One of the least loved and least remembered episodes of Columbo’s classic era, Old Fashioned Murder was beset with such difficulties during its production that it nearly killed off the series.
Endless script tinkering and directorial instructions being phoned in by Peter Falk’s BFF Elaine May led to a complete dog’s dinner of a production that was full of plot holes and went waaaay over time and budget. Studio and network execs were livid, and so calamitous was the experience that it would be six months before another Columbo aired. You can find more info on this in David Koenig’s excellent Shooting Columbo book.
Although I personally rate it a lowly 43rd out of the 45 episodes that aired between 1968-78, Old Fashioned Murder does have it moments – not least due to the presence of Joyce Van Patten, who succeeds in making killer Ruth Lytton both a sympathetic and razor-sharp foil to the good Lieutenant.
So, what are the moments that rise above the mediocre and hint at what the episode could have been if treated more deftly? My thoughts are laid out as bare as a Max Barsini model below…
5. Janie’s knuckle sandwich
I wouldn’t go so far as to describe this as a great televisual moment but in an episode low in stand-out scenes, Janie’s pained reaction to finding a pair of dead bodies in the family museum certainly sticks in the memory.
Tasked with completing an inventory of museum artefacts by her aunt Ruth, what Janie is really being sent to do is stumble across the corpses of Milton Schaeffer and uncle Edward, both of whom were slain by Ruth the night before.
Janie’s shambling, teary-eyed, mumbling post-discovery appearance is really quite something and undoubtedly one of the most unique reactions we ever encounter in a Columbo. As she stifles a scream by jamming her hand into her mouth this correspondent can’t decide whether to laugh or cry…
4. Leaving on a man’s arm
Having lived in the shadow of overbearing, highly strung and frankly stupid sister Phyllis for most of her life, and having seen said sister rob her of her one true chance of love decades earlier, Ruth has had scant opportunity to revel in gentlemanly company.
Early in the episode, Phyllis ironically states, “there is a man’s arm to support every woman who wants one” – delivering a kick in the guts to Ruth, who has passed through life lovelessly thanks to her shallow sister’s selfish ways.
Fortunately, the chivalrous Columbo is only too happy to offer Ruth his arm as she takes her leave of sister and niece for what is presumably the last time. It represents a classy and poignant way for Ruth to exit stage left as she strides off to an uncertain future.
3. What do you expect for $30?
How many cops does it take to inspect the dead body of a man half-fallen into a phone booth? In the Columboverse the answer is four, and the comedy quartet does a good job at injecting a little levity into proceedings here.
Noting dead Shaeffer’s natty threads, new haircut and manicure, it’s obvious that the man had recently been splashing out the cash on some little perks – including a fine watch with DAY OF THE MONTH functionality built in.
Columbo, however, seems unimpressed by the timepiece, scoffing: “My watch cost $30. His must’ve cost a couple of hundred and it’s wrong – it says May 1st. Goes to show ya, money doesn’t buy quality.”
A detective underling is happy to point out the flaw in Columbo’s observation, retorting: “Lieutenant, it is May 1st. Your watch is wrong. His watch is right.”
Cue a comeback straight out of sitcomsville from the poker-faced Lieutenant: “Well, what d’ya expect for $30?” that elicits actual snorts of laughter from his colleagues – and you just know that a canned laughter track is itching to kick in.
Bonus points for Mike Lally being one of the investigators sticking their heads into the phone booth!
2. Columbo meets his mental match
Most Columbo killers are fooled hook, line and sinker by the Lieutenant’s bumbling facade. On the occasions a killer sees through his act and recognises the masterful mind sitting behind it, this usually means a confrontation for the ages à la Dr Ray Flemming, Leslie Williams or Bart Kepple. Ruth Lytton almost falls into this camp.
When Columbo tries to play his usual, forgetful schtick to trip her up, she won’t have any of it, leading up to a delightful and frank exchange between the pair in the Lytton museum. “Lieutenant, you must never underestimate me, nor I you,” she says. “I don’t in the least mind you playing tricks but you’re going to have to be a little cleverer, aren’t you?”
Similar remarks later in the episode highlight Ruth as being quite possibly the most self aware, smart and composed Columbo killer of all. And, atypically, it’s not a major miscalculation of her own that dooms Ruth, only the Lieutenant’s veiled threat to expose the skeletons in the family closet.
