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!