Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 1

Episode review: Columbo Death Lends a Hand

Death Lends a Hand title

After being absolutely spoiled last time round watching Murder By The Book, Series 1 of Columbo continued its strong early season form in the shape of Death Lends a Hand.

So let’s get ambidextrous and furious as we race back in time to 6 October 1971 to hang with another of the Lieutenant’s most enduring foes: three-time guest killer Robert Culp.

Death Lends a Hand cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Investigator Brimmer: Robert Culp
Arthur Kennicut: Ray Milland
Lenore Kennicut: Patricia Crowley
Directed by: Bernard Kowalski
Produced and written by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Score by: Gil Melle

Columbo Death Lends a Hand – Episode synopsis

Irascible Private Dick, Investigator Brimmer, attempts to blackmail the wife of media mogul Arthur Kennicut into revealing the inside line on her husband’s dealings with politicians and other heavyweight decision makers. Brimmer figures Mrs Kennicut will agree to his scheme, given that he’s just told her husband she hasn’t been having an affair – despite knowing full well she had following an investigation.

“After giving Lenore a good old-fashioned TV shaking, Brimmer then backhands her to the face.”

Later that day she breaks into Brimmer’s beach house to inform him she won’t play ball. Not only that, she’ll tell her husband about the affair and let him know how Brimmer really operates his business. Arthur Kennicut is not a man to have as an enemy.

The two clash. After giving Lenore a good old-fashioned TV shaking, Brimmer then backhands her to the face, sending her tumbling backwards to smash her head on a coffee table. Although not premeditated, Brimmer has a dead body on his hands and a plan that has spectacularly back-fired. He dumps the body in a far-away industrial estate and slinks away into the night.

Brimmer rage

Nanoseconds from rage appears to be Brimmer’s default setting

Not content to merely rely on the LAPD (including one Lieutenant Columbo), Kennicut hires Brimmer and his agency to help crack the case. During the first meeting between the two investigators at Kennicut’s palatial home, Columbo gains his first piece of evidence against Brimmer. They know the murderer wore a jewelled ring, because it left a mark on Lenore’s cheek. Professing a belief in palmistry, the wily Lieutenant gets to examine the hands of both Kennicut and Brimmer. Columbo notes that Brimmer does indeed wear a jewelled ring, though he keeps it quiet. The game is afoot…

Columbo’s investigations lead him to a local golf pro, who soon admits to an affair with Lenore. But Columbo eliminates him as suspect. His sun-tanned hands show he doesn’t wear a ring. Brimmer is looking increasingly likely to be the culprit, as the Lieutenant discovers him to be left-handed, like the killer, as well as being a man of a fiery disposition, apt to explode with rage given the right provocation.

“Brimmer is a man of a fiery disposition, apt to explode with rage given the right provocation.”

Brimmer throws Columbo a curveball, though, by offering him a job at his agency. He’ll triple Columbo’s pay, although he’ll take him off the Kennicut case. The Lieutenant mulls it over before ultimately declining.

With Kennicut demanding a swift conclusion to the case, Columbo plays his trump card. After finding out Lenore wore contact lenses, he has the body exhumed to see whether the lenses were still in place. He then calls Brimmer’s bluff by revealing that one lens is missing. If the killer only knew about this, says Columbo, we’d have the advantage because a crucial piece of evidence might be lying around to incriminate him.

DeathLendsAHand

Lenore Kennicut’s eye wear leads Columbo to discover a crucial clue

Stung into action, Brimmer desperately searches the thick rug in his home where Lenore fell, but to no avail. Maybe it’s in his car trunk, where he put the body before he disposed of it? But his car is in the agency garage after inexplicably failing to start earlier in the day. He must check, so heads over to investigate.

A frantic search of the trunk ensues and lo! He finds a contact lens in a corner. Pocketing it, he prepares to depart before being literally caught in the headlights as the hidden Columbo, Kennicut and co emerge from their hiding place.

“Would you mind telling us what you were looking for?” asks Columbo. “Papers… for a case,” snarls Brimmer, but no one’s buying it. Kennicut urges the investigator to confess to the killing, while the Lieutenant invites him downtown to explain himself on the record.

Feigning resigned annoyance, Brimmer agrees. As he marches out he attempts to bin the incriminating lens, but is stopped at Columbo’s command, who reveals the lens to the onlookers. As Kennicut looks on with pain etched on his face, Brimmer admits his crime and is lead away, lamenting that the Lieutenant never took up his offer of a job.

photo

Brimmer busted, Columbo cool…

With just Columbo and Kennicut left at the scene, the detective reveals the truth: none of Lenore’s contact lenses were missing. That was just a ruse to draw out Brimmer. The one in the car trunk must be a coincidence, but anyway, Brimmer’s actions are all that matters now.

