Ètude in Black

Episode 8 – Ètude in Black

The eighth episode of Columbo was titled Ètude in Black and was the opening episode of the show’s second season. A popular musician murders his mistress to conceal their affair, intending that her death be considered a suicide. Columbo is charged with disproving that assertion and identifying the killer. In this podcast Gerry and Iain look at Columbo’s approach to the investigation and the appearance of a new regular character.

 

 

Although season 2 opened with a larger supporting cast than most of the previous year’s episodes, there were only a few roles of any depth. John Cassavetes was most prominent as Alex Benedict, conductor and killer. His sparring with Columbo was reminiscent of episodes 1 and 7 of Season 1, with the chemistry between Falk and Cassavetes essential to the success of the episode.

 

Also featuring were the exceptional Blythe Danner as Benedict’s put-upon wife, Janice Benedict; Myrna Loy as her affluent and influential mother; and James Olson as the emotional Paul Rifkin. The victim, Jenifer Welles, was portrayed – albeit briefly – by Emmy-nominated Anjanette Comer. There was also a brief appearance from future Oscar nominee Pat Morita, who would rise to fame, firstly in the 1970’s as Arnold in Happy Days and then in the 1980’s as Mr Miyagi in the original series of Karate Kid movies.

 

Although Nicholas Colasanto is credited as directing this episode, Cassavetes and Falk, friends off-screen, are often considered responsible for much of the directorial work in Ètude in Black.

 

During this episode we asked listeners to let us know if they could identify scenes that were adapted in the truncated version of Ètude in Black. If you have thoughts on that or any other parts of the episode then please feel free to comment below, or find us on Twitter at @columbopodcast.

 

The Columbo Podcast is widely available – on iTunes, Stitcher, tunein, Pocket Casts, Spreaker or pretty much wherever you choose to receive and manage your podcasts. If you enjoy the show it would be greatly appreciated if you consider leaving ratings and reviews on these sites – particularly iTunes – as that can make a big difference to growing the podcast’s audience.

 

Ètude in Black was released in 1972. It is 98 minutes long and originally aired on the NBC network. It can be viewed on Netflix in the United States and is available on DVD in other countries, including a comprehensive box set of all eleven seasons released by Universal.

 

The Columbo Podcast Team

The Columbo Podcast Team

The Columbo Podcast team develops, produces and promotes The Columbo Podcast.

  • Peter

    If you really want to grab the attention of people who watched Columbo when it originally ran try playing the opening theme of the Sunday Night NBC Mystery Movie written by Mancini. A great theme. It would play right after the opening coming attractions. It featured a guy walking at night with a flashlight. Check it out on YouTube.

    • Interestingly we were watching that the other day. Definitely a catchy tune.

      • Ian Baxter

        it is catchy, but I do like the music / jingles you already use.

        • Largo

          Well, as long as it’s the original NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie theme, we’re good! ; )

  • Ian Baxter

    If Columbo never noticed the flower until watching the rerun of the concert then what put him onto Benedict? I can see why he struggles with it being a suicide but there seems a lack of link to Benedict that justifies the hounding that follows. Once you get over that leap you can’t deny it’s a fun episode, even with the padding. I fear you’ll find the padding gets a lot worse in some of the later episodes, but that’s for another day.

    • Largo

      Indeed! The padding gets rather shameless in those later episodes. I much prefer the 75 minute Columbo mysteries. I feel that only a few select episodes deserved 90+ minutes.

  • Ian Baxter

    On the subject of Columbo’s personal hygiene I recon the smell of cigar will dominate any other odours (including dog, old car, wet coat, eggs, chilli, etc etc)

  • CarlosMu

    Great fun, thanks for the episode. I was briefly alarmed when Gerry said Falk and Cassavetes worked together on six movies. With your accent it sounded like you said sex movies.

  • Largo

    This second season premiere episode is not one of my favorites — not even close (in fact, I sarcastically refer to it as “A Turd In Black”). The numerous plot contrivances just cripple this episode:

    1. Why did Benedict have to wear his tuxedo suit coat (underneath the spy coat!) and the carnation while committing the murder?

