After the comparative disappointment of our last outing, Dead Weight, Season 1 of Columbo came roaring back into life on 17 November 1971 with the art-tastic Suitable for Framing.
Let’s don our velvet tuxedos, crank up the electric blankets and prepare to slay our most lovable uncles as we stride out with Dale Kingston and co to give eloquent critique to this most artful of episodes. Is Suitable for Framing a Degas or merely a De Groat? Read on and find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dale Kingston: Ross Martin
Edna Matthews: Kim Hunter
Frank Simpson: Don Ameche
Tracy O’Connor: Rosanna Huffman
Landlady: Mary Wickes
Sam Franklin: Vic Tayback
Mitilda: Joan Shawlee
Captain Wyler: Barney Phillips
Directed by: Hy Averback
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Score by: Billy Goldenberg
Episode synopsis – Columbo Suitable for Framing
A friendly looking elderly man in a stunning mansion plays Chopin’s Tristesse on a grand piano. A solid, younger man in a crushed velvet tuxedo walks in to the room. The two men exchange pleasant nods, but within seconds Mr Tuxedo, AKA art critic extraordinaire Dale Kingston, has pulled out a gun and slain the lovable old boy – his own uncle Rudy – in cold blood. Yes folks, Suitable for Framing is off to an explosive start!
Kingston tucks the corpse beneath an electric blanket (that old chestnut…) and tampers with the patio door locks before going on what may be history’s gentlest rampage around the art-filled house; toppling chairs, worrying bookcases, tilting picture frames, kicking maps to pieces, that sort of thing.
As he’s removing some fine works of art from their frames there’s a ring at the doorbell. Has Dale been busted so soon? No, good reader, it’s his accomplice Tracy, who, despite her initial revulsion at the sight of the cadaver, is soon passionately embracing Kingston as he departs to create an alibi at an art show.
She takes guardianship of the real treasures Kingston wanted: two Degas pastels valued in excess of $500,000. Waiting until the security guard’s 11pm drive-by, Tracy packs away the electric blanket, fires the murder weapon out of a window and trots confidently down the back steps of the garden to safety as the security man dithers uncertainly at the patio door.
“Dale is wowing the crowds at the art show, laughing fiendishly at his own jokes.”
Dale, meanwhile, is wowing the crowds at the art show, laughing fiendishly at his own jokes while making darn sure that everyone knows exactly what time he arrived. Of course he’s alerted to his uncle’s death and dashes to the mansion to find the place packed with policeman, and with one Lieutenant Columbo immediately asking shrewd questions and pointing out the inconsistencies in the crime.
Why did the killer bother unframing cheaper paintings, ignoring others, before stumbling across the Degas works – the only things he bothered to take? Why did he break in through the patio doors? Pros always use windows. Columbo also knows there were two people in on the act to ensure they could by-pass the alarm system. He even knows that one was a woman after the security guard confirms that he heard high heels clip-clopping down the garden stairs.
Of course he can’t tie it to Kingston. He was at the art show, after all. But he does arrange to tap his phone in case the artworks will be ransomed. And of course he’ll be needing a lot of help on this case…
After checking out Kingston’s art show alibi (including a rib-tickling scene featuring a surly hungover artist and a nude model giving Columbo the eye), the Lieutenant collars Dale at a TV studio. He’s on the phone to twitchy Tracy, and gets her swiftly off the line. Columbo, however, hangs around and engineers access to Kingston’s home so he can ‘borrow some books’ on art. Kingston, meanwhile, alerts Columbo to the fact that his dottie Aunt Edna – who divorced his uncle years before – could be a suspect as she lives in a house at the bottom of the hill under the mansion. The plot thickens…
Driving out to the LA hills, Kingston meets Tracy to pick-up the Degas from her. Assuring her of his love and affection with a vile kiss, he then promptly brains her with a rock and flees the scene: his only link to the crime now safely erased.
“Assuring her of his love and affection with a vile kiss, Dale then promptly brains Tracy with a rock.”
When he returns home, however, with artworks in tow, he finds Columbo slumbering in an armchair. The confused Lieutenant claims he dropped off, and wants to know about Dale’s day – and what he’s carrying in that art folder. As he reaches in to the folder, Kingston sharply cuts him off and is saved by the ringing phone. It’s for Columbo: a girl has been found dead in the hills. Looks like a car accident, but it turns out she’s an art student so the Lieutenant sets out just in case there’s a link to the first killing.
