Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 1

Episode review: Columbo Lady in Waiting

lady-titles

Viewers of Columbo Season 1 could scarcely have been better treated. Every three weeks or so, when the Mystery Movie Wheel circled back to the lovable Lieutenant, they were virtually guaranteed not only a gripping mystery, but an A-List star of the day as Peter Falk’s chief antagonist.

That all changed on 15 December 1971, when Columbo was pitted against a virtual unknown for the first time as Lady in Waiting aired. The actress in question was Susan Clark – a capable performer in a number of small screen roles up to then, but hardly a name to set pulses racing.

So how did the episode compare with the sky-high standards of Season 1, and how did Clark cut the mustard against Cassidy, Culp and the cadre of exceptional villains we’ve met up to now? You’ll only find out by forging bravely on…

Columbo Lady in Waiting cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Beth Chadwick: Susan Clark
Peter Hamilton: Leslie Nielsen
Mrs Chadwick: Jessie Royce Landis
Bryce Chadwick: Richard Anderson
Directed by: Norman Lloyd
Written by: Steven Bochco
Score by: Billy Goldenberg

Episode synopsis – Columbo Lady in Waiting

Downtrodden Beth Chadwick is fed up of having her life governed by despotic, interfering older brother Bryce, the head of the ultra-successful family advertising agency, so decides to do something about it.

Bryce has taken over from where their late father left off – oppressing Beth and refusing to let her live her own life, even as far as intervening with potential suitors. But he oversteps the mark when he pens a poison letter to Beth’s current squeeze – company lawyer Peter Hamilton and threatens to sack him if he doesn’t leave Beth alone.

Incensed, Beth puts a cunning plan to rid herself of Bryce into action. Having already pinched his door key while he slept early in the episode, we are shown her plan of attack in a wonderfully realised daydream-style sequence that simply had to have been filmed in the 70s.

Beth Chadwick in bed

Gun, chocolates, sleeping pills, grandmother-style dressing gown, what more could a gal need?

 

As Beth (alone in bed, in a grandma-ish nightgown, tucking into a box of chocolates), imagines what lies ahead, the camera plays out the assassination plot in soft, swirling focus. We’re shown Beth’s plans that will involve the keyless Bryce come round to her patio window and ask to be let in, at which point she’ll slay him, slam on the burglar alarm and play the old ‘Ah was sleepin’ an’ done thought it was a prowler‘ routine that so seemed to fool US juries in the 1970s. What could possibly go wrong?

BUT HOLD YOUR HORSES! Did I just hear the sound of a needle skipping across a record, that universal signifier that the game doth change? I did! For Beth’s plans have been scuppered not once, but twice.

Firstly, Peter (just back from a business trip) has received the letter from Bryce and ain’t happy. In fact he leaps into his car and screeches straight over to Chadwick HQ to give the control freak a piece of his mind.

Worse still, Bryce himself – that perennial party pooper – sidesteps Beth’s plans. Instead of falling for the bait, he’s simply let himself in through the front door with a spare key hidden in a plant pot (as millions of normal folk would – good foresight, Beth) and wanders into Beth’s bedroom, casual as you like, to ask why she didn’t answer the ringing doorbell.

Despite being stunned, Beth recollects herself, guns Bryce down and sets off the alarm. Peter, who has just arrived, hears the shots and the alarm, vaults the driveway gate, gazelle-like, and jallops to the house as Beth desperately tries to make the cold-blooded killing look like the accident she had planned.

And in one of the tensest of all Columbo moments, just as she’s finished moving briefcase, body and all into their proper positions, the front door bell rings. Beth’s sense of panic is palpable. Her best-laid plans have well and truly gone to pot.

“When Bryce and Beth’s mother arrives, her first act is to slap Beth’s face for killing her beloved son.”

