Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Columbo: "Butterflies in Shades of Grey" - a toupological analysis (and Columbo tribute).

"Butterflies in Shades of Grey" is a 1994 episode of the revived post-70s run of Columbo. William Shatner serves as the special guest star, appearing in the series for the second time - the first being in the classic 1976 episode "Fade in to Murder".

Fielding Chase (William Shatner) is a suave but ruthless right-wing radio talk show host and also the head of a mini L.A-based media empire.

His adopted daughter Victoria (Molly Hagan), of whom Chase is extremely possessive, is an aspiring novelist - though she is keeping those aspirations secret from her father.

Gerry Winters (Jack Laufer), an investigative reporter working for Chase, meets secretly with New York literary agent Lou Cates (Richard Kline), who appears interested in one of Victoria's manuscripts. Winters' motivations in bringing fame to his friend aren't romantic (turns out he's gay), but rather he wants to free Victoria from her father's domination, and in so doing, cause his boss some grief.

The ongoing professional animosity between Chase and Winters explodes after an investigative assignment yields nothing; the boss, certain a potential story was missed, fires his unruly subordinate.

Victoria finally tells Chase her secret - that she has written a novel and that Winters is helping her get it published. Chase pretends to be delighted and offers assistance to his daughter. But in reality, he is deeply perturbed.

Literary agent Cates calls Winters and tells him that his publisher actually ended up hating the manuscript - but that the man is also an acquaintance of Chase's. Coincidence? Could the father have intervened to disrupt his daughter's budding career?

Winters confronts Chase with this accusation. Chase dismisses this as a lie, calling his daughter's ambitions nothing but a "pipe dream". Winters then accuses Chase of having a less than fatherly attitude; Chase slaps and threatens to kill him - in front of witnesses.

Victoria learns what her father did, but he persuades her that his intentions were not to possess her, but rather to help her career.

Meanwhile, Chase devises a plan to kill his nemesis. Arranging for Winters to telephone him at precisely 4pm, Chase's answering machine records the entire murder - a masterful alibi.

Chase is pretending to be at home listening in as gunshots are fired by an unknown assailant. In truth, he is killing Winters himself, while meters away on the other phone in Winters' house.

Chase then plants some evidence framing a former lover of Winters' as the murderer.

Enter Columbo...

That's where we'll leave the plot.

In a break from custom, we'll move straight to the hair next before we review this episode.

Star Trek: Generations (1994).

Considering the excessive thickness on display in Star Trek: Generations (1994), the TJ Curly seen in this episode (made around the same time) is something of an outlier. It's less dark, less curly, less long, less thick, the hairline less harsh - far more akin to latter stages of the TJ Curly around 1999, when it began to gradually morph into the "Denny Katz" style (more on this gradual morphing in a future post).

The toupee cliché about a dark rug betrayed by greying hair around the sides appears reversed here.

Unusually, here the toupee is actually greyer and lighter than Bill Shatner's real hair at the sides.

Evident in the background in several shots is the notorious "peeling toupee" photograph.

In this case, it is altered to include a mustache.

But perhaps most fascinating of all is another piece of artificial hair on display - a false mustache.

Not only is the mustache in question occasionally crooked, but it also seems to drastically change color during the episode.

Very light:

Very dark:

The toup too appears to change at times. Sometimes a little longer, sometimes shorter.

And in perhaps the only example of interesting direction in the entire episode, there is a brief shot that appears loaded with subtle toupological symbolism.

The spikes of hair represented by the glass - Bill Shatner is between these spikes; the real-haired Columbo is behind. Toupological symbolism?

So, what to make of the overall episode? The story, though rather convoluted, is not too bad; the murder and Columbo's solving of it is not too bad either. But the whole thing is frankly average at best. Nothing special. Rather unremarkable. Why? Something crucial is missing...

1970s Columbo.

Many of us at WSSTS are unabashed fans of the original 70s Columbo and regard it, without hesitation, as one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It was intelligent; it was non-violent; it was occasionally funny and it broke many accepted rules. This from a great article on how the series was formed, written by the series' creators:

Martin Landau with Peter Falk.

Our first scripts made their way to the network, and the response was not effusive: NBC had major "conceptual concerns" with our approach. How could we have made the terrible blunder of keeping our leading man offstage until twenty minutes into the show? Didn't we realize that Peter Falk was our star? The audience would expect to see him at once, and here we were perversely delaying his appearance. One of the executives called it, with considerable heat, "the longest stage wait in television history."

There were other complaints. What about this business about an unseen wife? And why a wife at all? Columbo should be free of any marital encumbrances so that he could have romantic interludes on occasion. Why hadn't we given him a traditional "family" of regulars? At the very least he should have a young and appealing cop as his assistant and confidante. And worst of all, the scripts were talkative. They should be enlivened by frequent doses of adrenalin in the form of "jeopardy."

There are only four responses a writer-producer can make to network suggestions: He can ignore them, he can cave in, he can argue, or he can threaten to quit. We opted for the last of these multiple choices.

Columbo keeps accidentally annoying an innocent old lady.

