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"Columbo" A Trace of Murder (1997)

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13 out of 14 people found the following review useful:

The good, the bad and the ugly

Author: Bschorr from Honolulu, HI
17 November 2004

Overall this is a pretty good Columbo, in my opinion, though it does have some glaring weaknesses.

Barry Corbin is very good as the loud husband who gets framed by Shera Danese. Danese turns in her usual performance; she's lovely and interesting but seems to play essentially the same character in every episode.

The criminologist "bad guy" does a pretty sloppy job for a supposed expert -- that may be the biggest plot weakness; it's hard to believe he was that dumb. A long way from CSI.

The other weakness is the ending - the twist is good enough, I suppose, but the scene in which he reveals it is contrived and overplayed.

All in all, a good story. If they'd redone the ending and let the villain be a little more clever it would have been a great one. As it is, it's just good.


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8 out of 8 people found the following review useful:

Slightly changes the formula just enough to make it feel different without losing touch with what has made Columbo successful down the years

Author: bob the moo from United Kingdom
2 April 2006

Cathleen Calvert wants to leave her millionaire husband Clifford and set up with lover Patrick Kinsley. However a water-tight prenuptial agreement means that divorce will leave her with nothing. Killing him is deemed far too risky and obvious a crime but if only they could get him out of the way without losing access to his wealth. Luckily for them, Clifford is being threatened with a major lawsuit from accountant Howard Seltzer and Cathleen decides that the easiest thing to do would be to murder Seltzer and frame Clifford. The deed is easy and it looks like an open and shut case given how much evidence is available (thanks to the knowledge Kingsley has as a member of the police forensics team). Problem is, for Lt. Columbo, it just doesn't ring true and he just keeps digging.

With the long running Columbo formula it is tempting to try and change it and "new" Columbo films have occasionally fallen into the trap of ditching the formula and trying something new – it rarely worked. However with this film the writers have successfully varied the formula while still retaining enough of it to avoid losing the elements of the series that make it so successful. It is a bit of a problem that the plot is built on a lot of coincidences and illogical risks but generally the film manages to keep things working so that I just accepted the events. Having said that, it didn't ring true that Kinsley, having left enough forensic evidence to frame the pope, would feel he has to get more involved in the case. Such things aside though the film is an engaging mystery that is fun to watch because we get to see Columbo at work, going after his main suspect as per formula but also having more out there to engage his mind and take him in a different direction. It is a nice touch and, like I said, it allows the film to do what the series normally do while also doing things differently.

Falk works with this well and embraces the chance to show his character working internally with the slightest little clues. He delivers some nice comic touches throughout and, as usual, seems totally comfortable within his own skin. The casting of the two male supports is good. Corbin is a solid presence and he provides the tension with Columbo while Rasche provides the "I'll help you solve this" element of the formula – so together they provide the usual stuff but the fact that it is split makes it more interesting. Danese is less convincing but the film doesn't put too much on her. There isn't much support to speak of and generally the main three male actors do well to carry it with good performances.

Overall then a pretty enjoyable Columbo film. Although the change in formula comes with illogical devices and unlikely setups it does generally work and it presents the formula while also changing it. As many of the new Columbo films show, changing the formula is a risky business but here it pulls it off.

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6 out of 6 people found the following review useful:

A trace of quality indicative of the original series

Author: The Welsh Raging Bull ( from Port Talbot, South Wales, UK
2 January 2003

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

A 1997 Columbo episode which was made to celebrate 25 years of the detective on television. The plot centres around a woman who conspires with her lover (who just happens to be part of the police forensics team that eventually survey the murder scene) to frame her rich husband for the murder of his business partner who was suing him.

Since Columbo's return to the small screen in 1988, the series has been very hit-and-miss: there have been some episodes which have upheld the decision to bring Columbo back, whilst others merely aggravate and dismay loyal fans of the series with thoughtless and badly conceived changes to the formula.

This particular episode has a strong plot which is executed with the conviction it deserves, but I'm at pains to explain the logic behind putting cat hairs from the murder scene on the back of the person's suit to incriminate him - in a murder scenario, how would they get there; perhaps on a sleeve or on a part of the trousers, but on the back of the suit??

Nevertheless, there are clever aspects to this story: the gradual dismantling of the "frame" with a vital clue and how Columbo initially deduces that the wife and the police forensics expert know each other.

Yes, the episode is haunted with a little predictability: the wedding photos do indicate precisely when the husband acquired cat hair on the back of his suit and yes, they could have trimmed down the last half hour of the movie: it suffers from distinct protractedness because the murderers' plot has all but failed after nearly an hour and the final scene which sees Columbo re-enact how he discovered that the wife and the forensics expert actually knew each other is totally unnecessary and badly staged.

There are some good performances in evidence too: Peter Falk's real-life wife, Shera Danese (who plays the wife who frames her husband) acts well here and here scenes with Columbo are better than you might expect. Also, Barry Corbin as the framed husband perfectly conveys his character's business-like volatility.

