If I was to consider making a list of great moments in the annals of Television I would argue for one specific moment, a moment repeated numerous times over the course of a decade (give or take), a moment that cannot be equaled. That moment follows a strict formula – a murder has been committed in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. We are made privy to the motive of the murder, have seen the act being committed and have followed the steps of the attempted cover up. By the time the moment arrives the mystery in the “mystery crime drama” has been taken out of the equation and made incidental, the formula for the murder mystery show turned on its head. And now that the mystery is gone we have only one thing to focus on, which comes as each “Columbo” episode turns toward Columbo the man. His entrance is the moment we all always wait for.
Everything on “Columbo” the series serves Columbo the character. For instance, the murderers are often high-profile individuals like genius scientists, actors, virtuosos, popular authors, world-famous critics or what have you. As a result the scenes of the crimes are more often than not a mansion or a luxury apartment. If not the suspect will frequent these types of luxurious environments, all of which are in complete contrast to Lt. Columbo so that when he enters he exhibits the best facets of his disheveled self. He may, for instance, pause to crack a hard-boiled egg (his breakfast) on the mailbox in the driveway of the mansion or pass through its ornate doors clutching a brown paper bag dripping with grease (his dinner). This is our crumpled hero, the regular guy next door who also happens to be the greatest homicide detective in the world.
“Beneath the ruffled exterior there ticks away the heart of an empiricist philosopher probing for the truth at all costs.” – Jack Cassidy as The Great Santini in “Now You See Him”
I’ve no plans to tell of the history of “Columbo,” by the way. You can read those details anywhere. Nor do I intend on a rehash of greatest moments. There are far too many. Instead, by way of what I think are a few of Columbo’s best assets, I’d like to discuss why I believe the Lieutenant, played with verve by Peter Falk, was the greatest TV detective ever. His cunning wiles in everyman clothing.
“Well you certainly don’t look the part”
Among the myriad of classic entrances made by Lt. Columbo one of my favorites is seen in a 1976 episode directed by Harvey Hart titled “Now You See Him.” Here Jack Cassidy – one of several actors who played “Columbo” murderers multiple times has committed murder. The Lt. drives up to the crime scene in his dilapidated 1959 Peugeot convertible, Model 403 – a welcomed sight and as much a fixture of Columbo’s persona as is his ragged raincoat. Except, we see in this instance as the Lt. steps out of the car that… WHAT THE HELL? We barely recognize him. In fact the policeman who’s standing guard on the premises stops him, “Excuse me sir…oh, I’m sorry Lieutenant. I hardly recognized you. You look different somehow.” Holding a small, brown paper bag Columbo turns and replies, “I’ve had a haircut.” An inside joke you won’t get unless you’re familiar with this guy. What’s different and noticeable immediately is that the Lt. is wearing a brand-new, fitted, brown raincoat we learn his wife just gave him for his birthday. That, in a nutshell, is the beauty of Columbo – a character so well-defined that the mere switching of an item of clothes throws us a bit off kilter. And in this case the new coat becomes somewhat of a running joke in the episode.
In a room full of tuxedos one of the things we expect is for Columbo to stick out like a sore thumb and he doesn’t disappoint – this may well be his greatest gift, a weapon that never ceases to entertain the most ardent fan. Columbo is everyman in appearance and demeanor. He is easily overlooked and discounted by murderers and high society types. There is no pretense to this man, no air of superiority. We may see him for the first time in an episode as a small, nondescript guy looking over people’s shoulders, like an annoying, snoopy neighbor. His hair is usually tousled as if he just got out of bed and didn’t bother to comb it. Or he’ll be chewing on a stubby cigar looking confused and disoriented perhaps searching for a match in a room filled with upper crust snobs. As one of the murderers attests, Columbo is a “very haphazard individual,” as unlikely a cop as you’ve ever seen. But the physicality of this man is part of the act, what visually sets him apart. The rumpled exterior is the first layer of the plan to make everyone else feel superior and the beginning of the act that will eventually result in the murderer dropping his/her guard.
“He fumbles and stumbles with musical precision, but it’s always the jugular he’s after.” – Lee Grant as Leslie Williams in “Ransom for a Dead Man.”
Along with the rumpled exterior the Columbo act requires the Lt. feign confusion. He’ll often scratch his head giving the murderer a sense of accomplishment. “This is the damnedest case I’ve ever seen,” he’s likely to say while rummaging around his pockets looking for a pen or the little note pad he jots down his theories and questions in. You might see the Lt. bumbling about interfering with the activities of the uniformed police at a crime scene and/or gathering and focusing on what seem to be unimportant clues. He is (seemingly) easily distracted, prone to bringing up any number of inconsequential stories that have nothing to do with the topic at hand.
“You’re a marvelously deceptive man. How you get to the point without getting to the point.”
Among the most enjoyable ploys Columbo is likely to use to either put suspects at ease or bring up valuable information related to a case in a way that seems off-the-cuff is by telling stories of his relatives. Specifically little “homey anecdotes” that are many things to different people – charming, exasperating, endearing and cunning. For instance, the Lt’s wife Mrs. Columbo is his primary source of criminal-catching inspiration. As such she provides an endless stream of ideas and theories that come about as he recalls her simple behavior that morning at breakfast, something she may have commented on at the supermarket or the last time they went to the movies. Mrs Columbo is as important a part of the Lt’s talent for solving crime as anything else. By way of Mrs Columbo anecdotes the Lt delivers – in a round about way – heart-piercing news to murderers.
