WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE (2018)

(AMC+/kanopy/peacock/Prime/VOD) Shirley Jackson has been lucky in that she had to suffer few terrible film adaptations — even THE HAUNTING (1999) is better than it needed to be and probably wouldn’t cause her to roll in her grave — and this adaptation of WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE is no exception. While it ramps up the spectacle a bit and cuts a bit of the fat, it’s completely faithful to a tale of two sisters, of abuse, of being castigated by locals. Oh, and it’s bolstered by an amazing cast: Taissa Farmiga as the younger Blackwood, Alexandra Daddario as the elder, and Crispin Glover as their uncle.

Stacie Passon’s take captures the vacillation between fear and comfort that I felt Jackson captured as an anxious person; Daddario is perfectly cast, with her almost-preternatural blue eyes, and Passon commands the atmosphere. The set design is pitch-perfect, and she even manages to keep Crispin Glover dialed-in.

“The world is full of terrible people.”

MURDER, SHE WROTE – The Days Dwindle Down (1987)

The Strange Bargain of Murder, She Wrote’s The Days Dwindle Down

(This is a repost of a previously penned look at this singular MURDER, SHE WROTE episode from my old tumblr.)

(Freevee/peacock) Please note: this article contains major spoilers for both the film STRANGE BARGAIN as well as the MURDER, SHE WROTE episode The Days Dwindle Down (Season Three, Episode 21).

A killer confronts the person they’ve framed, confesses their crimes, then threatens to take down the wronged man or woman. The police, waiting in the wings, swoop in and safely apprehend the killer. The wronged person sighs with relief and ‘The End’ appears on the screen.

This is the closing sequence of many movies, including the little known 1949 RKO noir film STRANGE BARGAIN. The audience assumes that the ex-suspect can move on and return to a normal, humdrum domestic life. What if they were wrong?

The Days Dwindle Down, the 21st MURDER, SHE WROTE episode of the show’s third season, asks that very question but it does so through the lens of the film STRANGE BARGAIN. By utilizing footage from the movie and casting the major players in the same roles, it tasks writer/amateur detective Jessica Fletcher with solving a crime that, for thirty years, was considered a closed case. It’s a particularly interesting concept — one that I haven’t seen attempted in any TV shows prior or since — and it elevated the normally conservative MURDER, SHE WROTE to a TV event that likely won’t be repeated any time soon.

The episode opens with Georgia Wilson (Martha Scott) overhearing Jessica Fletcher discuss her “real-life sleuthing” with her agent. Georgia pulls Jessica aside to ask for her help: her husband, Sam (Jeffrey Lynn), was just released from a 30 year stinct in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but they can’t move ahead together without finding out who Sam was doing time for.

Ever the optimist, Jessica offers her help and listens to their tale. The story, told through flashbacks utilizing scenes from Strange Bargain, detail Sam’s struggle: while going through a financially turbulent period, Sam (at the request of his wife) requests a raise from his boss, Malcolm Jarvis. Instead of bargaining with him, Malcolm immediately fires Sam, citing both his, and the investment firm’s, poor fiscal condition. However, Malcolm proposes a solution to both of their ills: Malcolm is so cash-desperate that he had taken out a substantial life insurance policy, and he planned to kill himself and pose the scene so it looks like murder, allowing his wife and son a secure future. What’s in it for Sam? $10,000. All he needs to do is to complete the tableau by firing a few shots inside the Malcolm’s study after the suicide, and then dispose of the weapon.

Sam refuses the offer, but Malcolm won’t take no for an answer. The night of the planned suicide, Malcolm calls Sam and tells him he’s going through with it. Sam rushes over to Malcolm’s home to prevent him, but he’s too late: Malcolm is lying face down in a pool of blood, gun by his head. On his desk is a personalized note to Sam, along with an envelope containing $10,000 dollars. Sam decides to follow through with the plan, partially out of guilt, and partially because of the money. He takes the note, the gun, and the cash, goes outside and fires two shots through the office window, then disposes of the gun at a nearby pier. He cleans the remaining blood off of himself and the car, but it’s to no avail; he ultimately ends up becoming the prime suspect for murdering Malcolm, chased by Lieutenant Richard Webb (played by a pre-Dragnet Harry Morgan), a war-wounded cop with a bum leg, a hooked cane, and a record for always getting his man.

