Universal // 1973 // 684 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Corupe (Retired) // October 10th, 2005
Oh, just one more thing...
The 1970s were the undisputed golden age of small screen sleuthing, an era that saw the prime time airwaves teeming with quirky, one-named private investigators, loose cannon homicide detectives and fey insurance agents. Between Quincy, Rockford, Banacek, Kojak, McMillan, Cannon, and Baretta, there were barely enough unsolved mysteries to go around, forcing NBC to develop the NBC Mystery Movie, a unique 90-minute "showcase" series that kept the network's growing roster of TV detectives on a less intensive monthly rotation.
One of the original residents of the NBC Mystery Movie stable, Columbo was a show that reigned supreme over the TV mystery genre in the 1970s. First coming into his own in the 1968 TV movie Prescription: Murder, Columbo was a rumpled, scruffy police lieutenant in a wrinkled overcoat, forever clutching a stubby cigar and a beat-up notebook. Behind his disheveled appearance, however, Columbo was a crack detective who fiercely latched onto a case -- or more accurately, his suspect -- until he strangled loose the solution to what often seemed to be a perfect crime. In the wake of the DVD debuts of Columbo's fellow NBC Mystery Movie stalwarts McCloud and McMillan and Wife, Universal has released the third season of this groundbreaking, enormously popular series.
Looks can be deceiving. Although conceited murderers often misjudged Lieutenant Columbo's (Peter Falk, The Great Race) powers of deduction based on his unkempt demeanor, audiences never doubted that he would eventually finger his crafty killer whenever embroiled in a mystery. Arriving on the scene of a homicide, Columbo would set to work gathering clues and reconstructing the crime in his own mind, and then, switching to interrogation mode, he would hound the most likely perpetrator with a barrage of probing questions until they finally cracked.
Universal's Columbo: Season Three finally saunters on to DVD with a double-sided, two-disc box set, which collects the four 90-minute episodes and four 120-minute episodes from the scruffy lieutenant's rounds on the NBC Mystery Movie. Here's what you get:
* Lovely but Lethal
When the owner of a cosmetics company learns that one of her chemists intends to sell an anti-wrinkle cream to her rival, she takes matters into her own hands. 8/10
* Any Old Port in a Storm
The connoisseur co-owner of a winery comes to blows with his money-minded brother over the future of their company, and Columbo uses his knowledge of fine wine to set a trap. 10/10
* Candidate for Crime
A slippery Senate candidate fakes death threats against his own person to draw suspicion away when he kills his hated campaign manager. 9/10
* Double Exposure
An advertising tycoon shoots his client while screening a motivational film, and Columbo suspects he has inserted subliminal images in the footage. 9/10
* Publish or Perish
Before his best-selling author defects to another publisher, a scheming book magnate has the writer shot by a psychotic bomb fanatic. When the hired gun is also found dead, Columbo suspects a connection. 8/10
* Mind over Mayhem
When the director of a think tank discovers one of his scientists knows that the director's son has plagiarized an award-winning formula, he kills the scientist, but Columbo's knowledge of cigars may just expose him yet. 8/10
* Swan Song
A hard livin' country and western artist kills his evangelical wife in a phony plane crash after she diverts all his hard earned money towards the construction of religious temples. 9/10
* A Friend in Deed
After the L.A. Police Commissioner covers up for a friend who has killed his wife, he expects the favor to be returned. Columbo takes his investigation all the way to the top and sets another sticky trap. 8/10
Columbo is one of those rare TV shows that actually deserves its top-notch reputation. Not only the highlight of the NBC Mystery Movie series, but also one of the finest programs of its decade, Columbo artfully combines all-around excellent performances with well-penned scripts that shine the spotlight on Columbo's unique investigative techniques and quirky personality.
What really sets Columbo apart from McCloud and McMillan and Wife (and indeed, most small screen detective shows) is that it avoids the common whodunit formula to focus on the tug of wills between investigator and suspect. Instead of waiting until the climax to reveal the identity of the killer, almost every episode of Columbo begins with the staging of a murder and the subsequent attempted cover-up. By the time Columbo arrives to investigate, the audience already knows who killed who and why -- the real mystery in is in wondering exactly what clue the persistent police lieutenant will use to poke holes through the killer's seemingly perfect alibi.
While the show may technically be a police procedural, we don't actually see Columbo do much legwork at the crime scene at all. Instead, most of the action in Columbo takes place in intense dialogue-driven match-ups between detective and suspect, as Columbo asks for "help" in deciphering his most curious findings during casual interrogations that consistently end with his trademark "one last question." It's these charged, two-character scenes of Falk and his guest star verbally sparring that form the dramatic crux of the series, and for an a audience, it's always entertaining to watch Columbo use these confrontations to edge closer and closer to the truth, carefully manipulating his scruffy image to work his way into the killer's confidence.
Season Three finds Columbo still at the peak of his incredible popularity. The ten TV movies featured on this DVD set remain as rock solid as ever, with a few particular stand-outs. "Any Old Port in a Storm" is a particularly enjoyable episode, with a fine turn by Donald Pleasence as the murderous owner of a winery whose knowledge of the subject ends up being his downfall. With its military think tank location, "Mind over Mayhem" is also a fairly unique episode, especially when Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot makes an appearance and ends up playing a vital part in the murderer's nefarious plot. Without exception though, the episodes featured on this set all boast a very high quality of writing-there's not a dud in the batch. The now familiar Columbo formula always feels fresh because of the variety of ingeniously devised "perfect" murders, and the always surprising tell-tale clue that leads the lieutenant to his suspect.
Of course, Falk himself was one of the major draws of the series, and by the third season, he had Columbo's mannerisms and personality down to an exact science. Whether rubbing his temples, searching through his many pockets for a pencil, or popping his head around the corner for one last question, Falk makes Columbo a detailed, three-dimensional character who hooks the audience with the marked incongruity between the character's look and his incredibly accurate sleuthing. Columbo also consistently boasts an excellent supporting cast, and this seasons bring memorable turns by high profile names like Martin Sheen, Vincent Price, Jackie Cooper, and Ida Lupino. Interestingly, the show also took a chance on handing out roles to famous non-actors, proving that a guest appearance on Columbo was a highly sought-after commodity. This season, Johnny Cash proves his satisfactory acting skill as the killer country star in "Swan Song," and author Mickey Spillane, creator of Mike Hammer, gets to play a corpse in "Publish or Perish."
Like most TV on DVD releases from the 1970s, Columbo: Season Three isn't going to wow anyone on presentation, but it's adequate for the material at hand. The included episodes look sharp and bright, but minor source artifacts and grain crop up every now and again. The mono 2.0 soundtrack is pretty typical for a TV show from the 1970s, cramped and slightly muffled, but noticeably better than some of the other shows from this vintage. Music and dialogue come through more than sufficiently. Fans of the show will also be disappointed to discover that there are no extras included, besides an episode of Mrs.Columbo entitled "Murder is a Parlor Game." It's better than nothing, I suppose, especially since Universal has yet to debut any episodes of the distinctly inferior spin-off.
While watching Columbo: Season Three, I was really struck by how timeless these episodes are. It's now thirty years later, and these shows are just as good, if not consistently better, than most modern prime time crime shows. The character of Columbo is so strong, and the murder plots are so well written, that this set remains a highly enjoyable purchase, even for those who have never viewed the show before. As far as TV on DVD sets go, they don't come more highly recommended than this.
Er, unofficially not guilty, of course. but I was, ah, wondering if you could clear up just one more thing for me first?
Review content copyright © 2005 Paul Corupe; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 684 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Mrs. Columbo Episode, "Murder is a Parlor Game"
* IMDb: Columbo: Lovely but Lethal
* IMDb: Columbo: Any Old Port in a Storm
* IMDb: Columbo: Candidate for Crime
* IMDb: Columbo: Double Exposure
* IMDb: Columbo: Publish or Perish
* IMDb: Columbo: Mind Over Mayhem
* IMDb: Columbo: Swan Song
* IMDb: Columbo: A Friend in Deed
* IMDb: NBC Mystery Movie
* Columbo: Season One Review
* Columbo: Season Two Review