By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
|Photo courtesy Universal|
What’s strangely appropriate about this extras-denied release is that for a show that pioneered such a lasting brand of methodically paced, character-oriented mystery, Falk’s shabby lieutenant was notoriously lacking in biographical details. What was his first name? What did his wife look like? We never found out because Columbo, as created by Richard Levinson and William Link, was never really about Columbo. The show was more intrigued by the guest star committing what appeared to be the perfect crime, and how he or she was foiled by this stooped, cigar-chomping adult urchin who looked as if he could barely take care of himself. Details about Columbo’s life dribbled out like gambits in a plan to loosen a suspect’s defenses. Sometimes he didn’t even show up until 20 minutes of an episode had passed — initially a worry to network executives — and usually Falk’s entrance had the air of someone accidentally wandering into camera range. But for this deeply idiosyncratic program, that was the hangdog magnetism of the character. As fun as it is watching Columbo hem and haw, misplace pencils and play dumb right before he fires a thoroughly loaded question, it’s just as much fun to figure out how much of Columbo's bumbling is personality and how much is the strategy of a wily chessman. (Steven Bochco, a young story editor during that first 1971-72 season, has said he liked to believe the lieutenant planned every single move, like a David Mamet script with every “er” spelled out.)
Columbo is the only TV show I can think of that actually freshened up the mystery genre: It legitimized the “inverse” murder story, a format invented 100 years ago by British author R. Austin Freeman in which the murder is shown first and “solved” afterward. The suspense comes in watching how the detective pieces everything together. In fashioning their pesky investigator — originally for a play called Prescription: Murder that became the first Columbo TV movie in 1968 — Levinson and Link drew from the folksy charm of mystery author G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown character and Dostoyevsky’s fawning Petrovitch from Crime and Punishment. What resulted was a defiantly talky formula driven by well-organized clues and a mode of interplay between Columbo and the wealthy murderer who had to work on two levels: decorum and gamesmanship. This isn’t Hammett-style hard-boiled detective fiction, or Chandleresque world-weariness. Columbo was closer to English-manor whodunits, where polite-yet-pointed conversation eventually trips up a culprit. It was about hiding in broad daylight as opposed to lurking in the dark. The other English aspect of the show was its short seasons, due to being in rotation with the more generically amusing McMillan & Wife and McCloud on the NBC Mystery Movie. But Levinson, Link and Falk also knew that to keep the quality up, there simply couldn’t be one every week, especially at 90 minutes. In fact, there were never more than eight episodes in a given year, and sometimes as few as three.
Of the first season, the immediate curio piece is the episode directed by Steven Spielberg, then a freakishly young in-house director at Universal. Called “Murder by the Book” and cleverly written by Bochco, it’s what you’d expect from a 25-year-old hotshot with something to prove. Stylish from frame one, the episode begins with the camera, whose vantage is a high-rise office window, zooming out from Jack Cassidy’s luxury car on the street below to reveal his character’s mystery-writing partner — and soon-to-be victim — banging away at a typewriter. The only sound heard in the first few scenes is clacking keys, a wonderfully ominous touch in a murder tale that hinges on the single-mindedness of writers and, of course, a certain detective. Between Spielberg’s Hitchcockian flourishes, the performances and the brisk plotting, this is classic suspense television.
The other underappreciated joy of this collection, evidenced by “Murder by the Book” and four other episodes, is the work of Oscar-winning cinematographer Russell Metty, who was at the end of a storied career that included Touch of Evil, Spartacus and Douglas Sirk’s ’50s melodramas. In fact, the colorful opulence and dark corners of the Sirk movies is in keeping with the photographic richness of his Columbo episodes, which, after all, were also about the emotional emptiness hidden in the houses of power and wealth. There’s a kitsch value, naturally, to the ’60s-’70s Los Angeles mansions on display — including a shag carpet of Robert Culp’s in “Death Lends a Hand” that has to be seen to be believed — but a show that got much of its mileage putting a scruffy, unkempt bloodhound amid morally bankrupt swank wasn’t afraid of satirical laughter then, and isn’t so dated to have lost the joke now.
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