To some extent it's hard to believe that this film dates from 1974 wow, over 30 years ago already! - since the picture quality is still quite sharp and vivid, and watching it today, you almost get the sense that time has not passed since its filming. But then of course it's quite apparent that this must have happened in some previous generation: just get a load of Milo Janus's (Robert Conrad) widely flared pants, the phone tape-recording and teleprinter equipment that today would nearly qualify for antique status, not to mention some of the huge Detroit-built cars Also, as another reviewer pointed out, the then "state of the art" gym equipment in Milo Janus's gyms was vastly different from the rather exotic and high tech stuff you'll find nowadays in modern fitness centers.
But I love this episode so much, for several reasons. Firstly, I myself had discovered the wonderful world of weightlifting right about the time period this movie was shot (early 70's) and I really enjoyed the walk down memory lane, seeing the gym with the free-weights and stuff. I also liked the weightlifting "accident" which the perp concocted to cover the murder.
Secondly, this particular episode had much more of an aura of realism about it than other Columbo episodes. There was nothing really far-fetched about the crime neither the motive for it, nor the execution of it, nor Janus's attempts to create a plausible cover-up. I don't know, maybe it was the way Robert Conrad conducted himself so coolly, so Teflon-coated cocky, much like in his battery commercials which some of you may remember from back then ("I dare you to knock it off my shoulder"). But it all seemed so very real.
I've seen this episode several times, and I am always struck at the palpable chemistry between Columbo and Janus: they really truly seem to loathe each other, and the scene in the hospital where Columbo very publicly confronts Janus and accuses him of the crime always seems chillingly believable. You can't help but wonder if the real actors here (Falk and Conrad) actually despised each other off the set?
The final resolution of the case (something to do with the way shoelaces are tied) was a bit extreme, but taken against the greater context in which 'whodunnits' nearly always require at least some sort of clever if not sensationalistic ending, it definitely fit the bill.
Oh, and one other thing: I always love the part where Columbo digs the evidence (in this case, several pairs of old shoes) out of his paper lunch bag. In the process he pulls out a cellophane-wrapped hunk of lord-knows-what, to which he comments, almost as if to himself, "That's just my lunch, that don't mean nothing." Bon appetit, Columbo!
Overall, I really enjoy watching this episode. Both Falk and Conrad play well off one another. But this comment concerns the shoe evidence that trips up (no pun intended) the murderer's alibi. Columbo explains in detail how someone else had tied the victim's shoe laces on his gym shoes. He explains how when right handed people tie their shoes the big loop of the lace ends up over the same toe every time. However, the victim's gym shoe laces show the big loop over the opposite toe; which conflicts with the way his work shoes were tied. Proving that someone killed the victim and then dressed him in his gym clothes and tied the gym shoes from the opposite direction; and by the killer's sworn statement he said the victim told him he had already changed his clothes. This leads Columbo to the conclusion that the killer couldn't have known the victim was in his gym clothes unless he was the one that changed the clothes. Now, as logic goes, that's not a bad supposition. However, in one of the earlier scenes the victim is seen writing with his left hand; which by Columbo's reasoning would conclude that the victim tied his own gym shoes. Seems like all the killer would've had to do was to tell Columbo that bit of news.
The plot is nothing out of the ordinary for Columbo at the top of his game. He unravels Conrad's scheme little by little. But this episode is distinguished by some very good acting on the part of supporting players and it is, arguably, the funniest episode in the series.
In his first two meetings with the murderer, Columbo is required to take vitamin pills for breakfast, drink carrot juice, accompany the egregiously fit Conrad on his morning workout, and cope with a shoe full of sand on Conrad's impeccably clean patio. And he discusses his wife's attempt to lose weight. "She was NEVER thin. I tried to explain. I kind of like 'em with a little (gestures) -- well, that's somethin' else." The comic scene that stands out most in my mind is Columbo's trying to determine the current address of a suspect, Lewis Lacey, through the computer company that once employed him. The computer at the company's office begins to rattle off every datum about Lacey known to man or beast. Columbo tries politely to interrupt -- "What was he a president or somethin'? I mean, all dat stuff --" But the woman behind the desk (beautiful, lissome, professionally competent, and uncredited) only answers him with polite reassurances or ignores him completely. The scene goes on and on. It cracks me up every time. And AFTER this, Columbo tries to call Lacey at his home phone and begins to explain things before he realizes that he's speaking to an answering machine instead of a human being, evidently his first encounter with one of the things. He then explains very slowly, as if the machine might otherwise misinterpret him. "I can be reached at the main department.....The number there is ..... You can look dat up." Collin Wilcox, as the wife of the victim, is superb in a complex role that must combine several mutually contradictory emotions and still express them in a believable manner. She was Mayella Ewell, the fake rape victim in "To Kill A Mockingbird." She resembles Maura Tierney.
