“The Night I was Murdered” a manuscript by Abigail Mitchell
“Try and Catch Me”
Directed by James Frawley. Story by Gene Thompson
Original music by Patrick (Pat) Williams
Cast: Peter Falk, Ruth Gordon, Mariette Hartley, G. D. Spradlin, Charles Frank, Mary Jackson
Original airdate: November 21, 1977
Abigail Mitchell is a successful mystery writer, author of thirty-two best-selling books about murder. If anyone knows what makes a good murder mystery it’s Ms. Mitchell so when she’s convinced that her ex-nephew-in-law did away with her beloved niece, Phyllis, she doesn’t stand idly by. In fact, it stands to reason that Abigail would devise the perfect way to get rid of him. Only one thing stands between her and the perfect murder, a certain dogged lieutenant named Columbo.
That’s the premise of “Try and Catch Me,” an episode of the classic television show, Columbo, the first show in the series’ seventh season. It happens to be one of my favorites as television’s greatest Lieutenant matches wits with a quirky, too-smart-for-her-own-good, murderer played by the legendary, Ruth Gordon.
“Try and Catch Me” features a terrific supporting cast, listed at the onset of this post. But I am not making an additional mention of them. They’re enjoyable to watch but for me the episode is all about the exchanges between the two featured players, Peter Falk and Ruth Gordon.
We all know about Peter Falk’s extraordinary talent and his distinguished career, but I must mention a bit of Ruth Gordon’s before commenting on “Try and Catch Me.” Ruth Gordon received five Academy Award nominations in total. Three for co-writing screenplays with her husband, Garson Kanin – all films directed by George Cukor, A Double Life in 1948, Adam’s Rib in 1951 and Pat and Mike in 1952. The other two Oscar nods she received were for her acting prowess, a Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Robert Mulligan’s, Inside Daisy Clover in 1965 and her only win in that same category for Roman Polanski’s, Rosemary’s Baby in 1968. She also won a Tony and an Emmy.
I think this is telling, her quote on Oscar night in 1969 as she stood at the podium: “My husband told me if I didn’t win this time he wouldn’t bring me again. But I figured even if I didn’t win I’d get a new dress out of it. I feel absolutely groovy.”
Gordon began her long career in writing and stage acting during the golden age of Hollywood, but she didn’t become a movie star in earnest until the 1960s. I’m a big fan of Ruth Gordon’s whose portrayal of (mostly) quirky, somewhat off-the-wall or eccentric characters I find endlessly appealing, even if sometimes a bit eery. She had a strange delivery and sense of humor, evident in “Try and Catch Me,” which plays a huge part in why it is one of my favorite Columbo episodes.
As we know because it’s front and center in all Columbo episodes Peter Falk also had a wonderful sense of humor and few murderers in the series matched wits with the Lt. as did Ruth Gordon in “Try and Catch Me.” The two have terrific chemistry and the episode is a mutual admiration society woven into a signature Columbo cat and mouse game. “Try and Catch Me” entertains for its full 73 minutes – a solid mystery that’s also witty, quite tense and engaging. Helping make this episode a standout are little things like the fact that it’s Abigail who speaks Columbo’s favorite, “one more thing” several times during the episode. That tidbit would be fun any time, but made even better because Abigail Mitchell is an expert on murder due to her writing career, which requires her to think like a homicide detective. And she does! On the other hand we know Columbo thinks like a murderer, which is his ace in the hole as an investigator. The writing in this episode uses those two characterizations perfectly, adding a lightness to an otherwise heartfelt murder story.
Abigail Mitchell: I’m beginning to be very fond of you, Lieutenant. I think you’re a very nice man.
Lt. Columbo: Don’t count on that. Miss Mitchell. Don’t count on it.
By the way, Ruth Gordon was (and remains) the oldest star ever to play the murderer in Columbo. She was 81 at the time of filming.
I guess this is a type of confession, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise – I’ve never seen a Columbo episode I didn’t enjoy. Even the lesser ones are fun to watch because of Columbo himself and I’ll probably say that ad infinitum. However, with the vast array of fabulous guest stars that appeared on the show, memorable powerhouse murderers like Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy and Leonard Nimoy, to name just 3, I’m always willing to go the extra mile for Ruth Gordon and “Try and Catch Me,” because I’m not sure they get their due among the greats. I’ve already mentioned the humor now let’s get to the heart and poignancy present here, which both actors manage beautifully and which Abigail Mitchell tries to use to her advantage in the end as she asks Columbo for a reprieve. She’s old and tired after all and justice was done. Her niece’s murderer paid for his crime. Columbo, ever kind-hearted and fair tells Abigail he understands why she did it. But just as she’s professional about her work, so is he. How can you not love this man?
Abigail Mitchell: “Just think, Lieutenant, if you’d had investigated my niece’s death, none of this need have happened.”
So true. And so sad.
One last thing – that stands out about “Try and Catch Me” is that the ending is somewhat of a surprise. We know who the murderer is and watch the process take place at the onset, as is the case with all Columbo episodes, but we have a nice unexpected turn in store here – a deathbed testimony. The “gotcha” in this instance comes from the murdered, not the Lieutenant, which is a fantastic twist and a shocker for poor Abigail who finds out that the hated murderer of her beloved niece got the better of her in the end. Adding insult to injury, he edited her work.
“I hate being edited”
“xxx xxxxx I was Murdered” by Abigail Mitchell.
Two Columbo-style “shout outs” before I say farewell – one to Mrs. Columbo who gets quite a few mentions in “Try and Catch Me.” She happens to be a big fan of Abigail Mitchell in this one. And the other shout out is to Dog who makes a cameo appearance, which is always a special treat. Woof!