Columbo episode review: A Bird in the Hand…

46
Columbo A Bird in the Hand opening titles

Eight months is a long time in television, but that’s how long Columbo was away from screens in 1992 – perhaps to give us all time to forget the nightmare wedding we endured in No Time to Die.

Resurfacing on November 22, the Lieutenant had put the trauma of the Parma/Hayes matrimonial debacle behind him and was much more back to his old self to investigate not one, not two, but THREE MURDERS in A Bird in the Hand…

Awash with explosive action and surprise twists, and featuring guest appearances from Tyne Daly and the very dishy Greg Evigan, can Bird in the Hand exorcise the demons from eight months earlier and get the series back on the straight and narrow? It’s time to find out…

Columbo A Bird in the Hand cast montage

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dolores McCain: Tyne Daly
Harold McCain: Greg Evigan
Big Fred: Steve Forrest
Detective John Robertson: Frank McRae
Bertie: Don S. Davis
Fernando: Leon Singer
Mr Hacker: Michael Gregory
Directed by: Vince McEveety
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode overview: Columbo A Bird in the Hand

Mulleted pillock Luckless playboy Harold McCain owes $30,000 to menacing bookmaker Mr Hacker. If Harold doesn’t pay up, he’s going to have a can of whoopass opened on him so bad that he’ll … . Help ought to be at hand in the form of Harold’s uncle ‘Big Fred’ McCain – the millionaire owner of the Stallions football club, who is Harold’s only living relative. Only Big Fred sees Harold for the low-life he is and refuses to pay his nephew a dime.

Fred’s down-trodden wife Dolores (also Harold’s lover) offers Harold $20,000, but it’s not enough – especially when he bets against the Stallions winning a crunch match that they nick due to a key player defying an injury that was meant to side line him. Desperate to save his own skin, Harold plans to do what any self-respecting nephew would do: kill his uncle and claim the cash he needs from the easily manipulated Dolores, who’ll inherit Big Fred’s wealth.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand Harold McCain
Harold McCain is the series most useless gambler since Norman Paris in 1973

Utilising a handy ‘How to make a pipe bomb’ article from Soldier for Hire magazine (presumably all subscribers to which are immediately placed on a CIA watchlist), Harold rigs up a rudimentary explosive device, sneaks into Big Fred’s garden after dark and plants the bomb in the engine of his uncle’s Rolls Royce. When Fred starts the motor the next day he’ll be blown to Kingdom Come and Harold can bask in the knowledge that his financial woes will soon be at an end.

Things take a wretched turn, though. Harold receives a call from Fred’s sidekick Bertie to alert him to his uncle’s no-show at an important meeting. Agreeing to look into it, Harold heads off fully expecting to find Fred’s charred remains in what’s left of the Roller. What he finds, though, is a major police presence blocking the road and a panic-stricken Dolores standing by as a shrouded corpse is loaded into the back of an ambulance. Turns out that Big Fred was slain during his early-morning jog in a hit-and-run incident. What a stunner!

This, of course, gives Harold an almighty problem. Police officers – including one Lieutenant Columbo – are swarming around Big Fred’s house, where his unmoved Rolls Royce is still blocking the driveway. Columbo speaks of shifting the car out of the way, forcing Harold into a desperate scramble to find and hide both Fred’s and Dolores’s set of keys. He then has to abort a risky attempt to remove the pipe bomb from the car’s engine when the police attention switches to the mysterious disappearance and reappearance (with dents) of gardener Fernando’s truck, which seems to have been the vehicle that ran Big Fred down.

More cops arrive, along with Bertie from the Stallions who has a film crew in tow in order to maximise publicity for this tragic event. The logjam of cars on the driveway is now so severe that they simply must find a way of moving Big Fred’s car. If only someone knew where the keys were! Then helpful Fernando pipes up! He has a key so he can move the car when it needs washing. He dashes off – much to Harold’s alarm – and is promptly blown sky high when he turns the ignition. Ay caramba! The explosion is caught on film, so expect that to have a bearing on Columbo’s investigation in due course.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand Fernando
Oh Fernando, you sweet, helpful fool, you!

