One of the most popular Columbo episodes of all, Now You See Him is packed with the sort of goodness that has seen the series win the hearts and minds of millions of viewers for more than 50 years.
The memorable magical backdrop, a tour de force performance by Jack Cassidy in his series’ farewell, the return of Sergeant Wilson, a Dog cameo, a despicable victim and lashings of great humour give Now You See Him awesome repeat viewing power. No wonder it’s firmly entrenched in many a fan’s personal top 10 episodes.
When there’s so much goodness going around, it can be tricky to pinpoint the very finest moments but that’s what I’ve attempted to do here. So let’s sit back and enjoy The Great Santini give his all at the Cabaret of Magic…
5. Wilson unwittingly cracks the case
Three years since we last met him in The Greenhouse Jungle, Sergeant Wilson returned as a Columbo sidekick at the Cabaret of Magic – albeit having had a first name switcheroo from Freddie to John J. Still keen, still green, Wilson hasn’t advanced as far as might have been expected professionally, but he plays a material role in helping the Lieutenant break the case.
Columbo is certain that Santini is the killer of Jesse Jerome, but can’t fathom out a motive. The two detectives return to the crime scene in an attempt to retrace Jerome’s last moments – and end up at the typewriter. No letter was found on it, but sweat marks on Jerome’s back suggest he was sitting at the typewriter shortly before being slain. Columbo notices a golf ball-like device within the machine itself, but can make head nor tail of it. Wilson, however, having experience of using such ‘cutting edge’ tech at the police academy is able to identify that the ball rotates to punch ultra-crisp letters out of a disposable carbon ribbon.
Demonstrating his typing skillz, Wilson busts out “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party” on the machine, before readying to depart the scene. Only Columbo sees the significance in the action and deduces that whatever Jerome typed prior to his death will be readable off the carbon ribbon – the crucial evidence he needs to nab Santini.
Notably, Wilson is referred to as Doctor Watson by Santini during this scene – and he plays the role to a tee. He may not himself be luminous, but he certainly was a conductor of light here.
4. Elevating the down-and-out
A beautiful example of Columbo’s everyman charm comes when the Lieutenant makes a positive impression during his visit to down-on-his-luck former high wire ace, Michael Lally.
Lally knows Santini from decades before when they trod the circuit together. He’s able to provide useful information about the magician’s changing accents and names, although he doesn’t know anything about his original identity. He’s helpful to a point but the beauty of the scene really lies in what it shows us about the real Columbo.
Lally is clearly down on his luck. He lives in a dive and has to share toilets and showers with other tenants. All he owns in the apartment is his TV and a hotplate. His final years on this earth look bleak and lonely – a far cry from the life in the spotlight he once knew. Yet Columbo makes him feel like the place he’s in is a palace, not a slum, sharing a beer with his host and displaying his rare gift of being able to connect with and put at ease people from all walks of life.
It’s superb – and an additional treat for serious fans to see Lally (the actor) given a decent speaking part after being an extra in so many previous episodes.
3. The flamboyant finale
Columbo often sets elaborate traps to draw out his suspects but he rarely indulges in theatrics of his own. Here, however, he revels in a touch of showmanship that even Sherlock Holmes would have approved of.
After Santini uses his magic skillz to incinerate an incriminating letter in which he’s said to be a former Nazi SS Guard (his motive for murder), Columbo produces some sleight of hand of his own to conjure up another copy of the letter. And another. And another. Even the guileless Wilson joins in the fun in one of the series’ most memorable – and shamelessly flamboyant – finales.
2. “I’ve had a haircut.”
One of the series’ best visual gags accompanies Columbo’s introduction in Now You See Him – as his hated new coat makes its short-lived appearance.
Emerging from his car at the Cabaret of Magic, viewers can instantly tell something ain’t quite right with the Lieutenant’s appearance and it doesn’t take long for the realisation to sink in that he’s not wearing his ever-present mac. When a uniformed officer fails to recognise him, Columbo’s straight-faced explanation that “I’ve had a haircut,” is therefore 24-carat comedy gold.
