Famous for William Shatner’s colour-changing moustache, the poetically titled Butterfly in Shades of Grey was the first Columbo episode to be aired in 1994, making its bow on January 10.
Cast as the Rush Limbaugh-inspired radio talk show host Fielding Chase, Shatner’s second appearance as a Columbo killer came 18 years after his series debut in 1976’s Fade in to Murder.
Is it a comeback of epic proportions or another middle-of-the-road revival era outing for the Lieutenant? Well, my inarticulate friends (as Chase might say, not me!), let’s tune in and find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Fielding Chase: William Shatner
Victoria Chase: Molly Hagan
Gerry Winters: Jack Laufer
Lou Caten: Richard Kline
Officer Davis: John C. Anders
Ted Malloy: Mark Lonow
DeeDee Ross: Beverly Leech
Directed by: Dennis Dugan
Written by: Peter S. Fischer
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Shock jock Fielding Chase hosts the nation’s leading radio phone-in, with millions tuning in nightly to enjoy his hot-takes on the socio-political issues of the day. Amongst Chase’s put-upon underlings is foster daughter Victoria (a producer on his show), an aspiring writer whose unpublished novel has just been brought to the attention of literary agent Lou Caten after being passed on to him by mutual friend (and a just-fired investigative reporter on Chase’s payroll) Gerry Winters.
Caten is sufficiently impressed to promise to pass on the manuscript to his boss at a major publishing house in New York: a thrilling prospect for Vicky, but one which Chase himself cannot condone. Unwilling to allow his daughter to live her own life, he uses his considerable clout to ensure her novel is rejected.
Gerry learns of this fatherly stitch-up and publicly slams Chase in front of a sea of witnesses. He vows to destroy Chase professionally and also help Vicky break free of his shackles. He even calls Chase a “sick, possessive old man” and hints broadly that Fielding has the hots for his foster daughter – an accusation that earns him a backhand to the chops and a death threat from the enraged broadcaster.
Undeterred, Gerry relays the truth of the matter to Vicky, who is crestfallen and agrees to accompany him to New York herself the following week. She confronts Chase about his blocking manoeuvre with the publisher, which he claims he did to protect her from his enemies who, he claims, will carve her into pieces (hopefully not literally) to hurt him. Nevertheless, she remains determined to take matters into her own hands and will not back out of her proposed trip.
Stung into action, Chase calls Gerry and gives him a sob story about how he’ll do anything to help Vicky succeed. He’d like to catch up with Gerry in person late the next day, and requests the reporter calls him at home at 4pm sharp to arrange the rendezvous. Despite this suggestion reeking of foul play, Gerry cedes to Chase’s demands.
Naturally enough, when 4pm comes round the following afternoon, Chase isn’t at his own home – he’s driven to Gerry’s in his conspicuous car whilst wearing a conspicuous disguise. He sneaks in the back way, letting himself in via a key he has taken from Vicky’s keyring. The punctual Gerry rings Chase HQ at 4pm on the dot, but the answer machine kicks in in the absence of the host. After Gerry starts to leave a message, the wily Chase picks up the phone receiver in Gerry’s den to create an illusion (that will be recorded on his answer phone tape) that he is in fact at home. Clever…
As the two chat, Chase sneaks up behind Gerry and fires three shots into his back. Once convinced the man is dead, Chase bellows concernedly down the phone safe in the knowledge that the answer machine recording will place him miles away at the time of death. He then very deliberately wipes the prints of the gun with a handkerchief and tosses it aside near the body. He uses the same hanky to wipe down the door locks before deliberately snagging it on roses in the garden and leaving it for the police to find. Finally leaping into his car, Chase uses his cell phone to call 911 and report Gerry’s shooting.
Lieutenant Columbo is sent to investigate and is immediately surprised to learn that an ear witness to the killing is hoping to speak to him – the witness, of course, being Fielding Chase, who is sitting out front in his convertible Mercedes. Chase foists the suggestion upon Columbo that Gerry was likely killed by someone he was investigating. Either that or a spurned boyfriend (Gerry being the series’ first – shock, horror! – openly gay character).
Chase lures Columbo back to his home in order to provide the detective with files on the cases Gerry was working on blowing wide open. A tearful Vicky appears, distraught from the news of her friend’s death and sent into spasms of agony when she hears the answer machine recording of Gerry’s fatal last conversation. Chase packs Columbo off with the cassette tape and files before playing the noble father role for Vicky’s benefit. He won’t try to stop her from going to New York but needs her now more than ever, he says, fighting back the tears. She falls for it and agrees to stay.
The day of Gerry’s funeral duly arrives and Columbo (as is his wont) shows up to ask questions. He encounters Vicky first, seeking intel from her on who might have a key to Gerry’s home. His former lover Ted, whom Gerry had recently broken up with, would have had one, Vicky suggests. And of course she has one too, because the two often worked on stories together at his house. Oddly, Vicky believes she noticed her key was missing from her keyring on the day of Gerry’s death, but she must have been mistaken because it was definitely there the following morning (so why even mention it, fool!).
A useful snippet of info for the keen detective is that Vicky spent the day of Gerry’s death working at the radio studio in preparation for a forthcoming interview between Chase and a senator. Vicky admits that she almost never works on a Saturday – and that she only did this time because Chase himself suggested it. Suspicious…
Still, at this stage in his investigation, Chase seems to be a remote possibility to Columbo, whose next move is to find Gerry’s former squeeze Ted Malloy at the TV studio where he works on a daytime soap opera. The handkerchief from the crime scene had pancake make-up stains on it – as did the murder weapon and the back door locks. While this looks dodgy for Ted, he’s able to prove his innocence as he was out signing autographs with two other cast members at the time Gerry was gunned down.
While one avenue is shut down for Columbo, opportunity knocks for Vicky. Tracked down by Lou Caten, he tells her that he’s quit his job to strike out on his own – and he wants her novel to be the first to be published under his new business. She demurs, insisting Chase needs her emotional support right now, a surmise shot down by Caten who tells Vicky that Chase is doing everything he can to prevent her book being published. Angered by this slur on her father’s good name, Vicky flounces out.
Columbo, meanwhile, is making progress of sorts on the case. He’s deduced that the hanky with make-up stains was deliberately left at the crime scene to incriminate Ted Malloy because no one in Gerry’s investigative files would ever use that type of make-up themselves. He’s discounted all 33 potential suspects from the file because none of them could have known about Gerry and Ted’s gay relationship, which was strictly kept on the down-low. Only someone who knew about the love affair and break-up could have tried to frame Ted for the killing. That could include our mate Chase.
Columbo has some tough questions for Chase at their next meeting, too. He has checked phone records from Chase’s home and there’s no record of a call to 911 after Gerry was shot. How can this be explained? Easily enough, it seems. Chase claims he was so startled at hearing the gunshots over the phone that he immediately dashed to his car and set off for Gerry’s, all a-flutter! It was only a minute or two later that he found the presence of mind to call 911 from his cell phone. Luckily for Chase, his explanation tallies with Columbo’s own findings that show a 4-minute gap between Gerry being shot and a 911 call being placed.
The Lieutenant certainly seems to believe Chase was involved in the crime by now, but takes a different tack when the two meet again the following day. Columbo strongly suggests he believes Vicky could be involved in the crime. Of all the people who had a spare key to Gerry’s home (four in total), she is the only one without a cast-iron alibi, claiming to have been alone at the radio studio all day. No one else can verify she was there at the time Gerry was slain.
Chase angrily refutes the accusation, but Columbo ain’t done yet. He recounts Vicky’s observation that her key to Gerry’s seemed to disappeared on the day of the killing, only to reappear the following morning. The inference is clear: Chase had every opportunity to pinch the key and commit the crime while his daughter was out for the day at his behest. Fuming, Chase sends Columbo packing.