Before Fernando’s charred skeleton has even cooled, Columbo and Harold discuss aspects of the case that are bothering the detective. He has spotted some unusual scratch marks on the ground beside where Big Fred’s roller had been. They appear to point towards the area of the car where the bomb was planted, but beyond that they’re a mystery. When Harold tries to promote a theory that a hired hitman must be responsible due to a lack of fingerprints and the perp’s ability to dodge all the mansion’s security devices, Columbo isn’t convinced. It could just as easily have been someone who knew the household inside out.

Dolores saves Harold from a potential grilling by ushering him aside to begin planning Big Fred’s funeral, the aftermath of which is our next scene. It is at the wake that Harold sees the first signs that his cash-grab scheme might not run as smoothly as he had hoped. Dolores has no intention of staying in the shadows now that Big Fred is out of the way. She plans to run the Stallions herself, sack Bertie and is resistant to any idea of Harold telling her what to do. While she’s happy to keep leaping into bed with him, Harold mustn’t get the impression that he’s the boss. Looks like it’ll be Dolores, not he, that will be wearing the trousers from now on.

Seeking inspiration on the modus operandi of the car bomber, Columbo visits a luxury dealership and starts rolling around underneath the bodywork of a Rolls Royce model the same as Big Fred’s. Having already deduced there was only one viable entry point the bomber must have used to access the car’s underside, he learns that the killer was likely left-handed, because only a southpaw could easily reach a crucial nut and bolt used to attach a wire that ran from the bomb to the starter motor.

It’s all a bit of a faff, though, meaning Columbo leaves a lot of heel marks on the floor of the dealership as he squirms about. Although irksome to the prissy car dealer, these marks of are material importance to the case. They give the detective an indication that mysterious scratches on the driveway beside Big Fred’s car were caused by the killer having to overcome a similar struggle to rig the bomb.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand
Nothing in this scene justifies Columbo’s level of amusement

Of course, such scratches were most likely made by someone wearing boots with metal ornamentation on the heels – just like the cowboy boots Harold favours. This isn’t the sort of footwear a pro would wear when rigging up a car bomb, meaning that the killer is probably someone close to the family who knows his way around Big Fred’s grounds. Kinda looks like Harold might be that man, doesn’t it? As one might expect, Harold is distinctly unimpressed when Columbo puts these facts to him, raging that the detective has singled him out for attention because he’s an easy target. He then sneaks off for an afternoon of sin with Dolores at his rustic cabin.

The post-romp glow quickly cools on their dinner date that evening, however. Harold spins a positive yarn about just needing $15,000 to get Hacker off his back, at which point he can propose to Dolores. But Dolores ain’t playing ball. Having been emancipated from Big Fred, she’s seeing the world differently and it’s obvious that Harold wants to use her just like her late husband did. This looks like an issue impossible to resolve – until Harold reveals that he has figured out Dolores was the one who killed Big Fred in the hit-and-run. Unless he gets the money from her tomorrow morning, he’ll spell out his suspicions to Columbo.

We don’t find out straight away how Harold spends the rest of the night after dropping Dolores at home, but he’s up with the larks the next morning, returning home with a cowboy boot full of cash. He makes a call to Dolores to find her willing to pay him the cash, although, she says as she flicks the safety catch off on her pistol, this will be the last time. Oblivious to this threat to his existence, Harold takes off for her house with a whoop and a glad heart.

When we next see Harold he’s back at his house lying dead on the floor in only his socks and pants. An hour or two earlier, it seems like he was disturbed by an intruder (likely a mob heavy) and shot dead – at least that’s what Columbo’s dumb-as-rocks fellow cops think. The Lieutenant himself is late to the scene having been caught up on a crossword. As he solves one tricky poser he rests his newspaper on the hood of Dolores’s car, which has been there since the previous afternoon’s love-in. Something he notices about the condition of the car makes him stop and stare, although we won’t find out what it was until later.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand
The two detectives got stuck when trying to push through the cat flap together

Columbo lerns that Dolores was the one who found Harold’s body when she stopped by to help him out of a crisis situation. According to the emotional dame, Harold received a call from Hacker at midnight that scared him sufficiently for him to decide to leave town for Chicago on the 2.30pm train. Dolores came over at 10.30am with enough money for him to secure lodgings there for a short while – and found him dead.

