5.3 Identity Crisis

Originally aired: 11 February 1975 • Run Time: 95 mins

In a nutshell: Columbo is not a number! He is a free man!


Director: Patrick MacGoohan

Written by: William Driskill

Cast: Peter Falk: Lt Columbo, Patrick McGoohan: Brenner, Otis Young: Lawrence Melville, Val Avery: Louie, Leslie Nielsen: Geronimo / AJ Henderson, David White: CIA director, Bruce Kirby: Sergeant Kramer, Vito Scotti: Salvatore Defonte, Barbara Rhoades: Joyce, William Mims: Gallery attendant, Carmen Argenziano: Coroner Anderson, Cliff Carnell: Photo Shop Man, Edward Bach: Executive, Paul Gleason: Parsons, Angela: May Ruth, Betty McGuire: Della, Kelly Flynn: Bellboy, Alicia Chambers: Kid, Mike Lally: Cab driver (uncredited)


Murderer: Patrick McGoohan returns as CIA spook Nelson Brenner. McGoohan is the epitome of masculine cool in his second appearance on the show. His boss is Larry Tate from Bewitched (actor David White).

Victim: Leslie Nielson, also making his second appearance on the show, as Brenner’s old partner.

Murderer’s plan: To bludgeon his partner to death at “Mugger’s Haven”, then create an alibi for himself using his dictation machine. His motivation remains a little hazy – a rare fault. To cover himself, he also plants a car bomb under another spy named Melville, this time disguised behind an absurd beard and with a cod German accent, claiming to be someone called “Steinmetz”. When Melville survives the blast, Brenner expects that all attention will focus on finding Steinmetz and he will be able to walk away.

Murderer’s error: The removal of his victim’s coat revealing no gun. Ergo, whoever committed the crime wanted the victim’s identity as a CIA agent to be concealed. Also, allowing the sound of the Venetian blind to creep into the tape which provides his alibi; closing the blind suggests a morning time of recording, and not evening as Brenner claims.

Key clue: Brenner’s picture revealing his receding hairline 15 years earlier which identifies him as the mysterious Steinmetz. In fact the Steinmetz disguise is fairly risible and presumably not meant to fool the viewers. In any case we see him remove it fairly early.

Howcatchem: Columbo breaks Brenner’s alibi by deducing that the content of his dictated speech refers to events that transpired too late for it to have been recorded when Brenner claims. It should be noted that this establishes only that Brenner lied about when he dictated his speech. It doesn’t place him at the scene of the crime or tie him to the death in any way. We can only assume that at this point, Brenner is so fed up of Columbo that he will confess just in order to make the lieutenant shut up and go away.


Environment: Usual opulent LA homes and workplaces plus a brief detour to a fairground. Since Brenner is undercover for most of the episode, his exotic line of business doesn’t really form a backdrop to the story.

New technology: Columbo is shown fascinated by the workings of Polaroid camera and a button (badge) making machine but neither has any bearing on the case.

Formula intact? That the murderer is a government agent undercover adds a wrinkle but this is basically the formula as established. That “retaining his cover” or “protecting the department” is a universal explanation for all of Brenner’s lies is an excellent parry, but one which threatens to outstay its welcome.


No marksman: “If I’m standing on the dock, I couldn’t hit the water”. Knows backgammon and poker but is unfamiliar with Mah-Jong. Has some Italian, enough to talk briefly to Defonte, whose grapes he enjoys.

Star-struck: Is stunned at the strength of Brenner’s cover, and whispers reverentially to him later “I just met the director.”

Sidekick of the week: Current regular Sgt Kramer played by Bruce Kirby.

Mrs Columbo: Would appreciate a $20 stuffed panda. Keeps the accounts straight. Is crazy about music, both classical (“that fellow who wrote Aida”) and rock. Madame Butterfly is her favourite.

Fish out of water: In the main, Columbo is in his element.

Cigars: Makes a dramatic entrance, wreathed in cigar smoke, backlit at night. Has one on the go during his first interview with Brenner. Brenner and Columbo have one each at Brenner’s pool party. Columbo is puffing again when he visits Brenner in his office. Brenner provides him with an enormous stogie (“a little classy”) when Columbo accepts his invitation to dinner, and Brenner smokes one too. He smokes a final one when he nails Brenner.

“Just One More Thing”: A lingering look when he leaves Brenner’s office but no last second question. “Just one more thing, sir” twice as the CIA Director strides away. “Oh I almost forgot” when leaving Brenner’s home.