Overall it’s a strong and sympathetic turn from Joyce Van Patten, who deserved better than to be cast as killer in such a forgettable episode. Indeed, I’d hazard a guess that she’s better known to Columbo fans for her comic role as the wide-eyed nun in Negative Reaction than for her starring role here.
1. Darryl’s meltdown
Columbo was in for a shock to the system when he paid an innocent visit to Darryl’s hair salon seeking information on murder victim Milton Schaeffer’s haircut and manicure.
After being asked for an interview in the middle of a busy working day, the stylist is having none of it. When Columbo duly informs him that it’s a murder investigation, and if Darryl won’t be more helpful he’ll have to accompany the detective downtown, the crazed coiffeur goes into meltdown – and the only way the Lieutenant can de-escalate the situation is to agree to having a trim, leading to a hilarious (and short-lived) new look.
This is a scene that is invariably edited out of network broadcasts but it’s so enjoyable, it’s almost worth buying the DVD box-set just so you can enjoy it whenever you please as Darryl’s histrionics add much-needed energy and laughs to a plodding outing.
It’s made even funnier by the fact that in the following scene a watch salesman recognises Darryl’s handiwork and suggestively compliments the Lieutenant on his hot new look. Seems like Mrs Columbo was less of a fan, though, as when we next see our man he’s back to his usual, tousled look. Still, it was great fun while it lasted.
That’s all I got for now. Do share your thoughts on the highlights of the episode and indeed the episode in general, which I’m aware is generally held in low regard.
For a more detailed dissection of Old Fashioned Murder you can read my full episode review here. You can also see where I rank Ruth Lytton in the list of most sympathetic Columbo killers here.
Gotta dash, gang. I have an appointment at Darryl’s that I daredn’t be late for. He’s known to get a teensy bit touchy when the chips are down…
I kind of liked the jail scene where Columbo brings the young girl fast food. A very “human” few minutes.
I always enjoy this one; there’s something rather dark about it.
Janie was great in her part. Shouldn’t be near the bottom of the list in my opinion, but possible around the middle. Thanks CP, a nice re-visit 🙂
For some reason, I love the sound of Joyce Van Patten’s voice in this episode. I also love the voice of Donald Pleasance in Port. I wouldn’t call myself a devotee of ASMR, but I do understand how certain sounds can affect you. In Joyce’s case, the word measured comes to mind. A very pleasant change from that awful, scenery chewing, shrill mess that is Honor Blackman’s performance in Dagger
One of the most underrated episodes, in my opinion. Yes, the ending was weak and not as fleshed out as it could have been, but the villain was top shelf, the supporting characters and scenes were all solid with good comedic value, and the ashtray bit was an above average gotcha (or rather, an anti-gotcha.)
All these people hating on Phyllis’s fainting is just weird to me. You’ve never talked to someone who had the misfortune of having a family member or significant other with BPD? It’s in perfect harmony with the rest of her character, including the fact that she stole Ruth’s fiance away from her–people with BPD often have intense, vivacious, seductive personalities that can distract from their flaws and manipulations (as Johnny Depp found out the hard way.) Phyllis becoming less vivacious and more simply tiresome in her middle age years is par for the course.
Is the Darryl scene cut short (no pun intended) in the version streaming on Peacock? I don’t recall the histrionics you describe, but it’s been many months (possibly years) since I saw it.
This episode is rock bottom on my list of first-generation Columbos: number 45 out of 45. I’ll choose “Dagger” or “Last Salute” any day over “Old Fashioned Murder.” But all this time I thought that Peter S. Feibleman was some actor/writer brought in off the ash heap. I didn’t know that he had a credible bibliography. And Elaine May was not his only literary companion. According to Wikipedia: “Feibleman was Lillian Hellman’s long-time lover and friend, although she was seven years older than his own mother. He was the dedicatee of Pentimento, and was her principal heir and literary executor.”
Then again, Feibleman could have written “War and Peace” and “Old Fashioned Murder” would still be shockingly horrible.
