“Columbo Goes to the Guillotine”,
was the first Columbo episode I saw from beginning to end. Too young and too uninterested to watch Columbo on prime time NBC when it first aired, I was suckered into the nostalgia when Peter Falk returned to television on ABC. There is novelty about an iconic character stepping out from the 1970’s into 1989.
Has the world move too fast for Columbo? Or will his old tricks still work capturing modern-day murderers? What better hook than to tease us with magic and mystery with Lt. Columbo in the guillotine! For Columbo novices, it had wondering how he would solve the magic trick, distracting us from the series’ formula how he would match his subject to the crime?
The opening of the “Guillotine” is serious and borderline pretentious. A full-blown staged exhibition with military observers props up the psychic, Elliot Blake, who proves his ESP abilities is above average but not good enough to defend the homeland from Soviet mind-benders. Soon later do we understand that it was all a fraud. The institute’s two major players, Elliot Blake and his distant girlfriend, Dr. Paula Hall, confess to the audience their ploy to scam the government. To this day, I still don’t grasp if the institute was one large, elaborate head fake. Filled with people in lab coats, assistants, and volunteers, how much money this this place pull in putting on one magic show after the other?
The episode, as typical of ABC-era episodes, invest a great deal of time setting the story without Columbo. The Blake-Hall conspiracy has one last chance to convince the black-ops that Blake is for real. Enter Anthony Zerbe, as Max “the magnificent” Dyson, the will-be victim who is hired by the U.S. government to keep Blake honest. Zerbe’s performance puts the episode over the top. We will learn that he and Blake share an ambiguous past over poker in the shade in a Ugandan prison. Max is a reformed mentalist making a living exposing frauds.
What the first ABC episode lacks in famous villain, it makes up with character development. Elliot Blake and Max Dyson are neither exciting nor really fun personalities. However, the episode invests in their history. The night fog appropriately foreshadows the mystery and treachery that follows. “Guillotine” continues its patient pace with its mind-reading trick that overshadows the murder.
The dated technology, particularly the Polaroids and mobile fax machines, I think work to the episode’s advantage. Its dystopian technologies puts it into an alternative universe where we question reality. If instant photography doesn’t go back far enough, we get the guillotine. Even the murder weapon is deceptive. It’s a cruel instrument of death and a magical prop designed to draw applause. The murder of Max Dyson doesn’t come silent. The backstories these two men collide and come full circle with a murder that ranks as one of most gruesome. Welcome Columbo fans! Courtesy of ABC.
The prolonged first act has us anticipate Columbo’s arrival, hoping he would set the world straight again. Keeping up with theme, the Lieutenant’s re-introduction appears out from of the darkness. (Coincidentally, so does his next witness). The episode kicks off dark and deceptive in a world where psychics rule not only in magic shops but largely funded think tanks at the highest echelons of the secret military. While it clearly establishes this isn’t the 1970’s anymore, it hasn’t forgotten nor avoided the Columbo formula. Our favorite Lieutenant begins his investigation and continues his tradition of learning new things; in this case, magic.
The rapport between Columbo and Blake isn’t a classic. Anthony Andrews, as Elliot Blake, always seemed annoyed with Columbo. Maybe, this works for his character and arrogance. But I can’t help but notice how the legacy of the 70’s overshadows the ABC years’ villains. Columbo’s investigation progresses from researching the murder scene to zeroing on his only suspect, Blake, and the fraud that he his. The leap from murder to the man was as sudden as Columbo’s discovery that both Blake and Dyson were from Uganda. Columbo’s hadn’t forgotten, nor forgave, Blake’s mind reading card trick. It was Columbo’s epiphany that he was dealing with a magician, not a mind-reader.
Columbo’s imitation back at the institute is the show’s highlight. We all knew that it was a trick, but not yet know how it was done. The episode could have ended there but it had an arrest to make. The finale, or epilogue, returns Blake to the scene of the murder. There, we learn the secrets of the episode’s magic tricks. While the reveal how the Blake-Columbo, “Viewing at a Distance” trick was done was a big one, “Guillotine” had one more trick left. The episode’s teaser, putting our favorite detective under the guillotine, comes in the very end. Putting his life in peril, Columbo turns the tables on Blake and gets the final piece of evidence needed to convict him.
I can’t say “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine” is a classic. But it is one of the better of the ABC years. It is certainly a good episode to be introduced to the Columbo series and return to the NBC episodes and see how it all began. If you’re a fan of Lt. Columbo, this is like watching him for the first time again in a new world – the world of ABC.
Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, Season 8, episode 1.