Jessica takes all of this in and immediately concludes that there’s no way Sam could be the murderer, and she agrees to investigate further.

This is where certain facts from the film are conveniently — and permanently — excised from The Days Dwindle Down: Strange Bargain actually had a happy ending, an ending that didn’t involve Sam going to jail. The closing scene sees Sam return to Malcolm’s home where he confesses to Edna Jarvis, Malcolm’s wife, that he didn’t kill Malcolm; instead it was an act of suicide. Consequently, there would be no insurance money. He hands over the $10,000, hoping to wash his hands of the whole affair, when Edna informs him that she knew of Malcolm’s plans to kill himself, that she approved, and even coordinated alibis for herself and her son to ensure that they would avoid suspicion.

Edna explains to Sam that she had her doubts that Malcolm would follow through, so she returned to the house to listen for the gunshot and, when she failed to hear one she enters, only to see Malcolm standing, gun reluctantly hanging by his side. He simply didn’t have the wherewithal to go through with it. “Malcolm was a weakling. I had the courage to do what he couldn’t do. […] It really was suicide, in a way,” she explains. “He just needed someone else to pull the trigger.” And so she did.

She points a gun at Sam, noting that the police will find him dead — another suicide — and she’ll be in the clear. She pulls the trigger, misses, merely grazes his arm. A cane stretches into the frame, hooks her arm, and Lieutenant Webb bursts into the scene, knocks Edna’s gun to the ground, and the police drag her away. Webb explains been following Sam for days, that they heard everything, and Sam is now absolved of any blame. Georgia rushes in, holds him tight, as he recants: “Darling, I made a terrible mistake but I’ll never make another one.”

“Oh yes you will,” she warmly retorts. “You’ll make lots of them. Not like this, but you’re a man and men are always making mistakes. Even women make them sometimes.” The End. Credits roll. *

Lacking this information, Jessica hits the trail alongside Sam’s son Rod (The Brood’s Art Hindle) – a cop, determined to prove his father innocent. They start off by interrogating all living offspring, including Richard Beymer as Sydney Jarvis (presciently acting very much like a proto-Benjamin Horne). From there, Jessica slyly tracks down Malcolm’s old secretary Thelma Vantay (played by June Havoc instead of Betty Underwood) and asks her if Edna, Malcolm’s wife, could have shot him.

“Mrs. Jarvis couldn’t have murdered anybody,” Thelma plainly states.

Jessica shoots her a quizzical look. “You mean, she was …too nice?”

“She didn’t have the guts!”

After discussing the case with the Wilson family over a nice home-cooked dinner, Jessica heads back to her hotel room for a fitful rest, only to awoken by a gunshot that found its way into her hotel room chair. The next morning, the cops procure the bullet and note that it belongs to a .38 revolver: the same type of gun that killed Malcolm. Unfortunately all of the prior Jarvis case records are missing, thwarting any attempts to match ballistics.

Jessica, undeterred, tracks down Edna Jarvis (played by Gloria Stuart, as Katherine Emery had passed away), and finds her in a nursing home, barely aware of her surroundings but zealously guarded by Sydney.

Conveniently, Jessica receives a phone call from a stranger purporting to have something that may help her investigation. Jessica taxi’s over to meet the man and is greeted by now-retired Lieutenant Richard Webb (still played by Harry Morgan, whose performance has loosened up over the years). He reveals that he has had the case record the entire time (“My Lindbergh baby,” he quips) and they confirm that the bullet fired into her chair was from the same gun. On the subject of Thelma, Malcolm’s secretary, Webb remarks that “I figured she was playing bedsheet bingo with the boss.”

