Directed by various directors
If I recall correctly (and there’s a very good chance I don’t), the Columbo TV movies appeared in the early seventies as part of the rotating NBC Movie of the Week which also included Dennis Weaver as McLoud and Rock Hudson and Susan St. James in MacMillan and Wife.
But don’t hold me to that.
They were all murder mysteries and, like all murder mysteries, were formulaic. It’s the formula that makes them appealing as well as the main character(s) and their particular approach to solving the case.
Anyone who saw them, particularly when they were originally broadcast, would have a hard time forgetting the rumpled, seemingly absent-minded Lt. Columbo, played by Peter Falk.
The formula for Columbo was basically the cat and mouse game between Columbo and the particular case’s murderer. You were always shown the set up and murder, you knew who the murderer was, and you knew, when Columbo eventually appeared, that he would solve the case. The question was how.
It was also a delightful intelligence dance between Columbo and his opponent as the movies usually pitted two keen and clever minds against each other, one of which was the self-effacing Columbo.
While I haven’t watched all the episodes yet on Columbo – the Complete First Season, I have watched the first three and they are quite fascinating. The first two movies in the disc set aren’t part of the series itself. They were the two Columbo TV movies that preceded the series. The third is the season’s first episode.
What makes these three interesting, seen in sequence, is the development of both the character of Columbo and the formula of the movies (two things that go hand in hand).
While the first season belongs to 1971-1972, the first movie (Prescription: Murder) is actually from 1968 and it is quite a bit different than the other movies.
You can see where they have not quite hit on the key elements of the Columbo formula but do have some of the significant features, though not necessarily fully developed.
First of all, Columbo looks considerably younger and neater. While he’s certainly not nattily dressed, he isn’t quite as rumbled and seemingly puzzled as he eventually would be.
He’s much more of a standard issue detective in this first film.
Maybe the most striking difference is that Columbo displays a tough, hard edge at one point – something completely absent from the subsequent movies. Seen in isolation, it’s a passable characterization though pretty predictable and not all that interesting. Seen now, after we’re familiar with what Columbo was to become, it’s wildly inappropriate. It’s also a great relief in knowing this aspect of the character was tossed out. Columbo was to become much more interesting than this.
The second movie, Ransom for a Dead Man, is a huge improvement and the first time we get to see the Columbo that made the series. The edge is gone now; here, he’s the apparently not-very-bright detective who is obsessed with details (“There’s just one thing that still bothers me, ma’am …”).
In this one, he’s after Lee Grant, a lawyer who has killed her husband.
Here, as in later episodes, one of the ways the story develops is that while everyone tends to see Columbo as dull-witted, the killer (in this case Grant) realizes long before anyone else that the detective isn’t as slow as he appears; that he is really the only one who is a match for them in a struggle of wits. It’s when this happens in the films that they really become engaging. It’s the battle of wits that is so compelling.
Also introduced in this second episode is the element of humour, which would be an essential element of the series.
When the series itself launched, it opened with Murder By the Book, directed by a young Steven Spielberg.
It’s one of the better episodes of the first season and you can see how Spielberg adds a little something through some interesting camera work, angles and so on. It’s much better than most of the conventional TV direction of the period though nothing spectacular either. But it does give it a more dramatic quality, particularly a few low angle shots and certainly the long pull back of the opening.
Of the episodes that follow in the first season, all are quite good though there was one that fell a bit flat (I no longer recall which one).
Overall, Columbo- the Complete First Season is a welcome package though it is totally without extras such as features, interviews and so on. It is just the show. But in this case while it would have been nice to have those, the shows are enough.
Watching the first season is entertaining for the shows themselves but also for seeing the development of the character and seeing how much of what made the series successful was Peter Falk’s characterization.
The speech patterns, the postures and some of the lines, (like, “Just one more thing …”) all added up to what may be the most memorable detective to appear on the small screen.
- Prescription: Murder (1968)
- Ransom for a Dead Man (1971)
- Murder by the Book (1971)
- Death Lends a Hand (1971)
- Dead Weight (1971)
- Suitable for Framing (1971)
- Lady in Waiting (1971)
- Short Fuse (1972)
- Blueprint for Murder (1972)
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