is a season-one episode of Columbo and is often maligned. While the series was early, still getting into their formula, they weren’t shy from the creepiness factor. “Dead Weight” never ranks on anyone’s most favorite list and gets virtual eggs thrown at it when the title is spoken. We take a look at this strangely pretentious episode.
The episode opens
on a bright, sunny day of a marina before cutting inside an exclusive residence. It’s day vs. night as this “home” is set up like a darkened museum with military trophies. What is curious, after the 10th viewing, is the jazzy, sophisticated music in the opening. It’s neither suspenseful nor soothing. The music is more appropriate for a closing than an opening of an episode.
We first see an elaborate portrait fitting for someone out of the Napoleonic age. But it is no other than Eddie Albert who had just stepped out of the sets of Green Acres. Playing retired Maj. General Martin J. Hollister, he is a character most well-to-do. Embarking upon immortality, he is honored with his own wing in a military museum when he’s not busy sailing on his new yacht. As a performer, Albert had to go from a stuffy lawyer in an equally stuffy three-piece suit to an overly proud, authoritative military general. This is why his confrontation with his victim is interesting.
Worthy of an analysis (which I may do later), we see a nervous Col. Roger Dutton in uniform. He stands toe-to-toe in a skittish conversation with General Hollister, still in bathrobe. In one morning conversation, we set up the episode’s backstory including the victim’s relationship with Hollister. Either out of efficiency, working with network censors, or deliberate direction, we never see Hollister shoot Dutton. We’re made to believe Dutton is killed. After all, murder is what Columbo is about. While overlooked today, this episode aired during the peak of the Vietnam War. Having a veteran and one who have profited from the military, underhandedly, may not have been the most sympathetic of Columbo villains (or victims).
The episode isn’t about the victim, but the witness, Helen Stewart. Played by Suzanne Pleshette, she’s a naive woman still living with her mother who may or may not be undergoing psychiatric therapy. Happened to be looking at the wrong place at the wrong time, she throws herself into a murder investigation with her words against a world-famous American general.
When Columbo pays his visit to Hollister’s residence, the General had a change in wardrobe. No longer in a bathrobe, he is comfortable in a tuxedo and drink. He puts on a new performance. The first interview between he and Columbo seems like a boring one that doesn’t go anywhere. In fact, its a story about facades, false impressions, and the very important cigarette lighter. The General has experienced an assault on his plan and he concocts a counter move. He makes up an elaborate story that is even more unbelievable than the witnesses. As the first act closes, we have all the pieces for the episode; a haughty villain and the victim. We also have something rare, an unreliable witness. She is also a weak opponent that the General cannot resist to pursue.
The second act has two stories. The first is Lt. Columbo’s investigation and interviews with Mrs. Stewart and Gen. Hollister. The second is the “creepy” one that everyone will judge the episode by. The General tracks down Mrs. Stewart and practicing psychological warfare by paying a surprise visit to her front door! (Trivia: Look for Helen’s mother greeting the General with a knife.) He doesn’t stop there as he gathers intelligence from Helen’s mother, stops by her work, and invites her on a date and she accepts! Our empathy with Helen evaporates when she stands her ground about her testimony yet sits with the murderer. In moments, her confidence begins to shake and Hollister begins his romance.
After Helen retracts her story after a couple of dates and a cruise on his yacht, we see Columbo falling behind the General a few steps. But this is television and the needed coincidence needs to surface, as in Col. Dutton’s body. Where we think the investigation takes a whole new turn, it doesn’t. Columbo nearly begs Helen Stewart to back his story about Col. Dutton. But she refuses and Columbo seeks solace at Bert’s diner and chili.
There’s a lot to be said about Bert. He’s the General’s alter-ego. Bert doesn’t share the General’s wealth and stature. But he shares similar traits; running his own business and an avid collector of military relics that define his past. Bert’s stories inspires Columbo. The Lieutenant doesn’t need more physical evidence to convict Hollister. He simply needs to get into his head.
The final act is a short one. Held in Hollister’s museum wing, it is his home turf. This is where Columbo challenges the General’s story and his legacy out in the open. Using psychological judo, he twists Hollister’s strengths to its knees and throws his hubris against him. Columbo taunts the General with the murder weapon, his own pearl handled pistol, that the General couldn’t get rid of. No accomplishments, nothing from Hollister’s past, can save him this present moment. He knows he is defeated.
“Dead Weight” had the makings of a much more clever episode. What if we really didn’t know what happened to Dutton until much later? Is there be some truth to Helen’s mother’s comments about her daughter’s wild imagination since childhood? Instead, it spins a very awkward romance between her and the General. What may have been lost through the years is it’s anti-military message. It portrays the military machine as greedy and corrupt and its most famous continuing their treachery in retirement. While once enjoying military conquest, Hollister has difficulties with civilian life. Continuing to act as if rules don’t apply to him, it stuns him to learn that it does.