Columbo episode review – Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Columbo Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health opening titles

Following on from the reassuring presence of Robert Culp in Columbo Goes to College, the Lieutenant’s very next adventure pitted him against another of the 70s’ series leading antagonists: ‘Gorgeous’ George Hamilton.

Sixteen years after his debut in A Deadly State of Mind, Hamilton was back in Columbo colours in Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health – a tale of resentment, blackmail, pornography and murder set against the backdrop of hit network TV crime show Crime Alert.

Boasting the longest title of any Columbo episode (eclipsing The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case from Season 6), Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health first aired on February 20, 1991. Is it a delicious slice of perma-tanned goodness, or a chain-smoking horror of an episode? Let’s take a look…

Columbo Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Wade Anders: George Hamilton
Budd Clarke: Peter Haskell
Maxine Jarrett: Penny Johnson
Arnie: Robert Donner
George: Steven Gilborn
Dog: As himself
Directed by: Daryl Duke
Written by: Sonia Wolf, Patricia Ford & April Raynell
Score by: John Cacavas

Episode overview – Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Popular TV anchor Wade Anders has a fight on his hands to keep hold of his dream job as presenter of ratings winner Crime Alert. If Anders won’t agree to quit and recommend him for the job, jealous nemesis Budd Clarke (himself a TV crime journalist) will shred Anders’ good guy reputation by revealing his early-career appearance alongside an underage co-star in porn flick Holly Does Houston.

Columbo Wade Anders
Why are chain smokers never the good guys?

Basking in his new-found success after many years as a mere security adviser, Anders isn’t willing to give up the limelight so quickly. And when the chain-smoking Clarke accidentally leaves a pack of cigarettes in Anders’ dressing room, the TV host puts a fiendishly clever scheme into action.

Racing to his business office, he drips highly toxic nicotine sulphate into three of the cigarettes, while burning several others down to the filter and tipping them (and the ash they create) into a zip-lock bag. He allows the office CCTV camera to record him entering the office twice wearing different outfits before heading home for the night. Quite why he does this won’t be revealed until the next day, when Anders returns to his office to be greeted by cheery Mexican gardener Juan (try harder, writers!), who informs him that he’ll be trimming all the hedgerows this week. HEAVY-HANDED CLUE KLAXON SOUNDS!

Anders then proceeds to edit footage from last night’s CCTV video into today’s tape of him entering the office in matching clothes, before pocketing a floppy disk of unused Crime Alert stories and vamoosing off to a date with destiny at Budd Clarke’s home, where he is immediately accosted by Clarke’s excitable dog leaping up at and scratching his car door (KLAXON sounds again).

Clarke, oozing nastiness and cigarette fumes, plays a snippet of Holly Does Houston to show Anders he means business. However, it’s the Crime Alert host that’s really in the driving seat as he switches Clarke’s current pack of smokes with the poison-laced ones from his jacket pocket – and looks on in quiet satisfaction as Clarke grabs one and starts puffing away.

Minutes later, Clarke’s heart and lungs pack in and he slumps dead at his home office desk. Anders puts his cover-up plan into action, placing a lit cigarette in Clarke’s cold, dead hand and switching the contents of the desk ashtray with the butts and ashes from the smokes he burnt in his own office the night before.

Columbo Budd Clarke
Smoking kills!

He then deletes the story about his porn star past from Clarke’s computer and replaces it with a story from his own floppy disk, which he subsequently prints out and places it in front of his former rival, covering the front of the printout with the dead man’s fingerprints before he beats his retreat to an alibi-establishing party at his producer’s home.

Clarke’s body is discovered the following morning, leading one Lieutenant Columbo to investigate. And guess what? As soon as he arrives he is also accosted by the same paint-scratching mutt that welcomed Anders the day before. It looks like an open-and-shut heart attack death, until Columbo instantly detects the discrepancies between the cigarette butts in the ashtray on Clarke’s death and one on a nearby coffee table. The ones in the desk ashtray were not smoked, as evidenced by the lack of nicotine stains on the filters. The ones everywhere else were very definitely smoked, as Columbo explains in great detail to the slack-jawed sergeant on the scene.

The eagle-eyed detective also instantly notices the difference in the headline styles used on the computer printouts on Clarke’s desk. The one under the dead man’s hand is entitled ‘Escape to death’ in lower case, while the other headlines are all in BLOCK CAPITALS. Columbo then shambles on his way, although not before a second encounter with the dog, at which point the importance of the dog claw scratches on his car’s paintwork is rammed down the viewer’s throat – just in case they were in a coma the first time round.

