Anne Baxter Acts Natural on Columbo
One of the many great things about Columbo is that there is no such thing as a Big Spoiler: the guest star is the who what done it. In "Requiem for a Fallen Star" (January 21, 1973), Anne Baxter plays the episode's murderess, the charming, aging film star, Nora Chandler.
Nora is being blackmailed by smoothie gossip columnist, Jerry Parks (Mel Ferrer), who has dug up some incriminating evidence about Nora's shady financial dealing that he may -- or may not, depending, if you know what I mean -- put in his upcoming tell-all book about Nora. Parks is also secretly romancing Nora's secretary Jean Davis (Pippa Scott) to get further dirt (so thinks Nora) and when Nora learns of this, well, it's just too much to bear.
On account of there's a lot of dirt.
So Nora contrives to send Jean on a bunch of time-consuming errands, knowing she has a secret rendezvous with slimy Jerry. She follows her, then, assured they are both together at this cool-looking bookstore, drives up to Jerry's place and pours a whole can of gasoline on the carport floor, using another to make a trail to a safe spot out of sight. When Jerry's gorgeous Jaguar sports car pulls up, she strikes a match and ka-boom! That takes care of, Jerry.
Or does it? Turns out it was Jean in the car, because someone had let all the air out of one of her cute little sports car's tire and the two had switched vehicles. Enter Lieutenant Columbo, because whose car blows up on a car pad all on its own, especially with two empty cans of gasoline laying about and what, they don't have AAA?
Meanwhile, Nora has been living in a palatial bungalow on the studio lot since the happy days when her late husband, the head of the studio, built it for her. It is enormous and very well-appointed, including a little garden with a fountain and everything. But there are rumblings that new studio management want to take that all away. No fear, for Nora has managed to "meet" and romance the new owner of the studio, Frank Simmons (good old Kevin McCarthy), because she really likes her house and doesn't want to get thrown off the lot. Jerry is also beginning to suspect that Jean's death was not an accident. Nor perhaps was the death of Nora's studio-head husband.
Lt. Columbo is especially "just one more thing"-y in this installment, because he and Mrs. Columbo are set up as huge fans of Nora Chandler, so his being (supposedly) star-struck masks his keen observations, thereby keeping his prime suspect off guard. Anne Baxter is extra Anne-Baxter-y as well, chewing up the scenery, telegraphing her punches, tossing her head back when she laughs -- more on the Nefretiri side (Moses, MOSES!) than the Sophie MacDonald side (her Oscar-winning performance in The Razor's Edge). But why not?
What's fun about this episode are the little Hollywood jokes: Columbo's car being mistaken for a clunker needed in a demolition derby scene; an Indian Chief in full regalia riding a bicycle; a cameo by Edith Head (with all her Oscars lined up on the table) who brings Columbo a clean tie. Best of all are the little references to Baxter's most famous film, All About Eve. Her character's name, Nora Chandler, may as well be Margo Channing, and her nemesis is a powerful columnist, a very, very pale comparison to Addison DeWitt, but you know what I mean.
But this is my favorite homage:
We get to watch part of an old Nora Chandler picture with Columbo on TV while he waits for Nora to finish dressing. It's a major clue.
All is, of course, revealed craftily by the the little man in the trench coat. I will not spoil it all, because the entire first seven seasons of this fantastic show are available streaming online. "Requiem for a Fallen Star" is Season Two, Episode 5.
I defy you not to watch three more episodes right away.
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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