Columbo: Etude in Black

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But that’s me, I’m paranoid. Like every time I see a dead body, I think it’s a murder. Can’t imagine anyone murdering themselves. Especially a young girl like that, beautiful eyes. But that’s me. I’d like to see everyone die of old age.” – Columbo

Here we are gathering again to honor and celebrate Columbo – the man and the series.   The “we” are the myriad of fans of the great television Lieutenant.  We are from around the world and converge once a month via Twitter on #ColumboTV to watch episodes of the classic television show together.  We share the images and memories created by the legendary, Peter Falk.

As is the practice for #ColumboTV, today’s featured episode was chosen by the host, Jackie, known in twitter circles as @Jaxbra.  I am a mere Columbo fan with little knowledge of backstories or histories of the episodes so I am in awe of Jackie and the many others who take part in these tweet-a-longs.  I can’t describe their passion for and knowledge of all things Columbo and classic television and film in general.

The last time I dedicated a post to one of these events was especially grand because I was making note of an instance when I, myself played host to this great monthly happening.  But I must say I was just as excited to post for today’s episode and take part in the exchange for Etude in Black.  Not only is it a standout episode (although I seem to say that about them all), but also because Jackie is a hoot.  A very funny, passionate fan, sure to make this a memorable outing.  She didn’t disappoint.

Now to Etude in Black

Original Air Date:  September 17, 1972 – Episode One, Season Two

Directed by:  Nicholas Colasanto (best known for playing Coach on Cheers) with John Cassavetes and Peter Falk as uncredited contributors.

Written by:  Steven Bochco, teleplay.  Richard Levinson and William Link, story.

Cast:  Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, James Olson, Blythe Danner, Anjanette Comer, Myrna Loy, et. al.

Plot Summary:  An episode revolving around a fairly standard plot – Talented conductor, Alex Benedict (Cassavetes) murders his mistress (Anjanette Comer) by making it look like the young woman committed suicide in order to keep the affair from his wife, Janice (Blythe Danner).

The murder is carefully planned and executed.  Most would get away with it.  But there’s one problem…a certain Lieutenant doesn’t buy it.

As Jenifer Welles and her lover, Alex, celebrate their last secret evening together, we see and hear her playing a beautiful tune on the piano (it’s probably by one of the greatest composers of all time but since I know nothing about those sorts of things I’ll leave it up to others to comments on those details).  A talented woman Jenifer is, enough to make a maestro proud.  As she plays, Alex steps away, opens a briefcase, puts on white gloves, wraps an ashtray in an olive-green, cloth napkin, walks back to the woman and bashes her head in.  We don’t see the actual blow.  Instead we hear sudden, loud music and the shriek of her cockatoo, Chopin.  And I get chills.  Beautifully done.  In fact, aside from all the scenes of Columbo himself, this is my favorite scene in the entire episode.

Act complete, Benedict then tries to make the death of the young woman look like a suicide by gas asphyxiation as he places her on the floor of her kitchen and turns on the oven. (Although I’m never quite sure how the bashing of the head plays in his asphyxiation scenario).  He then places the previously prepared suicide note in the typewriter.  But unknowingly, he drops his boutonnière, a pink carnation and leaves it behind.  The damned flower that will seal his fate.

Later, conducting his orchestra on the big night, Benedict is livid that Ms. Welles hasn’t shown up for the performance but the show must go on – or so his “act” convinces all those who surround him.   The police go to her house and…well, she’s dead as we already know – an apparent suicide.  But back at the concert, a grim realization hits when the conductor notices what’s not on his lapel…the pink carnation.  Over the orchestra we again hear the shrill squeal of the cockatoo.  A not-too-subtle reminder of impending doom.  Beautifully done.

When we first see Lt. Columbo in this episode he’s at the Doctor’s office where his beloved dog, Dog, is getting a shot.  It’s worth noting this is the debut episode for Dog, Columbo’s famous, nameless pooch and it’s great to see him throughout the episode.  Dog’s debut is much more than a mere cameo.

Anyway – as soon as the concert is over Benedict gets the news of Jenifer Welles’ suicide.  He’s appropriately shocked.  Then we see Columbo already trying to make sense of the senseless, “We got a girl with a body, money and a career.”  No, a suicide doesn’t make sense.

And, he gets the murderer in the end.  As we know he will, despite the murderer trying a last-ditch effort to avert Columbo’s attention from his path when, quite suddenly, another musician, Paul Rifkin (James Olson) becomes the suspect and Benedict plays “sincere” defender.  By the way, the scene where that “new” suspect comes to light lends one of the very few scenes ever in a Columbo episode where the Lieutenant is caught, quite obviously, by surprise.  But that doesn’t last long.

