In Praise of … COLUMBO

Peter Falk has died at the age of 83 after several years in poor health. A brilliant stage and film actor equally adept at comedy and drama, familiar for his blistering performances in John Cassavetes’ films and as the loving grandfather and narrator in The Princess Bride; he is also one of TV’s true immortals thanks to his portrayal of Lieutenant Columbo of the LAPD. This is  a character that remains, for many of us, the greatest detective that American TV has ever produced. Not just because he was played on-screen by the same actor over a record-breaking 35 years (and with the same rumpled overcoat) but because this was a show that seemingly went against all the rules of popular crime drama – and still came out ahead. Privileging character over action, there was no violence, no car chases, no shootouts, no supporting cast (apart from his lovable useless slob of a pooch named ‘Dog’), no on-screen family life for the main character outside of references to his relatives that he would make in each case, no regular sets to breed contentment through familiarity – how did this show even get made, let alone turn into one of the genre’s greatest commercial and critical successes?

With a few notable exceptions, each episode is presented as an inverted mystery in which we see the murder planned and executed and then watch to see how the Lieutenant catches the perpetrator. The reason this works so well is because the murders are usually highly ingenious with seemingly full-proof alibis demolished by small clues that we, and the murderer, failed to notice the first time round. On top of some truly top-notch plots was a show that was all about talk, focussing on the cat and mouse game between the slovenly but intellectually razor-sharp Columbo and a succession of arrogant murders who all came to regret underestimating their opposition.

The character was not originated by Falk but in fact was first played in 1960 by Bert Freed in a one hour live drama, Enough Rope by Richard Levinson and William Link who then adapted it into a stage play, ‘Prescription Murder’. It’s about a psychiatrist whose plan to kill his wife and live ever happily with his mistress thanks to a seemingly unbreakable alibi is undone by a detective who keeps unearthing one inconsistency after another. This would be the essential template for the TV show which started with the TV-movie version of the play in 1968, initially ran as a series between 1971 and 1978 and would then switch network from NBC to ABC and return in 1989 and would end, after 69 feature-length episodes (it was never a weekly show but rather a recurring series of 90- or 120-minute specials) in 2003 with Columbo Likes the Nightlife.

There are episodes that play on the formula, with varying degrees of success, most notably in the series made when the show returned. This led to a couple of poor episodes (Undercover and Columbo Cries Wolf) and one outright disaster (No Time to Die) as well as some triumphs like RIP Mrs Columbo and It’s All in the Game (both listed below), the latter being especially interesting as it was written by Falk himself.

Here are my top 10 Columbo episodes, in chronological order:

1. MURDER BY THE BOOK (1971)
Guest Star: Jack Cassidy
Written by Steven Bochco, directed by Steven Spielberg

After two pilot films (Prescription Murder (1968) and Ransom for a Dead Man (1971)), this was the episode chosen to launch the first series proper – sporting ultra-stylish direction by the young Steven Spielberg (lots of long takes and clever use of sound) it features Jack Cassidy as the ruthless, ever-smiling villain, one half of a crime writing partnership (rather like that behind Ellery Queen, Patrick Quentin and … Levinson & Link) who decides to bump off his more talented other half to collect the insurance. Cassidy, together with Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan, is probably the ultimate foil for the Lieutenant. He would eventually appear three times as the murderer over the years (the other two are Publish or Perish and Now You See Him).

2. DEATH LENDS A HAND (1971)
Guest stars: Robert Culp, Ray Milland
Written by Richard Levinson & William Link, Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

The first series episode to be shot, it features Robert Culp in the first, and best, of his three appearances as a murderer in the show (he also appeared later on in a supporting role in one of the 1990s episodes, Columbo Goes to College, as the father of one of a pair of killers, a move typical of the youth-obsesses approach of the networks when the show returned to the airwaves). Here he is an ultra-efficient private detective leading a large agency (not unlike that featured in the first season of Mannix, also created by Levinson and Link). Sporting inventive editing by Edward Abroms and an endlessly clever plot, this is the show at its best and the scenes between the uptight Culp and the ingratiating Falk are an utter joy.

3. REQUIEM FOR A FALLING STAR (1973)
Guest Stars: Anne Baxter, Mel Ferrer
Written by Jackson Gillis, directed by Richard Quine

Gillis was, along with Bochco,  the main writer who helped set the tone for the show – his genius for clues would keep him on the series right into the 1990s. In this episode, one of several set in a film studio (always Universal Studios of course as they made the show, and featured again in Fade into Murder below), we apparently see the wrong person get killed and the plot go awry – but this is a fiendishly clever story and Anne Baxter makes for a great villainess.

Peter_Falk4. A FRIEND IN DEED (1974)
Guest Star: Richard Kiley
Written by Peter S. Fischer, directed by Ben Gazzara

Fischer joined the show after Levinson and Link left to pursue other projects and wrote a huge number of the best of the later episodes, perhaps none more complex and well-plotted than this one, in which Richard Kiley play’s Falk’s unscrupulous boss. The concluding clue is so good the show would re-use it decades later.

5. BY DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT (1974)
Guest star: Patrick McGoohan
Written by Howard Berk, Directed by Harvey Hart

Patrick McGoohan was perhaps the finest of all the guest actors on the show – he became great friends with Falk and in total he would appear in four episodes over the years, directing three of those and a further two in which he did not appear. This is an unusual story in that it is one of the few not filmed in LA but relocated to a South Carolina military academy with McGoohan transfixing as the martinet with hidden insecurities. It won him a well-deserved Emmy.

6. FADE IN TO MURDER (1976)
Guest star: William Shatner
Written by Lou Shaw, Peter S. Feibleman, Henry Garson; Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Another episode set around Universal Studios with William Shatner (and in a supporting role Walter Koenig)  as the demanding lead actor of a TV detective series. This episode has great fun riffing on its own show (and Falk’s well publicised clashes with the Studio) but comes up trumps with another clever story and a wonderfully knowing performance by Shatner. This is one of the many stories (six in total) to feature in its cast Falk’s wife, Shera Danese.

7. TRY AND CATCH ME (1978)
Guest Stars: Ruth Gordon, Mariette Hartley
Written by Gene Thompson & Paul Tuckahoe, directed by James Frawley

Gordon is the mystery author who bumps off her own late nieces’ husband in a particularly grisly and Gothic fashion by trapping him inside a walk-in safe to die of asphyxia. The interplay with Falk is utterly charming here and once again features a great final clue too – one of my favourite actresses, Mariette Hartley, is also here, typically excellent as Gordon’s wily assistant.

8. AGENDA FOR MURDER (1990)
Guest star: Patrick McGoohan
Written by Jeffrey Bloom, Directed by Patrick McGoohan

McGoohan came back to the show, and promptly won another Emmy, for his performance as a shady political agent. The murder sequence, which builds to a crescendo of extremely short cuts, is handled with consummate skill while some of the scenes with Falk, in one case climaxing in an extended reverse tracking shot, all give a rare patina of gloss and polish to the show in its later incarnation which, compared with its earlier version, tended to be shot much more conventionally. A real highlight from the later years.

9. RIP MRS COLUMBO (1990)
Guest star: Helen Shaver
Written by Peter S. Fischer, Directed by Vincent McEveety

Of the great departures the show has undertaken over the decades, including a couple of standard-seeming episodes in which we think we see the killer but which then actually turn things on their head to become whodunits (Double Shock and Last Salute to the Commodore), this is one of the most successful. Fischer has crafted an ingenious tale that takes all kinds of chances, like using a variety of flashbacks and a voiceover in a story that shockingly begins with Columbo at his wife’s funeral. Mrs Columbo, never seen on the show, briefly got her own series in the late 70s (Levinson & Link were powerless to stop the studio) but it quickly sank without a trace. This is an object lesson on how to vary the formula without betraying, despite appearances to the contrary, any of its rigid principles – a class act and a great example of how to have your cake and eat it.

10. IT’S ALL IN THE GAME (1993)
Guest stars: Faye Dunaway, Claudia Christian
Written by Peter Falk, Directed by Vincent McEveety

Falk penned this episode himself and perhaps unsurprisingly it focuses to an unusual degree on the detective when he seems to be falling in love with his prime suspect, played with her usual sexy flair by Faye Dunaway. Her relationship with a mysterious younger woman (a pre-Babylon 5 Claudia Christian) is handled with just the right amount of ambiguity and even though the main alibi recycles elements from one of the earliest episodes (the electric blanket from Suitable for Framing), this once again keeps an eye on both plot and character to deliver a genuinely satisfying episode.

