Lapelaholism/Why I Love… Columbo

I recently wrote a post about how to survive bed-rest without going completely insane.  In that post I extolled the virtues of shutting down your computer and doing something productive or technology-free; what I didn’t mention was how much I used my laptop to watch cartoons, TV shows and films.  It’s almost embarrassing, if I’m honest, and only ‘almost’ because I suffer from a severe lack of self-awareness.  I’ve got an external hard-drive full of goodies (and that’s not a euphemism) to keep me entertained, but I’m going to reveal my favourite non-cartoon thing to watch.

Columbo

When I was growing up, there were loads of programmes my parents watched that I didn’t fully understand, things like Frasier and Have I Got News for You – shows full of humour that I didn’t get but I would sit and watch with them anyway.  One thing I used to watch with my family was Columbo, and to this day I am still totally in awe of how brilliant this show was; its unique twist on the crime thriller genre was that the viewer knows from the start who the culprit is, and we get to witness how this crumpled, seemingly befuddled detective works it out.  It’s such a simple concept, but it is magnificently executed, as we get to watch the culprit squirm as Lieutenant Columbo gets closer to the truth.

The first episode of Columbo was broadcast in 1968, as two pilot episodes were produced and aired before it was picked up for a full series, and in total there are 69 episodes of this classic show.  As I’m writing this all I can think about is how goddamn watchable this show is, even now.  Sure, the costumes are somewhat dated, as is the music and in fact many of the actors who have participated in the show have since passed away.  In fact several actors – Patrick McGoohan, Robert Culp, and Jack Cassidy to name just 3 – have appeared in the show more than once, which says something about the popularity of the show, not just for its audience but for the cast too.  There have also been some fantastic cameos from stars-in-the-making, before they hit the big time.  Check out the cameo in this funny scene from “Bye Bye Sky High IQ”:

Columbo’s mind was no doubt the driving force behind his detective skills, but a big part of his success can be put down to his unassuming appearance.  The cigar and trench coat combo was his signature look, and in fact Peter Falk used his own coat as part of the costume, which was normally worn over a suit; this look, which was first seen in the pilot episode “Prescription: Murder” and would feature in all the episodes, often had an effect on Columbo’s main suspects.  They would see his dishevelled appearance and underestimate his competence, more often than not considering themselves to be infinitely smarter than him.  Often, he would wax lyrical about his ignorance to the profession or expertise of his main suspect, sometimes going so far as flattering them and pandering to their egos.  This would lead to Columbo using their own ego against them at times, by revealing his theory to them but with one of the parts wrong, so that the culprit would then say how it was really done and ultimately confess.  On one occasion, Columbo’s never-seen wife buys him a new coat (Now You See Me) – the police officers fail to recognise him at first, and the stiffness of this new trench coat hinders his detecting skills, resulting in him taking it off in order to read the crime scene more accurately, saying “I gotta take off this coat, I can’t think in this coat!”.  The way he later deadpans that he thought he had lost it when his assistant on the case finds it in the police department’s lost and found box is hilarious, and a classic example of Peter Falk’s acting prowess.

Falk also came up with the little traits that we have come to love about Columbo – running his hand through his already somewhat scruffy hair, fumbling around for his pen and paper, stalling with chit-chat and the humbling arm gestures.  And then there’s the two things that he’s always getting chastised for by his subjects; many times Columbo is told to stub out his cigar, that it’s a filthy habit and shows he has no manners when lighting up in a strangers home.  Then there is the most famous aspect of the character, the one that sets his suspects on edge and leads them to realise they may have underestimated him.  His “just one more thing” line happens at least once with every case, allowing him to catch the suspect off-guard and reveal to them that he knows a little more than they think he does.

Sophia’s posts often feature some great and well-written thoughts on style, which is something I am very very bad at (meet me, you’ll see what I mean).  My previously ‘Lapelaholism’ post was centred around the old-fashioned notion of men wearing suits, which doesn’t necessarily have to signify an attraction to the subject.  Columbo’s style warrants the Lapelaholism tag purely because I believe that his outfit is iconic.  The other day I was watching a classic episode (Identity Crisis) and as Columbo enters in his first scene of that show I was struck by the image – even his silhouette was instantly recognisable.  I would really love this as a poster.

I think the reason that I enjoy Columbo so much even now is that there are no ‘shock tactics’, which is what seems to drive a lot of television shows and films these days – it’s purely driven by the story and the mystery.  The popularity of the recent BBC adaptation of ‘Sherlock’ can be assigned to (no, not the B-Batch… well not JUST the B-Btach) the quality of the writing and the story.  When I watch some sitcoms and dramas these days, I suspect that the writers think audiences are getting dumber, but we’re not – we still appreciate a well-written story, and by tapping the well of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s smartly constructed mysteries and bringing them up to date, the team behind Sherlock engage their viewers as we watch the detective unravel the mystery with his logic skills.  Columbo does that too, except we know the killer and are rooting for Columbo to get there, knowing full well that he will.

This was easily Peter Falk’s most iconic role, although I would also rate his genius performance in ‘Murder by Death’.  I was genuinely upset when I heard of his deteriorating health and dementia – his condition reached a point where he eventually could not remember the character of Columbo, let alone playing him.  Falk sadly passed away on 23rd June 2011 and is sorely missed by his legion of fans.  His website is still open, where you can see artwork done by the man himself – I would recommend visiting it, it is well worth a look.  Imagine leaving a legacy like that, having played such a fantastic character and creating a role that would live on forever due to the genius of both the writing and the performance.  Magnificent.

Oh, uh, one more thing… Here’s my list of top 10 Columbo episodes, in no particular order.

Lady in Waiting

The crime doesn’t quite go according to plan in this episode, which helps lead Columbo to the the truth.  Star turn from the late Leslie Nielsen, before he became well known for his performances in spoof films.

Dagger of the Mind 

Columbo comes to London!

The Most Dangerous Match

The ending of this chess-centred episode appeals to me very much, perhaps down to the sound design of it; noises from machines and the characters raising their voices heighten the tension in the scene through to a thunderous climax.  Brilliant stuff.

Any Old Port in A Storm

I love stories where people do terrible things in desperation because they feel there is no alternative. In this clip Columbo astounds his main suspect with his impressive knowledge of wine.

Double Exposure 

Columbo catches the killer with an ingenious trick, turning the tables on the culprit who unexpectedly leads Columbo to the truth

Troubled Waters 

I love this episode because it sticks to the closed-room type of mystery.  Set on a yacht while Columbo is meant to be on holiday with his wife, he is called on to help solve the murder of a cabaret singer.

The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case

A classic example of the killer underestimating Columbo’s intelligence.  This is the scene where the culprit reveals how the murder was done, so major spoiler alert!

How to Dial a Murder

I LOVE the method in this murder, and how Columbo comes to work it out.  Watch the video to see pure brilliance!

Murder, Smoke and Shadows

I think Fisher Stevens is a hugely underrated actor and his performance in this episode as the egotistical, cocky young film director is brilliant. This clip sees him take Columbo up on a crane with him during filming, which has an undesirable effect on the lieutenant…

Columbo Cries Wolf 

An unusual episode in that there is no murder at the beginning, and Columbo is strung along by a fashion photographer to chase false leads.  But it doesn’t end well…

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One thought on “Lapelaholism/Why I Love… Columbo

  1. Pingback: Columbo TV – When Columbo Fans Take Over Twitter: DECEMBER KUNG FU UNICORN EDITION | Damn, That's Some Fine Tailoring

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