Columbo had them at hello.
The fun in watching TV’s greatest detective is not merely in piecing
together murder mysteries along with him – he’s way past the sniffing stage,
and besides, we’ve already spent the first twenty-five minutes witnessing
the actual killing, the reasons leading up to the murder (usually strangely
justified) and the careful steps of the cover up (usually air tight and
amazingly free of clues, as far as civilians like us are concerned). In most
cases, we don’t even as much as smell Columbo’s cigar smoke until a good
thirty minutes into the episode (with its first terrific season now
available on DVD).
The real fun of the series, from the moment the amazing Peter Falk makes his
rumpled, familiar appearance on the scene, is not “if” but exactly “how” his
bumbling but brilliant character is going to pin the tail on the donkey.
knows the killer – we know the killer: that’s not important. However, we
experience a sadistic pleasure in watching Columbo as the cat toying with
his mouse before he sinks in his fangs for the kill. The formula never
changes, nor do we want it to: the killer literally gets away with murder
(we see this with our own eyes), then slowly devolves from uneasily arrogant
to downright terrified as Columbo puts together the necessary evidence he
needs to convict. How long can the suspect keep up the charade? When exactly
will he or she become unglued? And Columbo is nothing if not dedicated.
It’s a process, all right, and we’re loving every minute of it.
Columbo disarms his suspect with such charm and casual clumsiness that the
murderer is thrown off guard; we watch them think they are smarter.
In fact, they can’t believe their continuing good fortune in having to deal
with this seemingly pea-brained civil servant assigned to their case.
However, unlike the murderer, we know this is a ruse, and we can’t help but
grin as we watch the spider set the trap for the fly.
delight as the guilt rises to the top and the suspect, episode after
fascinating episode, slowly realizes that this raincoat-wearing, cigar
chomping, forgetful little man is actually a master, and that they never
really stood a chance. The fulfillment of the final scene, in which Columbo
finally nails his man or woman, is so powerfully satisfying that it becomes
addictive. We keep coming back for more (68 movies and counting since
1971!). No other TV detective consistently delivers the goods.
respect Columbo’s uncanny ability to appear clueless even though he’s
bursting with clues. “My wife tells me I have to have strings on all ten
fingers,” he comments modestly about his memory. He’s forever losing his pen
and asking for a light. He works alone – there are no tiresome love
interests to slow down the plot, no “buddy/cop” retreads, no personal soul
searching and other whining, and only an occasional but loving reference to
his never-seen wife, Mrs. Columbo -- yet this character is so fully realized
that we know him inside out and want to buy him that bowl of chili he loves
so much. We’ll have what he’s having: we want to discover what makes him
Columbo lets us think that his mind is cloudy, that his eyes are permanently
squinted, but he actually has a zestful passion for life. For instance, if
the murder involves architecture (as when a body is buried in a foundation
of a new building), he learns all he can about architecture. He’s a thinking
man, and he goes out of his way to allow his “victim” to feel otherwise.
However, these murderers are not stupid; they are nothing if not all about
planning and seeing ahead. “Why do I have the feeling that you already know
the answers to these questions?” an exasperated Patrick O’ Neill asks him at
long last. And Robert Culp nervously comments, “You’re a very observant man,
lieutenant.” Ross Martin agrees, in another episode, when he says, creepily,
“My, how observant you are.” And later, when Columbo is closing in on him,
he rambles to anyone who will listen, “in case you haven’t noticed, he’s a
very haphazard individual.” Even Eddie Albert, playing a retired Marine
general who kills one of his men, says suspiciously, “You sure don’t look
like a police lieutenant.”
What these murderers are seeing in Columbo is themselves. He even offers a
glimpse into that steel trap of a noggin, reflecting that, “Do you know that
there is a reasonable explanation for everything if you just put your mind
However, it’s his self-effacing rambling that keeps his suspects from seeing
the light bulb over their guilty heads too soon, because if he lets on, that
would be no fun. What they all learn is too little, too late: you can never
plan too much if Columbo is working your case. Minimizing your risks is a
This first season takes place in that weird netherworld between the late
sixties and early seventies. The scene is changing, but luckily for us,
Columbo never changes. In fact, he seems to transcend time. The
affluent backdrop of Beverly Hills, at the time reeling from the Manson
murders and the beat in which Columbo toils, is neat and clean and orderly,
with long, black Cadillacs with telephones in them. Even Jack Cassidy’s
Mercedes Benz sports a bumper sticker that says, “Have A Nice Day!” We’re in
that demilitarized zone between The Beverly Hillbillies and
Beverly Hills 90210.
However, we are allowed into its fictionalized, highly polished version of
its dark side. In fact, it’s not dark at all, but sunny and bright and
well-maintained. It’s not real, and we know it, but it’s how we imagine it:
bodies land with a thump on shag carpeting; a society matron histrionically
exclaims, “It’s lucky for you I’m too well bred to throw a tantrum.” Columbo
sticks out like a sore thumb – if his beat was a more inner-city or
working-class neighborhood, the stories wouldn’t be as interesting, and
neither would Columbo.
The palatial estates in which most of the murders take place are huge and
breathtaking, and Columbo never completely makes an exit. He’ll half turn,
just when you think he’s finally gone, and say, “there’s just one thing
that’s bothering me…” or “excuse me, ma’m, I know I’m making a pest of
myself, but I’m trying to understand this” or “thank you…thank you…that’s
very interesting.” In the hands of a less talented actor, this would be pure
agony and annoyance. Falk, however, takes suspicion to a high art.
course, any weak link in the series is just a happenstance of the era: a
young hippie girl refers to him as “the fuzz.” Suzanne Pleshette, playing a
witness to a murder, is considered loopy and unreliable because she’s
divorced and teaches art to children. However, Columbo comes to her rescue
by paying her the highest compliment you can be paid in 1971: “You are a
very individual person.” We are expected to be awed by the then rich man’s
toy of a telephone answering machine. A top man in Robert Culp’s security
operation can reel in an astounding $30,000 a year. Roddy McDowell looks
like a Bee Gee. And in the most surreal of all Columbo scenes, Vic Tayback
(Mel from Alice) and Sandra Gould (Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched)
have a conversation about art. Columbo even walks through beaded curtains
(groovy!) in one episode.
The real standout achievement in this collection is the
episode directed by a
pre-superstar Steven Spielberg (and written by Steven Bochco, later to
create and write Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue). It’s as
good as you can imagine, more closely resembling a good movie than a TV show
because of its beautiful visual realization, smart dialogue and un-TV-like
camera angles. In it, Jack Cassidy shoots and kills Martin Milner, who plays
a successful murder mystery novelist. “They’re tricky,” Columbo says
ironically, regarding the books. “I could never figure those things out.”
the end, the murderers show a grudging respect for him, even though they’re
being led away in handcuffs. Lee Grant, upon her character’s gig being up,
says to Columbo, “I’m going to miss you, lieutenant. You and your
fascinating little details.” Perhaps they will become pen pals while she
serves her life sentence, but you won’t have to miss him as long as you have
this DVD to devour, and to revel in all the fascinating little details.
All rights reserved. Posted: October 13, 2004.