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

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

Summary

Actor Ward Fowler (William Shatner) is being blackmailed by the producer of his hit TV show, ‘Detective Lucerne’. Fowler resorts to murdering her, and staging it to look like a hold-up in a liquor store.

Fowler invites his assistant to watch a baseball game at his place at the time of the murder. Fowler drugs him and alters the time on his watch. He then murders Clare, comes home and convinces the assistant he was only asleep for a few minutes.

Shatner’s Star Trek co-star, Walter Koenig (Chekhov) plays a policeman in this episode. Falk’s real-life wife Shera Danese, plays Mr Daley’s secretary. Shatner plays the killer again in Season 10’s Butterfly in Shades of Grey.

Spoiler

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

  • Fowler resets Mark’s watch but doesn’t know he usually runs it 5 minutes fast. It’s a $1,000-watch, so unlikely to lose time on its own.
  • Fowler leaves make-up on the ski mask used in the robbery, and it immediately links the murder to the film studio.
  • Fowler wears regular shoes during the murder, to disguise his height. But Columbo easily discovers Fowler usually wears lifts.
  • 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.

Fowler 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).

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

It’s also possible that the show’s multiple references to goofed lines are deliberate. There’s a pretty 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), why does he continue the game? Why is his catchphrase ‘just one more thing’ at all?

Well, perhaps it signifies where the power lies. Columbo may act dumb, yet is 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 showing a key strategy used in the series: Columbo forms a phoney partnership with the killer each time. He invites them to speculate about the murder, explain and mislead him. Ultimately this is about giving them enough rope to hang themselves.


Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski