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Case Number 05465

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Columbo: The Complete First Season

Universal // 1972 // 725 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Maurice Cobbs (Retired) // October 27th, 2004

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All Rise...

Uh, excuse me, Judge Cobbs? Judge Maurice Cobbs? I'm just making some routine inquiries about this DVD collection. It'll only take a few minutes.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Columbo: The Complete Second Season (published May 25th, 2005), Columbo: The Complete Third Season (published October 10th, 2005), Columbo: Mystery Movie Collection (1989) (published May 9th, 2007), and Columbo: The Complete Series (published November 26th, 2012) are also available.

The Charge

"You're a bag of tricks, Columbo, right down to that prop cigar you use…You're an intelligent man, Columbo, but you hide it. You pretend you're something you're not. Why, because of your appearance you think you can't get by on looks or polish, so you turn a defect into a virtue. You take people by surprise. They underestimate you. And that's where you trip them up."—Dr. Ray Flemming (Gene Barry), Prescription: Murder

Opening Statement

Wow. Hey, is that…Oh, I'm sorry, I know you're a busy person, and I don't mean to waste your time, but I was wondering…You see, I've always loved Columbo, and this is the whole first season on DVD, isn't it? Except—well, you see, it's probably nothing, but you realize that Columbo didn't really have a first season. That is, what I mean to say is, first there were two television movies featuring Peter Falk (The Princess Bride) as the detective, and then it became part of the rotation on The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie, along with shows like McCloud and MacMillan and Wife. But, uh, you probably already knew that, didn't you? I'm sorry. Now, let's see here…

Facts of the Case

Lt. Columbo, the diminutive detective who looks like an unmade bed, remains one of the most popular television characters of all time. This five-disc collection features the first seven made-for-TV movies, with Peter Falk matching wits against luminary guest stars such as Ray Milland, Roddy McDowall, Leslie Nielsen, Robert Culp, and Suzanne Pleshette. The Columbo mysteries aren't whodunnits; you know who the murderer is within the first ten minutes of the show. The suspense here is in how Columbo will catch the murderer—almost always a very clever, very highly respected, and seemingly untouchable member of society.

The Evidence

First of all, let me say that this is really a very nice set. It looks beautiful—and I don't just mean the package design. The episodes are all very crisp, very sharp, with no sound problems at all. Considering the age and nature of the source material, Universal has done an excellent job transferring these episodes to DVD. Very nice.

You know, the missus always likes those shows where the cops come in with car chases and guns blazing; you know the type. Baretta, Starsky and Hutch, that sort of thing. Me, I never went for all that. Upsets my stomach. But you see, Columbo was never about that stuff. As a matter of fact, I don't think I ever even saw Columbo carry a gun, let alone shoot anybody. Columbo was an intellectual detective—don't let that rumpled suit, wonky eye, and cheap, stinky cigar fool you. It might just be a gut feeling, a tiny detail that just doesn't fit with the larger picture, some odd statement or action that put Columbo on the trail; he had an eye for detail, a mind like a steel trap, and the rabid persistence of a bulldog once he locked on to a suspect. And many a clever murderer has taken Columbo at face value, seriously underestimating him, until that moment when he springs the trap and gets his man. Because, you see, the thing is, Columbo always acts so befuddled. He kills you with kindness. He infuriates you with his obsequiousness. He nags you with a thousand little questions and observations. And he always asks you where you got your shoes. Columbo may not look like it, but he's a master predator.

But, uh, where was I? Oh yeah, the DVD collection. Of course you know that a lot of famous people guest-starred on Columbo, but did you know that a lot of soon-to-be famous people worked behind the camera? For instance, Steven Bochco (who would go on to bring us shows like Doogie Howser, M.D., L.A. Law, Hill St. Blues…and Cop Rock) wrote the scripts for three of the movies in this set: Murder by the Book, Lady in Waiting, and Blueprint for Murder. In fact, Murder by the Book was directed by a young fellow named Steven Spielberg. Maybe you've heard of him? My wife knows all the stars, all the directors, she likes to keep up with that sort of thing, but I can never keep all the names straight.

