some favorite Columbo episodes

There have been a lot of good mystery projects in TV and film lately, homages to classic Agathie Christie novels and the more lurid detective novels of the 30s by Hammett and Chandler, as well as decent updated adaptations of characters like Fletch. It’s not like there was a vacuum of mysteries, since there’s decades of CSI and Law & Order episodes always available. I’ve not seen a lot of either of those shows, they just never grabbed me the way, say, Columbo has. And there’s been a lot of interest in Columbo lately, from a proletariat that enjoys watching a working class detective (played by the later Peter Falk) patronizingly string along the rich suspects until they’re faced with their guilt, to recent homages like Poker Face of a self-selected amateur detective of sorts using her internal lie detector do the same. (I’ve only see the pilot of the latter, more on that some other time).

SO, if you’re interested in the subject of these comparisons and have a streaming service like TUBI where Columbo is available (as far as my current typing is concerned), you can check out most of the catalog. DVDs should be available as well. Here’s a few of my favorite episodes from the series, in order of airing, according to online sources:

Murder By The Book – Jack Cassidy is the perp in few episodes. The real star is the man behind the camera, Steven Spielberg, whipping up his best homage to Alfred Hitchcock on a TV movie-of-the-week budget. The ending is wrapped up a little too quickly considering how much build up as Cassidy has to keep creating more lies and even another murder in hopes to throw Columbo off his case.

Death Lends A Hand – Robert Culp is another frequent guest, a bully of a private eye who blackmails people to create more business. Very suspenseful as Culp tries to buy Columbo off and innocent people try to flee being suspected for the murder.

Suitable For Framing – a snobby art critic tries to frame a relative for his murder, one of those episodes where Peter Falk is full on court press with his fake bumbling to harass the suspect throughout.

Etude in Black – One of Peter Falk’s theater buddies John Cassavetes murders a musician he’s been having an affair with, and hopes to sit back while another musician is pointed out by a witness as another of the victim’s love interest. Columbo isn’t swayed. Great acting by the two and features Myrna Loy, one of the heroes from The Thin Man series.

The Greenhouse Jungle – this is one of my favorites because it stars Ray Milland, the classiest and most proper and by far the most condescending of murder suspects on Columbo. Milland helps a nephew with a fake kidnapping scam that will bypass a trust fund inheritance in such an emergency, and then double crosses the nephew. Like most suspects on the show, he sees through Columbo’s fake bumbling and knows that Columbo has zeroed in on him, but you can see the realization on his face when Columbo has finally tripped him up. There’s a lot to love with this episode, which introduces a younger detective eager to work with Columbo while focusing on new technology and procedures that Columbo is completely unaware of. Great characters, plot, and denouement.

Candidate for Crime – a senate candidate murders his campaign manager and blames it on his “tough on crime” attitude, with organized crime coming after him. I think if there’s anything to learn from these episodes, if you’re a suspect, and the police ask you how you think something like a crime had happened, even if you think you’re not a suspect, don’t play along. Get a lawyer. Another great denouement.

Publish or Perish – Jack Cassidy again, a book publisher who creates an elaborate alibi as he engineers the assassination of a writer, played by real pulp novelist Mickey Spillane. Cassidy is devilishly obnoxious and vile during these moments, yet plays the “oh, I was such a louse, but obviously everyone saw me while Spillane was being murdered” card, and it doesn’t fly with Columbo.

A Friend In Deed – This is one of the more convoluted episodes where Columbo’s police captain helps a friend cover up a murder as a burglary gone wrong, and then uses the story to kill his own wife and blackmail the friend to help cover that up. What could go wrong? How nothing goes wrong aside from Columbo trying to piece it all together is kind of remarkable, with a great trap set by Columbo.

Negative Reaction – One of the misconceptions of Columbo is that the guest star murderer always loses their temper with Columbo and you only tune in for 90 minute or so because that’s the selling point of the series. That’s not entirely true – most do get frustrated, but only because of the amount of work they have to put into creating more lies and in some cases more murders to cover their tracks. Dick Van Dyke, however, absolutely just stops hiding his contempt for Columbo about halfway through the episode. This was an episode my friends and I loved watching on late night reruns. “It’s the one where Dick Van Dyke loses it!” we’d shout as we race to the TV.