Jessica enlists Rod, and the two scurry back to Ms. Vantay and, after a few rounds of good cop/bad cop, manage to squeeze out the admission that she deduced Malcolm hadn’t killed himself, and figured Sydney was covering it up. Sydney had been perfectly willing to pay her hush money but recently had fought back, knowing she couldn’t go to the cops without being brought up on blackmail charges.

Jessica and Rod gather Sam and Georgina to see Sydney in his drawing room, setting the stage for the big reveal. After quite a bit of verbal sparring with Jessica, Sydney eventually confesses, claiming that he killed his father, and he breaks down the events via more Strange Bargain flashbacks:

Sydney states that he saw Sam when he discovered Malcolm’s body in the study. He followed Sam to the pier (indicated in the flashback by black-and-white loafers) where he fished the gun from the water, just in case any prints were still left.

Jessica listens intently, then clucks at him. “You didn’t really kill your father at all, did you? Aren’t you really covering up for your mother?”

Sydney paces between two portraits of his parents while trying to explain away Jessica’s conjecture, but it’s no use. He sinks into a nearby chair, defeated, and reveals that, yes, his mother did kill Malcolm. Through another flashback, we see that it was an accident: Edna happened to enter the study when she saw Malcolm, poised with a gun to his head. She struggled with him, attempting to wrest the gun from him, but it went off and Malcolm was no more.

Considering the narrative dissonance, it’s not surprising that there was no mention of the film’s closing scene now. In fact, all of Sydney’s flashbacks are markedly different from the source footage. His shoes are inserted in the flashback footage, as is Edna’s tussle with her husband (they don’t even try to hide Edna’s casting change). It’s tough (but not impossible) to explain these discrepancies away as unreliable narration on Edna’s behalf, that she shot Sam in self-defense, that she was lying to protect Malcolm’s legacy and therefore Sydney’s, but the fact that it’s never even mentioned 30 years later is glaring.

At the end, everyone’s happy (or, at least as happy as they can be). Knowing Edna’s state, Sam doesn’t want to press charges, and they feel they can move on with their lives. The resolution fits the MURDER, SHE WROTE formula of exonerating any female suspects, and defangs Edna in particular. In short, the murder and the resulting events have been whitewashed. Thanks to the lack of morally ambiguous characters, STRANGE BARGAIN was hardly noir before The Days Dwindle Down, but Jessica’s deductions turn it into something else entirely.

I wasn’t familiar with STRANGE BARGAIN when I first saw The Days Dwindle Down, and I sought it out simply to see how the MURDER, SHE WROTE writers incorporated the source material. I assumed that The Days Dwindle Down had reversed whatever had been decided at the end of the film, that the events in the film were reshuffled or re-contextualized to put a different spin on the source material, or that the episode would at least would play with point-of-views and unreliable narration. While the concept and Jessica’s sleuthing was intriguing and well-executed, the reveal was far weaker, and far less interesting, than the tepid source material. Ideally MURDER, SHE WROTE would have been tweaked to accommodate the film and the characters’ needs; not the other way around.

The Days Dwindle Down aired almost exactly 28 years ago, the same span of years between the episode and STRANGE BARGAIN’s release. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before (if anyone else has — note that I’m not counting franchises or TV reunions — please chime in) and it may be another 28 years before see something like it again. I do believe The Days Dwindle Down to be the most experimental, noteworthy episode of MURDER, SHE WROTE but, while I still bemoan the end result, I heartily recommend it to anyone that will listen. Just make sure to watch it first, and STRANGE BARGAIN second.

STRANGE BARGAIN is currently unavailable to stream, and is only available as a Region 2 DVD.

For a more comprehensive look at STRANGE BARGAIN, click here.

TRIANGLE (2009)

(AMC+/hoopla/kanopy/peacock/tubi/etc.) TRIANGLE is a sort of THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT meets TIMECRIMES horror-thriller that’s tautly and expertly woven by SEVERANCE (2006) writer/director Christopher Smith. It features Melissa George (best known by me via her time on ALIAS but she was also a lead in 30 DAYS OF NIGHT), and really, that’s all you need to know.

THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL (2009)

Filmmaker Ti West is back in the news, due to the surprise announcement that his X-Factor film series will be a trilogy, which is great! I loved X, just saw PEARL, and am looking forward to MAXXXINE!

However, if you haven’t seen his debut — THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL — you should rectify that immediately. I’ve seen a lot of modern (and I use that term loosely given that it’s a decade-old film) throwbacks to 80s satanic horror films, but it is fantastically emblematic of what Ti West does with horror films: namely, embue character into them. Simply put: this is a nightmare babysitter gig, but the victims aren’t ‘Co-Ed No.1’. They have names and are fully fleshed out folks, ones with their own conflicted motivations.

I’ve heard a number of complaints levied at THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL and they all boil down to: ‘Yeah, this film enacted this plot twist before.’ That’s not what West is interested in. He wants to make it substantial, to make it something relatable. There’s no better example than the dance sequence from THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, featuring THE FIXX’s ‘One Thing Leads to Another’:

It’s a singular scene about how one acts when they feel they aren’t being seen, until they feel that they are not. It has far more depth than any of the films others have said West has ‘ripped off’ and utterly justifies the film’s existence.

Trailer:

ANGELYNE (2022)

(peacock) When I first heard that there was a TV mini-series about ‘Angelyne’, a singular blonde Los Angeles personality known almost solely for featuring herself on an array of billboards around Hollywood, featuring SHAMELESS’ Emmy Rossum as the titular character who doesn’t remotely resemble her, I couldn’t help but murmur a lackluster ‘huh.’

If you’re of a certain age, and a specific type of film nerd, you’re vaguely familiar with the image of Angelyne. Neon pink modern sweater L.A. woman. That’s all you saw on the billboards, that’s all you were sold, and that’s all she apparently wanted you to know. It was quintessential L.A.; she even became used as a sort of shorthand: all surface, no substance.

Angelyne, during the show, repeats to herself: “I am not a woman. I am an icon.”

Obviously, Angelyne is cribbing from the perceived career path of Marilyn Monroe — often learning the wrong lessons — but finding herself in a different era, and adapting herself to fit it. Similarly, ANGELYNE does the same.

ANGELYNE is a bit of a mess, by intent, which is what makes it interesting, and the only way you could tell this story. It’s littered with unreliable narrators and collisional character tales.

There’s an extended conversation in the first episode that sets the stage for what will become ANGELYNE, a literal combination of Joan Didion and Barbie, where she muses to this band leader who is infatuated with her about her need for a car to be able to escape situations:

“A car is supposed to be an extension of you; your being. I want something fast! So I can get away if I have to. […] I have to know I can escape.”

She then dovetails into a discussion about her idolatry regarding the Barbie doll:

“I’d love to be like Barbie!”

“You’re already blonde and beautiful,” the band leader — who would become greatly entangled in her life — interjects.

“Oh, she’s so much more than that! She lives a painless existence. You can stick her with things and she won’t cry; she doesn’t hurt! Wouldn’t that be nice, to never hurt?”

Obviously, there’s a lot of backstory to Angelyne, which is the tease of the show — an L.A. journalist named Jeff investigates her and writes a safe expose about her — but that’s really not the point of the show. This is about a woman trying to create her own narrative in the way that she’s seen men pen their narratives about women. She’s the one in control.

It’s a fascinating mini-series that I’m still flabbergasted was greenlit, but well-worth your time.

A.P. BIO (2018-2021)

(peacock/VOD) A.P. BIO is, well, was since it’s been canceled for a second time, ostensibly about a narcissistic asshole named Jack Griffin (IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA’s Glenn Howerton) who is thrust into teaching a high-school A.P. Biology course that he has absolutely no interest in. While the first season tried to adhere to a saccharin-sweet balance, the subsequent seasons firmly posited the show as a gag machine firing on all cylinders.

Consequently, the rest of this write-up will consist solely of recounting some of the most ridiculous jokes:

“I have my father’s eye.”

“You mean eyes.”

“Oh no, his actual eye. I had a bum cornea so, when he died, they just swapped his right into my eye, and that’s why I don’t look at myself naked because it wouldn’t be appropriate.”