It’s now the night of the big call-in show where Chase’s millions of listeners are given the chance to grill Senator Madison ahead of his re-election bid. Things are going well for the politician until a staged phone call is patched through – a move made at Chase’s insistence and very much against Vicky’s wishes. The caller puts forward a conspiracy theory that the Senator knocked up a teenage actress some years before and had the illegitimate child adopted. Whether true or not, Vicky is disgusted at her father’s antics in disparaging a good man. She storms out of the studio.
The morning after the show, when Chase ought to have been basking in the glory of the scoop, he is instead confronted by the situation he most feared. Victoria has packed her things and leaves for New York with Lou Caten to follow her dream of becoming a writer. For all his lying, scheming and murdering, Chase has lost – and it’s all his own fault.
It’s therefore not a good time for Columbo to show up unannounced, but there he is like a bad penny – and this time round he’s got his game face on. He accuses Chase of murdering Gerry to stop him freeing Vicky from his clutches. And he claims to have a witness downtown that will swear that Chase offered him $10,000 to kill Gerry on his behalf. Chase agrees to accompany the detective to police headquarters to give the witness an earful.
They don’t get far, though. A few minutes’ drive down the winding Malibu mountains road they encounter the scene of a bicycle accident. As Columbo offers sympathy and advice to the fallen biker and Chase looks on, another cyclist slides under Chase’s car and tinkers with a spanner. The spandex-clad clan then get their sh*t together and merrily peddle off around a bend in the road.
To compound Chase’s rising tempers, his car now won’t start (thanks to the cyclist’s ministrations) so he’s forced to call the AAA for assistance. The problem is, he can’t get no reception on his cell phone due to the mountainous terrain. Time and again he tries and fails. Columbo then whips out his own mobile device (on a try-before-you-buy loan deal) and similarly fails to get through.
Of course, the detective knew this would be the case. He’s already carried out a test on the road and knows there’s nowhere within miles where there’s any phone signal. And that means that Chase was lying about having made a call to 911 from his car within minutes of hearing Gerry being gunned down. The precise time frame between the bullets being fired and the call to 911 being received means the call had to have been made near the very spot the car now sits. If Chase wasn’t here, then where was he? Somewhere with phone reception, certainly. Maybe in Gerry Winters’ neighbourhood?
As Chase rummages in his car boot for tools, Columbo outlines his case in more detail. He believes Chase used the extension phone in Gerry’s den to appear to be at his own home when recording the conversation on his answer machine. A simple trick, but effective. As he listens, Chase slips a shotgun out of a case in the trunk – his actions screened from the detective. “Aren’t you behaving stupidly, confronting me with this, alone, on a deserted stretch of road?” Chase asks as he fingers the weapon.
Calm as you like, Columbo sounds the car horn. Around the bend trundles the gang of cyclists with a police black and white in tow. Chase realises he’s been had. There is no witness at police HQ. It was all a ruse to draw him out. Abandoning any thoughts of slaughtering the Lieutenant in cold blood, Chase yields – for perhaps the first time in his life. “You know Columbo, I think possibly I may have misread you,” he ventures before being cuffed and led away as credits roll…
Eighteen years after his series debut in the zany Fade in to Murder, William Shatner was back in Columbo colours playing an altogether more formidable opponent in the guise of conservative radio host, Fielding Chase. Based squarely on Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing political commentator who stoked controversy for his anti-gay, misogynistic and race-baiting views over several decades, Chase is a lot less likable than Fade villain Ward Fowler, but Shatner throws his all into the character with typical gusto.
As I noted in the review of Fade, the level of viewer enjoyment of that episode is likely to be heavily biased by how much of Shatner’s inimitable acting style they can stomach. The same absolutely applies here. His exaggerated, halting cadence is loved and pilloried in near-equal measure. In the ham stakes he has few equals, but Shatner can always be relied on to put on a good show and his commitment to his craft is in full evidence through Butterfly’s 98-minute running time.
There aren’t many Columbo killers who have as much screen-time as Fielding Chase, who appears in (and dominates) almost every scene in the episode. If Shatner ain’t your bag, Butterfly in Shades of Grey is going to feel like a marathon rather than a sprint. If he is, this may well be amongst your go-to new Columbo episodes.
Unusually for me, I’m in a bit of a halfway house when it comes to Shatner’s performance. I’m a big fan of the guy in general, and believe he’s a more capable actor than most give him credit for. He’s clearly having a lot of fun with his role here, but even by his standards the level of over-acting is so extreme as to be considered distracting. Worse, though, is that it appears Peter Falk was trying to keep the pace with his opposite lead, dragging Columbo back towards the sort of inane, overblown tomfoolery seen all too often in the revival era.
In the series’ last outing, It’s All in the Game, Falk seemed to harness the dignity and stature of Faye Dunaway to guide his own efforts. The Lieutenant we see there was a serious detective playing things with a straight bat. There was no need to insert any silliness into the Columbo performance to gain a few laughs, and the episode was much the better for it.
It’s no coincidence that the best post-1989 efforts (No Time to Die and Grand Deceptions excluded) are those in which Falk has kept the Columbo characterisation in check and refused to yield to the temptation to insert broad comedy or needlessly flashy moments into them. Agenda for Murder, Columbo Goes to College, Death Hits the Jackpot, Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo, All in the Game and even Columbo Cries Wolf (for the most part) are the stand-out new adventures precisely because the Lieutenant behaved and felt like a believable extension of his 70s self.
When he starts rummaging in bins, kissing Russian cleaners, parping tubas, chatting to pot plants, rolling around in car showrooms, hanging with mermaids, chuntering about panties and appearing in ringmaster threads are the times when my temperature starts rising because such moronic moments betray the essence of the character and the class of the original series. Sadly, there are a number of just such scenes in Butterfly.
The sight (and sound) of Columbo idiotically yelling for attention while standing on his car bonnet at Chase’s gate is a dreadful low. So, too, the endless scene of the Lieutenant explaining a theory to Chase in his office and accidentally setting the bin alight with a carelessly discarded cigar. He appears amazed by a honey dipper at a posh restaurant and even delivers some sort of half-assed stand-up comedy routine about cell phones to a laugh-a-minute uniformed cop as the cooling corpse of Gerry Winters lies on the floor beside him. Where on earth has all this turgid nonsense come from?
Heavy-handed audio effects of Columbo’s car backfiring and spluttering are added in to remind us that Columbo drives an old heap (who knew?) and there’s an awful scene where Columbo is mistaken for a member of a troupe of bums on the set of a daytime TV soap, ruining a take in the process as he struggles to find his ID badge. The episode composition and the Columbo characterisation are tonally so far removed from It’s All in the Game that it’s almost like watching a different show entirely.
This can likely be explained by the fact that Butterfly was actually filmed a month before It’s All in the Game, but Dunaway’s heavyweight presence gave her episode sufficient clout to be bumped ahead of Shatner’s in the running order. The chalk-and-cheese difference in acting styles between the two episode’s opposing killers can only have influenced Falk’s own interpretation of the Lieutenant. In Game, Falk had his game face on as he seemed intent on giving Dunaway a foil befitting her status and reputation. Here, he veers far more towards cartoonishness in Shatner’s rollicking company.
That’s not to say I begrudge the two having a an on-set love-in and enjoying a bit of fun together. Falk and Shatner clearly liked each other and were extremely comfortable when in tandem. I do think, though, that the episode’s dark and slightly unsettling themes aren’t necessarily a good fit for Shatner. His on-air Chase is superb, but when Chase is away from the mic and engaged in his daily life, a more sinister, less likable actor might have worked better, as Shatner’s breathy style and eye-popping rages are hard to take seriously.