The sleuth’s next stop is the TV network HQ where Clarke worked. And, lo and behold, Columbo finds that there was no story under the title ‘Escape to death’ anywhere in the computer system, while a helpful secretary is able to point him towards Wade Anders, whom Clarke was said to have nipped out for a meeting with the previous Friday. Anders freely admits the meeting and that Clarke hated his guts after not getting the Crime Alert job, but there’s nothing to suggest he has a motive for murder at this stage. But murder it certainly was, as lab technician George reports to Columbo that Clarke died of massive nicotine poisoning after ingesting enough nicotine sulphate to kill him within minutes. Heart attack, schmart attack

Seeking expert help with his investigations, Columbo returns to see Anders. As well as the variance in headline styles, the Lieutenant also demonstrates a problem he has with the printout found on Clarke’s desk. There were only fingerprints on the front of the sheet, but if Clarke had torn it off the printer himself, his prints must necessarily also be on the back. The inference is crystal clear: someone else was with Budd Clarke at the time he died! Columbo has another poser for Anders a short while later. Producing some cigarette butts from the crime scene, he demonstrates that both were extinguished in different ways – one by twisting, the other by crushing. Clarke always crushed his smokes; further evidence of foul play and of third-party involvement.

Columbo Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
The filthy mac never seemed more at home!

A search of Clarke’s car reveals a cassette with notes dictated by the man himself. A reference to checking in with Arnie in Hollywood about a porno film sends the Lieutenant to a sleazy adult store in the red-light district (ooooh-errrr) where shop proprietor Arnie spills the beans on Anders’ appearance in Holly Does Houston and Clarke’s interest in seeing it after being overlooked for the Crime Alert gig. All of a sudden, Columbo has a potential motive for Clarke’s murder.

His suspicions now start to mount fast. After being left unaccompanied in Anders’ office, Columbo finds print outs of Crime Alert news stories, which features headlines not in block capitals – a style match for the ‘Escape to death’ article found at Clarke’s house. Later, while seeking verification on Anders’ whereabouts at the time of Clarke’s killing, the Lieutenant is promised a copy of the CCTV tape from Anders’ office, which the killer hopes will clear his name. When Columbo goes to pick the tape up, though, he finds a different kind of clue on Anders’ driver-side car door – one that will require a police photographer to get to work on.

In the meantime, Columbo studies the CCTV tape showing Anders entering and leaving his office on the supposed day of the Budd Clarke killing, and on the millionth viewing he spots something out of place. And that something means the noose is now squarely around Wade Anders’ neck.

The Lieutenant waits until Crime Alert shooting has wrapped for the day to confront Anders. The pair view back the CCTV tape, which clearly shows Anders entering the office in daylight with a well-trimmed hedge visible behind him. The footage of him leaving at night, however, shows an untrimmed hedge in the background. Columbo knows the hedges were trimmed on the day Clarke was killed, ergo the tape has been doctored and Anders’ alibi ain’t worth tuppence ha’penny.

Columbo Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
It was an untrimmed bush that did in for Wade Anders

It’s good police work, but not damning enough in its own right for an arrest. However, the clincher soon arrives in the form of Budd Clarke’s dog. Despite Anders’ angry denial that he has ever been to Clarke’s house, a forensic photo of the the dog’s claw marks scratched onto Anders’ car door proves that he was there, giving the crafty Lieutenant method, motive and opportunity against him. Comprehensively outmanoeuvred, Anders can only accept defeat as credits roll…

My memories of Hazardous to Your Health

It’s been the best part of a decade since I last watched Hazardous to Your Health, and it’s an episode I’d estimate I’ve seen only 3-4 times in total. Alas, and despite having a bit of a man crush on 70s’ George Hamilton, I don’t recall this episode terribly fondly.

Columbo George Hamilton
Has Gorgeous George still got it, 16 years after his Columbo debut?

Even more sadly, a lot of what I do remember are the lowlights of the episode: the idiotic nature of the car prang scene; the awful pervy guy in the mac in the porn shop winking at Columbo as if he were a kindred spirit; and Wade Anders’ implausible naivety about cigarette filters, which erodes the edge of what should have been a clever murder.

