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A scruffy raincoat, a cigar and a mind like a steel trap.  Then there’s the catchphrase of “Just one more thing….”.  From these elements, one of the most enduring of TV characters was born.  Yep, Lieutenant Columbo is still very much both in the eye and affections of audiences around the world, his disarming nature combined with devious methods to catch out criminals, along with constant talk about his beloved (yet unseen) wife.  We all know who he is, and we’ve all seen him on TV.  But have you ever seen them look this good?

Yes, the very first series of Columbo has finally arrived in HD from Fabulous Films, and any diehard fan worth their salted boiled egg will tell you that it’s one of the very best in the run, so let’s take a dive into a heaping helping of televisual perfection.  For this review, it was necessary to have the standard two-Wilson team working on it, but with a difference: onboard this time is Nick Rainsbury-Wilson and his wife Clare Rainsbury-Wilson, the Missus being a Columbo nut with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the show, and her insights are interwoven throughout this review.  The wife and I have developed a useful shorthand way of explaining (to her) who a particular actor is when watching other stuff, being “so-and-so from Columbo”.  Yes, Columbo has even worked his way into our marriage - it’s no wonder he wears a dirty raincoat…

It's good shit, kids!

Following Star Trek in being the only show to have a second pilot commissioned, Columbo as a series was approved.  After getting his feet wet through directing a episodes of other TV shows, a young director named Steven Spielberg had caught the attention of network executives with his work on the Rod Serling show Night Gallery, and was brought in to helm the what ended up as the first story in an historically popular show which spawned a thousand crap impressions of Peter Falk, a mini-career for Rich Little and turned him into a national hero in Romania.

So what is the story that kicked off a legend?  Well, authors of the hugely successful Mrs Melville crime books Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy)  Jim Ferris (Martin Milner) are ending their writing partnership and washing their hands of the lucrative franchise.  Trouble is that Franklin is a tired old hack, merely handling the marketing of the books rather than contributing anything creative towards them - and very protective of the decadent lifestyle Mrs Melville affords him.  His plan?  Make the split seem amicable before killing his partner, blaming it on the mafia and helping himself to the recent insurance policy taken out on him.  The only problems?  A nosey eyewitness with the hots for Franklin and an equally nosey police detective in a rather scruffy raincoat…

This might well be the ultimate Columbo episode - OK, it’s not the absolute favourite under this roof, but it’s one which best displays exactly what the show would be capable of.  The story is solid, the characters perfectly drawn and superbly played.  Spielberg’s direction is excellent, bringing his (as yet unproven) cinematic prowess to television and making it something to grab the audience rather than letting them passively experience it.  TV was awfully prosaic around this time, and there are those of the believe that Spielberg’s work on Columbo forced the industry to take a good look at itself, which lead to more visceral series being put into production.  As usual, Falk is great, using the space between the second pilot and the series being put into production to iron out the last couple of wrinkles.  As a matter of fact, it’s only worth pointing out his performance when he’s doing something wrong!

What is there to say about Jack Cassidy other than that he’s an oily prick.  That might sound harsh, but when he ended up being a three-time Columbo baddie with only death stopping him from further appearances, it shows that he was a master of the form.  Cassidy plays Franklin as a man with an almost frightening lack of sincerity, working in tandem with equal parts ego and smugness, making for a total bastard and a Columbo repeater only rivalled by Patrick McGoohan and Robert Culp.  His horrific death in a fire five years later through passing out in a stupor with a cigarette in his hand shocked the industry, and really shouldn’t have happened.

With Falk on top form and Cassidy so great, it’s almost easy to forget how good Barbara Colby is as the snooping fan-turned-blackmailer.  Buck-toothed and gangly, she’s simultaneously ditzy and awkward, with glints pure steel whenever Franklin tries his usual guff with her, proving that she’s a calculating woman - certainly smart enough to resist the potentially fatal invitation for a moonlit boat-ride out on a lake with him.  The problem is that discovers too late that trying to extort money from a killer is not the most sensible thing in the world.  This character would be echoed in the later classic Any Old Port in a Storm.

Ugly but lethal...

Both she and Cassidy died premature deaths within almost a year of each other.  Colby had just hit the big time on TV,  cast in the Mary Tyler Moore Show spin-off Phyllis, standing out among a distinguished cash and the world was her oyster.  But three episodes into the series, she was shot dead one night whilst getting into her car, at the age of just 36.  A friend of hers was also killed in the attack, and there was no conviction for the motiveless murders.

It’s no wonder Columbo seems so much better at solving crimes than other policemen, as there are numerous instances where a crime-scene is being utterly contaminated by other officers.  Hell, when investigating the suspected “kidnapping” scene, one of the uniformed boys carefully takes away a decorative skull from the writer’s office, as though he’s possibly found part of the body!  Were they recruiting on the basis of the finding candidates through the uniforms fitting that year??  Columbo himself isn’t blameless in this area, as the first episode kicks off his habit of thieving from crime scenes, usually in the form of food - here, it’s sweets.

Little production details add up to a lot in this episode, and although many would have worked out that the character of Mrs Melville is based on Miss Marple, it premise is rendered really cool by the oil painting of Cassidy’s creation in his office looking rather like Margaret Rutherford, who successfully played her in a series of films only a couple of years earlier.  In fact, Murder By The Book became the title of a 1987 movie in which Poirot appears to Agatha Christie and begs her not to kill him off in her next novel!  Speaking of the books, Columbo is given a stack of them by Franklin, and we get to see that our man in the mac is one hell of a reader, as he manages to finish them in all in the space of two days, even with all of than troublesome investigation going on!  Still, it probably helped that there were a couple of copies of at least one the books in the stack he was given…

If there is one the which bothers us (reference intended…) it that a smart guy like Franklin should have been able to account for his whereabouts more convincingly than he does here.  When the good lieutenant tries to pin the murder on Cassidy through him not being in his cabin when he called their the evening before, he comes out with a feeble excuse which further drops him in it.  His correct reply should have been: “Well, Columbo, I drank both of those bottles of champagne you saw me with yesterday, and I couldn’t answer the phone on account of being passed out in a pool of my own vomit, but nice try, though…”

Another minor gripe is that it takes a piece from Prescription Murder which was so brilliant and stuck pretty much the same thing in this one.  Presumably the producers thought that the pilot wouldn’t be seen again on TV, the nicked the piece where the baddie almost leaves a valuable clue at the crime-scene, only to pick it up at the last minute, pulling the rug right out from under the audience.  It’s to much lesser effect here, which is a shame.  Oh, speaking of the Prescription: Murder, one of the Mrs Melville books comes with that particular title as a nod to the shows’ origins.