    2. The police conveniently forgetting crime scene protocol — not photographing EVERYTHING and noticing the dropped carnation or even barring civilians from entering Jennifer’s apartment. Sheesh!

    3. It is beyond common knowledge that every car repair shop always meticulously logs the mileage off of the odometer — but this tidbit seems to escape Benedict’s subtle mind while plotting his “perfect” crime.

    4. The blunt force trauma to the back of Jennifer’s head vs. Benedict’s “clever” ploy of setting up a scene where Jennifer simply falls forward onto the oven door/kitchen floor while being overcome by the gas fumes. Uhmmm — yeah. Right!

    Now, I completely buy into the usual Columbo contrivances: that his “superpower” is that his instincts are always proven right and that he knows who the murderer is within minutes of meeting him or her. But the plot contrivances that I’ve listed above are there because the script simply demands it. That’s just lazy writing and it just ruins this episode for me.

    Another thing that takes me completely out of this Columbo episode is John Cassavetes’ laughable attempts at mimicking actual conductor arm movements while in front of an orchestra. This brilliant method actor is so painfully clueless and lacks any method at all here. He fails miserably to even keep time with the music.

    This all goes from bad to worse when we reach the sequence involving that music scoring session for the Hitler film documentary. It seems almost as if Cassavetes is having some sort of fit while being tortured by the bombastic noise that is erupting from the studio orchestra.

    Even though I didn’t enjoy this episode I thoroughly enjoyed your podcast for Ètude in Black. All of the various items that your modern sensibilities found to be inappropriate here are truly endearing to me. I saw this episode when it first aired and none of us in my clan even batted an eye at any of this stuff. I still find Audrey’s feminist quips a hoot and Columbo’s ‘aw- cut the crap’ type response to be very amusing.

    But that’s just me. Both of you gents just keep calling this series out on these kind of items as you see them. Thanks again for another great Columbo podcast. Be seeing you!

    • Thanks Largo, glad you enjoyed it, even if it wasn’t one of your favourite episodes. One of the articles I linked to in the show notes above comments on the substandard conducting of the orchestra – seems to have been quite irritating for those who know what to look for!

      • CarlosMu

        I don’t know enough about music to be able to judge Cassavetes’s imitation of conducting, but I did notice that Jennifer Welles, while her piano playing looked very passionate, she only played the white keys.

      • Largo

        I’m not actually musically inclined at all, but for me poor ol’ John
        Cassavetes’ overly dramatic and wild, jerky arm movements are just
        incredibly bad (the beat goes on and he’s so wrong). Thanks for that
        article link — I just clicked on it. But “Opera Chic’s” opening
        comments are far too caustic toward the Columbo series a a whole.

    • Peter

      I am in complete agreement with Largo though I did enjoy the episode.I found Cassevettes walk and mannerism somewhat ungraceful as well for such a great actor. I am also in total agreement about modern sensibilites. Quite honestly, it did not offend me that Columbo is perturbed that this attractive,successful woman did not have a boy friend. Seems to me that such a women would get a lot of attention from men.

      • No doubt she would, but to not consider that she might have chosen not to have a boyfriend seemed odd to me (Iain). I think Gerry agreed with you though!

      • Largo

        I agree that Jennifer Welles would be a magnet for men due to her intelligence, talent and beauty. Despite the fact that she’s a controlling narcissist, I still find her murder in this episode to be very disturbing. I also found Columbo’s distress about this apparent suicide rather poignant, too.

      • digger01

        I agree with you, Peter. Columbo wasn’t saying that Jennifer was incomplete without a man, he was just looking for a reason for any turmoil in her life. Though, as Iain pointed out in the discussion, mental distress that leads to suicide often does not display outward signs.

        I think Columbo was just looking at the likely pieces of her life and thought “an attractive, successful woman… there must be a guy who is interested in her.”

        This line of thinking was also used as a plot device to demonstrate what Columbo was thinking (Was she in a relationship?) and why he started looking at Benedict.

    • Ciaran Guilfoyle

      Cassavetes more than compensated for his poor conducting with his mimicking of his car mechanic’s British accent! I can just imagine the name-calling that must happen in that garage whenever Cassavetes’ conductor character drives away.

