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Pride and Prejudice and the Perfect Crime

Photo courtesy Universal

The first season of Columbo, the famed NBC series starring Peter Falk as the rumpled, pestering L.A. cop with the deceptively brilliant mind, was released by Universal this week on DVD, and it’s a bare-bones affair without a scrap of bonus footage or commentary on it. No cutesy featurette called “Why a Raincoat in L.A.?” or deleted scenes where Falk flubs saying “One more thing, sir . . .” It’s just 12 hours of a landmark mystery series — the two original pilot movies and seven 90-minute episodes on five discs — that is still the best of its kind.

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.

That’s because Columbo is fascinating also as a class-conscious murder mystery, although the creators claim nothing political in their intentions. The whole idea was aesthetic contrast: pearls with swine. Levinson and Link always joked that they never could have cast Jack Klugman as a murderer because he was an icon of slobbiness like Falk. The gimmick worked only with rich snobs — your Robert Vaughns, George Hamiltons — who would leap to underestimate their seemingly absent-minded pursuer, sometimes even after they’ve caught on to the disarming anecdotes and well-placed flattery. The aforementioned Cassidy and Culp were the series’ ace villains — each starring in three episodes, but each at his best in this first-season set — the former an oily satyr with a sneer you could patent and a deliciously insincere baritone, and the latter an actor so good at barely controlled, patronizing vehemence, he should be cast as Donald Rumsfeld immediately.

Worth mentioning also are some of the great writers the show had: Jackson Gillis, represented on the first-season DVD by the excellent “Suitable for Framing,” featuring one of the best final-frame gotchas of the whole series, Peter S. Fischer (who would go on to create Murder, She Wrote) and Larry Cohen. Another fun side note to subsequent seasons are the appearances of the John Cassavetes posse, Falk having appeared in the director’s 1970 film, Husbands, between the Columbo pilot movies and the start of the series. Cassavetes’ adulterous conductor ratchets up the cat-and-mouse stuff wonderfully in the second-season opener, “Etude in Black” (written by Bochco); Gena Rowlands showed up in season four; and Ben Gazzara directed a few, notably the highly entertaining “A Friend in Deed,” with Richard Kiley as a conniving deputy police commissioner.

The show ran out of steam in the late ’70s with weak plotting and increasingly outlandish villain professions — Ricardo Montalban’s egotistical bullfighter was especially far-fetched — and eventually ended in 1978 after 45 episodes. In 1989, ABC revived the character and has been making two-hour movies ever since, but in tone and flavor they couldn’t match the quiet, almost deadpan funkiness of the originals, which now trade heavily on their ’70s-era stylistic otherworldliness.

Columbo may have invented the quirky central cop for TV, but it’s been hard to find a show since that has duplicated its particular alchemy of eccentricity and reverse-mystery structure in our current Law & Order/CSI universe. Right now, the intricacies of law and forensic science and especially “ripped from the headlines” stories rule over memorable character work. Tony Shalhoub’s obsessive-compulsive puzzle solver on the USA Network’s Monk is an admirable misfit, but his tics aren’t an affect or intentional trap for the bad guys: We’re supposed to feel a little sorry for him. The closest homage to Falk’s sneaky sleuth on the tube these days is Vincent D’Onofrio’s oddball Bobby Goren on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, who also mixes behavioral sleuthing with an insinuating, is-he-kidding? manner. But Goren’s interrogative technique is ultimately closer to hostile intervention therapy than Lieutenant Columbo’s subtle circling. I love Criminal Intent, but in the end it’s the cop-criminal matchup as a slamdance. With Columbo, you get a waltz.


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