Telefilm Review: The Chevy Mystery Show: Enough Rope

Peter Falk first played Columbo in 1968. However, the character first came to television in 1960, played by Bert Freed in a one-off episode of The Chevy Mystery Show a 1960 Summer Anthology show. This original television performance made its way onto the Internet. (More on how that happened later on.) So I took a look at the OG Columbo story.

“Enough Rope”, the episode featuring Freed as Columbo, would later be expanded by writers and Columbo co-creators Richard Levinson and William Link, first into a stage play and then as the mystery movie that would introduce Falk as Columbo – Prescription: Murder. The basic plot of both “Enough Rope” and Prescription: Murder is the same. Dr. Roy Fleming (played by Richard Carlson in “Enough Rope”), a New York psychiatrist, murders his wife and, with the help of his mistress, gives himself a perfect alibi. He arrives to find the bumbling police Lieutenant Columbo (Freed) investigating the case, and it becomes apparent as the episode goes on that Columbo knows Fleming did it.

The biggest surprise about this episode is that it’s in color, which was rare for television in the 1960s. Although given the relatively small number of color sets in the US at the time, it’s safe to say most people who saw it watched it in black and white. The color is great and a real treat for this episode. The episode was not aired live, but it was recorded live, so that if a line was flubbed or a minor mistake was made, the cast just moved on. This gives the production a bit of a stage play feel.

There’s a temptation to compare Freed’s performance to Falk’s iconic take on the character, which isn’t fair. Not only wouldn’t Falk take on the role until 1968, the fairly unrumpled NYPD detective Falk portrayed in the first Columbo film, Prescription: Murder, bore little resemblance to how we think of the character today. That character wouldn’t be really formed until 1971. So given that Freed’s performance came before Falk’s,  and before Thomas Mitchell’s stage performance, it deserved to be evaluated on its own merits.

Freed was a skilled character actor and does a great job creating a detective character for which there wasn’t much precedent. On first impression, Freed seemed a lovable chubby oaf of a detective, only to show more and more flashes of his true cunning. You can also see some of the genesis of the ideas that would define the Columbo character.

I like Carlson as Fleming more than Gene Barry in the same role in Prescription: Murder. He’s a little more believable as a psychiatrist. He runs the gamut of emotions nicely as the walls close in and he finds himself in a battle of wits with Columbo.

While Freed and Carlson are terrific, the rest of the cast is just okay. The series was hosted by Walter Sleazak in those early days when TV anthologies had hosts. Some, like Ronald Reagan on the General Electric Theater, added charm and warmth. Others, like Rod Serling or Alfred Hitchcock added a bit more atmosphere to the strange tales they told. Sleazak adds nothing. He’s just a guy having a smoke while recapping the episode so far for anyone tuning in late.

The ending to the story is a bit mixed for me. I’ve always felt that Prescription: Murder, with its feature-length runtime, is too long. With “Enough Rope”, I find myself thinking that an hour is a bit short for this mystery. The length of Columbo episodes during the 70s is really just right. The result in “Enough Rope” is relatively simple, although in style, the final clue definitely has the feel of some later Columbo episodes. I don’t quite care for the clinching moment which resolves the battle of wits between Flemming and Columbo in a less satisfying way. It’s not bad for a 1960s Mystery Anthology show but it gives me more appreciation for the far better ending that Levinson and Link gave Prescription: Murder.

Overall, “Enough Rope” is a fun mystery for the era and really represents a chance to witness the first draft of Columbo and what was already there before Peter Falk came along. So it’s of interest to fans of Columbo or fans of TV mystery drama and is worth watching…while you can watch it.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

How This Got on the Internet

The Paley Center at UCLA held a live online screening of “Enough Rope” in April 2021. The event was to be live and not subject to being rewatched. The portion they archived included interviews with experts. The episode showed up last year on the Internet Archive with the UCLA branding attached and was posted to YouTube. The video I’ve linked above is titled a “Remaster.” Whether this removed the UCLA branding or perhaps is from another rare copy of this program, I don’t know. The copyright on “Enough Rope” was not renewed, and so this episode is in the public domain. I’m not certain what recourse anyone could have. But it’s early days and the circumstances of the release of the episode leaves me uncertain whether this will remain on the Internet forever.

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