Double Exposure (Season 3, Ep. 4)

Films to Read Before You Die | Out October 2021

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

Summary

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.

Similar to Negative Reaction (S4, ep 2), the plot of Double Exposure involves trick photography and a smartypants murderer who ends up collaring himself.

Spoiler

Kepple’s plan involves quite a bit of prep. First, he snares Norris in a staged affair. This is a means to throwing Mrs Norris under the bus as a murder suspect later on.

He then serves Norris really salty caviar at the film screening, turns the building’s thermostat right up, and screens a motivational marketing film stuffed with subliminal cuts.

These hidden images are designed to subconsciously influence viewers (typically to make a purchase). Kepple inserts images of an icy cold drink into the film – which lures 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 this is just a recording.

Kepple is actually caught twice. First by projectionist White, who spots the subliminal cuts in the movie and puts (incredibly polite) pressure on 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 run to 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.

BBC: Does subliminal advertising actually work?
Campaign Live: Sneaky examples of subliminal advertising

Just one more thing…

This episode is slightly different from the typical Columbo template. While we see the usual lead-up to the murder, we’re not shown what exactly Kepple hides away at the start of the move.

When Columbo sets up his subliminal sting, Kepple rushes back to his office, revealing 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 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 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 the books Kepple wrote, then uses the research in them 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 the photographs show: 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.

Directed by Richard Quine