When Kennicut muses about how Brimmer’s car was out of action at such a crucial stage, Columbo spins him a merry yarn about how his misspent youth, putting cars out of action with a potato up the exhaust, must have played a part in him wanting to become a lawman, so he could make amends for these misdemeanours. The enigmatic Lieutenant then turns tail to leave the garage.

A bemused Kennicut turns to look at the car exhaust, checks himself, then spins on his heel and follows Columbo’s lead as credits roll…

Best moment – did he or didn’t he?

The final scene in the garage between Columbo and Arthur Kennicut is a thing of beauty. Firstly it reinforces the generally cordial relationship between these two very different men, enhancing the Lieutenant’s everyman appeal. But more importantly, by not looking up the car exhaust, Kennicut helps protect Columbo’s aura of mystery, which will be a key theme throughout the series.

We must always ask ourselves: is anything Columbo tells us true? Or does he make it up on the spot to suit his circumstances? Letting the viewer make their own mind up about what to believe is a pivotal factor in connecting to the character.

Columbo Kennicut

Columbo and Kennicut strike up an unlikely rapport

My opinion on Death Lends a Hand

If Murder by the Book gave us a quintessential killer in Jack Cassidy, Death Lends a Hand does so again with Robert Culp, who is many a fan’s absolute favourite. Jack will always be my personal No 1, but Culp gave us something very different.

“No one does barely controlled rage better, so Culp was perfectly cast as Brimmer and is a very dangerous adversary to Columbo.”

His villains are more threatening, less charming, more businesslike. Heck, with Cassidy you’d still want to hang out with him, even if you knew you were on his hit list. Culp is more liable to strike hard without notice. No one does barely controlled rage better, so Culp was perfectly cast as Brimmer and is a very dangerous adversary.

Brimmer Death Lends a Hand

Suave, intelligent and dangerous, Robert Culp is a brilliant Columbo baddie

While the relationship between Culp and Falk is the glue that binds the episode together, special plaudits must also go to Ray Milland. He’s sensationally good in his understated performance as Arthur Kennicut. Cast as a media mogul, it would have been easy to fall into a one-dimensional braying and adversarial performance. Not a bit of it. Milland gives us depth and subtlety.

He succeeds in portraying Kennicut’s grieving, sorrowful side as effectively as he does the stern man of action. The dignified vulnerability he displays really touches the heart. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best non-killer guest star appearances we ever see in Columbo – everything his performance as Jarvis Goodland in Season 2’s Greenhouse Jungle is not, but that’s a story for another day…

“Ray Milland’s turn as Arthur Kennicut is one of the best non-killer guest star appearances we ever see in Columbo.”

And how is Falk faring in these fledgling days as Lieutenant Columbo? Extremely well. As mentioned in the review of Murder by the Book, he’s still refining the character, but Columbo’s as compelling as he’ll ever be. I like that we see his devious side coming through in such scenes as his effortless playing of a young, foolish private investigator to get inside information on Brimmer’s character.

He also displays a directness that we don’t often see. Note how he handles the nervous golf pro who has been having a fling with Mrs K. He’s very up-front with him, letting him know he’s onto him, and shaking his nerve. We are shown that Columbo handles different people in different ways, depending on who they are and the strength of their character. Perhaps the Columbo who rattles the golf pro is the real Lieutenant, more so than the bumbling, confused figure who so disarms the high society types who are his real suspects.

Columbo Death Lends a Hand golf

Columbo displays a direct, almost cocky approach to interrogating the weak-willed golf pro

Some of this directness and the speed of thought seems a little forced, mind you. Columbo’s onto Brimmer in a flash, for example – too quickly, really. He has no reason to suspect him when he’s reading his palm and establishing that Brimmer’s ring could be a match for the killer’s. Such big assumptions are more common in the early episodes, and aren’t always grounded in reason. It doesn’t greatly detract from the episode, though.

Probably the greatest insight we get into the Columbo character here is just what he’s willing to do to get his man. And while we know the Lieutenant’s motives are pure, Death Lends a Hand suggests his methods may not be. He blatantly plants evidence in Brimmer’s car as a means of collaring him, and he almost certainly put the car out of commission, too. It’s not exactly honest police work, and I do wonder if this is one reason why the episode didn’t open up Season 1 as was originally intended.

