Judge Maurice Cobbs used to have a raincoat just like Columbo's, but he kept getting mistaken for a flasher, so he got rid of it.
Our reviews of Columbo: The Complete First Season (published October 27th, 2004), 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.
"I'm paranoid. Like every time I see a dead body, I think it's a murder."—Lt. Columbo
Ah, Columbo. They use a lot of technology on shows like CSI, but Lt. Columbo achieves the same results with his impeccable gut instincts and his razor-sharp eye for detail. Don't let his diminutive stature fool you; Columbo is a hunter, and one who like to play with his prey just a little. Watch him, and you'll see what I mean; he takes great delight in the chase, rooting out hidden motives and batting at seemingly airtight alibis like a cat toying with a mouse before the kill. Of course, he gives himself the advantage by allowing his opponents in these battles of wit to underestimate him; a fatal mistake, as many a celebrity guest murderer would discover over the course of the show's run. There's no shortage of guest murderers in this season, or guest victims, for that matter, what with John Cassavetes (The Dirty Dozen), Myrna Loy (The Thin Man), Leonard Nimoy (Star Trek), Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible), Laurence Harvey (1962's The Manchurian Candidate), Honor Blackman (Goldfinger), Anne Francis (Forbidden Planet), Robert Culp (I Spy)…good grief, the list never ends!
Peter Falk (Robin and the Seven Hoods) has become an indelible image as Columbo, with his shapeless raincoat, rumpled hair, cheap brown suits, and palpably stinky half-smoked cigars—an ingenious disguise for a shrewd operator charged with outsmarting the cream of the intellectual crop, all of whom seem to have one common flaw that inevitably contributes to their downfall: They are never as clever as they think they are. We know this, but the filmmakers try every episode to convince us otherwise, detailing elaborate and fiendishly clever murder plots that seem airtight, unbreachable. But of course they never are—not even the smallest details escape Columbo's attention, whether it's John Cassavetes's lapel flower in "Etude in Black" or Leonard Nimoy's medical skullduggery in "A Stitch In Crime" or Anne Baxter's inoperative fountain in "Requiem for a Falling Star"; not even Martin Landau squared in "Double Shock" could not hope to throw dust in the eyes of this disheveled detective. Sorry, Robert Culp: Nobody plays "The Most Crucial Game" as well as Columbo, whether at home in Los Angeles or across the pond in London in "Dagger of the Mind." Sure, Laurence Harvey may be a whiz at chess in "The Most Dangerous Match," but Columbo will keep him in check, and shame on you, Ray Milland—didn't you know in "The Greenhouse Jungle" that that fake kidnapping ploy has already been tried with the lieutenant?
Of course, I'm not spoiling anything when I tell you "whodunnit" because you know that right at the beginning of the show. This gives Columbo a dynamic quite different from practically any other mystery show—the mystery isn't in who the murderer is or in how they did the dirty deed; instead, what we have to figure out is how Columbo will expose the murderer. What detail did we overlook? What aspect of the crime wasn't thought out well enough? What does Colombo know that we don't? What did you pay for those shoes? Certainly, it's a formulaic show—but the formula works! Also, Falk's Columbo is such an endearing, masterful, colorfully entertaining performance that the formula never gets stale. In fact, you can argue that in Season Two of the show the formula reached absolute perfection, beginning and ending with marvelous scripts by Stephen Bochco and masterful direction all the way through—and Peter Falk at the peak of his absentmindedly obsequious bumbling, endless nattering about his unseen wife, and pseudo-incompetence, all of which are so annoying to his adversaries but so very delightful to his audience.
I cannot wait for the release of Season Three on DVD, although I also dread it: The Powers That Be at Universal seem to be set in their miserly ways and heedless of the opportunity to offer a truly breathtaking release by simply providing a commentary or two, perhaps even a featurette with and about Peter Falk. Who knows? These juicy little offerings might even offset the rather steep asking price of these admittedly enjoyable sets. But past experience does not foster future hope, and more than likely, we fans will have to be content with stark, barebones releases that give us none of the behind-the-scenes trivia and anecdotes that make revisiting our favorite classic TV shows such a sublime experience.
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Scales of Justice
• IMDb: Étude in Black
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