3.8 A Friend in Deed

Originally aired: 5 May 1974  • Run Time: 95 mins

In a nutshell: One good alibi deserves another.

CREDITS

Director: Ben Gazzara

Written by: Peter S Fischer

Cast: Peter Falk: Lt Columbo, Richard Kiley: Mark Halperin, Rosemary Murphy: Margaret Halperin, Michael McGuire: Hugh Caldwell, Val Avery: Artie Jessup, Eric Christmas: Bruno Wexler, Eleanor Zee: Thelma, John Finnegan: Lt. Duffy, Arlene Martell: Salesgirl, Victor Campos: Doyle, Joshua Bryant: Dr MacMurray, John Calvin: Charlie Shoup, Byron Morrow: Amos Lawrence, James V. Christy: Sharkey, Alma Beltran: Mrs. Fernandez

THE CRIME

Murderer: Panicky Hugh Caldwell (McGuire) who kills his wife during a fight (off-screen just before the episode opens, for once) but the focus is really on his smooth friend Mark Halperin (Kiley) who also happens to be the Deputy Police Commisioner, and who takes remarkably little persuading to help Caldwell get away with murder. Kiley is not the biggest star Columbo has ever featured, but his elegant charisma, three piece suits and tidy avuncular grey-striped beard make him ideal casting. He falls apart very pleasingly as Columbo zeroes in.

Victim: Janice Caldwell is killed before the episode opens, as noted, and so has no dialogue or known character traits. It is not known who played this taxing part. The second victim is Halperin’s wife Margaret (Murphy), who barely has anything more to do.

Murderer’s plan: Halperin makes the accidental killing look like a robbery (duplicating the MO of a perp responsible for a spate of local jewellery thefts) and gives Caldwell an alibi by calling him in a bar from his dead wife’s bedroom. Like a deer in the headlights, Caldwell can’t stop himself from giving the barman a potted account of the call just to make sure he understands that was a call from the wife. However, Halperin is not doing this out of the goodness of his heart. He wants an alibi from Caldwell in turn and in the same style, but Caldwell is nowhere near as icy cold as the reptilian Halperin who, having drowned his wife in the bath, even arranges to be publicly at the poolside to fish her out and attempt mouth-to-mouth after Caldwell chucks her lifeless body in and scarpers.

Murderer’s error: Leaving one of Mrs Caldwell’s nighties folded neatly under her pillow and dressing her in another one (she was supposedly killed while getting ready for bed). The music is uncharacteristically heavy-handed as Columbo makes this discovery, crashing in as the dialogue stops and the lieutenant begins nosing around.

Key clue: Halperin requested the presence of a homicide detective having supposedly only seen a man running from his friend’s house – he couldn’t possibly have had any knowledge of a killing beyond his cop’s “gut instinct”. The medical examination later discovers soap in Mrs Halperin’s lungs.

Howcatchem: Columbo persuades Jessup, the thief whom Halperin is attempting to frame, to help him out and stage a blackmailing of the skittish Caldwell. On hearing the news, Halperin gets Jessup’s address from a police file and pays him a visit, planting the jewels stolen from the Caldwell house. Alas for Halperin, the address is fake – Columbo rented the apartment himself a few weeks ago and doctored Jessup’s file for Halperin’s benefit, making Halperin the only one who knew it other than Columbo himself.

THE FORMULA

Environment: We get to see more of Columbo at police headquarters than normal, but the commissioner’s office is not really any different than the usual swanky lawyers and executives offices in which the shabby Lieutenant generally finds himself.

New technology: None, although Columbo boggles at the chemical formula for soap.

Formula intact? Having two murderers each provide the other with an alibi is satisfyingly complicated without making the whole thing impossible to follow and the script sensibly focuses on just one of them – the sleek and charming one obviously. That Halperin is also Columbo’s boss adds a little spice but doesn’t seem to faze Columbo nearly as much as meeting a CIA agent would two years later in IDENTITY CRISIS, nor does the possibility of Halperin’s involvement seem as remote as that of a crime scene investigator in A TRACE OF MURDER. It does mean that when Halperin tells Columbo to focus on the robbery aspect of the crime, it isn’t a suggestion it’s an order. Halperin also tells Columbo he “can’t be right all the time” – a measure of the regard in which he is starting to be held?

COLUMBO HIMSELF

Arrives late on the scene in an official car due to his having a flat battery. That said, he’s onscreen five minutes before the first act break, which is unusual. The car continues to give him trouble throughout the episode, breaking down when he leaves Halperin, forcing him to try and flag down passing civilians in search of jump leads or a lift to a gas station. Is on particularly still and serious form when talking Caldwell through the lack of fingerprints on Mrs Caldwell’s closet handles. Races up to the commissioner’s bathroom, suspecting that the swimming pool wasn’t the scene of her fatal submersion, and carries on a conversation with Lt Duffy while standing in the tub. His watch is waterproof and shockproof, but he wouldn’t pay $25 for a new strap for it. Refuses a cognac when talking to Halperin late at night because he wants to keep his head clear and “this is complicated.” His call-number is 194.

