In part 2,
of our analysis of “A Trace of Murder”, we go over the planning, execution, before Columbo’s entrance. Co-conspirators Cathleen and Patrick hatch a plan to get Clifford Calvert out of the way so his wife can spend all his money. In ABC style, there is still storytelling left before Lt. Columbo appears.
The next scene returns to the distance between Cathleen and Calvert, both emotional and physical. Cathleen tries to get Clifford’s attention by telling him “they just found the Lindbergh baby”. A surprisingly dated reference, it is another example touching the theme of “missing”. Take a look at the Calvert’s dining room. It is deliberately filled. There are no open spaces in the background. Everywhere there is something taking up space. Though my eyes may deceive me, I see two empty chairs to Calvert’s left but only one at the table to his right. The sixth chair have been moved against the wall to occupy the other empty space, otherwise. I’ll go out on the limb and surmise it was a last second decision to put something there and they simply moved back the chair. The point however, is the set design. It is filled and cluttered with no opportunity of a missing piece. Even the space above the table comes a protruding chandelier. Clifford exits the room and the house with a tone that is a mix of comedy with marital indifference.
My only criticism, comes with repeated viewing, is there was no foreshadowing, at least with Cathleen’s coffee. Her particular habits with sweeteners could have been referenced here. Likewise with Clifford’s headline that should have been written as his horoscope.
A short montage explains the murder plot. Cathleen takes a revolver out of Clifford’s desk and one of his Cuban cigars. Most of us will think about the positive space, what she has in her hands. Also, keep in mind what is now missing. We cut to Cathleen making a phone call from a payphone to her husband. Clifford is driving and the episode shows off his car phone but could easily be retconned as a mobile phone for the contemporary audience. The scene tips its hand when Clifford’s cough. Cathleen leaves a bag on a parking lot behind and Patrick quickly retrieves it. This scene deliberately emphasizes a pill bottle with an awkward, out of place, slo-mo. Very well dressed, Patrick climbs the stairs to Howard Seltzer’s home. Patrick is overdressed. He’s posing to participate in a social class he’s excluded from. The stairs he climb not only represents the literal struggle making to Seltzer’s home, it only represents his struggle to climb out of his social status.
Howard’s home, not to be overlooked, cannot be overlooked. It is large, opulent, and is larger than the camera’s frame. It quietly poses Seltzer’s wealth on equal terms with Clifford’s. The greeting at the door is an underappreciated brilliance. At first glance, it quickly paints Howard as a paranoid. The routine of a tiny, sliding door is a comedic trope. Disregard what is said about Patrick’s false story getting into the house. We see only a tiny portion of Howard Seltzer. In other words, much of him is missing. He is mysterious. His glasses are a mask. He hides his true self behind them. But the camera reverses angle. Now Patrick is obscured by the same window. He too, is hiding and is not showing his motives. After an important coincidental plot point with Seltzer’s home alarm, Patrick has a bogus phone call. Patrick begins a very awkward conversation with Howard that I found obtuse. Listen to what Patrick is asking. Where’s the wife? Where’s the housekeeper? They either don’t exist or otherwise … missing. Maybe because the actor is about to take a fall, but Seltzer removes his glasses. He is removing his “mask” as shows his true self. Howard confessed what it takes to afford a place like his. Earlier, he is introduced as man losing wealth. Here, he confirms he is a man with it. Meanwhile, Patrick shows his true motives and pulls out Clifford’s revolver. Howard is murdered.
To this moment in the episode, we still don’t know much Patrick. But we get two, extended closeups of David Rasche. The first was his reaction to Cathleen’s murder plot. The second, soon after murdering Howard. What to make of this? Using his mystery to the episode’s advantage, I’d say Patrick is a lunatic. Including his propensity for murder, he’s shown signs of obsessive compulsion, alcoholism (he finishes the red white), and is adept in deception and lies. There also may be a subtle social commentary. His expression of satisfaction comes at the idea of stealing Calvert’s wealth and murdering Howard the Wealthy.
Patrick pulls out a portable, battery-operated vacuum. We learn what the importance of the pill bottle as he uses it to store the cat hairs and carpet fibers. Patrick then pulls out his handy Swiss army knife and scissors off an end of Clifford’s cigar and leaves it in the ashtray. The pieces to frame Clifford are laid. After wiping his prints off the phone, he exits by pressing the panic button the alarm system. Using the cigar to press the button was a nice touch. It’s as if Clifford pushed the button himself.
This is part two of an analysis of the Columbo episode, “A Trace of Murder” directed by Vincent McEveety.