Columbo permits Dolores to leave, but before she can drive home she is puzzled by the crime scene photographer taking a number of photos of the hood of her car at Columbo’s behest. He then heads back indoors to take a closer look at the crime scene where he isn’t buying into the widely accepted theories espoused by his fellow cops. Columbo notes that Harold’s bed doesn’t appear to have been slept in. That hardly tallies with Dolores’s claim that he received a menacing phone call at midnight.

There’s also the sticky (almost literally) issue of Harold’s socks. The cops found $5000 in cash stashed in the toe of one of Harold’s boots behind a damp and stinky sock. Dead Harold is wearing white sports socks, but if the boot socks are still damp they can’t have been taken off too long ago. How strange! Finally, Columbo examines Harold’s alarm clock, which was thought to have woken him at 8am. Winding it forward, the Lieutenant finds that it was actually set for 8pm. Harold was planning to sleep all day and then head out to poker tournament taking place that night. Curiouser and curiouser!

A quick call to the casino confirms that Harold bought his ticket for the tournament at 6.30am that morning, and had been at the tables all night. Columbo can only conclude that either Harold was lying to Dolores, or Dolores is lying to them.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand
“Tonight on America’s Funniest Home Videos, a luckless gardener engulfed in an epic fireball…”

To find out which, Columbo visits Dolores at home, ostensibly to show her video tape evidence that suggests Harold knew the Rolls Royce would blow up when its engine was started (and to collect personal effects Harold left at her house), but just as much to test the conviction of her earlier statement. Why would Harold be catching the 2.30pm train to Chicago when he had a ticket to a poker comp in LA that night, he asks? Why would he ask for money from her when he had $5000 in cash? Agitated by his line of questioning, Dolores ejects the Lieutenant from her home.

His investigations then take him to the Commerce Casino, where Harold had spent his last night on earth. There Columbo discovers that after collecting his winnings, Harold tucked into a good breakfast and then went to the in-house barbers for a manicure, facial, shave and haircut. And it is the last of those little treats that will do in for Dolores.

The Stallions are playing a home game the following afternoon, and Dolores is entertaining a bevvy of hunks in Big Fred’s private box when Columbo shows up with a box of evidence. The first things he whips out are photos of Dolores’s car hood from the morning of Harold’s death. They clearly show dew on the hood. If Dolores had driven to Harold’s at 10.30am as claimed, how can the dew be explained? The question is shut down by lawyer Bertie before Dolores incriminates herself further.

Luckily, that wasn’t Columbo’s ace in the hole. He produces the hat he collected from Dolores’s house on the day of Harold’s murder. Casino staff confirm the dead man had worn the same hat when he pulled the all-nighter before getting his hair trimmed. The lab boys have found lots of small hairs in the hat. Harold must have been at Dolores’s house on the morning of his death, been killed there, and then driven back to his own place where his corpse was stretched out on the floor.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand Tyne Daly
The gesture suggests civility, the glare suggests anything but

That’s method and opportunity covered, but Dolores demands to know what Columbo believes her motive to be. “Maybe it’s because he suspected you killed Big Fred,” the Lieutenant calmly responds. “And I suspect Harold was right.” When challenged to prove it, Columbo shrugs. He doesn’t have to prove she killed Big Fred, because he’s only charging her with the killing of Harold. “One in the hand is worth two in bush,” he says, pointing the firm finger of justice at Dolores.

Cornered, the murderess comes clean. She raises a glass to Columbo in recognition of his outstanding detective abilities and is escorted away as credits roll…



My memories of A Bird in the Hand

It’s been so long since I last watched this one that I had an awful lot of blanks to fill. Chiefly, I barely recalled the hit-and-run death of Big Fred at all, nor remember anything about the Big Fred character (sorry Freddy, no disrespect intended). I knew Fernando to be an innocent victim, and that Harold was ultimately slain by Dolores, but hadn’t recollected the nature of their relationship, nor her motives for doing so.

Columbo Harold McCain
Harold is what we Brits would refer to as a ‘right bell-end’

The only solid memories I could fall back on were a hatred of Harold (whom I’ve always found to be a shallow, worthless SLUG), a great deal of sympathy for poor Fernando and a soft spot for Dolores, which I attribute more to my affection for Tyne Daly than any particularly memorable aspects of Dolores’s character. That’s about all I had in the locker, though, meaning this viewing was certain to serve up a whole host of surprises – hopefully more good than bad.

