Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 2

Episode review: Columbo Etude in Black

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September 17, 1972 marked the ‘Return of the Mac’, not to mention the car, the cigar and the eccentric mannerisms. Yessir, Columbo was back for a hotly-anticipated second season, 10 months after Season 1 rounded out.

TV show line-ups didn’t come much stronger. Joining Peter Falk were screen icons John Cassavetes and Myrna Loy, as well as future superstar Blythe Danner. Although series creators Dick Levinson and Bill Link had moved upstairs, the episode was penned by Steven Bochco, the mastermind behind Murder by the Book.

So far so good, then, but does Etude in Black live up to the hype? Let’s apply our boutonnieres, leaf through our dog name’s dictionary, and bust out our MASSIVE robotic conducting arm moves to find out if it’ll be a standing ovation or a Bronx cheer at episode’s end…

etude-header

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Alex Benedict: John Cassavetes
Janice Benedict: Blythe Danner
Lizzi Fielding: Myrna Loy
Jennifer Welles: Anjanette Comer
Paul Rifkin: James Olson
William: James McEachin
Audrey: Dawn Frame
House Boy: Pat Morita
And introducing… Dog!
Directed by: Nicholas Colasanto
Written by: Steven Bochco
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis – Columbo Etude in Black

Musical Maestro Alex Benedict (John Cassavetes) has a problem – and one that threatens his glittering career as a celebrity conductor. He’s been romping with thigh-revealing pianist Jennifer Welles, who believes their primal love will provide greater sustenance to Benedict’s soul than his ‘safe’ marriage to Janice (Blythe Danner) and the zillions of dollars said marriage entitles him to.

Jennifer – clearly not a good judge of characters – is wrong. Benedict hatches a dastardly plot to rid himself of the ivory tinkling trouble-maker. Leaving his Jag at a grimy mechanic’s shop, Benedict gets a lift to the Hollywood Bowl with wife Janice to begin his prep for the evening’s symphony.

“Musical maestro Alex Benedict has been romping with thigh-revealing pianist Jennifer Welles.”

After bossing a few underlings around, Benedict retires to his dressing room for a nap. And when we says ‘nap’, what we really mean is ice-cold, premeditated MURDER.

But before the killing, Benedict has got some work to do. He’s already faked a suicide note from Jennifer, so donning an amazingly conspicuous and memorable disguise of a long beige trench coat and HUGE sunglasses, Benedict sets out from the Bowl and jogs – in broad daylight no less – back to the car workshop.

He enters via a window of the rankest-looking toilet in TV history and confidently leaps into his extremely eye-catching and memorable Jaguar, which he drives to Jennifer’s house and parks literally around the corner. Did I mention already that all this is done in broad daylight? Benedict has balls, I’ll give him that…

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Cover those thighs, strumpet! This is a family show…

Entering the house, Benedict pashes with Jennifer, who gives him an ultimatum: tell your wife about us, or I will! He assures her he’ll break the bad news to Janice ASAP, and tasks Jennifer with playing a heart-warming ditty on the piano. As she obliges, Benedict wraps a heavy ashtray in a cloth and clocks her around the back of the swede with it. He’s got 99 problems, but Jennifer Welles ain’t one of them anymore…

Benedict plants the faux suicide note in Jennifer’s typewriter, lifts her limp frame into the kitchen and turns on the oven gas to make it look like she took her own life. He then returns his car to the garage (seemingly not considering the odometer will show the mileage increase).

The perfect crime then? Hardly, Maestro. While lifting Jennifer’s stricken frame from the piano, Benedict’s boutonnier – a tell-tale pink carnation – has fallen to the floor. He hasn’t noticed, and it’s the only thing that can tie him to the scene (if you exclude the disguise, the car, the workshop break-in etc, etc). Will it come back to haunt him?

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He’s behiiiiind yooooou!

