Playback

Episode 28 – Playback

The twenty-eighth episode of Columbo was titled Playback and was the fifth episode of the show’s fourth season. A disagreement between a man and his mother-in-law escalates dramatically as a murder is committed on camera. In this podcast Gerry and Iain look frame-by-frame at a story underpinned by new technology.

 

 

Harold Van Wick (Oskar Werner) is the chief antagonist in this tale that borrows heavily from earlier Columbo episodes, from start to finish. Werner would have been known to audiences for a some memorable film roles in the 1960s, including an Oscar-nominated turn in 1965’s Ship of Fools. Never a prolific actor, he was nevertheless well-regarded for his work. He followed his Columbo appearance with one final role, earning a Golden Globe nomination for 1976’s Voyage of the Damned.

 

There was a relatively tight supporting cast in this episode. Martha Scott played Van Wick’s mother-in-law and victim Margaret Meadis in a brief but vigorous appearance, while Gena Rowlands played a more substantial part as Elizabeth Van Wick, Harold’s wheelchair-bound wife. Robert Brown‘s Arthur Meadis and Herb Jefferson Jr‘s Baxter completed the extended Van Wick household.

 

Patricia Barry and Trisha Noble played staff at the art gallery which served as both Harold’s alibi and the basis of his ultimate exposure. Columbo’s struggles with modern art provided an entertaining aside during the episode.

 

Bernard Kowalski returned for the third of his four stints behind the camera, while former Star Trek actor Booker T. Bradshaw combined with David P. Lewis to write the episode – neither would return to the show after this debut.

 

If you have thoughts on any aspect of Playback please share them below, or find us on Twitter at @columbopodcast.

 

The Columbo Podcast is widely available – on iTunes, Stitcher, tunein, Pocket Casts 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.

 

Playback was released in 1975. It is 73 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.

  • Largo

    The Columbo Mystery Movie “Playback” doesn’t really play out that well because it’s just too darn short. The script should have been expanded to a longer running mystery episode. What we do have are several fairly good scenes that are rushed through and then we reach the climax and the “Gotcha” moment and suddenly it’s all over. The story and its characters don’t get a real chance to ‘breath’ and each of these main characters are fascinating (I feel) and deserve far more screen time — which would provide even more character development. Most of the scenes in “Playback” work fairly well overall — or very well depending on one’s personal tolerance for typical Columbo movie ham-fisted clues. This episode leaves you wanting more — but not in a good way because the script could’ve been developed more and produced into a 98 minute film. What we’re given is rather fleeting to say the least.

    The only exception to this feeling of “Playback” being rushed through its paces occurs within the gratuitous art gallery sequence. Here everything not only grinds to a halt, but it also features one of the most embarrassing moments in all of the Columbo Mystery Movies: where the Lieutenant mistakes an air vent for a piece of artwork. Was this scene really necessary? Did we need to see Columbo reduced to a complete and total dunderhead? With this bit of idiocy on the part of the filmmakers, the whole art gallery sequence is not only really annoying, it is also made truly superfluous.

    However, please allow me to offer an alternative art gallery sequence (but I would only allow it in a 98 minute version of this story if I were producing this): instead of making a fool out of our dear Lieutenant, why not use this character to really satirize so-called ‘modern art’ more overtly by having him react to that The Parking Lot sculpture with the following response:

    The Parking Lot, huh? You know — now please don’t take any of this personally, you’ve got a fine art gallery here — but I really have to say … my sense of what art is … well, I define art as something I couldn’t do in my spare time. This Parking Lot thing — I don’t know — give me some bits of scrap metal and other stuff and a can of silver spray paint and I could come up with something just as good as this in about an hour … tops.”

    If the Columbo producers had wanted to use their Columbo character to comment on ‘modern art’ and have some real fun with it, I can see the point of including a sequence at the art gallery. Instead we get a rather tedious and tepid scene where Columbo’s mild amusement with modern art is totally eclipsed by the foolishness involved with that air vent that the writer insisted on grafting to the little detective that we know so well (and apparently even better than the producers). What a waste of time, eh! 🙁

    Another really problematic item in “Playback” is how the 1970s videotape technology is presented. Even though Harold Van Wick has state of the art, broadcast quality equipment for 1975 inside of his house, it is still only the modern equivalent of 480i resolution. There is no freaking way that the extreme detail that is displayed on that zoom close-up on the party invitation during the finale is possible on 1975 video equipment. If we’re discussing modern digital technology being used, then I wouldn’t even blink if presented with the very same scenario concerning that art gallery invitation on top of the desk in a present day version of this particular crime.

