Columbo: Miracles for Sale

"Few things are impossible to diligence and skill."
- Dr. Samuel Johnson

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine (1989) was the opening episode of the eight series and marked the return to the airwaves of the disheveled homicide detective after a hiatus that lasted more than a decade, but the intervening period had not dulled the lieutenants prey drive or his duplicitous appearance – never missing a beat as he doggedly pursues an opponent who's in the business of selling miracles.  

Elliott Blake is a self-professed psychic medium, who’s trying to weasel his way into a well-funded military think-tank program that studies claims of extraordinary sensory perception and finding a military purpose for it. Naturally, Blake's claims are as a legit as a stack of counterfeit bank notes and the only reason he has been getting away with his duplicity is because he has someone on the inside, Dr. Paula Hall, to help him achieve the desired results. But it also gives the heads of the think-tank hope that they finally got their hands on a genuine psychic specimen, who can perform miracles on demand and plan to stage another test conducted under the supervision of Max Dyson – an ex-magician exposing fraudulent mediums and explaining supernatural phenomena. 

Before the test, Blake and Dyson meet on a bridge cloaked in the rags and tatters of a misty evening and we learn that the gentlemen were imprisoned together in an African goal, where Dyson got out of before Blake, and the two opponents part ways like two duelists taking their paces. A very Doylean scene, if you ask me, somewhat reminiscent to Jonathan Small's story in Sign of Four (1890).

Dyson's experiment involves distant viewing and Blake is positioned in an isolation chamber, while three soldiers are scattered throughout the city in unmarked cars each with a small suitcase consisting of a blind fold, a marker, a city map book, a rubber band and a Polaroid camera. The soldiers have to blindfold themselves, flip through the book to mark a random location and drive to it in order to snap a picture and send it to HQ. Meanwhile, Blake is probing the minds of the soldiers, drawing pictures of what they photographed, and they match up pretty good! What I liked about the solution is that's basically textbook stuff, as Jonathan Creek would've said, that only works on paper, but what made it work here was that the trick was pulled-off under rigorous test conditions. It's so clever that the one trick that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to pull off becomes possible when you put a few obstacles in its way to prevent cheating. 

One, none-spoilorish, question though: were the really handheld scanners like that back in 1988/9?
The penetrating stare of a first-rate mind.

Anyway, performing a magic trick in front of a captivated audience, insistent on being fooled, is not, necessarily, a crime that garners the attention of one of the homicide squads finest, but Blake went back to Dyson when he was tinkering with his guillotine and leaves his old cellmate headless in his sealed apartment – and before long Columbo comes knocking on his door.

When the lock is cut out of the door, the lieutenant is confronted with what appears to be either a bizarre accident or a grotesque suicide, but the detective makes a few astute deductions that convince him that he's dealing with a murder. A magician friend of Dyson, Bert Spindler, puts Columbo on the trail of Elliott Blake and a battle-of-wits and deceit commences. Even though we know the murderer's identity from the outset, Columbo's observations on a screwdriver, groceries, tears shed at a funeral and the fact that Dyson died a day after his first defeat at the hands of a psychic are more clues and hints than is necessary for inverted mystery that plays out in front of your very eyes, but I love that the writer took the time to explain his suspicions. Not as much attention is bestowed on the problem of the locked doors and windows, Columbo finds the solution in a book entitled Locked Room Magic, however, I can forgive this since there was already a grand trick in this episode with Columbo reconstructing it towards the end. So I was already more than satisfied in that department.

Unfortunately, Blake is a lousy foil for the Great Detective, but only because he was accurately characterized. Blake's whole shtick is essentially being this enlightened being who unlocked the secret powers of his mind, but when you take that away you're left with a rather dumb, gullible person who gets by on a few tricks taught to him by Dyson and Columbo played him like a violin throughout the episode. Fun enough, absolutely, but I revel when Columbo has to chase a murderer as clever as him and one who sees right through him – often resulting in a nifty character sketch of the tousle headed sleuth.  

Here's the murderer from Prescription: Murder (1967):
"You never stop, do you? ... The insinuations, the change of pace. You're a bag of tricks, Columbo, right down to that prop cigar you use... I'm going to tell you something about yourself. You think you need a psychologist. Maybe you do, maybe you don't, but you are a textbook example of compensation... Compensation. Adaptability. You're an intelligent man, Columbo, but you hide it. You pretend you're something you're not. Why, because of your appearance you think you can't get by on looks or polish, so you turn a defect into a virtue. You take people by surprise. They underestimate you. And that's where you trip them up."
The killer's opinion on Columbo who was hounded by him in Ransom for a Dead Man (1971):
"You know Columbo, you're almost likeable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it's the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks... The humility, the seeming absentmindedness, the homey anecdotes about the family, the wife, you know... Yeah, Lt. 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."
 And a final character analysis comes from Columbo's opponent from How to Dial a Murder (1978):
"You're a fascinating man, Lieutenant... You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all up in the garden, only you're laying a mine field and wagging your tail."
I love it when Columbo has to fight a duel-of-wits on equal grounds, but that does take nothing away from the pleasure or cleverness of Columbo Goes to the Guillotine and enthusiasts of locked rooms should queue this in their to-watch-list – even if you've already seen it. Murder is just so much more fun when Lt. Columbo is fumbling and stumbling through a case, even in the re-run! 

I also reviewed Columbo Likes the Nightlife (2003).


  1. I love this episode, and although I tried reviewing it after Peter Falk died, I simply couldn't write anything acceptable. Looks like you did a fine job in my place.

  2. A very good analysis TC, especially of why the murderer is a bit of a disappointment (Andrews is also just not a strong enough thespian - now if he and Zerbe had swapped roles ... I did think the gay subtext was a nice moern touch, one never touched on again in the show). Also, I did find the way that we went throught he experiment twice, in such detail, while just about acceptable, is none the less clearly padding for the 2-hour time slot, which was nearly always too long for COLUMBO, which I think works best at 90 minutes.

    1. Apologies for thr typos - that shoudl have said 'modern touch' and 'the experiment' rather than 'he' ... sheesh!.


    2. Oh god, I just can't type today - really sorry ...

    3. We all have those days. I have them daily. :/

  3. I enjoyed this episode, though have to agree with TomCat and Sergio that the murderer doesn't reach the level of the more classic Columbo villains. He isn't too bright and not too fun to watch: he can't play a convincing fool. That said, the scenes with the psychic tests, magic shop and guillotine really come together for a satisfying finish.