The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case sees Columbo take on a clever killer with a penchant for puzzles. Spoilers.
Accountant Oliver Brandt (Theodore Bikel) murders business partner Bertie Hastings when he threatens to expose Brandt for stealing from clients.
With both Brandt and Hastings members of the Sigma Society – a high IQ club similar to Mensa – Columbo has his work cut out to catch the killer.
Brandt shoots Hastings twice with a gun fitted with a silencer. He then rigs a record player to play a Tchaikovsky track. When the track finishes, the player’s arm moves back and triggers two exploding squibs hidden in an umbrella (which is itself hidden inside a chimney).
At the same time, the moving arm knocks over a marker pen, which falls onto a carefully balanced dictionary.
The track’s timing ensures that one squib explodes (like a gun shot), followed by the falling dictionary (the sound of a body), and then the second squib.
This ensures Brandt is downstairs with the other club members when they hear the gun shots (of course Brandt has already killed Hastings).
Unusually, the killer’s methodology is hidden until the end of the episode. It’s up to Columbo to reveal this. He then tricks the killer into re-enacting the final piece of the puzzle (the pen and dictionary).
Spot Halloween’s Jamie Lee Curtis in one of her first roles. She plays a surly diner waitress.
Just one more thing…
This episode cuts right to the heart of the Columbo conundrum.
It’s pretty obvious that Columbo plays at being dumb – but does this actually mask a genius-level intellect? Well, given he outsmarts members of the Sigma club, the answer is … probably.
Brandt sets Columbo two logic puzzles. He sets the first (sacks of gold) because he underestimates Columbo’s intellect – and Columbo plays up to this. But he sets the more challenging second puzzle (odd word out) in recognition of the detective’s intelligence.
In Columbo Goes to the Guillotine, Columbo must solve a magic trick in order to catch the killer. Once again, these puzzles aren’t essential to the plot. They’re easter eggs for viewers.
The first puzzle also serves to distract the murderer from Columbo’s intelligence. This makes it a nice counterbalance to the final puzzle, which Columbo solves immediately – exactly as he does with his cases (he just doesn’t let on about it).
This episode and the later Guillotine share other similarities. There’s the use of puzzles, of course. Both times the killer makes use of retractable strings / pulleys at the murder scene. And both times the killer claims to love the murdered man (then bumps him off anyway).
Also of note
For a club of exceptionally intelligent people, the Sigma Club falls short on murder smarts. Brandt is easily caught out in the end because of vanity and jealousy.
Meanwhile, Columbo has already thought of (and checked) suggestions made by other members, including guns on elastic, guns hidden in chimneys, and phony gun shots.
Finally, this episode is of note for the three logic puzzles the audience gets to solve. There’s the sacks of gold, the odd word out – and the mystery of Brandt’s alibi itself.
Directed by Sam Wanamaker, 1977