Montalban and McGoohan

By now I am sure you have heard that Ricardo Mantalban and Patrick McGoohan have died.

Mantalban is being remembered primarily for playing Khan in Star Trek and Mr. Rourke in the godawful-but-strangely-watchable Fantasy Island. For me, though, his best role was as a murdering bullfighter in a memorable episode of Columbo.

Be warned: some minor spoilers ahead.

Columbo, vacationing with his wife in Mexico, gets into some low-grade trouble with the police. The local inspector offers to clear things up for him if he will help with an investigation. The bookkeeper to the legendary bullfighter Luis Montoya (Montalban) has been found dead in the ring, you see, gored by a bull. Previously this bull had injured Montoya, and it appears that his bookkeeper got drunk and foolishly tried to get revenge on the bull. The inspector is completely satisfied, but Columbo, seizing on a few anomalies in the set-up (surprise!), believes that Montoya committed murder, using the bull as the murder weapon.

This episode is somewhat formula-breaking in that, while the viewer knows that Montoya is the killer, his motive remains a mystery until the end. Ultimately Columbo realizes that during the incident in which the bull injured Montoya, the bookkeeper had seen that Montoya was scared to the point of being frozen. Montoya could not live with the shame, and felt he could maintain his dignity only by killing the one man who knew. Columbo exposes him by contriving a situation in which Montoya will be trapped in the ring with the bull (which seems a bit unethical). Sure enough, Montoya freezes again, and the motive for the killing becomes clear.

Montalban was perfectly cast as the aging bullfighter. The episode has several moments of genuinely good acting, most notably the final scene between him and Columbo. The look Montalban gives him, simultaneously horrified that his shame has been exposed, angry at Columbo for exposing him, yet also resigned to his fate is the main thing I will remember about him.

Patrick McGoohan also starred in several memorable episodes of Columbo, the best being his turn as the arrogant leader of a high school military academy. The writing is unusually good in this one (with the proviso that the way Columbo finally nails him at the end is even more preposterous than usual. McGoohan, horrified that the school’s owner is planning to make the school co-ed, contrives to kill him. He knows the owner of the school will insist on presiding over the Founder’s Day festivities, which culminate in the firing of a ceremonial cannon. McGoohan replaces the blank charge in the cannon with a more powerful explosive, then stuffs a cleaning rag down the cannon’s barrel to cause it to backfire. The idea is to make it look like the irresponsible student in charge of cleaning the cannon carelessly left the rag in the barrel, thereby causing it to explode. Suffice it to say, the plan doesn’t work.

The scenes between Columbo and McGoohan are very well-done, both the writing and the acting.

McGoohan, of course, is best remembered for the short-lived (17 episodes) television series The Prisoner. I must say that this has always left me flat. The first episode is amazing and brilliant, and it’s always nice to see anything daring and original on television, but things just got a little too weird and surreal for my taste. At some point you just have to tell a coherent story. Perhaps I’m too literal-minded, but I would have at least liked a clear answer to the question of whether or not the Prisoner eventually escapes. (My theory: he did not. The point of the jaw-dropping WTF! final episode was that he had finally been driven insane by the incessant interrogations and mind-games.)

They will both be missed.

Comments

  1. #1 The Science Pundit
    January 16, 2009

    I thought I was the only one who remembered McGoohan from Columbo. The military school episode was one of my favorites. The one where he was a funeral director was also quite good.

    Of course, I will remember Montalban for (among many other things) his explanation of the “samurai pen” in The Naked Gun “… impervious to everything, except water. It’s value is beyond estimation!”

  2. #2 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 16, 2009

    The first episode of Columbo I ever saw was the one where a chess grandmaster killed off his rival for the World Championship. I was instantly hooked!

    And I had inexcusably forgotten Montalban’s excellent performance in the Naked Gun. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. #3 Chris
    January 16, 2009

    “The Prisoner” is not one for easy answers … which is why it has endured for so long, while shows like “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” and even “Mission: Impossible” have faded from memory.

    I recall McGoohan as the funeral director in “Columbo” – his name is Mr. Finch. That was another preposterous ending (which I won’t spoil here).

  4. #4 BobbyEarle
    January 16, 2009

    “The Prisoner” was frustrating on a number of levels, but worst for me was not the bizarro last episode, or not knowing who the “new Number 2″ replaced. It was the never resolved reason for Number 6’s incarceration: the reason for Number 6’s resignation from the spy organization referred to at the top of every episode.

    The last episode at least revealed who Number 1 was (sort of), but I still harbor a smoldering hate for the show: why did he quit??? The world may never know.

  5. #5 Richard from Tasmania
    January 16, 2009

    Another legend has exited stage left

    I loved all Patricks work, I grew up watching Danger Man and the Prisoner, his work for Disney in the “Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” and some of his British B grade movies one in particular “Hell Drivers” with Stanley Baker, Herbet Lom, a young David Macallum and his future wife Jill Ireland, Sid James,Sean Connery and the original Dr Who, William Hartnell.