Troubled Waters – Columbo takes a cruise and there just happens to be a murder. I love seeing Robert Vaughn in stuff. He’s a car salesman who fakes a heart attack to sneak out and murder his mistress, hoping her bandmate takes the fall. Too bad for him that Columbo gets very seasick and happens upon clues.

The Bye Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case – a couple of brainiac accountants have a disagreement about misappropriation of client funds, so one kills the other and now some dumber cop named Columbo shows up to keep needling the suspect with stupid questions, how dare he. The suspect starts to realize he can’t shake this dummy. Pretty good mystery.

These are episodes from the 1970’s – Falk would go on to appear in movies (including the Neil Simon parodies Murder By Death and The Cheap Detective, but would return as Columbo in 1989, with, uh, mixed results. Some of them are weird – like episodes dedicated to dream sequences inspired by paintings. There’s also a couple episodes that are adaptations of Ed McBain “87th Precinct” novels, which I only know about now that I’ve seen them, and, uh, they’re not good. Only one episode from the 70’s era threw off the formula, where you didn’t see who actually committed the murder, and Columbo & pals have to actually solve it instead of the usual duo point of view, the murderer’s & Columbo’s. In the 1990’s, however, Falk just wanted to show off his love for art and also get his friends in on pretending to be 1950’s hardboiled detectives and gangsters. There’s also a lot of clunky and in some cases just poorly written episodes, but many of them are still good mysteries that Columbo has to match wits with the usual upper crust of suspects.

Agenda For Murder – Patrick McGoohan isn’t just the guest star murderer (of which he has the most appearances), he’s also the director. McGoohan’s episodes from the 1970s were pretty interesting, the episodes he worked on in the 1990s are some of the better from that period. McGoohan is a lawyer in line to be choses as Attorney General if an associate, a sitting US Senator, is nominated for the presidency. A pesky known criminal associate stands in the way, so McGoohan stages a suicide scene. Columbo is on him, to the point where McGoohan just drives away to stop being pestered by Columbo. Just some of the better hounding and clue baiting in the series, and in the revival.

Columbo Goes To College – This one is special on a few levels. Smirk at the age of our collegiate undergrads, people who look like they’re in their late 30s. Feel embarrassed for everyone involved for thinking this is what a frat party looks like (maybe in the 80s, it was?). But…BUT… this is one of the few times where the suspects don’t realize that Columbo is on to them, and he plays them for chumps through the end. He usually sympathizes with the suspects, but here he has two young (“young”) men who not only pulled off a cruel murder he even catches mocking his mannerisms, and it’s a great moment where you can see Columbo relishing in bringing these kids (“KIDS”) in. A lot of fun.

Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous To Your Health – there’s a couple episodes that are a pretty good run before we get to the Ed McBain adaptations, with great guest stars for Columbo to face off against. They’re not as good as other episodes mentioned here, but you get Dabney Coleman being just as obnoxious as how most suspects would think Columbo was being (“Columbo and the Murder Of A Rock Star”) or Rip Torn hamming it up angrily as Columbo zeroes in on him (“Death Hits The Jackpot”). Here, George Hamilton is a sleazy and sensationalist syndicated crime show host who tries to get away with poisoning a former rival looking to blackmail him. Just another good mystery.

A Trace of Murder – Many episodes of Columbo have a bit of padding to them, where maybe the mystery isn’t complex or there’s not much of a setup, and they needed to fill up two hours with commercials. Maybe some of it is character development but often there’s just bits of attempts at extended comedy that has nothing to do with the plot, or the characters, and sometimes it works and sometimes it just goes on. Or, in A Trace of Murder, they have like 10 minutes at the end to explain how Columbo figured it out to a couple of his friends at a restaurant. However, this one features David Rasche, a Chicago comedian who should be world famous for the TV show “Sledge Hammer!” Think of Rasche as a less inhibited and loose Howard Hamlin from Better Call Saul. Actually, BCS actor Patrick Fabian would make a good Sledge Hammer! in a reboot, just saying. Anyway, other than the padding, there’s an obnoxious suspect that Rasche (a police forensics lab manager) and his girlfriend try to pin the murder on, but Columbo isn’t convinced, even with Rasche assisting him.

So there you go. Watch some Columbo. You’re welcome.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s