• Craig Hunter

PT - Columbo - 027 - Etude in Black

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Welcome everyone to The Predictably Treacherous Podcast.  Today's episode is "Etude in Black" staring John Cassavetes and Blythe Danner.  This is episode one of season two.  This episode was directed by Nicholas Colasanto.  The teleplay was by Steven Bochco and the story was by Richard Levinson and William Link.  The original air date was September 17th, 1972 and the runtime was 98 minutes.  

Let's get right to the episode summary:

Orchestra conductor Alex Benedict murders his pianist mistress Jennifer Welles after she gives him an ultimatum to come clean with his wife about their affair. 

The Murder

The opening scene shows Cassavetes in his mansion hammering away on the piano.  The piece finishes so he stubs out a cigarette, then runs up the stairs and drinks a quick Brandy and starts packing a briefcase full of murdering kit stuff like leather gloves and a faked typed up note from his victim.  

He gets into his little car and drives to the mechanics.  He tells Mike the mechanic that the engine doesn't sound right.  He asks him to fix it.  It's a nice little clip, let's listen, (2:48) "Beep Beep...hi maestro (3:25) Benedict goes into the bathroom to wash his hands.  No soap.  While in the bathroom he unlocks the large bathroom window.

Blythe Danner picks up Alex and they wife drive to an outdoor band shell where the symphony will be performing later that night.  When they arrive Alex begins making a pest of himself  and acting like a diva, (5:01 to 6:10) .  This all seems to be planned on Benedict's end to ensure that no one will attempt to bother him when he is in his dressing room "napping". 

Now in the dressing room, Benedict gets dressed in a tux and a trench coat.  We then see him running down a walkway towards the road.  He enters the garage by the bathroom window that he unlocked earlier.  He lowers his car from the hydrolic platform, opens the garage, drives the car out, closes the garage door behind him, and drives away.  

Now is Jennifer Wells' home, she is playing the piano and doesn't see that Alex has entered the room.  He grabs her neck from behind and kisses her.  He's seems a little angry with her but like he's hiding it.  She says she thought he might be angry with her, and their ensuing conversation explains for the audience that she has given him an ultimatum. She says he's a genius but a little weak and he doesn't want to lose his wife's money.  

She tries to kiss him and he pulls away and says he's so confused all he can understand is music.  As she plays he slowly gets his white gloves on while enjoying the music.  He wraps a heavy ashtray in a thin green towel.  He sneaks up behind her and cracks her on the head with the ashtray.  Dead. 

He then moves the body into the kitchen and sits in a chair and acts falling forward as if to show how she would have fallen forward and hit her head on the open oven door.  He then turns on the oven gas, returns the ashtray, inserts the fake letter into her typewriter, and leaves.  

We are shown his lapel flower on the carpet.  He dropped it.

There is a little girl playing with her dog outside in the yard but she has her back to Alex.  He makes it back to his dressing room.  He must be sweating bullets running around in LA with a trench coat on.    

His wife and mother-in-law arrive.  He exits the dressing room to greet them.  Blythe is taller than Alex. He seems cool and calm.  I wonder if there was a shower in there.  Mother leaves for her seat and the concert director arrives to tell Alex that Jennifer Wells hasn't shown up yet.  He says he tried to reach her but the line is busy.  Alex acts really upset and Jennifer's irrisponsibility.  He picks up the phone and tells the operator that he has been trying to reach 555-7921 and asks her to cut in.  Blythe comes to full attention when Alex knows Jennifer's phone number by heart.  

The operator says that there's no one on the line.  Alex freaks out and says he wants her canceled out of the concert and that they'll play the Beethoven instead.  Then the concert director calls the police.  

The concert begins.  They are performing Beethoven and the scene flips between the cops arriving at Jennifer Wells home and Alex conducting.  Just as the cops bust into her home, the camera flips to Alex who notices that he is missing his flower from his lapel.  Then we are shown the flower on Jennifer Wells' carpet.  

Columbo Intro

Columbo is at the vet.  He has a new dog that he rescued from the pound.  I think its a weiner dog.  There all dogs to me bro.  Columbo carries the dog around like a corpse.  The dog is pretty cute.  This scene is purely to reinforce that the concert was on tv...well, to be fair, its also to enrichen the Columbo character...he now has a dog. 

The vet is watching the concert on the live broadcast on tv.  

After the concert, Alex comes off stage and he is manic with excitement after the performance.  Blythe Danner and the concert director tell Alex that Jennifer Wells is dead and Cassavettes makes a face. 

Now if Jennifer Wells' home, the police are gathering evidence.  Columbo remarks that he hates suicide.  He then goes on a long rant about the department dossier, Let's listen to it, (27:28) "this is what they gave me...die of old age" (28:59) That's good stuff. 

Alex arrives.  He's wearing sun glasses--even though its night time--and a trench coat.  He tells the sergeant with the voice that sounds like it's been dubbed in afterwards, about how jennifer didn't show and they called the police.  Meanwhile he's scanning the room for his lapel flower.  

