January 1973 was an intriguing month in US history. Against the backdrop of the oil crisis and Vietnam war, Richard Nixon was sworn in for a second (and short) term of office, while the Miami Dolphins won Superbowl VII to complete the NFL’s first ever ‘Perfect Season’.
More important than all that, though, January 21, 1973 marked the return of Columbo to screens after a two-month winter break. He was also back in LA and hanging out with Tinseltown legend Nora Chandler after boobing around in London in his last outing. But is Requiem for a Falling Star a comeback of epic proportions, or a straight to VHS bargain bucket affair? Let’s see…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Nora Chandler: Anne Baxter
Jerry Parks: Mel Ferrer
Jean Davis: Pippa Scott
Frank Simmons: Kevin McCarthy
Fallon: Frank Converse
Edith Head: As herself
Directed by: Richard Quine
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Episode synopsis: Columbo Requiem for a Falling Star
A dark-clad female enters a bathroom and fires a gun through a screen door at a silhouetted form, which slumps to the ground. Is this the quickest Columbo killing since Season 1’s Suitable for Framing? Not quite. An explosive start it may be, but this is just an action-packed scene from a forthcoming TV movie starring former Silver Screen Queen, Nora Chandler.
Filming wrapped up, Nora heads home to her ‘cottage’ – a half-acre dwelling slap-bang in the middle of the Universal Studios lot. There she finds long-time assistant Jean Davis cooing sweet nothings to gossip journalist Jerry Parks – a man whom Nora clearly has precious little love for.
Jerry is blackmailing Nora. He’s demanded quite a sum from her to prevent him blabbing to the studio bosses that she defrauded them to the tune of $2 million dollars years before. Nora, however, isn’t taking the bait, and Jerry quickly exits stage left to a book signing.
Jean subsequently announces that she and Jerry are to be married. Nora is dismayed and, knowing the lovebirds have planned a date for later, tearfully demands Jean instead run an extensive list of errands. It’s the least she can do if she’s planning to leave Nora after all those years of dedicated service, after all.
Successfully guilt-tripped, Jean sheepishly heads off with the list. She heads to Jerry’s book signing, but Nora is there first. She watches as Jean heads into the book store and, after seeming to tamper with Jean’s car in some fashion, we next see Nora carelessly spilling gasoline all over a car driveway. As Jerry’s instantly recognisable E-Type Jaguar pulls into the drive, she sets the gas alight and… BOOM! The quaterback is toast!
Cut to a cushy restaurant. Nora is dining with studio bosses Fallon and Simmons (her new love interest), when they’re interrupted by an urgent message for Nora. Police explain that there’s been an explosion at Jerry Parks’ home. Why tell me, asks Nora. After all, she and Jerry aren’t particularly close. Lo and behold Jerry strides into the restaurant. It’s Jean who’s dead after she borrowed Jerry’s car due to a flat tyre. Faithful Jean, who’s been at Nora’s side for 18 years, and who stuck by her after the mysterious death of Nora’s husband, Al Cumberland, 12 years earlier. Stunned, Nora faints.
All this means that Lieutenant Columbo is on screen as early as the 11th minute as he arrives at the studio to interview Nora. In a nice call back to Prescription: Murder, we even see the very location where he first meets Joan Hudson on the lot before he arrives at Nora’s cottage.
Encountering Nora, Columbo is instantly star-struck – so much so that he asks to call his wife and have the two speak. Is it all an act to ingratiate himself to the star, and to put her off guard? Probably, but it’s convincing. Alas, Mrs Columbo isn’t home, but Nora does exchange a few words with cousin ‘George’, much to the Lieutenant’s obvious delight.
Columbo updates Nora on the case. Looks like arson rather than merely an exploding car gas tank (that old chestnut), he says before having his usual nosey around the house, spotting a framed photo of Nora and late husband Al Cumberland in the process. Naturally Columbo knows all about him. After all, Cumberland built this studio and died mysteriously 12 years ago after heading out alone on his boat.
