A blockbuster curtain-raiser for Season 5 of Columbo, Forgotten Lady ushered in Hollywood royalty Janet Leigh to take centre stage as fading film star Grace Wheeler-Willis.
In a unique move for the series, what first appears to be a common-or-garden murder of a miserly husband by an ambitious and shallow diva turns into a harrowing tale of lost love, protection and a hidden mortal illness, rendering Grace unable to even remember committing murder by episode’s end.
The pathos-packed finale tugs audience heart-strings like few other Columbo cases with even the ever-professional Lieutenant allowing the culprit to go free and live out the remaining weeks of her life at home rather than behind bars. As a result, this episode is a hit with fans and was even one of Peter Falk’s personal favourites. What are its highest highs? Here’s my take…
5. The shambolic entrance
As TV detectives go, Columbo is easier than most for the common man to connect with – never more so than during his introduction in Forgotten Lady’s 24th minute.
Summoned to the crime scene at the dead of night, the poor Lieutenant was in such an addled state that he failed to even dress properly, forgetting to put on his suit jacket and subsequently being without his police badge upon arrival at Wheeler-Willis HQ.
While awaiting a cup of coffee from the housemaid, poor Columbo can’t keep his eyes open and appears to actually be asleep on his feet until the revivifying liquid is served. Although the scene does nothing to propel the plot forward, it’s a highly authentic moment and one that affords Peter Falk another chance to show off his comedic skills with understated aplomb.
4. A Diamond geezer
There are few greater pleasures in TV life than watching Columbo encounter stars from stage and screen that he has grown up admiring – so you better believe his meetings with both Grace and her erstwhile dance partner Ned Diamond are going to tickle us pink. In particular, his quick catch-up with Diamond absolutely sparkles (pun one jillion per cent intentional), with both men on fine form and benefitting from an excellent script.
The morning after the killing, Columbo shows up to interview Grace but is cock-a-hoop to encounter Diamond first. “My wife dragged me to every musical you were ever in,” the detective enthuses. “I’m sorry you had to be dragged,” Diamond deadpans back.
Better follows when the Lieutenant seeks dancing advice from the musical legend. “My wife is a terrific dancer, but I got two left feet when it comes to dancing in public so she always has to sit out,” the detective laments. “What can you do for a problem like that?” Ned’s response is pointed and brilliant: “Become a critic.”
It’s not all bonhomie, though, as it becomes crystal clear that old Ned is going to be absolutely uncompromising in his support of Grace, warning the Lieutenant that he’ll be keeping a very close eye on the investigation to make sure her wellbeing is paramount. It sets the stall out early that the honourable Diamond will do whatever it takes to protect the love of his life – and so it will prove in unforgettable fashion.
3. Dodging the bullet(s)
In another nod to the excellence of the writing, Columbo’s willingness to ultimately let Grace go is nicely foreshadowed by the subplot surrounding his pistol test.
We know from previous episodes that Columbo hates guns and never carries one. We learn here that he hasn’t taken his gun test for 10 years – something that ought to earn him immediate suspension. To avoid this, he pays a colleague to take the test for him. Although these scenes raise a smile, they mask a serious aspect of his character: Columbo will bend the rules if they do not align with his moral compass. Sure enough, he does the same when he later lets Ned take the rap for the murder of Henry Wheeler.
The Lieutenant also pokes some straight-faced fun at the no-nonsense Sergeant Leftkowitz, who tracks him down about his pistol test. When she comments she’s never seen him down at the homicide department he shoots back: “Well I don’t get there too much. None of the murders take place there, you know.” She doesn’t appreciate the joke, but we certainly do…
2. Social climbing
Columbo’s leap from Dr Willis’s balcony onto the adjacent tree, as Grace welcomes a gaggle of lovies to a home cinema screening, combines ace deductive reasoning with Falk’s natural comic gifts to deliver a scene that works on multiple levels.
His tree-dangling and cavorting with Dog warm the cockles, but the core of the scene is the glimpse we’re given into Grace’s increasingly shaky grasp on reality. She ought to be feeling the heat of a detective essentially proving that her husband could have been murdered – by her. Instead, she assumes Columbo is only there because of her magnetic allure and his attraction to “the MAGIC of show business!“
All credit to Janet Leigh, whose wide-eyed portrayal of Grace becoming ever more lost in a world of her own is fantastic – and increasingly heart-breaking.
1. Saving Grace
The poignant conclusion to an episode packed with pathos is arguably the single most heart-wrenching scene of the 70s’ series.
Ned, who has been protecting Grace from harm throughout the episode, is racked with grief as he comes to accept that his long-time love is both a murderer and mortally ill. Rather than allowing her to face what little time she has left alive behind bars, he steps up to take the rap for the killing of Henry and calms Grace’s desperately fraying nerves.
“It’s a seriously hard-hearted viewer that doesn’t feel tremendous sadness at Grace’s fate.”
Combining gentle tones with utterly convincing body language and expressions, it’s as believable a display of love as you’ll ever see on the small screen. Forgotten Lady marked John Payne’s final screen appearance. He certainly went out on a high.
Janet Leigh is almost as good at her portrayal of a woman whose mind has slipped away from her without her even knowing it. Whatever you might have felt about Grace throughout this episode, it’s a seriously hard-hearted viewer that doesn’t feel tremendous sadness at her fate here as she sits transfixed at her own image on the movie screen as her two male companions determine her fate.
Ned’s unshakeable faith in Grace makes him an excellent barometer for the audience. Even when Grace is at her worst, he offers patience and support. If he can love her for all her failings, she surely deserves some understanding from us.
That’s your lot for today, folks. As always, I’d be most interested to hear from you on your own personal episode highlights, which always make for an interesting debate.
If you’re keen for a deeper dive into Forgotten Lady you can read my full-length episode review here. You can also check out where Grace Wheeler ranks in my list of most sympathetic Columbo killers here.
Until next time, adios muchachos – and keep outta trouble.