Star-struck: Seems perfectly comfortable relating to and even interrogating his own boss.

Obsession of the week: His recalcitrant car as detailed above. When he drives it on to a used-car lot, the salesman assumes he is trying to get rid of it, and offers him a trade-in deal, even with 100,000 miles on the clock.

Sidekick of the week: Toothpick-chewing Doyle played by Victor Campos who was moonlighting as Detective Gomez on Kojak at the same time. Also, grey-haired Lt Duffy (John Finnegan), working on the robberies. Mike Lally is there of course, playing Second Bartender.

Mrs Columbo: Staying with her sister-in-law and so unable to lend her husband her car.

Fish out of water: Is no more out-of-place and ill-at-ease in the divey bar where house-breaker Artie Jessup hangs out than in the commissioner’s luxury mansion. Jessup doesn’t identify him as a cop right away though, to his chagrin (“I must be getting old”).

Cigars: Scrabbles around for a dropped one under the commissioner’s car (“Come here you little rascal”). A little stub of a one while talking to Margaret Halperin for the first time, which he still has on the go during his first interview with Caldwell. He twice brings one into the commissioner’s office (“is this bothering you?” he asks on the second visit; “no,” replies Halperin evenly, but with a barely perceptible twitch of the head). He is clutching another while visiting the scene of Mrs Halperin’s death and checks that he is allowed to smoke while visiting a fancy jewellery store, and is puffing away when he visits the car dealership. He smokes one when he visits Halperin at home and chews on another when going along with Halperin to supposedly arrest Jessup.

“Just One More Thing”: Absent for once!

THE EPISODE

Quotes: COLUMBO: You must have a lot of those, sir. HALPERIN: What? COLUMBO: Gut feelings. / COLUMBO: Commissioner, I believe you killed your wife. And I believe you either killed Janice Caldwell or you’re covering up for it. HALPERIN: You just lost your badge, my friend.

Trivia: Directed by Falk’s old mate Ben Gazzara, himself also an actor. Before Falk was Columbo on a regular basis, the two appeared together in the John Cassavetes film Husbands. Falk and Gazzara would tease studio suits by doing take after take (Gazzara claims fifty or sixty) until both were completely satisfied. Richard Kiley, better known on Broadway for originating the role of Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, filmed his first scene with his on-screen wife Rosemary Murphy and only after he’d fished her out of the pool and given her mouth-to-mouth did he realise they’d yet to be formally introduced. “So, while the cameras are still rolling, I looked down and said, ‘How do you do, Rosemary? We’ve never met before. I’m Richard Kiley.’”

Any Good?

The best Columbo episodes give us either a fascinating opponent for the wily detective or an ever-complicating web of lies. This excellent entry gives us both, with Richard Kiley’s sleek charm and supreme confidence in his ability to outwit the plods in his command beautifully destroyed as Columbo puts his plan into action. Unlike some other episodes, this one needs its two hour slot to develop its plot fully and there’s no sign of padding. This has got it all.

 

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6 Responses to “3.8 A Friend in Deed”

  1. Kim Cabalzar Says:

    The ending is first class.

  2. William Murray Says:

    Peter Falk was the perfect Columbo . I watch them over and over on Netflix and have about 40 episodes on DVD !

  3. volkerwkrause Says:

    The apartment was vacant for three weeks, but Columbo signed the lease early that very morning. Which makes it even more brilliant: He is shocked about the $25 for a new strap, yet it seems he just rents the appartment on a hunch to catch the commissioner; I wonder whether he could expect to get that money back. It also implies that he doesn’t really live there; his wife/life stories stay intact, the viewer doesn’t “invade” his privacy.
    And the scene in Lt Duffy’s office when Columbo planted the false address seemingly subserviently agreeing with Halperin first taking a look at the photos then declaring it a waste of time, loved that.
    It’s also yet another episode where Columbo shows that his sole concerne is murder.

  4. Jeri Gloss Says:

    I was amazed that the apartment turned out to be Columbo’s. It was really raunchy and in a building in bad need of repair. I couldn’t conjure up an image of the never present Mrs. Columbo abiding there.

  5. Jeri Gloss Says:

    ah, that makes sense – except…isn’t that an extravagance he cannot afford? Shouldn’t a new raincoat be in his budget? I am just lipping around. My husband and I have watched Columbo since the shows originally aired – way back in the day. Oh, we have enjoyed them. Now re-watching with new appreciation. I am glad I found your wonderful blog 🙂

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