Series 8 Episode 1
Columbo Goes To The Guillotine

Episode Overview

Series 8

Episode 1

First broadcast: 1989

5 cigars

“The only bad thing in this episode is the title, which doesn't seem to be particularly imaginative nor descriptive of the episode“

Buy this episode

The room is dark; the atmosphere tense. The experiment has begun. Well known psychic, Elliot Blake, is being put to the test. Can he really read minds?

In a booth, institute head Paula Hull is looking at ESP cards. Star. Square. Cross. Circle. Triangle. Wavy line. She goes through the deck, looking at each one, and proclaiming what it is. Or, she gives a false one. With a steely look of determination, Blake proclaims whether she is telling the truth, or whether she is lying.

Watching in the observation area, military officers interested in learning about how psychic research could be used in the front line.

Blake seems to pass the test. Everyone is impressed, but the military still want more. They ask Blake to submit to one final test; one run by an outsider. Max Dyson. Well known magician and psychic debunker. Blake agrees.

Back in the test room they meet again. A series of cars are sent out around the city - the drivers told to stop, put on an eye shield and pick a random page from a map book, and mark with a red pen a random spot. Eye shield removed, they're told to drive to the point in the book, look in any direction they prefer, and take a photograph. They should concentrate on the photograph. Blake will draw what he sees.

Blake passes the test once more.

There is, of course, just one problem. Blake's a fraud. His initial high test results had been thanks to fakery concocted with Hull in order to help secure additional funding for the institute.

Dyson knows all. At a late night meeting, the two meet again. Contrary to their public declarations, the pair had previously met in a prison in Uganda. Dyson taught Blake everything he knew. They even had an escape attempt. But Dyson had got out - Blake had been sold out and given another three years.

Despite this, Dyson agrees to help Blake once more - the second test is as much a shame as the first.

Back at his magic workshop in the evening, Dyson is working on a guillotine trick when Blake calls. Blake confronts Dyson once more, threatening to shoot Dyson. Hearing Dyson confess, Blake relaxes, removes the bullets and tells Dyson to go back to tinkering with his trick. But whilst he's down there, Blake attaches the guillotine collar and Dyson's head is no more...

Some time later, blood begins to drip from the floor into the bar below. The owner, an ex cop, calls homicide. Columbo arrives on the scene and the police break into the locked apartment to find the gruesome scene.

But is it suicide? It is a tragic accident? Or is it murder? Only one man can find out...

Columbo straight away digs into the case, finding out about Blake's test. He invites Blake over to the crime scene, on the pretence that psychics are often used to help uncover facts.

Blake comes over, and tries to "help". He proclaims its suicide. Columbo is confused. If it was suicide, why did the victim buy a three pound corned beef?

An accident then? Well the victim had an inappropriate screwdriver in his hand - a flathead not the Phillips he would have needed.

No. It was murder, and Columbo's already got on the case.

He digs and digs and digs. And he finally gets enough to get a warrant prevening Blake from being whisked off by the military on top secret missions.

Cleverness of the way Columbo catches out the murderer

Columbo soon suspects that the psychic is actually a fraud. He repeats on Blake a trick Blake used on him where Blake "guessed" which ESP card Columbo had picked.

But the best reveal is yet to come. Enlisting a kid who is good with magic, the method that Dyson and Blake used to pull the stunt off is discovered via a complete demonstration back at the institute - this time with Columbo doing the driving.

Then back at Dyson's workshop, Columbo confronts Blake. And gets his man.

But how? Columbo has worked out how the murderer escaped the room making it look locked - a simple piece of rope magic. But there's not enough to go on. So Columbo puts his head in the guillotine, proclaiming he's worked out how the magic trick worked. There's a "DANGER" setting and a "SAFE" setting. Simple when you know how.

Columbo instructs Blake to put the collar on on the safe mode. Blake puts it on the danger mode, with a view to murdering the one detective who can put all the pieces together.

Unfortunately Columbo has switched the labels... Danger is most certainly safe.

It's convoluted, but it's clever. And so very risky. Columbo did the ultimate mind reading trick - he correctly read that Blake would murder him. And that's enough evidence to put Blake away.

Convolutedness of the murder

The back story of this episode is complex. It takes 30 minutes into the episode before anyone even dies. The complexity of the back story means that when it comes down to it, the murder is reasonably simple. Blake's original plan was simply to just shoot Dyson. But that's inelegant. When he sees the chance to make it look like an accident or suicide, he runs with it.

How annoyed does the murderer get with Columbo?