The above demonstrates that the fight to make something truly unique was at the heart of Columbo's greatness. But in addition to all of the above considerations of content, there was also a crucial aesthetic component. The 70s cinematography - sharp and very high-contrast film stock requiring a lot of light, with its very particular color relationships; this, plus the overall 70s aesthetic - the era of orange and yellow seat covers and minty green paint and still clean-looking post-war concrete architecture. That part made the city of Los Angeles itself seem strangely sleek and alluring (deliberately "mythical" according to Link and Levinson, the series' creators, as noted in the above article).

The airport, the hospital, the store, the chilli stand - Lt. Columbo inhabited a highly stylized and inviting 70s world. Even a trip to the supermarket seemed pretty cool...

There was also the direction - bold and distinct.

Often, murders would be filmed in highly abstract and stylized ways. Add to that the tremendous music (sadly, the series' soundtracks have never been released), full of recurring leitmotifs and diverse and distinctive instruments. Overall, Columbo's intellectual, wordy drama was balanced out by this aesthetic onslaught. Memorable. Re-watchable. Full of classic moments. Much like the original Star Trek.

A chess match with the great Tomlin Dudek brings nightmares.

So what if you took away the bold cinematography, direction, music and the overall awesome background of 1970s L.A. in addition to having an unremarkable script? You'd pretty much get "Butterflies in Shades of Grey." Some of the components are still there (though it is hardly believable that the great Columbo would not have been promoted or retired by the 1990s; his old battered car is also arguably a stretch too far), but these other crucial elements are missing.

Visually dull compared to the original series - "Butterflies in Shades of Grey".

Aesthetically speaking, the late 80s/early 90s were a pretty dire time for American television drama. Soft, pink-hued, red-biased cinematography, coupled with the styles of the times - shoulder pads, bad perms and all the rest of it. The era of lots of bad TV movies with names like Why Did She Die? The Jennifer O'Brady Story (we made that one up). Sometimes, old-fashioned stylistic boldness was even punished (see our piece on composer Ron Jones). TV, thankfully, eventually largely recovered from this aesthetic lull, with series like NYPD Blue and The X-Files leading the way.

Anne Baxter as actress Nora Chandler.

As for the content part (crucial - much 70s TV drama was pretty awful too), Columbo's drama harked back to the 1940s and its focus on the woes and wants of a post-revolution American aristocracy that had somehow managed to survive into the latter part of the 20th century. And what was Lt. Columbo in all of this? Disheveled, unpretentious, Zen-like - a stark contrast to all of that highly-strung decadence.

Columbo eats chilli.

On a more metaphysical level (yikes!!), Columbo perhaps also represented the human conscience itself. The murderers had committed terrible crimes. At that moment Columbo appeared, gnawing away at their repressed and self-destructive guilt - "just one more thing," he'd say, innocently irritating them beyond breaking point.

"Murder by the Book" directed by a young Steven Spielberg.

No matter how perfectly they planned their murders, how much they pretended to actually be helping Columbo find the real killer, how hard they tried to explain away his endless questions, their lives could never be normal again. And when they finally confessed, very stoically, in most cases their relief was palpable. The conscience, thankfully, won. Often the murderers were even likeable, charming people. Columbo, gallant as ever, would insist to the arresting cops that the handcuffs weren't necessary.

Ruth Gordon in Columbo.

70s Columbo had endless classic episodes (and only a handful of stinkers): the one with the twin brothers; the Nimoy one with the sutures; the chess one; Robert Vaughn on the cruise ship; Jackie Cooper as the senate candidate; the one with the sweet old lady (Ruth Gordon); the one with Ann Baxter as the archetypal diva; three episodes each for arguably the best villains Jack Cassidy and Robert Culp; the one where Columbo actually goes after his own boss; the one with Johnny Cash! The list goes on...

...and certainly includes Bill Shatner's classic role in "Fade in to Murder". But in that role, Shatner's character was tragic and complex, in need of salvation and forgiveness. Much more suited to Bill Shatner's acting and character. In "Butterflies in Shades of Grey" the murderer is really without any redeeming or even interesting qualities, and frankly, so is the episode.

Bill Shatner in 1976's classic "Fade in to Murder".

Irrespective of the merits of the revived Columbo (which ran sporadically between 1989-2003 and certainly had some strong episodes), the original series is undoubtedly iconic and was also a comfortable home for many equally iconic stars, including The Prisoner's Patrick McGoohan. Its star, Peter Falk, with his deep and unerring Leonard Nimoy-like protectiveness about the series' quality, passed away at the end of June after battling for several years with Alzheimer's disease. Falk had a varied career as an actor, but like Bill Shatner's Captain Kirk, he will always be remembered for his most famous role - that of the legendary Lt. Columbo.

Peter Falk (1927-2011).


  1. This is simply a terrific post, a truly cogent analysis of what made the original Columbo so great and why I mysteriously never cared as much for the later ones. Excellent job!

