Happy 50th anniversary, Lieutenant Columbo. Yes, it’s half a century since Peter Falk first donned that mac, lit up a cigar and proceeded to pursue all those high-and-mighty LA bad guys who thought they could get away with their supposedly perfect murders. Gene Barry played the first killer to underestimate the seemingly shambolic Columbo’s deductive genius in Prescription: Murder (shown on 20 February 1968), but many others were to make the same mistake down the decades. In all that time, the good Lieutenant has rarely been off our screens, repeat cases still showing most weekends should you care to seek them out. But what exactly makes the show so enduring? Why are we so willing to go back for “just one more” episode? Here are the top reasons why Columbo continues to be TV’s ultimate crimesolver:
It’s class war Orchestra conductors, bestselling novelists, millionaire actors, cardiac surgeons – all have had the rug pulled out from under them by the ostensibly obsequious, fawning and humble Lieutenant Columbo. And what a joy that is. Because what these Los Angeles high flyers never realise (until it’s far too late) is that the crumpled blue-collar schlub inveigling his way into their exclusive white-collar world has a mind as sharp as a stanley knife. Not only does Columbo always get his man (or woman), he’s also a street-smart expert when it comes to reducing smug sophisticates to gibbering wrecks.
Columbo himself is an enigma What do we really know about Columbo? He has a wife who we never see (and no, Kate Mulgrew’s Mrs Columbo spin-off doesn’t count), he never uses his first name (it is fleetingly seen on a warrant card) and his office is rarely glimpsed. Knowing how Columbo uses flattery and blandishments to charm the murderer, might we also assume that everything else about his persona is a construct? “My wife is a big fan” is a common Columbo refrain, but perhaps she doesn’t really exist? Is the tatty mac just a disguise or what he actually likes to wear? Is he really a fish out of water or the smartest man in the room? Just how much of what we see is the real Columbo? The man is the real mystery.
It’s groundbreaking TV Columbo pretty much turned the TV crime genre on its head, with each case being not a ‘whodunnit’ but a ‘howcatchum’. Hitchcock may have toyed with ‘open mysteries’ in such movies as Dial M for Murder and Rope, but it was Columbo that transformed the conceit into an art form. Each week, we see the conceited killer execute the crime with finicky care in the opening act, while Columbo enters the scene a third of the way through an episode to slowly but surely pick holes in the murderer’s cover story. The ensuing battle of wits between the Lieutenant and his prey makes for addictive viewing and is a key factor in the show’s success.
Shatner, McGoohan, Nimoy, Cassidy… The list of people queuing up to play Columbo killers reads like a Who’s Who of Hollywood Talent. Johnny Cash as a murderous gospel singer, Leonard Nimoy as a ruthless surgeon with a deadly line in poisoned sutures, Donald Pleasence playing a deranged wine connoisseur. But the greatest pleasure comes from those who turned up for a repeat performance – William Shatner following up his turn as a homicidal TV actor with a second stint as a killer shock jock. Patrick McGoohan could always be called upon to provide a silly voice or three as a guest star. And who can forget Jack Cassidy playing first a lethal mystery writer, then a magician going to extreme lengths to cover up the fact that he’s a Nazi war criminal?
A-list directors and writers And it’s not just in front of the camera that we get masters at work: high-pedigree directors such as Steven Spielberg (Murder By the Book) and Jonathan Demme (Murder Under Glass) cut their teeth on Columbo, while Steven Bochco – who went on to create Hill Street Blues – gets a writer’s credit on several episodes. Indeed, the intricacy of the plotting has resulted in Columbo being re-shown with far more regularity than contemporaries like McMillan & Wife, McCloud and Kojak.
The false exits
And so we reach possibly the most famous aspect to Columbo: his “just one more thing” catchphrase, used to befuddle an antagonist just when they think a meeting is at an end. As Columbo makes to leave, out comes one of his seemingly inconsequential queries that end up putting the murderer further in the mire. Here is a man who doesn’t need to brandish a firearm (Columbo notably hated guns) or screech his car tyres – the dogged Lieutenant pulls the bad guys apart question by question. Who needs an action scene set-piece when you have Columbo wrapping up his dogged interrogations in fake apologies?
That final Gotcha moment!
There’s nothing more satisfying than what Peter Falk called ‘the pop’, that moment in every episode where Columbo traps the killer with a final incontrovertible piece of evidence. Over the years, a striking clock, a malfunctioning hearing aid, poison ivy, oxidised wine and a rigged guillotine have all played their part in bringing a villain down. Done well and it’s a real punch-the-air moment: the urbane killer undone by the unexpected elegance of Columbo’s deductions. Slack jaw. Freeze frame. Case closed.
Columbo can be seen on Saturday at 1.25pm on ITV3 and at 2.35pm on 5 USA