Columbo: An analysis of “A Trace of Murder” part 3

This is part 3,
of our analysis of the Columbo episode, “A Trace of Murder”.  The murder has been carried out but the conspiracy is only half way through.  We haven’t yet seen Lt. Columbo but there are more clues, themes, and subtle messages to discover.

A police officer investigates Seltzer’s panic alarm but loses a cat.  Later, in the night, Patrick loses the murder weapon into the water.  The two frames share curious elements.   The officer is very animated drawing his weapon to our left.  It almost comical but certainly attention grabbing.  The direction doesn’t come to light until we see Patrick grip the revolver to our left as well.  Both are framed in a middle shot, flat center, looking down.  It’s symbolism can be debated.  I saw it as a asynchronous graphic match; indoors to out, day to night, officer to villain, keeping a firearm to losing it.  The ownership of the crime scene has been handed over.

The wedding party scene is introduced by an overly decorated limo.  It cleverly uses takes up two-thirds of the frame leaving a clear walkway into (and out) of the house.  There is nothing practical about the front windshield other than promoting the theme of filling space.  The empty left third of the frame coerces us to look down the path and subconsciously visit inside.  Inside, the scene chooses to spotlight a server carrying a glass of champagne.  Pretty underwhelming considering the server and the recipient of the glass are insignificant and are of no importance to the mystery.  However, what the server does with the glass of champagne is.   He is giving something away.

Meanwhile, Cathleen needs to make an exit.  Checking her watch is a tell tale that she has a schedule to follow.  This scene also follow the rule of thirds.  Her empty space symbolizes the physical and emotional distance between she and Clifford.  Beyond Clifford’s predictable answer to Cathleen’s question if he wants to step outside, listen to his story he shares with the gentleman.  Clifford talks about eating steak, a dish for the more affluent, and berates his waiter.  It is an example of the affluent bearing down on the lower class.  It’s his comedy before his fall.

Note the continuity error.  The server offering appetizer plates disappears between match cuts.  Why would the wait staff wear different uniforms?

When Cathleen steps away, there is subtle foreshadowing.  A cameraman shadows Cathleen and snaps pictures of her as she passes him.  His work is vital.  Patrick comes to the party and drops off the prescription bottle into her car where she picks it up.  Dumping the cat hair and carpet fibers into a little case, she returns inside and asks Clifford for a dance.  Reluctant, Clifford appeases his wife and dances with her.  The bride’s parents made a cameo in the background.  The cameraman snaps a photo just before Cathleen smothers Clifford’s jacket with “evidence”.

The episode switches from the wedding party to the crime scene at Seltzer’s home.  The transition mirrors the wedding as it begins with an outdoor cut of the building occupied with vehicles.  The false symmetry continues.  The place is busy, full of people and cars.  But all are uninvited.

Enter Lt. Columbo. He walks into the crime scene packed with the forensic team.  Like the party, there are photographers here.  They overtly fill the room with flashes.  Columbo walks in and here we have a new theme, giving things away.  With a bag full of groceries, he hands out bananas.  Adding things that weren’t there, he represents the polar opposite of the theme of taking.   Then comes one of the most low-key entrance any character had made on Columbo.  Patrick Kinsley appears!  Carrying a tray of coffee, he introduces himself to Columbo as a member of the Forensics Unit and conveniently explains why we’ve never seen him before.  Patrick’s act of kindness was a subtle hint that Patrick is Columbo’s equal here.  While not in intellect or guile, but in his ability to influence the investigation.

This is part three of an analysis of the Columbo episode, “A Trace of Murder” directed by Vincent McEveety.

Go to part 2

Go to part 4


1 comment

  1. whilldtkwriter October 12, 2018 8:34 am  Reply

    Thanks for confirming what I saw in the episode–“The cameraman snaps a photo just before Cathleen smothers Clifford’s jacket with ‘evidence’.” Seems the rest of the episode, including “closeups” tried to sell the idea that Cathleen planted the stuff BEFORE the photographer took the pic.

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