But what is it that makes Columbo so good in the first place?
For a start, it’s pretty much unique among police procedurals in being not a whodunnit but a how’s-he-going-to-solve-it. In fact, there are few episodes of Columbo where you don’t know who did it – and those ones stand out as the exception, rather than the rule.
The quality of Columbo is, sadly, variable. The mid-80s revival did the show very few favours – the early 1970s episodes being generally sharper in writing and better in tone. Fortunately, it retained Peter Falk as Columbo, whose performance was surely one of the great strengths of the show. (I’d still like to see the original TV play starring Bert Freed, however.)
“Death Lends A Hand is probably the archetype of the Columbo episode, if not the high point of the entire series. Robert Culp (a three-time Columbo murderer, and – for me – the iconic Columbo killer) runs a detective agency and kills the wife of a client who intends to expose his blackmail operation.
In the course of the investigation (oh, by the way, this paragraph contains spoilers, so skip ahead if you haven’t seen it) Columbo befriends the PI, and is offered a job – of course, he’ll have to give up the current case, naturally… Columbo responds by turning down the offer, and then exhuming the corpse. Culp has had to arrive in a hired car as his is in the garage – and it turns out the body is missing a contact lens. A thorough search of the murder scene turns up nothing, and Culp breaks into the garage to recover the lens from the boot of the car. Naturally, Columbo and the rest of the police got there first, and are waiting for him. On the way out, Columbo reveals that he was a mischevious child and used to play a prank – putting a potato in the exhaust pipe (tail pipe) of a car. It doesn’t harm the car, merely puts it out of action for a while – until you can get a garage to remove it… (that’s the end of the spoilers, if you care about that type of thing)
And that is the other interesting feature of Columbo – the twist. Because the twist isn’t that Columbo solves it – it’s that, like Sherlock Holmes, he’s been so far ahead of everyone for a while now, and it’s only when things are resolved that this gets revealed.
He’s good at covering up his thoughts too – hiding behind the shabby raincoat, the “classic” car, the dog called simply Dog, and the plethora of scribbled notes (often glanced at with a sharp “oh, I gotta pay that”) is a ruthless detective. The plethora of “cousins” and “nephews” are often informants, or just simply bits of information that he gained from experts. He frequently sets up elaborate stings – in “Suitable For Framing“, for example, it’s Columbo’s own fingerprint that finally traps the murderer. He’s not even afraid to lie – in “Murder Under Glass“, he speaks fluent Italian with a waiter, even translating to English, while in “Strange Bedfellows” he claims not to speak any – a ruse to disarm the Italian speakers, thinking they can be overheard, but not understood.
Some of the things Columbo do are somewhat unorthodox – he eats the parmesan cheese at a murder scene (destruction of evidence), doesn’t carry a gun, or pass the tests for over ten years (dismissal from the force), he even conspires with a gangster to threaten a suspect (a comedown as he previously did the same thing with a king). But even so, he’s regarded as their “best man” (“Columbo Cries Wolf“).
So what is it that makes Columbo what it is?
- Onscreen violence shows no blood
- He’s the smartest guy in the room – always one step ahead
- A clever twist
- Classic car
- Likeable character
So who’s the British Columbo? Well, next time, I’ll start looking at the suspects. Until then, there’s just one more thing.
What’s Columbo’s name? He always says “lieutenant”. But in “Dead Weight“, we see the badge, briefly: it’s Frank.