A post about Francis Iles’ Trial and Error on Mysteries Ahoy led to a conversation in the comments about the Columbo TV series (that’s blogging), and it inspired me to start an occasional series of mini-reviews of his cases. Columbo solved dozens of intricately-plotted murders in the course of his career, and in terms of quality his canon can stand alongside that of many a book detective. While there of course are some poor entries, I think it’s fair to say Columbo constitutes the finest series of inverted-detective stories ever written.
Because not everyone reading this will have seen every episode, I’m going to avoid spoilers, although I will give away things that happen prior to the murder (usually that’s the first 20 minutes or so of a 75-minute episode). On the other hand, for my money a Columbo stands or falls on the ending, so when I have something to criticize, while I won’t give away specifics, I will say things like “saw that coming” or “Columbo’s proof doesn’t really prove anything”.
One more thing: while I’m criticizing the mysteries and not the performances, there is one note that I could give for practically every episode, and certainly for every one in this entry: Falk does a good job, the guest star playing the murderer does a good job, and the actors playing the victims and other subsidiary characters range from good to outstanding.
Before the series proper, there were two Columbo movies: “Prescription: Murder” was done in 1968 as a stand-alone, and “Ransom for a Dead Man” in 1971 as a pilot episode for the series. The rest of these cases make up Season 1, broadcast during the 1971-72 TV season.
“Prescription: Murder” by Richard Levinson and William Link. Psychiatrist Dr. Ray Fleming (Gene Barry) comes up with an ingenious alibi for the murder of his wife; Lieutenant Columbo of Homicide comes up with a way of breaking it that a four-year-old could see through.
Lots of good catch-me-if-you-can dialogue between our anti-hero and his antagonist; Barry is wonderfully smug and superior; in fact, just about everything is good except that ending.
“Ransom for a Dead Man” by Dean Hargrove, based on a story by Richard Levinson and William Link. Lawyer Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) has had enough of her husband/law partner opposing her unscrupulous ways, so she kills him and makes it look like a kidnapping for ransom. The FBI agent in charge of investigating the “kidnapping” treats the LAPD cop from Homicide like a minor nuisance, but when the body turns up and it’s now a murder being investigated, it’s Columbo’s cue to take over.
Columbo devises a trap that can’t necessarily be smelled a mile off, but it didn’t really dazzle me – I guess it didn’t make me slap my forehead and say, “Of course! If Columbo did X, Leslie was sure to do Y!” On the other hand, if she hadn’t fallen for the trap, at least he would have been no worse off than before.
“Murder by the Book” by Steven Bochco. The mystery-writing team of Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) and James Ferris (Martin Milner) is something of a fraud: Jim writes the books and Ken contributes nothing beyond giving interviews and signing autographs. And taking half the money. When Jim declares he wants to put an end to the arrangement, Ken kills him to collect on the insurance policy they have on each other.
This is widely considered the best episode of the series. As far as I’m concerned, there are so many good things about it, and yet… Of course, the director is a youngster named Steven Spielberg, and he – and cinematographer Russell Metty – make it a treat to watch, a cut visually above most episodes. And it has Jack Cassidy, the polar opposite of Peter Falk, doing a wonderfully cocky and condescending job as the murderer.
And I want to say a special word about Ken’s alibi. What I like about it is that most faked alibis either aim at making the police think the murder was committed at the wrong time, or that the murderer was in the wrong place when the murder happened. Here, the killer doesn’t try the former and is honest about the latter, and yet makes it appear he was nowhere near when Jim met his end.
So what’s keeping me from giving this episode top marks? Well, I’ll just say that for all the drama of the final confrontation, Columbo’s “proof” doesn’t actually prove anything. On the other hand, it’s a delicious moment when Ken breaks down and confesses; all the pomposity we’ve seen over the last 75 minutes completely disappears for a revealing moment to show the man behind the false front.
I also had a hard time believing that even a mild-mannered guy like Jim would stand for letting someone else take half the money from the novels for doing practically none of the work.
So: a good, entertaining episode, but not one of the all-time greats.
One final note: Jim’s series detective is an elderly lady named Mrs. Melville. In real life, there haven’t been that many male writers with female series characters; the only one who comes to my mind readily is Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers.
