Étude in Black sees killer conductor Alex Benedict murder his girlfriend … without baton an eyelid. But for all his nifty typing and fast talking, he doesn’t account for Columbo.
Top-class conductor Alex Benedict (John Cassavetes) has it all: big house, beautiful wife and a wealthy mother-in-law. He also has a girl on the side in concert pianist Jenifer Welles.
Jenifer gives Alex an ultimatum: choose who to be with. She guesses he doesn’t really care about hurting wife Janice (Blythe Danner), and just doesn’t want to lose his mother-in-law’s money.
She may be right about Alex’s loyalties, but badly misjudges his reaction. As the episode opens, Alex packs a briefcase with essentials: conductor’s baton, handkerchief and a suicide note written on Jenifer’s typewriter.
Alex drops his car with a mechanic, knowing it will be locked on the lot overnight. Before leaving, he unlocks the garage’s bathroom window. Scene set, he gets ready for a concert that evening.
After retiring to his dressing room – with instructions not to be disturbed – Alex legs it back to the garage. He breaks in, gets his car and drives to Jenifer’s place.
While she plays piano, he wraps her ashtray in the handkerchief and knocks her out. He puts her body in the kitchen, turns on the gas, and inserts the suicide note into Jenifer’s typewriter.
Finally, he returns the car and scrambles back to his dressing room. With no sign of star player Jenifer, Alex starts the concert while the police call on the missing woman.
The first act ends with shots of Alex conducting the concert inter cut with the police finding Jenifer’s body. Alex may ‘orchestrate’ both events, but as the music peaks he looks down and spots he’s dropped his boutonnière. At Jenifer’s place.
Nicholas Colasanto directed Étude in Black, but Cassavetes and Peter Falk are both listed as uncredited directors. Writers include L.A. Law creator Steven Bocho, while Karate Kid’s Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) appears as a domestic servant.
Étude in Black: the spoiler
The set-up to the murder shows us Alex’s knack for murder. He always uses gloves or cloths, ensuring he never leaves fingerprints. He also engineers a solid alibi (the concert, plus his car is being worked on at the time).
But for all the murder smarts, Alex makes two blindingly simple errors.
- While carrying Jenifer’s body to the kitchen, the flower from his lapel drops under her piano.
- He writes the suicide note on Jenifer’s typewriter ahead of time … then replaces it for the police to find.
Columbo later demonstrates the text in the note doesn’t line up with the typewriter keys. This means the note must have been typed, taken out and then replaced – which doesn’t tally with suicide.
Most damning of all, Alex goes back for his flower while the police are there, drawing Columbo’s attention to it. TV footage will later prove he’s not wearing the flower at the time of the concert, but journalists capture him leaving Jenifer’s house – with the boutonnière back in place.
Columbo explains: “that means you had to have been there earlier”. When, earlier? When Jenifer Welles was killed.
Alex looks to Janice to cover for him, saying he must have put the flower on after the concert, while in shock from hearing about Jenifer.
Unfortunately, Janice already suspects an affair (because Alex knew Jenifer’s phone number by heart). She refuses to lie for him, saying murder is one betrayal too far.
Just one more thing…
So, what do you think: does Columbo know Alex is guilty as soon as he meets him? Well, probably.
For one thing, it’s very likely Columbo spots the flower straight off. In A Deadly State of Mind, he uncovers crucial evidence at the murder scene within seconds when he spots a tiny piece of metal on the floor. So yeah, he sees stuff.
Even if Columbo doesn’t spot it, Alex draws attention to it when he finds it at the murder scene.
Despite all this, Columbo withholds two key pieces of info from their first few meetings:
- He doesn’t buy the suicide story, and thinks someone killed Jenifer
- Also, he’s a homicide detective.
He may keep schtum about his background, but Columbo’s actions at the murder scene signal a suspicion of foul play. Not only does he have the typewriter dusted for prints, but he specifically orders the paper isn’t touched.
This almost throwaway instruction later indicates Jenifer probably didn’t type the note herself. Columbo points out suicide notes are usually handwritten (Alex counters that Jenifer typed everything because her handwriting was illegible).
When Columbo reveals he’s bumping the case up from suicide to murder, it’s a way of turning up the pressure on Alex.
Columbo outlines the skeleton of the murder plot: suppose Jenifer didn’t type out the note, suppose it was whoever murdered her. Suppose it was you … and this is how you did it.
As for Alex’s goose chase with his car, the mechanic and a bathroom window, he once again overlooks the obvious. The mechanic logged his car’s mileage on arrival and departure, and there’s a nine-mile discrepancy between the two. What else is nine miles? The return journey to Jenifer Welle’s house.
Also of note
- Leaving a carnation at the murder scene is as good as a smoking gun. Janice later reveals she grows the variety especially for Alex.
- Columbo’s laboured commentary on Jenifer’s stunning figure and “bedroom eyes” seems kinda yuck now. The repetition isn’t just about humanising his corpse, however. It reveals Columbo suspects a man must be involved because “a girl like that’s gotta have a man” (another very dated concept).
- Shots of Alex’s imposing mansion and fancy car establish his wealth … or rather, his dependence on his mother-in-law’s wealth. The way he talks to his technicians (not to mention his affair) underlines his selfishness and sense of entitlement.
- The shots of Alex conducting the orchestra against the police search are a neat touch. The concert programme effectively becomes the soundtrack to this movie-within-a-movie.
- Murder with Too Many Notes (killer conductors, soundtracks)
- Death Hits the Jackpot, A Trace of Murder (pets)
- Rosemary’s Baby (John Cassavetes)
Étude in Black (1972), directed by Nicholas Colasanto