Eric has conditioned his two pet Doberman pinschers, Laurel and
attack when they hear a two-part command. The ring of the telephone
readies them for the attack. After, they will kill anyone who says the
word "Rosebud" (the dying gasp of Charles Foster Kane in the Orson Welles
masterpiece Citizen Kane.)
Eric asks Charles to take Laurel and Hardy out to the house. He has a
physical to take, and they'll play tennis afterward. When the doctor
leaves Eric alone for a few minutes, the psychologist picks up the nearby
telephone and calls his house. The ringing summons both Charles and the
Charles answers and is surprised to find Laurel and Hardy growling in
front of him. Eric asks Charles to settle a bet. What was Charles Foster
Kane's final word? "Rosebud," he answers. In an instant, the Dobermans
are on their targeted victim.
When Eric gets home, he is surprised to see that Lieutenant Columbo is
happily playing catch with the dogs. They aren't at all vicious and
violent. He can't understand why Laurel and Hardy would suddenly turn
and kill Charles.
Columbo is enchanted by the Mason house. It was once owned by Theda
Bara, Eric tells him, and the pool table belonged to W. C. Fields. The
detective is honored to hold the comedian's famous cue stick.
Between conversations about old movies, Columbo tells Eric what he has
discovered. Charles was talking on the kitchen telephone when he died.
The phone was found off the hook and the type of signal being made
indicated that someone had called the house. It means that someone heard
the victim's screams and didn't call the police.
Other details bother the lieutenant. There is straw in the corner of the
kitchen (Eric says it's from a case of wine he unpacked) and a hook over
the phone. Joanne Nichols, a young psychology student who lives on the
grounds, tells Columbo that Eric often went away with the dogs on weekends.
Where? He gets a clue when Eric shows him a baby spotlight that he picked
up at a deserted ranch once used as a Hollywood Western set.
Out at the ranch, Columbo finds a hook just like the one in Eric's
kitchen. He also discovers remains of a loudspeaker, shreds of a jacket
that belonged to Charles and straw that matches the type in Eric's house.
It would seem that Eric had trained the dogs to attack by hanging up a
straw dummy dressed in Charles' clothes and rigged with a loudspeaker.
A trainer informs Columbo that dogs can turn vicious, but it's unlikely
that they'll turn nice again. She shows him how dogs can be conditioned
with an attack word.
Snapshots of Charles with Eric's wife give Columbo the motive. To prove
his case, he needs the attack word.
Hoping the egotistical Eric will betray himself, Columbo secretly tapes
an evening of conversation with the psychologist. As the policeman is
leaving, he remarks on the imposing gate with the letter K emblazoned on
it. That looks so familiar, the lieutenant says. You can see it in the
opening shots of Citizen Kane, Eric tells him.
"That's where it all begins," Columbo remembers.
Charles Foster Kane dies and says . . . Eric can't resist a chance to
dangle the word in front of his adversary-"Rosebud."
When Columbo plays the tape for Laurel and Hardy, who are being
held at police headquarters, the phone happens to ring. They respond.
When the dogs hear Eric say "Rosebud," they go crazy.
Columbo takes Laurel and Hardy back to Eric's house and outlines all of
the evidence he has against the psychologist. Actually Columbo says, for
a supposedly smart man, Eric made lots of stupid mistakes. This wasn't
all that difficult a case, the lieutenant continues, goading his
adversary. The genius of mind control even forgot that he was hooked
to an electrocardiogram machine when he called Charles. The chart
shows an unaccountable jump at the exact time of the murder.
Pushed to the limit, Eric summons Laurel and Hardy. He points toward
Columbo and shouts, "Rosebud!" But instead of attacking, the two Dobermans
start playfully licking the detective. When he had learned the attack
command, Columbo asked a dog trainer to replace one conditioned response
with another. Now, instead of killing when they hear the word, they start
Originally titled "The Laurel and Hardy W. C. Fields Citizen Kane Murder
Case," "How to Dial a Murder" is a sharply paced mystery that makes clever
use of Hollywood nostalgia (Falk even indulges in a brief W.C. Fields
The episode might have been subtitled "Columbo meets Sherlock Holmes,"
In 1976, Nicol Williamson had made an intriguing Holmes in the screen
adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. The same year as "How to Dial
a Murder" aired, Williamson had a supporting role in the Neil Simon movie
The Cheap Detective, a spoof starring Peter Falk.
Playing a Columbo murderer usually is a cherished memory for an actor.
Williamson, who starred in the films Hamlet (1969) and Excalibur (1981),
is the rare exception. The experience left almost no impression at all
on him. Even afrer being refreshed with plot particulars, Williamson
couldn't recall much about his involvement.
"I don't really remember that much about it," he said. "I was getting
divorced and I had to have the money. It was one of those things. It was
okay. You remember much more about it than I do. That was about ten years
ago. I'm sorry."
It's a shame he doesn't remember more, because he was quite good as Eric
Mason. For most of the episode, he is the typically urbane and genial
Columbo murderer. With little warning, however, his face might suddenly
contort into a snarl that chillingly testifies to the malignant force of
his emotions. Experimenting with the Columbo formula, Simmons introduced another new
element during the seventh season-danger. In both "Murder Under Glass" and
"How to Dial a Murder," we are made to worry about Columbo's welfare. Paul
Gerard and Eric Mason each try to murder the lieutenant. Columbo
anticipates and prepares for each move.It's a new and tense variation on the traditional
game. Indeed, "How to Dial a Murder" emphasizes the nature of the Columbo
game."I'm sure you're very good at games, sir," Columbo tells Eric. Later, he
says, "It's just that I enjoy the pleasure of the game."