Hours pass… Safely back at the Bowl, Benedict is informed that one of his musicians hasn’t showed up for the concert. Who? None other than Jennifer Welles, of course. Flying into a temper, Benedict orders an immediate change to the concert program while raging at Jennifer’s lack of reliability. His own ability to trip her phone number off the tip of his tongue alerts his wife’s suspicions, though, who struggles to maintain her belief in her man for the rest of the episode.

It’s now that Lieutenant Columbo is called into action. He’s at the vet’s getting a shot for his new dog – a slovenly basset hound he rescued from the pound – when he receives a summons to get to Jennifer’s house where she’s been found dead.

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“All he does is sleep and drool”: ‘Dog’ made his debut in Etude in Black

Although all signs point to a suicide, little things immediately bother Columbo. Why would someone so talented and beautiful want to take her own life? And if she loved her pet cockatoo so much, why would she allow it to die of gas poisoning too?

The emergence of Alex Benedict at the house also provides some food for thought for Columbo as he witnesses the maestro picking up a flower from the floor near the piano and attaching it to his lapel. Benedict claims it fell off as he removed his coat there and then. If Columbo knows otherwise he doesn’t say so, although it’s not the sort of detail that normally escapes him.

The scene is enlivened further as drunk trumpeter Paul – a former lover of Jennifer’s – stumbles onto the scene, braying about how there’s no way Jennifer would take her own life. The proverbial plot is well and truly thickening.

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Benedict returns to the scene of the crime wearing the SAME conspicuous coat and sunnies he was sporting earlier. You’ve got to admire his chutzpah

As Columbo’s investigations continue, we fall into the same delightful pattern the show so enamoured us with in season 1. The Lieutenant fastens himself to his suspect, seeking his (oft ludicrous) opinion on all matters of the case, and is there every time Benedict turns around, unsettling him at the car yard, at his home and in his place of work.

He even seeks assistance from an unlikely source: young Audrey, Jennifer’s precocious next door neighbour (for ‘precocious’ read ‘annoying’). She says she can identify Jennifer’s love interest, who is someone from the orchestra. Sensing triumph, Columbo whips her along to an orhestral session. Can she identify Jennifer’s lover? You bet she can! Only the joke’s on Columbo this time, as Audrey IDs drunkard Paul instead of Benedict.

“The Lieutenant gets one of his trademark lucky breaks when returning to the vet’s to get a booster shot for the dog.”

The Lieutenant doesn’t give up that easily, though, and he gets one of his trademark lucky breaks when returning to the vet’s to get a booster shot for the dog. A re-run of the Benedict concert from the previous week is on air and the wily detective is finally able to lock in on some hard evidence.

Calling the Benedicts to the Hollywood Bowl’s recording studio to watch some video tapes of the previous concert, Columbo makes his case. ‘Look!’ he points out during a freeze frame. Benedict doesn’t have a flower in his lapel during the concert.

So what, comes the response from Benedict. I don’t always wear one. But you picked one up from the floor at Jennifer Welles’ house, points out Columbo. That’s your word against mine, retorts Benedict, and I don’t remember that at all.

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“I love you.” Benedict’s poignant parting words to wife Janice

Well what about this, says Columbo, flashing up footage of Benedict speaking to the media in the aftermath of her death being revealed. Another freeze frame clearly shows a carnation in his lapel. Where did it come from?

When Janice refuses to back up Benedict’s claim that she pinned it on him straight after the concert, the game is up. Whispering words of love in his wife’s ear, Benedict salutes Columbo and allows himself to be escorted down town.

After making sure Mrs Benedict is being taken care of, Columbo takes his seat to watch the full re-run of the concert as credits roll…

Etude in Black‘s best moment: Chopsticks at the Bowl

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Nothing beats the simple pleasure of seeing Columbo indulging in some cheeky Chopsticks action at a deserted Hollywood Bowl.