In 2010 Crippen & Landru published The Columbo Collection by William Link, which brought together a dozen short stories featuring the LAPD’s finest. The stories are great fun and could all have worked as launching points for TV episodes though the best of them work considerably better than as mere sketches – the character is brought up to date (he even has a mobile and flat screen TV) but little else has changes. Well worth seeking out. The best book on the show, even if it only covers its 1970s episodes, is Mark Dawidziak’s The Columbo Phile – if you can get your hands on it you really must if you have even an ounce of interest in the show. It’s crying out for an update and we can only hope that Mr Dawidziak will be able to find the opportunity to do so. Incidentally, he has posted his own recollections of Falk here and they’re well worth a look.

For further information about the show, look up the excellent Ultimate Lieutenant Columbo site: www.columbo-site.freeuk.com/

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23 Responses to In Praise of … COLUMBO

  1. TomCat says:

    This is a great tribute to the man, Sergio! I’m part of the new wave of fans who discovered Columbo fairly recently and had a lot of fun watching most of the episodes on DVD over the past few years. You mentioned a few of my favorites, like Try and Catch Me and Murder by the Book, but I think Columbo Goes to the Guillotines (featuring two impossible situations a la John Dickson Carr), Any Old Port in a Storm, Troubled Waters and Prescription: Murder also deserve to be mentioned. Classics of their kind! I also just uploaded my own tribute to Peter Falk on my blog and hopefully it does him justice.

    By the way, do you really hate Columbo Cries Wolf? I thought that episode was a hoot and also pretty cleverly constructed.

  2. Hi TomCat, there are no COLUMBO episodes that I dislike, none at all – at its least successful I usually prefer it to most other shows out there from it era!

    By that I mean that is was better acted, better written and better directed than virtually any other crime show but because it was never a weekly series you can’t compare it with, say, CAGNEY & LACEY or even the likes of MONK which have their virtues but which can;t provide the level of complexity in characterisation and plotting that COLUMBO could as a series of feature-length ‘specials’.

    The show always had the problem that it worked fairly well at 74 minutes (which is to say for a 90-minute slot) as originally envisaged when rotating as part of the mystery wheel in 1971 but it was a very expensive show to make precisely because there were no standing sets and the cast always had to be hired on a one-off basis – and also due to Falk’s perfectionism as a ‘method’ actor meant that there were always overruns on the shooting schedule. This meant it was more cost-effective as a show made for a 120-minute slot (or 96 minutes with ads, more or less) – all the shows after 1989 were that length and only some from the 70s and the longer one nearly always feel very padded – COLUMBO CRIES WOLF is great fun but when you realise that the first 80 minutes are just a shaggy dog story, then while entertaining it does mean that they have royally padded that one out.

    The GUILLOTINE episode, which brought COLUMBO back in 1989 is great fun and the main magic trick is wonderfully executed – but on the other hand it has a lot of padding (the scenes with the kid) and he doesn’t really nail the culprit properly at the end in terms of evidence, which is a major sin in this show – but it’s still greta fun, I agree. ANY OLD PORT is also one of my favourites and narrowly got missed off my TOP 10 in fact – it is also one of the few from the 1970s, along with A FRIEND IN DEED, which really manages to sustain the 120-minute length successfully.

  3. TomCat says:

    I see where you’re coming from, but I still have to disagree with you on Columbo Cries Wolf as the first 80-minutes are an integral part of the murderers plan (hence the title) – and therefore definitely not padding. It’s also a clever variation on the time-honored format of the show. Columbo still goes through the motions of a regular episode, but the joke is nearly on him by the end and it’s really neat to have a killer who starts outsmarting him before the dirty deed is even done.

    On the other hand, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of Any Old Port in a Storm and A Friend in Deed. I especially loved the interaction between Peter Falk and Donald Pleasence in Old Port.

    Can you believe that there are people out there who don’t like this stuff?!

    • You are right about ‘Columbo Cries Wolf’ in terms of the story but my criticism stems from the amount of time that is devoted to the early part of the plot – had it been used for a shorter length episode it would have been much less lopsided and would, therefore have been much more successful. ‘Wolf’ and ‘Guillotine’ were both written by William Read Woodfield, probably best known as a major writer on ‘Mission: Impossible’, and he tended to focus on ingenious situations based on gimmicks, as you would expect in ‘Mission: Impossible’, but I find he was less good on physical clues than some of the other writers. His other episode, ‘Murder of a Rock Star’ typically has a fantastic gimmick to create an alibi.

  4. TomCat says:

    OK, I agree with you that the gimmick for Columbo Cries Wolf would’ve been even more effective were it presented in a more compact time schedule, but I still think the trick is clever and fun enough to forgive a little padding – even though I really don’t see it as such. It’s a hoot from start to finish!

