July 4, 2016


Hard to believe that I haven't written a Columbo-themed blog post since late March....but now is a great time to make up for it. In the spirit of the Fourth of July, I thought I would review not one, but two Columbo episodes with similar themes (and that, in a strange way, relate to today's holiday) for our semi-regular Mondays with Columbo

(They're also notable for both featuring Patrick McGoohan, but I'm not sure that's coincidental)

Television in the late 1960s/early 1970s holds a strange fascination for me: part of it stems from being barely old enough to remember it, but other series often strived for "relevance" during a time when the greater culture was striving towards "law and order"...

Columbo tended to not be very "topical" per se, but allowed viewers to secretly relish certain personality and class types being put to the task. Usually, it was handled in terms of those with wealth and power. By Dawn's Early Light, produced for Columbo's fourth season, takes a similar tone but with a distinctively different character type.

Thanks to Harvey Herk's direction, By Dawn's Early Light is a very atmospheric, character-driven exploration of a man best described as "out of time".

Colonel Lyle C. Rumford (Patrick McGoohan) is the strict, by-the-book commandant of a boys' military academy. As the episode opens, we see him preparing a cannon shell. We soon learn that William Haynes, chairman of the academy's board, plans to convert the school into a more traditional, co-ed academy....and that the announcement will be made on Founder's Day.

After a tragic "accident", Columbo is called to the scene, and this is where the episode kicks into gear. Rather than the usual cat-and-mouse game with the murderer, there's an  unusual rhythm to McGoohan/Falk's interactions. McGoohan provides moments where his character shifts between full cooperation and total rationalization of actions. Rumford's actions are motivated less by out-thinking Columbo and more about stonewalling the detective. It makes for less overt conflict, but a more covert sense of desperation.

Yet, in watching Falk and McGoohan's interactions, there's a real sense of futility and loss. Rumford (McGoohan) didn't commit murder because he was greedy or angry....but because he couldn't stand change. It would have been very easy to make him an overt villian or a narrow-minded bigot, but McGoohan infuses Rumford with an inherent dignity even in the midst of his crisis.

This is definitely a must-watch; for another take on this episode, check out this episode of the Columbo Podcast.

And now, for Identity Crisis from Columbo's fifth season, which is also very good episode...but probably not for the reasons you think.

The plot is simple: an advertising executive named Nelson Brenner (McGoohan) is really a domestic spy....and is acting as a double agent. When confronted by an operative (Leslie Nielsen), Brenner decides to isolate the operative and murder him, hoping to make it look like a mugging.

From there, as Columbo gets involved....well, the plot's a bit lacking. There's no really clear motivation for Brenner's actions, nor is there a solid through-line. Even the resolution and the "final clue" are a bit underwhelming.

What makes this work is the obvious glee that McGoohan shows in performance and in direction.

Granted, greater paranoia and distrust of the government and its agencies were prevalent in the culture of the time (1975), but there's an obvious fascination with the complexities of espionage that drives much of McGoohan's direction. Even moments between Columbo and the Director (David White, aka Larry Tate from Bewitched) that might have been played strictly for laughs have some tension to them.

But it's McGoohan's performance - as well as his focus on the espionage game - that gives this Columbo episode a feel not unlike The Prisoner. It's not just McGoohan's constant repetition of "Be Seeing You"; it's Brenner's obvious pride in feeling one step ahead of Columbo. (Note the scene where Columbo confronts Brenner about having the phones tapped - watch it and tell me that McGoohan doesn't appear absolutely giddy at that thought).

Despite the rather meandering plot, Identity Crisis is an episode that simply sparkles despite its heavy subject matter.

(Want some other perspectives? Check out these episodes of Columbo Podcast and Just One More Thing)

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