He sees it and when the sergeant leaves the room, Alex takes off his coat and pretends his lapel flower just got knocked off by his coat.  He picks it up from the floor and this gets Columbo's attention.  Alex says he was taking off his coat and the flower got knocked off.  Columbo introduces himself and says he's a big fan.  He and his wife listen to the Blue Danube record that Alex conducted on. He asks Alex to confirm when he arrived at the concert and when Jennifer would have arrived. He's also able to determine that Alex's car was in a garage overnight.

Suddenly then, Paul--a trumpet player in the symphony--comes busting in.  He's adamant that there is no way Jennifer Wells killed herself.  He's very upset.  Columbo observes this.  Alex tells Paul to come and see him tomorow and Paul, having served his purpose, accepts this and leaves.  

Alex then leaves and outside there is some media waiting to ask questions.  He gives a one-liner about Jennifer being talented and leaves.  If you look closely you will see that Alex is wearing a flower and this will become important later.  

Columbo leaves and the little girl from outside of Jennifer's house is looking into his car.  Columbo says hi and she lays into him about leaving the dog in the car with the windows rolled up.  Rightly so.  She tells him she was friends with Jennifer and she would sometimes watch her cockatu Chopin.  She doesn't seem to broken up about Jennifer's death. 

Now Alex is arriving at his home.  When he enters, Blythe is asleep on the couch.  She wakes and asks him how well he knew Jennifer, let's listen to the clip, (36:32) "How well did you know her Alex?..."I love you" (38:25)  Alex does a great job of diffusing the situation.  If it became know that he was involved with Jennifer he would be right in Columbo's radar...he's there anyway.

He knows scene...or is it?

Columbo arrives at Alex's home.  He starts fawning over the size of Alex's home and asking about the value of the home and the furniture and the cost of paying for the staff and how much Alex makes and all kinds of personal questions, etc...then he asks for his autograph and leaves abruptly.  

I think at this point we can presume that Columbo is on to Alex.  I'm not sure of the exact moment but he's started with the silly and inappropriate questions and he's locked onto him and is following him around.  In most episodes there is a definite scene that you can point to or a single look that tells you.  I don't know where that is here.  I feel like it's the flower scene but I definitely didn't see the look.     

Benedict arrives at the mechanics to pick up his car. Columbo is inside revving the motor.  Benedict is starting to get irritated.  He asks Columbo what he thinks he's doing.  Columbo starts going on about Alex's car and how wonderful it is. Let's listen,  44:30 to 45:01

Columbo tells Benedict that he is very upset about this Jennifer Wells suicide.  He doesn't know why such a beautiful woman would commit suicide...as if beauty has anything to do with it.  Alex tells Columbo that artists go up, then come down, and go up, and come way down and we don't really know until it's too late.  

Columbo suggests that maybe she didn't commit suicide and Alex says he considered the same thing but then rejected it--for what i thought was a pretty logical reason.  He says that we, in our normal everyday lives, are unable to accept suicide, but it happens.  He's right.  

There's a good scene that illustrates how Columbo uses this technique of raising a question/raising a concern and then changing the subject to something trivial and then coming back to the original point.  He uses this technique frequently to see if the suspect is concerned or will try to bring the subject back around or offer unsolicited theories, etc. Let's listen to the clip, 47:25 to 48:53

Alex leaves and Columbo asks Mike if there was anything wrong with Alex's car.  Mike says Alex thought it was idling too high. (so there was nothing wrong and no reason for the car to be in the shop, other than an alibi) We also find out that they lock up the customers' cars each night so they are not accessible.  

Alex arrives at the band shell.  Columbo is playing chopsticks on the piano.  Columbo has brought Jennifer Wells' typewriter.  He starts to explain to Alex how the paper hasn't been removed but if you type on the suicide note the text doesn't line up.   Meaning it's like someone typed it, removed it, then put it back.  Columbo thinks that someone murdered Jennifer Wells and typed the letter to make it look like a suicide. Let's listen to the clip, 58:21 "suppose she didn't type it..." to 1:00:28

Columbo then tells Alex about the mileage.  The car had 9 more miles then when he brought it into Mike's and the round trip to Jennifer Wells' is 9 miles.  Alex tells Columbo that he didn't kill Jennifer Wells and, just before Columbo leaves, he tells Alex that the death has officially been declared a homicide.

I like the transition between scenes here.  There is a long pause on Alex who has just learned that the death is officially a homicide and that Columbo is on to him, and then the scene moves to Paul who, in the second phase of the episode, Alex is going to try to frame as the murderer.  

Paul is rehearsing with a band in a jazz bar.  Columbo claims he came into the bar looking for a match and its just a coincidence but Paul quickly realizes that Columbo is there to question him.  Columbo says to Paul that he looked very upset on the night of Jennifer Wells' death and he seemed adamant that she wouldn't have killed herself.  Paul admits that they had a relationship but she broke it off because there was another man in her life.  Columbo asks who the other man is but Paul claims to not know.  Columbo doesn't buy it and tells Paul so.  