Peter Falk’s ability to come across as being stiff and self-conscious in the coat perfectly leads into an episode’s worth of rib-tickling asides as Columbo does his best to rid himself of the offending garment – even urging Dog to look away if someone attempts to lift it from his car later in the episode. No wonder Falk rated the gag as one of his very favourite from the 70s’ series.
1. “I knew you could do it.”
The entire scene of Columbo volunteering to assist Santini during his live act is televisual perfection. So determined is he to get on stage and test the magician’s lock-picking skills that Columbo virtually storms the stage, giving Santini no option but to accept his presence – a decision that plays a big part in sealing his own fate.
The array of card tricks Santini plays on Columbo is delightful in itself, but the piece de resistance is the tense build-up (complete with cliche-licious drum roll) to Santini escaping from the unbreakable handcuffs. Unable to allow himself to fail on-stage, the magician breaks the unbreakable handcuff locks that Columbo has challenged him to escape from live on stage. As the camera draws in on Columbo’s face, all the jollity has gone, replaced by a grim and intense satisfaction as his hunch that Santini could have picked the lock on Jerome’s office door is proved right.
It all ends with a sly wink from detective to magician and the simple line: “I knew you could do it.” From this point on, you just know there’s no way Santini’s going to elude the detective’s clutches – whether he’s a master of escapology or not.
The entire scene of Columbo volunteering to assist Santini during his live act is televisual perfection.
Well folks, those are my personal episode highlights but I’d love to hear yours, so please share your thoughts in the comments section below. Was this a fitting farewell to the great Jack Cassidy? How did you enjoy catching up with Wilson once more? And what are your thoughts on the on-running coat gag?
If you’re keen to refresh yourself on the particulars of the episode, you can read my full review right here. You can also see where Columbo fans rank the episode in the series’ hall of fame here. On a more sombre note, you can read more about the tragic death of Jack Cassidy 10 months after Now You See Him aired here.
The next of these ‘five best’ articles will focus on Last Salute to the Commodore, which is likely to test me to the max because I can’t think of five enjoyable moments off the top of my head. Still, I shall endeavour to do my best on behalf of you all. Until next we meet, keep out of trouble and remember – I knew you were thinking of number four…
I love the last bit of dialogue between Columbo and Santini. “And to think I committed the perfect murder.” “The perfect murder, sir? Oh, there’s no such thing. That’s just an illusion.” Love, love, love that ending. The “I knew you could do it” was also pure magic, literally and figuratively.
Honestly, I cringe every time I hear that final line from Santini (“And I thought I’d performed the perfect murder.”). I don’t believe for a second that the character ever would say anything like that. It’s obvious to me that the line was forced from Santini’s mouth simply to set up Columbo’s witty reply. In an otherwise excellent script, that one line rings completely hollow.
Absolutely my favorite episode with The Immortal Jack Cassidy. He and Peter Falk had a unmistakable understanding of timing and true voice acting chops. I don’t know if there’s another character in primetime television history that could or will ever have Peters little sly smile or subtle eye wink that simply said, GOTCHA. Jack and Robert Culp are 2 of the 3 best returning actors. IMO, Only Patrick McGowan was better. Especially as a director.
My observations of this episode:
1) The Cabaret of Magic’s motif seemed like a cross between Victorian-era antique furniture, with mid to late 1970’s decor: drab colors and patterns, textured wallpaper, shag carpet, lava lights, etc., polyester leisure suits, and cigarette and cigar smoke everywhere….ahhh the good old days!
2) The distaste everyone had for slimy, sweaty Jesse Jerome (to know him is to detest him). One of the Columbo victims that no one shed a tear for.
3) Santini’s daughter’s beau in the light blue tux, a talentless crooner. I’ll bet he was on top of the world when Santini got busted. No more daddy, just his delectable daughter all to himself.
4). The way Santini casually glides across the floor and his slick hand movements and gestures, his overall body language. Cassidy truly was a world class ham. But the way that no one noticed him in the kitchen?…..no way. Also, his act was meticulously planned. He wouldn’t let anyone just step up to test him, especially LAPD.
5) Columbo’s greasy bag of chicken.
6) Anything with Robert Loggia in it is a winner. Strange that his character’s name was Blandford, since he was 100% Sicilian, and Cassidy (of Irish/German ancestry) was named Santini.