For Death Lends a Hand was the first episode of the season to be filmed, but was pushed back to accommodate Murder by the Book. Murder is the superior episode in my opinion, so a sensible move, but I have a hunch that Columbo’s unscrupulous tactics, as well as this not being a premeditated murder, might also have contributed to this being held back from raising the curtain on Season 1. Perhaps we’ll never know…

“While we know the Lieutenant’s motives are pure, Death Lends a Hand suggests his methods may not be.”

Elsewhere, the episode hits similar heights to Murder by the Book. The pacing is excellent, and some of the direction and editing is really first class. The murder itself is a particular highlight. After Brimmer lashes out,  we’re shown everything and nothing as Lenore tumbles to her death, shattering a glass table with her head as she falls. The scene has been described as Hitchcockian with good cause.

Just as interesting is what follows, where Brimmer’s cleaning up of the crime scene is played out on a montage superimposed onto his glasses. It’s powerful, innovative stuff, and if you need a reminder you can view the clip below.

All credit must go to director Bernard Kowalski. He was in the chair for four  Columbo episodes (also Exercise in Fatality, Playback and Fade in to Murder), but this is undoubtedly his most successful and memorable outing. Props to William Levinson and Richard Link, too. The show’s creators were also the writers of this episode (a duty they largely left to others) and it’s a really gripping mystery  with great clues: everything they set the series up to be, in fact.

Readers of my previous reviews will probably have noticed that I do bang on a bit about the quality of the musical scores in these early episodes. Death Lends a Hand is no exception, but it’s very different to what we’ve heard before. Jazz composer Gil Melle is the maestro and this far-reaching and varied score is no less successful in setting the mood of the episode than the majestic efforts of Billy Goldenberg in Ransom for a Dead Man and Murder by the Book. Again, the clip above does an excellent job in showcasing Melle’s expert contribution.

In conclusion, Death Lends a Hand is another great piece of television, and almost as good as Murder by the Book. Certainly the two episodes ensured Season 1 got off to the strongest possible start and viewers can have been in no doubt that Columbo was shaping up to be one of the great televisual experiences of the age.

Did you know?

The exterior scenes of Arthur Kennicut’s mansion gardens (pictured below) were filmed at the iconic Beverley House, which was also a location used in The Godfather (1972) and The Bodyguard (1992).

Death Lends a Hand Kennicut mansion

How I rate ’em so far

It’s a close call, but Murder by the Book just shades it, remaining top of my list from the 4 episodes watched so far. It’s been quality all the way, mind you!

  1. Murder by the Book
  2.  Death Lends a Hand
  3. Prescription: Murder
  4. Ransom for a Dead Man

Where does Death Lends a Hand rank in your list of favourites? Vote for your number one episode in the Columbo best episode poll here.

As always, I really appreciate you taking the time to read this. Check back soon as I investigate whether Season 1 can continue to deliver the goods when I review Dead Weight, guest starring Suzanne Pleschette and Eddie Albert.

Read my thoughts on the 5 best moments in Death Lends a Hand here.

Columbo Cheers

Cheers until next time!

Advertisements

37 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Death Lends a Hand

  1. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Double Exposure | The columbophile

  2. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Candidate for Crime | The columbophile

  3. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Any Old Port in a Storm | The columbophile

  4. Pingback: 5 best moments in Death Lends a Hand | The columbophile

  5. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Lovely but Lethal | The columbophile

  6. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Double Shock | The columbophile

  7. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo The Most Dangerous Match | The columbophile

  8. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Stitch in Crime | The columbophile

  9. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Requiem for a Falling Star | The columbophile

  10. Wow, just watched this episode last night. I have been recording Columbo episodes off a channel called “Cozi TV.” Little did I know that the episodes I am watching are edited! The whole “glasses crime scene clean-up” scene was not in there! There is nothing saying the episodes are in any way abridged so I am super annoyed and wondering what else I have been missing. It made a difference to the plot as well– since I never saw Brimmer stealing her money and jewelry, I wasn’t sure if he had done that, which led to confusion over how the police viewed the crime. What a bummer– I’m glad you posted the scene because it was artfully done.

  11. Columba concludes that the woman was struck with a back hand and that the slapper hit the woman with a backhand on the right check, and also concludes that the slapper had to be LEFT HANDED. I wear a ring on a finger of my left hand but I am not left handed! Anyone agree or can tell me why I’m wrong?

