February 16, 2016
Robert Culp makes a quality killer. He wears finely tailored clothing and and can convey a level of self-satisfaction that would make Narcissus blush. It is no surprise then, that he was the guest star/guest murderer on Columbo three times, including the episode under study today, Double Exposure (Season 3/Episode 4). Culp plays Dr. Bart Keppel, a marketing guru who peddles the value of subliminal messaging to companies. He calls himself a “motivation research specialist” who writes bestselling books with titles like, Advertising and the Motivated Sale, Motivation Research and its Value in Advertising, Human Values Vs Human Motives, and, my favorite, The Mind String: And How to Pull It. He is a master of manipulating people to part with their money, a corporate con man. He sets up the murder of his largest client (who is ready to fire him) through subliminal film editing. And Columbo finally catches him through subliminal editing of his own. This is a cat-and-mouse game where the chase happens on a flatbed Steenbeck editing table. Directed with panache by old pro Richard Quine, this deviously complex Columbo was made in an era when celluloid was not yet dead — and it could kill.
Double Exposure aired on NBC on December 16, 1973, and was written by Stephen J. Cannell (creator of The Rockford Files and The A Team). In the title screen above you see Dr. Keppel placing one of his guns back in its display case, right below a collection of antique blades. Nothing incriminating here, for sure. But what Keppel has in mind for his client Victor Norris (Robert Middleton) is no simple shooting, but an elaborate one involving caviar, a tape recorder, and the aforementioned subliminal editing. Norris is Keppel’s biggest client, and to lose him would be lose his business. Keppel had previously kept him on the hook through blackmail thanks to some compromising photographs. But now Victor is getting antsy, and his only solution is murder. The plan is (not so) simple. Victor and his team will be at Keppel’s studio to view a new cut of a promotional film. To establish an alibi, Keppel will act the voice-over in person, but let the tape recorder take over for him while he slips out for some killing. How does he get Victor out of the theater? Easy: by feeding him caviar beforehand, jacking up the thermostat, and then slipping in subliminal single frames of iced soda into the promo film, so the sweaty Victor will be consciously and unconsciously dying of thirst. The plan works of course, and Keppel has a complete alibi, as all the filmgoers will testify to his presence in the theater while the murder was taking place.
Well, this is why Columbo is Columbo. Peter Falk completely inhabits the role as the disheveled homicide lieutenant, whose ruffled exterior masks a rigorously logical mind. Falk introduces a mass of tics to Columbo’s character, from his shuffling walk to the way he arches his elbow to scratch his forehead while thinking. He is also a constant snacker, whether it’s one of his hard boiled eggs or whatever is available on the scene. He has inevitably missed breakfast, lunch or dinner at home, and thus has to nibble his way around a crime scene. In this episode it leads him to a clue, for when he complains about his empty stomach, a cop on the scene leads him to the leftover caviar, which Columbo devours like a bag of Fritos. The saltiness dries his mouth out, and leads him to unlock one piece of Keppel’s absurd puzzle. The others come free in due time, through Columbo’s own dogged research.
One of the great pleasures of the series is the interplay between the killer and Columbo, which can be a respectful duel between equals (as with Donald Pleasence in Any Old Port in a Storm), or, as in this case, total obliviousness. Keppel has so much belief in his own unimpeachable genius that when Columbo drops the hammer, he sheds a tear. Culp is so beautifully delusional in this episode, treating Columbo with withering disdain whether in his office or on the golf course wearing gigantic sunglasses. His mere presence should make the case disappear, and yet it doesn’t. For Columbo’s great gift is that he doesn’t go away. He doesn’t give up and he never goes away, even when you think he’s out the door he will always return with “one more thing.” When Nietzsche wrote about “eternal recurrence”, he was simply foreshadowing the existence of Columbo.
And in the perfect world of Columbo, persistence always pays off. Columbo chooses to play into Keppel’s narcissism in acknowledging him as the main suspect, but admitting they don’t have enough evidence to book him. This is telling Keppel what he wants to hear, warming him up for an emblematic gotcha moment. For Columbo has read all of Keppel’s books, and learned how subliminal advertising works. So when Keppel is away from his office, Columbo takes still pictures from many angles, and inserts them into the latest Keppel commercial. After Keppel views the film, he wanders into his office, tilts a lampshade and pulls out a calibration converter – one that turns his .45 into a gun that can shoot a .22 bullet. Keppel is shell shocked, and Quine pushes the camera closer after his jaw drops: “Subliminal cut, you used a subliminal cut!” In Columbo, it’s the editing that solves the crime.