Luckily, Peter’s a sympathetic audience, and when the police arrive at the scene – including one Lieutenant Columbo – he keeps them at arm’s reach. Beth’s story is plausible, certainly, but it’s not all plain sailing. When Bryce and Beth’s mother arrives from Phoenix, her first act (after hilariously demanding Columbo carry in her luggage and pay her taxi fee), is to slap Beth’s face for killing her beloved son. But despite family friction, Beth is determined to turn over a new leaf. She just needs to come through an inquest, first. No biggie…

As luck would have it, the inquest jury lets her go free, and Beth starts making those major changes to her life. She has a complete makeover, going from a bookish, timid type to a saucy minx with a daring dress sense and dashing new hairdo.

“Beth has a complete makeover, going from a bookish, timid type to a saucy minx with a daring dress sense and dashing new hairdo.”

She also assumes control of the company, tough talks the board room stiffs, belittles her mother, and starts domineering Peter – first promoting him without asking, then announcing their engagement without consulting him. A puzzled Peter doesn’t know what to make of this sudden transformation and says so. Beth begins to wonder whether he’s really man enough for her after all.

Susan Clark Columbo rose

After a cordial start, Beth’s relationship with Columbo soon plummets downhill

 

The main fly in the ointment for Beth is, of course, Columbo. Despite her being found innocent, he won’t go away. Those little things that always bother him are doing so again. If Bryce broke in through Beth’s window, why was there a copy of the evening paper by the front door? Why didn’t Bryce have grass cuttings on his shoes after walking across the freshly-cut lawn to her room window? And why did Beth order a brand new Ferrari, which she must have done in advance of her brother’s death?

“The main fly in the ointment for Beth is, of course, Columbo. Despite her being found innocent, he won’t go away.”

The wily Lieutenant manages to engineer a situation where he finds himself in a bar with Peter, who is drowning his sorrows as he contemplates love on the rocks. The two get talking and Columbo produces Beth’s transcript from the inquest that states she was woken by the burglar alarm, and then shot at what she thought was an intruder.

Peter is a fine lawyer with a great memory for detail. He recalls that he heard the shots first, then the alarm. With all the rest of the circumstancial evidence Columbo has amassed, it’ll be enough for a conviction.

So again we encounter Beth in her bedroom, this time sexily attired, reading reports while smoking and drinking. She really is a new woman. She hears a rustle outside of her window and reaches for the gun, but soon twigs it’s Columbo playing a trick on her.

Lady 1

Beth Chadwick V2.0 is a somewhat sultrier model…

 

He enters the room and tells her she’s under arrest. She laughs in his face, but when he explains that Peter’s testimony is what has been her undoing she draws a gun on him. “There’s no point in that, not with the police officers outside,” Columbo retorts, as calmly as if he were passing the time of day with a petrol pump assistant. “Besides,” he adds. “You’re too classy a woman.”

Won over by his chivalrous words, Beth smiles, hands the gun to Columbo and heads off to slip into something less alluring before going downtown.

Columbo, meanwhile, steps outside to light his cigar. The camera draws back through the dark garden to reveal not a policemen in sight, as credits roll…

Lady Waiting end

Lieutenant Columbo: cool under pressure

Best moment – the dreaded ringing at the door

There are some splendid scenes throughout, but Beth’s moment of unadulterated terror as lover Peter rings the doorbell midway through her post-murder tidy-up work is really well done.

The sense of panic invoked by the camera work, the music and Clark’s facial expressions combine like a charm. It’s as convincing a display of panic as you’re ever likely to see on the small screen, and it sets the viewer’s heart thumping with the tension.

Beth Chadwick 1

No image I can find does justice to Susan Clark’s convincing portrayal of panic when the doorbell rings post-murder

Columbo Lady in Waiting: my opinion

I regard Lady in Waiting as possibly the most under-rated Columbo episode of all. I know few fans that mention it amongst their favourites, yet when given close scrutiny it stands proudly in its own right.

Susan Clark was the least high-profile guest star murderer of Season 1 by a mile, which could contribute to why it’s comparatively under the radar. I rather suspect this is an episode skipped over by casual viewers, who prefer to sit in front of a Cassidy or Culp classic. But Lady in Waiting really delivers – and at its best it’s very, very good.