    But what truly does work in “Playback” are the performances given by the main cast. Oskar Werner makes an interesting villain as the clever and conniving Harold Van Wick. I wish that he had more screen time to work with so that the ‘cat and mouse’ exchanges between Oskar Werner and Peter Falk were far richer. However, the real stellar performance comes from Gena Rowlands as Elizabeth Van Wick. Gena does so much with what little time she has on the screen. Gena Rowlands paints a gentle, loving and very sensitive portrait through her part as Mrs. Van Wick. Elizabeth’s unconditional love and deep devotion to her husband, Harold Van Wick, is expressed clearly within Gena Rowlands’ various scenes in “Playback.” I know I’m a sentimental sap-head, but I feel that Elizabeth’s total heartbreak is incredibly palpable when she finally realizes the truth about her husband at the finale. This is what stays with me whenever I think about this episode. Be seeing you!

    • I made the point about the resolution on the podcast. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the discussion!

      • Largo

        I can give this one a pass because it’s such a great “Gotcha!” moment and Harold Van Wick has that little meltdown when he is confronted with the videotapes. In addition, both Oskar Werner and Peter Falk sell this one so well — I guess we can let this particular inaccuracy slide on by, eh? 🙂

        • Perhaps!

          • Largo

            Yeah — I guess I’m in a very forgiving mood this morning, eh! 🙂

    • Also, hope you enjoy the Gena Rowlands link above. Hope it’s new to some people, at least.

      • Largo

        What a superb remembrance! Thank you for linking that article in the show notes!

    • Peter

      Excellent point about the technology. That bothered me as well. I also liked Werner’s performance. His impatience at end reminded me of Jourdan’s in a future episode. I also love the foreign villains. Oops, sorry Iaian and Gerry:).

      • Largo

        Indeed! It’s a shame that Oskar Werner retired from acting shortly after his appearance in “Playback.” I would like to have seen him portray another character or two on Columbo.

    • And Gina Rowland’s husband was…?

      • Largo

        Some dead guy. I forget his name now, but I think he was involved in show business. I guess I’m going to have to look that one up, eh. 😉

    • Ian Baxter

      Totally agree about the art gallery, it had a lot of promise and I was enjoying it, but then the gag about the vent, well as you say, he’s not that stupid!

  • Largo

    I know some of you might find this kind of interesting: Harold Van Wick’s personally designed “Midastar Watch” was actually nothing new to me when “Playback” first aired back in March of 1975. My older brother, Richard, had purchased this exact same digital watch a little over a year before this episode even aired. Except this watch was actually manufactured by a company called Uranus and it was their premiere LED digital watch for that year. Richard was inspired by the Roger Moore James Bond film, Live And Let Die (July – 1973), in which Agent 007 was sporting a Hamilton Pulsar P2 2900 LED digital watch. Just within a few months after the release of this Bond film, my older brother bought this much superior Uranus digital watch. Richard sent me this snapshot Monday evening and — yeah, he still has this watch:

    • Ian Baxter

      Wonderful bit of time travel, thanks for sharing.

      • Largo

        You’re very welcome, Ian. And I saw what you did there — you very clever boy, you! 🙂

    • CarlosMu

      that watch is SUPER! 🙂

      • Largo

        As much as I prefer analog time pieces (I own three Seiko wristwatches), my older brother’s Uranus LED digital watch is quite the handsome accessory. I have never seen a more exquisite digital watch — and it is indeed super! 🙂

        • I remember a Star Trek joke about Uranus that was doing in the rounds in the playground when I was a kid. Bet you’re all laughing now at the memory of that…

  • Largo

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but did anybody else find Elizabeth Van Wick’s clown doll a little creepy looking? I sure as heck wouldn’t want to wake up seeing that staring back at me from the foot of the bed or nearby it, eh. I’d much prefer something green and fuzzy staring back at me. I just can’t relate to a silly old clown! However, as a child I actually had a couple of green buddies at the foot of my bed that “kept watch” over me in a way. They’re a little worse for wear, but here they are today. Now wouldn’t you rather have these two as bed buddies instead of that creepy clown doll? 😉

    • Peter

      I had exact same thought with the clown. The only thing that would freak me out more is Mr Marbles from Seinfeld

      • Largo

        You’ve got that right, Peter! Ventriloquist dummies are very freaky. Have you seen the film Dead Of Night (1945)? Don’t watch that segment with Michael Redgrave by yourself! D-:

        • Peter

          How about that movie with Anthony Hopkins? Can’t remember name of it. Darn

          • Largo

            Magic (1978), with Ann Margaret as well.

