Patrick McGoohan stepped up from mere guest star status to directing and guest starring in Identity Crisis – the third episode of Columbo’s fifth season.
He moulded an adventure as unique and eccentric as himself, dishing up a wacky and deliberately opaque murder mystery set against a backdrop of alter egos and the international spy circuit that frequently makes little sense.
Nevertheless, with a spellbinding cast that includes comedy legend Leslie Nielsen, the gorgeous Barbara Rhoades and fans’ favourite Vito Scotti, there’s something to treasure in just about every scene – helped in no small measure by the outstanding visuals and extensive use of real-world locations.
With so much fun to be found, trimming down the highlights to just five was an almighty task – but one I’m always happy to take one for the greater good. Without further ado, here are my picks for Identity Crisis’s juiciest moments…
5. Lawrence loses his cool
Poor Lawrence Melville is having a bad day. Having barely escaped with his life when his shadowy boss Steinmetz sent him off in a car rigged to explode, he is now struggling to maintain his patience while being simultaneously dogged by two police officers as he convalesces in his hospital bed. His frustrations come to a head as the police artist fails to accurately recreate the visage of Steinmetz, forcing Melville to flip into a micro-rage – at which point the artist finally hits on the correct likeness.
This is a noteworthy scene in several ways, not least due to the paucity of interesting roles for black actors in the series. Cast as Melville, Otis Young’s exasperation at not being fully heeded is unmistakable, but I include the scene in this list more because it’s such fun to watch. It also further underscores that just about everyone in this episode makes a memorable contribution and fully commits to the nonsensical story unfolding around them.
There’s even some unintentional fun to be had by noticing how far removed the sketch of Steinmetz that is shown to Melville differs from the one that is shown to the viewer (inset). The two drawings are even facing in different directions. Go figure!
4. Top secret rendezvous
The bonkers nature of Identity Crisis’s spy game is gloriously encapsulated in the extended meeting between ‘Geronimo’ and Nelson Brenner where the pair meet to discuss secret business in one of the most public spots in all of Los Angeles: the Long Beach Amusement Park!
Notable for Leslie Nielsen strutting around with a barely-buttoned shirt, the master operators do just about all they can to draw attention to themselves, including winning a giant panda at the shooting gallery, overtly gifting the bear (dubbed ‘Archibald’) to a wide-eyed child, and allowing themselves to be snapped by the wandering photography team. As is to be expected from such a devil-may-care attitude towards anonymity, Columbo is able to easily get help from the amusement park staff that enables him to identify Brenner and track him down.
Was this all part of Brenner’s plan all along? He claims to find his life boring, so leaving a trail of breadcrumbs that allowed him to be drawn into the police investigation was quite likely intentional. However, this madcap outing leaves virtually no question answered by the time credits roll.
3. From placid to psycho in 0.1 seconds
The chill factor of the brutal death scene in Identity Crisis 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 to the head.
After the initial blow, Brenner displays an eerie calm to deliver another 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.
2. “I knoooo-ooooooooow!”
Featuring Patrick McGoohan at his unconventional best, Nelson Brenner makes for a scintillating study when Columbo drops round to his home to repay a debt.
Firstly, Brenner orders a brooding man-servant to bring Columbo some Beaujolais, spouting what is presumably meant to be Korean but was really just gibberish made up by the actor himself. Better follows when the two discuss music and Brenner virtually sings the line “I knooo-ooow!” when revealing that he’s aware of Mrs Columbo’s favourite piece of music because he’s had their house bugged.
Peter Falk has been quoted as saying that McGoohan’s line delivery skills were the greatest in the history of the show. Watching McGoohan’s performance in this short scene, it’s easy to see why he believed it.
1. Columbo takes charge
Featuring super-cool cinematography, Columbo’s entrance in Identity Crisis might his most stylish intro of the whole series. Backlit to show a wild-haired Lieutenant largely in silhouette, and striding through a cloud of his own cigar smoke against a backdrop of police car lights, this is a classic noirish moment for which great credit must go to Patrick McGoohan.
Notice, too, the atypical example of Columbo bossing the crime scene from the get-go. For the first time, he’s demonstrably the figure in charge and someone who has the full respect of his colleagues rather than being portrayed as a bumbling figure whom many fellow officers underappreciate. After four-and-a-half series, it seems entirely apt to see a more dominant Columbo taking charge in this way – and it was a sight that would be increasingly common throughout the rest of the 70s’ run.
“For the first time, Columbo is demonstrably the figure in charge.”
Those are my choices. What are yours? In a episode so packed with funny moments and interesting dialogue, your choices could easily differ quite greatly from mine, so do share your thoughts in the comments section below.
If you haven’t viewed Identity Crisis for a while, you can refresh your memory via my episode review here. You can also read why I consider Nelson Brenner to be one of 10 Columbo villains who’ll never do jail time here.