Lt. Columbo also never (or rarely) boasts about his own abilities. Instead he is prone to ascribe his theories of crime and behavior to those relatives. Aside from his wife, his brother-in-law George was another one who often says or does something that makes the Lt. think in a unique way about the crime and criminal. The episode in which Vera Miles plays the murderer, “Lovely but Lethal” comes to mind. The Lt. catches Miles who plays a cosmetics queen by recalling how his brother-in-law George mentioned a microscope leading Columbo to discover the murder weapon. As Miles is walking out the door after the formal arrest she pauses, turns toward Columbo and Says ” you can give George a message for me.” Touche
All of those stories and his fumbling about add to Columbo’s penchant for remaining average. The “homey” anecdotes can drive suspects to madness and make the rest of us smile ear-to-ear. They are part of his charm. And genius. The truth is, of course, that Lt. Columbo is not confused at all. Ever. He is also not your average Joe. Columbo is acutely aware of everything that surrounds him, like an animal circling its prey, waiting for the right moment to pounce.
Columbo’s dogged determination to do his job is what makes the character a legend in the field of crime. His methods are unlike those of any other detective. He doesn’t shove his strength or power in anyone’s face, he dissolves strong people with cunning and he hides his genius under that rumpled façade. The combination of all he is, only the surface of which is mentioned in this post makes Columbo the greatest detective in Television history. He does what he was born to do, he is beyond reproach and he is non judgmental. I end this tribute with that thought, perhaps the reason I so admire the Lt.
While there are some murderers on “Columbo” that make the detective lose his temper, he is really quite the soft-mannered guy. He doesn’t need to yell to deliver those blows previously mentioned. But more importantly he is also empathetic toward many of the murderers he pursues. Colombo hates the sin, rarely the sinner. There are many times when even at the time of arrest Columbo pauses and shakes his head, hating that he has to do his job at that moment because the murderer may be a father who tried to defend a son, or the result of a fatal decision by an otherwise good person. I love that the Lt recognizes that. He’s not just a by-the-book pencil-pusher. The best example of this is the ending of my all-time favorite “Columbo” episode, “Try and Catch Me” in which Ruth Gordon poses as the murderer. Gordon plays Abigail Mitchell, a famous writer who kills her dead niece’s husband because he killed the young woman and got away with it. Columbo never seems as hurt by the outcome of an investigation as he does in this episode. He has to arrest Abigail Mitchell – of whom Mrs. Columbo is a fan, by the way – but also understands what caused Mitchell to commit murder. Her niece’s husband was never brought to justice and Abigail ends by saying that had Columbo been in charge of that investigation none of this would have happened. He’s sorry for it. And the episode never fails to break my heart. Testament to Peter Falk’s acting.
As great as several of the “Gotchas” are in “Columbo,” those types of softer, more emotional endings are my favorites. In some of those instances the sight of murderers being taken away is not what makes an impression. In these cases the last shot allows for a little extra insight to our hero making us like him that much more. Enough, in fact, so that we can’t wait until he makes another memorable entrance.
This is for my money the best part of “Columbo” the series and what makes the character unforgettable, which is why I left it for last. With the oft apologetic “oh, I’m so sorry to bother you” thing, Columbo doggedly follows the suspect of the murder around until he or she is ready to jump off a cliff. Or, at the very least lose his/her cool.
The brilliance of “Columbo” the series is that it so values the strengths of the character that it allows him no confidant other than the murderers. Columbo himself is the only regular character in the series. His superiors rarely make an appearance and when they do they are nondescript and in the periphery. There is no assistant or secretary the Lt. can bounce around theories with leaving the killers themselves as both cat and mouse, in a sense. And Columbo takes full advantage of that by sharing the details of the case at every turn, which results in fantastic exchanges between hunter and hunted the latter always happy to match wits with the witless policeman. Columbo poses questions, looking for the murderer’s assistance so he or she can offer insight. It never fails that these people, initially amused by the simple-minded, confused cop offer way too much information. Things like their own theories to the murder, possible scenarios, motives, clues, twists and turns all serve as fodder. They usually get caught up in the fun of it. Unbeknownst to them, however, they are being led to the slaughter. You can count on them sharing too much or slipping up in some way. Regardless of how it happens the arrogant will undoubtedly get a kick in the gut delivered by the “sly little elf” as he fakes an exit.
“The insinuations, the change of pace. You’re a bag of tricks, Columbo, right down to that prop cigar you use.” – Gene Barry as Ray Flemming in “Prescription Murder”
Even non “Columbo” fans know the famous “one more thing,” a line the lieutenant uses often to deliver the blow. By now the killer may be feeling really smug and the sigh of relief is audible. Not only does the lead investigator seem to buy his/her theories, but the schmuck thinks they’re friends. Columbo often even shares niceties. Things like “oh, you’re a wonder” would often come out of his mouth. He calls the genius a genius and admires the talented. Then just when the killer is most at ease, satisfaction evident the Lt. bids farewell. He’ll then suddenly do a turn-around and enter again… “oh, just one other thing,” the Columbo version of “by the way” that pierces the heart and shatters confidence. Usually that’s the moment after which the murderer knows Columbo suspects them as the murderer.
And then the pestering begins…
Where there was some camaraderie, now there’s tension and nerves. Where the Lt’s stories seemed pleasant, now they’re annoying wastes of time. And suddenly Columbo is everywhere. They’ll see him in a restaurant, across a crowded room, while looking out of their window, in the middle of a speech or while having a night-cap. Unlike other detectives who threaten, Columbo unnerves and rattles. He shakes the unshakable – a proven method. Perhaps most satisfying of all for the viewer is watching the most arrogant murderer begin to unravel as Columbo presses, hounding them until the facade falls apart or they are forced to scramble. They fall hard…those rich geniuses.
This was originally published on ‘How Sweet it Was,” the classic TV blog that I am soon rendering dormant. Because the post was intended as part of a blogathon dedicated to Classic TV Detectives I thought it a good idea to provide the links in case you want to read some of the other entries: