Peter Falk as… Columbo. The ‘perfect’ mystery show, without the mystery?

“Peter Falk as”… those three words were possibly the most reassuring to me that I was about to be entertained in the cleverest, most unique of ways for the next hour and a half or so, maybe longer, when Columbo appeared on our small screens all those years ago.

Even now, despite the digitised box sets, I still can’t resist tuning in when the show is on the TV.

Of all those high-calibre 70s shows from the States – I’m thinking Rockford, Kojak, Hawaii 5-O and more, all of which have enriched our lives, I think Columbo is the one I love most.

Why?

Any number of reasons, really.

Chief among them has to be that wonderful theme of underestimation on the part of the antagonist, coupled with the ‘hubris’ if you want to call it that – the classicists out there – the belief that they are superior to our hero all the way through to the end, until they realise they’ve been dealing with a genius all the time.

The satisfaction of the ‘gotcha’ moment is what every Columbo fan is waiting for, in each story.

We know it’s coming, but the fun is in anticipating exactly how and when the unprepossessing, dishevelled ‘slob’ will turn the tables.

The show is, of course, unthinkable without Peter Falk in the title role (though I believe it has been done) and this is what makes that opening caption so essential.

“Peter Falk as…” could be slightly altered to “Peter Falk is…” COLUMBO.

And… bang!

We’re into it.

The show, for me at least, is intrinsically linked with the 1970s, although it was revived years later, to a largely high standard.

Falk is always excellent, though some of the later stories can occasionally veer into the tiresome, especially when the format is messed with.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against change.

I do think however that the established “howcatchem” approach is part of the DNA of the show, so to tinker with that is to present something which is not Columbo… nine times out of 10.

The later stories still have their share of magic.

One example of the formula being disrupted in the show’s heyday is often cited in the instalment Last Salute To The Commodore, which I’ve seen derided in the past but I want to take this opportunity to state, as a fan of the show, that this episode is not – I repeat, not – as outrageous as people might think.

It’s weird tonally and catches us all out when the person we think did it ends up dead too… but, over all, I like this episode.

I suspect what saves it for me is the fact that Robert Vaughn is in it – I wish he’d done more Columbo (he is in one other) and that Patrick McGoohan directs.

I don’t know but I suspect McGoohan’s involvement is at the root of this episode’s status as an oddity.

He directed and was in others of course, but I wonder if that irrepressibly mischievous impulse McGoohan had to continually shake things up is why Last Salute To The Commodore is as ‘different’ as it is?

The stories he is in as the murderer are all great.

The guest ‘murderers’ are another part of the appeal of the show and the fact that they are known faces isn’t a problem because of the liberation from the whodunnit format.

We know they are the murderers right from the beginning, so we can just enjoy watching them tie themselves up in logic knots when Columbo arrives.

Columbo’s style (or lack of it) is well documented, with the smashed-up car, the raincoat, the dog and the ever-present cigar.

All this paraphernalia is just part of the smokescreen, lulling our arrogant guest killer into thinking they’ve correctly appraised the sleuth as an innocuous idiot.

Some work it out quicker than others… I love that scene with Robert Culp where he says, “You’re a good man Columbo… up here”, indicating that he knows he’s dealing with someone cleverer than him.

I used the word ‘magic’ earlier on and, although I believe there is never any explicitly supernatural element to Columbo, I can’t help but think that there is something uncanny about the lieutenant’s extraordinary ability to tell within seconds of meeting someone that they are the murderer.

We are supposed to believe it is all down to super-deductive power and minute observation but I like to think there’s a magic to it as well.

This is only meant to be a brief overview of the show and not a detailed appraisal – I’ll be looking at individual episodes later – but for now I would direct anyone who has never seen the show to the episode entitled Any Old Port In A Storm as a good starting point as it showcases everything which makes Columbo great.

Peter Falk on top form.

An engaging and atmospheric story.

A superb guest actor, one of the best in fact, in Donald Pleasence.

That indescribable ‘70s feel’.

Check it out.

I have other ‘favourite’ episodes, but this has to be one of the strongest.

Oh yes and, er… just one more thing…

I love the music in 70s Columbo.

All great shows have great music as we know.

This one doesn’t actually have a ‘theme tune’ as such, unless it is the “Murder Mystery Theme” sometimes played… or the recurrent ‘This Old Man’ tune favoured by the detective himself… but rather each episode gets a particular musical score of its own (with some overlap).

It’s always very appropriate and tension-building, with that wonderful percussive scratching on an unknown instrument… and very 70s.

As are the cars and the clothes.

And (almost) everyone has a bar in their house.

Columbo resides in the very highest echelons of therockandrollguy’s favourite television productions.

As the crumpled main-man himself famously says, “There is no such thing as a perfect murder”, but there may well be a perfect murder mystery show… and this could be it.

This is a great resource for more Columbo info, completely unconnected to this blog, but highly informative on this wonderful show: https://columbopodcast.com/

Check back here for more on Columbo and many more superb shows besides!

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