Today, we look at how an early classic episode of Columbo, “Suitable For Framing,” delivered one of the best “gotcha” moments in TV history.
This is “All the Best Things,” a spotlight on the best TV episodes, movies, albums, etc.
This is a Year of Great TV Episodes, where every day this year, we’ll take a look at great TV episodes. Note that I’m not talking about “Very Special Episodes” or episodes built around gimmicks, but just “normal” episodes of TV shows that are notable only because of how good they are.
One of the things I’ve been grappling with when it comes to spotlighting specific TV series is whether to go right to episodes I like the best, or to stick to earlier episodes at first, to establish the series’ setup, before I then get into further detail later in the year (one of the rules I’m going by is that no show will appear more than once per given month, so that I “force” myself to avoid just going back to the same series over and over again). Generally speaking, I’ve been doing the latter, and I’ll continue with that approach with the excellent Season 1 episode of Columbo, “Suitable For Framing,” which has one of the best “Gotcha” moments in TV history.
You see, generally speaking, “Suitable For Framing” follows the classic Columbo format, and I wanted to do one of those types of episodes before I later explore some great episodes that do certain twists on the classic format.
As you are likely aware by now, the classic setup for a Columbo episode is that we see a murderer commit a seemingly “perfect” crime to start the episode, then we meet Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk), who then hits upon a series of clues that first A. reveal to him that a crime HAS been committed (during moments where suicide or accident is claimed to be the cause of death), then B. pinpoint his main suspect and then C. pin the suspect to the crime (Columbo will famously seemingly be ready to walk away from an interview with the killer before asking them “one last thing,” which will invariably be a question that shows he is on to them).
Generally speaking, the criminal is a jerk, so that we can delight in watching Columbo make them squirm until he nails them. Columbo is intentionally ruffled and seemingly incompetent (something the show maintained for years despite him solving literally dozens of complicated murders), giving the murderers a false sense of security until he reveals that he’s on to them, and then they STILL think they’re mostly safe until he twists the knife again, and reveals he has them dead to rights (one of the drawbacks of this format is that Columbo’s reveals at the end of the episode don’t always seem quite as airtight as the episodes want us to believe, as there are numerous times where you’d tell a suspect, as their lawyers, “That doesn’t actually prove you did it! Don’t confess, you fool!”).
In “Suitable For Framing,” the fourth episode of Columbo Season 1 (there were TV movies before Season 1 began), Ross Martin’s art critic Dale Kingston is SUCH A JERK that it is great seeing him go down for the crime. Kingston’s plan is to murder his uncle, steal his uncle’s priceless paintings, then frame the uncle’s ex-wife, Dale’s aunt, as stealing them, as Dale knows that his uncle has left his ex the paintings. So Dale will end up inheriting them once he has successfully framed his aunt (as he would be the next in line as heir).
There is a tense moment early on when Columbo seems like he is about to discover the stolen paintings in Dale’s attache case, but Dale seemingly gets away with it, and then hides the paintings in the home of his ditzy aunt (played by Kim Hunter).
Dale is one of the subsets of Columbo‘s murderers who kills TWICE in the episode, as he also eliminates his accomplice in the crime, a young artist who he manipulates into helping him.
In the end, the paintings are found in his aunt’s home, and it looks like Dale will get away with his crime, but Columbo explains that they are looking for fingerprints. An overly confident Dale explains that of COURSE they’ll find his fingerprints on the painting, he helped his uncle with all of his artwork, so his prints will be ALL OVER THEM. Columbo explains that it is not Dale’s prints they are looking for, though, but Columbo’s, as when he almost found the paintings in Dale’s attache case, Columbo pointedly touched all of the paintings without Dale noticing, and therefore, they’re looking for COLUMBO’S fingerprints, which couldn’t possibly be on paintings that Aunt Edna stole otherwise, right?
Dale, though, quickly argues about entrapment (a lot of Columbo’s foes will be graceful when he beats them. Not Dale!), insisting that Columbo just put the fingerprints on the painting right then, to frame Dale! Columbo then pulls his hands out of his pockets to reveal that he has been wearing gloves the whole time!
Such a great moment in an excellent overall episode of the series that was excellent while still sticking to the basic format of the episode. It was written by Jackson Gillis, and directed by Hy Averback.
Okay, if I’m going to have 349 more of these, I could use suggestions, so feel free to email me at email@example.com!