  • digger01

    Just another thought, and I’m wondering what others think…

    If Jennifer was dead after Benedict struck her, she couldn’t have inhaled any gas. This would be a huge red flag when the medical examiner ran the toxicology on her blood sample. No carbon monoxide, no suicide.

    Was she merely unconscious when he struck her? How could he have been assured of that, and that the gas would finish her off?

    • Largo

      This is a very good point, digger01! I guess we had better give this a pass and just file this under the “Hey, it’s the 70s and this pre-dates the forensic science ‘CSI explosion’ of our day, eh.” There really is no way that Benedict could have assured any of this by utilizing a blunt object to strike Jennifer. Which begs the question: why didn’t he just use chloroform?

    • CarlosMu

      Your point about being sure she was finished off reminds me of at least two Columbo murders (very vague spoiler alert) where the murderer figured that wrong.

  • Maddie

    Love your podcasts!

  • Sorry digger, this one was stuck in the moderation queue. I really must check it more regularly!

    • digger01

      No problem at all… Thanks for pulling it out!

  • Etude in Black which literally translates as ‘Study in Black’. A nod, I think to Conan Doyles’ super sleuth. Remember ‘A Study in Scarlet’, anyone?

    • That’s a good shout, Kieran. A dual-purpose use perhaps, with a pianist victim.

    • Largo

      Yes! The very first Sherlock Holmes mystery. I’m actually related to the ‘real’ Sherlock Holmes: Dr. Joseph Bell (Sir Arthur Conan Doyles’ mentor and the inspiration for his super sleuth).

      • Wow! Check you out, Largo – that is some claim to fame. I know about Dr. Joseph Bell as I have the Conan Doyle biography. Interestingly enough, there was a TV drama that ran recently on one of our British networks called ‘ITV’ about Conan-Doyle solving a real life mystery. It starred Martin Clunes and wasn’t half bad. Clues is actually the cousin of the late great Jeremy Brett who, for me, was the definitive SH.

        • Largo

          Thanks, Kieran! Yeah, I’m a distant relative of the famous Bell Clan through my mother’s side of the family. I’m very happy to see that you’re a ‘Jeremy Brett is the definitive Sherlock Holmes’ fan as well — I’m very proud to say that I include myself in this fan group, eh! All of these modern day imitators in various film and television adaptations just makes me run back to my Jeremy Brett as Holmes DVD collection.

  • shane

    Can anyone tell me please the music to the opening of columbo, it is strange whistling music real eerie music like you are in space, and they would tell you in the end what show was on that night, like ….and tonight Peter Falk as Columbo.

    • Largo

      That is the NBC Mystery Movie theme that was written by Henry Mancini. It was used on the original NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie (1971-72) as well as the NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (1972-77). Here it is via YouTube —

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1S_6IVGhwQI

  • Tim S. Turner

    I love this one. Cassavettes was a great villain, and the final “gotcha” was very memorable. Plus, Dog!!

    • Who doesn’t love dog?

      • Largo

        Perhaps another detective and her pet ocelot named Bruce? 😉

  • FuchuBH

    Let me say, I love the podcast and truly enjoy the enthusiasm and thought both of you gave to this series. But I have to say that I think in this episode you guys were a bit off the mark on the issue of appropriateness. The word misogyny came up, which I think has to be dismissed as completely absurd. I don’t feel there is anything even remotely misogynistic; if anything the episode is masterfully subversive to male chauvinism.

    I believe that this episode was meant to advance gender equity. It’s an easy criticism to claim that Blythe Danner’s character is a stereotypical, hard-done-by wife. But in the generation context of the three main female characters, she represents a harsh reality. Jennifer Wells is younger, with an ability to pursue her own talent and assert herself (to her misfortune), but still with an insecurity in relationships with men. Audrey is dismissed as “precocious”, but that does her character a disservice. She is, even at such a young age, self-aware and confident, already beyond that of the other two. The generations of women are progressing in the program. This is good to notice, rather than deriding the perceived acts of male chauvinism.

    I don’t understand how the subversion inherent in the character of Audrey was not recognised. She completely embarrasses Columbo, by taking on the very criticisms of the day that you are deriding the show for. And I recall one off you mentioning he’s not even embarrassed…. please watch again, he’s absolutely flustered when he sheepishly says “No… seriously, Audrey… give me a break.”