Overall, this a distinct "breath of fresh air" for a series which was undeniably ailing with some of its past inferior, badly judged scripts.

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4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:

Not bad, but the ending drags

Author: bregund from San Francisco
26 December 2002

Let me say this right off the bat: the two worst actresses in the world are Kate Capshaw and Shera Danese. Watching Danese's misplaced facial expressions, hammy acting, arm waving, and screechy voice sucks all the fun out of this Columbo film. She does absolutely nothing good with the plum role she's given. Bad director or bad acting? I tend to believe the latter.

Danese's acting aside, this is a pretty enjoyable Columbo film, well-paced and fairly involved. The joy of watching Columbo is wondering if he already knows who the killer is; in the 1970s films, you could never tell, and that was part of the fun. That sense of enigma is lost in these later films, especially in this one, where he doesn't realize it until well into the film. No matter what else he does, this is Peter Falk's signature role, and he has been a lucky actor for not getting typecast, given his variety of roles over the years.

All in all, I recommend this film as a worthy contributor to the Columbo legacy.

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5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:

One of the best

Author: Ethan J. Muse ( from Gilbertown, Alabama
2 January 2005

I've read lots of comments about this movie, both good and bad, and I must say that I think it is one of the best of the newer Columbo movies. This was actually the first time I'd seen him stumped for the majority of the movie, and it wasn't until shortly before the end that he actually figured it out. Although I love Columbo, the main reason I decided to watch this one was because I loved David Rasche in Sledge Hammer (please make more of those). However, the plot for this one kept me riveted to the couch and not wanting to move. Possibly not as good as many of the classics from the 70s, but definitely better than most of the newer episodes I've seen. Watch it if you get a chance.

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4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:

Barry Corbin As a Bad Guy Who Is An Innocent Chump

Author: theowinthrop from United States
21 June 2008

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

It is generally said (and I feel unfairly) that all of the Columbo episodes that were made from the late 1980s to the last few years were inferior to the earlier ones. The Levinson - Link formula for the Lieutenant was maintained in these later episodes, but (unless one likes to totally repeat oneself) new tricks were done in the plots. In one concerning a modern painter with a "Matisse" style reputation, as Peter Falk talked to the artist the camera changed into perspective mirroring the artist's style of painting. I happened to think that was rather clever.

Nothing so complicated here. Instead it was the biggest threat to Columbo's investigation from the police side of it since Richard Kiley (in an early episode) played the Police Commissioner who murdered his wife. Here the villain is David Rasche (a good choice - he and Dabney Coleman had to wait for these late episodes to finally rise or fall to the occasion as guest villain). Rasch is a pathologist with the L.A. Police who has been romancing Shera Denese (Mrs. Falk in real life), who is married to Barry Corbin, a multi-millionaire scoundrel.

It is Corbin that makes me enjoy this episode. It is like the negative side of his go-getting military millionaire Maurice Minnifield in NORTHERN EXPOSURE. But Maurice, for all his flaws, was a decent fellow, and Alaska is the last frontier (in many respects) for American capitalism. He was a booster of the state. Not so Corbin's "Clifford Calvert". He is a financial success, but in the tradition of Jay Gould or Charles Ponzi or Charles Keating. Gordon Gecko would have approved of him. He has swindled his way to a grand life style, and has been clever enough to make it nearly foolproof. In fact he is so rich that he can let everything hang out - not only his stout belly, but his real enjoyment of the good life.

There are only two things that threaten this vulgarian. Franklin Cover is one of the suckers who fell for Corbin's schemes, and has brought a shareholders suit. To Corbin this is an annoyance (he knows Cover and the two never have gotten along). The other thing is that his trophy wife loathes him, and wants out of the marriage. But Corbin was as smart with her as he was with stockholders - she had to sign a prenuptial agreement that leaves her nothing if she leaves or divorces him. But if he is (shall we say) put out of the way by the State of California with a life sentence for murder, well she can then enjoy his millions without him.

Rasche is the perfect match for Denese. He knows how to plant the right clues to catch Corbin. Together they murder Cover, and then frame the hapless swindler for the killing. It is one of the few times a scoundrel is made sympathetic by worse scoundrels.

Enter our favorite methodical Lieutenant. He sees the forensic reports and has seen the homicide scenes. He has also met Rasche (he has to, as the man is the head forensics at the scene of the crime), Corbin, and Denese. Yeah, it looks like a good case against Corbin, but he insists he was at a big dinner party too far from the scene of the crime to have committed it.

I won't spoil the fun about how Columbo saves the skin of the swindler. It's a matter of etiquette in the end. But the best is how Corbin while talking to Columbo learns they share a taste for cigars...and lectures him on the only civilized way of smoking a fine cigar. At the end a grateful Corbin gives a gift to Columbo on this point - with dubious results for the Lieutenant.