I feel like Fielding Chase should convey a real sense of menace. Shatner doesn’t do that. Looking at actors of a similar age to him who could conceivably have been available and interested in appearing as a Columbo baddie (surely high on most actors wish lists?) there are some mouth-watering prospects. James Earl Jones, Ian Holm, Christopher Plummer and Max Von Sydow were all taking on TV gigs in the mid-90s. All had the hard edge to have made Fielding Chase a truly loathsome and dangerous presence, while having the gravitas to perhaps curb some of Falk’s more frivolous excesses.
I’m not sure any one of them would have accepted the preposterous variations in Chase’s moustache, which is undoubtedly the single-most commented-on aspect of this episode, and something that further underscores the notion that Butterfly wasn’t perhaps produced as seriously as it might’ve been.
There is absolutely no consistency in the appearance of Chase’s stash from one scene to the next. It’s position, thickness, shape and colour appear to change at will. This is beyond careless continuity management and can only have been some sort of production in-joke, but who the gag’s aimed at escapes me. It doesn’t say much for the quality of the mystery when its most memorable element is the antagonist’s moustache, but I’d wager that is most viewers’ chief take-out. One thing’s for sure: the moustache is infinitely more distracting and less believable than Shatner’s toupee.
Looking beyond the ‘tash to the fabric of the story, how well does Butterfly hold up to scrutiny? Much is passable, but there are a couple of suppermassive black holes in the plot that no amount of lip fuzz can conceal. Primarily, these are Chase’s flimsy motive for murder, the true nature of his feelings towards Victoria, and the lack of damning evidence Columbo amasses against his key suspect.
The first two of those points can be covered off together, as Chase committing murder is intrinsically linked to his need to keep foster daughter Vicky near at hand. A mere whiff that she wants to up sticks and live her own life as an aspiring novelist drives fear into Chase’s heart. Gerry Winters’ angry assertion that he will do all in his power to free Vicky from Chase, therefore, is enough to drive the older man to murder. This does seem like overkill, though: something you’d do as an absolute last resort when all other avenues have failed. Old Chase obviously isn’t the diplomatic type.
Gerry’s accusation that Chase has inappropriate feelings towards Vicky is never entirely realised in the script, either. Yes, there’s that very creepy moment when he grabs her hand and tenderly kisses it following an argument, but we don’t see yearning glances from him, or any other visible suggestions that he is sexually attracted to Vicky elsewhere in the episode.
He even gives a long monologue to Columbo about why Vicky is dear to him, and that he agreed to foster her 15 years earlier when her mother – the true love of his life – died of cancer. His desire to control Vicky’s life to keep her safe from harm seems authentic here, but is at odds with the inverted Oedipus Gerry makes Chase out to be. The episode ought to have been more decisive on Chase’s intent towards his young ward and I think playing up this creepiness would have been helpful.
A clearer motive for murder (albeit it more formulaic) would have been for Gerry and Vicky to be lovers, and for Chase to have genuine concerns for her well-being in the event of them running off together, driving him to murder. Of course, Gerry being gay, this isn’t an option, but the sub-plot about his sexuality does nothing to strengthen the story – quite the opposite, in fact.
Including a gay character smacks of a production team looking at same-sex storylines in contemporary shows and feeling the need to keep up. Dougie Howser MD, Quantum Leap, Roseanne, Cheers, Law & Order and even Murder She Wrote had explored gay relationships in various ways in the early 90s, but here the subject is kept very much at arm’s length and feels rather tokenistic.
There’s little in the writing to suggest the production team really knew what to do with a gay character beyond using his sexual orientation as a means of Chase pinning his murder on a wronged lover. As Chase puts it when discussing Gerry’s love-life with Columbo: “those people (i.e. gays) do have a reputation for unusual behaviour,” (what, like cold-blooded killing?) at which point the Lieutenant seems vaguely uncomfortable and mumbles about most of his cases being husbands killing wives, and vice versa.
Columbo as a show does diversity poorly and this is a prime example. There are loads of ways to have made a gay character or a homosexuality driven storyline pivotal, fresh and interesting, but this comes across as a box-ticking exercise rather than an attempt at meaningful engagement with a different type of subject matter and audience. Interestingly, It’s All in the Game daringly gave the impression of having a lesbian relationship at the core of its mystery before Lauren and Lisa were revealed to be mother and daughter. The uninspiring use of a gay character here therefore feels additionally unadventurous.
Still, I mustn’t forget that I am viewing this episode in an entirely different era from whence it came, so will push on to pastures green before I am accused of using my soapbox to impose ‘woke’ viewpoints upon the readership (which couldn’t be further from the truth). Instead, I’ll consider how little evidence Columbo amasses against Chase over the course of this very long episode.
I’ve written before about anticlimactic episodes in which Columbo spends a lot of time and energy in proving very little other than casting doubt on the killer’s alibi. The Most Crucial Game and Identity Crisis are the foremost examples of this, but I would certainly add Butterfly in Shades of Grey into this category. I applaud Columbo’s investigative skillz in discerning that a lack of mobile reception in the hills near his home scotch Chase’s story about where he was when he dialled 911. However, this is a long way from proving he was at Gerry’s house committing murder.
Columbo is given plenty of reasons to suspect Chase of murder: he publicly threatened to kill Gerry; he sent Vicky off to work on a Saturday so no one knew what he was up to himself; he could easily have pinched Vicky’s key to Gerry’s house; and he was one of the few people who knew of Gerry’s relationship with Ted Malloy. There’s nothing concrete, though, and while the mobile phone evidence is strong, it’s hardly a complete case when I really want to believe Columbo will nail the jerk. Chase has some explaining to do, but a good lawyer ought easily to get him off the hook.
I can’t really fault the gotcha itself, mind you. Columbo has done what he has done so well over the years: gained understanding of a bewildering cutting-edge technology and used it to break the case wide open. We’ve seen him get to grips with CCTV systems, VCRs, fax machines, computers, pagers and more over the past 25 years and this is cut from the same cloth. The irksome issue of mobile phone reception in hilly areas would have appeared quite revolutionary in the mid-90s, but it’s a topic still relevant today making the gotcha scene accessible to the modern viewer.
Bonus points are awarded for Chase’s reaching for his shotgun in his car trunk, his movements obscured from the detective in a nicely cinematic fashion. Very few killers have the gumption to consider bumping off the troublesome detective, and anything to further underline Chase’s wicked ways is to be applauded. The same can’t be said for the presentation of the undercover police cyclists, though, decked out as they are in all sorts of eyeball-bursting, luminous Lycra ensembles, looking and acting like extras in a bad daytime soap. Nineties Columbo has rarely seemed more 90s…
If those are the less successful facets of Butterfly, there are, happily, other factors that off-set these and boost its watchability. Although I believe the episode would have been stronger with a more accomplished lead actor, Shatner does at least give his all to the role of Fielding Chase and gets some excellent lines to play with as his tempers are increasingly set on edge by the Lieutenant’s shilly-shallying.
“With you Lieutenant, there’s always just one more thing,” he seethes at one point, giving voice to the frustrations felt by so many killers over so many years. “Do you have a problem with short term memory? Perhaps you should consult a physician.” Later, his nerves even more frayed, he brays at the detective: “I’ll confront your witness and when I do I’ll destroy him! After that I’ll start on you!” He delivers these lines in classic Shatnerian style, which is always enjoyable to watch.
