Why I Love Columbo


"There's just one more thing, sir!"

Along with Noir, my most loved genre is Murder Mystery. I have adored the work of Agatha Christie for years and years. There is something so satisfying in discovering clues with Poirot or Miss Marple and trying to unravel the mystery for yourself. I also adore Inspector Morse and Endeavour. All of these will receive a Why I Love article. First though I want to tell you why Columbo is, in my opinion, the greatest Murder Mystery show of all time. Better than Poirot, better than Miss Marple, better than Morse. Let's start with the structure of the show. It is a reverse Murder Mystery. The murderer is revealed in the opening of the show. Everything after that is about how Columbo discovers how and why they did it.


Writer R. Austin Freeman claimed to invent the inverted detective story in 1912. Creators of Columbo, Richard Levinson and William Link discussed this in their book Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making of Prime Time Television:

"According to Ellery Queen in his study of detective fiction, Queen's Quorum, Freeman posed himself the following question: "Would it be possible to write a detective story in which, from the outset, the reader was taken entirely into the author's confidence, was made an actual witness of the crime and furnished with every fact that could possibly be used in its detection?" Freeman answered his own question by employing the device in his book The Singing Bone, and based on our experience with the two "Columbo" pilots, we had a hunch that it would work on television. We had no idea that it would become an eventual trap for us and for all of the other writers who would bang their heads against the wall of the inviolate "Columbo" format."


http://www.columbo-site.freeuk.com/created.htm


It is a beautiful subversion of the rules of the Murder Mystery, and works in a surprising and fresh manner. Instead of putting all the weight on the reveal, Columbo puts its energy into making the details of the crime compelling in of themselves. The excitement is in watching how Columbo unravels the mystery and catches the criminal. So why is Columbo so damn good? Well, apart from the complexity and ingenious nature of the crimes, the main reason is Peter Falk. Every little detail is on point. He is a completely believable and eminently lovable character. In many lesser detective or murder mystery stories, the writers use what Roger Ebert called the Idiot Plot. Instead of writing the villains as supremely smart - because the writers themselves aren't that smart - they are written as idiots who make obvious mistakes that will be picked up on later. The audience is talked down to in these cases and the lead character is made to appear like a dullard for not catching them quicker. Columbo is, along with Poirot and Morse, supremely intelligent. So much so that even with all the details, he can still surprise and entertain the audience with his process of discovery. 


Let's talk about some of the best episodes. A favourite of mine is Etude in Black, starring John Cassavetes, Peter Falk's friend and collaborator. A piece of trivia: this episode was directed by Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach in the classic TV show Cheers. This episode follows a classical music conductor who murders his mistress to stop her from telling his wife. Etude in Black is filled with fine details, my favourite of which is how Columbo discovers that the suicide note is fake because the paper is not lined up with the keys. I love seeing Cassavetes and Falk perform together, their friendship and respect for each other coming across so well on the screen. 


Another great episode is The Most Dangerous Match, starring Laurence Harvey as the murderer, also from season two. Here a chess master returns from retirement to face Harvey's character in a high profile match. Harvey knows in his heart that he will lose, so he tries to kill his opponent. Due to Harvey's deafness he did not hear that the machine he pushed his opponent into had an automatic shut off when anything dropped into it. This is the detail that leads Columbo to get his man, knowing that only a deaf man would not have heard the machine shut itself off. Harvey's performance is excellent, full of insecurity and fear. The scene where the two meet in a restaurant to play a "friendly" game of chess is my favourite of the episode. The sheer obsession of the murderer makes this perhaps the best story in the history of the show.


Requiem For a Falling Star has one of the best reveals in the series. Anne Baxter plays a former movie star who has fallen on hard times, forced to do television work. Columbo loves her work and some of the show's funniest moments come through his unabashed adoration for her. His trying to get his wife on the phone and constantly missing her brings big chuckles. Baxter kills her assistant, apparently confusing her for a nasty journalist who is blackmailing the fading star. The twist is that she
did intend to kill her assistant, because she knew that years earlier Baxter had killed her husband. The way Columbo gets her dead to rights is a continuous joy and surprise.


Last Salute To The Commodore is the only episode in the history of Columbo that is
not an inverted murder mystery. This episode serves well as an unofficial finale to the show, finally showing a time when Columbo got it wrong. While it has some negative responses, it is a fine episode. Speaking of negative reception, I must spend some time talking about the show's second run from 1989 to 2003. This run of episodes, a few good moments aside was much inferior to the show's first run. Columbo has none of the spark he showed earlier, and that old Idiot Plot makes more than a few appearances. It is a great shame that the brilliance of the original show could not be maintained, as I am all for a character growing older and all of the great subtleties that come from that. Think of how amazing David Suchet's Poirot was in the last episode of that show, and weep for what might have been if the showrunners and writers had been up to the task for Columbo. 


My least favourite episode is Forgotten Lady from season five. Here another former star murders her husband because he will not fund her comeback. The ending is pretty terrible with Columbo essentially letting Janet Leigh (who
does turn in a good performance) off the hook. My father, who watched many Columbo episodes with me over the years got it right when he said "Columbo would never let someone get away with murder, no matter how sad their story was." I agree. It always bothered me and I am glad that others agree.


Columbo is my favourite murder mystery ever. I love its daring, its genre breaking format and most of all I love Peter Falk, who is a hero to me. I highly recommend giving it another watch to see some of the very best television ever shown. Don't believe the people who say that TV has only recently matured into a significant artform. It has been for a long time, the place to see some of the best stories ever put on a screen. Columbo is just damn fine storytelling, with murders and mysteries that surprise and delight in equal measure. WATCH IT!

 

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