That aside, not a lot of this episode has stuck with me, so revisiting it again ought to be an interesting journey back down Memory Lane. And even if George is a lot longer in the tooth here than in his Columbo debut, I’m still expecting a few pleasant surprises in his performance and his interactions with the good Lieutenant.

Episode analysis

I’m a big fan of George Hamilton’s 1975 Columbo outing, A Deadly State of Mind. To my mind, Hamilton had all the qualities a Columbo killer should have: smooth good looks, diabolical assurance, heart of ice, fatal flaws. Sixteen years is a long time, though, and Wade Anders ain’t half the man Dr Mark Collier used to be. In fact, it’s a rather lifeless portrayal by Hamilton, making Anders one of the least interesting Columbo killers of any era.

Columbo Wade Anders
Wade Anders was famed for having the largest right hand in showbiz

The confrontation between Anders and Columbo rarely rises above the mundane, which is a great shame when you consider how much screen-time the two share. Indeed, given the episode’s small central cast, we likely haven’t seen the Lieutenant getting this much one-on-one time with a suspect since Fade in to Murder in 1976. Unfortunately, a lot of this time is of negligible relevance to the plot as Hazardous is one of the most padded Columbo episodes of them all.

Despite the nucleus of a decent mystery, there’s nowhere near enough story here to fill the 90-minute running time – something evidenced by the fact that the above episode synopsis is the shortest I’ve written in years. This problem is exacerbated by the heavy-handed nature of the clues that will lead to Anders’ downfall. It’s so screamingly obvious that the dog scratches and trimmed hedge will be of material importance to the case because there is no subtlety in how they are delivered to the viewer.

My 11-year-old daughter (prior to illness), watching this episode for the first time, immediately recognised that having the dog jump up on both Anders’ and Columbo’s cars would provide key evidence. Likewise, hearing gardener Juan so openly explain to Anders that he was trimming all the hedges that week made it impossible for her to miss the significance of the hedges on the CCTV tape in breaking Anders’ alibi.

“Despite the nucleus of a decent mystery, there’s nowhere near enough story here to fill the 90-minute running time.”

When an uninitiated child can so easily see the signposts to how the case will be wrapped up, that’s a pretty hollow mystery. It’s as if the production team believed this was too complex a case for viewers to comprehend, so felt the need to spell things out in minute detail. However, this isn’t a complicated mystery by the series’ standards, making the sledgehammer style of the clue reveals seem overly clunky. Credit the viewer with a little intelligence, please.

Wade Anders’ lack of of cigarette smoking know-how also stretches credibility. A middle-aged man with a broad social circle and who hosts a show about real-world crimes doesn’t grasp the need to have authentically smoked cigarette butts as part of his cover-up scheme? I don’t buy it. Anders leaving unsmoked butts in the ashtray on Budd Clarke’s desk is convenient for the plot, sure, but is such an amateurish error that it severely blunts what ought to have been a challenging crime to solve.

More than that, though, Anders’ meddling with the crime scene ashtrays serves no real purpose. All he needed to do was remove the poisoned cigarette from Clarke’s dead hand and the packet with the two other poisoned smokes in it, and leave all else as was. Emptying the desk ashtray into a bag and refilling it with pre-prepared ash and butts is simply a plot device that has no grounding in logic. I liken it to the Dr Marshall Cahill leaving a burnt match in an ashtray in Mind Over Mayhem. The very act of doing it serves only to make the investigation easier for Columbo to navigate. No one would ever actually do it.

Columbo Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
This marked the first and last occasion whereby a human being was impressed by a dot matrix printer

But really, Anders made an absolute hash of the whole crime. As well as the above howlers, his neglecting to plant Clarke’s fingers on both sides of the computer print-out was a schoolboy error, as was his failure to spot the difference in headline styles between his planted news article and Budd Clarke’s. When you also consider that he drove to Clarke’s house to commit murder in a very recognisable car in broad daylight, this is the crime of a man who seems determined to get caught.

To quote Sherlock Holmes’ admonishment of the bungling Watson in The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax: “I cannot recall any possible blunder which you have omitted.” The same absolutely applies to Wade Anders – and it makes catching him a breeze. The LAPD didn’t need Columbo on this case. Sergeants Wilson and Grover could have coped just fine. It all means there’s a distinct lack of dramatic tension throughout that even actors as gifted and charismatic as Hamilton and Falk can’t make up for.