You could drive a Prime Mover through the plot holes, but that's always the case. A strenuous effort to suspend disbelief is just part of the price you pay for watching what is one of Columbo's best episodes.
This is a good episode with only one bad scene: the one where Columbo waits for a snippy secretary—or rather the supercomputer she operates—to provide him with a simple bit of information. His endless wait is the point of the gag, but it's not funny and seems to exist only to pad the running time. Otherwise we have a good villain in Conrad, a man in his late 30s playing a man in his early 50s who looks like a man in his late 30s. The supporting cast is typically good. I especially liked Corbett as the sexy secretary (not the snippy one) who is amused then bemused by our crafty lieutenant; and Collin Wilcox as the inebriated wife of the victim. Both give performances that are rich and varied beyond the call of duty.
The best moment: Columbo drops the pretense and loses his temper with his suspect. Before this point in the series, he had done this only in "Prescription: Murder" and "A Stitch in Crime." Its rarity makes it all the more delicious.
I don't know if I really buy Columbo's damning bit of evidence at the end; but it's so amusing that I can't criticize it. I especially like how a brief moment between a mother and her small child inspires him to look for it. In any case, few "Columbo" fans will find this entry wanting.
My trouble is how Columbo eventually "proves" that Milo Janus was in the gym with the victim, simply because the gym was locked, nobody was supposed to be there and that Milo Janus is the only one to "know" that the soon-to-be victim was wearing gym clothes.
Had they not spoken over the phone, and had the victim not told Milo Janus that he would be working out? So why is it such a surprise that Milo Janus would know about how he was dressed? Isn't it obvious that when a man works out, he has to wear his gym clothes?
Please help me on that! Thanks!
PS : I was also puzzled why Columbo doesn't simply check the phone records to prove the victim had never called Milo Janus the night of the murder. Too bad the script focuses on tiny details and misses the obvious one!
A quick check at the telephone company (he often does that in many other episodes) would have proved that the call was a fake one, no need to check for the way the laces are tied (one user noticed that the victim is left handed, if that's right there's a goof here anyway)
Anyway, very enjoyable, to be watched again and again. One of the rare episodes where Columbo does not try to trap the suspect, and a very "life-like" murder. No guns, elaborate poisons, heat blankets ...
As with many TV film series (such as Perry Mason), if you like one or two of them then you'll pretty much like them all. This entry in the Columbo series pretty much follows the usual formula we know the killer and the "perfect" plan but then watch Columbo follow his hunch and gradually starts to pick holes in the story he is told before eventually finding enough to prove his suspicions. Saying this is not a spoiler it is simply what happens in all the films. Here we have quite a clever crime and one that is difficult to pick at even frustrating Columbo at one point due to his inability to fully crack it open. However this aspect didn't build quite as well as I had hoped. Columbo's frustration comes about through lack of progress and this means a lack of development during the film for the audience with the clues not being quite as compelling as usual. In fairness though I think this is a harsh judgement and, while watching it I did enjoy it and get into it, the problem came with the conclusion where Columbo traps his suspect. Unlike other films where it all comes together beautifully, I felt that this film lacked a real sense of logic and strength myself and my girlfriend both went "huh?" when the final piece fell into the puzzle.
What the film did very well was the comedy and I was surprised how comic and funny the whole thing was. A big part of this was down to a great performance from Falk; normally he is good but here he is great. He plays it with real zeal and has great comic touches throughout; however even more interesting was how he did play the frustrated side of Columbo out in the open not a side the series showed very often. Conrad is OK and does bristle against Columbo well but I did wonder if they couldn't get Lee Majors considering how alike they looked to me. As is usually the case, outside of the lead two, the support cast don't really make an impression but Conrad and Falk were both interesting enough to carry the film.
