A cheating politician thinks he’s on the road to the US Senate. Turns out he’s a better candidate for crime than high office.
When politician Nelson Hayward (Jackie Cooper) isn’t hot on the campaign trail, he’s all over mistress Linda Johnson. Campaign manager Harry Stone (Ken Swofford) won’t stand for it, telling Nelson he needs to end the affair – for good.
Nelson agrees to break up with Linda that night. But since he’s been getting death threats, he’ll need Harry’s help to evade his police protection.
The two men swap jackets and cars. Nelson pretends to drive over to Linda’s place, while Harry drives to Nelson’s beach house.
Nelson’s waiting for him in the garage. He shoots Harry in cold blood, swaps his watch – smashing it to fake the time of death – and slips home to throw his wife a birthday party. Surprise!
Candidate for Crime: the spoiler
The police commissioner is convinced the murder is an assassination attempt on Nelson’s life. Columbo isn’t so sure.
The police arrive at the murder scene promptly, but the car is already cold. If Harry was killed at 9.20pm, the engine should still be warm.
Columbo also spots a damaged street light. He reasons that if the garage light was also off (as it was when they found the body), the killer would have had to fire in the dark. That just isn’t plausible.
Back at campaign HQ, Columbo notes how much time Nelson spends with Linda – wink, wink. Nelson’s new jacket arrives at the same time (not the first time a coat is a crucial clue).
This jacket is a replacement for the one Harry was shot in. But it was ordered ten days ago – how could Nelson have known he’d need a new one?
The smooth-talking politician cooks up a story about frayed cuffs, but it’s not enough to deflect the dog-eared detective. There are still loose ends a-plenty:
- Nelson phones in the death anonymously at 9.23pm, meaning to set the time of death. But the closest public phone from the beach house is seven minutes away … at a gas station that closed at 8pm.
- Nelson explains the discrepancy saying Harry set his watch five minutes ahead. But Columbo clocks Harry as a stylish figure, and the watch found with the body doesn’t fit with this.
Columbo keeps Nelson informed of all these suspicions. As always, it’s a way of smoking out the cuprit.
At first the politician tries to steer the investigation with lies and clever answers. Ultimately, he can’t resist another staged assassination attempt – and ends up collaring himself.
Just one more thing…
The final reveal is actually a set-up. Columbo, now on protection detail, is on stand-by in Nelson’s hotel on election night. He waits in the press room, asking a sergeant to tell him when Nelson spends time alone.
Right on cue, Nelson excuses himself to make a phone call in the bedroom. But instead of dialing out, he shoots a bullet into a wall with a silencer. Scene set, he pops out to cast his vote.
At a campaign party in the suite that night, he sneaks off to the bedroom and lights a firecracker. As you’ll recall from other episodes, firecrackers sound like gun shots.
When the guests run in (led by both wife and mistress – awkward!), he acts out a near-miss assassination attempt.
Nelson spins this as a rebuttal against ‘police innuendo’ that the death threats are fake. If the lieutenant checks the ballistics report, he’ll see it proves there’s a killer out there.
Unfortunately, Columbo has already done exactly that.
At Nelson’s request, both hotel rooms are on a shared phone line. A call in one room lights up the phone in the other. Knowing Nelson was alone meant Columbo could watch for the tell-tale light … and it never came.
Curious about what Nelson was doing in there, Columbo examined the room when the Haywards went out. So he’d already found the bullet and had ballistics check it.
There’s a delicious irony to Nelson explaining that if the bullet matches the one that killed Harry, the same hand fired both shots. He unwittingly locks himself into checkmate, inadvertently and irreversibly connecting himself to the murder weapon.
Goofs: when Nelson goes onto the balcony to fire the gun, the join is visible in the painted backdrop behind him.
Also of note
Nelson thinks he has this murder in the bag – so much so he even whistles Columbo’s signature ‘This Old Man’ while filming a campaign video.
But while Nelson manipulates everything and everyone, Columbo outmanoeuvres him. Unfortunately, the female characters get the fallout from both sides.
Nelson is a calculating sociopath, who – like Columbo – never reveals his true character or personality.
He cheats on his wife, then manipulates her back onto the campaign trail. At the same time, he arranges to bring her secretary along. i.e., Linda Johnson. Yet when the time comes, he exploits Linda to pass on fake intel to the police, and to sneak the gun out of the hotel.
Columbo uses both women in turn to needle Nelson. He drops hints about Harry’s watch to Mrs Hayward. He asks Linda why Harry wouldn’t know about the birthday party … and goads her about the affair. Both women pass on their fears to Nelson. They’re the pawns that push him into the final error.
Incidentally, Columbo also goads Nelson into soft-confessing his crimes when he volunteers a murder theory about the dark garage (maybe the killer was already in the garage … wink, wink).
Nelson repeats this Freudian slip when he has Linda tell the police she found the latest death threat:
“They’re never gonna believe that I didn’t just plant this thing here myself!”
This throws a different light on his conclusion that “Lt. Columbo thinks that all the threats were fake, just for sympathy and publicity.”
Presumably what’s he’s also telling us is that there was never any death threat to begin with – just a convenient set-up for murder, and the creation of an alibi.
Candidate for Crime (1973), directed by Boris Sagal