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…