Ransom for a Dead Man/Murder by the Book (The Cornfield #6)

Very early Columbo here:  the first appearance with Peter Falk in the lead role was Prescription: Murder, broadcast in 1968, then Ransom for a Dead Man was a second pilot, broadcast in March 1971, and Murder by the Book the first episode proper of the series that began in fall of ’71 as one of the rotating features in the NBC Mystery Movie. Which means these were the first impressions of what was going to become my favorite TV show.

Ransom for a Dead Man, written by Dean Hargrove from a story by series creators Richard Levinson and William Link, and directed by Richard Irving, is memorable for a variety of reasons. Lee Grant’s murderer is cool and admirably focused; by contrast, her stepdaughter, a wronged party who in other circumstances might be considered sympathetic, is a complete pill. Who wouldn’t gravitate toward the murderer (who is, as in many future episodes, the only intellectual equal for the detective) in such a case?

Murder by the Book, scripted by Steven Bochco, is the episode directed by Steven Spielberg, then a 24-year-old up-and-comer at Universal. Its villain is Jack Cassidy, who kills his mystery-novel writing partner (Martin Milner – another victim we don’t mind seeing knocked off). Some of the action takes place in and around Cassidy’s lakeview cabin, and there’s a second murder – in Columbo’s estimation, a sloppy job.

Anybody with a dangerous weakness for the work of Jack Cassidy (and I am such a person) will find much to savor here. Sleek and oily, his cartoon grin flashing with menace, Cassidy’s sarcastic style is amply displayed here. He’s not a ham; he’s a pecan pie with whipped cream and caramel. (Weird footnote: his second victim is played by Barbara Colby, who later appeared in California Split and was shot and killed on the street in L.A. in an unsolved case in 1975.)

Spielberg’s direction is clever and imaginative, clearly the work of someone who wants to get as much juice as he can from the material. And probably someone who wants to get noticed, too. Like so many Columbo episodes, this one has the peculiar look of early-70s Universal TV, although Spielberg and photographer Russell Metty make this episode more shadowy and underlit than most. As a series, Columbo favored wealthy villains and thus opulent living spaces, and a great deal of mod furniture and abstract art passed by under the detective’s nose.

But why write about these, other than the fact of having gone through a little Columbo-watching spree in the last couple of days? Because I want to convey some of the real mystery of these episodes, and of Columbo in general – not “mystery” in the sense of whodunit (which was not an issue in Columbo anyway), but in the way, for instance, Peter Falk’s character had no first name, no home life to be seen, no variety of costume. Everything was focused on cat-and-mouse, on a meeting of minds that was strangely simpatico despite the format of a murderer lying to elude capture and a detective trying to catch him/her. Although it featured exterior settings in real Los Angeles locations, Columbo seemed to take place in a completely stylized realm, with fakey interiors and too-clean clothes and a certain airlessness: just backdrops for the chess match.

Another thing that added to the mysterioso quality was the music of Billy Goldenberg, who scored these two episodes and few later ones. Allow me to geek. Geek more, that is. I couldn’t count the times I hummed Billy Goldenberg’s themes from these Columbo episodes between the time I was twelve years old and this morning, but if I did, it would be many, many times. (Not talking about the Mystery Movie synthesizer theme, by Henry Mancini, which is fun, but the music within the episodes.) Very noir sounding, with hints of Rachmaninoffian drama, but also colonized by Universal’s taste for modern weirdness in music (see also Night Gallery at this time).

Who are you, Billy Goldenberg? Obviously you can look up his many (mostly TV) credits on IMDb, and he has a large profile in the business, but why didn’t he become bigger in movies? I didn’t realize he was musical director on the Elvis Comeback special until reading about it in Peter Guralnick’s Elvis bio. Not a huge amount of him on YouTube, but he appears in a video telling a story about working with Ethel Merman. Whatever. He’s been in my head for a long time.

Peter Falk’s performance, so deft and consistent, of course has a lot to do with why the show seems to exist in its own sealed-off zone. Very human (I always loved Columbo fixing an omelet in the victim wife’s kitchen in Murder by the Book) but also something other than human. Falk grasped that Columbo’s roundabout approach was so much more interesting to watch than the direct line. The detective is nearly as big a dissembler as the killer. There’s something sinister and true in that suggestion, and something that makes these TV-movies real mysteries.

3 Responses

  1. My faves are the Cassevetes episodes!

    • I really like the one where Cassavetes plays the orchestra conductor. In my memory, my favorite villain was Donald Pleasance – except he wasn’t a villain, since you’re completely sympathetic to him throughout.

      • Pleasence standing on the hilltop — in magic hour light, as I recall — chucking those bottles of no-longer-precious wine one by one. I don’t know from wine, but that was truly a civilized man.

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