Anyway, I must mention what I think is the weakest part of this episode – The set-up and alibi of this particular crime are weak, at best.  Not that I ever doubt the talents of the Lieutenant but the result is a less than lack-luster plot, in my opinion.  Still, the cat-and-mouse exchanges in Etude in Black are great fun.  Benedict, as with so many of Columbo murderers, offers way too much information in a quest to be helpful, lend theories to the disheveled Lt.  Unlike other villains, though, Cassavetes’ Benedict doesn’t get angry or lose his cool, which is a bit unsettling.  Instead he plays it with subtlety, a subdued righteousness, is what it always seems like to me.  Of course, he’s not righteous.  What it is is a good performance by Cassavetes.

“Oh, just one more thing.  I know you don’t agree but I’ve convinced my superiors that Jenifer Welles was murdered, was not a suicide.  And they’ve officially assigned me to the case.  That’s my specialty, you know.  Homicide.”  My favorite line in this – A low-toned music swells and Benedict’s smile slowly disappears.

Music – given music is directly involved in the plot of the episode, Etude’s score is wonderful.  The score in this was the first by Richard DeBenedictis who, I believe, went on to score many other Columbo episodes after this one.  The musical highlight of this episode?  Columbo playing chopsticks.  Without a doubt.

The commentary can go on and on.  There’s a lot to enjoy here – the houses, the cars, the acting, the characters.  This is not one of my favorite episodes but it’s hugely popular and with great reason.  And, in the end, a nice “gotcha” – another subdued scene by Cassavetes who, when resigned to his fate, offers the Lieutenant his due…

“Goodbye, genius.”

Enough said.  Why does it always take a murder for these murderers to see that so plainly?

One last thing – I try my best to make these posts unique but in truth a large part of what make Columbo episodes such treats for fans are the formulas they adhere to.  One of those is the great guest stars, many from classic Hollywood film fare, that added so much gravitas to each and every entry.  Today’s featured episode goes beyond that.  The “regular” cast is great – no need to mention how great Peter Falk is because that’s just a given.  But, as already mentioned, Cassavetes gives a nice performance as the villain in Etude as does Blythe Danner as his rather stoic wife who faces the music (pun intended) in the end – left with no other choice.

However, I’d be lying if I didn’t mention that my absolute favorite part here is the appearance of the great, Myrna Loy, one of the greatest actresses classic films ever featured.  She looks, sounds and is great in this episode as a snooty head of the sympnay board.  It’s a joy to see her – that upturned nose and that familiar, Loy delivery.  Love it!

Here concludes another commentary on yet another successful #ColumboTV outing.  Bravo to Jackie for being a great host!  Despite her “vapors” for Cassavetes, she managed to offer wonderful information, factoids, backstories and trivia about the episode and actors.  If you’ve the time, stop by her tumbler page here and take a look at her commentary on this great Columbo happening she hosted.  Kudos must also go out to the other great fans who participated.  The turnout for this was great, an enthusiastic lot as usual, as was the commentary.  If you happen on in here and read this, are a Columbo fan then trust me…don’t miss these events.  They are guaranteed to lend new and fascinating perspectives on what we already know is fabulous.

Until next time, friends.  Goodbye, genius.

5 thoughts on “Columbo: Etude in Black

  1. There was one funny mistake in “Etude in Black”- the weird noises made by the cockatoo, which is an Australian parrot. No cockatoo sounds like that!! I don’t know what was dubbed in, ( it sounded like a deranged chimp) but cockatoos make a totally different noise, more like an ear-splitting “Grahk grahk grahk”. Also, Blythe Danner’s hairstyle dramatically changes at the end. As Columbo walks with her, she’s wearing a chignon. A second later in the film projection room, her hair is long and loose. Proof that even the makers of Columbo are human, too:)

  2. My mom has asked for Christmas the composition played by the actress on Etude in Black.
    It’s obviously Etude but which one? and by whom? I think it’s Chopin, but still I don’t know which piece. Do you know? Thanks!

    • Oh! What a great question! I don’t know. BUT, I believe they list the music details along with other things on IMDB. There’s also a Columbo episode guide that may list those details as well. Both are found via google.

      Good Luck!

      Aurora

  3. Myrna did quite a lot of television around this time, often for Universal (Lew Wasserman had been her agent many years earlier). Youtube has a couple of them. She reunites with Melvyn Douglas in Death Takes A Holiday, looks wonderful and has at least one great monologue. But for sheer entertainment value, check out Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate, it’s a weird little piece, but her co-stars are Helen Hayes, Silvia Sidney, and Mildred Natwick! With that cast Myrna seems like the quiet ie. sane one, but the veterans are of course wonderful. Myrna mentions in her memoirs that she and Helen ended up on the same flight from NYC to LA, and ran lines the entire flight – no wonder they were always so great! She also was an addled maid on Family Affair, and a feminist author on Ironside (I think I remember her smashing the villain on the head with a decanter by show’s end). She did a lovely version of herself on a park bench with Tony Randall in Love, Sidney and also played a grande dame on The Virginian who has actually been driven insane by her grief at being widowed – she has a mad scene that is not only totally atypical, but also the closest she ever came to playing the crazies her contemporaries were doing on the big screen. Sorry to have taken so much space, but the Myrna flame must continue!

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