Not only is it charming in its own right, but the moment also leads into a delicious hypothetical debate between the Lieutenant and Benedict about whether the Maestro could have committed the crime, and ends with Columbo shattering Benedict’s impregnability by revealing that his superiors are letting him investigate the case as a homicide. There’s even a classic ‘Just one more thing…’ thrown in for good measure. Lovely stuff…

My take on Etude in Black

Having canvassed many a fan’s opinion  on the matter over a period of years, I’m fully aware that Etude is treasured by a high percentage of Columbo fans. Many even rate as their single favourite episode. So it’s with a hushed voice and guilty heart that I must reveal (after looking sheepishly from side to side) that I don’t like it that much.

If I haven’t instantly lost your respect and attention, I’m very grateful. And if you’ll hear me out I’ll state my case.

Etude in Black marked the first episode (pilots excluded) with the longer 90+minute running time, which would have been 2 hours on network TV including ads. Season 1 episodes ran for about 75 minutes each (90 mins with ads) and were almost all perfectly paced. But Columbo was such a hit, the network, NBC, insisted on some longer episodes to maximise advertising revenue.

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The car mileage issue: one of several plot holes to blight Etude in Black

Many Columbo purists, myself included, think that move was a mistake. It led to widespread padding out of scenes in the longer episodes. The stories had a tendency to sag and the potential to lose viewers’ attention. It’s no coincidence that few of my personal top 10 Columbo episodes are ‘long’ ones.

And while Etude was the first of the longer episodes, it suffers less than some that followed it. Unlike later long episodes, Etude was originally intended as a regular-length transmission. Indeed, the 75-minute version aired in Canada. The longer version was foisted on US audiences, but while there are some scenes added for padding, the scenes themselves haven’t been padded out. That’s an important distinction.

In later episodes it became clear that there wasn’t always enough material to justify the longer running time. So scenes that could have been raced through take an AAAAAAAAAGE. Think of the real-time car manouevering in Any Old Port in a Storm; the endless garage scene in Candidate for Crime; and the agonising wait for the computer printer in Exercise in Fatality.

“Etude in Black is arguably the most ambitious episode since Ransom for a Dead Man.”

Those episodes are damaged by the longer running time because scenes become a bore – something that’s largely avoided in Etude. While it’s easy to identify scenes in Etude that appear to have been added in later, they’re actually not bad in their own right. The scene where Columbo drops in on Benedict in his own house is a prime example. It’s a classic unsettling move by the Lieutenant, visiting his quarry in their own backyard while never asking a single question relevant to the case – and leaving with an autograph for his wife.

The scene eats up more than 5 minutes without ostensibly progressing the plot at all. It’s great stuff, but it’s not strictly necessary – and wasn’t part of the original story. Cassavetes’ shorter haircut is testament to it being filmed weeks later and cut in to bump up the running time.

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Excuse me, but what did you pay for that haircut?

I’ve never seen the shorter version of Etude, but writer Bochco and Falk himself both admitted that the extra running time did it no favours. I find it an episode that I struggle to really commit to for the full duration. This is the case with many of the subsequent long ‘uns, too.

Still, all that’s not the sole reason why Etude remains on the fringes of my Columbo favourites. For my money, the central clue just isn’t compelling enough. I don’t think Benedict would cave in on the evidence of the lapel flower. Sure, it doesn’t look good, but it falls short of condemning him.

I liken it to Murder by the Book. Ken Franklin could’ve talked his way out of that fix in a second. Similarly Benedict had a way out. Because he often wears a carnation and had just taken his coat off, he might simply have assumed the one on the floor was his and picked it up. It could plausibly belong to someone else and could have been dropped a day earlier. As a result the ending doesn’t satisfy me. Plus wouldn’t the police have noticed it was on the floor by the time Benedict arrived?

“For my money, the central clue just isn’t compelling enough. I don’t think Benedict would cave in on the evidence of the lapel flower.”

