First broadcast: 1990
“What makes the episode - and ensures it has a higher rating than it would otherwise have - is Patrick McGoohan“
It's time for the presidential election primaries and the whole city is excitedly waiting to see who Governor Montgomery is going to pick as his running mate. Much of the speculation is (correctly) on Congressman Paul Mackey, a match made by Paul's friend, campaign manager and well known lawyer Oscar Finch.
However Finch has a past, and at his home late one evening he gets a call from Frank Staplin. Staplin is having legal problems which could result in five years in jail, however the whole case could easily be ended by one file conveniently going missing, just as one did in a similar case back in 1969 when Finch, then a young solicitor, helped ensure a file got lost.
The pair arrange to meet, however Finch first calls by his office . Crumpling a cigar in an ash tray, he sets it alight before taking a gun and a newspaper clipping about Staplin from his safe.
He takes a bullet from the gun and with a pair of pliers, disassembles it and empties the gunpowder on to some tin foil which he then sets alight. The burnt powder is then wrapped up in the foil. Leaving his cigar smouldering, he heads out in to the now dark and stormy night and walks to Staplin's home where he finds Staplin alone and eating cheese.
After initially offering money, Staplin then moves on to trying to blackmail Finch in to submission using the fact that Paul Mackey worked in the District Attorney's office and 1969 and could easily be implicated with that crime by association if by nothing else. Nibbling some cheese, Oscar gets the gun out and shoots Staplin. He puts the half eaten cheese on the plate.
Gently he places the newspaper clipping beneath Staplin's head and sets everything up to make it look like Staplin committed suicide. The burnt gunpowder he sprays on to Staplin's hand to give powder burns and makes it look like the gun dropped from Staplin's hand and on to the floor.
It's heavily raining as he walks back to the office and his suit trousers get rather wet. Back at his office he flushes the cigar bits down the toilet, leaving just the ashes in the ash tray and drives home.
The next morning the police arrive and automatic assumption is that naturally it's suicide however Columbo spots something interesting. On the hard wood floor there is blood under the gun, however none on the gun itself. Turning the gun over he finds that even though the gun was resting on a blood spot, the other side of the gun is completely clean - the blood was dry when the gun fell. He also spots a fax machine and discovers that there were two faxes. Only one was sent, and at 12:27 to his wife in her Hawaii hotel.
Finally he checks the phone to see who was last phoned. Naturally it was the Finch residence so Columbo heads to the house where he meets Mrs Finch who has no knowledge of Frank Staplin, so instead he heads to Finch's office just in time to hear Finch's secretary complaining about the cigar smell lingering round the place.
When Finch arrives he takes the Lieutenant through what happened the previous evening. Staplin had phoned up trying to get Finch to take his case on and he sounded desperate. They'd never met however he'd read about Staplin's case in the press.
Later at the Baltimore Hotel where Finch is arranging a party for after the election, Columbo arrives and asks a little more about Staplin's distressed voice. Finch replies that Staplin said "What the hell am I going to do? What the hell am I going to do? Jesus" which he thought sounded rather distressed. Columbo then asks if Finch was in the office that evening, to which the reply is yes however Finch won't say with whom.
Everywhere Finch now goes, Columbo turns up. After a court case he asks again about Staplin's voice as it seems to contradict the fax he sent which was a joke. Finch, notably, doesn't try to explain the difference.
In a break from chasing Finch, Columbo now visits Mackey who is about to do a TV interview, and asks him about Staplin and whether Finch had mentioned it when the pair had had dinner. Columbo then seeks an autograph for his wife.
Naturally Columbo's visit makes Mackey worried and when he meets Finch later, Finch has to make a lot of reassuring noises. However the next day when Paul is off to meet the Governor, Columbo is back to ask if Mackey ever had a relationship with Staplin. Paul says he didn't, however as he's on his way out, Columbo gently lets it slip that it's now being officially classed as murder, just to make him even more nervous.
Doing some rooting around, Columbo finds Finch's dry cleaner and gets the suit that Finch was wearing that evening. It clearly has water marks on the trousers and Columbo arranges with the manager to borrow the suit and would have too had it not have been put in the dry cleaning machine whilst the pair were talking!
Meanwhile Paul is getting very worried and asks Finch who is alibi is. Finch just stares at Paul knowingly. In a good piece of acting, Paul reveals to the Lieutenant that it was he who Finch had met that night, however Columbo is suspicious and asks how Paul got there, and whether it was raining. Paul replies by car and that it wasn't. And they both arrived and left at the same time.
However Columbo knows that they didn't as he'd seen the car park the next morning. The rain had made all the car park wet however there was a dry patch where a car had been left. However there was only one car there that night. So he sneaks into Finch's office and steals some chewing gum from the bin.
