Columbo: A retrospective glance

‘Just one more thing…’ is a quote that lives on in the cultural memory, one iconic line from an iconic character that holds a special place in the hearts of millions of viewers. Columbo was a detective show, airing 69 episodes on-off from 1968-2003, and a stalwart of almost every current ITV schedule. It was character driven, a show that rewarded the attentive viewer and a piece of drama whose quality never dropped.

The premise of the show was a simple one – in all but a few notable exceptions, we see a person kill someone else. We see how they cover their tracks, arranging their alibi and creating such a web of confusion that no-one could possibly suspect them. We follow them as they do so, and are privy to all the facts. Then, onto the scene comes Lieutenant Columbo, who will invariably crack the case. He employs friendliness to a level possible to describe as harassment, he chips away piece by the piece at the killer’s story and he obfuscates stupidity until it’s time for the final blow. There is a joy in watching Columbo disassemble the stories and machinations of these people who so often consider themselves his better – little throwaway comments and stories about his family quickly become targeted attacks on the killer’s version of events. Columbo handles his questioning so adroitly that the killer never realises they are trapped until it’s too late.

There is a joy in watching Columbo disassemble the stories and machinations of these people who so often consider themselves his better…

It is often joked that it is pointless to watch this show, for we know everything ten minutes in, but the thrill of it comes in the chase, and in the cat-and-mouse interaction between suspect and detective. Columbo is a programme that forces the viewer to watch and to think, and arguably requires more brainpower than your everyday crime show. Rather than figuring out who did it, Columbo asks you to find the break in the killer’s alibi, and this is much more difficult. Without giving any spoilers, episodes have used guilty knowledge (things you could only know if you were guilty – ie, something you could only have seen at the crime scene at the time of the murder), a piece of chewing gum, a news item on the radio and the chime of a clock. Columbo, for all his seeming stupidity, is an intellect beyond compare.


A large part of the success is that the character of Columbo himself is so good. Played by Peter Falk, Columbo is a friendly person whose bumbling hides a killer mind. He is always dressed in a brown suit and a tattered old raincoat, he smokes the cheapest cigars he can find, he drives around in a dodgy old Peugeot and is usually with his dog, Dog, a gloomy old Basset Hound. He is the quintessential everyman – he likes to chat and make friends, and he almost never gets flustered. He’s the friend everyone wishes they had.

The cases pretty much all follow the same pattern, but the interplay between the killer and our hero makes each story – the evolution of the killer’s feeling of security to one of increasing doubt, watching as Columbo keeps finding little contradictions in their version of events that amplify the worry of entrapment. Regular murderers Patrick McGoohan and Robert Culp had some great chemistry with Columbo, for example, and one-off killers like Donald Pleasance (in the excellent Any Old Port in a Storm, a true highlight in a series where every episode could be described as such) can even exude such likeability that when they are finally arrested, the audience feels sorry. It can work the other way, of course – Dick van Dyke appears in one episode as a murderous photographer who kills his wife and a reformed criminal – throughout the episode, he is such a dick that when Columbo finally collars him, it would not be beyond the realms of possibility that you would cheer.

I think it would be a shame to revive it – Falk’s portrayal of the character was so perfect that no actor could really compare.

Filming on Columbo started to wrap up when Peter Falk’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease became increasingly worse, making filming any episodes or even remembering his lines nigh-on impossible. Falk sadly passed away in June 2011 due to his illness, and though there have been discussions about having a remake, a reboot or whatever daft terminology the executives are going to use (including a potential film version starring Mark Ruffalo as the dishevelled detective), I think it would be a shame to revive it. I am in no doubt that equally good scripts could be produced – a script called, in which Columbo tackles an internet homicide, is in existence – but Falk’s portrayal of the character was so perfect that no actor could really compare.

This truly is a wonderful show, every episode a well-written character driven tale featuring one of the best, most likeable protagonists ever invented. If you happen to see it on, I truly recommend giving it a try, and I can almost guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

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