Columbo this time tries to tackle a murderer who has one of the highest IQs in the world. The victim is a business partner who threatened to expose the killer for stealing money from his clients. The murderer uses all his intelligence to plan the perfect murder. Written by
Maarten Hofman <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Most of the critiques of this movie find this Columbo episode to be sorely lacking in comparison to other Columbo movies like "Murder By The Book" or "Suitable for Framing." But not every Columbo movie has to be a suspenseful battle of wits. To my observation, there are two types of Columbo plots: The Battle of Wits and The Character Study. The Battle of Wits, of course, is where Columbo takes on a wily, arrogant opponent who practically dares Columbo to catch him or her. The Character Study is an engaging examination of the person driven to commit murder.
The arrogant murderers are usually played by actors like Jack Cassidy, Leonard Nimoy or Robert Culp, and we usually don't like them. We cheer when Columbo finally nabs them. However, the murderers portrayed in the Character Study plots are usually far more sympathetic, and are sometimes the last people you would suspect of homicide i.e. a charming, elderly mystery novelist, a meek wine connoiseur, a folksy gospel singer, etc.
Oliver Brandt would seem to fall into the first category. Belonging to a club for intellectuals, Brandt seems aloof, arrogant, and secure in his place in the community as a genius. But it's all a sham. His need to belong is what dooms him. His marriage to a beautiful, vivacious woman is fraught with peril as her constant spending has led to him committing acts of embezzlement and a murder to cover it up. And despite his membership to an elite club of intellectuals, he has no particular empathy for them. For all his apparent success, Oliver Brandt is a lonely man who's in over his head.
Brandt also relies too heavily on brainteasers and puzzles. While his murder plot dupes even his fellow intelligentsia, his nerve begins to fail him when he realizes that the rumpled and seemingly preoccupied detective is just as smart as he is. Theodore Bikel plays this character to perfection, showing the genius who enjoys creating and solving puzzles, and then peeling back the layers to show the tortured man within.
Another highlight of this movie is learning more about Columbo's background. "All my life I kept running into smart people," he says to Brandt in the final act, "I don't mean smart like you or the rest of the people in this house. You know what I mean." He means, of course, his struggle to succeed despite the prejudices he encountered based on his background. Though Columbo is a genius in his own right, he is constantly dismissed as unworthy. We discover that it's his work ethic that sees him through. And he learns to use people's tendency to underestimate him to his advantage.
It is perhaps, because of Columbo's outsider status, that Brandt warms to him as a kindred spirit. He replies to Columbo towards the end, "I was an imitation adult, because that's what was expected of me. Most people don't like smart people. Most children despise smart children. So, early on, I had to hide my so-called gift...painful, lonely years."
When Columbo finally does nab him, it comes as a relief. For me, this is one of the best Columbo episodes. Not because of the murder plot, or the way Columbo catches him, but because of how much we learn about the characters, and how we connect with them.
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