Overall this is a good Columbo film but it is rather spoilt by an ending that made me doubt the logic of what had gone before. The material throws up comedy and reasonably good development of the case but the conclusion was hard to get past. Conrad is good but the film does belong to Falk who gives an excellent performance in terms of bringing out frustration as well as delivering tonnes of nicely comic touches throughout.
But, I liked this one anyway...it was somewhat different in that the victim actually puts up a little bit of a fight in the beginning and the murderer has to chase him down -- unusual for a Columbo. Also, as noted in many entries above, Columbo actually loses his cool with the murderer and they have a heated exchange in the hospital. Columbo REALLY didn't like this guy...it's implied he gets so mad at him because he was fond of the murder victim's widow and was p.o.'d that Robert Conrad's behavior had driven her to overdose.
Like a lot of the Columbo's, however, the abrupt ending leaves you feeling unsatisfied somehow...Columbo lowers the boom and then the scene freezes and the credits roll...Robert Conrad's character was so cocky and arrogant you want something MORE...you wanna see him pee his pants or something once he realizes the gig is up.
The script gets a little immersed in various secondary characters around the half-way mark and the episode could easily have been condensed. Nevertheless, the murder/made-to-look-like an accident scenario is excellent, the increasingly bitter relationship between Columbo and Janus (the hospital scene where Columbo chastises Janus is unique) is well-portrayed and there is some really good conversational waffle from Columbo.
The ending has provoked much debate for years; for me the actual reasoning is fine, but the script-writer stretches credibility in the way it is triggered in Columbo's mind.
A neat little Columbo, scripted by Peter S. Fischer from a great story by Larry Cohen, which manages to be both a clever murder plot and an impishly satirical swipe at West Coast lifestyles of the time - health and diet fads, phone-taping, electronic records. Conrad is good as the sleazy fitness guru forcing his clients to buy overpriced equipment and Corbett is terrific as the sympathetic lush of a widow. As usual though, Falk is just sensational, both as a hard-edged, peerless investigator and a hapless old-fashioned Joe. Don't miss the sequence with the state-of-the-art teleprinter.
The opening part of the story is very well handled with a good depiction of the business workings of a gym circa 1974. The murder is sudden, sweaty, and unexpected, and the way in which it's made to look like an accident is very clever. The subsequent investigation is well paced and always entertaining, with a particular emphasis on 'fish out of water' humour as Columbo gets involved in the fitness scene and even goes for a couple of jogs. The lengthy interlude in which he tries to get information from an uptight secretary is a real highlight. In addition, both Philip Bruns and Gretchen Corbett are very good in their minor roles. There's nothing to dislike about AN EXERCISE IN FATALITY - apart from perhaps the murderer himself!
I'm surprised at how many previous posters seem to misunderstand Columbo's deduction of the clues in this one and to feel parts were unnecessary. The clues might be a bit incredible -- they always are to some degree or another -- but the conclusion that they point to is legitimate circumstantial evidence to conclude Conrad is guilty.
Robert Conrad (RC) heads a fitness center chain, and kills one of his franchise owners who is about to expose RC's unethical business practices. After hours, Conrad goes to that man's gym, chases after him which causes the man's dress shoes to scuff the floor, strangles him, dresses the dead man in gym clothes, and stages a fake death scene showing the man died by a barbell crushing his neck while working out alone. Conrad tapes all his calls, so he then rushes to a party at his house where - conveniently since he has 2 phone lines there -- calls his own house from a back room.
RC's secretary answers the phone and hears a tape playing the dead man's voice ask for RC. RC emerges from the back room to take the phone from the secretary and pretends to talk to the dead man. He then notes aloud to everyone at the party that the dead man is in gym clothes and about to work out. (THIS is the part which bothers people since it is unnecessary rope to hang himself with, but RC wants to make an impression on people about the slob really getting into working out so they will remember the details to be better alibi witnesses.)
Anyway, Columbo notices and is bothered by things per usual that by themselves are not conclusive but paint a picture: --- RC has burns on his hand --- the scuff marks on floor --- the dead man's dress shoes were found still tied as if they were pulled off his feet --- RC's phone lights not working --- RC's alibi weakening when the car dealer he claimed was closed was open --- and the dead man's wife's confrontation with RC over information a private detective/accountant had found, exposing a motive.
