‘Double Indemnity’ in ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’

This Columbo pilot from 1971 doesn’t quite fit into the trope of aging-actresses-watching-their-old-movies, but it’s a kissing cousin, so I’m going to take a look at it and then say farewell to ’70s TV detective series. (I hope.)

It’s actually the second movie-length pilot for the Peter Falk series, the first one having aired back in 1968. Here, Falk is the Columbo the world would come to know and love, smoking and shambling in his threadbare raincoat. Also in keeping with the soon-to-be-familiar formula, the murder takes place early on (at about the 2:15 mark) and there is no mystery about it. We see Leslie Williams (played by Lee Grant, 46 years old at the time, so not that aging) shoot her husband at point blank range, and we spend the rest of the episode watching Columbo come to suspect her, and then trap her.

Indeed, one of the fun things about the episode, which was directed by Richard Irving, with a script by Dean Hargrove, is Leslie’s realization of what he’s up to, and then calling him out on it.

Leslie: You know, Columbo, you’re almost likable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it’s the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks.

Columbo: Me? Tricks?

Leslie: The humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the uh, homey anecdotes about the family: the wife, you know?

Columbo: Really?

Leslie: Yeah, Lieutenant Columbo, fumbling and stumbling along. But it’s always the jugular that he’s after. And I imagine that, more often than not, he’s successful.

Columbo: I appreciate that compliment, Mrs. Williams, and I particularly appreciate it coming from you.

The movie-in-movie scene comes about halfway in. Leslie walks in as her stepdaughter, Margaret (Patricia Mattick), is eating breakfast and watching TV.

I love it that Irving and Hargrove (and I’ll thrown in Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link, who get story credit) chose Double Indemnity as the movie on the screen. It is a classic, perhaps the classic, of film noir, with credits to die for: directed by Billy Wilder, screenplay by Wilder and Raymond Chandler, based on a novel by James M. Cain, and starring Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. (A bit sadly, they were better known in 1971 for their TV stints in The Big Valley and My Three Sons.)

What’s more, the clip points up the ways in which Ransom for a Dead Man echoes Double Indemnity. There’s no insurance scheme in the Columbo episode, but both are about cold-blooded cases of husband-cide. And knowing Double Indemnity adds an extra wrinkly to Ransom. In Wilder’s film, it’s the victim’s daughter who first realizes the person responsible for her father’s murder is her stepmother, Stanwyck. You can just imagine Margaret coming to this point in the movie and saying to herself, “Hey, wait a minute…”

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