57 minus 11: Ten Columbo episodes I like…

Posted: 6 August 2021 in 57 minus, television, ten things
Tags: , , ,

Preface: I only realised while planning this entry that this is both the easiest and hardest of the “Ten Things” posts I’ve ever done.

I mean it; there are so many good, so many bloody good, episodes to choose from, that throwing ten darts at a list of the almost 70 Columbo episodes produced? You’re gonna hit 8 or 9 good ones and 3 or four that would make most people’s lists.

That’s the easy part. Harder is picking just ten I like. Do I go for the cleverest murder, do I go for the baddie? Do I go for the relationship between Columbo and the baddie? Do I go for how Columbo worked it out? Do I go for the reveal?

I could easily pick half a dozen of each. Instead, I’m going to limit it to two of each. So, two clever murders, two wonderful baddies, two lovely relationship pieces, two ‘lightbulb moments’ and two reveals.

That means, of course, I’m gonna miss out some glorious episodes. Maybe I’ll do another run if this blog run continues after 17th August. (I’ve no plans to right now, by the way, none at all. But I said that in 2019 as well, and I ended up running the blog through to Christmas and beyond.)

WARNING: Many, many, MANY spoilers below. If you don’t want to see them, best look away now.

OK, preface over, blog begins.


 

I’d actually forgotten I’d said I’d do this one.

I only remembered when I reread an earlier entry in the run and came across the passage

So, again, predicting is a mug’s game, a fool’s endeavour, an idiot’s quest.

Except in one circumstance. There’s one situation where a prediction is overtly expected, actively anticipated… in fact, it’s positively encouraged.

Whodunnits.

Murder mysteries. Private eye tales, detective stories.

You watch, or read, a murder mystery. And, in the absence of a Columbo-type story format¹, the author, the tv director, wants you to play along, to try to guess who committed the murder, who kidnapped the victim.

(¹Note to self: do a ‘Ten Columbo episodes Budgie likes’ at some point during this run.)

So, yeah, time to do a Ten Columbo episodes Budgie likes post.

A reminder as always… they’re not the objectively considered best, nor necessarily personal favourites. They’re just Ten Things/Subjects I like… at the time of writing. (And why.)

*** TWO CLEVER MURDERS

Publish Or Perish (1974)
Jack Cassidy in his second appearance as a baddie, this time as publisher Riley Greenleaf who really really wants to stop Mickey Spillane heading off to another publisher. So he kills him. I mean… you would, wouldn’t you? I’m not sure you’d hire a hitman though, then go to the trouble to first ensure you’re incriminated, so that you can then prove you’re not involved… It’s clever as hell, and it’s utterly believable with Cassidy playing the role. All of his appearances involved clever murders, in all of them was he a fine match for Columbo, and in all of them he was, for the main parts, entirely unsympathetic, It takes skill and talent to be able to play such odious characters who are ostensibly perfectly reasonable, And Cassidy does it every time, in spades.

Whereas with some repeat guest stars, Columbo finds one portrayed character likeable, one detestable, say, with Cassidy, they very sensible made the characters entirely unlikeable… in part, I suspect, to make it harder for Columbo to remain entirely objective. A smart, smart move.


 
 

Short Fuse (1972)
Another smart character here – though to be fair, if they were stupid, they wouldn’t be interesting. Roddy McDowell is immature, irritating, capricious… and self-aware enough to know that people underestimate him because of it. And that works for him until it starts to cost him. People forget he’s smart. So when his uncle is killed via the means of an exploding cigar box, he’s not really the first person who springs to mind.

His immaturity somehow ceases to be an act at the denouement though. (Was it ever an act? You’re never quite sure). Columbo bluffs him with another cigar box, and McDowell’s character folds, quite dramatically…


 

(Oh, if you think there’s one very smart, say someone with a huge IQ, missing… trust me, he’ll be along later.)
 
 
** TWO WONDERFUL BADDIES

Note that I’m saving the ‘wonderful baddies because they’re fun to watch with Columbo’ for a moment’s time. These two are just out and out wonderfully evil.

Dr Ray Flemming – Prescription: Murder (1968)
The original, the one that started it all. Falk is still figuring out exactly how Columbo acts; he’s a little less bedraggled, a little more professional, a little less faux-absent minded, a little more obvious. And Gene Barry, as Dr Ray Flemming, is – surprisingly, if you’ve seen or read the original play – an out and out sociopathic prick. (I’d use cruder language but every so often I remember that I try and keep this place at least within shouting distance of all-ages)

So, yes, the original baddie, Barry’s smart, smooth, and highly intelligent, baddie is someone you can immediately decide “ooh, yeah, we like him, he’s horrible”. He kills his wife, and manipulates (I think that’s probably the right word) a vulnerable patient to help, assist and frankly, to kill herself to save him.

That it doesn’t quite work out like that comes as a surprise to Dr Flemming, and – to be honest – to the viewer. The show was off to one hell of a start. If you want to see where it all started, this is the episode to watch.