Until next we meet, take care of yourselves – and be sure to avoid clandestine meetings with menacing men underneath a pier titled ‘Mugger’s Heaven‘. I mean, come on, that’s just common sense. Be seeing you…
On a happy note, readers may remember trans-Atlantic lovebirds Graham (from the UK) and Suzanne (from the US), who found love via Twitter through their shared appreciation of Columbo back in 2019! You can read about that here if you missed it. COVID disrupted their plans to wed in 2020 but they were finally able to tie the knot last month after Graham upped sticks to the USA in March.
Alas, they weren’t able to factor a Columbo-themed wedding into their plans given the necessity to wed in a short time frame, but I’m sure they spent some quality time in the company of the good Lieutenant during their honeymoon. On behalf of all of us in the Columbophile Community, congrats to the newlyweds!
In this episode we see Patrick bludgeon Leslie Nielsen from behind, wielding a long, narrow, but hefty metal object. He strikes once, we have a shot of him towering over Leslie, and he then makes a second and more brutal strike.
In “Ashes to Ashes”, we see Patrick bludgeon Rue McClanahan from behind, wielding a long, narrow, but hefty metal object. He strikes once, we have a shot of him towering over Rue, and then he makes a second and more brutal strike. Patrick directed both episodes.
The two McGoohan-Columbo flops are his (over) acting in this one and his directing of Last Salute to the Commodore. I even enjoy the 2 eps from the later series: Agenda For Murder and Ashes to Ashes, and will watch those two before re-watching Identity Crisis or the Commodore farce.
Most of the best scenes come early in the episode which makes it a bit anticlimactic. If they could have kept up the level of the first 30-40 minutes it would have been one of the best episodes.
Before the plot turned to mush, you mean?
One of the worst episodes of the series with the silly spy/secret agent stuff. I had trouble following the plot and no longer view this episode. I have no idea how Steinmetz fit into the story. I don’t know why the victim was murdered. Maybe it’s because I had trouble paying attention to this farce.
Jay — I couldn’t agree more! This episode has plenty of potential, but fell flat for me.
Agreed. But I think I can help you with the killer’s motive: it was obvious that he got mad at Leslie Neilson’s character for not also taking the bear he won and making him look bad to the shooting gallery operator.
Identity of the dancer? That’s the real mystery. She’s just one more example of the quality of the guest stars.
One moment I also enjoyed was watching Columbo watching the belly dancer performing at the smoky nightclub where he went to question the bartender. I think that could have been McGoohan’s direction, or, the extended gazes could well have been Falk’s improvising.
This scene used to make me cringe, but if you’re paying strict attention, it’s not as embarrassing as it appears.
As Columbo is leaving the bar, he marvels to Sgt. Kramer, “Did you see her eyes?” A skeptical Kramer doesn’t get it: “Her eyes?” Columbo’s face lights up as he fist-taps a wooden post to acknowledge his own observation. “She’s shy!” As always, Columbo sees the things nobody else does.
Really nice to see two such esteemed Columbo fans like you enjoy this scene. I’ve always liked it and would have included it in my top 5 of best moments.
It’s a fine piece of observation by Columbo, but also – as I may have mentioned responding to the main article of this episode – a reference to Nelson Brenner, who is acting out someone he isn’t in more than one way. Like the belly dancer he is hiding who he truly is: a killer; Steinmetz; a CIA agent; and a sad, lonely man, utterly bored by life.
Wow, you read my mind. 4) specifically when Leslie Nielsen wins a bear , & says “keep mine buddy, I’m all heart”… It damn near tickled me to death.
Definite shades of Frank Drebbin with some of his line deliveries.
I like that scene the bear was named archibald by brenner it was well done both men had shooting experience which won the pandas i like identity crisis a lot in general its an underrated seventies one
I ll state my 5 main reasons
A ) mc goohan delivers lines very well with a hint of sarcasm bit like agenda for murder
B NICE sunny outdoor locations especially the amusment park and traveltown displaying
Seventies LA in all its glory PLUS BRENNERS JAG
C ) THE CALibre of cast mc goohan leslie neelson barbara rhodes plus vitto scotti and sergeant kramer in cameos anice bonus
D the cCIA intervention my favorite scene showing columbo tangled up in intelligence affairs
And E many criticise its gotcha but i find it satisfying enough plus columbo has bits and pieces of evidence against brenner to keep it afloat
In all theres lots to like here
For me im always happy to watch it when it airs
Nielsen was so drop dead funny in many of
his movies, it’s a pity this series didn’t use
his comedic talent a lot more.
A memoroable moment but i would have to include the CIA intervention sene in my top 5it srarts with a funny moment with columbo having a hot dog on a bench and refering to dogs swimming to 2 young children
Befire being surrounded by agents
Heres todays line up on 5 usa
9 55 Am
Murder smoke and shadows
The bye bye sky high IQ murder( Top pick)
Murder by the book
Too many notes
Butterfly in shades of grey
The bye bye murder by the book and troubled waters eseaily my top 3 choices on this sunday thankfully ill be out when too many notes and butterfly are on
I used to shun this episode, now I try to embrace it.
