S.6 Undercover

Originally aired: 2 May 1994 • Run Time: 98 mins

In a nutshell: Columbo revisits the 87th precinct and plays dress-up

CREDITS

Director: Vincent McEveety

Written by: Gerry Day, story by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain)

Cast: Peter Falk: Lt. Columbo, Tyne Daly: Dorothea McNally, Ed Begley, Jr: Irving Krutch, Burt Young: Mo Weinberg, Harrison Page: Dept. Sergent Brown, Shera Danese: Geraldine Ferguson, Edward Hibbert: Bramley Kahn, Kirtin Bauer: Suzzie Endicott, Albie Selznich: Det. McKittrick, Joe Chrest: Mercer, Robert Donner: Zeke, Hank Garrett: Captain Landau, Penny Santon: Lucia, Marla Adams: Sheila Byrnes, Marianne Muellerleile: Nurse Hilda, Ora Forosh: Woman Down Hill, Jeff Michalski: Medical Examiner, Alexander Folk: Patient, John William Young : Man in Pajamas, Kay Yamamoto: Front Desk Nurse, Pierrino Mascarino: Priest, John Dunbar: Photographer, Jeff Michalski: Medical Examiner, Jon Beshara: Dillinger

THE CRIME

Murderers/Victims: This unusual episode begins with a double murder – JJ Dillinger is knifed by and shoots Eugene Ehrbach. On Ehrbach’s body is a fragment of a photograph which holds the key to the plot. Over the course of the episode, crook Mo Weinberg (Burt Young) and Geraldine Ferguson (Shera Danese) also turn up dead. The real guest-villain of the week is the smarmy insurance investigator Irving Krutch played by Ed Begley Jr. The Columbo team is evidently so used to the audience knowing whodunnit that they clean forgot to turn off the flashing light above his head which constantly proclaims “Bad guy! Bad guy!” But if you’re going to make it that obvious, why not just write an inverted Columbo-style mystery? Would that have been so inappropriate?

Murderer’s plan: Krutch tells Columbo that a list of names in his possession identifies people who own pieces of a photo which will reveal the location of the proceeds of a huge recent robbery. Columbo investigates and finds the rest of the list and the rest of pieces. It is eventually revealed that Krutch is just using the police to do his dirty work for him.

Murderer’s error: Going around killing other photo-fragment holders for reasons which don’t make sense even when explained.

Key clue: Krutch’s fingerprint found on a coin in a parking meter, placing him at the scene of Weinberg’s murder. For reasons which are never explained Columbo finds it expedient to have the entire meter brought bodily into the interview room  to explain this clue to Krutch’s girlfriend (the coins are in a separate bag).

Howcatchem: The fingerprint evidence breaks his alibi, his girlfriend switches sides and Krutch confesses without another word.

THE FORMULA

Environment: Police headquarters (rarely seen in the series, but often returned to here), fleapit motels, seedy back-alleys and greasy diners. Only in Krutch’s plush appartment and the art gallery does the setting resemble an actual episode of Columbo.

New technology: None, as one might expect of a rewrite of a novel published in 1970.

Formula intact? Hardly. Another Ed McBain novel is pressed into service, which sends Columbo on an entirely uncharacteristic and not very interesting treasure hunt. It’s a mystery to me why, with the creators off the 6-8 episodes a year treadmill and new Columbos appearing as occasional treats, they didn’t wait until they had a really good and typical script ready, instead of rewriting a wholly unsuitable novel and hoping that the sight of Peter Falk in a hat would tide us over. As if the bloodletting and face-punching weren’t disorienting enough, Shera Danese says “bullshit” at one point and Tyne Daly “piss” at another. I’ll happily watch bloodsoaked and sweary fiction – I think Reservoir Dogs is a masterpiece – but I don’t expect or want it when I turn on Columbo any more than I want it to become a musical, an animated cartoon or a water-ballet. We are again treated to the practice of introducing each act with an onscreen caption announcing the time, first seen in that other tedious McBain-inspired effort No Time To Die. Maybe that’s all the rationale we need to consider these two episodes part of a separate series.

