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.
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…