The mystery field is full of great detectives and private eyes, both amateur and professional, created by authors. Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, Father Brown, Inspector Morse, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mike Hammer, The Continental Op: and of course, Sherlock Holmes. The list goes on and on.
There have also been quite a few detectives created for television. McCloud, Matt Houston, Magnum PI and Jim Rockford to name a few. The germaphobic Adrian Monk was immensely popular. But perhaps the supreme television detective is Inspector Columbo.
A prototype Columbo, if you will (heck – even if you won’t), appeared in Enough Rope: a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Hour, played by Bert Freed. It was then turned into a play, Prescription Murder, starring Thomas Mitchell, who died of cancer during its run.
Next, the play evolved into a two-hour television movie. The under-appreciated Lee J. Cobb was approached but unavailable and Bing Crosby turned down the part (imagine that). Though he was considered too young at the time, Peter Falk was given the part and the movie aired in 1968.
The network ordered another TV movie to see if a series was feasible. Ransom For a Dead Man did well and Columbo became part of a rotating series of shows, including Dennis Weaver’s McCloud and McMillan and Wife, with Rock Hudson.
Columbo ran on NBC from 1971 to 1978. ABC revived the show for series of TV movies from 1989 through 2003. Falk was attempting to sell one last Columbo movie project to the networks, but he suffered from dementia and died in 2011.
Falk appeared as Columbo 68 times in all and he won three Emmys for the role.
Just One More Thing – Before she was Star Trek: Voyager’s Captain Janeway, Kate Mulgrew starred in Mrs. Columbo. In this short-lived spin-off, she played Columbo’s reporter wife, investigating crimes and raising her daughter.
A key element of most mysteries is “Whodunit?” We read or watch along with the protagonist, trying to solve the crime ourselves. But Columbo doesn’t work that way. The story opens by setting up, then showing us, the crime (usually a murder). We know who did it five or ten minutes into a sixty or ninety minute show. The focus of the mystery is now on watching Columbo gather the evidence he needs to figure out who did it. This is known as the ‘Inverted Mystery.’
The key to making an inverted mystery work is having a compelling hero. If Columbo were a boring, or unappealing central character, the show would fail. We already know what happened and who is guilty. It’s the rooting for a compelling character that invests us in the rest of the show. And Peter Falk nailed it.
NOT SO SMART
The plots vary, but the episodes are basically the same. The villain establishes a relationship with Columbo and they interact often during the episode. The villain inevitably thinks they are smarter than Columbo (truly, pride goeth before a fall). And he lets them think that, constantly acting as if he can’t find things, seeming out of place, agreeing with misleading statements the antagonist makes, wearing a rumpled raincoat and driving a decrepit car. He seems like a fool.
Back in 1976, a few years before the first Star Trek movie revived his career, William Shatner guest starred in Fade in to Murder. He was actor Ward Fowler, who was starring as Detective Lucerne in an extremely successful soap opera.
Just One More Thing – Sgt. Johnson in this episode is played by Walter Koenig – Chekov from Star Trek.
Fowler killed his producer, a former lover who is now blackmailing him. Fowler, in his character of Detective Lucerne, actually works with Columbo to solve the crime. Columbo, who watches the show with his wife, is thrilled to work with Lucerne and seems to be letting him lead the investigation. Columbo even gets caught imitating Lucerne.
You really need to watch this episode to see how Shatner plays his character outsmarting Columbo throughout, while the policeman seems to keep somehow stumbling on to the next clue. It’s vintage Columbo and it’s a fine performance by Shatner. Who doesn’t…take…long…pauses.
A feature of the show was that leading actors and actresses of the day guest starred: usually as the villain. It’s fun to watch them trying to outsmart Columbo every show. Leonard Nimoy made a particularly memorable appearance in A Stitch In Crime a few years before.
JUST ONE MORE THING
Every episode, Columbo would be leaving a scene with the villain, the latter thinking they have once again manipulated him or maintained the upper hand. He would be on his way out the door or to his car or whatever. Then Columbo would turn around, say “Just one more thing” and hit them with something they weren’t ready for. Often it was a little thing, but it would be important. Tony Shaloub would use this trick as Monk.
I don’t think I could sit down and watch ten consecutive episodes of Columbo. But every time I do watch one, I’m entertained. Peter Falk is simply that good in the role. The original NBC series is usually streamable on Netflix and I highly recommend watching at least a few episodes. Columbo is one of the great television shows and the character is an important part of the mystery genre.
You can read Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column here at Black Gate every Monday morning.
His “The Adventure of the Parson’s Son” is included in the largest collection of new Sherlock Holmes stories ever published. Surprisingly, they even let him back in for Volume IV!