“Death Lends a Hand” by Richard Levinson and William Link. Brimmer – no first name is given (Robert Culp) – is the head of a huge private-investigation firm, and not above blackmailing people for information. When one prospective victim (Patricia Crowley) refuses to cooperate with him, the hot-tempered P.I. lashes out in rage, kills her, and has to improvise a way to get away with it.
A lot of people say Jack Cassidy was the best Columbo murderer, but I’d go with Culp, if only because the three killers he played were all very different characters, while Cassidy’s were basically the same guy with three different occupations.
This Columbo is different from most of the others in that we’re not dealing with a carefully-planned, premeditated murder, but an impulsive killing that the perp has to cover up as best he can. So there’s less of the intellectual joy we get when we see Columbo pick apart a seemingly perfect crime.
And the ending… is there anyone out there who was surprised? Anyone? Bueller? (Not Bueller. He was too damn shrewd to be fooled by anything this obvious.) It’s interesting that the only two Columbos written by his creators both got into trouble with the ending. And would any self-respecting blackmailer have told a husband his cheating wife was faithful before he was sure the wife would submit to his play-ball-or-I-squeal deal?
On the other hand, I do love the sequence where we’re following Brimmer hatching his coverup scheme once he’s committed his manslaughter.
“Dead Weight” by John T. Dugan. Retired general Martin Hollister (Eddie Albert) has a lucrative contracting business, made even more lucrative thanks to padded invoices and kickbacks. When the government launches an investigation, Hollister has to shut the mouth of a panicky accomplice before he can put them both in prison.
Eddie Albert, best known for his comic turn on Green Acres, plays a terrific bad guy here, as he would do several years later in the Burt Reynolds movie The Longest Yard. And Suzanne Pleshette, as a woman who accidentally witnesses the murder, does a great job too. But the way Hollister hides the body is too corny for words, and the final denouement is just a rewrite of the ending of one of the all-time classic mystery stories – I won’t say which one.
“Suitable for Framing” by Jackson Gillis. Art critic Dale Kingston (Ross Martin) kills his uncle, who owns a valuable collection of paintings. Dale’s not the heir, so what is his motive? Well, that’s the really evil part…
This is the first Columbo to have a really first-rate ending. My only criticism is that Ross Martin lacks the charm of a Gene Barry or Jack Cassidy, and as a consequence his back-of-me-hand treatment of Columbo becomes rather irritating to watch. On the other hand, the fact that we come to dislike him so much makes the last minute or so, when he starts to panic as he realizes Columbo’s got him, a lot of fun to watch.
“Lady in Waiting” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by Barney Slater. Beth Chadwick (Susan Clark) is constantly under the thumb of her tycoon brother Bryce (Richard Anderson), but when he forbids her from marrying the man of her choice, lawyer Peter Hamilton (Leslie Nielsen), she decides enough is enough.
The perfect crime is okay, the solution is okay, the performances are okay (although it’s always strange to see Leslie Nielsen in a part where he’s not mugging and taking pratfalls), adding up to a Columbo that is really… okay.
“Short Fuse” by Jackson Gillis, based on a story by Lester Pine & Tina Pine and Jackson Gillis. Research scientist Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall) kills his uncle, D.L. Buckner (James Gregory) so he can gain control of the chemical company D.L. owns. The murder lacks ingenuity, and the trap Columbo sets at the end? It makes “Prescription: Murder” and “Death Lends a Hand” look like Agatha Christie at her trickiest. Supporting player William Windom looks positively embarrassed as Columbo brings Roger in, and believe me, I’m sympathetic.
“Blueprint for Murder” by Steven Bochco, based on a story by William Kelley. Architect Elliot Markham (Patrick O’Neal) has a cash cow for his costly projects in the person of Goldie Williamson (Janis Paige), but it’s her husband Beau (Forrest Tucker) who actually holds the purse strings. When Beau tells Elliott to find a new source of funding, well, Beau has to go.
While – as usual – we know from the start who the murderer is, this is the first Columbo where we’re not in on the plan in its entirety; it’s up to both our hero and us to figure out where the heck Elliot hid Beau’s body after the murder. And the answer is an ingenious one, leading to one of the best endings of the first season. The episode also has the best use of Gil Melle’s Columbo theme, which sadly was never re-used in later seasons. If it had been, it might be as closely associated with Columbo today as the Pink Panther theme is with Inspector Clouseau.
Some people say Season 1 of Columbo was the best, but I think there were a couple others where the average was better. But those are seasons for other posts.