Last Salute by far is the worse not only of Columbo but any detective series…just a trash bin of noise, touchy touchy, nonsense talk – and overacting like there was a crew party before filming each day imbibing who knows what to eat or drink. I realized during years of constant reruns the overacting, touchy touchy sexual innuendos, six time more in an episode my wife this and that fill in’s, the nonsense Chili fill ins, the assistant detective made out to be not as observant as Columbo. I really think during the later years many of the actors – not just Columbo, overacted maybe because of some kind of party activity each day before and during filming? Somehow, I missed the later years nonsense unless I was not watching as much as the first years of episodes?
“Last Salute” has perhaps the best mid-episode twist (or, as David Koenig would say, “Act II Switcheroo”) is the entire series. Yes, the style is different; and yes, the “T’isn’t” gotcha is unsatisfying (as I’ve discussed at length previously: https://columbophile.com/2019/08/11/trying-to-salvage-last-salute-to-the-commodore/) — but the style and gotcha in “Old Fashioned Murder” are no better. Celeste Holm’s regular fainting spells? Ridiculous. And what exactly is the gotcha? Identifying the belt buckle, or Columbo’s looming threat to implicate Ruth in Peter Brandt’s death? Who knows? It’s a completely muddled ending.
I mean, I think getting her to use the belt buckle as an ashtray was reasonably inspired, especially if you compared it to bottom 20% of gotchas and ah-ha moments over the years. It’s fairly clever and it actually makes sense–it doesn’t make you wince, roll your eyes or furrow your brow in bafflement, unlike the key moments in fan favorites like Any Old Port in a Storm or Try and Catch Me.
The fainting spells I don’t consider ridiculous at all–just a faked plea for attention, which fits in perfectly with the rest of her BPD personality. It really isn’t very uncommon–look up Munchausen Syndrome. It’s supposed to be ridiculous and over the top. That’s how less scrupulous/manipulative BPD people *are*. If you haven’t had the misfortune to encounter one in real life, consider yourself lucky.
The ending could have been better written, sure. It didn’t *necessarily* need a gotcha, but Peter’s death should’ve been explored, Ruth’s feelings towards her niece should’ve been better explored (did she think it was just a temporary inconvenience and the charges would be dismissed / she’d be acquitted? Or was Ruth’s core resentments actually far, far deeper than she let on?)
But I thought the strong characters–the villain, and her sister in particular (and Columbo with the stylist) carried this one despite the weak ending. I was really quite surprised to find it was so widely disliked. I would easily put it in the top 25% of episodes. If it had been better fleshed out and given just a little more bite it could’ve been on the short list for best episode–the ingredients were all there, they just were lazy in putting them together.
It’s kinda funny to me that people, in general, seem to tolerate dumpster fire bombastic illogical endings (Any Old Port in a Storm) much more than weak endings like this one. People actually seemed like the ending of LOST better than the ending of The Sopranos. Ah well, I suppose there’s no accounting for tastes.
(On another note: I agree Last Salute’s mid-episode twist was very well done. It would’ve been wonderful had the rest of the episode not been a dumpster fire. It annoys me when people claim that breaking the howcatch’em formula was why this episode was bad when actually that was the *only* decent part of the whole thing. However, I don’t think it’s enough to save the rest of it. I actually would’ve been willing to excuse Columbo’s bizarre behavior if they actually had ever given a REASON for it, even if that reason was just to try to unnerve him and get him to slip up in some specific way. But doing it just as a quirk of Columbo’s character… bleh. And then you have that ridiculous noisy scene, the overacting, the underdeveloped suspects, the insipid gotcha, etc.)
Completely agree, Bob. It’s the whole irritability factor, which is a worse sin than any number of plot holes.
I have wondered if the later period over-acting was prompted by over zealous directors attempting to tweak the formula to revive falling ratings.
I dunno, I think there was a LOT of overacting in the earlier episodes as well. In fact when I watched the later 80s and 90s episodes I remember saying wow, they messed up so much and yet at the same time they kept one of the most annoying aspects of the original seasons–the overacting villains.
See: The Most Dangerous Match, Any Old Port in a Storm, Lady in Waiting, Short Fuse, Blueprint for Murder, The Greenhouse Jungle, and Dagger of the Mind. Those all had some pretty over the top acting (although a couple of those I didn’t mind so much.)