It seems to me that much more could have been done to make Anders a more interesting villain, too. He’s sympathetic to a point due to the harsh way that that wicked, cigarette-smoking man Budd Clarke is so beastly to him, but this avenue is never fully explored. There’s no vulnerability in Anders, and I think there should have been. This is a guy who has had fame thrust upon him relatively late in life, and who is relishing it, only for a vengeful toad to attempt to ruin him for poor choices made earlier in his career. We should really be rooting for him, but he’s just not a compelling enough presence to warrant it.

Much is made in the script of what a decent and squeaky clean guy Anders is, but he comes across as being conceited and insincere with few likeable qualities. There was more than enough time to devote to ramping up sympathy for him. How about him being married to the love of his life and desperately wanting to prevent her from finding out about his porn star past? Or how about her needing life-saving medical treatment that his new super-wage as Crime Alert host had enabled? That would give him a more selfless need to protect his career. As it is, he’s just another greedy and ambitious Columbo killer in a long line of greedy, ambitious Columbo killers. So much potential went untapped.

Columbo Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
Oh, what could have been…

To my chagrin, there are also a number of dismally unfunny sequences in Hazardous that take us right back to some of the low moments of Season 8. There’s nothing quite as bad as the tuba and bin rummaging scenes from Sex and The Married Detective, or the celebrity poker match in Uneasy Lies the Crown, but some seriously cringey moments made the final cut – a big disappointment given how our previous episode, Columbo Goes to College, sidestepped such stupidity completely.

The car prang scene is painfully drawn out, but the worst moment is the Lieutenant’s awful confrontation in the adult store, which is, in my opinion, comfortably one of the worst Columbo scenes ever filmed. Having the hooker cat call to Columbo as he walked down the street to the store moments earlier was a good moment. Yes, he wears the sort of mac a flasher might have so it’s nice reference that fans can chuckle at. However, things plummet downhill fast when he enters the store itself and is winked at by a leering perv in an identikit raincoat, who evidently believes the Lieutenant is a sexual deviant like himself.

“There are several dismally unfunny sequences in Hazardous that take us right back to some of the low moments of Season 8.”

This overly knowing, hammily acted, nudge-nudge, wink-wink TOSH has no place in any serious detective drama. One might expect to see such nonsense in one of the Carry On films from the 1970s (Google ’em, non-British readers), but I hold Columbo to higher standards, making the scene agony to endure. Normally I’d blame the writers for this, but through Twitter correspondence with one of the episode scribes (I forget which one, sorry), I learned that this scene was much less clumsily presented in the original draft.

Yes, Columbo still encountered the mac man in the porn store, but their interaction was little more than each looking the other up and down before the stranger left the building. This would have worked 1000 times better, and been an understated Easter Egg for fans. However, I was informed that Falk and the producers were the ones responsible for stretching the scene out and making a dog’s dinner of a supposed comic interlude. Frankly, it’s hideous. Revisit it yourself below, if you dare…

A further criticism of the episode (and one that can also be labelled at numerous ‘new’ Columbo adventures) is the repetitive nature of several aspects of it that almost play out like a retread of some of the greatest hits of the original series. I think the odd nod to the past is fine and dandy, but there seems to be a lot of them going on in a single episode here. Consider:-

  • Poisoned cigarette murder weapon as seen in Lovely but Lethal in 1973
  • Antagonist caught on film leaving an office at different time than claimed (variation on Identity Crisis gotcha from 1975)
  • Unnecessary manipulation of crime scene (Mind Over Mayhem, 1974)
  • Columbo earning crucial evidence through close study of CCTV tape (see also Playback from 1975)
  • Columbo bamboozled by new technology (computers, printers) echoing classic episodes including Fade in to Murder, Bye-Bye Sky High, Playback etc)
  • Killer driving to crime scene in conspicuous car in broad daylight (Etude in Black, 1972)
  • Dog nominally helps solve the crime (Mind Over Mayhem, 1974)

We had another example of this in the previous outing, where the conclusion of Columbo Goes to College was a reworking of that from A Friend in Deed. However, given the theme of that episode, placing Columbo as an educator to would-be criminologists, the ending still satisfied. Here, both the key elements of the murder and its solving are rehashes on what we’ve seen before, hinting at a disappointing lack of original thinking.

