9.3 Agenda for Murder

Originally aired: 10 February 1990 • Run Time: 90 mins

In a nutshell: Patrick MacGoohan’s third outing as murderer is far from cheesy.

CREDITS

Director: Patrick MacGoohan
Written by: Jeffrey Bloom

Cast: Peter Falk: Columbo, Patrick McGoohan: Oscar Finch, Denis Arndt: Paul Mackey, Louis Zorich: Frank Staplin, Penny Fuller: Mrs. Finch, Bruce Kirby: Sergeant George Kramer, Anne Haney: Louise, Stanley Kamel: Tim Haines, Steven Ford: Toby Ritt, Arthur Hill: The Governor, Michael Goldfinger: Laundry Truck Driver, Shaun Toub: Amir, Annie Stewart: Rebecca Christy, Carol Barbee: Diane,

THE CRIME

Murderer: Blessed, indefatigable Patrick MacGoohan, glowering from behind thick glasses and a walrus moustache as hyper-punctual attorney Oscar Finch who  is a mover-and-shaker in New York politics when he isn’t practicing law. He expects to be made Attorney-General when his buddy, Congressman Paul Mackey, becomes president. That seems ever more likely, as Mackey has just been tapped as Montgomery’s running mate in a forthcoming general election. Bizarrely asks for the time by saying “what o’clock do you have?” and then refers to his wristwatch as “my timepiece”.

Victim: Beleagured ex-DA Frank Staplin, for whom Finch once “solved problems” but who is now becoming an embarrassment if not an actual obstacle to Finch’s political ambitions. The boring details of his scandal in 1969 are gratifyingly glossed over.

Murderer’s plan: Finch drives to his office armed with a pair of pliers, some rubber gloves and a sheet of tin-foil. He crumbles a cigar and burns the ashes in an ashtray, providing himself with a tobacco alibi. He uses the pliers to remove the gunpowder from a bullet and incinerates it in the tin-foil, bringing it with him to Staplin’s house where he shoots Staplin point-blank and then uses the scorched gunpowder to create powder-burns on Staplin’s hand, so as to make the fatal wound appear self-inflicted. He’s particularly proud of this detail – asking Columbo about it just when he thinks he’s about to wriggle out of the Lieutenant’s clutches. Even more than usual for a Columbo villain, his meticulous preparations and methodical clean-ups are horribly creepy, underscored only by rolling thunder from the storm outside – although when Finch leaves his office, it seems to be dry. In fact, this is later revealed to be a clue, since his story doesn’t match up with the dry spots under Finch’s parked car.

Murderer’s error: Waiting too long to drop the gun by the Staplin’s side. There is no blood on the gun, which suggests that it must have dried before the gun touched it – unlikely if it was dropping from Staplin’s lifeless hand. Columbo murders are generally fairly PG-rated, bloodless affairs, and it seems a little odd to even mention the bloodspatters, which in real life would no doubt be rather more extensive than the teeny-tiny puddle depicted here.

Key clue: Killing Staplin in mid-fax. As well as the date of the transmission narrowing down the time of death, Staplin had sent only one page of a two-page letter and it (correctly) strikes Columbo as profoundly peculiar to send one page and then kill oneself before sending the second, especially as both are cheery jokes to his wife (“he shot himself between jokes”).

Howcatchem: With some help from the Congressman, who is strong-armed into providing Finch with an alibi, Columbo finally zeroes in on something resembling a motive. Columbo attempts to bust Finch’s smokey alibi by securing his suit before it can be dry-cleaned, but in a lovely twist a zealous employee sticks it in the machine while Columbo is sweet-talking the owner, depriving our hero of a vital piece of evidence. Falk’s face is a picture. Finally, Columbo is able to place Finch at the scene of the crime, despite his comprehensive protestations he never met the victim, by matching his teeth-marks to a piece of cheese on Staplin’s desk. “One bite of cheese…”

THE FORMULA

Environment: Staplin’s house is appropriately opulent, although Finch’s is a little dull. There’s some impressive location work outside the Biltmore Hotel. The talk of politics lends a by-proxy Washington sheen to the usual LA locales. The successful primary celebration at the end is a small but not unwelcome departure from the norm.

