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Recap / Columbo S 00 E 02

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Episode: Pilot Movie
Title:"Ransom for a Dead Man"
Directed by: Richard Irving
Written by: Levinson and Link
Air Date: March 1, 1971
Previous: Prescription: Murder
Next: Murder by the Book
Guest Starring: Lee Grant, John Fink, Harold Gould, Patricia Mattick
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The second Pilot Movie for Columbo, airing a full three years after 1968's "Prescription: Murder".

Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) is a hot shot attorney with an older husband that she doesn't particularly want to be attached to anymore. In the opening scene—something that would become standard Columbo formula—she shoots her husband Paul dead just as he gets home from the airport. She wraps up his body and tosses it into the ocean. Then she concocts an elaborate plot to make it appear that he is still alive, using clips from a recording to fake an answering machine message and mailing ransom notes to herself to trick the authorities into believing that her husband has been kidnapped.

The FBI, called in for the federal crime of kidnapping, believes it. But two people don't. One is Paul's daughter Margaret, who loathes her stepmother and soon figures out there was no kidnapping. The other: Lt. Columbo of the LAPD.

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Written by Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link. In this film the character of Columbo and the formula of the series start to come into focus—the rumpled raincoat, the tousled hair, the deferential manner, the endless stories about his wife and family. The popularity of this movie led NBC to pick Columbo up as a regular series, starting in September of 1971, as part of the "wheel" series The NBC Mystery Movie.


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Tropes:

  • Batman Gambit: How Columbo catches Leslie. He works with Margaret to maneuver her into a spot where she thinks she can get Margaret out of her hair by buying her off. And since she isn't liquid at the moment, having had to raise money for the fake ransom, Leslie uses the ransom money for Margaret's Briefcase Full of Money bribe. And the ransom money is in marked bills.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Margaret is sulky and hostile. And even thought she has every reason to be, somehow she's still annoying.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Actually a leather bag full of money, the ransom money that is never collected because there are no kidnappers. It does eventually find its way into a briefcase, though, which is how Leslie is caught.
  • Cut-and-Paste Note: Part of Leslie's plot involves mailing herself the stereotypical newspaper ransom note, to convince the FBI that her husband has been kidnapped.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Much less present here than in Prescription: Murder; this Columbo is a lot closer to the classic character. But the fancy camera work—zooms, match cuts, etc—are the mark of a TV movie with a higher budget.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: This is what brings down Leslie. Being The Sociopath herself, it doesn't occur to her to question whether a man's daughter would actually be willing to forget about his murder in exchange for a payoff.
  • Hitler Cam: Multiple shots of Leslie from what would be Paul's point-of-view if he wasn't dead, as she disposes of the body.
  • The Ken Burns Effect: Seen a couple of times in the murder sequence as the camera zooms in on still frames of Paul.
  • Match Cut:
    • From Leslie throwing a tarp over her husband's corpse to Leslie closing the trunk of the car she dumped him into.
    • Another showy camera cut matches Leslie's cold, hard eyes with the headlights of Paul's car.
  • Phoney Call: Twice.
    • Leslie has a friend call her to remind her about a tennis date. She keeps talking after the friend hangs up, and tells the people in the room that it's the kidnappers.
    • Then she uses an audio recording of her husband she cobbled together from different tapes. She rigs up her fancy automated phone gizmo, which must have appeared very advanced in 1971, to call her when she's with the FBI agents, to make it seem as if Paul is still alive and delivering the ransom message.
  • Quote Mine: Leslie clips together different audio recordings to simulate a phone call from Paul telling Leslie that the kidnappers want $300,000.
  • Shout-Out: Margaret watches Double Indemnity—a movie about a woman who murders her husband and then strives to conceal the crime from her stepdaughter—on TV.
  • Social Climber: Leslie married her husband for his money and also for his social standing to advance her career. When he was no longer useful to her she killed him.
  • The Sociopath: Leslie is just one of many sociopathic murderers that Columbo has to deal with. As he tells her when explaining how she was caught, "You got no conscience."
  • Staggered Zoom: Onto the face of poor Paul as Leslie levels a gun at him. What follows is a very arty sequence with freeze frames and zooms as Paul falls dead to the floor.
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