Columbo | Fade in to Murder (Season 6, Ep. 1)

Columbo meets his double – a fictional TV detective – when he investigates the death of a successful producer in Fade in to Murder.

Actor Ward Fowler (William Shatner) is being blackmailed by Clare Daly, an ex-love and the producer of his hit TV show, ‘Detective Lucerne’.

Fowler invites his assistant Mark to watch a TV baseball game, then drugs him and alters the time on his watch. Having thus created a fake alibi for himself, Fowler slips out to kill Clare.

Shatner’s Star Trek co-star, Walter Koenig (Chekhov) plays a policeman in this episode. Peter Falk’s real-life wife, Shera Danese, plays Mr Daley’s secretary.

Fade in to Murder: the spoiler

Unlike other episodes, there isn’t just one detail that clinches the case. While Columbo reveals the missing piece of the puzzle in the final scene (as he always does), the murderer makes several mistakes along the way.

  • Fowler resets Mark’s watch but doesn’t know he normally sets it 5 minutes fast. It’s a $1,000-watch, so unlikely to lose time on its own.
  • Fowler leaves stage make-up on the ski mask used in the robbery, linking the murder to the film studio.
  • Fowler wears regular shoes during the murder to disguise his height, but Columbo quickly discovers he usually wears lifts to appear taller.
  • Columbo checks Fowler’s fingerprints with the FBI, so already knows his true identity – and his history as an army deserter and expert marksman.

The final reveal is that while Fowler is fastidious about cleaning the gun, he forgets to clean the bullets.

Just one more thing…

Fade in to Murder is one of the show’s best episodes – it’s a lot of fun.

Columbo visits film sets in several episodes – including the show’s pilot, Prescription: Murder. It’s especially meaningful here because this episode features a cop show within a cop show.

And it’s even better (if mind-boggling) because the plot knowingly plays on this doubling.

For one thing, Fowler repeatedly slips in and out of his (supposedly) true identity, and that of his TV character, Detective Lucerne. This results in bizarre scenes where Columbo questions both men at the same time, with Fowler almost playing the role of a medium, or someone with dissociative identity disorder (see also Split).

But the truly ingenious aspect is that Fowler also plays Columbo’s role, anticipating his questions and angles in advance, and playing to his feigned ignorance (whilst also respecting his intelligence).

The show’s also appears to have multiple goofed lines … some of which are either deliberate or unintentionally meaningful. There’s an obvious bungle in the taped episode of Detective Lucerne, when an extra says “It’ll be a treasure to pill you, Mr Lucerne”.

When Columbo and Fowler meet for the first time, Mark calls Ward “Mark” – his own name – by mistake. Then, when Columbo describes the robbery-homicide, he says “You mean, sir, if she was dead and you couldn’t get [Clare’s ring] off”.

Also of note

Given Columbo likely has proof Fowler killed Clare very early on (i.e., the bullets and fingerprints), why does he continue the game? Why is his catchphrase ‘just one more thing’ at all?

Maybe it signifies where the power lies. Columbo may act dumb but he’s always pulling the strings. There’s no resolution – and no let off for the murderer – until Columbo says so.

In Fade in to Murder, Fowler even appears to draw Columbo to the facts of the murder pretty early on, but isn’t ‘allowed’ to confess for some time.

This episode is also a good one for reflecting a key strategy used in the series: Columbo’s phoney partnership with the killer. He invites them to speculate about the murder, explain and mislead him. Ultimately he gives them enough rope to hang themselves.

Fade in to Murder (1976), directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

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