“Susan Clark was the least high-profile guest star murderer of Season 1 by a mile, which could contribute to why it’s comparatively under the radar.”

The main characters and their respective journeys make it an episode that keeps the attention. Clark is a big surprise. She’s superb and her character arc is intriguing. We really pity Beth at the start (she appears in my ‘Most sympathetic Columbo killers‘ article as a result). She’s been a victim of chauvinism all her life, and her own mother has let it happen. But as the episode progresses, and Beth’s new-found freedoms go to her head and fundamentally alter her character, any sympathy erodes away.

It’s excellent writing, and believable stuff. We can see why Beth would act this way after years under the heel of her beastly family. We can see why lover Peter would act how he does, too, in such rapidly-changing circumstances. All credit to writer Steven Bochco, who again rises to the occasion after also boasting writing duties on the superior season opener, Murder by the Book.

As an aside (and by no means one meant to plunge this into lewd, wolf-whistling territory), Clark is absolutely gorgeous in this. I love her physical transformation, the visual equivalent of the huge psychological change she undergoes. The self-doubt rolls away with her old look. The new Beth is smart, sexy and in the driving seat. Clark does a fine job in portraying both sides of Beth Chadwick. No mean feat when playing against as testing a co-star as Falk.

Beth Chadwick transformation

The emancipation and metamorphosis of Beth Chadwick makes for captivating viewing

 

As mentioned in my ‘Best ever Columbo supporting stars‘ article, I really rate Leslie Nielsen’s performance in this. Seeing him playing it straight takes quite some getting used to for an audience more used to his capering antics in Police Squad and Airplane!, but he’s on top form.

He nicely portrays the confusion and inner conflict brought about to Peter by Beth’s character transformation. He truly loved Beth for who she was. He would have quit his job for her in a heartbeat. Yet her emancipation alienates him.

The natural comic talent still shines through at times, though. His cheerful response of “No, I hate you with a passion,” to Beth’s early-episode plea for him to confirm his love could have come straight out of Naked Gun. In short, he’s a joy to watch. But it does raise the question: was his hair ever anything other than grey?

On a more serious note, another question must also be asked: could Peter only have loved the down-trodden Beth, the one so desperate for his love, and the one without the strength to take fate into her own hands? Were they ill-fated lovers all along? The more you consider this, the more likely this seems, and it adds a nice dimension to proceedings for the more thoughtful viewer.

Nielsen Clarke Lady in Waiting montage

“I AM serious. And DON’T call me Shirley…”

 

Special credit must also go to veteran character actress Jessie Royce Landis, who plays Beth’s overbearing mother. It’s a small role, but she tackles it with aplomb, firstly mistaking Columbo for home help, and making him struggle in with her luggage and pay her cab fare (telling him he “hardly looks the part,” when she realises he’s a policeman); then violently striking Beth for the death of her brother; before ultimately, meekly fading into the background as an increasingly dominant Beth starts calling the shots.

The character drama is compelling, but there’s plenty of fun to be had, too. As well as the taxi scene outlined above, the drive-in scene, where Columbo takes Peter for a ‘slap-up’ burger lunch to discuss the case, raises smiles galore – plus it’s nice to see the top down on the Peugeot for a change.

Columbo drive-in.png

There are some nice touches of humour as Columbo treats Peter Hamilton to a slap-up feed at the drive-in diner

 

Falk as Columbo is predictably superb. The Lieutenant is at his tenacious best, never giving up on his belief of Beth’s guilt – regardless of the little matter of the jury finding her innocent.

His personal highlight is how he extricates himself from a potentially fatal situation at episode’s end. Beth has little to lose by gunning Columbo down. After all, he’s behaving in a most un-policeman like way. Yet he dodges death with guile and charm, finding a chink in Beth’s armour in that warm, human way Falk does so well. Take note ABC years – Columbo does not need to do stupid stuff like putting his head in a guillotine. This is how he handles crisis situations to close a case.