 
 
Wade Anders – Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health (1991)
I started this sentence with “George McGovern was…” before I realised what I’d typed. Now I’m not saying that this would have been a bad idea, but yeah, I’m not entirely sure the story would have worked as well. I have no idea why I was thinking of George McGovern, who ran for the US Presidency in 1972 against Nixon and lost, badly.

Anyways… George Hamilton, that’s the fella. He plays true crime tv presenter Wade Anders who is blackmailed by a rival who knows that Anders appeared in a porn movie at the start of his acting career. Oh, alongside an underage co-star.

Anders kills the blackmailer. Obviously. With concentrated nicotine. OK, that’s less obvious. And he screws up how he does it, leaving some heavy handed clues for anyone to find. He’s much better at presenting crimes than, y’know, doing them. But, that aside, Hamilton is incredible on screen. Most of the guest stars on Columbo, there’s a generosity showing where neither of them is acting the other off the screen. Not Hamilton. Presumably it’s not deliberate because after all he was invited back, but when he’s on the screen, you barely notice Falk. Or anyone else. And that plays through to the character, where Anders, once he takes that first step of… well, murdering someone… is oily, smarmy, charming when necessary, icy… Just superb acting. And an out and out bastard throughout.


 

** TWO LOVELY RELATIONSHIPS

There are several other baddies with whom Columbo has a ‘good’, charming or even likeable relationship with through the show. Louis Jourdan’s chef, Faye Dunaway, even one of Patrick McGoohan‘s baddies. But if anyone made a list of just two, and neither of the two below were on it, I’d doubt their judgement.

Adrian Carsini – Any Old Port in a Storm (1973)
Ah, Donald Pleasance in a simply wonderful performance, the perfect ‘man out of his depth who gets more and more out of his depth until being caught is almost a relief’. It’s a subtle role that gets even more subtle as the story progresses. I mean, let’s get it straight: he kills his brother because the brother wants to sell the winery. Strip everything else away, and that’s what he does. It’s not even done out of malice but because that’s the only option he sees left. And Carsini is not a sympathetic character on his own. He’s a snob, and he sees little need for, nor understanding of, normal human interaction. It’s not that it puzzles him as much as he sees no need for it.

And yet Columbo likes him. He does. He respects him, mostly. But – as Columbo admits elsewhere – while there’s never a murder he likes, there are murderers he likes. And he likes and more importantly recognises the expertise Carsini has for his job, just as Carsini recognises and acknowledges the expertise in his job that Columbo displays.

And seeing the two on screen together, you feel you’re getting a masterclass in how two giants of acting, two very generous actors, are at pains to let the scene flow. Each scene between them is not merely a chance for each to shine, but an opportunity for both to do so.

The final scene between them, when Carsini knows he’s been caught, when Columbo has laid it out clear and blunt (well, as blunt as necessary but no more than that), they spend a few minutes talking and drinking wine before Columbo takes him in. And the scene is certainly the best final scene of any Columbo, possibly one of the finest scenes with a baddie of any Columbo.


 
 
Abigail Mitchell – Try & Catch Me (1977)
And then there’s Abigail Mitchell, a deliberately quirky, funny, sensible baddie who you like from the moment you meet her. She may exasperate you on screen a teeny bit; you know damn well she’d exasperate you in real life. Played by Ruth Gordon, I defy you not to wonder why she didn’t play Miss Marple at some point. And she’s a vigilante. Well, not really, but kind of. She’s utterly convinced her niece was murdered by the niece’s husband. So she locks him in her airtight safe and then goes away for a bit, leaving him to suffocate. Cold-bloodedly? Well, yes… and no. I’ve seen this episode a dozen or more times, and I can’t say definitively.

Columbo likes her when he meets her. She likes him. He teases her. She teases him. It’s to her and some friends that he makes the comment above about never liking the murder. Again, the respect for each other’s job, and the skill and dedication with which they perform it, shines through.

The age gap is too huge for there to be any sexual interplay between them, thank heaven, but there’s definitely an element of ‘oh, Lieutenant, if I’d only met you thirty years ago…’ And it’s not until the final scene or two that that unspoken line takes on a whole new meaning.


 

** TWO EUREKA MOMENTS

A Trace of Murder (1997)

Perfect example here of a very not great episode, a not great pair of baddies, and – to be honest – a not that great performance by Falk, for once. But a bloody perfect lightbulb moment (not even spoiled slightly by Columbo’s almost pantomime-like reaction to it.)

Columbo, together with crime analyst Kinsley (one of the baddies, played by Barry Corbin) and Cathleen, the wife (the other baddie, played by Shera Denesa) of the fella they’re trying to frame for the murder, meet to discuss the case. As far as Columbo knows, they’ve never met.

And then as the coffee arrives, Columbo sees the former casually move the milk towards the latter. And as he’s starting to realise what this must mean, they leave… and confirm it. For if they’d not previously met, then how would Kinsley know that Cathleen gets car sick when sitting in the back?