Columbo visits Blythe.  She is just finishing up a tennis lesson with a tennis instructor.  He tells Blythe that he wants to talk to all of the people who knew Jennifer intimately, implying that Alex was on intimate terms with Jennifer, and that there is an ongoing murder investigation.  He makes Blythe upset and the seed has been planted as she fears Alex is somehow involved.  Alex arrives just as Blythe is storming off and Columbo says he didn't mean to upset her he just came over because he heard that Jennifer was having an affair with a man and he wanted to see if Alex had heard anything.  Columbo leaves.  

Alex enters the house and Blythe immediately asks why Columbo keeps coming around.  What does he want? Alex says he doesn't know and Blythe asks Alex if there is anything that she should know.  Alex cuts her off and denies any involvement. She doesn't seem to believe him.

In a scene that is meant to be funny but comes off as a little creepy--but mostly awkward--Columbo visits Audrey at her dance class where he confirms that a man in a tuxedo used to visit Jennifer Wells and that she saw the same man in the tuxedo leave Jennifer's house on the day that she died.  

The next scene Alex is conducting the symphony as they reherse the soundtrack to some Nazi propaganda film when Columbo arrives with Audrey.  They stop rehersing and Alex begins giving Paul some musical direction when Columbo interjects.  Alex has had enough.  Columbo explains that Audrey is here to point out the man who she witnessed leaving Jennifer's home on the day she was killed. Audrey walks right over and points at Paul and there is a closeup of Columbo giving the "rug pull" face.  

Now the symphony board seems to be having an impromptu meeting to discuss how these new facts about Paul affect their orchestra.  This is a small board, they barely have enough to make quorum.  Alex arrives and there doesn't seem to be any issue with him crashing a board meeting as they invite him to sit and give his feedback.  Alex says he's there because Paul can use a "friend" but he's really there to fuel the fire.  He says he thinks Paul will be cleared and that they ought to give him a break because he's been in a lot of trouble in his time and he could use a break.  What kind of trouble? Assault.  

Now Blythe's mom, Paul and Columbo all meet.  Mom explains that Alex tried to defend him to the board but they heard about his troubled past.  Paul admits that he was in love with Jennifer but she broke it off weeks before she died.  He said that he was really hung up on her and she allowed him to keep seeing her on the side.  On the day of her death, he showed up at her place but she never answered.  Columbo confirms that he believes Paul's story.  

Mrs Fielding explains that the symphony and Blythe are her babies.  And if anybody messes with either of them, they're out.  She suspends Paul with pay until the investigation is over.  She asks Paul to vanish quietly. He leaves.  Columbo asks if what she said also applies to Alex (would he be out too)? It does.  

Now we are back at the vets so that "dog" can get his shots.  The tv is playing the same concert from the night that Jennifer Wells died.  Columbo does a face palm when he realizes that the concert was on tape.  



And we're back. Let's recap what's happened thus far.

(episode recap)

The Get

Now Columbo shows up at rehearsal.  Alex is conducting and Blythe is watching from the seats.  The rehearsal comes to an end and Columbo says that this is the last time that he will bother them he just needs to clear one last thing up.  They agree and go into another room with a projector.

Before Columbo starts the clips he asks Alex and Blythe if Alex wears a flower on his lapel for every concert.  They confirm that he does. The projector shows the opening night concert.  Columbo stops the tape and you can clearly see that Alex is not wearing a flower.  So what.  He starts the tape again and you can clearly see Alex leaving Jennifer's house with the flower on his lapel.  So what.  Columbo reminds Alex that he picked up a flower from the floor by the piano at Jennifer's house on the night of the murder and the only way it could have gotten there was if he was there earlier. Let's listen to the clip of the get, (127:05) "There's the flower, plain as day...not murder." (128:58)

Columbo took a big risk betting on Blythe not lying for her husband.  This is why he spent the time planting the seeds of doubt with her.  

The Wrap-Up

A great episode.  

Villian 4 out of 5 Ken Franklins -- Murder to maintain the cushy lifestyle.

Victim 4 out of 5 Lily La Sankas -- she gave a severe ultimatum to an arrogant and powerful man who considered himself to be a genius. 

John Cassavetes


- born died

- only Columbo episode.  A friend of Peter Falk

- other acting and directing credits

Blythe Danner


- born died

- only Columbo episode.  Pregnant with Gwenyth Paltrow during shooting

- other acting credits

Pat Morita, "wax on, wax off" made an appearance as the butler.  

Director Nicholas Colasanto later became "coach" on Cheers.  

Special Thanks

Music for the intro:

Music from https://filmmusic.io

"Sweeter Vermouth" by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)

License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Next week on The Predictably Treacherous Podcast "Greenhouse Jungle" starring Ray Milland and Bradford Dillman.  Here's a brief summary:

In order to gain access to Tony's trust fund, Tony and his uncle Jarvis Goodland stage Tony's kidnapping.  Jarvis double-crosses Tony, by killing him and attempting to frame his philandering wife.

Tune in next week.