Murder By The Book is classic Columbo, with everything needed to set the show off on its incredibly successful 70s run.  The entire cast is superb, the writing mostly airtight and it just an all-round winner.  Just rather odd that Columbo actually accepts a drink whilst on duty - but then again, it’s hard to turn down a glass of bourbon…

Like being wanked off by a pensioner.

When wealthy Arthur Kennicut hires a detective firm to make sure his younger wife is being faithful, the report of her fidelity leaves him relieved.  But investigator Brimmer has been holding back some important information: she’s screwing around on him!  With such dynamite information in his files, Brimmer sets out to blackmail the young bride, but an outburst of rage sends ends in a deadly blow and sends the killer devising a tricky scheme to cover up all traces.  But what of that strange indentation on the body’s face, and the shady golf-pro with whom she was sleeping?  Sounds like a case for Columbo!

Death Lends a Hand contains one of the most creative, visually impressive and coolest sequences ever to grace Columbo.  A tight shot of Culp’s glasses reflecting footage his him cleaning up the crime scene, detailing all the lengths he goes to in order to erase his deed from existence.  Hell, it looks like something from a Dario Argento movie!  In fact, eyes are a recurring theme in the episode, with the aforementioned glasses shot being the most obvious element, but with security cameras constantly around, and the whole case centering on a lost contact lens.  It’s all so very visual, and this kind of innovation came expensive back then, and probably accounts for why it ended up being strictly a one-off.  It’s brilliant stuff, though!

Some superb visuals here!

Much like Jack Cassidy, Culp makes his mark as a Columbo baddie of the highest calibre, but in a way so very different from the twinkling smugness of his peer.  Culp specialised in playing ruthless businessmen on the show, bringing a quality to his characters which  left no doubt that they were successful for reasons other than the ability to make money.  Here, his character Brimmer is cold bastard, given that he thinks nothing of declaring the wife of a client as “faithful”, even though she’s having an affair just for the purposes of blackmailing her.

With this in mind, the scenes between Culp and Falk are great.  Both are hiding something beneath the surface, with Columbo’s certainty of his guilt having an easier time of staying hidden.  With Culp’s paranoia and sense of the detective’s abilities growing, he even offers him a high-paying job in his company to get him off the trail, but nope - Columbo sees the chink in his armour and decides to use paranoia against Culp to finally nail him.

The whole premise is that of how rage can be painted over with a veneer of respectability, but is always ready to explode when the ego is dented.  Obviously, this pertains to Culp trying to keep a lid on his temper, but in this episode, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that the respectable sheen also applies to Columbo.  Many who watch this episode are amazed that it shows Columbo blatantly planting evidence, vandalising property and a few other practices which really couldn’t be called honest coppering, and which might be used to get a case thrown out of court.  Was the writing of the character still in flux?  Did the writers not think it might raise eyebrows - who knows?

To utilise the phrase of deluded thespians, Ray Milland appears in a comparatively ‘small-but-important’ role as the husband running a check of on his wife, and with Milland around, there’s no such thing as a minor role.  He’s really good here, and makes the final “gotcha” moment work better than it did on paper.  It’s all about gravitas, and if he could pass off talking about fictional planets on Battlestar Galactica, then the man was capable of anything!  It’s no wonder that John Landis originally wanted him to play Mortimer Duke alongside Ralph Bellamy in Trading Places, but his ill-health meant that no company would insure him.  Starring in later Columbo episode The Greenhouse Jungle would be good enough, though!

This is damn good Columbo, with excellent performances, an intriguing premise and a satisfying (if a little shaky) denouement.  It just wasn’t quite as solid as Murder By The Book, and so the initially-planned opener to the series was shunted into second place and Jack Cassidy became the 1st villain on the show.  It’s just a pity the next one had to be…

No shit.

The title is almost an apt one, with what should have been a fun mystery weighed down by an atmosphere you can’t quite put your finger on.  It’s only by digging deeper that you find out the conditions under which it was filmed - namely that Falk had been promised to direct, with Universal seeming to backtrack on the arrangement, and ol’ Pete pulling a sickie and getting his doctor to sign him off of work.  His scenes with Pleshette and Albert were done with doubles to finish the episode, with only the threat of being sued bring Falk back to do his close-ups.  Albert called Falk “…a real asshole” to his face when he finally returned to the set.

With Giallo movies being hugely popular at the time, and Dario Argento’s Bird with the Crystal Plumage raking in the money stateside, it’s little surprise that some of the inherent themes would make it into American product, and Dead Weight is no exception.  The very premise of an eyewitness thinking she saw a killing but unsure as to exactly what she saw is classic Giallo, but goes with the angle of the killer himself trying to change her perception of the incident and clear his name.

Eddie Albert's as threatening as your grandad.

It’s long-understood that nice actors play the best baddies (Vincent Price, Ronny Cox, etc) but Albert seems to be the exception to the rule.  Given that he has the most incredible military-service record (which he kept to himself until it was publicly revealed in the 90s) you’d have thought that he had everything needed to play the most incredible bastard of a General,  but it’s not the case.  He just doesn’t seem natural as an utter shit, as though the noble part of himself is putting the brakes on.  He’s just too nice and almost cuddly to convince - it’s almost like having John Le-Mesurier as a baddie, where you just can’t buy into it.  Take a look at just about everything else Albert was in and you’ll see how he’s delightful, even convincing a very cynical audience that he was the president in Dreamscape!

This is crap Columbo, and it’s not just us: it really is one of the most disliked episodes, and we’ll treat it with the contempt it deserves and simply skip into the next one, an excellent piece called….

