Columbo: Death Lends a Hand

I just ran into Lieutenant Columbo once again. This time it’s an accidental murder by one of the all-time great villains in Columbo history.

 

Robert Culp makes his first Columbo appearance out of four in Death Lends a Hand directed by Bernard Kowalski. The others are: The Most Crucial Game (1972), Double Exposure (1973), and Columbo Goes to College (1990). Although he plays a man with a vicious temper, Death Lends a Hand offers a somewhat more innocent murderer, if there is such a thing, because he murders by accident. That doesn’t mean, however, that this guy is likable.

When our story begins we see Investigator Brimmer meeting with one of his clients, wealthy publisher Arthur Kennicutt (Ray Milland). Kennicutt had hired Brimmer to find out if his much younger wife, Lenore (Pat Crowley), was cheating on him. Brimmer reports that Lenore has been faithful and Kennicutt leaves a happy man. Unfortunately, Brimmer lied, not because he wants to spare feelings, but because he can use Lenore’s indiscretions to blackmail her.

As soon as Mr. Kennicutt  leaves the investigator’s office we find out that Mrs. Kennicutt is in an office nearby listening in on the conversation. Brimmer takes the opportunity as a “see what I just did for you” and drops the bombshell – he will not share the photos of her affair if she shares secrets of her husband’s business partners. Clearly, Brimmer’s hobby is blackmailing people, which is how Brimmer Industries can survive fancy digs. Naturally, Lenore is shook, but after giving the matter some thought she surprises Brimmer at his beach house that night to let him know that she plans to tell her husband the truth about her affair and about his proposal. The hot-tempered Brimmer strikes a massive blow to Lenore’s face, which results in her death.

Mrs. Kennicutt surprises Brimmer

Brimmer, whose first name is never mentioned, may have killed Lenore Kennicutt by accident, but it takes him absolutely no time at all to decide how to discard of her body and make the whole thing look like a mugging. It’s a terrific sequence, by the way, as we are made privy to the clean-up and dumping through reflections on his glasses. Kudos must be given to cinematographer Russell Metty who photographed a slew of enduring classics including Spartacus (1960) (for which he won the Oscar), Touch of Evil (1958), and Bringing Up Baby (1938). His memorable photography is among the best reasons to watch Death Lends a Hand.

Anyway, now that the gutsy Lenore is dead, Brimmer loads her body in his car, removes her person and purse of all valuables, and dumps her corpse in a construction site. This guy is sure of himself. I mean, why not? He’s an ex-cop with lots of shady investigator knowledge under his belt. What he doesn’t count on was Lieutenant Columbo. The Lt. makes his appearance here while driving his dilapidated, blue Peugeot, which makes its debuts in this episode of the series as the Lt. is pulled over for a faulty headlight. The classic car was chosen by Peter Falk himself and fits Columbo to a tee.

Columbo’s car is introduced in this episode when the Lt. is pulled over

Lieutenant Columbo is called in to investigate the body found at the construction site the morning after the murder. He arrives as rumpled and seemingly fumbling as usual as he goes around asking for a light. However, that’s just a ruse as he notices something odd with the body immediately, something not mentioned by the coroner. We later find out that what he notices is that the victim had been hit hard on the left side of her face by someone wearing a ring. And now the fun begins.

Columbo goes to speak with Mr. Kennicutt at his home and lo and behold, there is Brimmer willing to assist. Before long the investigator has been assigned the case of Mrs. Kennicutt as a back-up to the police investigation. What better way is there to stay up-to-date with the news? During this first meeting, however, the Lt. confesses to being a fan of astrology and palm reading, which is news to me, taking a look at the palms of both men thereby establishing Brimmer as a suspect. We don’t know it yet, but Columbo zeroes in on his man at that very moment and plays him like a fiddle for the rest of the story.

Lieutenant Columbo is called in to investigate the body found at the construction site the morning after the murder. He arrives as rumpled and seemingly fumbling as usual as he goes around asking for a light. However, that’s just a ruse as he notices something odd with the body immediately, something not mentioned by the coroner. We later find out that what he notices is that the victim had been hit hard on the left side of her face by someone wearing a ring. And now the fun begins.