Back at the hotel it's party night however Columbo is keen to ensure no one is in a partying mood, even if the Congressman has given him the Governor's autograph for his wife! Some digging has been done and Columbo knows Paul worked in the DA's office in 1969, and that Paul was involved in some way.
Down below Columbo collars Finch, gives Finch his suit back and tells Finch what he believed really happened that night. Ah but there's no proof retorts Finch.
Ah but there is. Columbo reveals his chewing gum. And a piece of cheese. And Finch's dental records. All three have the same bite mark and that could easily convict him, The piece of cheese places him at the scene of the crime, shattering his story. And with that he's arrested.
Cleverness of the way Columbo catches out the murderer
Some episodes Columbo gets his man with a lot of elaborate digging. This time he gets him on dental records.
Okay when the episode was broadcast, bite mark evidence was pretty new and cutting edge however viewed twenty years later it's all a bit like Columbo getting his man on fingerprint evidence - it's all strangely unsatisfying.
Convolutedness of the murder
As a top notch lawyer Finch naturally knows all the mistakes murderers normally make and goes out of his way not to make them. As such the murder is very technical and detailed and involves lots of things like rubber gloves and pliers. However it ultimately boils down to a simple "man shoots another man, makes it look like suicide". Yes it's a sophisticated attempt to make it look like suicide, but it's still a very basic suicide.
How annoyed does the murderer get with Columbo?
Finch remains remarkably calm throughout the episode and barely bats an eyelid at whatever Columbo throws his way. The annoyance factor tends to come more from Congressman Mackey who obviously has a lot to lose should the case and his link be revealed publicly. He naturally doesn't like Columbo badgering him.
The smug-richness factor
Now this is an interesting one. Finch is undoubtedly feeling secure as he believes that the murder can't be pinned on him with any real evidence. You could argue that borders on smugness however he doesn't come across as being particularly smug - just confident. It's a fine line but Finch doesn't really cross it.
Quality of sub-plot
There's an election going on. It's not really a sub-plot but it's the best I could point to unless you count the fact that there's a sort of subtle anti-cigar thing going on throughout the episode. Maybe Peter Falk was trying to give up...
Mentions of Mrs Columbo
Well Mrs Columbo gets two autograph however notably she's not a big fan of either the Congressman nor the Governor. Columbo alludes to the fact that they might get one vote but that's about it, so the episode is surprisingly light on her.
There is one nice aside - before signing the autograph, Mackey asks what her name is. The reply of "Mrs Columbo" before cutting to a new scene (or in the case when I watched it, an ad break) was perfect.
What new-fangled thing does Columbo learn about this episode?
It's fax machines this time, namely how fast they can send copies of letters across the world. Staplin's joke got to Hawaii in a mere 14 seconds.
Not that the fax machine really plays much of a part in solving the crime - normally when the good Lieutenant finds out about some amazing technology, it comes in useful at the end. In this case it's merely used to show that if Staplin was suicidal, he had a funny way of showing it...
Was anyone given sedatives?
Here's a question. How often in an episode of Columbo is a man given sedatives? I reckon it's low.
So with that in mind we need to ask how many women there were in this episode. The answer to that is surprisingly low - about four and they were all minor parts, none of whom would suddenly drop on the floor in hysterics.
Deviations from the norm and inconsistencies with other Columbo episodes
Absolutely nothing - this was all rather normal Columbo.
Appearances by the Regular Cast
Patrick McGoohan, who also directed the episode and, notably was a good friend of Peter Falk, appears as his fourth outing as an evil murderer although Finch is rather tame in comparison to some of his earlier appearances. McGoohan had a hand in five Columbo episodes in total. Some are works of a mad genius. This one wasn't particularly, however it is at least better than the McGoohan directed Last Salute to the Commodore.
Also staring in this episode is Bruce Kirby who appears once again as a detective sargent. However it's a role that's rather muted. Normally when Bruce is involved the sarge's role is rather detailed and thorough, being some sort of fall guy who just follows the dead route left by the murderer and who has to be constantly led in the right direction by Columbo.
Here he's relegated to just announcing some facts at the beginning and waving an arrest warrant at the end, which is a bit of a waste. One suspects - partly because the character isn't even named - the role wasn't written specifically for him in mind, which seems a bit of a waste.
As an episode it's an enjoyable romp, however there seems little of the normal Columbo magic and the conclusion with the cheese seems rather unsatisfying, and the script itself is a bit bog standard police drama.
What makes the episode - and ensures it has a higher rating than it would otherwise deserve - is Patrick McGoohan. However there's less of McGoohan's trademark quirkiness that normally appears, but he still makes sure this is a highly watchable episode. In a way it's only when you start to actually analyse the episode that it actually becomes less satisfactory. Don't watch it with a reviewers eye and you'll do fine.