7) Every episode with Mike Lally is golden, especially when he speaks.
To me, this episode was what saved an otherwise uninspired season 5.
Bravo, CP! Excellent article of my fave episode from the 70s era. This was the quintessential Columbo: Jack Cassidy, Sgt. Wilson, Mike Lally, it had it all. And as others have mentioned, great story and direction from Michael Sloan and Harvey Hart. This was truly timeless television at it’s finest!
The cheesy sequence of magic tricks as he works his way through the audience with that rigid stare on his face is outstanding. (All to a drumroll while the audience falls all over everything he does.)
My favorite episode! I also like the confrontation scene in Jerome’s office and I’m even more chilled at seeing what Glenn Stewart observed of Santini blowing out the flame of his lighter, symbolically, it seems. Then, I noticed a reel-to-reel tape machine in the background that is running. The reels are turning, but we hear no playback, and may assume it’s recording. Santini would notice this. It’s running during the murder scene, as well, although there’s nothing of interest to record at first. It would have been better if Jerome rose and turned the recorder on as he went out to the door. IF that recorder meant anything at all, which it seems not to, but why was it running? A simple production mistake? It’s not running when the police have arrived. It’s possible Santini quickly grabbed the reels and replaced them, although he had very little time, or the police turned it off, but then they would have recognized the importance of the recording. Columbo later suggests Jerome could have been listening to music, just randomly suggesting this, I suppose, but it would occur to him if they’d checked the reels and found music on them. I wonder if the tape reels were the original incriminating evidence that Santini wanted and then it changed to a type-written letter (along with the “old man’s” letter) but footage had already been shot of the confrontation and murder scenes. If Santini had taken the tapes, there’s no indication whatsoever of this, so it seems like an abandoned idea.
Good catch on the rolling tape, Bill. I’m pretty sure it’s playing the light classical music we hear in the background while Santini and Jerome are verbally jousting. The music we hear there is not a “Columbo” score. As to why the tape deck is running during the murder scene – because there is no music playing in Jerome’s office – I’d chalk that up to a production/continuity error. They happen (hence, the “Magic Circle”).
Oops. I’m so enthralled with that scene, I never noticed the music, or it registered as score sub-consciously. I could swear there wasn’t anything playing. I must have been thinking only of the murder scene. As for that, once the music is established, it’s easy to believe the music on the tape was over and the tape was still running, blank at the end. I wouldn’t have gotten so worked up if Oliver Brandt had gifted Jerome with one of his fancy record players. 😀
“I knew you could do it” – the scene embodies Columbo’s modus operandi perfectly.
He’s already evaluated Santini as a remarkably skillful and arrogant man, and likely the murderer. Columbo just doesn’t know the motive. The escape act Columbo foists on Santini supports his suspicions. If Santini had been smarter than he was arrogant, he would have refused the challenge, or pretended not to be able to escape the handcuffs. But his character doesn’t allow that. Columbo’s uncanny understanding of human character is the weapon he uses to bring down the perpetrators. Which is why the show is so satisfying.
The theatrics of the finale are particularly satisfying – Columbo as a magician outwitting the magician. I love how he pretends to be taken aback when the incriminating letter goes up in flames at Santini’s magic touch. Only to produce letter after letter, like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. What a set up.
A thoroughly enjoyable episode. Probably my favorite.
Yes! And while this gotcha may be shamelessly flamboyant, it’s not POINTlessly showy. Columbo is driving home that not only did he know Santini was the killer from the jump, he knows how Santini did it, and further still knows/predicts what Santini will do NEXT! Thoroughly and savagely beaten by the latter, Santini rightfully hangs his head in defeat.
Imagine Santini trying to fight back in court (means, motive and opp are not a smoking gun, after all).
‘So Sergeant Wilson, what did Santini do when you presented this evidence?’
‘He tried to burn it, but we had a dozen more copies with us.’
‘Huh, how could you possibly be so sure this man would be ready to and attempt to destroy evidence?’
‘Cause he’s a guilty sumbitch, that’s why.’
This is one of my favorite episodes.