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4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:


Author: BSandor ( from Hungary
9 January 2001

This Columbo-episode must be one of the best ever. The plot is simple: Mrs. Cathleen Calvert (played by Shera Danese, Peter Falk's real-time wife!) has a rich husband, Clifford (played by Barry Corbin), but she has also a lover, Patrick Kinsley (played by David Rasche). To get rid of her husband, Cathleen figures out a great plan: they make him responsible for a murder. All evidence leads Columbo to him. Will Clifford ever be free or was the plan perfect? Watch the movie to figure it out!

I loved the plot: it was interesting. It was fun to watch Barry Corbin as Clifford, his character was funny. Shera Danese again in a Columbo-movie, but this is good: she can act, whatever character is needed. Peter Falk as Columbo is perfect as always.

I can recommend this movie for everybody looking for a good mystery.

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2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:

A lesser story, but one with tons of charm

Author: Leofwine_draca from United Kingdom
15 July 2015

A TRACE OF MURDER is one of the last of the Columbo series, and its odd to see the detective as a much older, weather-beaten character. He still seems to be in good shape though, and Peter Falk is certainly on very good form in what turns out to be a distinctly average mystery.

The guest star this time around is Shera Danese, Falk's real-life wife. She conspires with her lover to frame her domineering husband for murder, to get him sent to prison so she can get her hands on his fortune. To complicate matters further, her lover is a forensic expert who ends up working as Columbo's assistant on the case. How long before the wily detective sees through the charade?

A TRACE OF MURDER seems to have been hastily written as the mystery isn't up too much. The bit at the end where Columbo grabs a random couple of restaurant workers to explain the intricacies of the plot is an example of writing at its most threadbare. Even so, this is still a charming story and there's plenty of humour which works really well. I love the scene where Falk is flabbergasted after a sudden realisation, and the "three eyes are better than one" gag is top notch. This is still a Columbo well worth watching if only for the character. Barry Corbin is also great fun as the short-tempered husband.

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2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:

One of the more watchable later episodes

Author: TheLittleSongbird from United Kingdom
10 April 2012

By all means A Trace of Murder is not quite one of the best of the later episodes, but it is a more than watchable and worthy one. I wasn't too crazy about the ending though, I liked the twist, but the reveal itself too too dragged-out and contrived for my liking. Still, it is like all the Columbos a well made episode, with a score that fits well with the atmosphere and tension. The writing also convinces, especially in the pleasingly subtle comedy, and the story is diverting with a good mix of tense, charming and humorous scenes. Peter Falk is still excellent as Columbo, was there anything this man could not do, and while Shera Danese is solid in her most interesting role of the series I found Barry Corbin as the volatile framed husband even better. All in all, very watchable, and while not one of the best A Trace of Murder is a worthy episode still. 8/10 Bethany Cox

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2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:

Three eyes are better than one!

Author: Boba_Fett1138 from Groningen, The Netherlands
17 November 2008

I liked watching this Columbo movie. It follows the usual formula but has a story with some twists to it, in which 2 lovers are trying to frame the wife's husband for a murder in order to get the husband out of the way. The man and murderer also happens to work for the police as a forensics expert and therefore starts to work directly with Lt. Columbo on the case. At first he really seriously doesn't suspect him (which is almost un-Columbo like) and it isn't until halve way through that the good old lieutenant starts to figure out the truth.

It's a nice concept, that is also rather well written, though the movie gets a bit weaker as the movie progresses and it starts to drag a bit with its concept. Also the seemingly 'perfect' plan seems actually more and more stupendous and not thought out well enough. It has too many holes and clues in it for Lt. Columbo to figure that something fishy is going on here. So even though it's well written and original within its usual framework, it just isn't the most watertight script, plot-wise.

What also mostly makes this movie such a fine and fun Columbo movie to watch is its nice comedy. There some real fine and subtle comedy within this movie, which made me enjoy this movie even more than the usual average Columbo movie entry.

It was the last movie Vincent McEveety directed for the Columbo series. He directed a total of 7 Columbo movies in the '90's. All of them are special Columbo movie entries in their own way and they are each original. I think this is why he got asked so many times back to direct another Columbo movie. No, not all of his Columbo movies work out but at least you can always say that it's different than usual, which already is a big thing for a Columbo movie. Fore lets face it, in essence every Columbo movie is of course the same.

The cast was also good. Normally the later Columbo movies don't have a too good or impressive cast but in this movie all actors do a good job. Even though the movie doesn't feature the biggest names in the business this really doesn't harm this Columbo entry in the way it had harmed some of the other later Columbo movies. Even Shera Danese is good in this one. Danese at the time (and still is) married to Peter Falk, which had landed her some roles in more than a few Columbo movies. Normally she isn't much good but in this movie she plays her role simply well.

A Columbo movie I simply enjoyed watching, despite its plot flaws and problems.


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