Columbo | Short Fuse (Season 1, Ep. 6)


Columbo sets out to catch a killer with a short fuse and a thirst for power … but Roddy McDowall’s skin-tight trousers are the real crime.


Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall) should be heir to the chemical company his father founded; instead, he’s being ousted by Uncle David.

Roger’s a clever clogs: he got his PhD at 21, and still wears a science medal – though sadly even that can’t detract from his wildly inappropriate trousers. Ahem.

Roger and David are out to destroy each other. David has plenty of blackmail fodder because Roger is a better playboy than businessman. Roger is a couple of steps ahead, though. He rigs a cigar box bomb to kill David and driver Quincy, then frames his remaining rival and unsuspecting girlfriend.

Short Fuse seems to expand the idea of the exploding cigar practical joke. Here, it’s not the cigar that goes with a bang, but the box.

Short Fuse: the spoiler

The episode opens with the killer fitting a bomb into a cigar case. Significantly, chemistry whizz Roger builds in a delayed explosion.

While the murder is pretty straightforward, the skill and suspense comes from Roger’s deceptions:

  • He empties his uncle’s cigar supplies, forcing David to open the rigged case in the car.
  • He uses Quincy’s typewriter to fabricate a report implicating Everett Logan, who stands between him and the presidency.
  • Roger then gets himself caught stealing compromising photos of David and secretary Valerie’s “affair”. Roger even opened a bank account in Quincy’s name to make it look like the driver was blackmailing his boss.
  • In fact, Roger was having the affair. He exploits Val to get nudie pics – which he doctors to incriminate David – and so as to have an alibi the night of the murder.
  • After the murder, Roger’s lies ensure Aunt Doris sacks both Everett and Valerie. This leaves the top job clear, and removes the girlfriend of (in)convenience.

How does Columbo catch on? Someone – probably Roger – has been threatening the family about the sale of the business, so when David doesn’t check in, Aunt Doris calls the police.

That means Columbo is there to see Roger snooping around Quincy’s house on the estate. He also notices the young man keeps checking his watch when they listen to David’s last phone call. (Roger is anticipating the explosion).

Columbo forces Roger to show his hand by luring him into a cable car, then feigning an imminent explosion from a cigar box. A panicked Roger reveals everything.

Just one more thing…

This isn’t the only Columbo episode to prominently feature cigars. Here, though, it highlights how much more understated earlier episodes were. The focus remains on the cigar-box bomb mechanism, rather than as Columbo’s signature prop – unlike, say, A Trace of Murder.

As for the cause of death, the bomb’s timer only exists for dramatic flair. The clock countdown in the opening scenes repeats before the car explodes (where it’s a nice way of building suspense).

That delay makes no difference to the murder, though. Instead, it’s instrumental to Columbo collaring the killer – hence its inclusion.

Columbo notices Roger’s anxious clock-watching while listening David’s phone message. When he lures him into the cable car, we see the same mannerisms and motifs one more time.

Short Fuse also features the Columbo ‘phoney phobia’. Several episodes feature a fear or discomfort that miraculously disappears before the big reveal. Columbo can’t stomach hospitals in A Stitch in Crime, for instance … only to get over it by the finale.

In Short Fuse, Columbo comes over all funny while riding the cable car early in the episode. However, any sign of vertigo vanishes during the final entrapment.

It’s an interesting contradiction because there’s no one around to benefit from the set-up apart from the audience (i.e., it’s not a ruse to mislead a suspect).

This raises the question: why? Why does it matter if we believe he’s afraid of heights? Unfortunately, this is the one mystery left unsolved.

Also of note

  • How lucky is it that homicide detective Columbo is sent to investigate hours before anyone even knows a man has been killed?
  • Given Columbo is close by when Roger breaks into Quincy’s cottage, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t have seen him stealing the typewriter. Yet apparently he doesn’t.
  • This is one time both killer and victim have an agenda. It rather looks as though David is ousting orphan Roger from the company he ought to be inheriting, but Roger beats him to the punchline.
  • Columbo comments on Roger’s fancy science medallion when he spots the kid’s chemistry smarts. When Roger realises he’s been played in the final showdown, he bursts out laughing – and puts the medal on Columbo.

Short Fuse (1972), directed by Edward M. Abroms

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