“Columbo dodges death with guile and charm, finding a chink in Beth’s armour in that warm, human way Falk does so well.”

As an aside – and this is purely my opinion – this is the first episode in which I sense the writers really knew that Mrs Columbo was real, and not some figment of the Lieutenant’s imagination designed to drop into conversations to flummox and disarm the killers.

Columbo’s barside conversation with Peter about his argument with Mrs Columbo, and her love of proverbs, is so genuine, and is such a slice of real married life, that she simply must be real. I find that comforting, and it’s perhaps another reason why I rate this outing so highly.

columbo_blue interior

“There’s a few things that bother me. Nothing much you understand…”

 

So in conclusion, Lady in Waiting is one of those Columbo episodes that surprises the viewer with just how good it is, even if it’s never quite top of their watch list. It’s a decent mystery, if not a great one, but the performances to a man and woman are superb. If you haven’t watched this one for a while I really encourage you to dig it out. You’ll be glad you did.

Did you know?

Like Dead Weight from earlier in the season, Lady in Waiting was also beset with difficulties between Falk and the studio, leading to walk-outs and a delayed schedule. Although it didn’t cause bad blood between Falk and Clark or episode director Norman Lloyd (who is still with us at the age of 101), it did give rise to a potential studio solution to the on-going run-ins.

Universal execs of the time came up with the idea of book-ending seasons of Columbo with Falk episodes, and then letting 4-5 other actors play the character in between. I think I speak for all fans when I say: Thank God they never did it

How I rate ‘em

It may stun viewers to learn that I rate an episode many overlook ahead of the iconic Prescription: Murder, but I stand by my decision. I personally enjoy Lady in Waiting a great deal, so it sneaks into 4th place. Here’s my full list so far:

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Murder by the Book
  3. Death Lends a Hand
  4. Lady in Waiting
  5. Prescription: Murder
  6. Ransom for a Dead Man
  7. Dead Weight

You can check out the other reviews by clicking on their respective links above. And if you haven’t yet done so, please vote for your very favourite episode in my Columbo poll here. More than 1200 fans have done so up to now. Don’t be that guy who hasn’t done it…

Next up on my journey through Columbo Season 1 is Short Fuse, starring the ever bonkers Roddy McDowall. It’s one I watch rarely, and my memories (reluctantly) chiefly centre on Roddy’s outrageously tight trousers. Whether there’s more substance to the episode than that remains to be seen!

Lady Waiting

See you next time. Or else…

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40 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Lady in Waiting

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

  2. I don’t have any major issues with this episode, its enjoyable enough and i always find it a good watch. But Beth Chadwick’s sudden personality change, which seems to just happen over night once she has killed her brother, just seems a bit unbelievable to me. She then becomes one of the most petulant of any Columbo killers, turning quite nasty with Columbo. When it comes to female villains in Columbo i very much enjoyed Trish Van Devere as the cold as Ice Kay.

  3. This is probably a minor nitpick, but I’m not 100% sure if the accent Susan Clark uses in this episode is genuinely hers or just put on for Beth Chadwick. I lean towards the latter because Clark was born in Sarnia, ON and grew up in Toronto, and as a Canadian myself, our accents can range quite a bit, but I don’t think to the point of upper class accent the Chadwicks inhabit (unless perhaps one was very blue-blood or was much older). While his character’s a little less uppity, Leslie Nielsen (a Regina native) sounds FAR more like the “standard Canadian/mistaken to be American” accent, probably helped by being in Hollywood for many years up to that point. That’s my two cents anyway.

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  8. For me, this is one of the weakest mysteries in the original series. The gunshot before the alarm bit is so glaringly obvious in comparison to many “gotcha” moments, and Peter’s brief mumbling of “gunshot and alarm” during the initial questioning left me just waiting for Columbo to pull that one out of his raincoat. When he finally did, there was so little drama that I assumed they had Susan threaten to shoot him as a way to add a droplet of tension to the scene.

