Columbo: An analysis of “A Trace of Murder” part 1

“A Trace of Murder”,
is not considered the most well-known or much talked about Columbo episode.  Starring David Rasche, who I remember from Sledge Hammer, plays the villain.  His co-conspirator is played by Shera Danese in her last role in the series.  We follow its very interesting themes.

The opening scene is very efficient describing its characters.  It begins with Calvert Clifford lighting up a big, fat cigar.  Calvert is more dressed like a Texan than someone making home in Southern California.  Immediately, he is depicted as “wealthy”.  He tells a story to the bartender about his private jet.  On the surface, its a narrative about his wealth, misogyny, and boorish attitude.  It pins him as a less-than-sympathetic character.  But listen carefully what his story is about and we have our first theme.

Clifford is talking about something amiss.  Things are not where they should be.  His plane has no hangar to park in.  But Clifford has the power to make things right.  Things out of place and righting them will resurface.  Cathleen is introduced in a deliberate frame where there is distance between her and Clifford’s glass.  This illustrates the emotional distance between the two.  Meanwhile, we learn the Calvert’s attend $1,000 a piece events and that Clifford is being sued by Howard Seltzer.  A right cross bluntly demonstrates animosity between Clifford and Howard.

Back in the Calvert’s plush residence, there is an interesting scene in Clifford’s study.  Clifford is framed in a very wide shot.  It demonstrates his opulence and isolation.  He also explains the severity of Seltzer’s lawsuit.  The Calvert’s could face destitution.  And here, Clifford comes up with a clever quip.

“What do you think, Cathleen? Can you see the two of us in a one-bedroom apartment?” – Clifford Calvert.


After Clifford’s chuckle, it cuts to “The Silver Creek” apartments. And if you didn’t notice, they have one bedroom apartments there.  The irony!  The scene surprising leverages the rules of thirds.  We see the sign to our far left.  There is a pair in the middle.  A lonely man walks into the distance at our far right.  Subconsciously, the frame tells a story of something missing.  We get a look into one of the apartments and quickly assess Cathleen is having an affair with Patrick Kinsley.  The two are introduced close and together and ex posit their options continuing their relationship and dismiss divorce.  Immediately, Patrick displays his very efficient ways.  He offers “white or red” wine to Cathleen from a mini fridge near the bedroom.  Interesting note, he has no red wine.  Again, the “missing” piece theme.  What had always intrigued me was the mini fridge.  For some reason, I subconsciously believed this was his only refrigerator.  The camera does a good job portraying a claustrophobic, tiny apartment.  Although, there is one cut overlooking the living room and, I presume, the kitchen where a full size refrigerator comes with the rent.  What the mini fridge represents is his impoverished state and the fact he uses it to keep wine instead of food.  This is the power of cinematography.  Had we had posh quarters and Patrick bragging about a private jet, we would have seen Patrick in a different light.  His spare fridge would be a symbol of excess rather than frugality.

We also see a very important prop, the Swiss army knife.  It’s an symbol of Patrick’s frugality.  He’s a minimalist and cheap.  Even Cathleen makes a comment but Patrick dismisses her.  The tool is a favorite of his.  As Cathleen heads to the showers, we hear Patrick comment how it’s no fun being poor.  We see Cathleen’s two sides.  Her distance with her wealthy husband and he closeness with her poor, Patrick.  As Cathleen showers, she comes up with her diabolical plan.  What if they murder Howard Seltzer and frame Clifford?  Patrick is easily persuaded.

Trivia: Notice how Patrick never tips off what he does for a living.  Effective for first time viewers who would be stupefied otherwise when Patrick makes his decision.

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

Go to part 2

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