COLUMBO HIMSELF

Claims to be looking forward to changing his clothes. Initially refuses to carry a gun when undercover, but if it’s that or drop the case he agrees to. He even points it at Weinberg in apparent anger and is later punched out by a black-clad intruder. Slips into his various roles effortlessly, which suggests that his usual “Columbling” is also an act – rather weakening the character. It’s this kind of thinking which made producers keep wanting Harpo to speak or Buster Keaton to smile (and always thought they were the first to come up with the idea). While undercover, is suspected of being a cop first by Weinberg and then by art gallery proprietor Geraldine Ferguson. She has an advantage, being played – once again – by Mrs Falk, Shera Danese. Her charm and smarts almost, but not quite, lift this dreary episode into “tolerable”. Falk’s scenes with Tyne Daly also have a scrap of the old magic.

Star-struck: He isn’t impressed by anyone this time out, in fact he rather looks down on the rest of the cast – very out of character.

Obsession of the week: None really. His trousers, I suppose, from which the script contrives to separate him.

Sidekick of the week: Det Sgt Arthur Brown, played by Harrison Page, earlier seen as shouty Captain Trunk in the often-hilarious TV cop spoof Sledge Hammer. Look out for his co-star David Rasche in a couple of episodes’ time. Brown was a continuing character in the 87th Precinct series of novels, including “Jigsaw” on which this episode is based.

Mrs Columbo: Goes unmentioned.

Fish out of water: Goes undercover first as smalltime crook Artie Stokes, then – ludicrously – as mafioso Don Columbo (still with no first name!). Falk was almost in The Godfather as Moe Green, and Nino Rota’s music is quoted as Falk makes his first absurd appearance in this disguise. When he comes clean to Geraldine Ferguson, and she presses him for a first name, he tells her – with just a trace of irritation, but a definite finality – “Lieutenant”.

Cigars: “Close, but no cigar” puffs Columbo as the complete photo is finally assembled.

“Just One More Thing”: “I only wanna know one more thing” while interviewing Krutch in the squad room.

This Old Man: Quoted in the score as Columbo leaves the bedside of a fellow patient, having been knocked out in the line of duty. Again, as the titles roll.

Quotes: (first words on meeting Columbo in disguise as a hood) WEINBERG: You look like a cop. COLUMBO: So do you. WEINBERG: How do I know you’re not? COLUMBO: How do I know you’re not? Why don’t you sit down. / (Regarding Columbo still purporting to be Artie but dressed in his Mafia gear) GERALDINE: Arthur – that is what you call yourself, isn’t it? COLUMBO: Uh-huh. GERALDINE:Why are you wearing those clothes? COLUMBO: I’m a cop working under cover. GERALDINE: Are you sure you’re not a mental patient? COLUMBO: I’m pretty sure.

Trivia: Shera Denese and Tyne Daly pop up again. In Daly’s case it’s been less than eighteen months and and only three episodes since we saw her last. Four episodes after Dan “Bulldog” Butler appears, his Frasier co-star Edward Hibbert turns up, even costumed the same as when playing Gil Chesterton.

Any good? God no. A bizarre curio in the canon, but only interesting for its suicidal indifference to the format which had proven to be so successful. We can only assume that, at the age of 67, actor Peter Falk wanted to demonstrate that he could do more than smoke a cigar and say “just one thing that’s bothering me” and that executive producer Peter Falk didn’t notice how limp the script was. The usual elegant verbal jousting and intricately-plotted inverted-mystery is replaced by a by-the-numbers, bloody, gun-toting, fist-swinging cop show, almost completely devoid of good performances and memorable characters (bless you, Shera Danese) and a surprise-free zone. As the tone lurches clumsily from traditional Columbo interviews, to horribly realistic slayings with bloodspattered pillows, to outright spoofs of earlier movies, practically in the Naked Gun mode, it’s all I can do to keep watching in order to detail its failings.

On its own terms, it’s still a lot of cliched nonsense, with the jigsaw puzzle photo pieces turning up in conviently increasing order of significance, the writers hoping we don’t notice that when you have the last two, most of the other six are irrelevant. Professional standards are low too. As the tiresome jigsaw puzzle is assembled, we keep cutting to second-unit overhead shots of anonymous hands, while the principals loop their dialogue. Even the dreary Columbo Likes The Nightlife, or the eccentric Last Salute to the Commodore have more to recommend them than this.

OTHER SOUCRES

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« S.5 Butterfly in Shades of GrayS.7 Strange Bedfellows »

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