Watch out, watch out, there's a dandy about!

Dear old Dale Kingston almost has it all.  He’s suave, sophisticated, educated, gets more pussy than the Cats Protection League and makes a nice living through the irony of critiquing art on television.  The only thing he can’t have is the fabulous art collection his uncle has bought over the years, which Kingston has lusted over whilst curating it.  Along with a starry-eyed art student, he plans to kill Uncle, “steal” his two favourite pieces and blame it on a burglar, taking steps to throw off the police as the time-frame.

Our man with the demonic plan then makes a splashy entrance at a high-fashion art exhibition, attended by the bourgeois, Kingston playing the part of looks the devil himself, in ruffles and crushed velvet.  Upsetting artists and buyers alike, he makes cements his alibi before making a hasty exit - but wouldn’t you, when a hideous cocktail-music version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition ( Promenade/The New Statesman theme) plays on a loop for about 10 minutes.  When he learns that he was cut out his uncles’ will, he sets about pinning the murder on his dotty aunt, but this might be where he slips up.  Enter Columbo…

This episode features a rather questionable lynchpin to the murder which was re-used when Columbo was brought back on ABC years later, that of trying to fool the police about the exact time of death by putting an electric blanket over the body to keep it warm.  My Missus is always the first to point out that this wouldn’t work, as it could do nothing to stop the blood pooling in the lowest part of the body, leading to tell-tale signs even Helen Keller could pick up on.  Interestingly, when testing if the footsteps heard leaving the house after the murder were that of a woman, it marks the use of one of the VERY few female police officers in Columbo.

What is there to say about Ross Martin as Dale Kingston.  What a smug, conceited, arrogant, narcissistic prick with a shit-eating grin as wide as his tie.  There is no other way to describe him, and is a tribute to Martin’s talents that was able to become one of the very best Columbo baddies so early on in the run.  Everything the character does is driven by ego, and his utter distain for anyone around him, but it’s a pleasure to see the little cracks start to appear - the piece where the station goes to commercials too late on his live TV show and leaves him grimacing for a “clear” is priceless - see below!  Donald Pleasance might have broke new ground in verisimilitude when playing Adrian Carsini 2 years later, but for a villain you want to see gets his just-desserts, Kingston live up to the first half of his surname.

Rosanna Huffman also makes an impression as Kingston’s partner in crime, but getting involved with a dildo means you’re going to get fucked.  The wide-eyed art student has her road to fame and success cut short when ol’ Dale furthers his plan and kills his accomplice, and a it’s a shame she’s written out so early.  How did this backbone of TV get her role in this and a further episode of the show?  Well, she was married to Columbo co-creator Richard Levinson, but she certainly had the talent to be cast.  In front of the camera, too…

Egg on his face...

What else is great here?  Well, Kim ( Planet of the Apes) Hunter was enjoying her career much more after spending a long time being blacklisted, and she really shines as the absent-minded aunt to whom the art collection is bequeathed.  Future Duke-brother Don Ameche is great here, in spite of his career having slowed up (but he toughed it out until John Landis and Ron Howard turned it around for him), as is crabby artist Vic Tayback, with Columbo not knowing where to look when he walks in on one of his nude painting sessions.  Falk clearly enjoyed working with Sister Act-star to-be Mary Wicks, and there is even David Lynch star Jack Nance as a gardener!  In a fun way, the exhibition depicted has that same air of Dracula A.D.1972, where the spirit of the swinging 60s is invoked, despite it being a good few years after the fact.

Add to this another instance of Columbo inappropriately helping himself to food, THREE instances of a car being left in gear, causing it to lurch, and one of the absolute best “gotcha’” moments in the history of the show - the writing of it is flawless, the execution is great and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bastard.

This is excellent Columbo!

Warning: hideous fashion ahead!

The Chadwicks are a very wealthy family.  Mousy Beth (Susan Clark) has always been repressed by not only her mother, but also older brother Bryce, a powerhouse in the family advertising business.  Beth has found love with Peter Hamilton (Leslie Nielson) but Bryce warns him off, threatening him with being fired from the company.  Tired of being pushed around, Beth stages a burglary, “accidentally” shoots her brother (believing him an intruder) and assumes control of the business.  Things don’t quite go to plan, and Beth has to improvise, but when a court rules the death was indeed accidental, something doesn’t sit right with a certain detective in a raincoat.

This is a very wealthy family, as they serve coffee, water AND orange juice at breakfast.  As a matter of fact, it took a good look to see if Clark was spreading jam or caviar on her toast!  We’ve worked out that Columbo was pretty true to like back then, as it shows that the wealthier you are, the more cops attend the crime scene.  The Chadwicks are really loaded, and have the largest gathering of police officers seen during the run of the show, but if it was a poor black family, a single beat-cop might have dropped in if he was walking by.  Hell, this must be a big case, as they’ve brought in Quincy’s homicide chief Garry Walberg to take a look!

The centrepiece of the episode is the transformation of Beth Chadwick, from repressed frump to glamorous, overconfident winner.  As she senses the power open to her, it changes her whole personality, reflected through an evolving look and desire to dress in ways denied in the past.  By the time she assumes power of the company, she’s a completely different woman, even going so far as to announce her engagement in the boardroom without even consulting her lover!  Her fashions as often tasteless, as though trying to wear the entire 6os in a couple of outfits, but by final scene, she is genuinely elegant, and poised with a gun.  She’s a caterpillar that changes into an African Giant Swallowtail - the most deadly of butterflies, and Clark gives a superb performance.

Falk pulled the same disappearing trick when he thought that he was going to be short-changed on getting to direct and episode, but the lasting consequences from it were not as severe.  Execs were thinking of using the episodes Falk had finished, using them as bookends for the season and having it as a showcase for other actors to play Columbo in between.  This might sound ridiculous, but something similar had happened before with the temperamental Anthony Franciosa, but with Falk’s show, things were resolved, and Columbo happily kept detecting.