Based on those, Colombo zeroes in on RC, gets a warrant to show how parts of the tapes were used to create the illusion to the secretary, and proves the dead man did not tie the gym shoes he was found wearing since their loops don't match his loops he made on his dress shoes, thus proving a murder took place. So now RC is boxed in.
A) RC can say someone else cut the tapes to fool the secretary, but then why did RC keep up the conversation beyond that if he wasn't the murderer?
B) RC can say another man murdered the franchise owner and tied his shoes, but then how can RC explain the fact that the owner supposedly told RC that he was already dressed for the gym when calling.
Now, of course this deduction is not foolproof. A good defense attorney can still raise reasonable doubt. Perhaps the dead man tied his own gym shoes when they were off his feet and liked to slip them on and off. Or perhaps when he was murdered in his gym clothes by someone other than RC after calling RC, his gym shoes fell off during the struggle so the other murderer put them back on him. And we don't see RC confess in this one at the end like we normally do from other Columbo killers, fwiw.
MY TAKE -- as many have mentioned, the HUGE PLOT HOLE is that for some reason Columbo hasn't yet checked the dead man's phone records to prove that he called RC (which he didn't, of course). So my fan-fiction post script to this episode is that Columbo has used all this circumstantial evidence to put the final nail in the case by getting the phone records to prove RC was lying all along.
One of the franchise owners gets wise & is going to blow the whistle until Janus (this was the name of Conrads Twin in a Dr Loveless episode on Wild Wild West during season 1) chokes him, crushing his wind pipe & then clumsily tries to make it look like an accident. Columbo is not amused.
This is not one of the most clever episodes as Janus leaves extremely obvious clues to what he did. There is a major flaw- when the murder occurs the victim & Janus go screeching onto a freshly waxed gym floor. For some reason, even though both men are on the floor wearing shoes, only the victims brown scuffs are there to Colombo to puzzle about. It is strange the murderer didn't leave any as he has shoes on too.
What really isn't too bright is Janus trying to choke a victim with a pot of hot coffee in his hand. Colombo catches those burns real quick. Still, Falk going through the motions here is better because of Conrad playing his role well.
Setting up a scenario where he covers his tracks and provides himself with a perfect alibi Janus first comes to Stafford's gym when he's along at night checking the books and making a case against Janus. After trying to strangle a surprised and terrified Satfford Janus chases him all over the place finally cornering him and killing Stafford by breaking his windpipe with a steel bar. Changing the now dead Stafford into his Gym clothes Janus places him in the gym with a 180 pound bar bell hanging by his neck making it look like it slipped and crushed him to death.
Janus feeling that he's now got everything under control is in for a big and unpleasant surprise when Lt. Columbo is put on the case. In no time at all Lt. Columbo sees that all is not right in Stafford's accidental death. In fact Cloumbo is positive that it was cold blooded murder and it was Janus who was the person who murdered him.
Not as bumbling as he usual is Columbo got right on Janus' back and never left up. With Columbos constant harassment of the man going on almost unabated I thought for a moment that the powerfully built hot tempered and dangerous muscle man would grab the out of shape and unarmed Columbo and ring his neck. Thus ending the Columbo series, by killing it's star, almost as soon as it began!
Putting all the pieces together Columbo sees how Janus staged a phone-call that Stafford supposedly made to his house, when Janus was throwing a party, when he was already dead. The idea hit Cloumbo when he made a call to a Lewis Lacey, Darrell Zwerling, who was working for Stafford in getting evidence against Janus and was left hanging listening to his prerecorded voice recording. This in the early 1970's when telephone voice-recordings weren't that commonplace.
Columbo really got hot under the collar after launching a blistering verbal attack on the suspected murderer where he almost got his head bashed in by a "this is all the abuse I'm gonna take from you" Janus. This happened in the hospital after Stafford's estranged wife Ruth,Collins Wilcox Paxton, ended up being admitted, or a drug overdose, to after having a confrontation with Janus, and pouring a glass of water in his face, the night before at a local restaurant. Ruth was upset about how he was bilking her late husband out of his money, by forcing him to buy his cheap and overpriced products.
