The Joy of ‘Columbo’

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Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo.

‘Columbo’ was a US detective show that initially ran from 1971-1978 before a revived series ran from 1989-1998 with specials being made between 2002 and 2003. The show revolved around the character of Lieutenant Columbo played in the series by Peter Falk. Columbo was a scruffy disheveled man who was disorganised and constantly asking inane questions. However he always managed to get under the skin of the murderer and solve the case.

The character of ‘Columbo’ first appeared in the stage play ‘Enough Rope’ by¬†Richard Levinson and William Link and on screen he was first played by Bert Freed in an adaptation of the play for ‘The Chevy Mystery Show’ in 1960. This was in Black and White and Freed’s version of ‘Columbo’ is markedly different to how the character evolved.

In 1968 ‘Enough Rope’ was worked into a television movie ‘Prescription:Murder’ where Peter Falk debuted as the character. This was a success and in 1971 a TV pilot ‘Ransome for a Dead Man’ was produced which led to the series being commissioned.

Although now it is hard not to picture Falk in the role of Columbo, other actors were approached before him. Including Bing Crosby who turned it down because he feared the commitment to a TV series might impede his golf game.

‘Columbo’ isn’t a traditional ‘whodunit’ but rather as described by it’s writers a ‘howcatchem’. There is no mystery as to who committed the crime, we the audience see the planning and the execution of the crime. Then we watch as the Lieutenant puts all the pieces together and finds a way to nail the culprit.

What makes this approach work is the character himself. Falk gives a subtle performance. On the surface Columbo seems to be a bumbling cop in an old raincoat who obsesses over small trivial details. Yet underneath he is a sharp detective capable of noticing even the smallest detail and able to conceptualise the crime and then logically find a way to prove it, mostly by confronting the culprit in such a way they give themselves up.

A lot of the time it seems that Columbo just badgers the person until they worn down, a process Falk described as “Being pecked to death by a duck”, however¬†that sells the character a little short. His persistence is always different, he reacts to his opponent and modifies his approach accordingly.

In ‘A Stich in Crime’ rather than keep to his normal amiable approach Columbo loses his temper. He slams an ornament down on the desk of Dr Mayfield, played by Leonard Nimoy, and tells him point blank that he knows he did it and that he will prove it. Suddenly he is a hard nosed detective determined to get to the bottom of the case.

That isn’t the only example of Columbo changing tack, and it is part of the appeal of the series, to see how he will behave and what tricks from his arsenal he will use to snare the subject.

In ‘It’s all in the Game’ he plays the murderer at her own game, and wins. This episode from 1993 was written by Falk in the in the 70s, however it wasn’t until the revived series that it was made. While in ‘Strange Bedfellows’ Columbo has to deal with the Mafia, when confronted with a mob boss Columbo snubs him. He refuses to speak Italian, even though we have seen him speak it fluently in the past, and then stands up to the man. Telling him that it’s his way or the highway.

The series does evolve and each is of it’s time. The original run is very much a document of the 70s. For the most part Columbo mixes with the rich and powerful, and the taste of the decade is always on display. The revived series likewise celebrates the late 80s and early 90s excess. ‘Columbo’ as a series never passed judgement on the characters. They were guilty of the crime, but the lifestyle wasn’t the judged.

Of course the most iconic fashion statement from the show isn’t any of the high glamour outfits of the suspects, but rather the raincoat worn by the titular character. Falk bought the raincoat in a thrift store on Fifth Avenue, New York in the late 60s. In fact the suit and the shoes Columbo wears are things Falk himself owned. It seems that he had a lot of luck with coats from thrift stores, the overcoat he wore in ‘Murder Inc.’ and the outfit he wore in ‘Wings of Desire’ all came from thrift stores.

So beloved and iconic is ‘Columbo’ in Japan that retailer Uniqlo produce a light raincoat the LT.C that is basically, an uncrumpled, copy of Columbo’s.

There is no one reason why ‘Columbo’ is so beloved, but it is so different from anything else. Even other reverse mysteries never come close. Add to that there are few series that come back after an extended hiatus and are still as popular as they were before. That perhaps is why ‘Columbo’ is consistently heralded as the greatest TV detective.