Another nod should go in the direction of Leslie Nielson as boyfriend Hamilton, as he‘s giving a very genuine performance, a mile away from that of Airplane or Frank Drebin, and less starched than his turn in the celebrated Forbidden Planet.  Clad in a series of safari-suits, it’s one of the few Columbo characters closely connected to the suspect whom ends up giving the detective just what he needs for an arrest.  He‘s the embodiment of charming, and very different to when he turned up again as the victim in Identity Crisis, disproving the rather nasty comment from a Paramount exec when Zucker/Abraham/Zucker wanted him for Airplane: “Neilson’s the guy you get the night before…”

"You look like Strawberry Shortcake, Schnookylumps..."

There is a visual flair to it for which Norman Lloyd should take full credit.  He was taken under the wing of Hitchcock when he played the baddie in Saboteur, and worked with him many times after.  The scene where Clark imagines how the robbery/murder is going to play out really wouldn’t look out of place in one of his mentor’s films, all watery distortion and dreamy imagery, and his sharp contrast with the reality of the crime is excellent, and really off-foots the audience.  Linked with that is the episode’s jarring use of music, where to jolt viewers is certainly the intention, but combined with the pacey editing, it really does shake you out of possible apathy and keeps you on glued.  Oh, and who doesn’t love the shocking use of crash-zooms???

It’s probably no coincidence that playing the matriarchal Chadwick is two-time Hitchcock screen-mother, Jessie Royce Landis, whom specialised in snappy rapports, exemplified by her relationship with Cary Grant in North By Northwest.  In one of her final roles, she provides great support, and makes you believe that she suppressed her daughter (and allowed her husband to do the same) all these years, and it’s great to see her power slipping away as the story goes on.  They say that the rich look down their noses at pretty much everything, but this might not be the case with Chadwick Sr.  If she had, she might have noticed that her beloved pet dog was a Yorkshire terrier rather than the pure-bred Silky she claims it is…

Let’s talk fashion for a moment.  This episode that money can buy everything, including a shit taste in clothes.  God, some of the crap Clark wears is eye-assaultingly horrible, as though there the results of planting Semtex in Carnaby Street.  She wears hats which look as though they were nicked from Strawberry Shortcake and trousers of the kind where you expect her to either do the Sailor’s Hornpipe or join Brotherhood of Man.  The board on her advertising agency probably sent out press releases to fashion-company clients on their books reading: “This woman’s style does NOT reflect that of the Chadwick Agency!!!!”  The Missus commented on one of the particularly awful choices by Ms Chadwick that “…I’m sure they tried to market a Barbie with an outfit like that”.

How much you like this episode will probably depend on your opinion of Beth Chadwick.  There are many whom dismiss it due to her coming across as a heartless, calculating (and eventually) egotistical bitch.  Others look past it to see a very unusual Columbo where a victim evolves with each underhanded deed she commits, with the evolution of her ego ultimately catching her out, and these devotees rate it very highly.  It’s all down to personal taste, and the matter of the keys (not covered here, as it’s best to let it play out…) is a little jumbled, and the ultimate sealing of her fate almost too obvious to be Giallo-like, even though it is clearly inspired by the genre.

What’s great about this one?  OK, not the fashions, but it might well be the only time we not only see Columbo inside a courtroom, but actually around for the verdict, the decision prompting my Missus to comment that they should have gotten that judge for the Oscar Pistorius trial.  It also marks one of only two times where his quarry has gone to kill Columbo at moment of arrest - not count the aborted though in William Shatner’s second appearance.  Another element to love is that although the Chadwick offices are on the top floor of a very high building, you can see members of the public walking past the windows!!

Er, just one more thing: given that ill-fated Bryce Chadwick was played by Six Million Dollar Man mainstay Richard Anderson, when the police examine the body laying on the floor, were we the only ones hoping that somebody would say: “We have the technology….we can rebuild him…”??

Short fuse, big dick!

Life is good for Roger Stanford (Roddy McDowell).  He’s a genius, with PhDs under his belt before most people are still working their first job, and sits at the top of  his late father’s chemical company.  His life is devoted to enjoying himself and playing pranks on his employees, along with making the odd bad decision which puts the a speed-bump in the corporation’s profile - it’s a blissful existence.  Trouble is, that his uncle (James Gregory) and the board want force him to resign and surrender the company, threatening to expose his more dubious activities if he doesn’t, to the shame of his beloved mother (Ida Lupino).  What is a genius to do?  How about rig a cigar box with an explosive device, blow the bastard to kingdom-come and remove all traces of the takeover whilst blaming it on protesters?

This is widely regarded as a real stinker of an episode, and we have to agree.  There is an awful lot of nothing going on, populated by obnoxious characters or peopled by numerous actors not bothering to put the effort in.  The average person will only remember the first 20 minutes or the final 5, with little in the middle to adhere to the mind.  We have an explosive box of cigars, a recording of from a car-phone just before detonation, McDowell’s cock easily visible through tight trousers, a crucial cable-car trip and the dynamite conclusion.  This is about all most remember from it, so  not a good sign.  Still, let’s take a look at the evidence…

Whilst watching, my Missus said the words which pretty much encapsulate the one of the main problems with the story: “It’s hard to pick a side on this one, isn’t it?”  Exactly - the way McDowell is being blackmailed out of his family’s company (for a few financial misadventures) is pretty damn despicable, but this is balanced out by just what an obnoxious arsehole the guy is.  He’s a guy who finds it hilarious to spray that “new” chemical invention known as Silly-String into the hair of his secretaries, including one with an afro - try getting away with that these days, and they’ll have you on every possible “ism” they can get.  Roger’s uncle is a dick, with loathsome ways, but it’s important to remember that Roger was rigging the explosive with which to kill him BEFORE he knew of the decision to oust him from the company.

Narcissism seems to the be the central core to this episode, as McDowell is clearly in love with himself, and expects all those within the company to also adore him, in spite of his obnoxious personality.  You have to wonder if this trait wasn’t just fostered as a result of a smothering mother trying to compensate for the loss of this father, but the narcissism doesn’t stop there: an expensive studio portrait photo of Gregory sits on the coffee table of the family home (OK, that might not be too bad), but when you notice that the very same picture sits on his OWN desk so he can gaze admiringly at himself to get through the working day meant McDowell didn’t stand a chance!