Thank you for this article and the top 5 list.
I liked the interaction between Santini and his daughter. I had not known until now, about the ultimate tragic fate of Jack Cassidy.
Certainly one of my top five episodes, and one I can watch with pleasure over and over. I have only one minor gripe – at the end, when Santini takes the note from Columbo and burns it up in an instant. Ordinary typing paper won’t burn like that – only flash paper will.
Of course, the fact that Columbo and Wilson have ready copies shows that Coulmbo knew that Santini would try in some way to destroy the evidence, so I guess Columbo typed the first one on flash paper in case Santini tried just what he did, so it would be…what? Really dramatic?
I dunno – it’s a real stretch. But it doesn’t matter in the face of my favorite moment – the very last, with the series’ greatest closing exchange: “And I thought I had committed the perfect murder.” “Prefect murder, sir? That’s just an illusion.”
Incidentally…I teach 4th grade and I’ve tried the “pick a number” trick on my kids…and they figure it out in about five seconds. Clearly, I’m no Santini!
This is my top favorite Columbo episode, and CP’s scene choices are spot on.
The whole scene in the retired high-wire ace’s room was great, highlighting some of Columbo’s most endearing charms.
And “I knew you could do it,” accompanied by that expression, was just excellent.
All of these posts are so insightful, too!
I love Sergeant Wilson’s presence, but Columbo is basically a solo act–Holmes disguised as Watson.
This is exemplified by how little Columbo tells Wilson about how he’s proceeding. They’re both at the locksmith shop, but Columbo never tells Wilson about the handcuffs. Wilson is backstage when Santini passes Columbo’s handcuff challenge, but Columbo never mentions its significance. It’s not until the final scenes that Columbo finally treats Wilson as a true member of the team.
Yes, it’s like Columbo thinks a sidekick will just slow him down. Can’t blame him. In general, few others on the police force understand him and his approach, so an assistant would probably just be one more person who didn’t get him.
The entirety of “Now You See Him” is marked by superb direction from Harvey Hart. As with many of his Columbo contributions, such as the fluid camera work and use of mirrors in “Forgotten Lady”, his touches are best appreciated after multiple viewings. We see it very quickly in the prop room opening as the camera pans to and lingers on a devil’s figurine, then moments later is sweeping up to see Santini’s own shadowed devil-scowl.
When Santini meets Jerome in his office to give us the necessary motive exposition, Mueller tries to excuse his Nazi role by lamenting that he was only 21, “merely a boy”. Replies Jerome, “No one in the camps was just a boy unless he was being taken into the oven”. At that precise moment, Hart shows us Mueller – for no practical reason – deliberately flicking his lighter and blowing it out! (I’ve seen this episode countless times and it was only last week that I caught that nasty bit of business).
The deliberate, detailed, and tense build-up to Jerome’s killing is not distinguished by any taut original music score, as we often find in “Columbo”. Rather, from the moment that Santini is chained in his box, sets up his alibi with the waiter, makes his way through the prop room and kitchen, then picks the lock, Hart paces the scene by setting it to diegetic music – music that is part of the fictional setting and thus heard by the characters. In this case, it’s the continuous, rhythmic light brush drumming used in Santini’s magic act. It’s meant to highlight the tension of the Santini escape trick in the ballroom, but also cleverly doubles as the anticipation to the murder climax. The capper is when Jerome gets plugged and drops to the floor – and we hear loud audience applause!
Hart’s creativity takes the relatively minor locksmith scene and makes it distinctive by filming 99% of it from inside the shop, even as we see Wilson pull up in his car [Wilson must have kids – it’s a wood-paneled family station wagon], and he and Columbo talk on the sidewalk, as seen through the shopwindow glass. And for Columbo’s onstage handcuff moment, instead of going quickly to close-ups of a peeved Santini when Columbo interrupts the act, Hart delays the tight facial shots until the very end, to great effect. Columbo’s knowing wink, smirk, and understated “I knew you could do it” is perfectly matched by Santini’s dark glower.