On top of that there’s no clear reason why Benedict visited the crime scene on the night of the murder. He didn’t appear to have been invited by the police, so why show up? It was convenient – indeed essential – to the plot, but a schemer like Benedict would surely have opted to stay well clear. It doesn’t ring true – although saying that he did take a multitude of stupid risks getting to and fro the crime scene, so maybe his actions here were in character? If so, what a pillock…

Yet for all that I can understand why many fans love Etude in Black. It has some marvellous moments and is arguably the most ambitious episode since Ransom for a Dead Man. It’s almost cinematic in scale, with its extensive use of location shooting and the epic orchestral score – featuring Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart – putting it a level above most episodes in terms of production values.

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Yesssss Myrna Loy in Columbo

The calibre of the cast was suitably grand, too. Cassavetes is impressive enough, but to have silver screen Goddess Myrna Loy  also gracing the episode was a real coup. Playing Janice’s mother Lizzi Fielding, Loy’s role was a small one, but the charisma and authority she brought cannot be overstated. Dare I say it, Etude could have benefited from a few more minutes of her time.

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And the prize for the thickest hair in TV history goes to…

Blythe Danner was also a hit as the vulnerable Janice Benedict, hoping against hope that her husband wasn’t really the git she suspects him to be. Danner, who was pregnant with daughter Gwyneth Paltrow at the time, was sympathetic without ever being pathetic. One senses Janice has the moral fibre to bounce back from this blow and get back on with her life at some point.

There are even cameos for the awesome Jimmy McEachin, as Benedict’s sidekick William, and Pat Morita (AKA Mr Miyagi) as the mysteriously titled ‘House Boy’, who allows Columbo into Benedict HQ, so there’s plenty to surprise and delight the keen viewer. And last but not least, we welcome ‘Dog’ into the fold. The lovable mutt would go on to win the hearts of millions of viewers. Read more about him here.

“I’m no expert, but isn’t a conductor’s baton supposed to be caressed rather than wielded?”

Cassavetes’ friendship with Falk was a crucial factor in him taking on the role of Alex Benedict. True to form, the two seem to revel in each other’s company, although I don’t feel they zing in the same way Falk and Jack Cassidy did. And while it’s a relatively minor gripe, I can’t help thinking Cassavetes could’ve tried a little bit harder to look like he really knew how to conduct an orchestra!

I’m no expert, but isn’t a conductor’s baton supposed to be caressed rather than wielded (no double entendres intended)? Yet Cassavetes’ arm movements are as stiff and stilted as they come – and nowhere near being in time with the music. It’s as if his only direction was: Pretend to be conducting an orchestra really badly. if so, he carried out his instructions to the letter. He’s certainly no match for this chap…

So there we have it. Etude is an interesting study. On one hand majestic, dynamic and a quite amazing statement of intent for the season. On the other, it’s mired in plot holes that prevent it delivering the sucker punch the lavish settings and big budget set it up for.

As a result, it has never completely won me over. The heart wants to love Etude in Black. The head, like Janice Benedict suspiciously eyeing her husband, can’t ever fully commit.

So it’s warm applause at episode’s end, rather than a rapturous 13-minute standing ovation. Sorry Maestro.

Did you know?

Although Nicholas Colasanto (AKA ‘Coach’ in  Cheers) is officially credited with having directed Etude in Black, word on the street is that both Falk and Cassavetes took on the lion’s share of directorial duties. And that’s a pretty cool thought.

How I rate them so far

We’ve now got an actual top 10 of episodes form the reviews so far and, true to sentiments expressed above, Etude has fallen into a sort of halfway house.

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Murder by the Book
  3. Death Lends a Hand
  4. Lady in Waiting
  5. Prescription: Murder
  6. Etude in Black
  7. Blueprint for Murder
  8. Ransom for a Dead Man
  9. Dead Weight
  10. Short Fuse

Am I being fair? Leave a comment below and if you treasure Etude above all others, do vote for it here in the favourite episode poll!

