Columbo | Negative Reaction (Season 4, Ep. 2)


A wife-killing photographer puts his assistant in the frame for murder in Columbo: Negative Reaction.


Paul Galesko (Dick Van Dyke) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer with an abusive, domineering wife. Rather than divorce her, Paul concocts a devious plan to get shot of the woman he loathes.

Under pretence of property shopping, he drives the missus to a remote ranch, ties her up, then demands ransom money. Yes, from himself.

Paul doesn’t go into this blindly, though. Instead, he befriends former felon – and woefully naive – Alvin Deschler. Alvin secures the ranch for Galesko in his own name, unaware his benefactor is setting him up.

Paul then lures Alvin to an abandoned junkyard, kills him, and shoots himself in the leg.

Job done, Paul continues to act out the kidnap plot for the police. The kicker? He killed his wife as soon as they got to the ranch.

Negative Reaction: the spoiler

Negative Reaction is another Columbo outing in which a killer’s specialist knowledge opens the door to murder … then gets him caught.

Camera smarts give Paul Galesko a means of murder and a solid alibi. But however crafty Paul thinks he’s been, Columbo quickly sniffs out the loose ends:

  • Why would the husband shoot a kidnapper before finding out where his wife is? Tsk
  • Scorch marks on Paul’s trousers reveal the gun was fired at close range, and not as he describes
  • A drunk at the junkyard recalls a delay between gun shots (Paul later changes his story to match)
  • Alvin’s use of taxis is unusually extravagant. Columbo later confirms he got his driving licence the morning of the kidnap – an implausible gamble
  • The clock at the ranch is newer than other furnishings
  • Columbo finds a discarded pic of Mrs Galesko in the fireplace. Paul explains why it’s a bad snap, inadvertently linking his thinking with the kidnapper’s and essentially outing himself
  • Estate agent MacGruder (a young John Ashton) thinks Alvin bought the ranch for someone else
  • Schrödinger’s maid: if she cleaned Alvin’s motel room, there shouldn’t be a newspaper. If she’s lying about cleaning it, where are all the paper fragments?
  • Alvin Deschler appears in Paul’s prison photos, suggesting they knew each other from way back.

All that’s left is for Columbo to collar Paul before he can jet off to the Philippines with lithesome secretary Lorna.

Columbo shows him Mrs Galesko’s kidnap photo, but reverses it so the clock reads 10am instead of 2pm, blowing up Paul’s alibi.

Paul triumphantly grabs the camera from the evidence shelf to reveal the original negative … neatly identifying himself as the kidnapper / killer.

Just one more thing…

This episode’s title condenses the entire plot in just two words: Negative Reaction.

First, Columbo has a suspicious feeling – i.e., a negative reaction – that he just can’t shake, even though colleagues are convinced Deschler is the killer.

Photographic evidence seems to show Paul can’t be involved. But in reaching for the camera, his reaction to the negative stored inside incriminates him beyond a shadow of a doubt. Oops.

This is particularly reckless given the attention he lavishes on establishing Alvin as a kidnapper:

  • After hiring him in secret, Paul makes Alvin hire a rental car (to connect him to the kidnap)
  • He also tells Alvin to buy a camera to photograph for-sale properties
  • This particular camera stores a fully developed negative in the back, which is crucial to the plot. In the more common 35mm film camera, opening the back destroys any undeveloped film inside
  • Paul steals the camera from Alvin to photograph Mrs Galesko. He even brings along a clock to fake the time
  • He then sneaks the camera back into Alvin’s room, along with other key evidence
  • He makes Alvin touch the ransom note before shooting him (with his own gun). He then uses Alvin’s hand to shoot himself in the leg with the murder weapon, transferring gunshot residue to the dead man’s skin.

Pretty snappy, no? And yet, for all the backstory bonanza, Paul makes errors at every stage of the game.

In Negative Reaction, we see Columbo working from the precinct and alongside colleagues. Either is very rare in the series.

Also of note

This episode has two substantial detours that technically don’t add much to the murder plot.

Columbo’s visit to the homeless mission only establishes that the drunk guy at the junkyard doesn’t remember his statement about the gun shots … because he was drunk.

Instead, this whole set-up is an extended laugh at Columbo’s expense. Nun Joyce Van Patter (the killer in a later episode) thinks Columbo is homeless because of his trademark shabby coat. Despite having his back to the camera, even Peter Falk seems to be cracking up.

What’s the point of Columbo’s coat, anyway? Well, the suggestion here is simply that it’s comfy … and that he’s more interested in his job than what he looks like.

The coat is also camouflage for Columbo’s intelligence. Killers underestimate him because they only see his dishevelled raincoat, effectively rendering him undercover and invisible.

Our comedy nun draws the same conclusion here, while Paul Galesko is so convinced he’s the smarter man that he walks right into Columbo’s trap.

The second detour comes when Columbo picks up a driving instructor. Columbo only needs to confirm when Alvin took his test, but the scene becomes a comedy dig at the detective’s dangerous driving.

Of course, the trademark scrappy car is a four-wheeled version of the awful coat. In fact, the holy trinity of the coat, car and cigar is so established that we only have to see one of them to know what they signify: a mastermind wearing the disguise of a bumbling detective.

Negative Reaction (1974) directed by Alf Kjellin

Related Columbo episodes
  • Old-fashioned murder (Joyce Van Patten)
  • Identity Crisis, Double Exposure (photographs)

See also: Vera (dishevelled British TV detective with a permanent raincoat)