The indoor scenes at Brenner’s mansion near the close are critical and provide an overall masterclass in how Columbo uses psychological warfare to best his opponent. It’s all about confirming dominance in their cat-and-mouse – who gets the upper hand at the end, since they each know that this case won’t come near a courtroom. As always, the villain has established superiority over Columbo in numerous ways (note how Brenner refuses to acknowledge the role of the law when he calls him “Mr. Columbo”).
Brenner’s invite – his estate displaying all the symbols of wealth, power and authority at his disposal – is all about continuing that dominance. Columbo turns that dominance around. With subtle dialogue, vocal tones, facial expressions, and body language shifts, we see the transition, and by the end of the encounter, Brenner is nervously tapping the rolled-up artist’s rendition of Steinmetz that Columbo gave him against his leg.
The Director’s ID card proclaiming himself “Secret Agent X-9” had me wondering what brand of bubblegum that card came with. But its that train scene that sparked the theories of the recent book “Columbo Paying Attention 24/7”. The author’s thoughts about the “Columbo” show itself are often flawed, but his theory of the crucial role that attention plays in our lives – how it is learned, how it is shaped, how it is directed – is interesting. The Director’s condescending “I want you to pay strict attention” jab to Columbo is meant to brush him off the case, but Columbo takes that to heart later when he confronts Brenner with his tape-recorded speech. “Pay strict attention to the early part” is such a great callback to The Director’s words because it focuses Brenner’s attention on Columbo’s dominance. He has to know what drove Columbo to his conclusion. “Was it the coat?” And Columbo has won.
Be seeing you!
The lounge with the belly dancing and Vito Scotti bartending make for a fun couple of ‘70s throwback scenes, but the episode itself is way too all over the place. I prefer Leslie Nielsen in Lady In Waiting and Patrick McGoohan in Agenda For Murder.
I have always loved Patrick McGoohan since I first saw him when I was a child, watching him play a character named, the Scarecrow, on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. That moment when he says, I knooooow is also one of my favorites. I also like the car he drives in this episode, especially at the gas station when he tries to get Columbo to take some money for gas.
The first part of the story was interesting.
I liked the scenes at the Long Beach Amusement Park and Travel Town and the scene where Leslie Nielsen checks into the hotel.
I got a little bored with the international spy storyline. In the last scene they’re talking about the Chinese pulling out of the Olympics. I don’t see what that has to do with anything.
I agree about Nelson Brenner probably never going to jail. There doesn’t seem to be any real proof that he committed the murder. Patrick McGooghan never really snaps and gets impatient with Columbo when he’s getting close (like some of the other villains in other Columbo episodes).
Thanks CP for a great focus – any time I see the names Patrick McGoohan and Peter Falk, I have to stop and read and savor the flavor.
I love the scene where Columbo succeeds in drawing in the photo assistant to his search for the identity of the murderer..chiding her for her disinterest when in point of fact she was in a position to contribute something meaningful..and in the end it’s a team effort. And Columbo also reminds us he is capable of going beyond his own appraisal of her provocative appearance.,
Thank you for the list. I always appreciate your thoughts on the episodes and the characters. You always help me see them in a new light, and, for that, I am grateful. And I’m sure that many people enjoy this episode — I am not among their number.
I must admit that this is by far my least favorite Columbo episode, and I would rather watch Last Salute to the Commodore on a loop for 24 hours than be forced to view this episode again.
That’s not to say I haven’t tried to garner some amount of appreciation for this episode. But, I have never been able to do so. As far as I am concerned, this episode commits the ultimate Columbo sins: it is silly, it is pretensions, it is preposterous. It is, in short, all of the things that Columbo is not.
I think whether McGoohan was good for the series or not can be debated. By Dawn’s Early Light is a top tier episode for me, but then this episode and Commodore.
Oh, I think CP captures your reservations admirably with his repeated references here like “frequently makes little sense,” “bonkers,” and a “nonsensical story” that “leaves virtually no question answered by the time credits roll.”
I couldn’t agree more. CP does a wonderful job distilling the best from this episode. And many people enjoy this episode because it is bonkers, and I would never try to dissuade anyone from enjoying an episode. For me, a Columbo more grounded in the specific Columbo universe that was created with more of a nod to reality is a Columbo I enjoy.
There’s no doubt McGoohan was one of the most fascinating figures and talents of 60’s culture – school boxing champion, chicken farmer, stage hand…. highest paid actor/writer/director in Britain. Many of the Danger Man (Secret Agent in US) episodes are taut masterpieces. You can understand how he would have gelled with fellow unconventional actor Peter Falk.
This one’s a gem. The gas station scene is priceless. As is the ubiquitous in any given 70s murder mysteries, the scene where the detective and bad guy meet at bad guy’s house to match wits. By Dawn’s Early Light gives this a run for its money but Identity Crisis is Patrick McGoohan’s finest performance in the entire series.
I agree MacGoohan is great in this one. But when it comes to his finest performance I’d have to vote for Agenda for Murder. Close call though!