I actually enjoyed this episode due to Joyce Van Patten’s portrayal of a sensitive, intelligent killer . Her interactions with Peter
Falk were sharp and entertaining ! Subtle but quite memorable !
I respect that there are many people, including CP, who enjoy Joyce Van Patten’s performance. For me, it comes off as flat, lifeless, drab, and severely underplayed. She’s as dreary as the musty museum she cocoons herself in. I find it in no way convincing that Columbo has, as is touted in #2 above, met his “mental match”.
I seem to have replied to the wrong post. See my full response under your other reply below (the long of the short of it being that I found Ruth’s understated and read-between-the-lines character to be a welcome change of pace from the overacting that Columbo villains all too frequently suffered from.)
JVP was dealt an impossible hand to play, acting-wise. At one moment, she tries to frame her niece for the murders of her uncle and boyfriend. In another, she surrenders to a murder charge to protect her niece from the truth about how her father died. How does one reconcile those wildly contradictory actions? Perhaps by portraying Ruth as a cipher — someone beyond rational understanding. Of course, she’s lifeless. She isn’t real.
It’s weird and unanswered, but as I say elsewhere I think there are two interpretations that work and they’re both kind of interesting. She’s either so pragmatic as to have a plan or rationale that her niece would likely get the charges dismissed against her fairly quickly (reasoning, perhaps slightly arrogantly–but also perhaps correctly–that her niece would suffer less for being in jail for a little while than than she would by permanently losing her aunt. The big idea being that the ashtray would be enough to establish reasonable doubt for Ruth but not enough to convict the niece)… or her resentment and loathing towards her family actually runs far deeper than she lets on and her reasons for going off with Columbo actually have little to do with the niece and more to do with not dredging up the past.
You can argue these are just head-canon on my part, and they are, but I think both are logical head-canons that largely fit with what we do see of her on screen. The hand-waving flimsiness of the ending, in my eyes at least, may have actually salvaged the rest of the story because in its murkiness it becomes possible to imagine resolutions to the contradiction.
I commend your valiant effort to find virtue in gaping plot holes. Perhaps, in future, all mystery episodes should show the crime and then cut directly to the arrest, so that each audience member may use his or her imagination to chart a personal path between beginning and end.
As I recall, the second Matrix movie divided people pretty much in half. Half of them thought it rather sucked because of all the muddled, pretentious crap and the inexplicable ending while the other half–while agreeing it wasn’t nearly as strong or good as the first one–were intrigued by the hints and spent a long time spinning various theories (the most popular of which generally involved the idea that Neo wasn’t actually out of the *real* Matrix yet.)
…and then the third Matrix movie came along, made clear what the point of it all was supposed to be, and absolutely everyone hated it.
I submit to you that this episode was The Matrix: Reloaded, while Any Old Port in a Storm was The Matrix: Revolutions.
I agree, this was definitely an above-average episode. The ending could’ve been punchier but the killer was great, the underlying storyline was a good one (if a little muddled towards the end), and there was good comedic stuff on the side along the way.
“Difficult genius” is a phrase properly used to describe Elaine May. For cinephiles, I’d suggest a google search to review her career, which is as highly regarded by critics as it is highly unfamiliar to many others. Her “Ishtar” was once labelled a notorious flop, but is now recognized as a “wrongly maligned masterwork” (well, at least by some).
Reviewing the detailed and entertaining “Shooting Columbo” account of “Old Fashioned Murder”, it looks like “Columbo” got the 50% difficult half of Elaine May without the 50% genius. Although the story of her having sand dunes in the Sahara bulldozed for “Ishtar” is probably fiction, she was indeed often butting heads with the male-dominated Hollywood power structure, and Falk sided with her stubborn stances on this episode. That would be fine if OFM was in return getting the sharp and witty writing of Elaine May. They didn’t. They got her sometime-script partner Peter Feibelman, who had some acclaim as a playwright and author, but it never translated into his “Columbo” work, which was pretty awful.
A famous quote attributed to Ronald Reagan: If you’re explaining, you’re losing. And boy, is OFM failing by this metric. Columbo is Basil Exposition in this one, giving us the info dumps on Ruth and Phyllis’ relationships, marriages, Peter Brandt’s long-ago death, etc. All of this is researched off-screen and uploaded to us in the back half of the episode to try to clarify Ruth’s motivations. That may make it easier for Feibelman to get the plot to come together, but it makes the ep a snoozer for us viewers – way too much Tell here and not enough Show.
