An inventor rigs up a network of gadgets to murder his mum-in-law … but playback from his very own home security catches him out.
Electronics genius Harold Van Wyck (Oskar Werner) has built a smart home for wife Elizabeth, who uses a wheelchair. There are ramps and stair lifts. Doors open and close with a clap of the hands. And there are cameras (and a security guard) keeping watch.
When mother-in-law – and boss – Margaret learns Harold is chasing other women and losing her money, she plans to boot him from the family business. Unfortunately, Harold means to bump her off first.
After knocking up phoney CCTV footage to distract the guard, Harold lures Margaret downstairs, shoots her, and scurries off to an art gallery.
When Columbo arrives, it looks very much like the work of an intruder. After all, Harold wasn’t even at home at the time. Right?
But for all his gadget wizardry, Harold’s very own home surveillance proves he must be the killer.
Oskar Werner’s official bio tells quite the story in just 12 words: “Actor. Artist. Pacifist. Anti-Nazi Activist. Movie Star. Architect. Womanizer. Alcoholic. National Icon.”
Playback: the spoiler
Playback is a variation of a locked-room murder mystery. Here the room isn’t locked, but is under surveillance the whole time. Or is it?
The episode begins with Harold faking a break-in (note he already intends to kill Margaret). He cuts the alarm, breaks a window, and smears the wall with muddy footprints.
After Margaret demotes him, he pipes a recording of the empty living room to the security guard’s monitor. This makes Harold invisible on camera in the events that follow. He knocks over a plant and, when Margaret investigates, he shoots her.
The noise wakes Elizabeth, but Harold tells her everything’s fine. He then hooks the tape of the murder back to the CCTV – on a timer – and skedaddles to the party (making sure to tell everyone the time). It’s an iron-cast alibi … so what sinks the game?
- Columbo is immediately drawn to the security system, prophetically asking: “do you think [the intruder] knew where the camera was?”
- Harold writes his contact details on the gallery brochure in advance, a break with habit that piques Columbo’s interest
- Columbo notes the footprints on the wall – but the absence of deeper footprints where the intruder supposedly exited. There’s also no soil inside the house
- When Columbo re-stages the gunshot, it causes Elizabeth’s door to open automatically (though strangely doesn’t affect any other doors … )
- Elizabeth’s recollection about waking up reveals the true time of the shooting – because her door opened. As she then talked to Harold, he must have been home
- The zinger is the video of the murder, in which Harold’s invitation to the gallery is still on the desk. When the guard rushes in later, it’s gone. Ergo, Harold killed Margaret Meadis.
Just one more thing…
Goof: Harold shoots Margaret from hip-level but on the video playback, the gunshot coincides with a puff of smoke from the ceiling.
Almost all the murders in Columbo are premeditated. They’re not rash, unthinking crimes of passion, but carefully (or strategically) planned in advance. Columbo’s killers are also always experts in their field. Their expertise opens the door to murder … then catches them red-handed.
Tech is an extension of this double-edged expertise. It appears to offer an iron-clad means of murder, only to double-cross the gadget-happy killers (compare Columbo Goes to College). This is certainly the case in Playback – though here, technology is more than a convenient plot device: it’s a way of life.
Harold builds a home compatible with his wife’s needs, where everything is responsive to human interaction and need. Doors open with a clap. Even the CCTV only starts when someone enters the room.
Harold’s fancy pants digital watch is a red herring, though. He claims the screen is so distinctive it makes every moment highly memorable. Actually, whether the watch is digital or analogue makes no odds: Harold just finds excuses to tell people what time it is.
Incidentally, when Playback was released in 1975, not only was digital time-keeping relatively common, but it was increasingly affordable.
Anyhoo, Harold’s tech isn’t flawless, but that’s part of the strategy. The one camera in the living room points at the safe, leaving the perimeter invisible. Columbo’s dead right when he asks if the intruder knew where the cameras were: it’s how Harold stays out of sight.
The killer flaw, though, is human oversight – and the camera captures it all.
Also of note
- Why does Columbo have a cold? It doesn’t affect the plot, and comes and goes inconsistently. Perhaps it’s this episode’s ‘phoney phobia’ (see also Short Fuse)
- Elizabeth’s accessible home is as much prison as fortress. Harold prefers to keep her locked up (and sedated), leaving him free to have fun … and in charge of her family’s company
- Elizabeth describes waking up, checking the time, looking at a toy clown, then phoning Harold. But she could only have seen the clown if her bedroom door was open. Why would it be open? If a noise – like a gunshot – caused it to open. For all the hoo-ha about digital watches, this pins down Harold’s true location at the time of the murder
- Columbo realises the video tape has been tampered with when he watches football match replays on TV. He splits Harold’s tape across two screens, one showing the pre-recorded murder, and the other the guard finding the body. Rather cruelly, he makes Margaret’s son watch both scenes!
- The invitation on screen is the big gotcha but, in fact, it’s in plain view during the whole murder. After shooting Margaret and talking to Elizabeth, he even picks it up and shoves it in his pocket
- More specifically, Columbo points out Harold couldn’t have picked up the invitation without seeing or stepping over Margaret’s body
- Elizabeth says she’s glad Harold was at the party during the murder, as otherwise she might have lost him too. There’s a double truth here, because if he’s proven to be at home, he’ll be going to jail. The kicker? She’s the evidence that sends him away.
Playback (1975), directed by Bernard L. Kowalski
Related Columbo episodes
- An Exercise in Fatality (tech)