Episode analysis

After the massive departure from the series norm No Time to Die represented last time out, Columbo was treading more familiar territory in A Bird in the Hand. The Lieutenant was back investigating a murder at the top end of town, back in his rumpled suit and mac, and back employing his ‘shop-worn bag of tricks’ to track down a killer.

A Bird in the Hand, however, is Columbo on steroids. One planned murder is knocked off-kilter by a hit-and-run killing, leading to the unintended demise of an innocent victim. When Harold McCain, key suspect for the latter, turns up dead at the end of Act Two the Lieutenant’s investigation is turned on its head and we find ourselves in the most murder-filled Columbo adventure to date. Throw into the mix the lurking menace of the heavies out to reclaim a debt from Harold, plus the love affair between Harold and Dolores, and you have a mystery virtually overdosing on intrigue.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand Tyne Daly Greg Evigan
Technically, they’re aunt and nephew. Think about that

Is there too much going on in A Bird in the Hand to allow any aspect of it to reach its full potential? Arguably so – especially when you consider that many salient plot drivers take place off-screen, thus leaving the viewer in the dark on a number of crucial matters. These include the death of Big Fred, Harold’s all-night stint at the casino, the nature of Columbo’s interest in Dolores’s car hood, and the precise details of Harold’s death at Dolores’s hands.

While this level of subterfuge certainly demands the viewer pay close attention to fully understand the intricacy of the episode, it’s still only partially successful. The concealment of Harold’s killing, in particular, seems to be intrigue for the sake of intrigue and one gets the feeling that episode writer Jackson Gillis was looking to insert one of his trademark mid-episodes twists (or “the Act II Switcheroo” to quote author David Koenig), the sort of which he’s been lobbing in to the mix since Suitable for Framing in 1971.

A Bird in the Hand is a mystery virtually overdosing on intrigue.

Gillis’s past twists include the possibility of Wayne Jennings having shot an already-dead body in Murder in Malibu; and suspected murderer Charles Clay being found slain an hour into Last Salute to the Commodore. Harold’s death, however, comes as no surprise to the viewer because we’ve already seen him threaten to blackmail Dolores, and we subsequently see her prepping a handgun for use when agreeing to pay off his debts. We know she’s his killer, so hiding it from us at this late stage seems rather pointless.

Similarly, having to find out about Harold’s good night at the tables via casino staff instead of seeing it play out for ourselves feels rather gratuitous. Witnessing a smirking Harold claiming the loot and celebrating with a breakfast and haircut would actually have been helpful to the viewer in cottoning on to the relevance of Columbo picking up the dead man’s cowboy hat during his post-murder visit to Dolores.

The hat containing newly-cut hairs definitively places Harold at Dolores’s home on the morning of his death, and is the only really damning evidence Columbo collects in the whole episode. What’s frustrating is that the detective does nothing to earn it, instead simply noticing the hat lying around in the den and taking it away with the other personal effects Harold had left at the property. Granted, a detective needs a slice of luck to help solve cases but this is gifted to him far too easily for it to satisfy.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand
Columbo finding Harold’s haircut hat in the den smacks of a convenient shortcut

Of the major plot points unseen by the viewer, the best and most essential is the first: Big Fred’s hit-and-run death. This works because it comes completely out of the blue, stunning the viewer and placing Harold in a pressure-cooker situation knowing that anyone attempting to move Fred’s car before the pipe bomb is removed will be toast. We’ve seen so little of Dolores up to this point (and what we have seen is a washed-up alcoholic who fawns over Harold) that there’s no real reason for us to suspect her of mariticide. It just looks like Harold has taken another gamble and lost out to bad luck rather than a premeditated crime.

I give Gillis credit here, because he deftly provides a reason for why the cops don’t instantly swarm all over Dolores. As Big Fred’s wife, she’s statistically likely to have been involved in his death, and had easy opportunity to swipe Fernando’s truck to run him down. This ought to be reason enough to be asking her some stiff questions, but Detective Robertson concisely explains to Columbo that a recent spate of garden truck thefts in the area (some 50 per month!) is the probable reason why Fernando’s vehicle was taken and subsequently abandoned after accidentally hitting Big Fred. It’s a plausible enough reason to sideline Dolores as a suspect for now.