A common thread through Columbo is an almost Luddite approach to technology, where criminals utilise new inventions to aid their deeds, only to be brought down when our man in the mac is suddenly able to figure out the machines they use.  It just seems to convenient that Columbo really sits outside the world of technology, yet is able to master the principles of whatever new piece confronts him.  Here, just like 2nd pilot Ransom for a Dead Man, it’s the world of telephonics, with the newfangled car-phone providing the vital clue which puts McDowell on the suspect list.  Bill Shatner had better watch out when showing Columbo his lovely new video-recorder…

That's a Rod that'll unblock any manhole!

What is there to say about Roddy McDowell?  He was one of the greatest actors of his generation, loaded with charm and bringing a quality to characters which live well beyond the page.  But it really isn’t the case here - Roger Stanford is an utter twat, a man-child spoiled rotten over the years and of the belief that the world is there for his amusement.  You really can’t blame McDowell, as he’s only playing the material he was given, where there isn’t a trace of genuine charm to be found.  It could be argued that Roger is a functioning sociopath, his genius being the cause of his lack of empathy for fellow human-beings, but even some of the most dangerous serial-killers had a degree of charm to them.  But with only the rigging of a fairly simple explosive device to as provenance, it’s only the repeated mentioning of his qualifications which remind everyone that this bell-end is smarter than the average bear.

Much has been said about the ridiculously tight pants worn by McDowell, and while they are indicative of the fashion back then, you can clearly make out his Rod.  As a matter of fact, you are left in no doubt that the rumours about him were true: the Planet of the Apes star was the only chimpanzee in history with a tail!  These legendarily tight strides are combined with a shirt complete with ruffled sleeves which looks as though he pilfered from Kim Hunter’s Escape From the Planets of the Apes wardrobe when he left to film Short Fuse.  However, to prove just how much of a professional McDowell was even when wearing horrible clothes, there is a tracking shot within the house where - whilst talking to Falk - he trips on a rug.  Other acts would have been utterly thrown by it, but our man Roddy just keeps going without breaking either character nor focus.

The usually charming James Gregory is lacking his chief quality here, playing a stereotypical boardroom type, the kind of arrogant dildo whom gives away Cuban cigars as a tip to this loyal car-valet/mechanic.  Ironically, Gregory played General Ursus in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the only one of the movie series McDowell wasn’t in.  Ida Lupino really isn’t given enough to do any decent work with, and is merely treading water, which also goes for the legendary Anne Francis, but at least all three got to redeem themselves (Lupino, literally…) in further instalments which were much more suited to their talents.  You have to pity Murder She Wrote mainstay William (Seth) Windom, as he was in the pretty excellent pilot Prescription Murder, returning to the fold for much lesser work.

But what about Columbo himself this time around?  Well, putting him is a story centering around cigars is like putting Dracula in charge of a miscarriage-clinic.  McDowell offers him a causal bribe with a Cuban cigar, which - obviously - he takes, but the real doozey is when the detective attempts to make off with some cigars which are evidence!  He just can’t help himself!!  He also takes a look around McDowell’s darkroom (anything could happen in there!) without the benefit of a warrant or even permission to go in, which would have been used to hurt the case by any decent lawyer.  He does get his comeuppance for the act, as he finds a can of Silly-String and inadvertently fires it into his face.  We still can’t work out if the reaction from both McDowell and Falk is genuine or the result of being extremely good actors.

Let’s leave this one on a positive note, and say that the cable-car finale is one of the best climaxes seen on the show- it’s tense, Columbo gets to feign complete ignorance to perfection and the suspect is absolutely shitting himself as the lieutenant bumbles his way into opening a supposedly explosive cigar box during a perilous cable-car ride!  It’s masterfully done, and you just want that little bastard to get what’s coming to him!!  In the end, ol’ Roger almost descends into madness as he realises that he’s been played, and roars with laughter for an unnerving length of time when accepting that it’s all over, proving that he who laughs last certainly laughs longest.

This is grating Columbo.

Falk directs.  Universal hates him.

Bo Williamson is a shit-kicker.  Not just any shit-kicker, but an incredibly wealthy one, with a young, attractive bride and a very much ex-wife.  It’s an amicable arrangement, but when ambitious architect Elliot Markham uses his brides’ naïve nature to agree to a phenomenally expensive vanity project, Bo is furious.  How angry can a redneck get?  How far will a narcissistic manipulator go to save face?  There’s going to be a showdown, and it’ll be last man standing!

Given that this centres around the possibility that a body has been dumped in the foundation of a building, it takes a lot to avoid summing up the episode as: “Columbo has trouble with piles”, but we won’t.  It’s a simple, yet involving, tale of city-building ambition meets redneck stubbornness,  where all the money in the world can’t buy sophistication, yet can further the dreams of others.  It’s Columbo, so someone it obviously going to get murdered, and it’s Bo.  Yep, Markham shoots him in his own expensive car and makes out he’s off on his travels, but both wives (former and current) are convince of foul-play.  It’s time for the man with the cheapest cigars since the Alligator King…

After the major falling-out with Universal during the filming of Dead Weight, Falk finally got his change to direct with the closing episode of the first series, and cynics might argue that they were holding off until as late as possible to stop the star from buggering up his own show.  The fact was that this was the most logistically difficult episode to shoot, with much action taking place not only outside, but atop construction sites.  Clearly hoping that Falk would crumble under the pressure, they were wrong- the results show Falk to be utterly bloody-minded in getting the project not only finished, but with some directorial touches his peers would be proud of.

Even though there are numerous elements which Markham missed, they aren’t too much that the average copper would have been able to piece together, and only Columbo could have noticed that the radio in the car of a true-blue shit-kicker was tuned to a classical station, or that the killer didn’t know about Bo’s upcoming appointment for his pacemaker.  However, one scene is particularly troubling, and it’s one which is central to the story.  A couple of crucial events take place in Bo’s office, including when he smashed up the model of the proposed town like he was the Chewits monster, but that he keeps everything around him (including a very chatty secretary) is far too convenient.  Columbo walks in - without a warrant or even the full permission of said secretary - and finds an extensive collection of redneck music, along with the destroyed model, and Bo’s loyal Girl-Friday helpfully tells him of his former employer’s explosive temper.  Everything to crack the case is given to Columbo on a plate in a single scene, and all done with dubious legality.