His best bits are when he’s playing the loathsome radio host, showing just the right level of contempt for his audience (“the inarticulate need not bother dialling,”), while adopting an adversarial position whenever the opportunity arises. One of those broadcasters who believes in their own hype, his take-down of Senator Madison after assurances he wouldn’t stoop to dirty tricks points to a moral vacuum at his core, further highlighted by his efforts to prevent Vicky’s book being published. In short, Chase is a real git and one of a small number of Columbo villains with no redeeming features.
His beastliness is all the more unforgivable when considering the good-hearted individual he is trying to dominate and control: his foster daughter Vicky. Here in her second Columbo appearance after starring as Alex Brady’s lover Ruthie in 1989’s Murder, Smoke and Shadows, Molly Hagan brings her girl-next-door charms to a role that could have been forgettable but ends up being one of the more compelling of the show’s revival.
Vicky knows she has been mistreated and held back by Chase, but she is never pathetic, peevish or vengeful. It’s a sensitive turn from Hagan, who does enough to convince us that Vicky has the moral fibre to make her dreams come true once freed from Chase’s obnoxious clutches. And for all those confused about the episode’s poetic title, the butterfly in shades of grey (according to episode writer Peter S. Fischer) is Vicky herself: the restrained, cocooned daughter who yearns to break free.
Elsewhere, there are capable performances from Jack Laufer and Richard Kline as Gerry and literary agent Lou Caten, but it’s a small central cast that enables Shatner and Falk to maximise their time together. Just about the only quibbles I have about the support cast are the purported ages of Vicky and Gerry, who are said to be 25 and 32 years old respectively, but are being played by actors many years older than that (Hagan was 33 at the time, while Jack Laufer was 40).
Directing this episode is Columbo alum Dennis Dugan, whom keen viewers may remember as Detective Theodore ‘Mac’ Albinsky in 1975’s Last Salute to the Commodore. On his way to becoming an accomplished TV and film director, Dugan’s penchant for comedy is evident in the many interactions between detective and suspect. He also does a fine job in ensuring the episode moves at a good clip. Butterfly runs for almost 100 minutes but rarely drags – a rarity for 90s Columbo.
Dick De Benedictis is another member of the Columbo old guard back in action here, although this is far from the composer’s best effort. I celebrated De Benedictis’s comeback to the series for A Bird in the Hand… after a 17-year hiatus given his reputation as one of Columbo’s most dependable score setters. Alas, Butterfly’s score is twee and, at times, cringe-inducing, evoking memories of some of the dismal, jaunty scores of Season 8. It now seems like there’s no escape from This Old Man being worked into every episode’s score on multiple occasions – a cross I shall just have to bear.
No review of Butterfly in Shades of Grey would be complete without reference to Fielding Chase’s monumental home in the Malibu Mountains. Located in the ultra-exclusive Serra Retreat overlooking the Pacific, the city-sized home was built in 1983 and owned by Elvis Presley’s former squeeze Linda Thompson. Set in 22 acres, with nine bedrooms and 11 bathrooms, the house is the only one I’ve ever seen to feature a funicular railway as transport between the lower gardens and the main house. That’s living! The house was sold for $22m in 2005, so Lord only knows what it’s worth today.
To sum things up, Butterfly in Shades of Grey is an at-times enjoyable romp that is at its best if you don’t try to take it too seriously (such as analysing every aspect of it for a detailed review). It’s a must-watch for Shatnerphiles, who will slurp it up with glee. However, those viewers who prefer their Columbo episodes to come with a sharper edge and more ominous villain may find it an overblown and unsatisfying spectacle that’s trying far too hard to play it for laughs.
Did you know?
Like William Shatner’s first Columbo outing, Fade in to Murder from 1976, Butterfly in Shades of Grey features actor’s pancake make-up as a major clue. In Butterfly, Chase plants pancake at the murder scene to implicate Gerry’s former lover and TV actor, Ted Malloy. In Fade, traces of theatrical makeup on a ripped-up ski mask was one of the clues that implicated Ward Fowler – a popular TV detective – in the killing of Claire Daley.
How I rate ’em
Consistent excellence continues to elude ‘new Columbo‘, with Butterfly in Shades of Grey a significant quality downgrade on It’s All in the Game, becoming another ‘OK’ entry that slots into a mid-table position. It’s not a howler, but I can’t envisage feeling the need to watch it again anytime soon.
To read my reviews of any of the other revival Columbo episodes up to this point, simply click the links in the list below. You can see how I rank all the ‘classic era’ episodes here.
- Columbo Goes to College — top tier new Columbo episodes —
- Agenda for Murder
- Death Hits the Jackpot
- Columbo Cries Wolf
- It’s All in the Game
- Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
- Columbo Goes to the Guillotine — 2nd tier episodes start here —
- Sex & The Married Detective
- Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
- Butterfly in Shades of Grey
- A Bird in the Hand…
- Murder, A Self Portrait
- Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star — 3rd tier episodes start here —
- Murder, Smoke & Shadows
- Uneasy Lies the Crown
- No Time to Die — 4th tier episodes start here —
- Grand Deceptions
- Murder in Malibu
Now it’s your turn to spill the beans on your opinion of all things Butterfly. Does Shatner do it for you, or is the episode crying out for a more nuanced leading man? Does Columbo’s lack of hard proof hamper the episode? And how do you rate Falk’s more overtly comedic performance this time around?
With only six of Columbo’s 69 televised adventures still to review, my focus switches to Undercover, the second of two ill-advised Ed McBain novel adaptations. Based on my sparse but robust recollections of it being utter pigswill, I am already suspecting Undercover will plummet to the foot of the rankings. Can I be proven wrong? Check back soon to find out…
I just recently got back into reading the Columbophile and I have seen every episode maybe a dozen times, even the stinkers. I do have a few problems with this episode unless I am not remembering it properly.
The first one is there is one scene where they are discussing the phone call and the recording of it and I believe Columbo says, “you can hear the suspect leaving by the back door.” Or something like that. So that begs the question, Chase answers the phone (albeit at Gerry’s home) and the conversation is being recorded. Now he hangs up Gerry’s phone in the den, but not the one Gerry was using (unless I missed it) and that means the answering machine was still recording. YET, if Chase had answered at his own home, right after he yelled “gerry, what happened?” Would he not have hung up to make his way towards Gerry’s and if so, would the machine not have stopped recording? So I would have asked how long Chase stayed on the phone after the shots so that the door being opened/closed could be heard on the tape.
Second thing is they made a deal out of Gerry and Ted seeing each other and Chase knowing but during questioning Ted says, “we started seeing each other 9 days ago.” So would Chase have really known? What did Gerry do, start seeing Ted and run around and tell everyone?
And the problem of how does Gerry not hear “Gerry, I was outside…” when Chase is standing maybe 15 feet behind him.
And then when Caten tells Vicky that her Dad got the book deal killed, she gets ticked off, yet earlier in the show she confronts him about it and he says that he did do it.
it’s been quite some time since I have seen it but was just curious if I am close to being right or it I missed something.
Having just seen Butterfly for the very first time this evening – I have to say I enjoyed it immensely! I’ve been avoiding 90’s Columbo for a while but, finding nothing to watch, I put this one on – and was very entertained! Yep it’s not an absolute classic, but as you say, it flies by.
Yes the motive and ‘gotcha’ could have been stronger, but it’s one of those eps where you don’t mind a bit, it’s more about the war of attrition between Columbo and Fielding.
As for the humour – I didn’t mind one bit. The honey twirler, the smoking cigar bin, the shouting at the gate, all great fun and nothing as wince inducing as dressing up as a ring master or playing the tuba!
Your mileage may vary with Shatner, but personally i find him a joy to watch, hammy in all the right ways, and a great dastardly villain. Columbo had him pegged from the get-go after his ‘he got shot in the back’ comment – doh!