New technology: Staplin’s fax machine which causes both Columbo and Sgt Kramer to boggle. This is surprising given that Columbo had previously boggled at a photo-wire in the pilot episode almost thirty years ago. To be honest, it’s completely impossible that police headquarters wouldn’t have one in 1990. Staplin also has a fancy telephone (“gotta have thirty buttons on it”) including one for last number redial – which leads Columbo to Finch’s doorstep. Finch himself has call waiting which allows him to invent a mythical second phone call despite his wife’s testimony that she only heard the phone ring once. Finch’s PA has a miracle spray which magically removes lingering cigar odour from the air.

Formula intact? Intact and even improved upon. As noted above, Columbo’s route to Finch is good old-fashioned police-work rather than his simply glomming on to the most arrogant and famous guest-star in the immediate vicinity. To be fair, he never even considers another suspect, and most of the clues point away from suicide rather than towards Finch, but that is how the formula generally works. Even more than usually, Columbo’s interrogations are interrupted and then continue hours or even days later, in another location, with the next obvious question.

COLUMBO HIMSELF

Finds it hard to keep everyone’s names in his head “I gotta start writing these things down.” Presumably this is Columbo’s intended irony as his tatty notebook is almost as iconic as his raincoat and stogie. Later he can’t make a fancy pen work as he writes in it. All these new gadgets they come out with these days make him nervous. Seems mildly shocked when Finch (improvising madly) claims that Staplin used the blasphemous expletive “Jesus” during his final phone call. He refuses to repeat it. Has to jog to keep up with Finch’s determined stride. Worries that Jewish or Irish jokes might offend Finch. Marvels over Mackey’s antique silver. Finds a witlessly facetious cleaning van driver highly entertaining. Theatrically cups a hand to his ear, the better to overhear Finch’s phone call from the other room. Is referred to by one of Finch’s staff as “the cigar man” (he also admires her dress, the old smoothie). Deduces that Mackey is an ex-cigar smoker by the paraphernalia on his desk. When he’s finally ready to make the arrest, in a very showy flourish, his hand holding the warrant shoots out in front of Finch’s stoic face, which is still frozen into its habitual clenched half-smile.

Star-struck: Columbo can’t get over how efficiently Finch rattles through his messages with his PA and then how accurately he divines Columbo’s means and reason to be in his office. Solicits autographs from Mackey and Mackey’s friend the Governor.

Obsession of the week: He can’t resist carving off a slice of Parmigiano-Reggiano, coming perilously close to destroying vital evidence. But, “it happens to be especially good,” so what the hell. Among other things, it’s the subtle planting of the cheese clue, passed off here as arbitrary Columbling, which helps to elevate this excellent episode over the more mundane efforts before and after.

Sidekick of the week: Family face Bruce Kirby as Sgt Kramer, but he only appears in Columbo’s first scene as they inspect the crime scene and then again briefly at the end.

Mrs Columbo: Has just got a home computer which she loves. They were the last people on the block to get an electric garage door opener. Might find a can of air-freshener useful – in fact she really enjoys it and provides a thank you note to her benefactor. The Lieutenant gives her name, for an autograph, as “Mrs Columbo” and later reports that she was delighted to have received it.

Fish out of water: The noisy chaos of the rally seems as if it might bewilder a bumbling detective, but Columbo makes the distractions work for him, not against him.

This Old Man: Quoted in the incidental music as Columbo parks his car at Finch’s office. Again at the beginning of Act Three as Finch drives past Columbo who is waiting for him outside his home.

Cigars: Has a little stub gripped between his first two fingers throughout his investigation of the crime scene and interview with Staplin’s weepy secretary. He threatens to start one off as he enters Finch’s office – to the horror of Finch’s PA. Puffs on one as he pursues Finch to the Biltmore Hotel. Lights one in Mackey’s office, over Mackey’s objections. Grips another as he fishes out the gum from Finch’s bin and has one on the go when he busts the alibi Mackey has provided. It’s still smouldering as he tracks Finch down during the victory celebrations.