Columbo also knows that Cumberland was a Kingpin in the Shriners (an international society linked to the Freemasons), and sees that he’s sporting his Shriners’ Ring in the photo. Remember this, ladies and germs, as it’ll become a prominent clue later on.
After a friendly chit-chat, Nora and Columbo admire her splendid garden, complete with non-functioning fountain prop from her first major film (clue alert!), and the Lieutenant even nabs a rose for his wife before paying a visit to Jerry Parks.
The smug gossip columnist doesn’t appear to be overly upset that his fiancee of yesterday is today’s charred corpse. The wily detective probes Parks expertly, suggesting that he was more interested in Jean for the dirt she might give him on Nora. Parks laughs it off. Who’s interested in a sliding actress, he asks. The only thing of note Parks reveals is that he and Nora are ‘very good friends’.
“The smug gossip columnist doesn’t appear to be overly upset that yesterday’s fiancee is today’s charred corpse.”
After Columbo beats it, Parks rings Nora to set up a rendezvous. He tells her he knows she’s the one behind Jean’s death, and that he’d want 10 times as much money now to not spill the beans to the studio about Nora defrauding them. Not so fast, Nora zaps back. She’s got copies of all his love letters to Jean that show how he’s desperate for money and has been borrowing heavily from Jean. He has a motive for killing, and Nora’s sure the police would be interested in hearing about it.
This fascinating stalemate is gatecrashed by Columbo, who’d tailed Parks. The two spin Columbo a yarn that they were having a consolatory chat about poor Jean, but Parks can’t resist one last barb at Nora before she leaves. “Her dear departed husband would be spinning in his grave… if he had one…” he says.
Back at the studio once more, Columbo gleans some insight from studio boss Fallon about Nora’s home. It’s worth a fortune but Nora won’t sell it, no matter how good the offer. This doesn’t mean much to Columbo at this time, but it’s another crucial clue for his swiftly-filling notepad.
There’s more for it shortly, too, as Columbo gets some hot info (plus a new tie) from Nora. She admits that she and Parks hadn’t met to discuss Jean, but because he’s got some juicy goss on her that he’s holding against her. Although Nora doesn’t say what it is, she does urge Columbo to seek a warrant to search the journalist’s files ‘for Jean’s sake.’
Columbo does just that, making a neckerchiefed Parks unlock his filing cabinets and air the proverbial dirty laundry. Under duress, Parks hands over ledger files that show Nora scammed the studio out of $2m. Columbo gives them straight to Simmons but to his surprise Simmons tears them up. Turns out he already found out about this 10 days ago, but has worked out ‘an arrangement’ with Nora so doesn’t care about the money. Sadly, we never find out what this arrangement was. Deeds to the house? Accessory to call on to secure studio investment? Bedroom access? We can only speculate…
Once again we find ourselves at Nora’s home. She’s dressing, so the Lieutenant again tries – and fails – to get his wife on the phone. He does learn, however, that there’s a Nora Chandler film being aired right now, so tunes in. It’s a picture he hasn’t seen before, featuring Nora dressed as a man in trench coat and hat. As he watches, a lightbulb goes off in Columbo’s head. He doesn’t say what, but it’s a biggie.
“Nora’s home on the lot is worth a fortune but she won’t sell it, no matter how good the offer.”
As Nora emerges, resplendent, he updates her on the case. The tyre on Jean’s car definitely wasn’t punctured. What does this mean? Well dear reader, it means that someone deliberately killed Jean after letting the air out of her tyre so she’d borrow Jerry’s car. This is good news for the police, because, as Columbo puts it, Parks has so many enemies they’d never have found the killer. Jean can’t have many, though, so it should be easier to trace who did it.