So anyway, like I was saying, there are a lot of really engaging puzzlers in this collection:

Disc One:

• Prescription: Murder
Wealthy psychiatrist Dr. Ray Flemming (Gene Barry, Burke's Law) has a choice: give up his beautiful young mistress, Joan (Katherine Justice, Frasier, the Sensitive Lion), or face a messy and expensive divorce from his wife (Nina Foch, She's a Soldier, Too). Not one to subscribe to the idea of the no-win situation, Flemming comes up with a third option: kill the wife! Enlisting his mistress in the elaborate murder plot, Flemming commits what may be the perfect crime…almost. But Flemming soon discovers that the tiniest details can trip up the grandest schemes, especially when a man like Columbo is on the case, and not even pressure from the doctor's highly placed friends can keep the cigar-chomping detective from uncovering the truth…even if he has to use death as his ultimate tool! This movie is what you might call proto-Columbo…many of Peter Falk's familiar Columboisms are here, but some have yet to be established. One particular high point is the cool, swinging jazz score by Dave Grusin.

• Ransom for a Dead Man
Leslie Williams (Lee Grant, Defending Your Life) is a high-powered lawyer who is just as ruthless in her private life as she is in the courtroom. When things start to go sour with her husband, she decides that he's expendable, and concocts a brilliant false kidnapping gone wrong. Everything goes smoothly until stepdaughter Margaret (Patricia Mattick) returns home from Europe. At first, Leslie manages to stay one step ahead of everybody. But her lack of conscience and her animosity toward her stepdaughter conspire to give Columbo all the rope he needs to hang her. This second movie is much better than the first, which might be considered a trial run for Falk in the character. Here, Falk has developed the look and mannerisms that would define the character in all future episodes.

Disc Two:

• Murder By the Book
Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy, The Eiger Sanction) and James Ferris (Martin Milner, Adam-12) are world famous as the writing team who created the popular Mrs. Melville mystery series. But nobody knows that shy James does all the work, while ladies' man Ken can only charm the press. When James decides to end the arrangement, Ken decides to end James's life. But all it takes to destroy the most perfect murder plot is one witness in the right place at the right time…and Ken finds that he's forced to dispose of another inconvenient person, placing him squarely in the sights of Lt. Columbo…

• Death Lends a Hand
Arthur Kennicut (Ray Milland, The Lost Weekend) is a powerful publisher who suspects that his wife, Lenore (Pat Crowley, Red Garters), is having an affair. He hires private detective Brimmer (Robert Culp, I-Spy) to find out whether his suspicions are justified. Of course, Brimmer knows the suspicions are entirely justified, because he's the man she's having the affair with! The seedy investigator plans to blackmail Lenore with her infidelity, but she refuses to play ball and threatens to tell her husband everything. In a fit of rage, Brimmer knocks Lenore down and accidentally kills her. He plans to escape justice by covering up the crime, but a pair of contact lenses will prove to be Brimmer's downfall. An outstanding episode, full of suspense, and one of the very few times Columbo exposes a murder that was not carefully planned out beforehand.

Disc Three:

• Dead Weight
Major General Martin Hollister (Eddie Albert, The Joker Is Wild) is retiring after a long and illustrious career in the Marine Corps. But Hollister's legacy could be tainted by an investigation into illegal doings…the kind of illegal doings that paid for the general's retirement. Afraid that his co-conspirator, Col. Dutton, will give him away, Hollister opens up with a little "friendly fire." But those pesky witnesses always seem to be getting in the way—especially when you murder someone right in front of a huge bay window. Out boating with her mother, Helen Stewart (Suzanne Pleshette, Support Your Local Gunfighter) is positive that she saw the murder take place…but she can't seem to get anybody to believe her. No one, that is, except for Columbo. Not one of the best episodes, but even a weak Columbo is a lot better than most other stuff you'll watch.

• Suitable for Framing
Dale Kingston (Ross Martin, The Wild, Wild West) is an art critic who covets his uncle's priceless collection of paintings. But his uncle is changing his will, and Dale won't get the dazzling collection he'd hoped for. Dale decides to speed things along a bit before the new will takes effect by murdering the old fellow. The clues all point to the dead man's ex-wife, Edna (Kim Hunter, Planet of the Apes). But it's not easy to fool Columbo…and his gut instincts are never wrong…

Disc Four:

• Lady in Waiting
Beth Chadwick (Susan Clark) is in love with lawyer Peter Hamilton (Leslie Nielsen), but her domineering brother Bryce doesn't like it. Convinced that Hamilton is just trying to worm his way into a wealthy family, Bryce puts some pressure on the litigator, threatening to destroy his livelihood if he doesn't back off. So Beth decides that life would be easier all around if she were an only child, and she plans an unfortunate accident for brother dearest. It's a crime clever enough to fool the coroner and the jury at the inquest—but not quite clever enough to fool Lt. Columbo…

• Short Fuse
Scientist Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowall) doesn't like the way his uncle, who is running the family company, holds all the cards: He's planning to sell the company, and is keeping Roger in line with the threat of blackmail, so there's not much he can do about it. Except, of course, plant a hidden bomb where it will do the most good. Naturally, it doesn't take Columbo very long to determine who the guilty party is—but trapping him is another matter altogether.

Disc Five:

• Blueprint for Murder
Multi-millionaire cowboy Beau Williamson (Forrest Tucker) isn't used to getting taken for a ride by anyone other than his horse. So when architect Elliot Markham tries to start construction of a major project with Williamson's money—behind his back—the cowboy comes in with guns blazing to shut the whole thing down. But Markham doesn't need Williamson to finish his dream project, only his money, and he can get that from Williamson's beautiful but not-too-bright wife. So the architect decides that it might be better all around if Williamson just…disappeared. But he doesn't count on Williamson's first wife, who smells a rat, or Lt. Columbo, who knows how to catch one. This is a great way to end this season; it seems that Columbo may have met his match in the brilliant Elliot Markham.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

While there's a lot to love about this beautifully done DVD set, there are certain things, uh, that is, certain details that just don't seem to make sense. You see, what I don't understand is, why aren't there any special features? Now, I know that television stock doesn't always hold up, so I can understand why there wouldn't be any deleted scenes or blooper reels or that sort of thing—but not having any interview material with Peter Falk, or at least character creators Richard Levinson and William Link, is absolutely inexcusable.

Oh, and another thing—where are the making-of-type documentaries? That's the real mystery that needs to be figured out here. It might have been nice to include something on the background and history of the character; I personally would have loved to have seen the Chevy Mystery Show episode that introduced the character to television, with Bert Freed playing the part. You see; little things, but they add up. Why are there no commentaries? No episode descriptions or cast listings? No production photos? No fun little featurettes? Not even a collectible booklet? Considering the incredible, enduring popularity of this show, it seems a little unusual that the DVD is so barren of special feature material. Let's hope that when Universal brings us Columbo: The Complete Second Season, they have combed their vaults—and their address books—so that they can bring us some grade-A extras.

Closing Statement

Despite the glaring omission of any special features whatsoever, this is still a must-have collection for any mystery fan. Highly recommended.

The Verdict

Not guilty. I hope I haven't wasted any of your time. I know you're a busy person. Oh, and uh, one more thing…Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? How much did you pay for those shoes?

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Scales of Justice

Video: 89
Audio: 85
Extras: 0
Acting: 90
Story: 89
Judgment: 88

Special Commendations

• Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Subtitles:
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 725 Minutes
Release Year: 1972
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Genres:
• Mystery
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None








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Review content copyright © 2004 Maurice Cobbs; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.