“Just One More Thing”: “There’s only one thing that bothers me…” while inspecting the body. Makes his entrance in his second scene with Finch saying “Just one more thing, sir, when you can spare a minute.” A chirpy “there’s one more thing, sir,” just when Mackey thought he could get back to work, but it’s just to get an autograph for his wife. “Oh, Lieutenant, I almost forgot,” Mackey calls Columbo back after he has turned to go.

Quotes: Finch nails the appeal of the Columbo character when he is (of course) summoned back to the hotel ballroom having just exited, striding purposefully away with one hand jammed in his pocket. FINCH: You know, you’re rather subtle for a man who appears so… overt. COLUMBO: Is that good, sir? FINCH: Not too bad at all. / After Finch’s glib call-waiting lie, Columbo leaning in through Finch’s car window. COLUMBO: That’s very good. We cleared that one up very easily. And I’m happy about it, because that was one of the few loose ends I was still having trouble with. That’s great. You know what, sir? We did it in 72 seconds. How’s that for problem-solving? FINCH: Any more questions? COLUMBO: I can’t think of one at the moment – except why aren’t you on your way to court? FINCH: It’s a good one. (His car speeds away.) / FINCH: You got a suspect? COLUMBO: It’s uh… a little early to be sure, sir… / FINCH: I thought we had a nice relationship going. COLUMBO: Well, nothing’s perfect, sir.

Trivia: McGoohan appears for the third time as the murderer, tying Jack Cassidy and Robert Culp, and winning an Emmy for his troubles.  He takes the gold with a fourth appearance just before the series winds up for good. McGoohan also directs this episode, as he did the eccentric LAST SALUTE TO THE COMMODORE and will direct and even co-write more.

Any good? Absolutely marvellous. Everybody is on top form, from the McGoohan’s chilly murderer on down, but even if the script were thinner, McGoohan’s characterisation would ensure this would be seen as a classic. From his earliest meeting with Columbo, demanding to know “who parked that decomposing rattle-trap in my space?” to the final showdown, wherein Finch contrives to stand behind a small table which stands in for a witness stand, as Columbo informally assumes the role of prosecuting attorney, he is absolutely spell-binding. Columbo and Finch have a sweet habit as they meet across crowded rooms. Columbo waves cheerily to Finch who stalks wearily over to meet him.

Opposite such a strong performance, and happy no doubt to be working again with his close friend, Falk raises his game. He’s note-perfect throughout and the pair of them make even the laborious re-enactment of the gun dropping on the blood – the kind of scene which tended to be tedious filler in some other ABC episodes – fascinating and gripping.

However, away from McGoohan’s gaze, Falk is also compelling, such as in his steely determination when breaking Mackey’s alibi, his exit ironically underscored by the victory celebrations from the primary contest in the hotel ballroom below. Of course, he’s never truly away from McGoohan’s gaze, since he also directed and it’s true that MacGoohan as director indulges himself from time-to-time, allowing Finch to break off to camera left as Columbo obliviously carries on forward in an almost music hall moment which works only due to Falk’s subtle playing of what could have been a clumsy comedy routine. Even more outrageously, MacGoohan as actor responds to one of the faxed jokes which Columbo reads out to him by staring impassively for four whole seconds, before barking a single deadpanned “ha” and then breaking into full-blown hysterics as the camera dollies dementedly away.

Both lead actors are helped by an excellent script which, somewhat unusually, portrays a murderer who doesn’t at all take Columbo at face value, which makes the battle of wills which ensues so much more gripping. So does his unwilling accomplice, Mackey, who comments “The guy’s got an act you could take on the road.” But the script is subtle and clever in other departments too, making a theme of cigar-smoking, which is beautifully appropriate but never crassly commented-on. McGoohan’s cheesy give-away is also carefully hidden by having him snacking on sweeties and gum-chewing in various earlier scenes.

This is possibly the best of the entire ABC run, and certainly better than many of the lesser NBC efforts.

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