This gives Nora one big problem. She has to shift the police focus back to believing Parks was the intended victim all along. And she does this via a hilarious sham attempt at a hit-and-run in a parking lot, which leaves the writer scratched and shaken, but never in any real danger. Columbo is sent to investigate the scene, but there are no witnesses. The lightbulb that went on earlier is still shining, though, and the Lieutenant seeks out a Shriner in the crowd and is directed to the local bar in his bid to borrow a Shriners’ Ring.
He succeeds. Muscling in on Nora’s shooting of a driving scene, he tells her about Parks’ near miss. He also explains that Parks claims that he has hard evidence against Nora, which Columbo hands to her in an envelope. It’s a Shriners’ Ring. The Lieutenant doesn’t know what it means. Does Nora? She claims not but once Columbo exits, she begs off filming and jallops home in a state of alarm.
Racing up her path and through her house, Nora flings open the doors to the back garden when the lights go up in her darkened home. Columbo has been lying in wait, and he’s there to arrest Nora for the murder of Jean Davis. He admits it was a tough case, but he kept coming back to the same thought: Jean knows a secret that Nora wants to keep from Jerry Parks. Find the secret and he’ll find the motive.
The fountain helped, Columbo says. His researches show that Nora ordered it from the props department on September 16, 1960: the day after Al Cumberland went missing. It always troubled Columbo that the fountain didn’t work. But he figured out that for it to work, the lawn would need to be dug up for pipes. And Nora couldn’t have anyone digging up the lawn, because they’d find the body of Cumberland. That’s why she raced home – in case the Shriners’ Ring meant that Big Al’s mouldering skelington had been uncovered.
The two share a scotch, and Columbo reveals more. Seeing the film of Nora dressed as a man got him thinking. Nora and Cumberland were pretty much the same height. She could have dressed up as him to fool witnesses into thinking it was him taking his boat out on that fateful day 12 years ago.
Nora comes clean. She did dress up as Cumberland on the boat, and had killed him – with a bottle to the head during an argument the day before. In a panic she buried the body in the garden. Jean did know, and had faithfully kept the secret to the grave. Fetching her coat, Nora allows the Lieutenant to escort her off the premises and switch out the lights on the cottage for the last time as credits roll…
Requiem for a Falling Star‘s best moment
It just has to be costume design LEGEND Edith Head’s cameo as herself. Edith comes up with a new tie for Columbo to help spruce up his shabby appearance. while all the while her array of Oscars are clearly visible on the desk behind. Deliciously, one of these Oscars was won in 1951 for her costume work on All About Eve – a film for which Anne Baxter won a Best Actress nomination.
It’s a delightful Easter Egg of a scene, made even better by the fact that Peter Falk would present Head with a further Oscar the following year for her work on The Sting. Could it be that Falk was given this award to present because of Head’s Columbo appearance? I rather hope so…
My opinion on Requiem for a Falling Star
Columbo is back where he started in Requiem for a Falling Star, treading the Universal lot nearly 5 years exactly after his visit here in Prescription: Murder. It’s nice to have him back, and even nicer to have him mixing with bigger cheeses this time round in the shape of past-her-peak-but-perennially-popular Nora Chandler and the studio bosses.
Requiem is nicely constructed and does a fine job in keeping the audience guessing. Indeed, this guessing game is the show’s biggest success and biggest departure from the norm. When Jerry Parks strides into the restaurant after the police tell Nora there’s been an explosion at his house, we, the viewers, are as stunned as Nora – right down to the dramatic fainting (or was that just me?).
Parks is such an odious little man, and he so obviously holds something over Nora, that’s it’s only natural for the audience to assume he was Nora’s target. It’s a long time before we’re certain that Jean was intentionally killed. For many viewers, in fact, I suspect it’s not until Columbo reveals all to Nora herself at episode’s end that everything falls into place.
And that’s great! It does no harm at all for Columbo to toss viewers a curve ball every once in a while, especially given the show’s dependable format. It’ll happen twice more before the season ends, too, giving the audience extra incentive to pay close attention.