Butterfly is definitely one I’ll revisit and one that I’d say could go toe-to-toe with some of the mid-tier 70’s eps – Shatner does it again!
How well would Shatner have delivered Donald Pleasence’s “Liquid filth” spiel from “Any Old Port”?
I’m sure he’d have done it memorably, but I doubt it would have gone down in Columbo folklore as Pleasence’s delivery has.
I liked this one. I reckon I’m a fan of Mr. “Hammy” Shatner.
Also, his psychopathically controlling, narcissistic way was familiar and very believable to me.
And I didn’t mind Columbo’s yelling like a madman to get in the high gate.
There was definitely a “meta” aspect to this:
Did you notice a very “Star Trek” – like theme playing over Shatner’s exercise routine?
It was repeated in the closing credits.
Was the caller on the talk show who talked about the senators affair, Tom Lester from Green Acers?
I think this is one of the best “perfect murder” I’ve seen. Also the “gotcha” makes scene works because it exposes how the “perfect murder” wasn’t as perfect as we assumed. If Fielding Chase had been played by Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp, or any of the actors that have been mentioned as perfect counterparts to Columbo, I think this episode would rank among the best
Perfect? Or lucky? Chase’s plan depended on Gerry sensing no movement, and hearing no voice, right behind where he was standing. Had he turned and said, “Fielding, what are you doing here?” Chase’s goose was cooked. And that wasn’t an unlikely reaction.
Another glaring problem here is the gotcha itself, in my view. Obviously, Chase very often uses his cell phone. How probable is it that he himself has never encountered reception difficulties around his house before confrontation with Columbo? It seems rather unlikely. And if Chase knows that his cell phone doesn’t work in the area then the whole plan starts to look very risky from the get-go.
Along with CP, many commenters suggest other actors who they believe might have been more suitable for the role of the murderer.
I recently finished reading David Koenig’s book, Shooting Columbo. He mentions several times that the budget for the show was usually a concern and many actors that they would have liked to hire for various roles wanted more money than they were willing to spend.
Like several 90s episodes this was OK for one viewing, but not a repeat watch like the classics and a few of the better 90s shows. (The worst 90s shows I couldn’t even take one viewing and had to switch off).
With Limbaugh gone now much of the show seems dated. As far as the staged call scene Rush was known to do this too.
Poor episode but I agree it’s middle of the pack by standards of the time. Shatner fun to watch but conveys absolutely no sense of danger. He’s a cartoon villain. Would have loved to see James Earl Jones in this role.
I like this episode very much. It’s worth the “70s episodes”. It’s a very good plot, with a clever gotcha. For instance, it’s much better than Fade in to Murder. For me, the attitude of Fielding Chase towards his daughter is credible. He’s possessive. And he has nobody else. The emotional blackmail is a very strong element of the episode, which makes Fielding Chase one of the most vilain vilains. I can even accept some weak points, except the car at the gate, and Columbo cryoing.
Ahhhh my favorite later years episode, Shatners character is both hilarious and pathetic in this episode and i found the episode very entertaining as a whole. I actually like this better than Shatners 70’s episode, and that’s unusual for me since i like the 70’s run so much better. Also loved seeing Larry Dallas (Richard Kline) in this, he didn’t act very much after Three’s Company. I’ll admit there are several later years episodes that are written and acted better, but for some reason i enjoyed this one the most.
With Shatner, you get….well,…..Shatner. ‘Nuff said.
The Shat’s Stash is undoubtably the most annoying thing in the Columboverse. God help us all if it ever graces our TV screens again!
“The Most Crucial Game and Identity Crisis are the foremost examples of this”
I don’t think that’s true. I think the biggest example of Columbo doing little more than poking a hole in an alibi is the Janet Leigh episode–“Forgotten Lady”, is that the title? Anyway, all Columbo does is prove that there’s ten minutes unaccounted for when Leigh was watching her movie. All she had to do, if she hadn’t forgotten everything, was say that she fixed herself a drink or took a nice long poop. At no point does Columbo do anything to place Leigh in her husband’s room.
In other news, I guess I just watch these episodes differently. At no point did I notice changes to the mustache.
The difference in the Grace situation is that she was in the same house as the deceased, so much easier for her to get to him to kill him – even if he can’t definitively prove that. Brenner and Hanlon had to have been miles away from their supposed locations, which is much harder to prove.
It’s not that the episode is so forgettable that the mustache is the biggest takeaway. It’s that the mustache is so bad that it almost ruins even a pretty good episode like this one. The mustache is just that bad!
Around this same time Shatner also had a mustache in the parody movie “National Lampoon’s Loaded Weapon 1” but that mustache looked normal.
I suspect that the photo of Chase on the wall is Shatner’s photo from a “Tekwar” novel, but with a bad mustache drawn on.
It was a cool moment when Columbo said that at first he assumed Chase was a disc jockey because he’d only been told that he was a radio host.
I found the loud bicyclist costumes enjoyably nostalgic. As you say, it was the most 1990s thing—except maybe the raves in “Columbo Likes the Nightlife,” and even that was in the 2000s!
I’m not a raving Shatner fan, but I rewatched this recently and was amazed at how much he enjoyed it. As is said, it might have been a better episode with a more seasoned pro. (Some of those suggested are great, but personally, how fun would it have been to see Robert Culp return as the killer in this episode. He’s have played it to the hilt, and his presence would have definitely steered Falk from the comical. I can almost hear some of Chase’s putdowns in Culp’s voice.)
Still, I also agree that whatever Shatner may lack in creepiness or intimidation he more than makes up for in the energy he puts into the role. Fowler was sympathetic. Chase is not, and Shatner really puts on a strong game face and makes Chase someone you can truly loathe.
While I also enjoy Fade in, this is Shatner at his peak. He’s loathsome but he feels like a real person from start to finish, unlike Shatner’s apparent mental breakdown and third person referencing in his prior outing.
I’ll always revisit Shatner’s outings, but I’ll probably revisit this one more than the other.
The biggest omission from Columbo was not having Larry Hagman as a villain… if ‘Heavy Lies the Crown’ had been made in the 1970’s run – when it was written – Hagman would have been an all-timer in opponents for the good Lieutenant…
I agree. How much you can stand William Shatner’s acting influences in how you enjoy or don’t enjoy the episode. Probably it would be more digestible with another actor.
I confess – I’m a sucker for William Shatner’s thespian scenery-chomping and his unparalleled ability to ooze fake sincerity, so I find “Butterfly in Shades of Grey” to be hugely watchable. As with “It’s All in The Game”, it’s the interaction of Peter Falk with the guest star that elevates the episode and papers over the otherwise exposed cracks. Shatner has some great lines and deadpan reactions playing off Falk. Bill is quite adept at playing comedy, and he makes the most of writer Peter Fischer’s zingers. We could argue Shatner’s acting abilities all day, but I would point you to some early superior pre-Trek roles. The most heralded is the stone-cold classic 1963 Twilight Zone ep, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, but he was terrific in another less-touted TZ episode about a possibly malevolent fortune-telling machine, “Nick of Time”.
The clues in “Butterfly” are fairly minor – who had a key, the red-herring handkerchief, telephone records – and none of them directly point to Chase as much as they sorta wave in his general direction. The best Columbo can do to back up his accusation of Chase actually committing the on-the-phone murder is to say, “I think we both know how you did that.”
CP gives Bonus Points for the shotgun-in-the-trunk gambit that Chase contemplates. I give that Negative Points, as I do for any episode that has the villain attempting to bump off Columbo. He’s not a lone wolf private eye! He has superiors who he reports to with details of the case! Even in the fictional Columboverse, this made-for-TV-drama contrivance stretches reality too far out of whack.
