The second season of Columbo brought several memorable episodes and murderers into our homes. Most notable perhaps is Leonard Nimoy’s stint as the supremely arrogant Dr. Mayfield in “A Stitch in Crime.” The episode that precedes Stitch in the Columbo timeline is often overlooked, but it’s an enjoyable turn featuring the only outing by a lone female killer for the season. In addition, this is an episode that honors classic Hollywood. Directed by Richard Quine and written by Jackson Gillis, this is a “Requiem for a Falling Star.”
Being a movie star is difficult and Nora Chandler (Anne Baxter) has it particularly bad as her glory days are behind her. As a show business veteran, however, Ms. Chandler knows how to claw her way to remaining a viable talent. The problem is that clawing usually entails leaving a trail of deceit…sometimes worse. Privy to some of Nora’s indiscretions is gossip columnist, Jerry Parks (Mel Ferrer) who uses what he knows to blackmail her. As if that were not bad enough, Mr. Parks calls Nora “a has-been movie queen” during the exchange that precipitates her plans for murder. After all, what is a movie queen supposed to do under those circumstances? Setting the stage for a fire and subsequent explosion in someone’s garage seems as good an idea as any other does.
In a scene not worthy of a great movie star, we see a desperate woman pouring gasoline on a garage floor. Prior to that, she would let the air out of a car tire. Clearly, hiding the skeletons in her closet is paramount to Nora Chandler.
Ms. Chandler is out at a fancy restaurant when she receives the news of the sudden death of a friend. She is appropriately shocked that it is her secretary and long-time companion, Jean Davis (Pippa Scott) who died as the result of a car explosion. One would think that the gossip columnist who knows Nora has swindled $2 million from the movie studio would be priority, but as it turns out Jean knew all of Nora’s secrets including details of her having killed her husband. The tangled web Nora weaves is just taking form.
Enter Columbo – played by the extraordinary Peter Falk – in a state we’ve rarely ever seen him. Ringing the bell to the movie star’s bungalow the Lieutenant is straightening his clothes and checking his fingernails trying to look his best. What follows is extremely charming, a scene during which the Lt. professes his lifelong love for Nora. As you probably know, the Lt. and Mrs. Columbo are huge classic movie fans. In fact, if you ever see Columbo sleep deprived it’s likely he and the missus stayed up with The Late Late Show and Bette Davis. We can certainly understand then why he is so taken with Ms. Chandler who has been in movies since she was a kid. The first thing Columbo does is call his wife from Nora’s phone, but gets his brother-in-law instead in an enjoyable exchange that results in a sort of running gag throughout the episode. Do not let Columbo the fan fool you though. The greatest detective of all time lets nothing, not even his heart, get in the way of an investigation.
This is what makes Requiem for a Falling Star such an interesting Columbo outing. As with most episodes, the story begins with the narrative of the murder, but in this case, the murder we witness is committed to cover up a previous one from years before. That previous case is discussed during the episode, but is glossed over while we focus on the cat and mouse of the Jean Davis investigation. Nora tries her best to make Jean’s death look like an accident wanting Columbo to focus on gossip Jerry Parks as the intended victim. As expected, however, the truth becomes known and a particularly cold murderer is exposed beneath the glittery veneer of stardom.
The method by which Lt. Columbo gets to the truth is ever fascinating and usually has to do with a small detail. He’ll notice either a gesture, a word or an object that makes little sense in that brilliant mind of his. In Requiem for a Falling Star, the detail is in a water fountain in the back yard of Nora’s bungalow, which sits in the middle of the studio lot. Columbo notices the fountain immediately because it is from one of Nora’s movies. We later learn that the studio has been trying to buy the plot of land where the bungalow sits and Nora refuses to sell. Well, the reason she refuses to sell is that the body of her husband is buried underneath the water fountain. Without saying a word, Columbo zeroes in on the fountain from the beginning because there is no water flowing from it. What is the point of having a water fountain without water? That’s all it takes for Columbo to find this murderer.
Nora Chandler walks to her bar and asks Columbo if he would care for a drink. This is a rare instance when the Lt. accepts. Caught in the web of her own design Nora recounts the details of her husband’s murder as Columbo stands by listening intently. With renewed bravery, Nora accepts her fate and Columbo is visibly sorry that a movie star he admires has committed murder. It is a heartfelt “gotcha” in this as Eve Harrington…er…Nora Chandler exits with the man who figured her out. And yes, I do think of Eve Harrington as I watch Anne Baxter in this episode and think of the possible connection between Nora Chandler and Margot Channing as well. The names are not the same, but are similar enough and it serves Nora right that she’s a falling star. For Margot’s sake.
One more thing…I would be remiss not to mention eight additional reasons to love Requiem for a Falling Star – Edith Head and her seven Oscars. At one point in the story, Nora Chandler is interested in changing course and wants to be sure to tell Columbo about it. Her plan is to admit that Parks has some solid dirt on her in order to strengthen the overall investigation toward his intended demise and away from Jean. She “comes clean” in a particularly entertaining scene that takes place in Edith Head’s office where she and Nora are discussing wardrobe. How can anything be better than Columbo meeting Edith Head? Ever the fan, Columbo makes it point to ask something like, “isn’t she the one I’ve seen at the Oscars?” and then notices the seven statuettes on the desk behind him. It is thrilling. And the Lt. gets a new tie in the process.