What works in the viewer’s favour here is that, for a change, we’re not aware of all the facts. There’s much more to the crime than meets the eye, and Nora’s motivations are enjoyably revealed piece by piece. It’s a development of what we saw in Suitable for Framing, where Dale Kingston’s scheming ran far deeper than mere murder.
“Parks is such an odious little man that’s it’s only natural for the audience to assume he was Nora’s intended target.”
Jackson Gillis was back on writing duties here, and he has two great central clues to his credit in the aforementioned Suitable for Framing and also Short Fuse. There are a number of vital clues Columbo needs to string together to crack this case and, to Gillis’s credit, they’re all pretty strong and plausible.
Let’s look at those clues. First the fountain. For an inquisitive mind, in which anything out of the ordinary needs an explanation, Columbo’s curiosity about why the fountain in Nora’s garden doesn’t work makes sense. In its own right it isn’t much. But when teamed up with subsequent evidence, notably her reluctance to sell her home, it becomes a clincher.
The relationship between Parks and Nora is next up. Despite public shows of friendship, they clearly hate each other’s guts. Parks is in the business of knowing stuff, so it’s plausible to conclude that he might be using Jean to get to Nora. If so, and Nora had something to hide, it would indeed be a motive for keeping Jean quiet permanently.
Then we have Columbo’s moment of clarity as he watched the Nora Chandler flick where she dresses as a man. He’s already commented that he was surprised that Al Cumberland was so small in stature. If he’s looking for reasons to suspect Nora (which would be reasonable), leaping to the conclusion that she may have passed herself off as her husband years before is permissable, although a bit of a stretch.
The clue I have most trouble with is the Shriners’ Ring. To me, it’s a bit too convenient and feels like it’s given too cheaply to Columbo, rather than being something he earns through his investigations. The jump he makes in using a Shriners’ Ring to draw Nora into making her final, panicked dash home seems, therefore, practically Bob Beamon-esque (Google him, younger readers)!
“There’s much more to the crime than meets the eye, and Nora’s motivations are enjoyably revealed piece by piece.”
Fortunately Gillis’s rich evidential tapestry and well laid-out back story means the whole thing does stack up – even if the conclusion’s not nearly as satisfying as the classic ‘gotchas’ he concocted for Framing and Short Fuse.
It does raise an interesting conundrum, though. If Nora knew about Jean and Jerry’s relationship, and had already opened up to the studio owners about her fraudulent past, why didn’t she just kill Parks? Getting a back-stabbing and salacious curr like Parks out of the way makes much more sense than killing a faithful assistant.
Still, this is entertainment so doesn’t have to be entirely logical, (and indeed would have made for dull viewing) so rest assured that I shan’t be losing too much sleep over this (he writes while wringing his hands as 50th straight hour of wakedness ticks by on the clock).
Onto the cast and by Jove it’s a belter! It’s great to watch Anne Baxter in action. Sure, she’s a bit hammy at times, but nothing compared to what we saw from Honor Blackman in Dagger of the Mind (which was also directed by Richard Quine).
Baxter’s Nora Chandler is somewhat sympathetic, especially when set against the ghastly Jerry Parks. But she never shows contrition for slaying her constant companion for nearly 2 decades. That’s pretty cold, and makes Nora an enigmatic villain. As an actress she’s used to putting on a front. So we must ask: is she as wickedly selfish as her crime would suggest, or is she a tormented soul inside for what she did to poor Jean? We never really get to know Nora, so the viewer must make up their own mind. I kind of like that.
Mel Ferrer excels as Jerry Parks. He’s surely the slimiest co-star we’ve seen since Dale Kingston and his cavalier attitude marks him out as a man who, by the series’ usual standards, deserved to be the victim. His chemistry with Baxter is terrific and theirs is a cracking example of the love-hate but symbiotic relationship between media and megastars: a theme that’s as relevant today as ever.
Like all good Columbo‘s this is an episode where the whole cast earns its keep. Kevin McCarthy’s Frank Simmons nicely contrasts Parks with his noble protection of Nora. The downtrodden Pippa Scott makes for one of the series’ most sympathetic victims (read more here), while Frank Converse’s dishy Fallon gets some choice lines to play with.