    • Ian Baxter

      I remember staying over at my Grandparents many moons ago and finding these in the moonlight when going to the bathroom in the middle of the night… I didn’t get back to sleep…

      • Largo

        Very disturbing stuff there, Ian. So now I’d like to share something less alarming. I have a couple of fond memories involving my two green buddies, Herman Munster and Kermit the Frog. I was in the hospital for a minor surgical procedure over the Father’s Day weekend back in 1968. Of course, I had brought Herman and Kermit along with me and they were both sitting at the foot of my hospital bed. My pediatrician, Dr. Hildebrand, came to visit me and when he saw my two green companions, he told me quite frankly, “Kid — if I woke up in the hospital and saw those two things staring back at me, I’d have a relapse.”

        Back in August of 1966, I brought my talking Herman Munster doll along with me on our big family camping trip up in northern Minnesota. But on the long journey to the Nevis area of Minnesota — my older sister and I took turns manipulating Herman in such a way that he would (at first glance) just look like some little kid who was waving kindly to the other motorists on the highway. My sister and I would duck down below one of the car door windows and hold Herman up while moving his arm back and forth (as we took turns hiding out of sight from said motorists and their fellow passengers). The looks on these various motorists’ faces and of their family members (especially their children) were just priceless — as was their bursts of laughter after the initial surprise caused by my little green Munster pal. 🙂

  • Largo

    “Intensity.” Can you feel it? If you don’t, you can for just $700! But you’d better hurry, because these art pieces are going fast!

  • Roberto

    I guess I am in the minority on this episode. It is one of my least favorite episodes ever. Complete rehash of previous episodes, and not very well done at that. Weakish plot, forced clues, and plot contrivances abound. Worst of all I found the villain to be wholly uninteresting. While rewatching this episode in preparation for the podcast, I made a note that this was an annoying villain, and not in the good sense. Only redeeming aspect of the episode is the great Gena Rowlands. The final gotcha scene is compelling not because Columbo caught the murderer (yawn) but because Elizabeth realizes what her husband had done.

    • Ian Baxter

      I agree, the gotcha is all the more dramatic for his being unmasked before his wife.

  • CarlosMu

    This episode has almost everything i love about Columbo: great performances, beautiful photography and interesting music, and a good enough plot to hold it all together. I don’t care too much about plot holes, I think the makers of Columbo put their efforts into other things than making the stories perfect. The only time plot flaws bother me is when I can’t figure out what is going on. Like in “Short Fuse” for example.

    The scene with Columbo in the art gallery went on way too long, and it really bothered me that Columbo took so much of the woman’s time, and then as soon as she had a phone call to take, that’s when Columbo decides to get down to business.

    I’m glad you mentioned how excited Columbo was at seeing the murder video. I think he says “that’s fantastic!” That always makes me laugh, it reminds me of how excited he got when he found out that it wasn’t the senator that got killed in Candidate for Crime. It was just some other guy, woo hoo!

  • Good podcast, guys. Listened to it at 6:30 this morning. First up, let me say that I do deviate from your [Ian] take on the reference to precise times being so contrived and obvious. The fact is, Harold Van Wick was by nature extremely meticulous, so the fact that he was so precise in terms of the time is nothing strange really. The other part where I deviate from your [Ian again, I think!] view is in leaving his ‘phone number with Baxter, The fact is that Van Wick’s wife is in a wheelchair. From that point of view, any self-respecting husband would want to be immediately contactable in the event of an accident, so for me that also is easily explained.

    I felt that Gena Rowlands’ performance was equal to, if not better, than any supporting actor/actress I’ve seen in a Columbo episode. As you [Ian] so nicely put it, it was a beautifully understated performance.

    Interestingly, whenever I listen to the extracts on the podcast, after having viewed the episode of course, it always strikes me that the acting is not as good without the visuals. This week, the converse occurred, and I was struck, in particular, at what a great and creditable performance Martha Scott put in. As for Mr. Werner, he doesn’t look particularly well and it is very sad that alcohol exerted its grip on yet another fine talent. One could say the same of a certain Mr. Richard Burton, with whom Werner starred in arguably the greatest cold war spy film ever: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

    A challenge for everyone now: There is a Godfather connection with one of the cast members, but what is it…?

    • Thanks for the feedback Kieran appreciate it. Think you are mixing up me and Iain though ! (except on the precise times point).

      • Apologies. You actually each have distinct and very melodic accents, so chalk it down to my memory and the fact that it was so early. 😉

  • Ian Baxter

    This has never really been one of my favourite episodes, but it is still has some very enjoyable moments, particularly the gotcha. However there was just something missing, as Largo said, perhaps it needed to be longer?

    I’d certainly like to get a better insight into the killer… By all accounts he’s a cheating womaniser who keeps his wife a prisoner in his home while he squanders the family fortune; yet what we get is a rather flustered bore of a man who reveals nothing of his darker side.