"Anyone for penis?"

Whilst we are on the weaker elements, if there is something which kills the pace, it’s when Columbo has to get permits to dig up the foundations.  Sure, it was clearly a satire on the machinations of bureaucracy, having to queue up for ages only to be told that he needs to fill out another form and join yet another line, but it all plays out like the classic Gypsy-Rose Lee ‘Hesitation Waltz” to make up the running time.  Also, there are some horrible clothes to be found in this one, but it’s par-for-the-course in early Columbo, and there are some beauties here!  Taking almost every award is Goldie, who not only has too much bling, but a dreadful taste in fashion in general.  Just you wait until you see the hilarious Dick Whittington panto outfit used as daywear. - you’ll almost expect her to slap her thigh!  Falk’s outfit renders Columbo timeless, but this all goes to pot whenever ladies fashions are on display.

There is a bout of thieving going on, so much so that Columbo might consider being transferred to the LAPD robbery division, as again, there seems to be a couple of instances where someone saw The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, as it “borrows” the reveal of a murderer behind its protagonist, and the scene where a large crowd is revealed to the chagrin of the leading character.  Also, it seems as though (again…) that the pilots were not intended for regular play on TV, as another element from them is used in this episode.  Here, it is the desperate planting of evidence to try to convict the obviously guilty party, both failing miserably.

What is there to say about the detective in this one?  Well, how about that Columbo must be fitted with an early form of GPS, as calls from his office seem to find him no matter where he goes?  Also, we get yet another instance where causes agro when he doesn’t identify himself as a police officer, this time when entering an exclusive event.  He even manages to get a free medical check-up, something which would cost a fortune ordinarily!  On a technical level, Falk screwed up when he sits Columbo in Bo’s car, as he is clearly against a blue backdrop standing in for the sky, almost as though they were going to composite the background later on but forgot.

 An element which really lights it up is the relationship between the two women in Bo’s life.  They could have made ex-wife Goldie a nasty bitch about the young, innocent Jennifer, but no - she admits that she likes the girl, and the two have a great rapport when they share the screen.  She’s also great when in scenes with Falk, as is Janis Paige, who really scores as Goldie.  Pamela Austin is just as good as Jennifer, proving that the tricky balance of naïve and bright can be achieved when played just right.  The girls are like lager and cider - fine individually, with each possessing their own form of potency, but a dynamite combination when brought together.

Patrick O’Neal is really good as Markham, being an icy-cold bastard with almost no conscience at all about murdering Bo, and giving absolutely nothing away when Columbo is on his tail.  Both Falk and O’Neal really play off of each other well, with Columbo really having to work at his quarry (both kinds!) to get anything out of him.  The piece where our man in the coat baits the architect by telling Markham that he needs to get “something concrete” on him is brilliant.  By contrast, Forrest Tucker is rather OTT as the victim, not going out of his way to make the audience care about him enough to want Columbo crack the case, but he was doing as ordered.  It’s that the girls are so great and O’Neal such a shitbag that that we want it solved.

What else did we learn from this one?  Well, that the size of pacemakers really have changed over nearly 50 years, as you almost have to carry Bo’s one around in a suitcase!  Not to mention that rednecks with ranches stick phallus-like hood-ornaments in the shape of stallions on the front of their cars.  Oh, and we’ll never get to see the much anticipated future episode entitled:   “Columbo and the case of the self-cleaning/re-writing blackboard”.

This was a good way to end the first series, with a really good comeuppance at the end.  Falk did a good job in the director‘s chair, even if the energy dissipates somewhat around the halfway point.  This is pretty good Columbo.

Curiously put after all of the others, we have the two pilots.  Here we go…

Keep an eye out for a warm invitation!

The 10th anniversary party of Psychiatrist Ray Flemming (Gene Barry) and wife Carol (Nina Foch) is going swimmingly, with the great and good celebrating their seemingly prefect marriage.  A game of Botticelli is interrupted when the good doctor’s bit-on-the-side calls him with a case of the hots.  His furious wife starts threatening divorce proceedings, and with a lot to lose, he hatches a plan to get her out of his life for good!

Murdering his shrewish wife and staging a break-in at their penthouse apartment, he calls on his mistress to pretend to be her on a trip to Acapulco, but having a staged bust-up before she marches off the plane before departure.  Dumping his “stolen” property in the waters off of Mexico, he flies back to home to a nasty “surprise” , but he doesn’t realise that on the investing team is one particular detectives with an eye for the most minor or details and discrepancies.

We really don’t want to say too much about the plot on the off-chance it has eluded you during the past 50 years, so we won’t.  Let’s just take a look at what hits, the few things which miss and what anchors it firmly to the time it was made.

It’s common knowledge that this was a direct adaptation of a successful stage-play, and was commissioned as a one-off to fill a slot on television, but this doesn’t stop them from throwing a load of really nice flourishes, almost kicking away at the conventions of its origins.  Right from the outset, the opening credits are a thing of psychedelic beauty, in the form ever-changing Rorschach-test credits, tying in with the main character’s profession.  I saw a couple of open-leg vagina shots in there, even though the Missus assures me that there was no such thing.

There’s a really nice dissolve from Flemming trying on the murder-gloves into his adjusting a pair of cufflinks when dressing, and although it’s right from the stage, just as he’s about to commit the dirty deed, we are treated to a perfectly timed abort on the murder, his wife turning around just as he’s creeping up behind her, with expert use of music to heighten the act!  There are a number of elements from the stage used here, but they work perfectly, including that of winding up the audience with little things, along with making them think the killer has left a honking-great clue, only to have their pride given a good kicking a few seconds later, with the best example being the “handkerchief on the phone” moment, one to brilliantly played!!

"So, Lieutenant - let me combine a possible bribe with you drinking on duty..."

