Friend in Deed
The script by Peter S. Fischer is a marvel of economy and speed. Gazzara profits from this gratefully with superb direction.
His exemplary technique figures a three-pointed resolution to basic problems. First, and overwhelmingly, he puts his experience as an actor to work in close-ups that allow each actor to convey with novelistic expressiveness what’s going on in each shot. Second, he has a stage actor’s understanding of stage layout in group scenes. Third, he understands the value of composition in creating the first two.
Every shot is telling, but the overall style is equally tight. A long shot with a long lens gives compression, the camera follows unusually intimate and refined close-ups like an MGM dance camera, in constant minute adjustments.
He pays exceptional attention to a naturalistic lighting, which is created by emphasizing variety rather than realism or a stylistic approach. Lamplight, shadow and reflected light make a color chiaroscuro, established by toning down the NBC lighting system from high summer to something more equable.
A police commissioner covers up a murder, to force a reciprocation whose victim is his wealthy, philanthropic, “bleeding heart” wife. This is a pure example of Lt. Columbo discerning the culprit almost at once (the mind constructs, the heart detects), and gradually working out the solution, which hinges on a framed cat burglar.
The double murder quid pro quo suggests the main theme (as well as Strangers on a Train), which is diffused over the three married couples: the cheating wife and her jealous husband, the liberal heiress and the police commissioner, the cat burglar and his demanding mistress.
A straightforward tale of blackmail and murder (a sort of funhouse mirror of Losey’s La Truite) by Jackson Gillis, in an arrangement by William Driskill for cast and cruise ship, and directed by Gazzara aboard the Sun Princess at sea as a tour de force. This is, almost perforce, a model of direction in tight places, assembled in editing as an overall structure of minute constructions.
The point of departure is Lt. Columbo’s predicament, all at sea with “no lab technicians, no print men.” So the whole thing (or very nearly) is filmed aboard a cruise ship steaming from Los Angeles to Mazatlan (Mrs. Columbo having won a Holy Name Society raffle).
The main components of the script are the conflict between helpless inexperience and hapless guile, and the British crew (a sensible, cohesive lot). The Gillis substructure makes the victim a blackmailing bitch (the charming Poupée Bocar, who sings “Volare” with the band), modulated into the fantastic creature brought to the ship’s hospital under a sheet and laid athwart the camera to admire a really towering bust.
The acridity of the writing is pervasive and relentless. Jane Greer as the murderer’s wealthy wife has a fine solo in a deck chair as she explains her marriage: “It’s very satisfying feeling like a woman. Hayden hasn’t disappointed me yet. If he ever does, God help him.”
Gazzara’s approach is entirely distinct from his work on “A Friend in Deed”. Rather than shaping the direction to reveal the nuances of an unstated script in the actors’ faces, the circumstances of the filming transport the script from scene to scene and let his actors bring it to a point again and again in revelatory figures that stand alone, almost statuesque, like Robert Vaughn’s look as he pulls the trigger on Poupée, shooting through a feather pillow.
Gazzara’s feat is not to lose sight of the action by dwelling on mechanics. The shot is fired, the feathers fly, and not until the murderer has climbed six flights back to his hospital bed (he’s faked a heart attack to be there), not until Lt. Columbo is called in to investigate, feels seasick and goes to the hospital for medicine, only then does Gazzara put a long close-up on the detective’s dumbstruck face as he spots something all the way across the cabin on the floor and eventually goes over to inspect it, a feather.
The technical aspects of the filming are prodigious: available lighting and sound, tight quarters, tight schedule, etc. Long lenses compress the action. What hasn’t changed in Gazzara’s technique is the urge to bring the unit into new domains—after the theatrical, the cinematic.
Hayden Danziger (Vaughn) is consistently called by Lt. Columbo “Mr. Danzinger.” The lieutenant also calls the ship a boat and is corrected by the captain (Patrick Macnee) or the steward (Bernard Fox) or the doctor (Robert Douglas), in a running thematic gag. Poupée rejects her pianist because she has bigger fish to fry, and isn’t there only us on an island or a ship (or a boat), and time? Dean Stockwell plays the pianist with an ineffable mannerism. Robert Vaughn’s cool humor is, if possible, even more refined here than in “Last Salute to the Commodore”.
A key episode in the series, if only because so many thematic elements are gathered together which appear as well in “How to Dial a Murder”, “Now You See Him”, “Étude in Black”, etc.
“Troubled Waters” is something of a lab experiment isolating Lt. Columbo to reveal the quanta of luck, fate, instinct, training, intuition and skill that go to make his character.