Now this is a difficult one to gauge as Blake seems to have two states - wooden or "I'M ABOUT TO GET VERY ANNOYED!"

If he does get very annoyed with Columbo he hides it very well.

The smug-richness factor

Greed is ultimately the motive for murder - Blake has done quite well for himself but wants more. Top secret military jobs pay very well. Whether he is rich is another question, but he certainly wants to be.

To be a convincing fake psychic you also have to be rather self confident. Smug even.

Yes, we think he scores pretty high on this one. True, he's not oozing with it. But it's enough.

Quality of sub-plot

Unlike most of the later episodes, there's not much of a sub plot in this episode. But then just setting up the murder in the first place takes up so much time that there's barely any room for anything else.

That said there are some nice touches around magic to fill a bit of time.

Mentions of Mrs Columbo

Mrs Columbo only really comes into attendance when someone is famous and, alas, no one is actually famous in this episode. Infamous maybe, but famous no.

However she does get two mentions - one when Columbo is first shown the guillotine trick by placing his head under the blade ("Mrs Columbo would have a heart attack if she'd seen this") and another as the premise for getting Blake to be all psychic round the crime scene - apparently the concept of police psychics gets mentioned a lot in the supermarket magazines, and who are we to argue with that?

What new-fangled thing does Columbo learn about this episode?

We'd like to say magic, because he does learn some magic tricks, but Columbo probably learnt far more about that in Series 5's Now You See Him.... However the real lessons come in faking extra sensory perception - which he comes a real master of - and in mind reading.

Well okay so he probably didn't actually read Blake's mind just before Blake tried to kill Columbo, but it was near as could be.

Was anyone given sedatives?

Sigh. Sadly not. Instead we got blood dripping in a bucket. And after seeing that, I think I need sedatives, thank you very much.

Deviations from the norm and inconsistencies with other Columbo episodes

Ah well, right at the end Columbo pulls a gun on Blake and if that's not enough to make you go "What the..." I don't know what is!

As it happens it's a joke gun that just shoots out a flag saying "BANG!"

Appearances by the Regular Cast

Series 8 contained virtually no regular cast remembers. Well if they were there, we didn't see them.


There's something gloriously about this episode. It's beautifully shot - dark, moody and well lit. There's some excellent scenes that just evoke atmosphere. And some intriguing acting - Anthony Andrews as Blake offers facial expressions that cover everything under the sun and you're pretty convinced rather quickly on that his character is a bit on the deranged side.

The plot is complicated yet masterful. However the most respect must go to Columbo himself who seems to quickly gain psychic powers himself and is so convinced he has got his man, that he risks his own life to nab him.

In fact the only bad thing in this episode is the title, which doesn't seem to be particularly imaginative nor descriptive of the episode. Instead it conjures up images of the French Revolution. Yes, okay so the guillotine is the murder weapon - and how often can you say that? - but the episode is just so much more.

Your View


Posted on 6 January 2013 at 12:18 PM

I have to say I watched this episode for the first time not long ago, and I thought it was desperately poor. The acting was pretty wooden (apart from Falk of course), the story wasn't particularly believable, and the ending I found just silly. The seventies episodes, and especially in seasons 1-4, there was so much more attention to detail.


Posted on 5 April 2013 at 3:26 PM

I thought this was one of the better Columbo episodes. It was one of the two or three episodes that involved magic.

What was really good is that it showed how a con works and that top notch con artists are very adept at reading people and getting them to tell you the answers.

The ending was tad much expecting the murderer not to notice that the moon collar had not been tampered with. Frankly I was expecting a better ending.

Fast Eddie

Posted on 28 April 2013 at 1:27 AM

My hunch is that the character of the psychic-buster Max "The Magnificent" Dyson was inspired by real-world psychic-buster James "The Amazing" Randi.

Like Dyson, Randi was a magician who created a career exposing "the ESP people" for frauds (google his James Randi Foundation). Like Dyson, Randi arranged for detailed, controlled experiments to test self-proclaimed psychics.

And just one more a few scenes in Dyson's workshop on the wall in the background one can plainly see a promotional poster for a performer named "Randi."

Of course, one thing Dyson and Randi do not have in common: Randi never killed anyone!


Posted on 28 July 2013 at 1:44 AM

I really enjoyed this episode and the kid who helped break the case wide open was superb.
"buy me another burger and shake and I'll start to work on it".
"it's a trick, and don't forget it's a trick, then you can figure it out".

Have Your Say

Comments are now closed.

Cookies Policy | Contact Us