    • I think Columbo’s logic runs like this: striking someone is usually done in a burst of emotion, or temper; when a man strikes a woman he tends to use a flat hand, rather than a fist (as he would when hitting another man); whoever struck Lenore Kennicut wore a heavy ring; the third finger of the left hand is traditionally the ‘ring finger’; the design of the ring was left on the face, therefore the killer struck a back-handed blow, and favours his left hand (because he was enraged and lashed out without thinking). A bit long-winded, but I think that covers it.

      • I think that covers it nicely. Only question mark is whether a man would really hit a woman with a flat hand rather than a fist. Maybe they would have in the 70s, but probably not today.

  12. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Dagger of the Mind | The columbophile

  13. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo The Most Crucial Game | The columbophile

  14. Thoughts:
    1) When I first saw the shot of Mr. Kennicut’s house, I immediately thought he must have gotten a great deal from Jack Woltz in the late 40’s to sell, and I wondered if he changed the master bedroom mattress. 🙂

    I’m like you in this episode, I thought Ray Milland was a tour-de-force in this episode. He was sympathetic and yet bold. When Columbo first interviewed him, you could quickly tell he took him off the possible suspect list because of his blatant honesty, including his willingness to exercise force if something weren’t done quickly. I also felt Columbo must have sympathized with him as well, and imagined his own feelings if his beloved Rose were to meet such an end. You had the feeling that Columbo was going to do everything in his power to find the killer.

    I almost got the feeling that Brimmer would have rather not been brought into the investigation. Even though he had the opportunity to guide it, his organization came under the lights of the police, and even worse, Columbo. I could almost see Columbo’s ears prick up when Brimmer said he had knowledge of no possible affairs after a previous investigation of a private matter. You could almost see the wheels turning behind his head; what private matter? You had a previous knowledge of Mrs. Kennicut and waited to tell me this? From then on I felt Brimmer was doomed. It was only a matter of time.

    Finally I wondered about that contact lens in the car. Where did it come from? Was there some poor victim that was stuffed in that trunk who was ransomed or interrogated? We know what Brimmer is capable of, it doesn’t take too far a stretch to consider what may be possible. It made me think that as Columbo, I would be hopeful I could pick a latent print off that lens and send it to the cold case files for investigation.

  15. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Greenhouse Jungle | The columbophile

  16. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Murder by the Book | The columbophile

  17. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Etude in Black | The columbophile

  18. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Blueprint for Murder | The columbophile

  19. Is the motorcycle policeman who pulls over then escorts Columbo to the body dump site actor/stunt driver Bill Hickman, from Bullitt and French Connection? I say yes. Cheers.

  20. Excellent review, and nicely detailed, which is just what you want if you’re a big fan of a show — not the usual capsule reviews. I rewatched this episode recently, and despite already being a huge Columbophile, I was struck by how damn near perfect this episode is. It’s a terrific outing, with a very satisfying conclusion, and such an enjoyable bit of fencing throughout as Columbo tightens the noose bit by bit.

    I like what you said about Columbo’s methods, too. Sure, he may be going off the book here, but it’s plain that he will (up to a point, of course!) do what he has to do to catch the culprit. His direct questioning of the golf pro certainly does stand out, if only because it clashes with the overly polite, seemingly deferential detective we’ve come to expect. I’m reminded of his explosion at Leonard Nimoy’s character in “A Stitch of Time”, which seems like one of those rare times that he’s actually lost his cool … only to be revealed as a very deliberate move to draw the killer out.

    Really enjoying these reviews. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks a million, and I’m pleased you’re enjoying the blog. I think the show deserves more detailed write-ups than are usually encountered.
      I’ve always interpreted that he really did lose his cool in Stitch in Crime, but turns it into an opportunity to draw the killer out. The rage in Prescription: Murder towards Joan Hudson was clearly an act, though.
      I do love a bit of Columbo rage, which are all the more powerful for their rarity.

  21. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Short Fuse | The columbophile

  22. Pingback: Columbo episode review: Lady in Waiting | The columbophile

  23. Pingback: Columbo episode review: Suitable for Framing | The columbophile

  24. “That makes the Lieutenant’s antics in several subsequent episodes make sense . . . .”

    Yes, it does. That’s why I especially enjoyed the dènouement of NEGATIVE REACTION. It was one of the simplest, yet most damning “gotchas” of the series. Everything Columbo told Galesko could have been a lie and it didn’t matter one bit—all that mattered was that Galesko was able to pick out the camera that took the picture of the murdered woman, when only the suspect could have known which camera it was.

