Monday, August 20, 2018

Special Feature: Ransom for a Dead Man ("Columbo" episode)

This post is part of the Lovely Lee Grant Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews and Angelman's Place. You can find links to more posts there, including two more on this episode of "Columbo" from 1971. Here's one.

I was rather surprised to see that this episode of "Columbo" was the first item to have three people sign on to review for the Lee Grant Blogathon. I saw this when it first aired, back in the first season of the show, before people did impersonations of him with the catchphrase "oh, just one more thing..." and have seen it a dozen times since; it has four of my favorite actors: beside Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo and Lee Grant as the villain of the week, it has Harold Gould as the inspector in charge of the kidnapping and Patty Mattick (who I had a serious crush on and who did more than a dozen TV shows before her acting career disappeared) as Grant's step-daughter. There are several small problems with the episode that have always bothered me and, since Columbo says several times - and even in this episode - he's always bothered by small details, I've decided to out-detective the detective. Throughout, I refer to Lee Grant's character Leslie Williams as "Grant" and Patricia Mattick's character Margaret Williams as "Patty," because that's how I think of them.

The title gives away the plot and the very first scene is Lee Grant cutting letters for a note and splicing together part of an audio tape. She then commits the murder, so the whole story is to be how she gets caught, not finding out whodunnit. When she shoots her husband, there are yellow flowers in a vase in the foreground; these flowers do not wilt by the end of the episode, which is at least several days later (in real life, murder investigations rarely take less than a year). She then removes the body - no blood stains, though this gets explained later - putting him in the trunk of a car, driving him to a cliff and throwing him over. As is pointed out later, her husband is a tall man, so this would be an arduous task for her. She does it in heels.

The first time we see Columbo, he's at the door of Grant's mansion, looking for a pen he's dropped in the dark. Grant tries to help, suggests getting a flashlight, etc. and later on Grant states that she believes Columbo fakes his shambling and fumbling to get people to let their guards down. What should be asked: What did you need to get a pen out for in the dark? Where's the paper you would write on? Can't this wait until morning? At the very end of the episode, Grant drives back to the mansion in the dark and you can see that there are lamps on either side of the door and one can easily see everything on the ground. Either that's a continuity error from day-for-night shooting or we've gone from new moon to full moon, suggesting it's been two weeks (and those flowers should be dead).

We now get the scene where the phone rings and it's the supposed ransomers. Columbo immediately finds a problem: Grant doesn't ask her husband if he's okay, as anyone would do (unless, of course, they know the answer). I'd like to point out some other problems. Have you ever been robo-dialed and had a recording greet you? You know immediately, in most cases, even with 2018 technology. How many hours of tape would she have had to record to get the words she needed and where did she get them? This second question may be answered by what looks to be a Dictaphone in her (their?) office, but tapes are rarely interchangeable on devices. Splicing tapes so that you don't hear the edit is very hard to do on reel-to-reels [admittedly, the last time I tried to do that, this show was new and I was in grade school] and, even then, people change the pace, tone and timbre of their voices between recordings. Even weirder, the phone call isn't tracked; it's short, but there's no attempt made.

We now get a scene of Grant in a courtroom, where she shows how capable she is by successfully making an objection to testimony we don't hear because she's having a conversation with someone else. Multi-tasking, thy name is woman. Being a trial lawyer, she's going to know what Columbo needs as evidence.

The ransom note came with an aerial map and instructions, showing that the "kidnappers" were familiar with her ability to fly a plane and with the area and with her husband's schedule. Already this would narrow my focus to his wife. Grant says that there's no one who would want to see her husband dead, eliminating most of the possibilities and the only other person who stands to inherit money is the step-daughter, conveniently away at boarding school in Switzerland. When the body pops up, Grant's the only real candidate.

After noting that the seat of the deceased's car was moved up, suggesting the size of the killer, there's talk of the missing keys. There's a nice brief red herring later involving keys and I won't give it away here. The question is: what became of the keys? There's a scene where Columbo refuses a ride home from the airport (he has no way back, but this gets ignored) and he breaks into Grant's padlocked locker, where he finds nothing. This scene is needed by the plot to remove a possibility of where the keys went, but the scene makes sense only in retrospect. Also, Columbo has no problem figuring out the combo, by listening to the tumblers - this would not have worked in real life.

Now let's get to the bag problem. When they have the ransom ready, Grant says she already has a bag ready and she pulls it out of her desk drawer. It's exactly the right size. Who has a new, empty, large handbag in their desk, where there's obviously little else? It's important that her bag is used, because her plan involves switching it for an identical bag which she had hidden in her locker at the airport. When she tosses the empty bag out of the plane, it gets recovered by the police who, of course, find it empty and assume the "kidnappers" have taken the money. Columbo's concern is that they didn't take the bag, but took the time to take the money out of it. This is a kidnapping; the FBI would either have put a tracking device in the bag or exploding dye packs (the technology wasn't as good then, but they had it). My concern is: how did they find the bag and how would the "kidnappers" have found it? Even if they had planned well, a bag tossed from a plane into the wild at night would be a nightmare to find.