It’s probably just as well the episode doesn’t look too closely into Dolores’s motivations for killing Big Fred, because the answers provided may have been unsatisfying. It’s revealed that Big Fred held little regard for Dolores (“he didn’t know you were alive,” Harold tells her), while she admits that she was used and abused by her husband. The marriage was clearly not a happy one, but why Dolores felt compelled to bump off Big Fred at this particular juncture is never divulged, making her actions convenient to the plot if not necessarily credible for the character.

However, Columbo covers off this potential plot hole himself in the episode gotcha scene. He doesn’t need to prove Dolores’s motive for killing Big Fred because he’s arresting her for the murder of Harold McCain, which is a much more open-and-shut case. Again, this is good writing by Gillis, who doesn’t allow the episode (or the Lieutenant) to get mired in the murky swamp surrounding Bird in the Hand’s first killing.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand Dolores McCain
Is there anything more opulent than the chunky grip on Dolores’s phone receiver?

Dolores is the most interesting character in the main cast but is prevented from being considered a top-drawer Columbo villain by the nature of the story, which spends much more time focusing on Harold. Because Harold’s the centre of Columbo’s investigation, Dolores remains in his shadow until the final act when she fully frees herself of patriarchal shackles. She has wised up and progressed to drinking for fun, not self-pity, is determined to run the football club on her own terms and is enjoying being on the receiving end of attention from beefcake footballers.

While this does represent a character arc of sorts, it’s hardly the Beth Chadwick-style rebirth we witnessed in Lady in Waiting years ago. Dolores’s journey could have been more compelling if we’d spent more time with her earlier in the episode and seen first-hand the miserable nature of her life with Big Fred. As it is, it’s hard to care about her plight or sympathise with her cause.

Columbo doesn’t spent enough time with Dolores to figure out who she really is and what her qualities are.

Even Columbo doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with Dolores, and that’s pretty telling. She’d normally be the sort of downtrodden character he’d have a level of empathy with, and that he’d treat as gently as the circumstances allow. That doesn’t happen here. Witness his conduct towards her during the gotcha scene, when he appears to be enjoying laying down the law. It’s reminiscent of his mildly aggressive takedowns of Milo Janus and Vivian Dimitri. Despite her brazen lies to his face, Columbo does seem a bit harsh in his judgement of Dolores given the systematic misuse she’s suffered at the hands of the men in her life.

Columbo, like the viewer, doesn’t spent enough time with her to figure out who she really is and what her qualities are. All this puts Dolores in some sort of halfway house, rendering her quite forgettable by Columbo standards. None of that is Tyne Daly’s fault, though. She gives everything that is required in the script. It’s just a shame that so much of Dolores – especially in the first half of the episode – is a by-the-numbers loveless alcoholic of the sort Daly could play in her sleep. It’s only when she does away with Harold that she becomes a more stimulating presence – but by then the episode’s almost over.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand
Columbo’s “how do you like those apples” face was used to great effect on Dolores

Someone else lumbered with a hackneyed character is Greg Evigan. His Harold McCain is a textbook archetype of the hard-gambling scoundrel, a man whose moral compasses points directly towards his next payday whatever it takes to get there. Harold could have been cut-and-pasted into any one of thousands of shows and made-for-TV movies over a period of decades. For a series that has had so many multi-layered, charismatic and engrossing baddies over the years (yes, even in the show’s comeback era), Harold represents a retrograde step.

Again, I can’t blame the actor for that. Evigan actually plays the part extremely well and makes Harold a loathsome, self-centred prick with no redeeming features besides his good looks (terribly dated haircut notwithstanding). However, Harold is such an unadventurous representation of a TV jackass that it’s impossible to get excited by him. He shares many scenes with Columbo but not one of their exchanges stands out as being funny or memorable: a major downer for the episode as a whole.

Harold McCain is a textbook archetype of the hard-gambling scoundrel.

Harold’s rationale for murder is also pretty shaky. While there’s no love lost between himself and Big Fred, and Harold needs cash quick to appease sinister debtor Mr Hacker (another tepid cliché), it’s an insanely high-risk strategy to create a home-made bomb to kill his only living relative in the hope that Dolores inherits and agrees to pay off his gambling debts. Despite Harold’s cosy relationship with Dolores, there’s no guarantee that she’ll play the game by his rules – as the episode’s events make abundantly clear.

