Lt. Columbo is my favorite detective
Hands down my all time favorite is Lt. Columbo. It is true that Columbo episodes aren’t actually murder mysteries since we see the murderer commit the crime in Act 1! It is a mystery to the other characters and sometimes even Columbo himself, although he often catches on quite early. Then he applies the psychological pressure - a little cat and mouse game which is so compelling for the viewer. As I think about it, it is kind of like Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart”, where the main character admits to the reader that he killed the old man and buried him in the floorboards. Then the police come and the pressure is too much for the killer to bear. A novel I read as a kid, “The Amboy Dukes” employed a similar device - the killer’s own worry that the detectives were on to him made carrying his secret unbearable. Fantastic insights into the human psyche.
Peter Falk as Columbo was loveable, and so human. The clearing of the throat, the scratching of the head, his over polite manner and his frugality all made him so real. His disheveled appearance and old clunker of a pugot made him the fish out of water in the high society cases he worked on in those mansions in and around the Los Angeles area. That trench coat! The cigar. The references to Mrs. Columbo, his love for his dog, “Fido” - all the incredible nuances that make him one of the all time greatest characters in television history.
My favorite villains? Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy, William Shatner, Dick Van Dyke, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon. Come on, these are amazing co-stars and legends in their own right - but it seems that they all knew they were playing roles in what was to be an iconic and indelible part of pop culture.
The Robert Culp Episodes:
“Death Lends a Hand” He plays a sophisticated private investigator who owns his own firm and has very high profile clients. He also has a temper which takes a lot of concentration to conceal. A fantastic episode and a beautiful character. I love watching him squirm.
“The Most Crucial Game” He is the manager of a professional football team. He disguises himself as an ice cream man to give himself cover. A most brilliant discovery by Columbo solves the crime.
“Double Exposure” explores the use of subliminal messages in advertising. Powerful theme and Culp is perfect as Dr. Kepple who’s genius is only matched by his own hubris. A fantastic and funny moment is when he phones a victim’s wife and disguises his voice. A hungry Columbo scooping up hundreds of dollars of caviar at one of Dr. Kepple’s events is an unforgettable moment too.
Culp also appears in “Columbo Goes To College” but I am only reviewing my all time favorite episodes so I’ll leave that for another column.
Jack Cassidy Episodes:
“Murder By The Book” - Wow! Cassidy plays a murder mystery writer in this one. A clever diabolical plot by Michael Sloane, RIchard Levinson and William Link that takes our story to a beautiful cabin on a lake outside of the city. Columbo takes the writer apart, piece by piece in a riveting piece of television storytelling.
“Now You See Him” - Mystery and MAGIC! Yay! Cassidy plays the “Great Santini” a magician with a secret past. He performs a fantastic water tank illusion and also escapes from handcuffs, makes coins appear from silks, and engages in intriguing mentalism routines. His daughter is his beautiful assistant who makes doves appear as he struggles in the water tank. Columbo has an assistant in this episode too. “Sgt Wilson” who is a pain in Columbo’s rear end. Very competent detective though - in the pinch - with a bit of typewriter knowledge. The episode is remarkable too for a black raincoat that Columbo receives as a gift. He hates it. He can’t get used to it. He purposely leaves it behind but Wilson brings it to him in a good natured attempt to be helpful. I can watch this episode over and over. It is that good.
Cassidy also plays the villain in “Publish Or Perish” but again I’m only reviewing my absolute faves in this column.
William Shatner Episodes:
“Fade In To Murder” - William Shatner plays a TV actor “Ward Fowler” who plays “Detective Lucerne” in a fictitious detective TV program within the program. Much of the episode takes place on the studio lot and watching Shatner play detective with Columbo pretending to be star struck is so awesome. As Captain Kirk is also one of my all time favorite characters it is just thrilling to see these two play opposite each other. Two legends.
Shatner also played the villain in the episode “Butterflies In Shades of Grey” which is great but not for this column.
Dick Van Dyke’s Episode:
“Negative Reaction” DVD plays “Paul Galesko” - a celebrated photographer with marital problems. He is delightful in this episode and plays his lovable self but with a sinister side that we rarely have seen from this legendary performer. Great moments in this episode include Vito Scotti as a drunk, a nun mistaking Columbo for a homeless man, and an absolutely hysterical bit with Larry Storch as a driving instructor who gets extremely nervous as a passenger with Columbo.
John Cassavetes’ Episode:
“Etude in Black” - It is so clear that Falk and Cassavetes were pals in real life. The chemistry between the two is palpable on screen. The Hollywood Bowl is the setting for the story along with a sweeping mansion is perfect for the episode. Watching Cassevetes plays brilliant composer, Alex Bennedict. He laughs off Columbo’s investigation while ever so slowly falling apart is riveting to watch. This was truly a psychological thriller, in my opinion and the actors had a perfect understanding of how to play it.
Ruth Gordon’s Episode:
“Try And Catch Me” - Charming. Beautiful. Ruth Gordon plays super successful crime writer, “Abigail Mitchell” who matches wits with Columbo perfectly...until he catches her. She is elegant in the role and quite believable as the mastermind behind the murder. The beach “house” is a mansion and much of the story takes place there as well as the local country club where Abigail is scheduled to speak for an event. This episode was among the last of the “original series episodes and it contains all the elements of a perfect Columbo episode. Great story and pacing, suspenseful and sometimes whimsical musical score, a lovable villain that plays so nicely opposite Columbo - and who earns Columbo’s respect and even admiration, a picturesque setting and so forth. This is one of the best of the best.
I could keep going. I am a huge fan. I’ll stop here but feel free to write to me and tell me your favorites. I have seen them all - several times!