Oh Paula Pell, you do know how to comedically sell a melancholy tale.

“Yes, we did it! It was us! We were the ones who brought the ice down from the misty mountains! Take this back to the princess and she can have her Snowcone! Curtain; intermission.”

“Wow! That all happens in Act I? That’s -amazing-!”

“I have a few notes. I feel like it owes a big debt to THE EMPEROR’S NEW GROOVE.”

“He skipped lunch with a student! Look at him: he dressed like Betelgeuse for this!”

“Uh, I’m ska.”

“He’s ska-red! I’m ska too. I’m very ska. But Durbin come back safe safe.”

“Mary, I renew my objection to this whole cabin in the woods business. I mean, I don’t know many times I have to tell you that I don’t do full nature.”

“We are going to have so much fun! Three foxy mammas in the great outdoors? We’re either going to meet a bigfoot, a Brawny paper towel man, or a Leatherface. And, as you know, two of three three are my type.”

“I mean, it’s sure to beat Michelle’s pick of San Antonio from last year.”

“I promised my dad I would tour the Pace Picante factory before he died, so I did it, and then he died right away, and now my mom sort of blames me for it, so yeah, Stef, really dull trip.”

“Metal compasses? Hand over the math knives, Wolverine.”

“I have a parasitic twin! It’s just a mass of hair and teeth, really. It’s in a jar at home! …that felt pretty vulnerable, and I’d love it if someone looked at me.”

Jack spots a poster of a wrestling match: “Neanderthal gymnastics.” (No offense to fans of wrestling, but it’s a great Jack quip.)

Not a line, but a great bit of costume design: Anthony, one of the students, is wearing a DINOSAURS ‘NOT THE MAMMA!’ shirt.

“Whoa, PIECES OF APRIL. Nice. Very on-brand for our Katie Holmes Day rummage sale.” I genuinely, unironically love that movie, and apparently the A.P. BIO folks do too as they even dress student Heather (the always entertaining Allisyn Snyder) up as the titular April, and drop in a few other fun riffs that I don’t want to spoil.

“Ralph, the football team wants real energy drinks. They figured out that Gatorade Clear is just water.”

“We need to bust outta here now.”

“Oh no, I’m not going outside. There’s probably cows flying around.”

“Yeah, I’m not trying to get hit upside the head by no barn or something, knocking my baby straight outta of me before I get to paint the nursery.”

“Listen to me: Keith is sound-mixing today. He works in a glass gazebo in our backyard with a blindfold and noise-cancelling headphones! And the song he’s working on is mostly wind and sirens! I need to sneak out of here and save my husband, and I need your help.”

“Oh, I’m sure he’s dead. And you need to let him go. But I’ll help you get out!”

“At least to identify the body.”

…and Bruce Campbell pops up on A.P. BIO:

“Dad?”

“Haha, Jack Sprat. My God. Look how big you are.”

“I’ve been this size for twenty years.”

Now that’s some fantastically succinct character background information, wrapped up in one great quip, and exactly why this show deserves more attention.

“Now, what’d everyone bring for their lunch roulette? And it’d better be good. Mary?”

“Huh? Oh, I would go first, but I want to see what Helen’s got.”

“Oh! Well, I had some time this morning so I just whipped up some seared duck breast in a balsamic reduction.”

“Oh!” “Wow.”

“And I would’ve made dessert, too, if the duck had gone down easier! Hehe!”

“Helen, did you kill this duck, like, this morning?”

“Well, yeah, I wasn’t gonna pan-fry it alive. I’m not a psychopath!”

  • – *

“Okay, for lunch roulette, I brought: one, normal, unadulterated ba-na-na!”

“…is this a rusty nail?” (There’s clearly a rusty nail embedded in said ba-na-na.)

“If it’s roulette, there’s gotta be one bullet to make it fun! Whatever, you guys suck. Let’s just play!”

“It’ll be nice for Rhonda to see how much we care. I tell you this: when Keith goes, I’m… [imitates self-inflicted gunshot to the head].”