    Watching the interplay between Falk and Nielsen, I kept wishing they’d written a mystery with Leslie Nielsen as the villain.

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  12. I found many implausibilities such as: She couldn’t go to a beauty salon for a makeover WITHOUT first killing her brother?… or, for that matter buying a new car, albeit an expensive, cute little sports car? Ridiculous. She could have been living a happy, good life; I cannot imagine that she was not permitted to spend money, given the family’s wealth.

    But, MOST importantly, the “Law of DOUBLE JEOPARDY” applies to this murder… so it doesn’t matter WHAT Columbo digs up, the jury’s verdict is FINAL and she CANNOT be retried for the same murder even if she admitted that it was premeditated. So, WHY would the writers FRUSTRATE US this way? Really bad writing.

    • Everything you point out is true, Gaby. However, you just can’t watch Columbo that way. I’m pretty sure almost every crime on every episode and the way it’s solved is implausible. You just got to love watching Peter Falk interact with these various characters, that’s what the show is about.

    • Double jeopardy only applies if you are formally charged with a crime. While the results of an inquest can lead to a murder charge, just because the results don’t indicate that charges should be brought the DA can still charge someone cleared in an inquest. I recently re-watched this show and she was never formally charged. I will agree that her transformation seems a bit abrupt, but maybe her brothers’ overbearing nature did not allow the “true” her to come out.

    • My guess is that (and it certainly was more normal to do back then), that Beth’s use of the family/company money was severely limited by her mother and brother (and use of credit by women was years away). That said, I do scratch my head at just how old she’s supposed to be in this episode, as I don’t think it’s ever made clear. (Susan Clark was 28 when the episode aired.)

  13. A glorious treat in this one, r.e those 70s fashions! Also proved just how great Leslie Nielson was at playing a serious role. I keep waiting for him to say something crazy. I guess I’ve seen the Naked Gun movies so often that I’m just primed for a Frank Drebin moment. Beth Chadwick is a great character; I really like her transformation. By the end of the episode she’s become so cold and calculating. She wanted to be in control, but ended up getting completely out of control.

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  15. Norman Lloyd was Dr Auslander on St Elsewhere and Susan Clark was on Webster. Great review. I agree it’s an underrated one with a great performance from Clark. My favourite episodes are always the ones where the performances of the actor playing the killer matches Peter Falk’s. An obvious comment of course, but there it is. Two actors on the top of their games is a joy to behold. I too love the light bulb scene. It’s up there with Columbo pulling his gloved hands out of his pockets in Suitable for Framing.

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  17. Excellent review, only issue with episode is “double jeopardy” would end the investigation after the acquittal. I think it’s clearly better than “Death Lends a Hand” which suffers from Culp’s humorless acting.

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  19. Watching the episode now on METV, and I was delighted to see the great Marcia Wallace (The Bob Newhart Show, The Simpson) in a bit part at the inquest. She’s the redhead who bets Columbo Beth will get off scott free.

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  21. Sorry to take so long in getting back here, especially since I thoroughly enjoy your reviews of the COLUMBO episodes. My sole complaint about “Lady in Waiting” is, alas, a fatal one—and one that has already been pointed out by two correspondents above.

    Beth Chadwick stated that she heard the burglar alarm then fired the shots. Peter Hamilton heard the shots first, THEN the claxon of the alarm. Since nothing was presented to indicate to us that Hamilton was covering for Beth (and, in fact, he freely stated what he’d heard and the order in which he heard it to Columbo later in episode, then the written statements provided to the police by Beth and Hamilton would have differed in that significant aspect. Even if Columbo hadn’t detected the discrepancy during the on-scene investigation, he surely would have spotted it when he reviewed the two statements later.

    And even if one wants to insist, “O.K., Columbo had a really off day,” it still wouldn’t wash—because of the coroner’s inquest. BOTH Beth and Hamilton would have been called to testify. BOTH would have been asked to provide individual detailed accounts of what they saw and heard and did. The conflict between Beth’s account and Hamilton’s would have come out then.