The scene where Columbo pieces together Jerome’s movements to his office door before getting gunned is a perfect example of the Posterior Predictive Checks that Columbo uses to test different theories, which I noted in the Sherlock-Columbo column. And finally, authorities might have had a slightly harder time finding Mueller than Jerome intended. His letter very clearly states at the bottom that the Nazi magician can be found performing at the Magic Circle Club in L.A. I guess when the feds didn’t find him there, next stop would have been the Cabaret.
I agree completely about the murder sequence. To me, the diegetic music and intercutting with the action on stage was a far more artful version of Kay Freestone’s suspenseful tape recording in “Make Me a Perfect Murder.” It so effectively underscored the ticking clock — or here, pink hourglass — constraining Santini’s movements.
Yes, lots of pressure on Santini here. Unlike other “against the clock” killings, Santini’s professional reputation is on the line as much as the success of the murder.
As in all episodes, the viewer has a vested interest in seeing the crime be completed – otherwise, we don’t spend our Sunday night watching Columbo solve it, and we get another crappy episode of “MacMillan and Wife” instead.
Thanks for the insights. I hadn’t noticed Hart’s wonderful directorial choices. As with all great direction, the overall effect is there even if you don’t notice the details. But I’m going to pay more attention on my next viewing.
And I love the Magic Circle Club goof!
Now You See Him first aired in 1976 when I just turned 12. Unfortunately I wasn’t a fan of Columbo at the time (I was into KISS and skateboards) but my parents adored the series. My mom especially loved Jack Cassidy and I still remember her being upset when he tragically passed away. Jack may be gone but he’ll never be forgotten!
I’m thinking of a number…thinking of a number… 😆 🤣 😂 😹 So many wonderful and delightful scenes…even the beginning Santini getting the gun hidden in a revolving devil statue…pure genius the whole movie.
I’ve come to appreciate the lock-picking scene more now than when I saw this episode for the first time.
All great choices, CP. I don’t suggest that my offerings belong in the top 5, but may merit honorable mention:
I especially enjoy those moments when Columbo confides in someone that he knows who the murderer is. It doesn’t happen very often. Here, after Sgt. Wilson spins a theory about how the waiter Thackeray could have done it, Columbo makes his conclusions clear: “The magician did it. … Mr. Santini killed Mr. Jerome. … What we have to remember is that Mr. Santini is a master of illusion. He makes you believe what he wants you to believe.”
[Note: In Michael Sloan’s original script, it wasn’t Thackeray whom Wilson suspected, it was the singer Danny Green. He even brings Danny down to the station for questioning, laying out the case against him. Columbo immediately lets Danny go. “Sir, you’ve let him escape!” Wilson exclaims. “Sergeant, you’re a very enthusiastic fellow,” Columbo replies, “but nobody’s escaped — and the next time you decide to bring somebody in, will you check with me first?” Then he tells Wilson that “the magician did it.”]
In conjunction with that announced conclusion is the next moment with Columbo, Wilson, and Santini. Wilson: “You see, sir, we’re stumped with the motive.” Santini: “Do you have a suspect?” Columbo: “Yes.” Santini: “You do?” Columbo: “We do, but we don’t have a motive for you.”
Yes indeed … that scene is great: Santini: “Do you have a suspect?” Columbo: “Yes.” Santini: “You do?” Columbo: “We do, but we don’t have a motive for you.”
The entire episode offers up one fine scene after another. The girlfriend companion lady with Santini in the restaurant scene…her attitude ..she’s fine with him..but her noncommittal response to becoming his traveling companion offers yet another moment of insight into the smarminess and arrogance of the man.
The actor playing Jessie Jerome, Nehemiah Persoff, died last April at the age of 102.
As with LQ Jones, he was one of the best character actors of his time and he’s very lucky to have lived a long rich life. Rest in peace, Mr. Persoff!
Wonderful episode, absolutely packed with great moments. I’d include the scene at the restaurant when Santini tells Columbo his first name is Martha. Jack Cassidy was so good in this.
‘I knew you could do it’ is also for me the absolute highlight of this formidable episode. Personally I’d have added the wager between Santini and the waiter who brings him his whisky (pick a number 1 to 4), since it’s probably the weakest spot in Santini’s plan to kill Jerome and provides a clue – apart from the scene being very enjoyable by itself.