And even when Harold does figure out the how and why surrounding Dolores’s involvement in Big Fred’s death, he fails to fully take advantage of his trump card by leaving her adequate time to plot her counterblow to his threat of blackmail. On top of that, he is yet another Columbo victim to neglect to leave the police incriminating evidence against a would-be foe should he himself succumb to foul play. Geez, Harold! No wonder this guy always loses at the casino tables.

Columbo Greg Evigan
SMIRKING IMP ALERT!

With both Dolores and Harold largely playing prosaic roles, A Bird in the Hand would have benefitted from some engaging support characters. Alas, this is another aspect of the writing that disappoints, with just about every other significant player similarly sketched out in humdrum tones. Big Fred is so underdeveloped he may as well have been a cardboard cut-out, while his righthand man Bertie is a mere parody of useless legal counsel.

Columbo Frank McRae

More regrettable is the depiction of Detective Robertson (pictured), who deserved better treatment in the script. Played by man-mountain Frank McRae, Robertson is a rare thing for the series being a black character in a semi-significant role. It’s such a shame that the character as written is such an uninspired, workaday detective who leaps to every obvious conclusion available to him.

There’d be no harm in giving Columbo a gifted sidekick from time to time, and a black man in that role would have been most welcome considering we’re in the series’ 61st episode and 25th year of existence. As it is, Robertson joins the long list of blundering police underlings that includes such luminaries as Sergeants Grover, Wilson, Vernon and Theodore ‘Mac’ Albinsky.

Just about the only bit-part player I have any time and affection for is poor Fernando. Despite fulfilling yet another boilerplate role (Hispanic hired help), he has some spunk about him and actor Leon Singer puts in an energetic turn that endears him to viewers and Columbo alike. An honest toiler who just wants to please, Fernando’s death in the pipe-bomb explosion is a genuinely sad moment in an episode that largely fails to wring emotional responses from its audience.

More should have been made of this tragedy in the script. Once Fernando is blown into smithereens, he’s essentially forgotten about and never mourned over by any of the on-screen characters. Even Columbo – usually such an ally of the put-upon man on the street – is strangely quiet on this matter. When he drops in on the funeral of Big Fred, I fully expected Columbo to compare the spectacle with the modest send-off afforded to Fernando, which I feel sure he would have attended. But no, nada, zip. These last two paragraphs of mine are almost certainly the most heartfelt eulogy Fernando has ever received.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand Fernando
In Loving Memory of Fernando Angel Hernandez Garcia, 1927-1992

His lack of apparent concern for Fernando aside, Columbo is generally on watchable form here – although his nonchalant handling of Harold’s sweaty, stinking socks does traumatise my inner germaphobe. Nevertheless, Columbo’s prevaricating in conversations with Harold before delivering a telling aside that potentially links Harold to the car bombing is straight out of the 70s’ playbook, so much so that Dr Mark Collier’s 1975 observation about how the Lieutenant “gets to the point without ever really getting to the point” looms large in the mind.

His directness when confronting Dolores about her lies, and again during the gotcha scene, also demonstrate a pleasing level of awareness of how the Lieutenant should behave in these circumstances. For the most part I think it’s fair to say that Falk is playing Columbo as a believable extension of the character we came to love in the 70s. Had he been able to fully contain himself, this would go down as one of Falk’s best performances of the comeback era. Sadly though, his asinine antics during the excruciating luxury car salesroom scene undo much of the good work.

Columbo’s nonchalant handling of Harold’s sweaty socks does traumatise my inner germaphobe.

Had this scene been played straight, it would have worked well as a means of giving Columbo a reason to suspect a lefthanded person (i.e. Harold) of rigging the pipe bomb in Big Fred’s car. Similarly, I have no problem with Columbo connecting the heel marks he leaves on the salesroom floor to the scratches on the asphalt beside the exploded vehicle that again point towards Harold’s involvement. Conceptually, all this is OK. It is the execution of this scene that is hard to forgive.

In an episode that is tonally sombre and complex, why turn this moment into a comic farce? The camp and snooty salesman is a comedy trope as tiresome as any in TV history, while Columbo gleefully rocking his knees up and down like a kiddie in a sandpit to celebrate his heel mark Eureka moment is utterly cringeworthy. The crowning turd, though, is the crowd that mystifyingly gathers by the salesroom window to watch the Lieutenant writhe about. What is going on?