    And, even as product of the time, there is nothing intrinsically demeaning in what Columbo says about Jennifer Wells. The fact that he recognises her talent and success is conveniently glazed over, and focus is put on his mentioning her shape, and bedroom eyes (as if physical attractiveness is not valued as much today as it was then… it can be debated whether it should be, but it is certainly valued). I think the observation that a character just can’t say those things, and that such dialogue would never be able to be written today betrays a contemporary prudishness by the “enlightened” in the 21st century. Should Columbo pretend not to think about whether Jennifer had a partner or not, because it’s not politically correct? Or should he consider everything he can to help solve the murder?

    The same is true with suicide. I’m sorry, but the rebuttal that not all suicides have rational causes doesn’t really work. Again, why limit the scope of the reasoning employed by the investigator? It’s a logical progression. Physical fitness, career, financial stability, check, check, check. Might there be a deeper, unknown cause? Possibly, but these more obvious candidates have been eliminated. Again, are we meant to pretend all causes of suicide must be unknowable, just because some are?

    As I mentioned, I truly do enjoy the podcast, but I would suggest re-watching this episode with a little less of the 21st century PC-colored glasses, and take a deeper look into intent.

    • Hi FuchuBH, thanks for the feedback.

      We did say back at the start of the podcasts that we’d be looking at the episodes in part through a 21st century lens to see how well they stand up. The reason it seems misogynistic is because he wouldn’t (or at least in the other episodes, doesn’t) say the same things about male victims, for example in Murder with Too Many Notes.

      I don’t think we ‘pretend all causes of suicides must be unknowable’ at all. Our criticism is of suicide being ruled out because there isn’t a rational cause. There are countless examples of people who have wealth, fame, success who suffer from depression or commit suicide. Rather than limit the detective’s scope here, we’re criticising his decision to limit his own scope.

      Really appreciate the discussion, great to hear a range of opinions. Hope you keep enjoying the podcasts!

      • FuchuBH

        Well, you certainly are “of your time”, that is for certain.
        I’m curious about your claim that not saying the same things about male victims results in misogyny, though. How does it demonstrate a “hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women, or prejudice against women” (And clearly the word is used most commonly used to mean ‘hatred’). Does the same apply if Columbo fails to inquire whether a male victim was pregnant? Please excuse the hyperbole, but I think the point still stands. How is it misogynistic (or seem so, in your opinion)?

        • Hi Fuchu.

          In this case I’d say the misogyny takes the form of androcentrism.

          • FuchuBH

            Well, that’s different than misogyny, is it? Words have meaning for a reason. A disservice is done when they are used indiscriminately. To narrow down this instance as an example of androcentrism is rather facile. Columbo is male, it would be his perspective. No artist or filmmaker is obliged to give comprehensive views, after all it is a point a view.

            But yet again, no mention of Columbo’s recounting her as “genius”, “superb” “talented”, having “no fear”, and referring to “the crowd she went with, the best people – dukes, earls, politicians, the best people”. Nothing. Just “she’s got a nice shape and bedroom eyes.” A bit selective, no? Yet some minds in the 2010’s are condition to only see what they want to see. What’s worse, it diminishes the exposure of true misogyny.

            All of which is irrelevant because, as was apparent in a later episode “Any Old Port in a Storm”, the physical attractiveness of a (yet undiscovered) male victim was noted on the show, and on the podcast. If the criticism is that the show demonstrates a tendency to value attractive people more than others, then there is no argument. But even so, it’s not an argument anyone in 2016 has any standing to make.

  • Steve Cloutier

    No mention of the great Myrna Loy! She played Nora Charles in The Thin Man movies. HUGE star in the ’30s and ’40s (part of the Prohibition dig?). She got the famed bank robber John Dillinger killed. He was in hiding (obviously since the FBI was looking for him) and decided to slip out to catch her in the movie Manhattan Melodrama (with Clark Gable and William Powell her Thin Man co-star). The authorities were tipped off, and he was shot and killed in a gun fight when they tried to apprehend him.