Still, I hate to come across as too much of a Negative Nelly, despite the disappointments coming thick and fast. Hazardous to Your Health does have its strengths and for me, its main appeal for today’s viewer lies in the relevance of its central theme. Here we have Wade Anders’ hard-earned success under threat due to iffy decisions he made years earlier at a different time and place in his career. It’s cancel culture, 1990s style, with Budd Clarke attempting to ruin Anders’ reputation and livelihood through revealing his shameful past. How often have we seen that happen in the past few years across all areas of society?

Columbo Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
“Imma gon cancel you, brah,” quoth Budd Clarke

In what might be the highlight of the whole episode, there’s a nice moment when Anders is prepping for a TV interview, all smugness and sham grins before he notices Columbo waiting in the wings and his face falls a country mile. The episode’s opening scene is also a nice bait-and-switch moment, suggesting that the episode will be focussing on a slimy, murderous young couple who are in fact incidental characters about to be busted on live national TV for Anders’ Crime Alert show. First-time viewers were surely fooled by this clever staging.

Should some viewers still need convincing, Hazardous is another episode to provide strong proof of Mrs Columbo being a real person and not some figment of the Lieutenant’s imagination. Although we tantalisingly don’t see her when she’s allegedly accompanying her husband to the policeman’s dinner, the dog groomer at the salon near the end of the episode references having received instructions from her on Dog’s desired pedicure. If she only exists in Columbo’s head, how could the dog groomer have met her? CASE CLOSED, DOUBTERS (**runs imaginary lap of honour, high-fiving fellow believers**).

Elsewhere, keen viewers will appreciate seeing Steven Gilborn pop up as Columbo’s forensics sidekick George in his third of four appearances, all as the same character. It places George as one of the show’s most recurring secondary characters behind only (I believe) Dog and Bruce Kirby’s beloved Sergeant Kramer. That’s good going, Stevie G!

Finally, I give kudos to the casting of Penny Johnson as Crime Alert producer Maxine Jarrett. A black woman in a prominent role is, sadly, a major rarity for Columbo across its 35-year lifespan. Her role is hardly a massive one, but Johnson (perhaps best known to TV viewers as Sherry Palmer in 24, and Kassidy Yates Sisko in Deep Space Nine) puts in a strong turn and believable turn.

Columbo Penny Johnson
Don’t mess with PJ!

Sad to say, though, there just aren’t enough highlights in Hazardous to Your Health to get excited about. It’s not dreadful, just entirely average and can perhaps best be described as a Columbo-by-numbers. After the excellence of Columbo Goes to College, the lackadaisical nature of Hazardous is a rather bitter pill to take and proves once again that when it comes to new Columbo, you just don’t know what you’re going to get.

Did you know?

Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health is the only Columbo episode penned by female writers, namely the trio of Sonia Wolf, Patricia Ford and April Raynell. For all three, this episode was the sole writing credit in their careers. Ms Raynell served as Peter Falk’s executive assistant for many years.

How I rate ’em

A discouraging effort after the enjoyable romp that was Columbo Goes to College, Hazardous is nevertheless an above-average episode by the standards of the comeback series. The cast doesn’t do much wrong, but the story, the padding and the spoon-feeding of clues don’t live up to the hype surrounding George Hamilton’s casting. Ho hum…

If you missed any of my earlier ‘new Columbo‘ reviews, access them via the links below.

  1. Columbo Goes to College
  2. Agenda for Murder
  3. Columbo Cries Wolf
  4. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  5. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  6. Sex & The Married Detective
  7. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
  8. Murder, A Self Portrait
  9. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  10. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  11. Grand Deceptions
  12. Murder in Malibu

I haven’t yet started to slot the new episodes in amongst the classics in an overall rankings list, but you can see how I rate the 70s’ run of episodes right here.

Columbo Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
Hazardous narrowly avoids being a car wreck of an episode!

That’s all for today, gang. Regular readers will know that my daughter’s illness and on-going treatment are going to severely curtail my blogging efforts for the rest of the year but I’m happy be able to publish this review after largely completing it before her diagnosis. My sincere thanks to you all for your patience and well wishes.

The next stop on our Columbo marathon is the dubiously titled Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star, starring a moustached Dabney Coleman and featuring a cameo by Little Richard. A return to form, or another lesser light? Time will tell…

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Use of lethal force against this perp would have been entirely justified