“Last Salute” still holds down the bottom of my Classic Columbo list because our hero is astonishingly cringey to watch in action, but that episode at least avoids the numbing indifference and tedium of OFM.
In my eyes, she was meant to be an iceberg sort of character. The interesting parts to her character was what was hinted at, reading between the lines. This was a very welcome change of pace from the typical Columbo villain, who more often than not was painfully overacted. Even a villain who was interesting, cool and collected often quickly jumped to unrealistic and annoying yelling the moment the script called for any anger at all (like, say, Any Old Port in a Storm, or Murder, Smoke and Shadows.) A few villains were over the top almost the entire time (Short Fuse.)
I grant you that this iceberg portrait did suffer significantly from ending, where we didn’t get enough backstory on the former fiance, nor did we get a good enough sense of *exactly* what she felt about her niece (there’s two different interpretations that I can see here–that she genuinely loved her and thought she’d be released from jail shortly enough, or that her resentment and loathing actually runs far deeper and her going off with Columbo at the end wasn’t about her niece at all, but rather was to avoid dredging up the incredibly painful past with her fiance.) The fact that she controlled her emotions so well made her pretty fascinating, I thought.
I view this episode was one of those cases where imagination, where head-canon, can easily fill in the gaps. It fell short of greatness, yes, it handwaved away too much, but to me this is far preferable to those episodes that scream, shout and shove their mediocrity and illogical plot twists in your face.
I do like this episode and will watch it whenever it is played. But I do think Joyce Van Patten has a lot to do with that. I like her role here so much more than the silly nun she played in Negative Reaction. There are a lot of potential complexities to her character. But like her character they are subdued and under the surface that gives her an intriguing quality. On the one hand she appears to be the loving mother that her niece never had. On the other hand she sends her niece to do inventory knowing full well the horrible scene she will find there. Later, as Columbo closes in, she tries to frame her niece for the murders. Both indicative of her cold manipulative character, not of a loving mother figure at all. I sense in her character a suppressed, seething rage at the dismissive treatment of her family over the years. I see it in the casual annoyance she displays as she shoots her brother while she remarks “I wish people would stop asking me that.” She is at once ruthless, cold and calculating as any Columbo murderer, and yet I find, sympathetic also. Columbo’s escorting her on his arm as he arrests her underscores her sympathetic appeal almost as much as his toast to Adrian Carsini in Any Old Port in a Storm. (And personally I found Carsini a much less sympathetic character…)
I never realized that Elaine May had anything to do with this episode, but it explains many of the points in the plot lines that I found confusing and hard to follow. Still on balance, it does not detract from my enjoyment of Joyce Van Patten’s characterization in this episode which, for that reason, I rate much closer to the top than most viewers apparently do.
“Edited out because it’s so enjoyable” is almost exactly the phrase I think of countless times that I see something edited out of a story.
I don’t think “The P.C. Police get it removed!” or anything similar. Instead, I think that the thing got removed because it was too entertaining NOT to be removed. A sort of “perverse” reason.
Great review. That withering “You must never estimate me, nor I you” line certainly sticks in the mind more than the episode itself. Perhaps they also had the audience in mind – the early episodes never tried to manipulate the audience.
It’s notable how many of the classic era episodes were plotted around a failing business being run more as a dilettante obsession at the expense of commercial viability – Any Port, Playback. Then you have the reverse of this, when a business ingenui wants to nefariously gain control of the business – Lady in Waiting, Short Fuse.
I love the final scene, where Ruth is leaving the scene, ‘leaning on a man’s arm’. As amusing as Darryl’s meltdown is, that one would have been my number one.
I’d also have included Columbo’s questioning of Janie in jail, where she acceps a cigarette and uses the belt buckle as an ash tray. That scene is beautifully acted out, Janie being totally oblivious to what Columbo is doing.
I never knew Elaine May was responsible for Old Fashioned Murder’s maladies. And I’ll always love Elaine May for her writing, directing and starring in A New Leaf. But when you want someone to really mess up a production and have writers, producers and actors fighting to have their names removed from a productions credits, get Elaine May.