(Once he knows they know each other, it’s fairly predictable how he catches them. As I say, not great. But that lightbulb moment is one of the best in the entire run.)

 
  
Uneasy Lies The Crown (1990)
It’s probably a mark of how rare the genuine ‘lightbulb’ moments were in Columbo that both of the best ones come from the revival episodes. James Read is just about perfect as the young, ambitious, jealous, dentist who kills his wife’s lover (a mutual friend of theirs, and a patient of his), frames her for the murder and (a not uncommon theme) deliberately incompetently ‘tries to cover’ for her. Oh, the actual murder? He placed poison under a temporary filling, which dissolved, and killed the lover while the lover is in bed with the wife. And while the murderer has a cast iron alibi.

The eureka moment here shows its age as well. I’m not sure the idea of time-released medication is as foreign to most people these days but in 1997, it was probably new enough, and it was certainly new enough when the episode was originally written in the 1970s by Stephen Bochco. There are many conflicting stories about why the episode was rejected at the time. One suggestion is that Falk’s mother said viewers wouldn’t believe a dentist as the murderer? I dunno.

But the acting of everyone in the scene at the moment of comprehension is lovely, and Columbo throughout the entire story is edging towards the solution, so the eureka moment just caps it. The reveal is pretty good as well, including a double-bluff on both the baddie and the audience that’s revealed in the final seconds. Beautifully done.

 
** TWO REVEALS

And talking of reveals, Columbo excelled in them. There were a dozen, easy, I could have chosen but for me, two stand out far in front of the rest. One is a typical Columbo plot of using the baddie’s own cleverness against them.

But the first, the first is just exquisite.

Suitable for Framing (1971)
The story is fairly clever in its own right. Arrogant art critic Dale Kingston (Ross Martin desperately trying to leave some furniture unchewed) frames his slightly odd aunt for for the murder of his uncle. His plan involves planting stolen Degas pastels in the aunt’s place, having previously tried to get Columbo booted from the case. (Long time Columbo watchers know that’s never a good idea.)

Columbo turns up, and gets the artwork dusted for fingerprints, as he tells Kingston he knows Kingston killed his uncle and fingerprints will prove it. But not Kingston’;s prints, which Kingston has already said were on the prints ages ago… Columbo’s prints which – if the aunt did steal the artwork – couldn’t possibly be there. Kingston, thinking fast and on the very edge of panic, protests “But you obviously touched them just now!”

And that’s when Columbo reveals his hands – thus far kept in his coat pockets, but so subtly that no-one, neither the baddie nor the audience, even noticed – to show they’re in woollen gloves, and have been since he arrived.

 
 
The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (1977)
As others have said, there’s very little to dislike about this episode. Fantastic script,an on and off likeable baddie in Oliver Brandt, arrogance punctured, and a sequence of events involved that must have inspired that famous car ad, decades later.

Columbo starts to deliberately needle the baddie (played by Theodore Bikel) and ostensibly shows him how clever Columbo is… which Bikel’s arrogance in his own cleverness can’t take. Columbo shows Brandt how intelligent another suspect is. So, out of pique, offended arrogance and a desperation, a need, to show Columbo how clever he is, Brandt demonstrates to Columbo exactly how the murder must have been committed, the only way it could have been committed, then celebrates with a delighted bark as everything falls into place…

…before his laughter stops, as he realises that he’s just shown Columbo how the murder was committed… by him.


 

** BONUS
 
Dr Barry Mayfield – A Stitch in Crime (1973)
A bonus bit here, purely because I couldn’t let Leonard Nimoy’s star turn pass without comment. Solely because of THIS moment, one of the very few in the entire run where Columbo gets angry, and shows it. There are times where Falk, always underrated as an actor in my opinion, portrays Columbo struggling to keep his anger hidden. Here he doesn’t even try. It’s extra-ordinary, and glorious.

 


If you enjoyed this Ten Things, I’ve done others… During the last huge blog run, I did a few ‘ten things’ I liked: individual episodes of tv shows, individual comic book issues, and pilots, and two on old movies ,then one on old-ish movies, and a couple about podcasts. And I wrote a series of Doctor Who posts, about each incarnation/regeneration, and my sometimes tenuous relationship with the show.

And in this run, I did one on things I’ve been watching during the various lockdowns plus others…


See you tomorrow, with… something else.

 

 

Fifty-seven days. Fifty-seven posts. One fifty-seventh birthday.


Just dropping this in here, as I was asked by message the other day: the best places to contact me outside the blog are via email at budgie@hypotheticals.co.uk and @budgie on Twitter.


I’m trying something new with this run. I’ve signed up to ko-fi.com, so if you fancy throwing me a couple of dollars every so often, to keep me in a caffeine-fuelled typing mood, feel free. I’m on https://ko-fi.com/budgiehypoth

This post is part of a series of blog entries, counting down to my fifty-seventh birthday on 17th August 2021. You can see the other posts in the run by clicking here.

Comments
  1. bundybob says:

    As a Columbo Fan, This is a great article.
    Keep them up and Keep Safe!

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