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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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…