“Ferrer and Baxter are terrific and theirs is a cracking example of the love-hate but symbiotic relationship between media and megastars.”
Falk delivers a much more enjoyable performance than we saw in Dagger. He gets plenty of time with Baxter and gets to do his ‘star-struck’ routine in fine style, raising a few smiles along the way. At times he’s adorable, but the steel is there, too. There’s no playing around when he comes to arrest Nora. You can see the glint in his eye. This was a tough case, but you sense he actually enjoyed the test it presented.
As befits the movie lot setting, the cast and crew were able to have a little fun at their own profession. At one point Fallon even tells Columbo: “Avoid actors. They’ll kill ya!” Given Falk’s run-ins with Universal in Season 1, studio execs would’ve been forgiven a wry smile.
Columbo is also on the receiving end of some memorable put downs. “I’d never typecast you as a detective,” Fallon smirks at one point, while Nora gently implies that the scruffy detective ought to spruce himself up a little. “Why don’t you get your wife to take you on a shopping tour for your anniversary?” she asks, looking him up and down. “Take a look at some suits, some shirts, slacks, socks, shoes…”
It’s pretty friendly stuff for the most part, although Simmons clearly sees through Columbo’s veneer. “You have an obsequious manner which some people find ingratiating,” he says. “I do not.” You’ve been told, Lieutenant!
Fitting for an episode graced by Edith Head, the fashions throughout are sublime. Nora Chandler easily ranks amongst Columbo’s most stylish stars, and even the men get in on the act. Parks at one stage sports a neckerchief along with light blue patterned white slacks. Fallon rocks a red-flares/red sweater/brown blazer look. The 70s rarely looked so casually rad.
This is also an episode that upholds my argument that the ‘standard’ Columbo running time of 75 minutes is the show’s ideal length. There’s a lot packed into this episode, but the pacing is perfect. Nothing is rushed and there’s no unnecessary filler. It’s a far cry from the ponderous Dagger of the Mind, that’s for sure.
And yet for all that’s good about this episode, I still can’t shake the feeling that Season 2 hasn’t really caught fire. Requiem is a welcome return to form after the woeful Dagger, but it still rarely threatens to reach the stellar heights hit several times in Season 1.
Did you know?
Requiem for a Falling Star features several in-jokes and nods to All About Eve, the 1950 movie that really put Anne Baxter on the map as the titular Eve. As well as the Edith Head cameo, the similarity of the name ‘Nora Chandler’ to Bette Davis’s ‘Margo Channing’ is no coincidence, while Baxter’s nemesis in both is a newspaper columnist: Jerry Parks here and Addison DeWitt in All About Eve.
How I rate them so far!
Despite the largely positive review, Requiem for a Falling Star is quite hard to rank. Like many mid-tier Columbo episodes it’s full of goodness, but perhaps lacks the blockbuster finale or truly memorable confrontations between Columbo and killer that are the hallmarks of a classic. And that question of why Nora didn’t just kill Parks still niggles. Did I miss something?
While the intricate plot and clever detective work are top-notch, Requiem remains an episode I rarely choose to watch, and I take less pleasure from it than from others of a similar standard. Still, that’s not meant to damn it with faint praise as I’m confident this will end up nearer the pinnacle than the trough once every episode has been reviewed.
Check out my other episode reviews via the links below!
- Suitable for Framing
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- Lady in Waiting
- Prescription: Murder
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- Short Fuse
- Dagger of the Mind
How do you rate Requiem for a Falling Star? Let me know below…
I’ll be back to review A Stitch in Crime, featuring the ice-cold Leonard Nimoy, in a few weeks. I mentioned above that Season 2 has yet to truly catch fire. I have a feeling that may be about to change!
PS – I deliberately spelt ‘skeleton’ wrong earlier this in article before anyone points it out.