There’s so much wrong with this it’s hard to know where to begin. Why would a crowd gather to watch a total random lying under a car anyway? And what are they applauding him for? These people have no idea who Columbo is, nor what he has achieved in this scene! Go and do something more important with your days! As a viewer, it makes the blood boil to be treated with such contempt. As the sole Executive Producer of the show at this stage, I’m putting 100% of the blame on Falk for this disgraceful inclusion.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand
Just bugger off, you vacuous idiots!

When allied with the unimaginative character writing, this awful scene goes a long way to counteracting the episode’s good intentions. A triple homicide, feuding lovers and several surprise revelations mark A Bird in the Hand as having a level of scope and ambition in excess of the norm. And they spent some money on this, as evidenced by the destruction of at least one Rolls Royce in an explosion that blows two cops off their feet: an action-packed, big-budget set-piece by series’ standards. Just about the only parts of Bird that look cheap are the scenes in Big Fred’s private box, which is obviously a set with football action unrealistically projected through ‘windows’ behind the actors. Paul Hanlon’s corporate box in Most Crucial Game 20 years earlier was much more convincing.

We should also remember that Tyne Daly was hot property in those days, while Greg Evigan was no slouch himself, his recent three-year stint as cool-cat heartthrob Joey Harris on My Two Dads doubtless enhancing the episode’s appeal to a younger audience. They must have pocketed a small fortune between them in appearance fees. A final indicator that money was no object is the use of Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches during the opening and closing credits. The rousing showstopper provides an immediate air of quality and is a superb pre-cursor to Harold’s early episode gambling woes.

It’s also notable that Bird in the Hand welcomes regular 70s’ Columbo composer Dick De Benedictis back to the fold after a 16-year hiatus. He created scores for 15 episodes between 1972-76 (including Etude in Black, Any Old Port in a Storm, Swan Song and Old Fashioned Murder) and would contribute seven more after this. DBD is one of the series’ best musical contributors, who had a knack for creating scores that perfectly matched the mood and settings of their partner episodes. The same applies here and his return to the series is to be celebrated given the varying quality of scores since Columbo’s 1989 comeback.

Columbo A Bird in the Hand
No cops were harmed in the filming of this episode (apart from these two fatalities)

As for the overall calibre of the episode, that’s tricky to qualify. As I said in my review of No Time to Die, ambition should count for something when passing judgement, and A Bird in the Hand tries very hard to be a spectacular and compelling addition to the canon. What lets it down are the stale characters and a proclivity for prioritising stunning plot twists and reveals over meaningful storytelling. As a result, this is probably most enjoyable on its first viewing because when you take away the surprise factor and start looking more closely at the minutiae, A Bird in the Hand becomes much less than the sum of its parts.

How I rate ’em

Like Big Fred on his morning jog, A Bird in the Hand is firmly middle of the road territory. Neither the best nor worst of Columbo, its ambitious scope is limited by some questionable writing and production decisions.

To read reviews of any of the ‘new Columbo‘ episodes reviewed up to this point, simply click the links in the list below. You can see how I rank all the ‘classic era’ episodes here.

  1. Columbo Goes to College
  2. Agenda for Murder
  3. Death Hits the Jackpot
  4. Columbo Cries Wolf
  5. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  6. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  7. Sex & The Married Detective
  8. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
  9. A Bird in the Hand…
  10. Murder, A Self Portrait
  11. Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star
  12. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  13. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  14. No Time to Die
  15. Grand Deceptions
  16. Murder in Malibu
Columbo A Bird in the Hand
The explosion was so unexpected that Columbo dropped his harmonica

Now it’s over to you. Spill your thoughts on the highs and lows of A Bird in the Hand and let us all know how you rank it in the grand scheme of things. Are you a fan of the many twists and turns? Or is there just too much to take in? Have your say in the comments section below.

Next up on our seemingly endless Columbo voyage is It’s All in the Game – a story initially cooked up by Peter Falk 20 years earlier that he finally managed to put finishing touches to. It was good enough to tempt Hollywood goddess Faye Dunaway to the small screen, but how does it stand up to the test of time? Tune in soon to find out…


Donate to the upkeep of this site – from just $3
Alternatively, donate via PayPal!
Columbo A Bird in the Hand
“Won’t you be the ‘yee’ to my ‘haw’, pardner?”
%d bloggers like this: