardener in A Bird in the Hand. All 3 blown to smithereens. There is enough fried turkey here to stock a food truck!🦃

         

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