I’ll be reviewing the under-the-radar Greenhouse Jungle in the coming weeks, so check back in soon. And thanks, as ever, for reading. You’re DA greatest…

audrey

The good cop/bad cop spin-off series ‘Audrey and the Lieutenant’ never quite took off

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27 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Etude in Black

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

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  4. I agree with you on how this murder wasn’t as well thought out as some of the others and on your points on the plot holes, but I believe the reason he went back to the house was to specifically look for the flower. I think they made it pretty clear that he noticed during the concert that it was missing and I think he had to go back to the house to see if he could retrieve it. I think a smarter criminal might have just pocketed it instead of drawing attention to himself by putting it on the way he did but that’s another gripe.

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  7. One more thing…..I’ve always wanted to write that. 🙂 One of the best lines was delivered by Janice Benedict when Columbo asked her to confirm the Maestro’s recollection of the facts. She says she would have stuck with him through anything accept murder. Think of that. If he would have been honest and sincerely contrite, she would have forgiven him. It may have been a scandal, but it’s even possible she would have fought against her mother in keeping Alex. He could have kept everything for the sake of a little of his pride. I think that’s the moment where it finally sunk in on how much he had really lost.

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

  9. I am really enjoying reading these reviews.
    Etude in Black was the first Columbo episode I saw, so I do have fond memories of it. I agree it isn’t amongst the absolute classic episodes, but I still think it is a strong one, boosted by the high production values and great cast. I rank it with A Stitch in Crime and Double Shock as being the best of Series 2.
    I think a common fault in the episodes written by Steven Bochco is the “reveal” at the end is rarely strong.
    I am looking forward to your review of The Greenhouse Jungle.

  10. Pingback: Columbo top 10 episodes: as voted for by the fans | The columbophile

  11. Falk and Cassavetes were actually best friends.

    Blythe was pregnant with Gwenyth in this episode.
    The capitulation worked because in his own way he truly did love his wife and didn’t want her hurt more, his whispering line “Just for the record…I love you. I’ve always loved you. I hope you don’t have to go through your life….. {inaudible to me}” proves that.

    • Perhaps he did love her, but there’s at least a hint earlier in the episode that he’s a serial philanderer so I’m not sure about that. Perhaps it shows more that he’s not a complete git, although he seemed just as worried about being humiliated at being caught, which brings the authenticity of his farewell to Janice into question. In short, he’s quite an enigma.

  12. All points well taken! The music was glorious, the vibe very sexy & the casting amazing. But it wasn’t the usual delicious Columbo formula in many ways. Lots of irrelevant chatter & a truly padded feel. But I’ll always stop to watch it when it’s on. “Any Old Port in a Storm” is my special darling.

    • I like Any Old Port more than this one, but it suffers from some issues with the longer running time, too. The brilliance of the script, and Pleasence’s amazing line deliveries, help it rise above.

  13. This is an episode that looks great, the sets, the suits, the orchestra, well though out. I like the chemistry between Falk and Cassavetes. However, what brings it down a few notches for me are the clues. I agree we could debate if they are even plausible as major clues. However, lets accept for a moment that they are plausible, I just think the writer of this episode makes the clues too obvious and easy to find for Columbo, as well as the viewer. I like when Columbo is challenged. Here the flower that he drops gets extra emphasis on it with a dramatic close up shot. Also, the mileage on the car clue is so obvious it is hard to believe that Cassavetes wouldn’t think of it ahead of time. As a viewer, I like to be challenged a bit as well, however they make it a bit too easy in this one in my opinion.

  14. I’m a Columbo newbie, having only watched seasons one and two at present. Etude would be in my top five for sure. I’m riveted by Cassavetes’ performance. Additionally I like it for all of the pluses you mention–guest roles, locations, score, ambition, etc. And while I find the script compelling, the thing that keeps the episode out of my top three is that the ‘gotcha’ is telegraphed too early and obviously. The scene of Benedict as he conducts and notices (so very conspicuously) that his lapel flower is missing told me right away that would be his undoing.

