9.5 Uneasy Lies The Crown

Originally aired: 28 April 1990 • Run Time: 91 mins

In a nutshell: Columbo will give his eye-teeth to solve this murder.

CREDITS

Director: Alan J Levi

Written by: Steven Bochco

Cast: Peter Falk: Lieutenant Columbo, James Read: Wesley Corman, Morgan Jones: Lab Technician, Jo Anderson: Mrs. Lydia Corman, Mimi Cozzens: Person At Track, Paul Burke: Horace Sherwin, Marshall R. Teague: Adam Evans, Nancy Walker: Herself, John Bowman: Man, Dick Sargent: Himself, Khin-Kyaw Maung: Maitre D’, Ron Cey: Himself, Lynne Marta: Frances, Daniel Bryan Cartmell: Bartender At Turf Club, Mark Arnott: David Sherwin, John Idakitis: Bartender At Restaurant, James A Jr Watson: Sgt. McCulley, John Roarke: Ted Slate

THE CRIME

Murderer: Flash-harry dentist Wesley Corman, blandly played by James Read.

Victim: Movie star Adam Evans played by Marshall Teague.

Murderer’s plan: To frame his wife Lydia for the murder of her lover and through apparently trying to protect her, get back in his father-in-law’s good books, and thus not have to pay back all the money he owes him. The crime is ingeniously effected by inserting digitalis in the crown of his victim’s tooth, coated in a slow-release gel. He then plants further digitalis in Evans’ glass so as to make it seem as if Lydia dosed him while the two of them were knocking back Margaritas and partying in her poolhouse. But the motivation is muddled; in the first scene, we get a big info-dump about Corman’s enormous gambling debts and Corman’s father-in-law, Horace Sherwin, tells him he wants his money back and that Corman is a lousy dentist and horrible son-in-law. When Corman tries to protect Lydia, he suddenly becomes like a son to Sherwin and the gambling debts are never mentioned again. Why not just kill Sherwin in the first place, inherit his money and destroy the IOUs?

Murderer’s error: Not realising that Evans’ entrance to his building will be recorded on his parking slip, even though he takes pains to ensure that as far as his receptionist is concerned, he was never there.

Key clue: Outrageously, Columbo just picks up a false crown in Corman’s office. This is utterly unmotivated and a tremendously clumsy bit of scripting, but doesn’t achieve much except shaking Corman up a bit, so we’ll let it pass. Better is the matchbook which Corman plants on Evans’ body. It’s this which ties Evans to the Cormans’ home, but Columbo notices that no matches have been used (and Evans had a filled lighter in his pocket) so why did he pick it up? The really key clue though is that the blender contained enough Margarita for two glasses, but if the poison had been introduced into the blender as it seems, anyone who drank the first glass would have been too dead to drink a second (Lydia doesn’t drink).

Howcatchem: Claims that digitalis will create a blue stain on porcelain crowns, and (correctly) trusts that Corman’s ignorance of chemistry means that he cannot identify the lie. This is further weak scripting since it requires more (apparent) knowledge of chemistry on the part of an LA copper than on the part of a practising dentist at this point, but for the expertise to be reversed when it comes to introducing the digitalis in the first place. Not only is it poor plotting, but there’s no payoff since we never see Corman discovering the lie.

THE FORMULA

Environment: Dentists’ offices and the usual LA mansion plus a brief detour to a racetrack.

New technology: Not much. Some interest in dentistry and chemistry. A reprogrammed phone which directed Lydia’s 911 call to Corman’s poker game.

Formula intact? It’s not clear whether Corman wants and expects his wife to go to jail or whether he wants and expects that there will not be enough evidence to convict her. In either case, this is essentially the formula as established, only with Columbo failing to harass the obvious suspect and focusing on Corman early on, and Lydia’s apparent guilt taking the place of the more usual alibi.

COLUMBO HIMSELF

Owns a flashing red police light which he has never used. Even being told to plug it into the cigarette lighter by a passing motorcycle cop is of no use to him, as the cigarette lighter doesn’t work. Is given an escort out of the traffic jam he’s stuck in by the same cop. Has a morbid fear of dentists’ drills. Enjoys a good bagel. Has a run-in with a coffee machine which refuses to cease dispensing coffee after Columbo has removed the cup – a very minor set-piece of no consequence whatsoever. Claims he was a terrific chemistry student in high school, unlike his opponent.

Star-struck: Finds himself at a poker game, which features various minor celebs with their glory days behind them, some playing themselves (see Trivia). They try and kid him that Dick Sargent is Dom de Luise.

Obsession of the week: Mysterious blue blotches on his handkerchief (and shirt), which gives him the idea of trapping Corman with chemical dyes. Suffers from toothache which he reluctantly gets fixed during the investigation on the thin pretext of visiting a dentist for information about dental poisoning.