Columbo mentions his wife and how he can annoy her. He's not wearing a wedding ring. He mentions his wife a lot later in the series, but I don't think we ever see her or hear her on a phone. She's something of "Rumpole of the Bailey's" she-who-must-be-obeyed. Peculiarly, Peter Falk was married when this was shot, so he had to intentionally remove his ring to play the character; whether he continued to do so in later episodes, I don't recall.

Patty watches "Double Indemnity" on television, the most famous film noir about insurance fraud, which immediately brings comparison of Grant to Barbara Stanwyck (not as hard-boiled, by half) and Falk to Edward G. Robinson (less energetic, but on a par). If there's any doubt about how Patty feels about Grant, there's a slap at a funeral; the fact that Columbo uses this enmity says a lot, none of it good, about his character. It's this daughter who supplies the motive for her stepmother killing her father: boredom. He tests this out when talking to Grant, when she talks about how her husband was so perfect that no one would want to kill him; she inadvertently has eliminated motives for anyone but herself.

Though Grant changes outfits several times during the episode, Columbo wears the same trench coat (which will be a constant throughout the years) and either identical or very similar suits, shirts and ties. If you look, he changes shoes at least once; he has clunky work shoes in one scene and rather nice oxford wingtips in another - I expect the latter were from Falk's own collection.

There's a scene where Grant demonstrates the phone that's part of her "perfect crime." It's interesting to note that in the scenes where she makes a phone call, it's from another phone on her desk a few feet away, though there's no explanation of multiple lines. Columbo later uses the same technology to briefly trick Grant, apparently to see her reaction, as there's no other reason (unnerving her didn't get her to spill the beans). Late in the episode, Patty tricks Grant with a recording device, which is a confusing scene; it drops from the ceiling with strobing lights and you're not sure what it is, plus it casts doubts on the phone recording as an only possibility.

At one point, Columbo states that the weapon used was a .22 caliber, shot upward at 45 degrees, which he says means 1) It wasn't a professional 2) The killer wanted to be sure the bullet wouldn't exit the body 3) The killer was seated 4) The killer was familiar to the deceased. There are several problems with his reasoning; for one, if the man had been lying down, perhaps asleep, the angle is meaningless. There is no mention of there being a gun listed among the items in the house at the time of the investigation, which seems odd. "Do you own a gun? Is it a .22?" seems reasonable questioning. At the very end, Patty shows up with a gun, which looks like a .22 and the viewer gets confused; where did it come from?

Spoiler: Grant gets caught by using the ransom money. Amusingly, they're at the airport restaurant, where Columbo ends up not having the money to pay the bill when he's holding hundreds of thousands of dollars. The waitress seems nonplussed. Because Grant invited Columbo, she should be paying, but of course it's unlikely she'd break a $100 for a small tab, so she wouldn't have dipped into the ransom for that.

There's a scene where Columbo rides in a plane piloted by Grant. The sparse ground they cover is all suburban tract housing now. Columbo agrees to go to another locale with a murder suspect, without calling the office to say what he's doing or calling home to tell his wife he'll be late.

Oh, just one more thing...

The method Columbo uses to catch the killer, if he hadn't had someone else do the dirty work for him voluntarily, would have been close enough to entrapment for a lawyer as good as Grant to avoid conviction. He also bets that the killer, who killed her husband for money, won't kill her step-daughter to keep the money. That's just wrong.
As I got through the review without photos, let's see how many outfit changes Lee Grant has in this episode.


  1. Fun! I need to see this one. Used to watch Columbo as a kid, but I never knew about this one until everyone wanted to do it for the Lee Grant Blogathon!
    Thanks for participating—I too like to keep track of glamorous leading ladies' costume changes! And Miss Grant looks great with uncharacteristically long hair.

  2. Loved this great review, sounds like an episode I'd enjoy.. only seen the Billy Connolly one so far! Thanks for this sounds like a great part for Grant and now - thanks to your post - one to look out for!

  3. Plot holes and problems there may be, but nobody cares when they are watching Lee Grant and Peter Falk. This was anticipation television. Not to mention a fashion show. Thanks for the pictures at the end.

  4. Whoa! Lee Grant wears a LOT of great clothes in this one episode! You always have to be extra careful around a well-dressed villain... :)

  5. Loved your out-detecting the detective! Also loved the fact that we both wrote about this Columbo, and both mentioned Rumpole of the Old Bailey! Best wishes from Jenny of Silver Screen Suppers x

    1. I'm looking forward to your review - I expect you'll be less persnickety than I was.