We know what you might be thinking: how does the good lieutenant play out in this one?  The answer to this one has to be: a bit of a mess.   In fact, he really is a bit of a bastard in this one, hugely overstepping his authority by snooping around Barry’s house hours before he was supposed to be there, blithely stating that “…you gave me permission” when challenged.  Columbo wages a campaign of harasses against his accomplice - a patient of Barrys’ whom is suffering from mental illness - marking an early low for the character and something which could get the case thrown out of court.  Columbo even stages an elaborate “confession” with a drifter (top-draw character actor Anthony James) in the hopes of tripping up Flemming, where far from pondering the legality of such methods, the good doctor merely calls him a “…sly little elf”.

“He’s got a lot of attitude in this one,” noted the Missus, and before eventually putting her finger on what was different with his performance, being that: “…speaking slower than usual makes him creepy”.  This is proto-Columbo, one not above having a drink whilst on duty, feigning that has been taken of a case whilst still investigating the suspect and screaming at a female suspect to make her crack.  He really is a shitbag.  But the coat, we hear your cry: what about the iconic coat?  Well, brace yourselves - Columbo looks rather smart in this one, and only has his famed coat on in a couple of scenes, draping it over his arm a lot of the time, but ditching it altogether later on.  This also marks the only occasion where Columbo comes with a briefcase and is properly organised.

Those watching with little or no knowledge of Columbo won’t be troubled by the different interpretation of the character, but regular fans shouldn’t be put off, as this is terrific stuff.  Don’t deny yourself a ripping tête-à-tête between Columbo and Flemming, one which could only have come from a stage-play, where he deconstructs the lieutenant whilst with an undercurrent of gloating.  We also have a great villain, where although Flemming is much more thorough in his methods to avoid detection than most who came after him, in the end, it’s his elitism and dismissal of those he considers beneath him which finally catches him out, along with cold outlook on the human race.

There are a few minuses, though.  The main set comes straight from the stage in its design, with the view from the penthouse patio clearly a back-drop, to the point where Barry casts a shadow over the skyline in Godzilla-like fashion when staging the break-in.  A point which really does stick out is that nobody questions why the “burglars” broke in through the patio of a penthouse apartment, rather than sneaking in through the front?   OK, the regular cops might have missed out on that one, but surely Columbo would have picked up on it being chosen as the most splashy form of misdirection.  As the Missus said: “Did Spider-Man rob them?”  We could mention that Barry looks as though he’s going to throw up when kissing his wife, but it might have been in-character.  There’s also a  hideous, mega-thick green shag-pile carpet in the bathroom, and the sight of  black maid in a typical maid’s uniform is likely to really enflame modern sensibilities.

This is cracking TV, but Columbo is poorly-served.  We’ll leave you with this last little thing:

When his gorgeous accomplice turns up dead at the story‘s climax, Columbo tries to get Flemming to do the decent thing and confess to his crimes, so as to lighten the burden on his soul.  With all the faux sincerity of a detective trying to score an easy win, he asks: “…what have you got to look forward to?“  What have you got to look forward to???  It was the late 60s, and he was a rich, single man, so sex, drugs, money and alcohol were pretty good reasons for not confessing his crimes and being executed for murder!  It’s like asking “what have the Romans ever done for us…?”

It's a plain title-card, but a superb episode!!

Not quite convinced that Columbo would play as a regular TV series, this second pilot was commissioned to prove that it could work in a standard format, with Falk returning and giving us the show which would prove to be a legend.   Here, the lieutenant is faced with one of the most loathsome criminals society has to face on a daily basis, one only a police officer of his calibre could even stand a chance of catching: a lawyer!

When high-flying lawyer Leslie Williams (Lee Grant) shoots her husband dead, she hatches an elaborate scheme to feign a kidnapping to both cover her tracks and to financially ruin her step-daughter.  She sets a machine to play an phoney ransom message and all is going swimmingly, until said step-daughter turns up with a suspicious mind and an intriguing statement that all was not well in the marriage.  Still here?  OK, this might not sound like much, but it’s dynamite!  Enter the detective  with undiagnosed OCD….

There is a lot to like here, and they have the format almost down pat, but it comes possessed of both wider scope and faster pace than all other episodes, and this thing really moves!  Take a look at the sequence where Columbo is taken on a plane-ride by Grant as a way of intimidating - it’s cinematic, elaborate and pretty damn funny as the detective holds onto his instincts and his lunch!  It’s also bubbling with elaborate directorial touches and a keen sense of style, with one of best among many comes when a pair of eyes is matched with a set of headlines, dissolving between then to great effect.  As a matter of fact, Ransom for a Dead Man has the quality of a motion picture rather than TV, and appears to be framed for theatrical release, with more head & foot room than usual, making it *ahem* suitable for framing, but leading to a few instances of visible marks on the floor, including the classic T-shaped piece of tape!  As was the case in 70s Britain, US TV movies had theatrical releases over here, and this particular piece of television was released at the cinema a whole year before the show played on TV.  

Grant is excellent, bringing real presence and a dangerous/ruthless edge to what could have had all the subtlety of a Bollywood villain.  She’s both charming, sensual and alarmingly good at playing situations to her advantage, which plays perfectly into her being the best damn female lawyer in the business.   She even takes a bold swipe at her competition as she sneers at Columbo’s vision of the “Perry Mason school of justice”.  After a very long career, Grant was relegated to various TV series, with even the plaudits garnered by In the Heat of the Night cooling of by turning up in Valley of the Dolls, she was back on the small screen.  Her turn here is so damn good that not only did it see her nominated for an Emmy, but it’s possible that it was the catalyst for her extremely profitable series of movies in the 70s, where she played a slew of intelligent, bitchy characters in the mould of Leslie Williams, including her Oscar-winning turn in Shampoo.  Yes, she is that good in this pilot!