Sidekick of the week: Recruits a dentist and a medical examiner to help him out, but neither quite makes the grade. The medical examiner, played by veteran character actor Steven Gilborn, was evidently quite a hit, as he returns in three out of the next four episodes, eventually getting a name, George.

Mrs Columbo: (On meeting and identifying Nancy Walker) “Wait’ll I tell my wife about this.”

Fish out of water: Looks profoundly ill-at-ease in a nightclub, but seems most distressed at being parted from his raincoat.

Cigars: Puffs away at the poolside while interviewing Lydia. Has one on the go at the card game and another at the race track.

“Just One More Thing”: When first interviewing Lydia – his fourth question to her, having sworn he has only one question to ask.

“This Old Man”: Whistled after the coffee machine incident.

Quotes: COLUMBO: He had a drink before he died? CORONER: That’s not all he had. COLUMBO: Does that mean what I think it means…? You mean he was…? CORONER: Can you think of a better way to go? / COLUMBO’S DENTIST: That’s the trouble, nobody likes the dentist. COLUMBO: Try being a homicide detective.

Trivia: Eleventh and last of Bochco’s scripts for the series. The other ten were all in the original seventies run. This script was originally written in 1973, but was rejected at that time and subsequently used for an episode of MacMillan and Wife, before being recycled here.

Nancy Walker, better known as Rhoda, also played Mildred in various episodes of that show and is one of the stars at the poker game. One of the others is Bewitched star Dick Sargent, and yet another is baseball player Ron Cey. But, confusingly, most of the star-power comes from the impressions of Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson and many others performed by John Roarke, playing a character named Ted Slate. Roarke may not have been quite the icon that Dick Sargent was, but he wasn’t a nobody in 1990, so why not just have him play himself? Did they try and book a more famous impressionist who wasn’t available?

After having Columbo has had his filling seen to, Falk was apparently overdoing the novocaine-induced slurred speech so much that some of his dialogue had to be looped with greater clarity!

Any good? Suffers badly from a lack of star-power in the killer. James Read is neither a star with whom the audience already has associations, nor is the thinly-written character interesting in any way, so we don’t really have any mano-a-ma no fireworks to entertain us. Corman is a standard-issue 90s playboy who inexplicably fills teeth when he isn’t gambling with his wife’s money. According to his father-in-law he’s a lousy dentist, but we have to take this on trust since the only time he’s seen practising dentistry, it goes off without a hitch. Columbo himself gets few classic moments, aside from the Act 2 opening with the police light, so the murder-mystery plot has to carry the weight of the storytelling, and here again there are disappointments. The method of dispatch is suitably cunning, but since we don’t understand how much of his plan Corman wants to be uncovered, it’s hard to generate suspense when clues come to light.

Peter Falk was probably right when he rejected this script in 1973 on the basis that the murderer wasn’t interesting enough. From this point on, the series is in a pretty much inexorable decline in quality. And the title pun is atrocious.

OTHER SOURCES

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« 9.4 Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo9.6 Murder in Malibu »

7 Responses to “9.5 Uneasy Lies The Crown”

  1. David Says:

    There is a 10 second scene missing just after Columbo visits the dentist where Columbo boards a bus and because he speaks with a numbed mouth the bus driver who has a lisp thinks he is taking the mick.

  2. Digitalis | Postcard Cafe Says:

    […] Digitalis for murder:  Columbo – Uneasy Lies The Crown HERE […]

  3. Theuresa Maven Says:

    I am discovering old school television because much of it is much better written than today’s fluff annd reality television, and am watching the Uneasy Lies the Crown episode right now (Hallmark 7 a.m. Monday through Friday; ME TV Sundays 8:00 p.m.; ocassional marathons on Hallmark). This Columbo espsode is greatly appreciated (flaws and all), because I have never seen it before. Jo Anderson and Julianne Moore could have been separated at birth. Casting for this episode was greatly disappointing, but script wasn’t quite as bad as you make out. At this time, Paul Burke (Naked City — Mondays at 2 a.m. ME TV, Peyton Place, Valley of the Dolls) and Nancy Walker would have been the stars. Regarding your question about having a book of matches when one has a lighter, only a smoker would understand the answer — think of it like wearing suspenders and a belt at the same time — insecurity.

    • thecolumblog Says:

      It’s not my question – it’s Columbo’s!

    • Theuresa Maven Says:

      Also, the coroner that you refer to as George is called Dr. Johnson by Lieutenant Columbo at least three times in the final scene, in the Coroner’s office, at least three times.

  4. xavier Says:

    Columbo arrived at the crash site, asking for a light for his cigar. Out of the blue, a medical personnel gave Columbo a pack of matches *from his pocket*, saying sth like this match is courtesy from the victim. Really? He took the evident from crime scene for his convience? WTF?

  5. xavier Says:

    BTW. This is a great blog for Columbo fans !!!

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