    As a few have already said, the performance from Gena is a highlight, and I’d have liked to see her have more time with Columbo. Would it not have been good to see Columbo take her to the gallery? To ‘liberate’ her from the home and show up the husband.

    We often focus on the guest stars and supporting cast, but can I just add that I think Peter Falk is still on outstanding form. It would be interesting to hear a little more in the podcast about what you think of Falk’s performances.

    Another enjoyable podcast, thank you. Oh, and Gerry, the one man show about Mrs Columbo… My wife simply say ‘No!’

    • Roberto

      i have always believed that Van Wyck was drunk driving on their honeymoon and got in a horrific car accident with Elizabeth in the car. He was unhurt but her legs were paralyzed landing her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. Harold is so guilt-ridden that he punishes himself by punishing her and cannot abide others seeing his wife in the wheelchair, knowing that this would remind them what a jerk he was. Then he “gets back at her” by his womanizing (don’t want to get into their post-accident sex life). Such a back-story would only have made the episode better.

      • Ian Baxter

        I like your thinking, it is the kind of back story you would imagine an actor or director finding helpful. Who knows, maybe these discussions were had somewhere on set or in a smoke filled writers room?

        • Largo

          And then cut out of said Columbo episode by “executives” at Universal and/or the NBC television network. 🙁

          However, I always thought to myself that Harold Van Wick wasted such large sums of money on that gadget filled house so as to cover his guilt for his adultery — by compensating for this unfaithfulness through these costly attempts to make his wife’s wheelchair bound life a little easier.

  • Emrys

    I agree with most of the opinions here, except perhaps the art gallery scene. I think Columbo’s alleged idiocy is just fine. Don’t you ever get so drawn into a subject you struggle to understand that you end up making some inane comment just to ‘fit in’? I like the scene. So there. 🙂

    Much more could have been made of so much of this episode. So many fragments wasted. You covered the plot holes really well in the podcast. Yeah, the resolution of the video at the end! Ha ha! But I forgive it. It served its purpose as a plot device. It’s one of those things that the general public tend to fall for… even today. Take a crap, fuzzy CCTV image and run it through some CSI enhancing programme and then… wow, a crystal-clear image of the suspect’s face (and named immediately on the face-id-recognition-scanner). The public are idiots. Remember that.

    But yeah, so many plot points and characters that could have been expanded. I wanted more of the adorable wife. I wanted more interplay between Columbo and the killer (I think Werner was brilliant by the way, although I agree with one of the other comments here that he does not look very well).

    And regarding someone who states ‘exact times’… I have a digital watch, and if you were to ask me the time right now I would tell you “twenty one fifty two”. It’s a habit. I just tend to state exact times (although my watch is probably wrong so my ‘exact’ is not the same as GMT’s ‘exact’!).

    • Largo

      Well, you gave your reasons for enjoying the art gallery sequence, which is all fine and good — but they were from your conscious mind. I strongly suspect that subconsciously, you enjoy that art gallery sequence solely for the reason that it means more of the very lovely Marcy Hubbard (Trisha Noble). Not that there’s anything wrong with that, eh! 🙂

  • Sulayne Bonelli Barrett

    This is one of my favorites! I’m going to come back and comment once I listen to your commentary! ‘Til then!

  • Ianto Jones

    As a powerchair user, it is quite a mind-game to see how perfectly accessible her environment is (and how logical the adaptations!), while realizing that even after all this time, it is a nearly impossible struggle to obtain access to such simple freedoms (without extreme wealth).
    I realize the characters were more than comfortable, financially; it is more that they made it seem so *plausible* to have multiple pathways, even showing Columbo and the uniformed policeman casually and comfortably entering the room together (one down the ramp – just before the sound experiment), viscerally demonstrating that the simple things (an interior ramp) that make true access possible, are not such an imposition to the able-bodied.

    And again to address the wealth issue — there are so many times that I can enter a building, but not truly participate in the interior. Even a sturdy bit of $12 plywood would solve something like a conversation pit or short flight of stairs, but because insurance liability would require a “perfect”, “idiot-proof ” ramp, instead there is nothing at all (increasing *my* risk if I choose to ‘bump it’ down a stair-step, but relieving their _liability_).

    I’ve actually rented an “accessible ” four-star hotel room, with wider entrance, roll-in shower — and a ten-inch step up into the bedroom area.

    Sorry to ramble. It really did hit hard, on re-watch in 2016, more than 40years on (more than my own age!), to see how *logical* their 1975 solutions were – and still find them out of reach.

    • Thanks Ianto – that’s a great observation from a completely different perspective. Much appreciated!

      I can only imagine the frustration.

  • Jonathan Pullen

    I’m really curious about the video room set – it’s fantastically detailed. Was this a existing broadcast installation that was borrowed, or was this constructed for the episode? Does anyone know?