Columbo: Dead Weight

The latest visit with my favorite TV detective presented Eddie Albert as Major General Martin Hollister, also known as the murderer and Columbo’s adversary. Since today would have been Albert’s birthday (April 22, 1906 – May 26, 2005), I figure it’s a good time to share a few words about Dead Weight, the 1971 Columbo episode in which Albert starred.

Dead Weight, the third episode of the first season, was directed by Jack Smight and although it is not a standout episode in the Columbo series it has some interesting aspects to it. The story begins when a Colonel Roger Dutton (John Kerr) visits Major General Hollister in his beautiful seafront house. The retired General is packing things for an upcoming exhibit celebrating his many years of service when the young man bursts his bubble. As it turns out the two have been defrauding the government out of millions and Dutton is there to tell the General that an investigation is about to be launched. What’s a retired military man to do but shoot his co-conspirator?

Dutton tells Hollister about the upcoming investigation

While the murder is taking place two women, Helen Stewart (Suzanne Pleshette) and her mother Mrs. Walters (Kate Reid) are in a sail-boat parallel to the General’s house. Mrs. Stewart happens to see one man in a blue robe shoot another man in a uniform and hurries back to land to call the police. Enter Lt. Columbo to a tricky set of circumstances. You have a highly decorated General, a witness with severe self-esteem issues, no body, and no weapon. Needless to say, Columbo forges on because he feels there’s something wrong here. Honestly, when has he ever been wrong?

A pretty thorough search of Hollister’s house yields no evidence for the Lt. In fact, Hollister could not have been nicer even offering a possible explanation of what the witness might have seen. Columbo leaves the house a bit stumped, but soon his mood changes when he learns General Hollister not only seeks out the witness, but starts romancing her. It doesn’t take long for the insecure Mrs. Stewart to forget every detail of the shooting. This actually leads to a terrifically interesting Columbo moment when our favorite Lieutenant takes on the role of psychiatrist telling Mrs. Stewart, “One evening out with Hollister and you doubt yourself.” What was left unspoken, “You’re pathetic, stop blaming your mother for your troubles,” as the woman is prone to do – sometimes with good reason.

Much of what I’ve mentioned is fairly bland, but a gruesome scene surfaces after General Hollister returns home after a dinner in his honor held at his alma mater. It’s the middle of the night. The General changes his clothes to comfortable wear and presses a button that opens a secret door behind a bookcase in his room. As the bookcase swings around we see the dead body of Colonel Dutton swing along with it. The body is covered in plastic and tied with rope and hanging from the wall. It’s a disturbing sight to say the least. Although we knew General Hollister was a murderer, we are just now made privy to the extent of his cold-heartedness. Cool as a cucumber the General lifts the body off the wall and takes it out to his boat to dispose of it. We must figure now that this will be his downfall and we’re proven correct the next morning when we see Columbo feigning a fishing trip at the marina just where the General parks his boat.

Lt. Columbo zeroes in on his man without much effort even though this is a difficult-to-prove case without a body. When Colonel Dutton’s body floats up in the marina, however, our Lt. just needs to come up with the GOTCHA! plan, which he does by helping Mrs. Stewart remember. She and Columbo attend the General’s exhibit where the murder weapon, a vintage gun of some kind that the General had used in combat, is on display. Columbo figures it out because he knew a gun like that would mean too much to Hollister to simply get rid of. And, of course, he’s right. The Major General doesn’t even argue during the less than dramatic GOTCHA! before he’s walked out of the exhibit to meet his fate.

As I said, Dead Weight is not one of the most memorable Columbo outings, but it’s a worthy watch nonetheless. To start, we see the Lt. eating his favorite food, chili, in what may be the first iteration of the menu in the series. I can’t say for sure. Also, as many note when discussing this episode, we get a chance to see Lt. Columbo’s first name here as the full name is clearly visible when he shows his badge.

Photo courtesy of MeTV

One last thing – finally –  what makes Dead Weight a worthy watch are the performances. Of course, Peter Falk kills it as our Lt. although the story is bland, which is ultimately the greatest fault here. Suzanne Pleshette is believable as the anxious witness who is also a bit annoying for her desperation and Eddie Albert is fantastic as the villain here. I’m a big fan of Robert Aldrich‘s The Longest Yard (1974) in which Albert also plays a despicable character with flare. The bottom line with his turn in this Columbo episode is that if you want calm, cool, collected, and menacing they don’t come better equipped for murder than Eddie Albert’s Major General Hollister.

6 thoughts

  1. Loved this! I usually love Suzanne Pleshette in anything. She was such a good actress, and although she had a great career, I don’t think she received as much recognition as she should have. This character was annoying. She was just too cloying, too scatter-brained, and sometimes that just got boring. Leave it to Peter Falk and Eddie Albert to save this episode! I loved the ending with Columbo’s always incredible nabbing of the suspect, and Eddie Albert’s stoic surrender! Then finally ending with Columbo trying to comfort Pleshette’s character with a made-up story about his niece. Priceless!

  2. While I agree this is not in the top echelon in the Columbo series, it’s a worthy episode for the performances of some exemplary actors holding it higher than maybe it deserves. So glad you cite Eddie Albert’s work with…

    “… Robert Aldrich‘s The Longest Yard (1974) in which Albert also plays a despicable character with flare.”

    This is a highlight alright, but I’d recommend Aldrich’s other war film that really showcases how loathsome Mr. Albert could get when given a chance, Attack (1956). If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Though, be warn his work as the cowardly sadist, Capt. Erskine Cooney, will really open your eyes, as it did me. When I saw it, which was after his Oliver Wendell Douglas from TV’s Green Acres, I never viewed him the same way ever again. So it was a treat to see Eddie play the villain in this. Once again, another wonderful review of a favorite series of ours, Aurora. 🙂

  3. Great review. Yes, Suzanne was more than just Bob Newhart’s wife (lol). She’s great in this one. I get the feeling everyone was sorta feeling their way in these 1st Season episodes. In the later ones, we focus much more on the Columbo vs. Murderer cat-and-mouse game, but in this one, we there’s a lot screen time away from Killer, with the focus on Susan. I wouldn’t put this episode up at the top, I just can’t buy Eddie as such a cold blooded Killer – I’ve seen too many “Green Acres” shows!

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