Two students think they’re too skilled for school – and the shabby detective – in Columbo Goes to College.
Life is easy for criminology students Justin (Stephen Caffrey) and Cooper (Gary Hershberger). They’re so loaded and well connected they don’t have to work for anything.
When their teacher catches them cheating on a test it threatens their winning streak – so they kill him. There’s just one problem: Columbo is guest lecturer the night of the murder.
Still, with Justin and Coop in the audience there’s no way they can be suspects. Right?
A Stitch in Crime: the spoiler
Like Double Exposure (Season 3, Ep.4), the murder weapon isn’t revealed until the very end. Here it’s teased in the opening scenes instead, when we catch a glimpse of a small video camera mounted on a remote controlled toy car.
Keep in mind this is “small” for 1990, btw. Now cameras are commonly pocket-, watch- or pea-sized, but Justin’s chonky camera is similarly notable in the 90s.
Justin lures Prof Rusk to a fake meeting with dad Robert Culpepper (of Double Exposure!) to discuss the cheating allegations. The boys then shoot the professor remotely during Columbo’s lecture.
The video camera is key to the how-dunnit. It’s mounted in Cooper’s car and connected to a pocket TV that lets the boys see Prof Rusk enter the faculty garage. Justin triggers a gun (fixed beside the camera) remotely using a specially rigged car key fob.
Columbo gets a clue about this when a recording of the murder is shown on the news. It turns out that when the killers filmed Rusk in the garage they accidentally broadcast it to cable dishes in the vicinity.
However, while Columbo recreates the murder to expose the method this isn’t how he catches the killers.
The boys hear him describing a car which they assume belongs to an ex-con they’re trying to frame for the murder. They plant the murder weapon inside the trunk only to learn the car belongs to Columbo’s wife – and they’ve just incriminated themselves.
Just one more thing…
The context of Columbo Goes to College extends beyond the detective’s universe.
Most obviously there are parallels with real-life college killers Leopold and Loeb, who murdered a 14-year-old in Illinois in 1924. The story has been revisited countless times, including in Hitchcock’s Rope and Sandra Bullock thriller Murder by Numbers.
As Leopold and Loeb were lovers, their fictional counterparts tend to play on the homoerotic subtext. That’s the case here, with Justin and Cooper often shown in the bedroom, in bed or being very close (intimate) with each other.
However, like Leopold and Loeb, they over-estimate their abilities and become complacent. There’s a record of Rusk calling a restaurant about his fictional meeting with a Mr Rowe – Justin’s dad – which Columbo immediately clocks.
They also call attention to themselves by being overly helpful. Whereas Rusk’s mistress (whom they also implicate) knows nothing about a plane ticket in the professor’s briefcase, the boys offer theories left, right and centre.
This is a broader Columbo theme, of course: the person or persons who steer the investigation is always the guilty party.
Later the boys clumsily reveal their own hand when Columbo catches them doing impressions of him.
Also of note
In his guest lecture Columbo claims his solves are due to timing and luck. That’s exactly how things pan out in this case, too.
More pertinently, he dodges a question about faking evidence. However, he comes remarkably close when he misleads Justin and Cooper about the ex-con’s car.
Well, you could call it cutting it close; lawyers might call it entrapment.
Columbo Goes to College (1990), directed by E.Q Swackhamer