10 Reasons Why Columbo Is Still Such a Unique Show

columbo
After purchasing the Columbo box-set a few years ago, my liking for the show became an addiction. Every break I’d take from writing, I would sit down and watch an episode, sometimes even restarting the same disc as soon as it had finished, and I’m sure that by now I must have surpassed its original viewing figures all on my own. The pacing and mood of the show perfectly matched my need to plot and plan for my novel, and although I’ve managed to vary my choice of viewing since, I have never found another like it. These are ten of the reasons why:

  1. THE FORMAT: The concept of witnessing the culprit carrying out the homicide at the beginning is an automatic twist on the idea of a murder mystery. Clearly, we know who did it within the first twenty minutes, so with the mystery now centred around how exactly they are going to get caught, what follows contains an element of suspense that your average cop show can’t deliver. 

  2. THE VILLAINS: Because we generally meet the villains before they’ve committed the crime, it allows the audience enough time to get to know them and possibly even sympathise with their motives; often the “victims” are thoroughly unlikeable, whereas the charisma and cunning ability possessed by our killers may leave us actually wanting them to get away with murder.

  3. THE CAST: What actor wouldn’t want the chance to play an intelligent and manipulative bad guy? The role offers such an opportunity for creativity that you’d be a fool to turn it down, especially when you could be featuring in such a much-loved series. Because of this, the high quality cast of Columbo includes the likes of Donald Pleasence, Dick Van Dyke, William Shatner, George Hamilton, Robert Vaughan, John Cassavetes, Martin Landau, Leonard Nimoy, Johnny Cash, Janet Leigh, Rip Torn, Faye Dunaway, Billy Connolly… and that’s not including the victims: Martin Sheen, Mickey Spillane, Dean Stockwell, Leslie Nielson… or the supporting actors: Vincent Price, Jamie Lee Curtis, Little Richard, Rod Steiger… Rarely can any TV series boast of having such an eclectic mix of well-known guest stars.

    Where else could you see Vincent Price, Little Richard and Leonard Nimoy all in one series?
  4. THE MURDERS: I’ve never heard of a murderer using a plot from Columbo in real life, but then maybe that’s because most killers know that the police will have watched the series more times than they have. However, some of the ingenious methods used to both carry out the act and establish an alibi are another reason that the show is so individual. Poisoned cigarettes, trained attack dogs, hired hitmen, rigged cannons, hypnosis, subliminal cuts, bulls… Unlike many cop shows, where people are merely shot or stabbed without much creativity, the imaginative ways that people are disposed of in Columbo is a prominent fixture of each episode.

  5. THE SETTINGS: As our sleuth is an operating detective, it gives great leeway for him to enter into all walks of life, and the writers made full use of this fact rather than limiting him to a particular beat or underbelly of society. Instead of striving to scare us with a gritty backdrop of impoverished urban streets, Columbo usually delves into the world of the affluent and wealthy, enabling us to venture into occupations and locations that seem more enticing than repellent.

  6. THE SERIAL KILLERS: Watching through the complete box-set for the first time, I was always keen to find out who the next murderer would be, and generally there is a new lead for each one; however, I was pleased to find out that several of the stars obviously couldn’t stay away, and when I’d spot their names coming up in the opening credits again it was like seeing a criminal mastermind that couldn’t help but repeatedly offend. The most frequent culprits are Jack Cassidy, who plays the murderer three times; Robert Culp, who features as the killer three times before popping up in another to play a killer’s father; and Patrick McGoohan, who plays a killer four times, also directing and writing several of the episodes to boot.

    The many guises of Patrick McGoohan – By Dawn’s Early Night (1974), Identity Crisis (1975), Agenda for Murder (1990) and Ashes to Ashes (1998). 
  7. THE MUSIC: Each episode usually has its own individual score, which allows for enough flexibility to move with the times and vary from sinister and haunting, cheeky and fun or lavish and glossy depending on the mood, even featuring pop and dance music if appropriate for that particular episode. However, the closest thing to a theme-tune for Columbo came after Falk was called to ad-lib for a particular scene, and decided to whistle This Old Man. The nursery rhyme ended up being the most regular addition to the soundtrack, with numerous renditions incorporated into the score throughout the rest of the series.

  8. THE BEHIND THE SCENES TALENT: Columbo effectively ran from 1968 to 1995, and despite the superb performances from all of the cast, there is no way that it would have had such longevity without the immense talent behind the camera. The show’s originators, Richard Levinson and William Link, would later prove themselves to be more than mere one-trick ponies by creating many other internationally successful series, including Murder, She Wrote, which was created with a third Columbo writer, Peter S. Fischer. Throughout the twenty-four year span, many up and coming directors and writers cut their teeth on Columbo, including soon-to-be huge names such as Steven Spielberg and Steven Bochco, and unlike many popular series that appear to be stretched out by the studios until the format eventually looses its shape, this one remained tight until the very end.

  9. THE DYNAMICS: Columbo is essentially based around the game of cat and mouse, but the unique format of the show allows the dynamics of the characters to alter depending on the story. At the start of an episode we may have a mouse who is being taunted by a cat, until the mouse has no alternative but to kill their foe by becoming a cat themselves. Then along comes Columbo, another seemingly harmless mouse that the newly transformed cat thinks he can manipulate just the same; however, Columbo is in fact a bloodhound in disguise, who sniffs out and eats cats for dinner, which allows for much play between the leading actors as they skirt around what they really are. On some occasions we can see that Columbo even respects the murderer and actually finds it a shame that he has to ruin them, but his dogged determination won’t allow him to back off no matter how friendly they may become.

    And of course just one more thing…

  10. PETER FALK: There is nobody that I could imagine playing Columbo other than Peter Falk. He brought so much of himself to the role that it’s difficult to believe that he’s even acting, and from the moment he walks onto the screen in the original TV movie, the iconic sleuth is already crafted to perfection. The fact that he personally chose such intrinsic details as the grubby rain mac and battered-out old Peugeot prove that he had clearly defined the character in his own mind all the way along. Idiosyncrasies like the Lieutenant infuriating his targets by forcing them to wait while he rummages through his pockets to find a condemning piece of evidence, were the type of on-set improvisations that Falk purposefully included to both leave his co-stars on edge, and strengthen his deceptively clumsy persona to the audience. But the subtle tells of the detective’s true intelligence never fail to shine through, and he is able to deliver words of wisdom just as comfortably. Behind the scenes, the power that Falk wielded allowed him to dictate against the introduction of certain gimmicks that Universal wanted to include, which enabled the series to focus on the essence of what made it so special in the first place and ultimately maintain its level of success.

    A couple of sketches of the detective drawn by Peter Falk himself.

 

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