    • It certainly stands out as one of the more conceptually daring episodes – like the revelation of identical twins suddenly turning Double Shock into a whodunit (and with a sensational payoff that works precisely due to that fact) – that would probably be my number 11 on the list, not least for the fact that we get not one but two great start turns from Martin Landau.

  5. J F Norris says:

    Don’t know how I missed this post last week. Here’s my delayed response.

    I’m so glad you mentioned the Faye Dunaway episode. It is one of my favorites as well. It shows a different side to Columbo – the deeply compassionate side. I like the Leonard Nimory one about the dissolving sutures, too. Nimoy was a truly evil and menacing presence. Impressive and intimidating all at once. It’s stayed with me for decades. I keep hoping someone will mention the Theodore Bikel episode about the Mensa type group of intellectuals (The Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case). In addition to it’s insanely baroque murder method reminiscent of something out of a Van Dine or Dickson Carr novel it has great dialog. I posted the ending to that one on my blog and I just love the writing. It points out the difference between being intelligent and being wise rather pointedly.

    • Hello John, well, there were rather a lot of Columbo fans out there beating the drum, but thanks very much for the comments.

      The Bikel episode is perhaps my very earliest recollection of watching a Columbo episode from its original broadcast in the UK (June 1979 to be exact) and I remember vividly how the complex falling domino-style alibi method impressed me. I think on re-viewing it I found the plotting a bit choppy but will definitely watch it again now that you’re reminded as it has been a while since I saw it last. The Nimoy episode (unfortunately titles ‘A Stitch in Crime’) is a really excellent story and well worth singling out I quite agree, not least because it is one of the very few times where Columbo genuinely despises the villain and lets it show.

    • Dixie says:

      The Bye Bye Sky-High IQ Murder Case has one of my favorite Columbo scenes in it. The tension builds at the end, culminating with Bikel revealing how he got the dictionary to drop by using the red magic marker, with the Tchaikovsky piece building to a climax, and the camera quickly cutting back and forth between Falk and Bikel, all simultaneously. What a climax!

      • It is very dynamically staged with lots of quick cuts and does work very well – in many ways it is the best thing about it and certainly the part I always remember the most!

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  10. Jeff Flugel says:

    Of course I’m very late to the party, but wanted to commend you on a fine post paying tribute to the wonderful Peter Falk and his fabulous show COLUMBO – for me, the onyl American detective show that can hang with the great British detective dramas. I’m only a recent fan, never having watched the show until coming to live in Japan in 2004. They (used to, not so much recently) play a classic COLUMBO episode nearly every week, and so I have caught up on most of them. Your post summed up the appeal and quality of the program very well.

    Personally, I don’t rate the 80s COLUMBOs very highly…Falk is still great in them, but the caliber of guest murderer is subpar IMO. (I mean, we trade in the likes of Louis Jourdan, Ricardo Montalban and John Cassevettes for George Wendt and Andrew Stevens?) I do enjoy the Faye Dunaway episode you mention, however. Otherwise, give me the classic 70s shows every time. Some of my faves (not mentioned on your list, which, as you say, is a hard one to narrow down), would be “A Stitch in Crime” with Leonard Nimoy (so great to see a rare moment when Columbo loses his cool); “Lady in Waiting” with Susan Clark (rare but pleasant to see female murderers in Columbo and this is among the best); “Swan Song” with Johnny Cash as a very sympathetic killer; “Any Old Port in a Storm”, ditto for Donald Pleasance; “Forgotten Lady” (a really interesting case with Janet Leigh as the murderer); “Now You see Him, Now You Don’t” (with Jack Cassidy in ultra-smarm mode as the magician murderer); and “Murder Under Glass” with Louis Jourdan (love Columbo’s clear dislike of this smarmy murderous chef).

    Just a wonderful show, wish there were more of its quality. I have that COLUMBO COLLECTION
    and while it’s enjoyable, there’s a disappointing sameness to the modus operandi of the murders (for one thing, they’re pretyy much all done by gunshot), Best not read in one sitting.

    • Thanks very much Jeff, very kind of you. I think you and I are pretty much on the same wavelength here – I think there were some notable guest stars later on, such as the underrated Lindsay Crouse (then Mrs David Mamet) and Rip Torn, but the best ones were returning guests from the 70s such as George Hamilton, William Shatner and especially Patrick McGoohan. Apparently the Columbo set available in Japan (the only country to currently offer it on Blu-ray by the way, at a quite extraordinary price …) includes the original 90-minute version of Etude in Black before it was padded to 2 hours

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