The case continues to challenge Columbo. He makes the acquaintance of Edna, who seems harmless, but is thrown when he discovers Rudy’s will has been changed. Dale won’t inherit the artworks. They’ll all go to Edna. There’s more: Dale has known for more than 10 days about the change in the will, so he’d have nothing to gain by killing his uncle. ‘Go and find the real killer,’ he hisses at Columbo and seethes out of there.
More twists and turns ensue. The murder weapon (planted by Dale) is found on land near Edna’s house; the paper the stolen paintings were wrapped in is found in her rubbish (yep, Dale again). Things are looking bad for her, Kingston says. Columbo agrees but maintains his belief in her innocence. This stings Kingston into his fatal error.
In cahoots with lawyer Frank Simpson, Kingston arranges for the police to search Edna’s house. It’s the only way to give her peace of mind, and prove to the police she’s innocent, he claims. He and Frank also conspire to get Columbo thrown off the case.
Of course Kingston is stabbing Edna in the back. He plants the pastels in her linen closet. The police arrive and begin a search. Columbo is late on the scene after seemingly being kept out of the loop. Kingston attempts to shoo him away, but the doughty detective hangs in the background and attempts to comfort a worried Edna.
There’s a commotion! The pastels have been uncovered! Edna is in shock, and Dale acts like the wounded party. “Edna… How could you?” he mourns. Columbo steps in. It’s still his case – much to Kingston’s surprise – and he has no intention of charging Edna. He knows Kingston did it, and now he can prove it – through fingerprints.
Nice try, says Kingston. I already told you my fingerprints were all over those because I unpacked them. I’m not looking for your fingerprints, explains Columbo. I’m looking for mine. He recounts the evening when he lay in wait for Dale at his home, and reached into his art folder, actually touching the paintings. If Edna stole the paintings, how could Columbo’s fingerprints be on them?
A trembling Dale seeks a last way out. This is entrapment, he stammers! You touched those paintings just now when I wasn’t looking! Without a word, Columbo removes his hands from his pockets where they’ve been since he arrived. He’s wearing gloves. It’s game, set, match to Columbo as credits roll…
Best moment – the gloved hand reveal
A moment so marvellous it’s hard not to roar with approval, the wordless revelation that seals Kingston’s fate is a work of art in its own right.
It’s such a clever clue, and is arrived at so startlingly that there’s nothing Kingston can say in his defence. Watch closely and you can see his lip quiver in terror. It’s so satisfying for the viewer.
It tops my list of the best Columbo ‘gotcha’ moments. But more than that, I personally rate this as the single greatest TV moment of all time. Quite a claim, I know, but I stand by it.
Suitable for Framing – my opinion
From the startling impact of the quickest Columbo killing of all, to its gripping conclusion, Suitable for Framing is virtually picture perfect.
It satisfies on every level. We have a killer we can really loathe, a scintillating support cast, and a compelling mystery containing one of the best central clues the series ever cooks up. All credit to writer Jackson Gillis. As well as that barnstorming finale, the script allows for a number of memorable clashes between Kingston and Columbo, while also showing the Lieutenant’s everyman appeal and nous. It was Gillis’s first Columbo script. He would write several more, including Short Fuse and Requiem for a Falling Star, but never topped his effort here.
I must say, I LOVE Ross Martin’s performance as Dale Kingston. He gives us a different kind of killer than we’ve seen up till now: an unpleasant, unlikable, smarmy ASS! He’s also more condescending than previous killers, talking down to Columbo time after time. And, of course, what a low-life to try to frame his delightful Aunt Edna for his crime. It all helps to make him a killer we can love to loathe, and it makes his downfall all the more enjoyable.
It’s hard to pinpoint when Martin is at his zenith, such is the strength of his performance. However, the art show cut scenes, which show him at his egocentric best, are a joy to behold. Here he is, resplendent in velvet tuxedo, making highbrow jokes about art that are utterly unfunny, but he has the temerity to lead the laughter as he and his hangers-on quaff the champers. Could it be that Gillis was playfully poking fun at the shallowness and obsequiousness of the art world? I rather think so, and it’s a hoot to watch.