    It’s interesting that you mention U.K. law because the one Columbo conclusion that virtually every reviewer of the show screams “Planted evidence!” comes at the end of DAGGER OF THE MIND, when it’s revealed that the good lieutenant pulled some sleight-of-hand and flipped that pearl into Sir Roger’s umbrella. Thus, when it was unfurled, and the pearl rolled out, it caused the Frames to think that it was, indeed, one of Lililian’s pearls, and Nicholas Frame started singing like a canary.

    I don’t know, either, what U.K. law allows with regard to such things, but had that occurred in the U.S., it would have been perfectly admissable—so long as Columbo made known to the district attorney that it was NOT actually one of Lillian Stanhope’s pearls, but rather, that he had planted it to trick the Frames into confessing.

    Misleading the suspect is a common police technique in America because—-well, as the character of F.B.I. special agent Mike Casper once put it, in an episode of THE WEST WING: “In thirteen years with the [F.B.I.], I’ve discovered that there’s no amount of money, manpower, or knowledge that can equal the person you’re looking for being stupid.”

    Incidentally, I just read your review of DEAD WEIGHT and I particularly liked your observations. I’ll add some comments when I get a bit more time.

  25. William Link and Richard Levinson wrote only two Columbos: “Prescription: Murder” and “Death Lends a Hand” (although they get “Story by” credit on numerous others). It is notable that both of these episodes have similar endings. In both, Columbo lies to the killer, sets up an elaborate ruse, and tricks the killer into doing or saying something that he wouldn’t have done/said otherwise. Other Columbos use this technique as well (e.g., “A Friend in Deed”; “Negative Reaction”), but many don’t. I find it interesting that Link and Levinson were “2 for 2” in this regard.

  26. Pingback: Columbo episode review: Dead Weight | The columbophile

  27. I’ve enjoyed all of your reviews so far. In fact, that’s how I found your site. I was looking for good viewer reviews of COLUMBO. I hope you’ll continue with them.

    As a point of order, though, I take issue with your comment that Lieutenant Columbo “plants evidence” to nail Brimmer. By that, I assume you mean the contact lens that Brimmer found in the trunk of his car.

    That contact lens cannot be false evidence because it never acquired the status OF BEING SUBMITTED as evidence. If, when he submitted the investigatory package to the District Attorney’s Office, Columbo had represented that contact lens as one that Mrs. Kennicut had worn, then it would be classified as “evidence”.

    If that had been the case, then, because Columbo had full knowledge that the contact lens WASN’T one of Mrs. Kennicut’s, then it would, indeed, be false evidence.

    But Columbo NEVER introduced that contact lens into the prosecution package as belonging to Mrs. Kennicut. We know this because he told Mr.Kennicut that the lens did not belong to his wife. Columbo would have had to have been a total idiot to admit to a third party that it wasn’t Mrs. Kennicut’s contact lens, then submit it to the D.A. as being so.

    Columbo never intended to submit that contact lens as actual evidence. He planted it in the trunk of Brimmer’s car to make Brimmer THINK it was one of Mrs, Kennicut’s lenses. Thus, he guiltily tried to dispose of the lens and got caught in the act by Columbo. At that point, believing that it was Mrs. Kennicut’s contact lens and having been caught with it, Brimmer believed Columbo had caught him with incontrovertible proof of his guilt and confessed.

    In brief, Columbo’s intent was to make Brimmer believe that he had been caught dead to rights and see if it would coax a confession out of Brimmer, which it did.

    There is nothing illegal, unconstitutional, or unethical about tricking a suspect in that fashion—at least, not in the United States. U.S. cops are allowed to deceive a suspect as a tool to evince information or a confession. What they cannot do is claim that deception as being the truth in the investigatory package provided to the prosecution.

    By way of example, suppose the police have a victim shot to death by a .40-calibre semi-automatic and a suspect whom they are questioning, if they show the suspect a .40-calibre semi-automatic and lie to him by saying it’s the murder weapon and they found it in his apartment, and the suspect believes the lie and goes ahead and confesses to the murder, that is perfectly legitimate.

    BUT, if, subsequently, the police try to pass that .40-calibre semi-automatic off as the REAL murder weapon to the D.A.’s office, THEN it’s falsifying evidence and is illegal and unethical.

    Cops can trick bad guys all day; they just can’t lie to the system.

    • I didn’t know this was how the system worked, thanks very much for clarifying. That makes the Lieutenant’s antics in several subsequent episodes make sense, including the conclusion of Negative Reaction (although his slump-shouldered freeze-frame pose suggests a mental anguish in having to resort to such tactics to get his man). My understanding is that this sort of approach would not be permitted in the UK, but I’m no expert on legal matters.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s