Published on September 6th, 2013 | by Brendan Flaherty0
Classic TV: Columbo
“Y’know, Columbo…you’re almost likeable in a shabby sort of way. Maybe it’s the way you come slouching in here with your shopworn bag of tricks…the humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the homey anecdotes about the family, the wife…Lt. Columbo, fumbling and stumbling along, but it’s always the jugular that he’s after. And I imagine more often than not he’s successful.”
It can’t really be put any better than that. Those lines are from Ransom for a Dead Man, the second TV movie starring Peter Falk as the inimitable Lt. Columbo (“from the local police,” as he likes to say). Of the 43 such feature-length mysteries broadcast from 1968 to 1978 on NBC, 34 are available to stream on Netflix. This collection doesn’t include either of the two pilots — the aforementioned Ransom for a Dead Man and Prescription: Murder — which is probably for the best. Since the first pilot was a standalone production (based on a stage play by William Link and Richard Levinson) and the second pilot was intended to reintroduce Falk’s character to the viewing audience, both contain these sorts of detailed explanations of Columbo’s case-cracking tactics. There really is no need for this kind of exposition, since watching Columbo solve each murder with these techniques is the true strength of the show.
Unlike most other mystery television, each episode of Columbo isn’t a mystery to the viewer. They are ‘inverted’ detective stories, commencing with the tense documentation of elaborately staged murders. These are not crimes of passion, but are instead coldly calculated plots that often don’t even seem like murders at all to the investigating police. Seeing the entire process of each killing, from the fake suicide notes to the careful removal of fingerprints, helps to establish the uphill battle anyone would have to find the guilty party. Anyone, that is, except for the cock-eyed, rumpled Columbo.
Beyond the way that Peter Falk conveyed Columbo’s ‘humility’ and ‘seeming absentmindedness,’ it was through some of his tics and catchphrases that the character became as iconic as it did. Lt. Columbo was always attempting to leave, always remembering just one more thing. He was always bumming a light for his ever-present cigar, or a pencil to jot something down, or going on about his wife (who was never seen, except for in an ill-conceived and short-lived spinoff series, Mrs. Columbo); anything to distract the perpetrator from his keen eye, his cunning, and their inevitable arrest.
There really is a certain joy to be found in watching guilty people squirm, especially when those people are among the elite. The killers in Columbo tend to be very successful and beyond suspicion, which makes their collective downfall all the more satisfying (at least from a proletarian’s perspective). The culprits in the first few episodes alone include a hotshot lawyer, a popular mystery novelist, a decorated general in the U.S. Army, a wealthy psychiatrist, and a private investigator with government ties. This isn’t a gritty street-level noir series; this is big business being taken down by the little guy; a little guy wearing a threadbare raincoat.