Columbo goes to speak with Mr. Kennicutt at his home and lo and behold, there is Brimmer willing to assist. Before long the investigator has been assigned the case of Mrs. Kennicutt as a back-up to the police investigation. What better way is there to stay up-to-date with the news? During this first meeting, however, the Lt. confesses to being a fan of astrology and palm reading, which is news to me, taking a look at the palms of both men thereby establishing Brimmer as a suspect. We don’t know it yet, but Columbo zeroes in on his man at that very moment and plays him like a fiddle for the rest of the story.

Needless to say Robert Culp is terrific as the murderer in Death Lends a Hand if perhaps less menacing than his subsequent appearances in the series. Like most Columbo murderers Brimmer tries his best to get as close to the investigation as possible, which always ends up being the undoing. In this case Brimmer goes so far as to offer Columbo a job in his agency in order to get the Lt. off the Kennicutt case. Columbo sees through the ruse, just as he discounts the tennis instructor who had the affair with Lenore immediately. He knows who the murderer is and wastes no time with anyone else. In fact, Brimmer’s attempts to “fool” the Lieutenant only serve to strengthen the case against him and Columbo ends up baiting the ill-tempered man at every opportunity. The best example of this is when Columbo makes up a story about Lenore having lost a contact lens at the murder scene. The Lt. has the body exhumed, which results in a confirmation that both contacts were intact. Yet, he makes sure to tell Kennicutt a contact is missing in front of Brimmer, which prompts the GOTCHA! as he is caught rummaging through his trunk to find it before Columbo does. I like the cat-and-mouse of Death Lends a Hand better than the GOTCHA! but it’s enjoyable to watch nonetheless. Brimmer is quite meek as he is caught red-handed searching for, and finding, a contact lens that has nothing to do with Mrs. Kennicutt. That contact lens is proof enough though and Brimmer argues not, but quietly apologizes to Mr. Kennicutt before he is taken away.

One more thing…although the murderer kills by accident in this episode, it is one of the most violent acts committed in any Columbo story. This one is personal with Brimmer losing his cool in memorable fashion. Mrs. Kennicutt surprises Brimmer at his beach house to tell him she is not falling for his blackmail. She is determined to tell her husband everything. As she goes to leave Brimmer violently pushes her back into the room hitting her violently with closed fist across the left side of her face. Lenore falls backwards onto a glass table and dies instantly. The violence here is depicted with a Hitchcock-style pov shot as if we, the audience, is being punched by this guy. It’s a memorable scene for its crossing of that line.

 

On other matters – it’s terrific to see Ray Milland in this episode. His character is a sympathetic one in contrast to the murderer he plays in The Greenhouse Jungle the following year. I also enjoy Pat Crowley immensely. Ms. Crowley was in what seems every conceivable classic TV show from the 1960s forward. Further, as mentioned, the visuals in Death Lends a Hand are stunning from the very opening, which is a target at a firing range with loud shots being fired into it. Culp’s walk away from the firing range depicts the arrogance that made him such a treat to watch as a villain and with a vérité camera the menace is present from the get-go. There’s a lot of humor here too thanks to brilliance of Peter Falk. Death Lends a Hand was the first regular episode of Columbo filmed although it aired after Murder By the Book and it is one of those staples that would make anyone a fan of Columbo.

7 thoughts

  1. With all due respect:
    This is not an accident.
    Brimmer strikes Lenore with the bottle; that’s assault and battery.
    There’s no premeditation; had Lenore survived, Brimmer would be guilty of a crime (assault with intent, as above).
    As it is, what Brimmer does with Lenore’s body brings it up to at least manslaughter.
    And once it comes to trial, Brimmer’s blackmail racket might make the charges even worse for him (perhaps this isn’t the first time his bad temper might have led to a criminal result).

    While there’s no argument that Russell Metty’s photography is top drawer, the eyeglasses business is more in purview of the film editor – in this case, Edward Abroms, who won an Emmy Award for this episode (and was able to advance to the director’s chair as a direct result of his work here).
    These quibbles aside, nice piece …

  2. Throwing in your own “one more thing” made me smile.

    I don’t have time to watch Columbo these days. Why do you do this to me?

    PS: My earliest Pat Crowley sighting is in Forever Female, 1953. She’s a young actress breathing down aging ingenue Ginger Rogers, and making a play for playwright William Holden. Marion Ross plays Pat’s pal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s