Universal // 1971 // 5992 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // November 26th, 2012
Just one more thing...
Every episode of the best detective show of all time collected in one massive box set.
Peter Falk (The Princess Bride) is Lieutenant Columbo, a Los Angeles homicide detective who, on the surface, appears to be a mess but hides a brilliance that solves every murder by disarming the killer until he or she trips up and makes a mistake. With his trademark cigar and tan trench coat, Columbo turns being underestimated into an art form; every murderer who believes him or herself to be smarter and cleverer than the detective has another thing coming.
Airing from 1969 (the first of its two pilots) until 2003 on two different networks (it originally ran on NBC before moving to ABC in 1989 when it became a "Movie of the Week" selection), Columbo broadcast 69 episodes, 24 of which are long-form made-for-TV movies. The novelty of the show is that it presented the mysteries in a kind of "reverse" format, beginning each episode by revealing the identity of the killer and working backwards until Columbo figures it all out.
The insanely long-running Columbo is, hands down, the best mystery series ever to air on television. What makes that feat particularly remarkable (and there are those who would disagree with the assessment) is that it accomplishes this by upending the traditional mystery formula: it begins with the murder, which we, the viewers, are given full access to. It is not a whodunit. We know who done it. The joy of the show is watching Peter Falk's Lieutenant Columbo -- one of the finest examples of the secret genius the genre has ever seen, and one of the all-time great TV characters -- twist the culprit into exposing him or herself. The character is the master of disarming everyone he encounters by seeming incompetent -- it's in the way he shuffles his feet, or hunches just a little, or fumbles every time he looks for something, or goes off on tangents that appear totally unrelated to the conversation at hand. But he's always the smartest guy in the room, and the pleasure of the show comes not from the surprise of finding out who committed the crime but in seeing just what clue it was that allowed Columbo to put it together. There's a spark of joy every time Falk says the classic "Oh, one more thing?" that makes every conclusion satisfying, even when the guilty party has been revealed all along. It's just like when Tony Shaloub would say "I know what happened" on Monk, another of the best detective shows of all time -- Columbo gets the advantage if for no other reason than because it got there first.
One of the pleasures of working your way through Columbo: The Complete Series -- beyond the constant appearance of welcome guest stars (including Ray Milland, William Shatner, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Roddy McDowell, Dick Van Dyke, Johnny Cash, Leonard Nimoy and John Cassavetes) -- is looking at the director's credit for each show and being surprised. Everyone knows by now that one of Steven Spielberg's early directing gigs was for an episode of the show (Season One's "Murder by the Book"), but also coming aboard to direct are Nicholas Colasanto (Coach from Cheers), Patrick McGoohan, Ben Gazzara and Jonathan Demme, among others. While the approach to most of the movies is utilitarian and doesn't call attention to itself -- the episodes are, for the most part, uniform in their style -- it's fun to see some of the directors putting their signatures on their episodes. Sometimes, it works; Spielberg's episode shows signs of the filmmaker he would become. Other times, it doesn't: an early episode directed by Bernard Kowalski (whose most famous credit remains the 1973 killer snake movie SSSSSSS) spends an insane amount of time playing out a montage in the reflection of star Robert Culp's sunglasses. At first, it's neat. Then it goes on for three or four minutes and you begin to question the choices in your life that led you to this point. Still, those moments are few and far between in the nearly 40-year run of Columbo.
All in all, Columbo: The Complete Series is a deeply satisfying collection of TVs best detective. Not every outing is a home run -- several of the later episodes, in particular, start to feel overly familiar and occasionally lazy -- but by then Peter Falk has so inhabited the character that it's a pleasure just to see him don the trench coat.
Don't expect anything new from the Columbo: The Complete Series box set; all of the individual seasons have previously been released in exactly the same form you'll find here. Universal hasn't even gone to the trouble of throwing in some new bonus content, the way studios sometimes will when putting together a "complete series" collection. What you will get is eight amray cases housing 34 discs containing all 69 TV-movie episodes of the show. Most discs contain two movies, which range in running time from 70 to 100 minutes. The seven seasons (when the show was airing on NBC) and the first of two "Mystery Movie Collections" (after Columbo made the move to ABC in 1989) are all presented in their original 1.33:1 full frame TV aspect ratio. The second "Mystery Movie Collection" (the last six discs in the box) is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, which is the cause of some controversy, as it's not the way the shows were originally aired. The aspect ratio cuts some information off from the top and bottom of the screen, just as the full frame cuts off information from the sides; if that's how they were intended to be aired it's likely that a director would not have put necessary information outside of the 1.33:1 frame. I don't have the full frame version to compare these episodes to, but didn't find anything about the widescreen compositions distracting and actually kind of enjoyed seeing Columbo in that format -- even if it is wrong. As far as the image quality itself? It's fine, if unremarkable. Colors are decent, and signs of aging have been kept to a reasonable minimum considering some of the episodes are now over 40 years old. All of the shows contain a standard two-channel mix that does an adequate job with the dialogue, nothing more.
As mentioned, the only bonus features included already appearing on previous season-length releases of the show. There's a 30-minute featurette called "America's Top Sleuths" that counts down TV detectives, and a couple episodes of the 1979 spin-off series Mrs. Columbo starring Kate Mulgrew. It's about as lame as it sounds, and by the end of its very short 13-episode run no longer had anything to do with Columbo. The only appeal is the presence of a young and foxy Captain Janeway.
What's maybe most amazing about Columbo is just how well it has aged; even the pilot from 1968 still feels contemporary. Sure, some of the styles and the guest stars are dated, but the dialogue, the performances and the mysteries themselves have all held up. If you're a mystery fan and don't already own Columbo on DVD, this box set is a worthy investment.
Review content copyright © 2012 Patrick Bromley; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 5992 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Shows