Quotes: BRENNER: I respectfully request that you do not harass me. COLUMBO: Sir, I would never do that. / COLUMBO: Do you have any wine? BRENNER: A cellar-full. What kind would you like? COLUMBO: Ohhh… red.

Trivia: The Director’s card reads “Phil Corrigan, Secret Agent X-9” which is the title of a Dashiell Hammett comic strip, twice filmed by Columbo studio Universal. “Be seeing you”, Brenner’s mode of farewell, is a catchphrase from The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s seminal sixties series filmed at Portmerion. Yet another appearance by Columbo semi-regular Mike Lally, this time driving a cab.

Any good? McGoohan is marvellous of course, but even compared to some of the other two hour episodes, this one is a bit of a slog. That makes it even more unforgivable that the murderer’s motivation is so vague. The Venetian blind sound clue on the tape is dull, particularly with regard to the earlier episode “The Most Crucial Game” which has a far more interesting twist on the same theme. The set-up of LA plod vs CIA undercover agent promises much more than it delivers and so leaves this viewer a little restless.


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« 5.2 A Case of Immunity5.4 A Matter of Honor »


13 Responses to “5.3 Identity Crisis”

  1. Buzzy Says:

    Brenner’s office is appointed with great mid century modern pieces. Can anyone identify the manufacturer of the cool pendulem clock whose time he changes?

  2. Mike Browne Says:

    I just watched this. I think Brenner’s motive for murder was that he had a large sum of money “in T bills” from an earlier mission that he was supposed to get back to “Geronimo” – “I’ll write you a check”. I thought that the extreme opulence of Brenner’s house and lifestyle was an indicator of his need for money. I think this was nothing more than a cover for his theft of money from the CIA.
    I did think the proof was a little hazy. Columbo did prove he MAY have done it, but I’m not sure it would have ever held up in court.
    I also thought the poker chip might come into play with the poker chips in Brenner’s house, but it would have been ludicrous for Brenner to lead him to evidence.
    This wasn’t my favorite, but there are some definite highlights, especially Falk’s interplay with McGoohan, his banter with the little girls, and I got a huge kick out of Columbo wearing the pin with his face on it. I hoped he wore it for the rest of the episode.
    Oh – and the female photographer? Definitely the highlight. WOW. Though on top of staring at her, I enjoyed Columbo teaching her a little bit about investigating.

  3. Mike Says:

    The CIA would kill Brenner for being a double agent and killer. Courts of law wouldn’t matter when one is floating in the Patomic River.

  4. Chris Brown Says:

    Brenners house was in fact ‘The Enchanted Hill’ atop Angelo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. It was built in the early 1920’s by Frances Marion a top scenario writer and her husband Fred Thomson a cowboy actor. Frances sold it after Fred’s tragic death in December 1928. ( for those interested do a Google search. It’s a poignant story)
    It was bought by Paul Allen in the late1990,s and for some reason that only Mr Allen can answer was razed in the early 2000’s.

    • Mike Says:

      I live in LA and enjoy looking up the locations. I visited the Pike when I was in college right around the time this was filmed. Sindbads bar in opening scene was on the Santa Monica Pier, now a Bubba Gump. Also the Biltmore Hotel where Kramer interviews cab driver Mike Lally. Beautify place for a drink

  5. Dave Smith Says:

    Who played the photo girl?

  6. Ter Says:

    Gosh this was both baffling and boring. And Columbo seemed to be on Valium.


    Paul Gleason is in the credits playing Parsons, but I did not see his character appear in the episode shown on English T.V. Did I miss something?

  8. Dido's Desolate Domain Says:

    Slow pacing and an ending that would be forgettable if not for the amusing dialogue between McGoohan and Falk. However, Patrick McGoohan is always enough to make me watch. The plot could have been tightened, particularly towards the end, but some clever moments from the murderer no doubt.

  9. Mike Says:

    One of my favorites for years

  10. Raphael Says:

    I don’t get how “that the content of his dictated speech refers to events that transpired too late for it to have been recorded when Brenner claims”

    The speech speaks of China being a consumer of Soy products and stuff about the yellow peril, and the news in question was about China’s participation in the Olympics. I just doN’t see the connection.

    Are we to assume that abscent the Omypic news, no one would talk about CHina in a trade show?

    • Kev-La Says:

      Brenner claims he dictated the speech at a time when China had not yet pulled out. Even his information cannot be that prophetic!
      Mahjong! ;)-~

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