January 25, 2016

Mondays with Columbo: ETUDE IN BLACK

As the opening episode of Columbo's second season, Etude in Black has several things that make it sparkle - the interplay between Peter Falk and John Cassavetes; the witty, engaging script co-written by Steven Bochco; and some exceptional direction by Nicholas Colasanto (aka, Coach on Cheers).

But not all of the direction is exceptional....and that's the only flaw. But more on that later.

John Cassavetes plays a conductor who is having an affair with his pianist. However, the pianist threatens to reveal the affair to his wife....and of course, his wife's mother just happens to be the orchestra's major funder. And Alex Benedict, the conductor....well, he just can't have this.

Move forward towards a very staged suicide....and in walks Columbo, and that's when the sparkling begins.

It helps that Falk has worked with Cassavetes on several of his films - there's a lovely, charming interplay between the two men that always feels real but never becomes over the top. It also helps that Blythe Danner - looking like her daughter, Gwyneth Paltrow - provides a really strong support as the conductor's wife. There's never a false character beat, and the plot unfolds casually and naturally. (Since this is one of the longer Columbo movies, that lack of padding is sorely appreciated)

But the big clue - the one that will lead Columbo towards his final conclusion...is telegraphed a mile away.

It's dwelt on in the beginning, and the audience is aware that it will figure into the story's resolution....and it's a poorly executed move on Colasanto's part. It's not enough to completely ruin the story....but it is enough to diminish the episode's punch.

Let's call this one an A minus - but even an A minus Columbo is still worth watching....

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