Directed by: Bernard L. Kowalski
Written by: David P. Lewis and Booker T. Bradshaw
Air Date: March 2, 1975
Previous: Troubled Waters
Next: A Deadly State of Mind
Guest Starring: Oskar Werner, Gena Rowlands, Martha Scott
"Playback" is the fifth episode of the fourth season of Columbo.
Harold Van Wyck (Oskar Werner) is the chief executive of his in-laws' family business, Midas Electronics. His paraplegic wife Elizabeth (Gena Rowlands) adores him, but his mother-in-law Margaret Meadis (Martha Scott) hates his guts. Margaret is angry about Harold's investment in experimental high-end technologies, which she believes are hurting the company's profit margin. She also has found out that Harold has been cheating on Elizabeth. She also is plainly quite mean, and simply cannot stand her son-in-law.
All of those factors lead to Margaret demanding that Harold resign as head of the company. She gives him an ultimatum and says that if he doesn't quit she'll reveal his infidelity to Elizabeth. Harold, who doesn't want to step down and clearly hates his mother-in-law just as much as she hates him, resolves on murder. He takes advantage of the state-of-the-art security system, designed by Harold himself, in the lavish family mansion that they all live in. He makes a recording of the living room when it is empty, then splices it into the closed-circuit security camera system and starts it up. He then shoots Margaret to death in the living room, and then sets that camera feed to start up on a delay. Then he leaves, establishing an alibi for when the security guard sees the tape-delayed murder.
The fly in the ointment, of course, is Lt. Columbo, who notices troubling details, like how the supposed burglar didn't track any dirt into the house, or how he didn't jump out of the window when supposedly fleeing from a murder, or how Elizabeth was able to see around her living room when it should have been dark...
- Absence of Evidence: One of the first problems Columbo notices with the scene is how the burglar supposedly broke in through the side window, but did not track in any of the mulch that was all over the dirt just outside that window.
- As You Know: Margaret makes sure to mention in the opening scene that Midas is "my electronics company", establishing that it's an electronics company and she owns it.
- Blackmail: Margaret attempts this, saying that she'll ruin his marriage if Harold doesn't quit. He takes another option.
- Camera Spoofing: Harold's alibi plot. Play a recording of an empty study, so the security guard won't see the murder that's taking place there. Then rig the recording of the murder to play on a delay after he leaves, making the guard his alibi witness.
- Chalk Outline: One drawn of Margaret on the wheelchair ramp where she fell down and died.
- Chekhov's Gun: The disabled-access doors in the house which open when someone claps. They end up ruining Harold's alibi. Columbo determines that the shot must have been fired before Harold left, because the doors to Elizabeth's room were open when she woke up, the sound of the shot having caused the doors to open.
- Disabled Love Interest: Wheelchair-bound Elizabeth. Harold has rigged up every door in the house to open when someone claps, to help Elizabeth get around. This is a plot point.
- Does Not Like Guns: A running gag with Columbo. He says "I hate guns" before performing his test which requires firing a gun in the study, and then grimaces as he does so.
- It Is Pronounced Tro Pay: The family firm is called Midas Electronics but it's pronounced "MEE-das" to match the family name "Meadis".
- Obnoxious In-Laws: An extreme example, as Harold and Margaret loathe each other, and Harold is driven to murder.
- Rewind, Replay, Repeat: Columbo discovers the ruse when spotting the party invitation on the desk in the footage of the shooting, which vanishes seconds later and was presented at the party itself.
- Stealth Insult:Harold: Have you done something to your hair?
Harold: Just what I thought.
- Visual Title Drop: Title drops of any sort are usually averted for Columbo episode titles, but in this one we see the word "PLAYBACK" as one of the labels on Harold's elaborate home security system.
- Zeerust: Most of Harold's home security and disabled access system comes off as pretty zeerusty, but the amazement that everyone shows at Harold's digital watch really stands out. Columbo is initially suspicious that Harold knows down to the minute exactly when he left the house, and then is boggled when he sees Harold's watch with a digital readout.