  15. I think the key to understanding this Columbo comes at the start where Cassavetes is playing the piano, then slams the keys in anger and frustration. He plays a man who has everything; wealth beyond avarice, a beautiful wife, a brilliant career. His unmatched accomplishments are betrayed by a fatal hubris; he despises people. His barely covered contempt for his co-workers, his toying with the accent of his car repairman, and his obvious disrespect of his wife are suddenly matched against someone with equal contempt. His resolution? Get rid of her, you get rid of the problem.

    Enter Columbo. This man, who’s yearly salary couldn’t pay for one of his suits, is now his judge and jury, and in his own way as ruthless as he is. The show is less a reveal as it is how Columbo slowly corners him until he has no where to run. In the end, he faces a final truth, that his wife would have stayed with him even if he would have been exposed.

    It took me a few watches before I really started to like this episode, but it’s one of my favorites; a callous uncaring killer, observing his life slowly fall apart.

  16. I really enjoy reading these reviews 🙂

    I’ve never really liked this episode that much either in all honesty, glad to see i’m not the only one who feels that way. I think its a good episode, but not quite a great one and i don’t quite get the fuss over it. I know this may sound silly but i also actually hated that Benedict left the cockatoo to die, As an animal lover i found it unpleasant to see the cockatoo in distress. Even though i know its not real and the cockatoo doesn’t really get hurt i still didn’t like that scene.But that alone isn’t the reason why i am not a big fan of the episode. Overall whenever i watch it i just don’t get excited by it. I enjoy it but there are a lot of episodes i enjoy more.

    You talked about the longer length episodes. I have to agree they do tend to suffer a little from padding, but from the longer ones i really love Any old Port in a storm, A friend in deed, An Exercise in Fatality, Negative reaction ,By Dawns early light and Make me a perfect murder. These are among my favourite episodes and some of the padding is entertaining enough in a lot of these. I think friend in deed and Dawns early light don’t have as much padding as most of the other longer ones, they are possibly the two best crafted of all the longer episodes .

    Make me a perfect murder is actually my favourite episode and this episode really splits opinion. People seem to either love it or hate it with not much middle ground. I think the episode has a couple of scenes of padding which are possibly the worst of any episode! (columbo twiddling with the knobs and looking at the images on the screen for example, i can really see why people hate that scene) but i still love the episode despite the obvious flaws. I think i love Trish Van Devere/Kay Freestone, she’s my favourite killer. It’s almost like this character is better than the episode she is appearing in. I want to know more about this woman, she is intriguing and complex. I would have loved a spin off series/mini series with Kay Freestone as the main character!

    I love how she sets up and commits the murder with her own voice counting down, i love the elevator scene when she retrieves the gun, Those two scenes are so tense. i love the surreal scene where she is in the control booth and Columbo hounds her through the screens and i love her line at the end ”i’ll fight, i’ll survive, i might even win” I honestly rate all those scenes as among the best in the whole series.

    One shorter episode i thought may have been good as a longer one was Publish or Perish. It felt like they crammed a lot into the shorter running time (i think you said that yourself when you talked about this episode in your top ten episodes) and who wouldn’t love an extra 20 minutes of Jack Cassidy? 🙂

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on The Greenhouse Jungle next 🙂

  17. This is actually my favourite episode. I think the chemistry between Falk and Cassavetes is wonderful, probably because of their real life friendship. Blythe Danner played the part of a young woman in love, but not convinced of her husband’s love perfectly. The clues were obvious but aren’t they always? It’s Columbo’s brilliant mind that always shines in the way that he leads the suspect(s) into a false sense of security before springing the damning proof of guilt on them. Love, love, love this episode.

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

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