This post is a bit late but no less heartfelt than all others I dedicate to Columbo and the gang at #ColumboTV. Let me get right to it…
As part of a monthly twitter “happening,” #ColumboTV a group of us, new and old fans of television’s Columbo series converged last weekend to watch and comment on this month’s entry, a very special episode titled, By the Dawn’s Early Light. That episode features Patrick McGoohan as the special guest star on the classic television series, which stars Peter Falk as the crumpled but brilliant Lt. Columbo.
By Dawn’s Early Light was chosen by the event’s host, Greg McCambley, known in Twitter circles as #GregMcCambley, a huge Columbo and Patrick McGoohan fan who chose the episode and date to honor McGoohan’s memory on the anniversary of his death on January 13th. As an additional ode to McGoohan, Greg also submitted an entry for me to publish on this site, which you can take a look at here.
Col. Lyle C. Rumford: Beware of an excess of compassion, Lieutenant.
By Dawn’s Early Light takes place in a military academy whose commandant, Col. Lyle C. Rumford murders the academy’s chairman of the board who wants to replace him. As with all Columbo episodes the murder happens right at the beginning. In this case by way of a cannon used mostly for ceremonial purposes, as far as I can determine, which is rigged by Col. Rumford with gunpowder so it shoots to kill.
Rumford gets his man and then, as Columbo destiny dictates, he has to deal with a certain homicide Lieutenant who will try his best to unsettle the murderer. Well, unsettling never quite happens with this particular villain other than a few beads of sweat that are visible now and again. Rumford is all military, all the time. Meaning there is no emotion or weakness exposed for the Lt. to take advantage of. He is a commander in the strictest sense of the word and tries, as best he can to ruffle the Lt’s feathers too. He makes comments on Columbo’s wardrobe and looks down his nose at the cigars the Lieutenant smokes, “would you like to try one of quality for a change?” Unlike other murderers featured in Columbo episodes, Rumford doesn’t antagonize or lose his temper with the Lt. Instead he tries to demean him. As if Columbo would ever fall for any of it, negating each and every attempt with that certain “huh” act of his. I’ll say it over and over again, his greatest strength as an investigator is his seemingly clueless persona, which never fails to force murderers to lower their guard and offer any and all assistance possible. It’s remarkable. And what usually sinks them in the end.
As far as the story depicted, By Dawn’s Early Light is not among my favorite episodes, but there’s a lot that’s memorable in it. First is Patrick McGoohan’s presence. I’m not even going to call it his acting, although he’s very good in the episode in that regard and won an Emmy for his performance as Col. Rumford. However, to me the brilliance here is he’s perfectly cast as a commanding tyrant with his extraordinary, booming voice and powerful energy. It’s a wonderful contrast that’s created in every scene between him and Peter Falk when in full Columbo mode. I will say this episode has a great script and many outstanding scenes where no music is used to heighten the tension – a la Hitchcock. And, it also has a really nice “gotcha,” which to me has always been one of the best parts of watching Columbo, given we know the murderers right off the bat. Waiting to see exactly how the Lt. will make the murderer cringe is television ecstasy. In this case, Columbo sets the stage with cadets present at the scene of the crime, the canon. As Rumford tries to explain the details of the night in question, and how he was asleep during the crime, the Lt. lets him have it with military precision, “not a minute earlier, not a minute later.” TAKE THAT COLONEL! Louder than a cannon’s blast. Wonderful stuff.
Now to my favorite part of By the Dawn’s early Light - Columbo himself. He is a mess and I’ve never loved him more. His hair is uncombed for most of the episode, with several scenes of distinctive, Columbo bed hair. His raincoat is more wrinkled than ever. I assume the idea for the efforts put into Columbo’s extra disheveled look in the episode is intended to pose an even greater contrast between him and the site of his investigation in this case, a military academy and all its pristine players. He even goes a couple of days without showering. Well, it works beautifully. So much so I think it deserves a new adjective. Something like “crumpled-ocity.” I’ll think about it further and get back to you. In any case this is yet another reminder of the extraordinary symbiotic relationship between Peter Falk and Columbo, how inherent the role was in him and he in it. It may seem a rather obvious statement but I (truly) cannot think of another connection between actor and role – on television – that have so deep a connection, a seamless one. It’s all the little things he does to build the character that make us love him. I know it’s not just me.
One more thing… I love about this episode – we get a look at Columbo’s notes, which shows a bit of drawing talent apparent in his doodling.
That talent may be featured in other episodes but I don’t remember seeing it before. Although I’ve seen every single episode of Columbo, it’s been many years in some cases and I certainly don’t have the memory of some of the folks who take part in the #ColumboTV events who know every inch of every episode. Anyway, the shot of his notes was particularly enjoyable.
Back to our global gathering – it was a fun affair, as they all are. I can never tell how many participants chime in but it was a very lively, humorous group. It seemed that like me, they enjoyed Columbo’s messiness best with much reverence for Patrick McGoohan who deserved all the attention and hoopla we gave him. But he also got some ribbing as several people noticed the Irish actor’s accent slipped in to the character now and again. I honestly didn’t notice. I was too enthralled by the resonance of his voice to notice an accent variation. Greg was a wonderful host, offering information and trivia on both the Columbo series and McGoohan’s career along the way. Oh…and there was lots of talk about boodle boys, both in the episode and in the twitterverse. I’ll leave that one at that.
It’s worth noting that By Dawn’s Early Light was the first of four Columbo episodes where Patrick McGoohan played the murderer. The other three were: “Columbo: Identity Crisis (#5.3)” (1975), “Columbo: Agenda for Murder (#9.3)” (for which he won another Emmy) (1990), and “Columbo: Ashes to Ashes (#13.3)” (1998). He also directed all of them except our featured episode, as well as two others he didn’t appear in as an actor, “Columbo: Last Salute to the Commodore (#5.6)” (1976) and “Columbo: Murder with Too Many Notes (#13.4)” (2000).
I was surprised when I read in IMDB that Patrick McGoohan was considered to replace Peter Falk as Columbo. However, McGoohan turned the part down because he was a close friend of Falk, and believed that only Falk should play Columbo. It upsets me to even think about that, I must say.
Our monthly #ColumboTV event over, we each went our separate ways in whatever part of the world we happen to be in, but not before our host gave us a lovely and appropriate send off, “and as the episode ends, a great friendship begins” referencing the long-lasting friendship between the two actors.
Until next time.
“By Dawn’s Early Light”
Season 4, Episode 3 (1974)
Director: Harvey Hart
Writers: Howard Berk, Richard Levinson, William Link
Full cast and crew listing available here.
The next #ColumboTV event is scheduled for Sunday, February 17 at 2pm EST/7pm UK. If you’re on Twitter and are a Columbo fan, follow #ColumboTV for all updates and commentary.