    That contradiction just would have gone undetected as long as the episode would have us believe. It turns an otherwise inside-the-park home run into a foul ball.

  22. excellent review and excellent site! i’ll point out a couple of things about this episode: though it would be true to say Susan Clark wasn’t exactly a huge star, she wasn’t totally an unknown, either. hers was a face seen often in the 70’s, though maybe not so much as early as ’71.

    one thing about this episode that stuck me last time i watched it. beth shoots her brother, what, three times, right? then drags him about 10-12 feet across the room to place his body next to the window. did they not have bloodtrails in 1971?

    however, i don’t watch and love Columbo for it’s “forensic accuracy”.

    • Quite true! There would have been pretty obvious drag marks from her dragging him across the room on that nice carpet, too! As you say, that aspect of the show isn’t why we watch, although it’s more of an issue in some episodes than others.

  23. I’m in agreement on this episode, my only gripe is the whole cart before the horse thing would have been noticed much earlier in reality, but it’s a minor gripe.

    I almost agree on your episode ranking too…except Suitable for Framing I’d put 3rd.

    • Russell, you beat me to it. I readily confess to judging Columbo episodes primarily based on the quality of the mystery. Here Peter readily reported an account that disproved Beth’s story. He needed no coaxing by Columbo to describe what he heard. No later development by Columbo triggered his disclosure. The “gotcha” was right under Columbo’s nose for the entire episode. To me, that is a fatal flaw.

    • I think it’s a flaw, but not a fatal flaw. Many legendary detectives miss something obvious early on that helps complete the case later. Columbo being shrewd enough to know when precisely to pump Hamilton for the info he needs to crack the case shows acumen aplenty for me. I’d rather it done this way than, for example, he spot the minute clue that no one else in the world would, like the lighter flint stub in Deadly State of Mind that he hangs his case on.

      • Are there other examples of Columbo missing “something obvious early on”? Better yet, are there examples of Columbo missing “something obvious early on” in any of his best cases?

      • I’d say so, although that depends on your interpretation of best cases. The missing of the whole ‘umbrella up the chimney’ before Oliver Brandt removed it from the crime scene in Bye-Bye Sky High is the stand-out. How could it have been missed by the whole police team? Even Columbo admits he’s already looked up the chimney to Danziger, but it must have been later on as it would have shut the case down in a heartbeat had it been found. I always thought the ‘MAC’ clue in Stitch in Crime was a bit of an obvious one, too. The medical industry must be rammed with acronyms, so to assume it was a name, rather than consider other implications seems a bit un-Columbo like. Certainly I consider both to be flaws, but I still consider those to be two of the very best episodes (particularly Bye-Bye, which has several flaws, yet they never hamper my enjoyment).

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

  25. Great review! I’m with you on this: it’s a really underrated episode. Beth Chadwick’s character arc is indeed really interesting and the 70s fashions are utterly delicious! My favourite scene — and one of Great review! I’m with you on this: it’s a really underrated episode. Beth Chadwick’s character arc is indeed really interesting and the 70s fashions are utterly delicious! My favourite scene — and one of my all time favourite Columbo moments — is the one that immediately follows Beth taking command of the boardroom for the first time, much to everyone’s astonishment. She is in total control… that is until Columbo appears at the end of the meeting, to ask some questions about the light bulb from her porch. Having made his enquiries, the moment when Columbo spins away, pauses and then turns round — prompting Beth to bark “Lieutenant, no more questions!” — only to then give her the light bulb rather than ask any more questions, is absolutely priceless! As is the moment when Columbo finally leaves the room and she flies into a rage, flinging the light bulb across the room: “What can we DO about him!” Brilliant!

    • Yes, that’s an excellent scene. I referenced in original draft of the article, but it was running so long I had to cut it back! If only Beth had been a bit more restrained she’d have got away with it, I’m sure.

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