My guess is that the “dangerous obsession” creep element was added to Chase’s character to give a little bit more credibility to the murder motive. Without it, the need to keep Victoria close to him becomes incredibly weak, thus does the reason to kill Gerry. More than an inference of this obsession might have given the episode too much of an “ick” factor, so I think everyone split the difference and hoped for the best.
Much running time is spent with the lesser subplot of Chase screwing over Generic Senator, rather than giving time to see Columbo actually investigate, you know, the relevant murder. Aside from his interview with Generic Actor and a conversation with Victoria, all we really have on the detecting details is the exposition that Columbo provides Chase when he (frequently) bothers him. There are 7 such contacts, which I believe to be a Columbo record for invasive intrusions, but in this case with Shatner, IMHO that’s playing to the episode’s strength. But as I say, I have a soft spot for his unique brand of ham, and your mileage may vary.
Totally agree with you about Shatner and glad I’m not the only one who loves his underrated acting(The Andersonville Trials). Great comment.
Fielding Chase expects Gerry’s sexuality to be a major distraction for Columbo. That expectation turns out to be a sign of Chase’s own homophobia and of his assumption that someone like Columbo will share that homophobia, an assumption Columbo’s line about husbands and wives explodes immediately. Columbo is an old-fashioned working class Roman Catholic guy, we see that time and again, so he isn’t likely to be an outspoken ally to sexual minority groups. But he doesn’t have to be. He’s supersmart, he’s seen more of life from more angles than anyone else, and he knows full well that Chase’s ideas about gays are weird stereotypes that have no connection to reality. So I like the way the topic is handled.
Although I think Christopher Plummer or Max Von Sydow would have been very interesting to see here, their accents (Canadian Plummer had an aristocratic British accent) would have been out of place for an American radio host using political issues to climb the rating charts. They could adopt an American accent, but it never sounds right. Gene Hackman would’ve been great. (Hey, he did a bit part in Young Frankenstein, why not do a TV show?) Or Ed Asner or Pat Hingle. Somebody tough. If Shatner did it with only one fake mustache, always curved on both sides, and NO wig, it would have been spectacular. For some reason, Rob Leibman comes to mind as a great Fielding Chase. His self-assured cockiness would have played well with Columbo’s way of laying subtle traps.
They could have made Gerry bi-sexual and in a relationship with Victoria. That would have given Chase, an over-protective guardian and moral egotist, more motive to kill him. As CPhile says, it’s unclear how killing Gerry would ultimately prevent Victoria from selling her novel and leaving. But, if she was leaving to also live with Gerry, it would have added to Chase’s motive. It also adds to the reasonability of framing Ted, as it could be posited that he found out about Gerry and Victoria’s relationship and was jealous. Set-up to make sure Ted didn’t have an alibi would have worked better, as well, as his alibi easily wrecked Chase’s plot.
If the title refers to Victoria (as the writer, Peter S. Fischer, says, and who should know better) it’s a strange mistake to make the title about neither the killer nor the victim. Everyone is misled into trying to force the poetry into the protagonist or antagonist or victim, not thinking of ancillary characters. I alway took it to mean the dark side of a colorful radio personality.
Outstanding review/analysis by CP.
The last time I watched this episode was three years ago, and, at that time, I considered it to be one of the more enjoyable “new” Columbo’s.
However, knowing that CP’s review for this episode was coming out this weekend, I gave it another view.
To my surprise, “Butterfly” was FAR less enjoyable than I had thought.
I’m glad CP mentioned the “Rush L” factor. That was exactly my thought. Conservative talk radio really took off when Bill Clinton was elected in ’92, so this episode went with that.
Also trendy (of the upper-middle class and above) were car phones in the early to mid 90’s. They were infamous for bad reception.
I liked the concept of the Gotcha, but I agree it wouldn’t hold up in court.
Never understood the title until CP explained it.
I think a great title would have been:
“The Mountains Win Again”
But that song was still a year away by the Blues Travelers.
I liked the “honey twister” scene. LOL
But Columbo standing on his car shouting “The gate wouldn’t open!” was grating.
I will not be watching this episode again. Not a fan of Shatner’s over-acting, and I found the episode quite boring.
Faye Dunaway, Faye Dunaway—-enough, already!! (lololol) I don’t share the opinion that her appearance on a Colombo episode was all that. I watched it once—-it’s not an episode I will ever likely watch again.
Dunaway is no bigger a star to me than Culp, or Cassidy, Leigh, Lee Grant, or Vera Miles or my man, Patrick McNee! Sheesh!!
I MUCH preferred Susan Clark’s performance over Faye’s. To each his/her own, but methinks Dunaway’s appearance and “what it meant” for the Colombo series was VASTLY overrated.
All of the other stars you mention appeared in the 70’s edition of Columbo, when the guest casts regularly included lots of big names. But what other Academy Award-winner appeared in the 90’s? Only Rod Steiger, and in a less central role. Dunaway was a huge “get” for Columbo at the time.
If the villain was “based squarely on Rush Limbaugh”, the politics were leeched out by the final script. Fielding Chase doesn’t actually say anything in the radio scenes that’s particularly partisan or provocative. Making Gerry a gay character may have been part of the de-politicizing process. If Chase hired an openly gay man (and a gay man was willing to work for him), that blunts any idea that Chase represents right-wing extremism.
Columbo is not a show for people who want political or social commentary. I am thankful for that.
He makes a viciously homophobic comment, which this review notes.
The comment was part of an attempt to frame someone else for the murder, not necessarily an expression of his own views.
viciously? …… surely you jest.
Intentional de-politicizing of characters and situations that are supposed to be overtly political actually was a time-honored practice with the show. David Koenig in his great book on Columbo relates the fact that originally “Candidate for a crime” writers intended Nelson Hayward to mention real political and social issues of the period like busing, but they got instructions to avoid that. “Grand Deceptions” think-tank also originally was more overtly right-wing (it even had a name like Conservative something) but that got toned down in script revisions.
Rush Limbaugh was a huge Columbo fan, and spoke of his delight at finally acquiring “Butterfly” on DVD.
People on the political left utterly misunderstand him. With all due respect to our host, he was most definitely not “anti-gay, misogynistic and race-baiting.”
Well put Chris. Rush loved the USA very much and because his conservative views did not align with the race baiting elitist ruling class here in the states, he was falsely accused of being all of the many phobias the left loves to use without evidence. Maybe CP should learn a little more about the reality here in the states before casting untrue stones.
Since this unfortunate and inappropriate political comment was posted, it demands a response — with just a small sample of the racist, misogynistic, and homophobic evidence you claim doesn’t exist. From the archives of Rush Limbaugh:
* “When a gay person turns his back on you, it is anything but an insult; it’s an invitation.”
* “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.”
* “Women should not be allowed on juries where the accused is a stud.”
* To a Black caller: “Take that bone out of your nose and call me back.”
Enough politics. Let’s get back to Columbo.
Cheers Rich, I second the motion: less politics, more Columbo.
I did plenty of googling about Rush (even off page 1), and provided a snippet of what appears to be the consensus opinion on the man. Similar, I imagine, if you were to do some research on Aussie talk show host Alan Jones.
Wonderful article. Thank you. My appreciation for The Columbophile rests on loving but critical reviews like this one.
Like you I enjoy Shatner, but a little bit of Kirk’s staccato acting style goes a long way. A flawed episode, but fun. The ending in particular was satisfying, even if soaking in lycra.
I usually make an effort to refresh myself on an episode before going into one of your reviews. This one put something into perspective for me, something that’s been bugging me with the new episodes for a while. Columbo’s antagonists just aren’t on the same level as the man himself.