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Neil! -ST

  3. Clap, clap! Bravo. I even forgot about the toup!

  4. Ratty Lost Years PieceJuly 13, 2011 at 9:22 PM

    Definitely agree with That Neil Guy about this excellent post. I love '70's cinema and TV, Columbo being a long-standing favorite. The cinematography and extended, dialogue-driven character development were key components to the genre's success that would not be considered marketable today.

    Given the current fascination with prequels, I'm surprised Columbo hasn't suffered a "gritty reboot." Katz could make a cameo appearance where he fabricates Columbo's glass eye. On the wall behind him are blueprints for the TJ Curly!

    Shat's fake mustache highlights the damage fake hair can do to an actor's performance. During the '70's, perhaps without the campy rugs, Shatner could have been one of the great character actors. Still, he has surpassed his peers, becoming more than an actor, an icon. The mystique of the toupee contributes to this status.

  5. Excellent post and dead on with the analysis. However, I'd like to point out that Peter Falk also wore a hairpiece. Yes that's true. As of course, did Martin Landau. But that's another story...


  7. I whoreheartedly agree with everything in this post. Columbo and Peter Falk couldn't be praised enough. One of the best and most memorable characters and shows on television ever.

    I also agree with your words on late '80s - early '90s television. Ron Jones was not the only casualty of this sad trend. Cinematographer Edward R. Brown was also fired from Star Trek: The Next Generation, because he continued the great tradition of cross-lighting artistic cinematography (much like what the great Jerry Finnerman did on the original series), which was "too dark and confusing" for the idiotic producers. Hence, the awful Marvin Rush was brought in. Thanks to him, the rest of Next Gen looked sterile and flat. Just like it's stories and characters. At least it was visually equal to that. Finnerman himself often angered producers during that time, because "he used too much shadows"...

  8. Did Shatner say "Frankly" to Columbo on "Butterflies" or did I mis hear something?
    I mean I know Columbos first name is Frank. I had seen that one or two times from his police gadget.

  9. Frankly my dear...

  10. I came to laugh at Shatner's toupee and left with a tear in my eye. This was really a great piece of writing on Columbo. A totally unexpected delight.

  11. As a HUGE fan of Star Trek, an equally HUGE fan of all things William Shatner, and equally of the best and most entertaining Homicide Lieutenant of all time, Lt. Columbo of the LAPD, my compliments on going "Off-Toupic" with a terrific tribute to the late great Peter Falk himself and the Columbo series, which in my book is right up there with TOS Trek! Columbo was the best...the car...the dog...those big-name guest villains (many of the Columbo guest stars were Star Trek people: Ricardo Montalban, Sandra Smith, William Windom, Joanne Linville, Kim Cattrall, Theodore Bikel, there are about two dozen of them!) William Shatner's 'Fiel-ding Chase' (tonal emphasis on the "Ding") is right up there with Jack Cassidy (Murder by the Book) and Nicol Williamson (How To Dial A Murder) as an irredeemable, manipulative, egotistical scumbag with very few, if any, likable qualities, and Mr. Shatner delivers a most entertaining and fine 100-point performance, in all his Shatnerity, which was no doubt intended as a jab at radio personality Rush Limbaugh...I love how Columbo doesn't know who he is, and then says he thought he was "some kind of disc jockey!" How he gets Shats in the end with the cellphone (that he couldn't get signal in the mountains in his car to call (Rescue-)911) is priceless, and Shat was one of the very few villains of the series to try to kill our most beloved homicide Lieutenant just before the end of the episode (earning him one of the biggest scumbag Columbo villains award). Anyway, THANK YOU for all things William Shatner, and for that terrific Columbo tribute.

    (PS: I want those Columbo soundtracks released too!!)

    1. Columbo was way overrated. The actor that played him didn't even wear a toupee. Stick with capt kirk tj hooker and denny crane. The holy trinity and all three were touped-up from start to finish

    2. ha-ha! TOUPED-UP! x^D & i liked the 'holy trinity', but me fave was definitely: "denny crane" {said in his own firm way}. x')

  12. I don't know about Falk using a toupee, but in the final "Columbo" (2003's "Columbo Loves the Night Life", with a young Matthew Rhys ["The Americans"] as the killer), you can see that the 75-year-old Falk has had some eyelid work done…he's far less crinkly than before.

    "Butterfly in Shades of Grey" has its pleasures. The bit where Columbo visits the victim's boyfriend's soap opera set and is mistaken for an extra playing a homeless man is hilarious, as is the later bit where Columbo meets Shatner at a swanky restaurant, to the maitre d's evident disdain. And the discussion of that crazy new gadget "Fielding" uses…a cellular phone…is a wonderful time-setter. Plus it's one of the few times Columbo does "Just one more thing…" to someone completely innocent; he does it to Victoria early in the investigation.

    But the star has to be Shatner's mustache. That fake makes David Boreanaz's rodent-like appliance from the flashbacks in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" look good, by comparison.

    Is "Chase" a nod to "Rush"? Or is that stretching it?

  13. That mustache was changing ever scene!!

  14. There is one clever episode in the 1990s involving a Penthouse-style publisher!

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  16. Off topic, but I really, really loved the episode with Johnny Cash and Ida Lupino. Excellent episode.