    I am sure he will be missed by all his fans and my deepest condolences to his family.

  6. #6 Jeff Hebert
    January 16, 2009

    I am almost embarrassed to say I own the entire Columbo series on DVD. Total nerd. McGoohan was in several really great episodes of the original run, he was a heck of an actor. He always had a sort of eerie other-worldliness about him that lent a bizarre edge to everything he did.

    I hadn’t made the connection with Montalban in the bullfighter episode as well, thanks for pointing that out.

    Good post on a sad day.

  7. #7 Raymond Minton
    January 16, 2009

    Ricardo Montalban as Khan in the 1982 Star Trek movie and Patrick McGoohan as King Edward the first in “Braveheart” were two larger-than-life roles of both actors, and they were both so great they could ham it up with no loss of credibility. The best line was Khan’s: “Revenge is a dish best served cold. It is very cold in space”. (That’s the approximate quote anyway, it’s been a few years!)

  8. #8 J. J. Ramsey
    January 16, 2009

    “… things just got a little too weird and surreal for my taste. At some point you just have to tell a coherent story”

    I found that most episodes of The Prisoner had plots that I could follow if I just paid attention. Weird? Oh, yes. Incomprehensible? Not really. The last couple episodes, though, were fairly random, as if the writers of the show started believing their own press clippings about the incomprehensibility of The Prisoner.

  9. #9 Joe Shelby
    January 16, 2009

    Why does anybody “quit” what they’re doing and do a 90 degree turn in their life, particularly around age 35-45?

    Too many secrets == too much stress?

    Desire for a family and a need to keep them secure?

    Something to be said for a predictable 9-5 life?

    Discovered the people he’s working for are as bad (or worse) than the “enemy”?

    Dozens of reasons, all valid, and because they can ALL be valid, it doesn’t really matter.

    Really, it doesn’t.

    Personally, I prefer reflecting on the Village itself (and statements like “The whole earth, as the Village” from Chimes of Big Ben) than the particular interpretations of the conclusion. By focusing too much on the conclusion, one forgets the incredible social statements made by it on society.

    Similarly, in Max Headroom, people focus too much on Max and the bits of humor in it to totally miss the incredibly accurate portrayal and predictions of our future in a media-dominated world.

    It’s not missing the forest for the trees, it’s missing the LACK of forest because of all the trees.

    J.J. Ramsey: actually the last two episodes were sketched out by McGoohan during his early conceptions of the show. That they happened when they did (16/17) was because of running out of ideas for stuff to put in between (hence, lesser stories with odd continuity effects like Change Of Mind, or Secret Agent leftovers like Girl Who Was Death). Originally, it was conceived as a 7 episode series and those were to be 6 and 7. The network (ITV) asked for more to make the show financially viable.

    McGoohan always knew how it was going to end, though he still did some significant rewrites to the ending episode as it got into production.

  10. #10 John Farrell
    January 16, 2009

    Hi Jason,
    Perhaps I’m too literal-minded…

    Well, there’s an understatement!
    ;)

    Seriously, speaking as a big McGoohan fan, I recommend two of his underrated movie performances: one as a depression era federal agent looking to score on his former army pal’s hidden reserve of moonshine, in The Moonshine War. Alan Alda, by the way, is superb in an offbeat role in the days before he got sucked into the Mash stereotype.

    The other is Ice Station Zebra, where McGoohan plays his classic secret agent in pursuit of a fallen satellite at the North Pole.

  11. #11 Joe Shelby
    January 16, 2009

    Correction: I meant Do Not Forsake Me (where they change the body), not Change of Mind.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    January 16, 2009

    John Farrell

    Perhaps I’m too literal-minded…

    Well, there’s an understatement!

    You might have a point. After all, I think the fundamentalists are right about Genesis talking about 24 hour days. :)

    Thanks for the movie recommendations. They will be added to my Netflix queue.

    J.J. Ramsey

    You’re a better man than I. The show certainly looked great, had lots of interesting ideas, and had the magnificent McGoohan, but too many of the episodes felt like they were just messing with me.

    Jeff Hebert

    Nothing to be embarrassed about! Columbo is one of the greats.

    Chris

    Mission: Impossible is another of my favorites, and it is finally available on DVD, at least the first five seasons. You used to be able to find reruns of it on some of the more obscure cable channels, but those days seem to be no more. Sadly, you seem to be right about it being largely forgotten.

  13. #13 Antaeus Feldspar
    January 17, 2009

    Jason —

    Well, if your cable operators gets the “American Life” channel, “those days” are still going strong. That channel shows Mission: Impossible most weekday evenings.

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