“Hold up. Goes? Goes where?”

“Weren’t you listening? Rhonda’s husband died. What did you write on the card?”

“I wrote ‘Yippee! You’re back in the game! Get some, X-X-X’”

Context: A baby has just been born. Folks are speculating about the baby in the hospital.

“I just wish I could hold her! I’ll lactate, because I was a wet nurse during the Great Recession.”

Also: shout-out to THE GOBLINS/SUSPIRIA riff midway through the season finale. Again, is A.P. BIO necessary viewing? Probably not, but it’s hilariously and memorably inventive, and I’ll definitely miss it, as they really figured out how to make this world work over the past two seasons, even though S4 definitely leaned into the predictive sitcom tropes the show had been working so hard to avoid. However, it’s so sweet and funny that I don’t care.

GINGER SNAPS (2000)

(Fubo/peacock/Shudder/tubi/Vudu) GINGER SNAPS is an extremely Canadian production from John Fawcett (co-creator of ORPHAN BLACK) and Karen Walton. Fawcett had the concept and directed it, Walton scripted it, but ultimately it was a collaborative effort. It’s about two goth sisters living together in the basement of their idyllic, overly understanding Fitzgerald parents (Mimi Rodgers and John Bourgeois), struggling to make it through high school ridicule. The older sister is Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle, who has had one hell of a TV career, and she glows in AMERICAN MARY), an extremely confident, very protective-yet-belligerent redhead to her younger sister, Brigitte Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins) who is the quieter, less confrontational but more bookish, sibling.

I don’t know why I’m wasting words when the opening title sequence showcases their dynamics and interests perfectly. Even if the rest of the film was garbage, it’d be worth watching for this perfectly executed bit (which is also really NSFW). (Mike Shields’ amazing opening theme also does a lot of heavy lifting there! )

To summarize: dogs in the Fitzgerald’s suburban neighborhood are repeatedly found torn to shreds, but no one really pays much mind. The two Fitzgerald sisters head out to play a prank against a fellow classmate which goes horribly awry. Ginger has her first period at the same time, informs her sister, and is then is grabbed and scratched by something large and wolflike in a wildly Raimi-esque sequence. The two escape to a road, almost get run over, but youthful drug dealer Sam (Kris Lemche, who had a small role in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ and does a fair amount of TV work now) accidentally runs over the beast with his ambulance.

Brigette drags Ginger home, tends to her wounds and, almost immediately, Ginger is a different person, a different species, growing hairier, more bloodthirsty from there, but handwaving it away as cramps until she’s full werewolf and embodying a vengeful Carrie.

Brigette tries to keep Ginger on the down-low, but … she’s uncontrollable. Matters escalate.

GINGER SNAPS wasn’t the first horror film I’d seen that was a woman transformation parable — that’d be Neil Jordan’s IN THE COMPANY OF WOLVES but it was almost certainly the first I was overtly aware of, and it was quite the revelation.

A lot has happened since then, so here are a few links:

Karen Walton reflects on GINGER SNAPS, 20 years later.

Apparently, it’s slated to be rebooted as a TV series soon, which I hope will be brilliant.

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.

DEFINITELY, MAYBE (2008)

Programming note: I’m swamped this month balancing NaNoWriMo and work and life, so the few posts I’ll eke out will be brief and will often lean on others.

(peacock/VOD) DEFINITELY, MAYBE is one of my favorite modern rom-coms, and I was elated to see that Caroline Siede featured it in her fantastic WHEN ROMANCE MET COMEDY series (despite the fact that it took me several months to finally read it):

“Definitely, Maybe isn’t a “soulmate rom-com” about how there’s one perfect person for everyone. Instead, it looks at the realistic ways in which timing, circumstance, and miscommunication can impact and upend relationships. And it finds hope in the fact that good things can still come out of a romance that’s not meant to last. Definitely, Maybe is essentially the cinematic equivalent of the adage that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime—and that there’s value in all three.”

https://www.avclub.com/ryan-reynolds-traded-snark-for-sincerity-in-an-underrat-1847432954

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.