Kingston must have been great fun to play. Not only committing actual crimes, but also crimes against fashion (have you seen how big his tie knots are? Bigger than Spain!) and crimes against humanity (terrible art show gags). I’ve said before and will undoubtedly say again that Jack Cassidy is my perennial favourite Columbo killer, but of the one-off guest star murderers, Ross Martin really made an impact.
The same can be said for his co-stars. In the role of Edna, Kim Hunter brings the kooky eccentricity and vulnerability demanded by the storyline. Don Ameche plays one of the great cameos. Despite just a few scenes, I rate his turn as lawyer Frank Simpson as one of the best of all guest star appearances.
He gives Simpson a depth of character that makes a mockery of his limited screen time. Who is this man? What motivates him? Is he a good guy at heart, or corrupt as sin? Compared to Tim O’Connor’s openly bent lawyer in Double Shock, it’s a very interesting portrayal. Simpson is anything but black and white.
Continuing the theme set out in the early Columbo episodes, the Lieutenant is sharp as a tack and quick to reveal his sagacity to his quarry. He seems to jump to conclusions extremely quickly, although he’s always able to justify it. He’s on to Kingston in a flash. His alibi is too perfect, and when Columbo explains this we can see why a hardened homicide cop would be suspicious.
Detractors of the show do bleat on about Columbo cottoning onto the suspects unreasonably soon, and worrying them into confessions. That mindset does the show, and its writing, a great disservice. Pay any decent level of attention and it’s clear that Columbo’s an assiduous professional, who follows his hunches and finds the evidence to back them up. We don’t always see this activity on screen, but we are told it. Case closed, haters!
“As well as the double delight of the finely crafted mystery and the top tier performances, Suitable for Framing is notable for a rich vein of humour.”
In a rarity for the series, Columbo’s superior officer – Captain Wyler – appears sporadically, and he gives the Lieutenant his full backing. It’s a nice indication that the powers that be have full faith in his capabilities, as well they might.
As well as the double delight of the finely crafted mystery and the top tier performances, Suitable for Framing is notable for a rich vein of humour. There are several scenes to treasure, notably Columbo interviewing prickly hungover artist Sam Franklin (Vic Tayback displaying possibly the hairiest back and shoulders ever immortalised on screen); Kingston berating his TV producer for leaving him mugging at the camera at the TV studio; and, best of all, Columbo’s hilarious meeting with Tracy’s busybody landlady, played with aplomb by Mary Wickes.
As she gossips away and flips through photo albums, denying the Lieutenant the quick getaway he’s desperate for, Columbo is finally given a taste of his own medicine. Wonderful stuff…
Billy Goldenberg wrote the score, and it’s very nearly as memorable as his previous outings. It’s perhaps less grandiose than Ransom for a Dead Man, and less inventive than the typewriter-sampling in Murder by the Book, but its jaunty closing number ranks among the iconic Columbo themes.
Kicking off the episode, meanwhile, a chilling, shrieking strings crescendo underscores the shock of the crime, the camera work jumping from painted face to painted face, accentuating the horrific deed. A spiralling, manic piano solo then takes over as Kingston trashes the house. It’s a truly arresting couple of minutes’ TV. If you can’t remember clearly, view the clip below. It’ll be time well spent.
So, electric from the off, with the best gotcha of them all to wrap it up, and oodles to cherish in between, Suitable for Framing is pretty special stuff. It easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the strongest Columbo episodes of them all. Is it the Mona Lisa of Season 1? I believe it is.
Did you know?
As well as sporting the single most 70s hair-do ever seen in this episode, Rosanna Huffman (Tracy O’Connor – below right) was married to none other than Columbo creator Richard Levinson.
Meanwhile, it seems no one in the world knows who the blonde nude model (below left), who so abashed the Lieutenant, is in real life. Do you? Read more about this real life Columbo mystery here.
How I rate ‘em
It was always going to take a titanic effort to oust Murder by the Book from top spot, but Suitable achieves it, largely due to that magnificent ending. Check out my other reviews via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- Prescription: Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
Many a fan rates Suitable as their very favourite. If you’re one of them, do vote for it in the Columbo favourite episode poll here. More than 1000 people have cast a vote so far, so get amongst it!
As always, I really appreciate you taking the time read this, share it and pass comment. And I’ll be back again soon with the next episode in Season 1: Lady in Waiting.