In a mad moment before Christmas, I bought a boxset of the entire 10 series of Columbo (including the original TV pilots), and have had a lovely time since then reliving the days of my youth, when this programme was a staple of our family’s TV viewing.
In total, Columbo was on screen for an amazing 35 years between 1968 and 2003, and has held up remarkably well given its age – a tribute to the brilliance of the show’s two big concepts (the character of Columbo and the ‘inverted mystery’ formula), and its high production values.
In Lt. Columbo of the LAPD, writers Richard Levenson and William Link created a unique police detective, who was wonderfully realised by Falk. Seemingly bumbling, incompetent and dishevelled (looking like ‘an unmade bed’ in his crumpled mac), his razor-sharp intellect was always fatally underestimated by the murderer, who believed that he or she had committed the perfect crime. Interestingly, and in contrast to investigators in other American police procedurals such as Starsky and Hutch or Cagney and Lacey, Columbo is shown operating largely on his own – we never see a police-partner, Columbo’s superiors, or any action at the police precinct. He’s actually a very clever fusion of policeman (title and frequently flashed badge), private eye (his appearance and constant snooping), and ‘Golden Age’ detective (his unerring ability to solve the murder, typically committed in the L.A. equivalent of an English country house).
This wonderful character was then combined with the innovative ‘inverted mystery’ formula to produce a highly addictive show. Each episode opened with a 10 to 15 minute section showing an individual carrying out a murder, thereby inverting the usual ‘who-dunnit’ formula and making the viewer an eye-witness to the detail of the crime. The focus of the rest of the episode was on how Columbo solved the murder and furnished proof of the culprit’s guilt, so that justice could be served. Dogged and persistent, Columbo would seize on any ‘loose ends’ in the case (e.g. why was the victim’s car radio tuned to a classical station when he was a country music fan?) and return again and again to probe the suspect’s story until the truth was finally revealed.
As Andrew Donkin notes in the sleeve notes for my Playback/Universal Columbo boxset, ‘this structure made the show particularly hard to write for, as the ending had to justify the time invested by the audience who already knew the answer [of the murderer’s identity]’ (p.2). A particular challenge was keeping the episodes fresh: while there’s a great deal of pleasure to be derived from the repetitive structure of the show, and the reassuring certainty that Columbo will always nail the criminal, there’s also a risk that the audience will get bored. This was countered in a number of ways: episodes that played with the formula and audiences expectations (such as ‘Double Shock’, which featured twins as suspects); a steady stream of top writing and directing talent, included Steven Bochco and Steven Spielberg (the latter was responsible for the first ever episode, ‘Murder by the Book’, in which a crime writer bumps off his writing partner), and, of course, the numerous, fabulous guest stars who appeared throughout the many years of the show.
The guest stars are a particular pleasure to watch now. Given that Columbo was essentially a two-hander between Peter Falk and the murderer, who was carted off to prison at the end of each episode, there was ample opportunity for often incredibly famous actors to shine in the latter role. Drawn to the show by its quality, the chance to play a gloriously villainous character, and to hog the limelight before Columbo’s entrance, they included (in no particular order):
* Ray Milland * Johnny Cash * Leonard Nimoy * Martin Landau * Vincent Price * Martin Sheen * Ida Lupino * Donald Pleasance * Robert Culp * Dick van Dyke * Patrick MacGoohan * Robert Vaughn * Janet Leigh * William Shatner * Faye Dunaway * Rue McClanahan * Blythe Danner * John Cassavetes * Valerie Harper * Ricardo Montalban *
The other aspect of the show I sneakingly enjoy is its class dynamic: the murderers are typically ultra-affluent, well-educated, oh-so-arrogant types, who are brought low by a scruffy police detective from a humble background. This is not to say that Columbo delivers a detailed social critique of American society (the visually stunning upper-class settings are homage to Agatha Christie as much as anything else), but there’s a sustained contrast between the intelligence, abilities and moral goodness of the hard-working ordinary man and the greed, decadance and arrogance of the super-rich (apologies to any wealthy, morally-upright philanthropists who may be reading!). Notably, it’s the villain’s snobby assumption that Columbo could not possibly pose a threat to them that proves to be their undoing. Columbo frequently makes the point that he’s accumulated skills and experience from the hard graft of hundreds of investigations, whereas the murderer has only ever carried out one crime. They really don’t stand a chance.
Peter Falk died last year at the age of 83. I will always be deeply, DEEPLY envious of Mr. Peabody, who as a young man on his first trip to America in the 1980s, encountered Falk in the elevator of a hotel in Florida where Columbo was being filmed. Seeing that he’d been recognised, the great actor leaned over, shook hands with the star-stuck teenager, and breathed the immortal line….. ‘How ya doin’, kid?’.
Just how good is that?!
If you’re a fan of Columbo you might be interested in The Ultimate Columbo website – a treasure trove of information about the programme, its actors and individual episodes.
Thanks to Norman, who has just made me aware of a fascinating intertextual link, namely that the figure of Columbo was partially based on the character of Porfiry Petrovich from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Judith Gunn, in her post on the author, examines the the similarities between the two (and the narrative frameworks of both texts), which are striking and persuasive.