There are many types of Columbo endings, drawing many types of emotional response from the viewer.
Sometimes we feel euphoric (Suitable for Framing). At other times we share the same satisfaction as the Lieutenant when he’s taking out the worst of the trash (Candidate for Crime, Stitch in Crime, Exercise in Fatality). We may even be left with a mild sense of melancholy when a sympathetic villain submits to the arm of the law (Any Old Port, Swan Song, Try & Catch Me).
There are occasions, though, when the closing of a case represents a no-win scenario for all involved – including Columbo. His is a world where lives are lost and others left shattered; where his successes can lead to heartache and misery for innocent parties. Sometimes Columbo even has to employ underhand tactics to draw out the killer in ways that seem to overstep some sort of self-imposed moral boundary.
Those are the examples we’re considering today: the episode finales that leave the viewer or the detective (or both) feeling flat in the knowledge that while justice may have been done, it has come at a high price. The strength of these endings is that they leave the viewer with plenty to ponder long after credits roll. As such, they are to be celebrated.
10. Columbo Goes to College
The smackdown of smart-ass college kids Justin and Coop would have made for triumphant viewing were it not for the Lieutenant’s obvious dismay at their callous disregard for the consequences of their actions.
The criminal BFFs brazenly admit to the killing of Professor Rusk for little better reason than to save their own skins from their overbearing fathers – and because they knew how to pull off such a hyper-intelligent, cutting-edge murder. The crying shame of it is that their method of murder clearly showcased just how smart they really were once properly motivated. If only it could have been harnessed in a selfless manner.
Columbo’s world-weary head shake as the two are carted away makes his feelings clear: what a waste of life and talent; and what kind of world are we living in when kids kill just for the heck of it?
9. Etude in Black
The first of several examples in this list of a murderous man’s actions crushing the life of a significant woman in his life, the fate of Janice Benedict after husband Alex’s guilt is established fairly plucks at the heartstrings.
Janice has had good reason to suspect Alex of philandering, but never thought him capable of murder until the emotional finale in which his guilt is established and he whispers her a loving farewell before submitting to police custody. Most disheartening for Janice is that it was her testimony that Alex didn’t place a carnation in his button hole after the concert that really seals his fate.
Columbo’s gloom at this manner of closing the case is reflected in his reaction: he sags into an auditorium chair to watch a rerun of the concert (and likely reflect on the waste of life) in near pitch darkness.
8. A Case of Immunity
An interesting example of a case closure providing little satisfaction to the doughty Lieutenant, the bait-and-switch that ensnared Hassan Salah and forced his confession ends on a truly flat note.
Columbo has conspired with the Suari King to put First Secretary Salah at sufficient ease in a place of safety that he’s happy to admit committing murder. When the King – whom Salah had believed was on a plane home – emerges from the backroom having heard every treacherous word, Salah has two choices: face (presumably barbaric) justice in Suaria, or waive his diplomatic immunity and hand himself over to Lieutenant Columbo. He chooses the latter and signs a written confession on the spot.
The telling moment that gives us insight into Columbo’s state of mind here is the closing scene. The chipper King flashes the detective a smile and a cheeky thumbs up. Columbo’s response is much more pessimistic. He gives a half-hearted wave and looks away, with a face as long as a wet weekend. And what it tells us is that the Lieutenant has taken little pleasure in the subterfuge that has put the guilty party through the emotional wringer.
7. Mind Over Mayhem
It’s not entirely devoid of hope, but the final scene of Mind Over Mayhem rings a solemn note with both detective and killer having reason to reflect on the virtues of their recent actions.
In order to elicit a confession from Dr Marshall Cahill, Columbo stages the sham arrest of his son, Neil, whom he accuses of murder based on false evidence and has him dragged off downtown in front of his father’s eyes. Cahill Snr. isn’t exactly Father of the Year material, having browbeaten his son for time immemorial, but the sight of him being fitted up for a crime he didn’t commit is enough to stir his paternal instincts.
Dashing after the arrest party, Cahill encounters Columbo waiting for him in the corridor outside. During their closing exchange, Columbo apologises for the treatment of Neil, while reassuring Cahill that he knows he committed murder in order to protect his son. It’s an ending that goes someway to humanising Cahill Senior, but the tough love he has dispensed to Neil over many years, allied with the Lieutenant’s underhand deception, rounds things out in a decidedly cheerless manner.
6. Double Shock
Columbo never had a more fearsome opponent than Mrs Peck – the irascible housekeeper who has presided over towel tending and pitcher filling at the Paris family mansion for more than 30 years.
The Lieutenant’s careless and untidy ways alienate him from Mrs Peck on numerous occasions throughout the episode, and his interactions with her provide a hefty whack of the episode’s numerous comic asides. However, despite her crotchety nature, the revelation that Clifford Paris was indeed killed by his twin nephews Norman and Dexter would turn her small world completely upside down.
We are told that Mrs Peck has “more love for the family than the family has”, so for her to be present at the downfall of her beloved boys – and to hear Norman admit the pair’s guilt – would represent a grievous blow. That’s a fact not lost on Columbo, who gently takes her hand and ushers her off to what can only be considered (at best) an uncertain future as credits roll.
5. Old Fashioned Murder
The Lytton family is torn to ribbons by the revelation that quiet spinster Ruth was the woman responsible for a double homicide – including that of her own brother Edward.
Once again we see Columbo resort to dubious methods to close the case. Here, he suggests to Ruth’s beloved niece (or possibly illegitimate daughter) Janie that Ruth killed her father years before because of her hatred for him and her entire family – an act unthinkable to Janie, who dotes on her aunt and whose love, she believes, has held the family together. To avoid the scandal of a public trial, Ruth admits to the double murder – but only after she gets Columbo to publicly recant his statement that he believes Ruth killed Janie’s father (even though she almost certainly did).
Ruth maintains her dignity, as well as Janie’s affections, to the end, while her act of leaving the room on a man’s arm has significance and meaning after so long living in the shadow of socialite sister Phyllis. Columbo offering Ruth his arm is his way of apologising for backing her into a corner, but it can’t overcome the fact that Ruth has lived a joyless life mostly thanks to her idiot sister and unsympathetic brother. All in all, it’s a sad end to a sad case.
4. Dead Weight
Another example of an innocent woman enduring an emotional rollercoaster at the hands of a villainous man, Helen Stewart’s plight seems particularly dispiriting.
A down-on-her-luck divorcée, who lives with her overbearing and insensitive mother, Helen was so desperate for love and understanding that she was willing to abandon her own convictions and fall for the charms of a charismatic, courteous suitor – even though she saw him commit murder.
A victim of gaslighting and moral subversion throughout the episode, Helen ultimately realises that she has been betrayed by both General Hollister and herself only when Columbo provides definitive proof of the General’s guilt – in exactly the manner Helen herself witnessed.
Quite what emotional damage this latest setback in her life will do to Helen in the long-term can only be guessed at as the tender Lieutenant leads her away.
A truly harrowing example of the fall-out from Columbo’s cases, Elizabeth Van Wick’s tear-stained face following her husband’s arrest for the murder of her mother is perhaps Playback’s defining moment.
We know that Harold Van Wick is a cheating, murdering cur. Elizabeth, however, believes him to be her knight in shining armour and a man who has devoted himself to her care and wellbeing. When push comes to shove, though, Elizabeth sees the truth. Her refusal to back up Harold’s insistence that his hated mother-in-law was alive and well when he left for an appointment at an art gallery will damn her husband to a life behind bars.
Thematically similar to Etude in Black, the strength of Gena Rowland’s performance gives this a much greater emotional punch. Columbo meeting Elizabeth’s gaze and then looking away before the final freeze frame also hints at the spiritual turmoil he’s going through himself.
2. Forgotten Lady
To my mind the saddest Columbo finale of all, there are simply no winners at the end of Forgotten Lady.
The Lieutenant has correctly deduced that Grace Wheeler killed husband Henry, but he has also found out about her lethal, inoperable brain aneurysm that Henry had kept secret from her, and which was the root cause of her erratic behaviour.
By the time Columbo has figured things out, Grace’s mental decline means she can no longer recall killing Henry. To prevent her spending her final weeks of life in police custody, Grace’s erstwhile movie dance partner (and true love) Ned Diamond takes the rap. It’ll take Columbo a month or so to break his story. By then, Grace will be at peace.
Enhanced by the majestic performances of Janet Leigh and John Payne, the conclusion to Forgotten Lady is like no other Columbo episode. The melancholy nature of the scene is summarised as Columbo wistfully looks on at Grace as she sits wide-eyed and oblivious to it all, watching herself on the home cinema screen as he and Ned leave her to her fate.
1. Negative Reaction
The most enigmatic Columbo ending of all is also the one that inspires the most debate amongst fans; the Lieutenant’s slump-shouldered reaction ahead of the final freeze-frame being open to several interpretations.
Some believe he’s simply exhausted at the end of an arduous case, but I’ve always felt there’s much more to it than that. His attitude is one of complete despondency. That’s not like him at all, hence why I believe we should seek a deeper meaning to his actions.
We can postulate that the sight of the photograph of murder victim Frances Galesko served to remind him of the sobering loss of life, but even that doesn’t seem to go far enough. That’s why I’ve long held the belief that Columbo is down on himself after having lied so brazenly to force his suspect’s hand. It’s telling because it not only gives us genuine insight into what Columbo is willing to do in the line of duty, but how he subsequently feels about having done it.
We’ve seen Columbo employ suspect tactics to trick his quarry into giving themselves away in the past – notably in Death Lends a Hand. But on this occasion, forcing Galesko’s hand and cracking the case brings him no satisfaction. In fact he gives every impression of a man who is struggling with internal conflict brought about by his own actions.
Consider: the desperate Galesko identifies the incriminating camera after Columbo tells him he ‘accidentally’ destroyed the original photo of Frances by dropping it in hydrochloric acid. The detective even says he’ll swear to it in court that the image wasn’t mistakenly reversed when it was reprinted. We know Columbo isn’t afraid to employ trickery, but outright lies don’t sit so easily with him. He can barely bring himself to look his adversary in the eye as he explains the significance of Galesko’s incriminating actions. He even says “Sorry, sir” just before the aghast photographer is read his rights and led away.
To me that’s a clear indication that his actions have crossed a self-imposed moral boundary, leaving the Lieutenant empty and jaded despite achieving his ultimate aim. It’s a classic example of a Pyrrhic victory. Columbo loves his job and is entirely content with his lot in life, but there are still times when the weight of what he’s involved in bears heavily upon him.
We know Columbo isn’t afraid to employ trickery, but outright lies don’t sit so easily with him.
As always, I would welcome reader comments on this subject. Which are the episodes that leave you feeling flat once they’re all over? And are there any in my list that you disagree with? Get involved and have your say!
In the meantime, I’ll be slogging away with my review of Murder With Too Many Notes. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it, amirite?