Murder, Smoke and Shadows puts Columbo deep into the mechanics of illusion in a cinema-themed mystery.
Alex Bradey (Fisher Stevens) is a successful film director. Then Leonard Fisher (Jeff Perry) turns up with evidence that Bradey was responsible for his sister death years before.
Quick-thinking Bradey lures Fisher to a deserted film set before electrocuting him and dumping the disfigured body at the beach.
A Jaws studio tour theme ride features in this episode and also in Fade in to Murder.
Fisher has a book about Bradey on him when he’s killed. This book – which literally names Bradey on the cover – also contains his phone number, though Bradey claims not to have heard from Fisher for years.
While this gives Lieutenant Columbo (Peter Falk) an early opening, the end game relies on a number of pieces.
- According to Bradey’s secretary Rose Walker, film studios rely on weather reports to schedule filming. Yet even though rain is forecast later that evening, Bradey orders a water truck to wet-down the street where he’s shooting.
- Later, Columbo discovers a shoe heel on the set. It’s an exact match for Fisher’s shoe, and was blown off by the force of the electrocution.
- As well as the book about Bradey, Fisher leaves a bookmark in Bradey’s high school yearbook. It’s the ticket stub for a studio tour, and it places him in Bradey’s room on the day of the murder.
- Bradey stages a scene in a diner to mislead Columbo. Later, Columbo borrows the same trick to get Bradey to admit he was in touch with Fisher before the murder.
The book naming Bradey and the bookmark as a breadcrumb isn’t the first time a victim names their killer. See also Try and Catch Me (S7, ep 1 – also directed by James Frawley).
Murder, Smoke and Shadows has an awful lot of coincidence to this episode, which sees Columbo repeatedly handed key pieces of information very quickly.
This might seem clumsy, yet it’s fitting for a plot which remarks several times on the necessity of coincidence in cinema storytelling.
Just one more thing…
Murder, Smoke and Shadows is all about the process of film-making. This isn’t new territory for the show, which saw Columbo visit TV sets, film lots and theatres many times.
Here, though, the emphasis is on the illusion and special effects of cinema. And the episode is crammed with examples.
- Bradey uses special fx to kill Fisher. He lures him onto the set (with its false doors and fake rain), then electrocutes him.
- The murder scene is another type of illusion. Bradey positions the body to suggest a location and crime that will misdirect the police.
- Fisher demonstrates the make-believe of cinema to Columbo using a spotlight and a picket fence.
- Mr Marosco calls Bradey’s picture another illusion – because he’ll see that it’s never made.
- Bradey set up his ex Ruth Jernigan with another man years before by staging a broken-down taxi ride. He repeats the illusion when he has actresses play out a scene for Columbo that suggests Fisher is a drug mule.
- Columbo uses the same trick to snare Bradey, staging a fictitious scene in a restaurant.
But the biggest illusion – as always – is Columbo. He tells Bradey, “what you see is what you get”, but of course this is never the case with Columbo.
There’s more about the history of special effects in this Mental Floss article.
Also of note
Bradey is a notable director and a master manipulator. But in fact Columbo manipulates Bradey and steers the outcome each step of the way. Columbo is the true director, and Bradey just another actor.
Ruthie Jernigan’s role seems to exist just to provide the back story about the fake taxi ride, i.e., drawing attention to Bradey’s use of illusion in real life.
When Columbo visits the studio he appears to have already sussed the connection between the killer and the victim. He even tells Bradey they’ve found a victim who’s “about your age” (they are, because they’re school friends).
By the time Bradey arrives Columbo has already seen the two soda glasses and deduced their context. He may even already have dusted them for prints. Rather than lead with this, however, he doubles back at the last minute to needle Bradey.
Later, when Bradey says he knows the murdered man, Columbo’s “you do?” rings with sardonic mockery.
As is often the case, Columbo and killer intuit each other’s intellect and hidden agenda early on, but dance knowingly around the issue.
This lends extra significance to Bradey’s explanation of on-screen illusion. The picket fence also makes it hard to know who has trapped whom. It’s left unsaid, but the shadows also look like prison bars.
The episode ends with a brief spliced shot of Columbo dressed not as a director but as a circus ringmaster.
This seems mismatched with the context of the episode and especially its finale (unmasking the actors). However, it ties with the idea that Columbo is yet again the real master manipulator, showman and trickster.
Bradey muses that it’s not clear where illusion ends and reality begins in cinema. Likewise, we’re never certain where the real Columbo starts and finishes.
Directed by James Frawley