COLUMBO: The Most Crucial Game (1972, S02E03)

(peacock/tubi/VOD) Gutted to hear that the world has lost Dean Stockwell. While he was in two COLUMBO episodes, my favorite of his is THE MOST CRUCIAL GAME. Dean Stockwell plays Eric Wagner, a hedonistic playboy who owns a Los Angeles football team who is murdered by the team’s manager Paul Hanlon (classic COLUMBO villain Robert Culp).

For the roughly ten minutes Stockwell is on-screen, he’s hilariously languid, lazy, high and hungover, and it’s the highlight of the episode — which is saying a lot considering how brilliant the interplay between Culp and Peter Falk always is. It’s not quite what I’d label as a classic episode of COLUMBO, but it’s an extremely enjoyable 75 minutes and, thanks to director Jeremy Kagan — perhaps best known for helming THE CHOSEN (1981) — features some of the surprisingly experimental camerawork and editing that the early COLUMBO eps are known for. You’ll be missed, Dean.

COLUMBO – Lovely but Lethal (1973, S03E01)

This was initially penned for a collection of fan essays meant to cover the entire COLUMBO series, but the collection was never realized.

Viveca Scott is not like other murderesses in Columbo. She’s not an actress. She’s not married, she’s not a scorned lover, she’s not even insecure. She’s the head of Beauty Mark, a cosmetics company so popular that even our dear detective is familiar with her face.

Despite its popularity, Beauty Mark’s stock has been fading. Viveca (Vera Miles) needs a hit, as her gloating competitor David Lang (Vincent Price) reminds her. However, Viveca has an ace up her sleeve with the brilliant-but-boozy Dr. Murcheson, a chemist skilled enough to manufacture the cosmetics holy grail: a cream that eradicates the appearance of age, aptly named Miracle.

Sadly, Murcheson’s alcoholism is a roadblock in getting Miracle to market. In the nightmarish opening, we see his sweaty, porous face splashed with red light, looking the very sight of a mad doctor as he runs some final tests on a female subject. Murcheson’s assistant chemist, Karl Lessing (Martin Sheen), simply observes until Murcheson’s tremors nick the woman’s face. Karl takes over, leaving Murcheson to find comfort in a whiskey bottle.

Murcheson evaluates the test results and tells Viveca that Miracle is a failure, the prior, very successful results a fluke, but she hears quite different news from her spy at Lang’s: mousy, loose-lipped assistant Shirley Blaine. Shirley informs Viveca that Lang just received the most ingenious cream and, in one of the more far-fetched Columbo scenes, Shirley applies the cream to a nearby maid’s face and her crow’s feet disappear!

It dawns on Viveca that Karl, Murcheson’s assistant, falsified Miracle’s latest tests and brought the cream to Lang. Instead of informing Murcheson or buying the cream from Shirley, Viveca opts to unsuccessfully bargain with Karl for Miracle’s formula. When he laughs at her escalating offers, Viveca does what few Columbo murderers do: in the heat of the moment she impetuously kills Karl, bludgeoning him with a nearby microscope. She takes Karl’s single jar of Miracle and leaves before his body cools.

Early the next morning, Columbo investigates the scene of the crime (showing more interest in finding salt for his hard-boiled egg than clues), then makes a beeline for Viveca, following her from Karl’s dartboard to Beauty Mark’s offices, then to Viveca’s ‘Fat Farm’, peppering her with questions the entire way. Upon inquiring about her history with Karl, she responds: “I like young men, Lieutenant, lots of them. And if that shocks your ancient masculine double standard, I’m sorry.” In retaliation, Viveca drags Columbo to a nude exercise group, leaving the Lieutenant flustered and eager to exit and question Murcheson.

With one irritant out of her way, Viveca goes to dispatch another. Shirley has realized that Viveca was behind Karl’s murder, and the poor girl (who just wants to be like Viveca) tries to leverage that knowledge for a Beauty Mark executive position. Instead of granting her wish, Viveca opts to murder again (another Columbo abnormality) by gifting her poisoned cigarettes. Shirley dies while smoking and driving, looking to the world as if she lost control of her car.

Unfortunately, Shirley’s death does little to prevent Columbo from piecing together the murder. He confronts Viveca and she’s taken away, an unceremonious end for a most unusual Columbo woman. Viveca was a wily, successful, independent, occasionally shortsighted woman, sadly all too capable of murder. She was an anomalous antagonist when compared to Columbo’s other killer women, co-dependents who murdered out of jealousy, revenge, or ‘easy’ money. Viveca Scott was a murderess the likes of which Columbo had never seen before, and would never see again.

BATES MOTEL (1987)

(DVD) This isn’t the recently completed BATES MOTEL TV series, but a made-for-TV film that was shot in-between PSYCHO III and PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING (which was actually shot after BATES MOTEL).

This isn’t a great film but an interesting curio. (Granted, one could say that about -all- of the sequels.) It’s worth noting that Anthony Perkins doesn’t appear in it; instead, Kurt Paul — Perkins’ stunt double in the prior Psycho films — portrays him. BATES MOTEL takes place after PSYCHO (ignoring PSYCHO II and III) and features Alex West (Bud Cort) who killed his step-father as a youth and was then thrown into the same asylum as Norman Bates. Bates befriended Alex and, upon dying, bequeathed him his hotel. Alex, along with the assistance of Willie (Lori Petty) a plucky young woman, fix up the hotel while fending off fears that the place is haunted by Mrs. Bates.

Meanwhile — and slightly jarringly inserted — a woman (Kerrie Keane) checks into the hotel, as — feeling old, alone and unloved after a recent divorce — plans on killing herself. As she’s about to do so, she’s is interrupted by a teen girl (Khrystyne Haje) who invites her to an after-prom party where she woos a young Jason Bateman and realizes there’s still some life in her bones after all. Then — hardly a spoiler, as it’s telegraphed from the get-go but letting you know just in case — it’s revealed that the teen killed herself in the very same room years ago.

If you read the above and thought: ‘Hey, that sounds like a story I’d see in a 80s TV anthology!’ you can pat yourself on the back. BATES MOTEL was a feature film masquerading as a TV pilot, where each week would tell the dovetailing tales of troubled hotel guests. While BATES MOTEL takes far too much time getting the hotel in Alex’s hands — including a lot of padding involving him simply trying to locate the hotel — and it is far too enamored with the Scooby Doo-ish pratfalls that occur afterwards, the B-story is satisfying enough that I wish they’d moved forward with the show. Obviously, they didn’t and we only have this TV film to show for it.

(Then again, I also unabashed love the TV anthology series FRIDAY THE 13: THE SERIES, which similarly has little to do with its namesake.)