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Review: Columbo - Ransom for a Dead Man (The Complete Series, 1971)

Review: Columbo - Ransom for a Dead Man (The Complete Series, 1971)
FILE PHOTO: Columbo The Complete Series – Season 1 © Universal Studio

One of the two pilot episodes of Columbo (1968-2003), Ransom for a Dead Man (Dir. Richard Irving, 1971) is undoubtedly the best episode ever made aesthetically. Furthermore, the film editing for this feature-length TV movie is brilliant, as we can see in the opening murder sequence in which freeze frames with radical zoom-in on the faces of both the antagonist, Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) and the victim, her husband, a well-established senior attorney, Paul Williams (Harlan Warde) remind us of the avant-garde work of Peter Tscherkassky’s Instructions For a Light and Sound Machine (2005). The psychological impact is enhanced by the shocking clutching sound echoes of the .22 caliber bullet gun shots which also, enlarged in slow motion.


Besides, in the process of destroying the evidence on the night of her murder of Paul, two search lights of Paul’s car driven by Leslie are perfectly shape-matched with her eyes. Another good editorial expression is that when Leslie’s stepdaughter, who suspects Leslie’s involvement, Margaret, talks with Lt. Columbo in the chili restaurant. That scene freezes frames, gradually getting out of focus, and dissolves when they just mention the missing car keys of her father, the victim, Paul. Those technical details and meticulous solutions showed that this episode stands out from other episodes.


After the establishment of film art, subsequent media like TV, and the internet, especially streaming service are just different ways of distributing artworks from existing media. Moreover, the only common thing in this medium is narrative (rhetoric). Hence, even a commercial is about a certain narrative. Propaganda is also about a narrative. For a TV drama, the typical interruptions caused by commercials are purely technical and external limitations to the creative process. In other words, every episode of Columbo can be seen as a feature film in an ordinary meaning. 


Like any other episodes, the high dramaturgy of Columbo depends on a few characters. In this, only the protagonist, Columbo, the victim, Paul, the murderer, Leslie, and her enigmatized stepdaughter, Margaret are really necessary characters. Furthermore, what is surprising about this episode of Columbo is that characters analyze characters, thus we don’t need to think or explain what characteristics they possess. As a matter of fact, cheating tricks – Deus ex machina - are mainly seen in whodunit stuff like Rising Sun (1993) in which, even the murder process shown to the audience is fake. And it hooks the audience to the wrong suspects - Eddie Sakamura and Ishihara - until the end. After all wrong suspects are cleared at the climax, the true suspect suddenly appears. This is simply a plot deception. 


On the contrary, episodes of Columbo avoided this kind of literally cheap trick in the narrative even though Columbo and Margaret secretly cooperate to set Leslie up to force her to use the missing ransom money in her hands. The filmmaker just logically showed the sensuous action process from the viewpoint of Leslie, not as a sudden twist or insert into the hands of God. Hence, Columbo is unlike the Medieval stuff, but it actually possesses the full modern quality that we reminisce about.


The most intelligent thing in this episode is that when Lt. Columbo comes into Leslie’s house. Leslie’s reactions are all unusual. As cooking a dinner for the police officers, and even comically interacts with Lt. Columbo under the extreme circumstances in which her husband is allegedly just kidnapped. After the house sequence, Leslie deliberately changes her reactions to the ‘self-authored’ event. 




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