It’s now that we get to the real problem of the episode, and that comes in the form of Patricia Mattick as step-daughter Margaret.  Mattick was just starting out in a career which started and ended with the 70s, starting with Clint Eastwood’s The Beguiled before taking in numerous TV guest-appearances, playing either bookish teenagers or angry firebrands.  Everything about the character grates, and it seems that Mattick was clearly cast when someone at Universal saw the as-yet unreleased Beguiled, and thought she’d be perfect.   Unfortunately, she seems to overplay it, with dagger-stares, flaring nostrils and a line in seething which annoys anyone watching, making it hard to care about her inner plight.  At one point, she even tried to slap Columbo when a clumsy attempt at framing her step-mother goes wrong, further alienating the character from sympathetic viewers!  It’s rather tragic that her career disappeared when she became too old to play angry “kids”, leaving Patricia (Pattye) Mattick to eventually die an anonymous death from cancer at just 52, an age far too young to die.  

What of Columbo this time around?  Played in much more familiar fashion than last time out, Falk is almost right straight out of the box, although he does smoke bigger and more expensive cigars, along with his voice being initially different and of a lower tone than we’re used to, but it soon evens out to the ashtray-like quality everyone loves.  He gets to brilliantly pull rank/department on a smug agent investigating the kidnapping, where his threats are countered by Colombo pointing out that the turned-murder case is now his arena!  About the only minus comes when our man in the mac is talking to  Leslie‘s male secretary, where he bluntly comes out with:   “I don’t know how you do it…work for a woman”.  Countering that is one of Falk’s best scenes, when he turns up at Mr William’s funeral, and finds an upset and angry Mattick.  Re-introducing himself, he shows some genuine pathos when talking to her,  and although he doesn‘t say it directly, you are left in no doubt that the true meaning of his words are: “You know she did it.   I know she did it.  We both want to take her down”.

What an annoying little c*nt.

Grant’s motivations for killing her husband may seem vague, but when you collate everything about her character, it all slots into place.  She’s cold, calculated and driven by both ego and her career.  She couldn’t have gotten where she has without both financial assistance and crucial contacts provided by her husband, and once established, her ego would not allow her to be in his shadow, to happily be an addendum to his career.  She literally cut all ties to him, and to financially ruin her troublesome step-daughter was just another way of drawing a line under her soon-to-be former life, and sealing her reputation as an independent, top-flight female lawyer.  In the end, Columbo catches her out through playing to her sociopathic tendencies, along with her complete lack of empathy and utter inability to understand the concept that the rest of the world isn’t as warped as her.  Oh, and also through the “Shatner Gambit,“ by providing proving a fatal clue through showing off a new piece of technology to the dogged detective.  When will they learn…?

You see, I have this problem about Ransom for a Dead Man.  It’s just a little thing, but it keeps me awake.  I can’t sleep because of this little thing.  We find - at the end - that Patty took up Columbo’s unspoken offer at the funeral to help, and she gives him the all he needs to build the case for arrest, but the problem is: at what point were they collaborating?  Was it only with agreeing to be bought off?  Was the whole thing about the key being cut on Columbo’s orders?  Was Patty slapping the detective all part of their plan??  It’s refreshing that the plot can be as plain or as elaborate as you want, but something solid would have been appreciated.  Speaking of plot, it was a stroke of genius to have Double Indemnity playing on TV during the episode!

In Prescription Murder, the murderous psychiatrist provided some free analysis for Columbo, effectively laying out some of how he operates, and whilst it was illuminating,  Levison & Link probably regretted going further by giving Lee Grant a monologue at the end where she precisely deconstructs Columbo’s entire modus operandi, to the point where it reveals the entire mechanics of the show.  It’s powerful, brilliant stuff, but one which lays things out far too thoroughly, as though spelling out to network execs how the character will take down the criminal in the proposed series.

This is superb Columbo!

The UK theatrical poster - cool!!

Video


Framed at their the original 4:3 presentations in 1080P, the resolution is so good you can clearly read the “Exit Only” sign above the door of the parking garage Cassidy drives INTO during Murder by the Book!   Ransom for a Dead Man is pretty nice, having the characteristics of a really nice theatrical print rather than that of television.  The high resolution also picks out microphone-boom shadows with ruthless efficiency.  When Columbo goes to cook whilst comforting a victim, it was the first time (and this is with many viewings…) that we noticed just how much smoke was rising in the background when the pots are left unattended during a long-shot.   It’s also the first time we spotted that Columbo’s famous raincoat has - in fact - white stitching.  Best of all is that you can REALLY see that the ID card Markham hands over to the police near the end of Blueprint For Murder is actually Columbo’s LAPD identification!  The only downside is that some episodes suffer a little from unstable blacks, flickering into blue at some points during much darker scenes, almost making you wonder if police-cars were pulling up with their light going.   This is piddley stuff, though, as the generally look pretty damn terrific - suck on that, Japanese 1080i releases!

It goes without saying that all of these screen-captures are rom the old DVD editions, and look like shit in comparison.

Audio


What else is there to say?  We get an accurate presentation of how the episodes sounded when the audio mixing was finished.  The DTS-HD:MA 2.0 track is certainly up to the job, with clear dialogue and excellent rendering of the (at times) wonderfully off-the-wall music score.  Listen to those plaintive fluttering flutes and sitars, all set against a pounding Westworld-like percussion.  The fun one, not the pretentious version.

Extras


None, surprisingly, but you won't miss what you never had...

Overall


Well, here it is, the legendary Columbo finally hits Blu-ray in the UK, courtesy of Fabulous Films.  This is how the show was always supposed to be seen, and the quality far bests even the HD fudge-jobs shown in the ITV channels.  They look absolutely gorgeous, and befitting of a show which just keeps finding new fans looking for quality entertainment.  If we had one gripe it would be the lack of subtitles.  Not everyone has Superman-style senses, and we’re sure that it wouldn’t take much to arrange them for future releases.

Just one more thing - you see, my wife, she’s a Columbo nut, she was right there with me as I watched them all for this review.  She keeps hounding me to ask Fabulous Films when the next batch is going to be released, and I tell her this: sticking your hand in your pocket and picking them up is the very best way to ensure they just keep coming!

Don’t let the sorry fate which befell the Australian releases, where they were a JB-HiFi exclusive and only reached the second season, as not enough people bought them due to their exclusivity.  If you buy them, they will come!


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