Columbo | Double Exposure (Season 3, Ep. 4)

Double Exposure sees Columbo get a lesson in the black art of subliminal advertising.

Bart Kepple (Robert Culp) is a motivational research specialist, and pretty damn good at it. But when a client tries to fire him, Kepple bumps him off during a carefully staged film screening.

Despite his scrupulous planning, projectionist Roger White figures out the scam and asks for $50,000 to stay quiet. So Kepple kills him, too.

Like Negative Reaction, the plot of Double Exposure involves trick photography and a smartypants murderer who ends up collaring himself.

Double Exposure: the spoiler

Kepple’s plan involves quite a bit of prep. First, he snares client Mr Norris in a staged love affair (this throws Mrs Norris under the bus as the prime suspect later on).

Kepple then serves Norris salty caviar, turns up the building’s heating, and screens a motivational marketing film stuffed with subliminal cuts.

These hidden images are designed to subconsciously influence viewers’ behaviour. Kepple inserts images of an icy cold drink into the film to lure a thirsty Norris into the empty lobby – then shoots him.

Kepple’s alibi is that he’s on stage narrating the movie at the time of the murder. With Kepple hidden by the stage curtain, the audience is oblivious that his voice is a recording.

Kepple is actually caught twice. First by projectionist White, who spots the subliminal cuts in the movie and pressures Kepple to pay up.

Later, Columbo uses Kepple’s own research against him. He inserts subliminal cuts into a movie that Kepple watches, thus prompting him to accidentally reveal the real murder weapon.

White is the bridge, however. The projectionist tells Columbo about using a nickel to alert him when to change film reels. When he dies Columbo spots there’s no nickel – putting Keppel in the frame for murder.

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Just one more thing…

Double Exposure differs slightly from the typical Columbo template. While we see the usual lead-up to the murder, we’re not shown what Kepple stashes away.

After Columbo sets up his subliminal sting Kepple rushes back to his office to retrieve the hidden piece of the puzzle: a calibration converter.

This lets him shoot Norris with his own gun (which is kept on display in the office the whole time), yet the police can’t identify it as the murder weapon.

This isn’t the first episode in which the killer is open both about the cat-and-mouse game and Columbo’s deceptive intelligence. See also the pilot episode, Prescription: Murder.

But interestingly, Kepple here comes close to providing a comparison for how clever Columbo really is.

The marketing specialist is a genius (in Columbo’s words), and certainly thinks very highly of himself. And he’s also meant to be Columbo’s mirror opposite. One wears smart sports jackets and writes books. The other looks and acts like he sleeps under a bush.

Despite this, both men are fairly explicit about the game they’re playing. Despite Kepple’s obvious irritation, they come close to acknowledging their equal stature.

Compare how many times they shake hands, for example (almost every time they meet). Rather than a cop and his suspect, they behave more like peers.

Kepple is also quick to admit that “I don’t think you’re empty headed at all”.

As clever as Kepple is, Columbo still beats him at his own game. He actually reads Keeple’s books, then uses his research to trap him.

Columbo even throws in a little pun at the end. Knowing that searching Kepple’s office without a warrant is illegal, he points out that he’s not searching, he’s just looking.

And that’s exactly what his subliminal sting shows: photos of Columbo looking at Kepple’s belongings.

Also of note

  • The subliminal cuts sound pretty sexy, but you have to wonder why Norris alone is affected by them. That caviar must have been hella persuasive.
  • A highpoint in Columbo’s goading of the killer is when he says his investigation is “pointed in the right direction” – while pointing at Kepple.

Double Exposure (1973), directed by Richard Quine