The thing that got Janus trapped was the very thing that he thought would exonerate him of Stafford's murder the phone call. That he got from Stafford in full view of his secretary Jessica Conroy, Gretchen Corbett, at the party that he threw the evening of Stafford's murder. The shoe lace scenario that Columbo wasted so much time explaining to both Janus and the audience was ridicules and would have never, like Janus told him, stand up in court or even have Janus indited by a grand jury. It was the fact that Janus himself said, and swore out in writing, that he somehow knew that Satfford was in his gym and working out in his gym clothes at the time of his death before that fact became known.
This showed that he must have been there and murdered Stafford since all the evidence proved that Stafford was working late at his office and not working out at his gym! Stafford was undoubtedly dressed in his gym clothes by the person who murdered him and that person could have only been Milo Janus who knew that fact, and even swore to it, before anyone else did!
Where this episode falls flat, however, is when Columbo snares his trap around Janus. As I noted under the "Plot Holes" section, here's the problem:
1. When Columbo first interviews Janus, Janus tells Columbo that he (Janus) talked to Stafford (the victim) the previous evening, during which time Stafford told Janus that he had already changed into his gym clothes, was going to work out for about 30 minutes, and go home.
2. When Columbo confronts Janus at the end of the episode, he "traps" Janus by asking him, "How would you know that Stafford had changed into his gym clothes unless you changed his clothes" (meaning, after his death, to make the murder appear to be an accident)?
3. Columbo then refers to Janus' sworn statement, in which Janus simply says "he (Stafford) had already changed into his gym clothes," as if to prove his (Columbo's) point.
4. All Janus would have to have said is this: "Stafford told me on the phone that he had already changed his clothes." That's exactly what Janus told Columbo during their first meeting (see Note 1). Thus Janus knew Stafford changed clothes because Stafford TOLD him.
Granted, the phone call never took place, because Stafford was already dead by the time that he supposedly called Janus (at home), but Columbo would have no way of proving it, since the call wasn't recorded and (apparently) Columbo didn't consult the phone company to verify the call. (Which, as others have said, he could easily have done.)
The whole business about the opposite shoe tying only proves that SOMEONE killed Stafford and changed his clothes, not that Janus did.
That, in my opinion, fatally flaws this Columbo episode.
However the shoelace trick at the end was complicated and not conclusive, legally speaking.
What would have sealed it for Janus, and pretty obvious, would have been the phone records.
I suppose the writers also felt that was too obvious and wouldn't showcase Columbo's brilliant instincts and deduction, but it would have been more cut and dried in court.
But early in the episode, when he first meets Columbo and learns of the death of the victim, he specifically says to him that Stafford, the victim, had talked to him on the night of his death from the gym, and told him that he had changed into his gym clothes and was about to work out.
So, Janus could argue in court that the victim had told him on the phone that he had changed into his gym clothes, and nobody could disprove that since nobody else heard the conversation, and the victim is dead and cannot dispute that fact.
So, even though Janus had good reasons to kill the victim, and that Columbo has figured out exactly how he did it, it's all only circumstantial evidence against him, and nothing more. Janus is right when he says that the only thing Columbo has proved is that someone else was at the gym with the victim when he was killed, but it could have been anybody.
It is perhaps ironic that Conrad, who was in his mid-40's at the time, played a 50 something health fitness guru in amazing shape who chided Columbo for his smoking habits, when in fact Conrad was himself a smoker whose health later in life did not at all bear a resemblance to the character he played in this episode. I remember seeing him in an interview in perhaps the 90s.... his voice was shot and he looked quite frail. You just never know what life has in store, and what (bad) habits you can and can't get away with.
The second note for this episode is that it exemplifies the great musical score that seemed to be tuned on a per-episode basis. For example, there is an epiphany for Columbo when he notices a mother tying her little boys shoes in the hospital. It is the singular moment when the detective ties it all together (no pun), and if you notice, the score reflects that moment with a few chiming sounds... like when a light bulb goes on over your head. Brilliant musical direction that is so rare in a TV series.
Finally notice must be paid to the fetching Gretchen Corbett who plays the sexy secretary. Fans of The Rockford Files are quite familiar with this beautiful actress who acts as good as good as she looks. There is an extended scene with Gretchen in a very small bikini. She really looks great, and quite comfortable showing off acres of skin. Was she really at ease in front of the lights and camera and all those people, or is it just her great acting ability at work? Gretchen, please tell us. After all, you're still around. :>