Columbo Goes to the Guillotine sees the cigar smoking sleuth on the case when a magician is murdered by a cutting-edge prop. Spoilers. And puns.
Elliott Blake (Anthony Andrews) is psychic. He can read minds and conduct ‘remote viewing’ – and proves it through tests run by the military. There’s just one problem. It’s all a scam.
When an old acquaintance, magician Max Dyson (Anthony Zerbe) shows up, Blake worries the game’s up. It isn’t long before Dyson winds up dead – killed by his own guillotine while prepping a magic trick.
With Dyson out of the way, Blake is clear to carve out a new life and new job with the military. But he hasn’t figured on Columbo…
In a departure from other episodes, Columbo doesn’t turn up at a police crime scene. He discovers the body himself – and immediately spots the screwdriver. This is a clue that Max Dyson was murdered: the screwdriver Blake puts in his hand at the time of death is the wrong kind. It’s a tiny detail, but of course Columbo spots it straight away.
Columbo finally collars Blake by getting him to use the guillotine on him. He banks on Blake trying to kill him by putting the machine’s collar on the wrong way round (which he does). But Columbo has secretly switched the labels, giving him the evidence he needs to put Blake away.
Just one more thing…
Jon Ronson’s 2004 bestselling book The Men Who Stare at Goats documents the US Army’s attempts to harness the paranormal. It sounds ludicrous, but at one point was quite the rage. Well, almost twenty years earlier, Columbo touched on this exact same topic.
This episode covers more than murder. It touches on how the military wants to use the paranormal, and how mentalists and magicians dupe people into believing “almost anything”.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, and explains why this episode is one of the longer ones (around 1h 40) and a bit woolier as a result.
More to the point, a large part of the plot – Columbo pulling off Blake’s mindreading trick – is dramatic, but completely unnecessary to solving the crime. Blake kills Dyson as revenge for an earlier betrayal, so all Columbo needs to do is show their relationship, then nail Blake with the final evidence (the guillotine collar).
Instead, recreating – and then revealing – Blake’s psychic party trick is a chance for Columbo to show-off his acting skills. This ties in my theory that we never see the real Columbo on-screen: he’s always acting.
Also of note
The first thing Columbo does when he finds the body is light a cigar. The cigar is one of his trademarks, of course, but if that interests you, here’s more about what smoking means on-screen. Columbo as an early John McClane – who knew.
This episode has a couple of dodgy bits. The primary one is the way Blake traps Dyson in the guillotine without a fight. At the end of the film, Columbo shows how easy it is to take the collar off, suggesting Dyson could have easily escaped. Perhaps he just lost his head.
Yes, it’s a poor pun – much like the episode’s ending with the prop gun. The show was darker and more serious in earlier series, but by the 80s and 90s seems to prefer this kind of jaunty sign-off. Other shows from this era did this too (cf. Murder She Wrote) so perhaps there was genre influence.
Finally, young magician Tommy explains exactly how the murder / fraud is done around half-way into the film. He performs a card trick and finger guillotine on Columbo which mimic both how Blake pulls off the mindreading, and how he kills Dyson.
Dir. Leo Penn, 1989