My first episode was Double Exposure. Among other things, what got me hooked was the mounting suspicion from both parties – I *live* for scenes like the “right or left” bit. That’s a big thing I feel the revival misses out on. While Columbo narrows in on his man, said man slowly begins to realise they’re not dealing with some schmuck cop. It led to some great interactions and put some agency into the story, because not only are the killers working to maintain their pre-constructed ruse, now they’re going head-to-head with Columbo.
Compare that to this episode. Following the murder, Chase doesn’t do much. We learn more about the guy, but as far as his plan goes, he’s done by the time Columbo’s on the scene. Compare Suitable for Framing, where the killer’s just as proactive throughout the episode as his adversary. It’s like they struggled making Columbo smart, so everyone else had to be a chump to compensate. Even my favourite new Columbos hinge on the killers being completely fooled – Columbo Goes to College, R.I.P. Mrs. Columbo, etc.
Hopefully that was articulate enough; just like Mr. Chase isn’t on the Lieutenant’s level, I’m sure as heck not on yours.
Anyway, cheers to another review! I love hearing such insightful commentary on my favourite series, and you’ve been on a roll lately. I hope all stays well for you and your family. Looking forward to the next review, and your take on the series’ foray into Hardy Boys style mysteries and Columbo’s criminal fashion choices.
“Double Exposure has become my favorite overall episode largely for what you mentioned. Yes, Columbo has tipped off his suspects much like he does with Keppel, but their reactions tended to border on indignant or flat-out hostile.
Culp’s Keppel is a different cloth completely. He’s actually RELISHING the cat-and-mouse game, not only because he’s highly intelligent, but because he’s a rare Columbo villain that left a fair number of clues to arouse suspicion of him, but not enough to seal his fate until the very end.
The mustache was not necessary, and Chase should have been arrested for bad taste. (After Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the stand alone mustache vanished from the States almost over night). Why did anyone involved in this project think it was useful? In my opinion, Jack Cassidy was the only Columbo villain who actually looked better in one… With grey hair and crows feet, Shatner already looked different enough from the the Ward Fowler character from the 70s. I conclude, they wanted to distinguish him from the Kirk persona since the Star Trek films were still in full bloom in the 90s.
Whether or not I watch this episode when it comes up on reruns depends entirely upon my mood for putting up with Shatner. I don’t hate him, but sometimes I guess I’m just in a bad mood and don’t feel I can take it. It’s the same with Fade in to Murder. It’s all about Shatner’s very strong presence. Otherwise I find this watchable enough, if not great.
I never had a problem with Chase’s motives for killing Winters. He is an obsessively controlling, possessive, narcissist and the crime, although elaborately set up, is a crime of passion, of rage over his sense that a line has been crossed, a line intruding into his personal family life. Fielding Chase is a man with no scruples, no moral sensibilities as his setup of the senator also shows. A man you would not want to cross. A man who cannot ever just let it go.
The gotcha is weak. I never understood why Chase was going to shoot Columbo. There are times in many cop shows I watch where the suspect needlessly gives himself away and confesses to conveniently close a weakly made case in order to give us viewers an ending where we are satisfied that justice will be done. And the Columbo show also falls into using that contrivance sometimes. A lot of times, however, it is done with the sense that Columbo, knowing his suspect well, as he does, is able to set up a trap with the confidence that his suspect will not be able to help but incriminate himself. This one is not done that well. But, depending upon my mood, I’d still watch it. Meh…
Chase’s killing of Columbo would have been a particularly stupid move
Thanks for the explanation of the title. I always assumed it referred to Shatner’s mustache, which does look like a butterfly and does come in various shades of gray. I think Fischer might have been pulling our legs.
As far as Gerry being gay, that never struck me a exploitative or “ticking the box,” as you put it. On “Just One More Thing,” the Columbo podcast, the guys point out that Gerry’s orientation is handled in a non-exploitative and rather sensitive way. No one, except for the loathsome Fielding, makes a big deal of it. It’s simply accepted as part of who he is, and in an early conversation with Lou (I believe), it’s revealed he is mourning his partner, who has died, presumably of AIDS. I’d give props to the episode for this.
As for Victoria and her novel, it seems she’s going to be the next Ayn Rand. Just what the world needs.
Your description of Rush Limbaugh was accurate. His own blustery dissertations during his shows is proof of all that. And it’s just come out recently that his on-air persona was just an act, but obviously, a very profitable one.
Let’s put aside the episode’s terrible title. Let’s put aside William Shatner’s dancing mustache, or opinions about Shatner’s acting style. (Actually, in both of his Columbos, the producers were able to cast Shatner in roles for which egregious overacting was very much in character.) I was too distracted counting the number of prior Columbo episodes I was reminded of while watching BISOG: a call-in radio show (“Sex and the Married Detective”); shots fired over an open telephone line to support an alibi (“Murder by the Book”); Columbo mistaken for a derelict (“Negative Reaction”); Columbo inadvertently interfering with the taping of a TV drama (“Fade In to Murder”); Columbo putting pressure on his prime suspect by listing the evidence against his innocent, beloved child (“Mind Over Mayhem”).
There are also two plot holes in BISOG worth mentioning. Watching the killing, I was immediately struck by the fact that Chase enters Winters’ house and uses the telephone without wearing any gloves. That seemed strange. Then he wipes down everything he touched (the gun, the phone, the door handle) with a handkerchief — but, again, wearing gloves would have been so much simpler. Then he plants the handkerchief outside, and we soon understand why: it’s laced with actor’s makeup in an effort to frame actor/ex-lover Ted Malloy. (That still doesn’t explain the absence of gloves.) Columbo adds that police also found traces of makeup on the door lock and the gun.
But what about the phone? If everything Chase wiped down with the handkerchief retained traces of makeup, that logically would include the extension phone as well. And makeup on this phone would show that the extension figured in the crime — the one fact Chase most needed to conceal. (Of course, if he’d worn gloves, he wouldn’t have had to wipe down the phone.)
Okay, so maybe no one examined the phone. Not so. At the end, Columbo tells us that “the forensic guy says that there were no fingerprints on the telephone receiver in the den, which says to me, it hadda be wiped off by somebody.“ But he mentions nothing about “the forensic guy” finding makeup there, too. Because if crime scene analysts had found makeup there early on, this could have been a one-hour episode. And it was an easily avoidable flaw. Give Chase gloves. He still could have used the handkerchief to frame Malloy. Just not on the phone.
The other hole involved the gotcha — the idea about cellphone dead zones that inspired Peter Fischer to write the episode (according to David Koenig’s “Shooting Columbo”). Once Columbo knew that the 9-1-1 call was from Chase’s cellphone, he didn’t have to experiment with dead zones. Cellphone providers record which specific cell tower services each call. That, in turn, shows the area within which the call was made. In minutes, Columbo could have proven that the call was made from the vicinity of Winters’ home. He didn’t need to disable Chase’s car in the mountains (and risk a rifle blast).
Something equally bothersome was the weakness of Chase’s motive. He kills Winters just so his daughter’s novel won’t be published? So he can keep his daughter as his assistant? How does killing Winters guarantee any of that? And it’s not as if the novel was a roman à clef (packed with unsavory stories about Fielding, thinly disguised as fiction).
Finally, let me return to one of my Columbo pet peeves: the instantaneously conceived elaborate “perfect crime.” Chase’s plan here wasn’t a simple one. It had lots of moving (and unpredictable) pieces: instructing Winters precisely when to call; knowing Victoria had a key, and lifting it (and replacing it) surreptitiously; counting on Winters to use the right phone, and have his back to the door (even knowing that Winters had an extension within such easy range); knowing enough about Ted Malloy to frame him with the handkerchief; cleverly getting Victoria to play the voicemail recording for Columbo, etc. And it’s not like Fielding Chase is Abigail Mitchell, for whom murder plots are second nature, or Oliver Brandt, who solves intellectual puzzles regularly.
When (and how fast) was this elaborate plan conceived? The moment we see Chase with a curious glint in his eye, sitting before the lit fireplace after Victoria offers to leave a copy of her novel on his nightstand? Or not until his hotel lobby confrontation with Winters (which is right before he tells Winters to call him precisely at four o’clock)? It’s too much too fast to be credible.
This is a reason I particularly enjoy Columbos where the murder plot clearly has been worked out well in advance of the episode’s first scene. Episodes where there is a pre-existing motive, and a fully formed “perfect crime” ready to go — and only then: “Action!”
Whoops. My apologies. I just went back and rewatched part of the episode. Chase first wipes the phone down with a bunch of white tissues. He only pulls out the blue handkerchief when wiping down the gun and door handle. I still say gloves would have made more sense — and foreshadowed the ulterior reason for using handkerchief (which we realize only moments later when he leaves it on the bush). But I was wrong about the plot hole. Did anyone else notice he used two different things to wipe down what he touched? It’s easy to miss.
Rich, as I was going down the telephone rabbit-holes to write Feb 2021’s “Just One More Ring” piece, I did some bonus research about cell phone technology and came across this 2014 article in The New Yorker (What Your Cell Phone Can’t Tell the Police | The New Yorker). Without getting into the weeds in these comments, I’ll quote this brief excerpt, which describes as “junk science” the assumed accuracy of the cell network system of call-tracing used for many years by prosecutors. “The paradigm is the assumption that, when you make a call on your cell phone, it automatically routes to the nearest cell tower, and that by capturing those records police can determine where you made a call—and thus where you were—at a particular time. That, [a consultant] explained, is not how the system works.”
Before the exactitude of GPS was developed, there was the analog method of triangulation. This uses the phone’s proximity to cell tower locations to calculate where a call would be coming from. In areas with more towers, closer together, this process becomes more reliable. Less towers, less reliable. Would it have been able to place Chase substantially closer to the murder scene than to his own home? That’s where I fall back to giving the writers (and, by extension, Columbo) the benefit of the doubt unless we see overtly contrary evidence. And since Peter S. Fischer was an experienced Columbo scribe, I’m comfortable assuming that since the whole Gotcha depends on cell technology, Fischer did his own research and had contemporaneous experience with what was possible in the Cali hills in 1993. I’d be interested in your prosecutorial take on this element of call-tracing.
Of course, all the cell phone Gotcha does is break his alibi, but in the fictional Columboverse, proving guilt in the courtroom is secondary to provoking the You Got Me reaction from the villain (although picking up a shotgun to blow Columbo away seems a tad overzealous).
It sounds to me like personal experience guided Fischer more than research. “I just started with the idea that the phones wouldn’t work in the mountains,” David Koenig reports Fischer saying. No doubt he encountered this problem himself.
As I recall, we used cell tower records to determine the general area from which a call was made. This didn’t pinpoint a spot by any means, but we did operate with the understanding that the nearest cell tower that serviced that provider would get the call. This was well before 2014, however. But so is BISOG.
Interesting point about tracing location of cell-phone calls is that other Columbo writers were obviously aware of such a possibility as early as 1991.
In “Murder of a rock star” right before Hugh Creighton’s assistant/accomplice reveals his traffic camera alibi Columbo, Creighton, his lawyer and the DA discuss if there is any way to support his claim he was driving a car at the time of the murder. One of the questions being asked of Hugh is if he made any phone calls from his car, presumably meaninig that if he did they would be able to locate any such calls thus confirming his whereabouts.
You had made a similar comment in the “Just One More Ring” column, to which I responded there in full. An excerpt:
“Murder of a Rock Star” was in 1991, and if cell phone records could indeed establish location back then, it would back up your point about [call tracing ability in] 1994’s “Butterfly”. But Columbo is not looking to determine the exact spot where Creighton was calling from, only that he was calling from his car. I’ll admit that’s an inference on my part, because Columbo begins to state, “Phone records could – ” and gets interrupted by a scene-stealing DA. But Creighton never tries to use a specific location as an alibi, only that he was driving [in Pasadena] at the time. And since Creighton didn’t make any calls, he can’t verify that he was in his car to make them.”
When Creighton says that he didn’t make or receive any calls, it renders the discussion of tracing moot. But it raises the question: If indeed merely a car phone call could have placed him in Pasadena 50 miles from the murder, then why not have Creighton simply have his (witless) partner-in-crime Trish make that call from the car? They had to go with the considerably-more-risky phony mask gambit to establish location instead. So when you say in your comment that the car call tracing would be “thus confirming his whereabouts”, I would say yes, the whereabouts being in his car, not necessarily the location of the car.
I presume Creighton prefers a mask-trick because it gives a visible and supposedly irrefutable confirmation that he was in a different place while a simple phone call raises a possibility that someone else (an accomplice) could be actually driving a car and making a call. To make the phone-call alibi bullet-proof Creighton would have to make sure that a person on the other end of the call confirms to police it was actually him calling.
I don’t disagree with your point about making the call bullet-proof with a voice confirmation. But all Columbo asks is, “You didn’t make or receive any calls from your car phone? Because if you did, sir, the phone company would have a record -” Nobody brings up specific location tracing. So here, I again fall back to going on the theory that if I can’t find contrary evidence (not for lack of trying), then if writer Woodfield didn’t work it into the plot, I presume its because the technology did not exist at the time to give a specific enough location in the car phone to matter. I could be mistaken, but Woodfield was there in ’91, not I.
Chase, demonstrating to Columbo his luxurious healthy life-style, executes an astonishingly feeble “work-out” on his home gym rowing machine. He barely pulls half a dozen strokes before (if memory serves) having to towel himself down (!). What would fitness fanatic Milo Janus have had to say about such a cursory, flabby performance from the well-padded ‘Shat’?… “Harder! Faster! Fatso!” I’d wager…
Agreed, it was a pathetic effort from the big man. He’s never been near a Milo Janus health club.
Another Star Trek alumnus, ‘proper actor’ Patrick Stewart (maybe actually on the bridge of the Enterprise (or whatever) at the time of ‘Butterfly’) would have done a better job as Fielding – effortlessly getting across the element of believable meanness you rightly say the “Kirkster” fails to deliver..
Just one more thing – to what does the title of “Butterfly” refer? Doesn’t it win a prize for silliest yet?
The title is said (by writer Peter S Fischer) to refer to the daughter, a butterfly yearning to be free to show the world her true colours. It might’ve been helpful to explain that – or have that be the title of her wannabe novel.
Nothing to do with the ‘tache’ then ? That’s a little disappointing.
Just perhaps, knowing Falk’s penchant for doing a scene over and over until he feels he’s “got it” maybe Shatner had to do many more six rows scenes?
This is one episode where the modern “more enlightened” reviewer will be inappropriately harsh. It’s simply unfair to impose the current level of enlightened thought on a 1990s network TV show, IMHO.
And I personally disagree with your broad strokes description of the late Rush Limbaugh’s radio program. I dare not delve into it further, lest I be berated for my thought patterns. Please do not exile me for daring to disagree.
I think you phrased that a little better than i did.
I rather enjoyed your do called Columbo’s comedic performances in this episode
Fielding Chase is one of the most dastardly Columbo killers and I would have liked a better gotcha. Why they put in a gay character only to do practically nothing with him smacks of tokenism and the homophobic slur of Chase at least in kee ping with the character. How could the victim fail to hear Chase speaking a few metres behind him?