On its own merits, the made-for-TV crime picture Ransom for a Dead Man is an enjoyable if somewhat far-fetched story about a murderess trapped by the complications of her attempt at committing the perfect crime. The title refers to her main gimmick—killing her husband, then pretending he was kidnapped and using doctored audio recordings to create the illusion of his voice delivering ransom demands while police are present to hear the phone call. Playing the murderess is the highly capable Lee Grant. She conveys nefarious duplicity while her character acts the victim, and she unleashes nastiness when her character pushes a stepdaughter out of the way so the murderess can claim her dead husband’s fortune. Still, Ransom for a Dead Man emphasizes plot over characterization, and the filmmakers never bother to humanize the murderess. So why bother talking about this picture? Because the police officer who finally traps the murderess is none other than Lieutenant Frank Columbo of the LAPD.
As played by Peter Falk in dozens of TV movies spanning 1971 to 2003, Columbo is one of the most popular crime-fighters in small-screen history, even though he never appeared in a proper weekly series. The reasons for his popularity are plainly evident throughout Ransom for a Dead Man, and, in fact, Grant’s character explicitly describes the investigator’s unique methodology in a monologue, detailing how Columbo disarms suspects by pretending to be absent-minded, gullible, and simple, even though he’s remarkably clever, observant, and shrewd. Ransom for a Dead Man is such a thorough introduction to Columbo that even the character’s famous rumpled raincoat makes its first appearance here. Yet in some ways, Ransom for a Dead Man isn’t the ideal template for the many Columbo adventures that followed, seeing as how the lieutenant employs a civilian to execute a dangerous and legally questionable sting operation as the final trap for snaring the resourceful murderess. To find a pristine example of Columbo’s sleuthing, it’s best to check out the character’s next appearance and the first official episode of the recurring telefilm series, Murder by the Book, which broadcast later in 1971. The pedigree of that one explains why it’s so good: Steven Bochco wrote the script and Steven Spielberg directed.
Getting back to Ransom for a Dead Man, you’ll note that the phrase “pilot episode” has not yet been used. Like a Columbo mystery, this gets tricky. Originally played by Bert Freed, Columbo first appeared in “Enough Rope,” a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show. The episode’s writers, Richard Levinson and William Link, repurposed the character for their play Prescription: Murder, which in turn became a 1968 TV movie with Falk as a less disheveled version of Columbo. Therefore it wasn’t until Ransom for a Dead Man that the version of Columbo beloved by generations of TV fans made his debut, raincoat and all.
Ransom for a Dead Man: FUNKY