Thursday, February 29, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Columbo (1971)

Debut: September 15, 1971
Created by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Starring: Peter Falk
Synopsis: Rumpled and unassuming Los Angeles homicide detective, Lieutenant Columbo, doggedly reveals even the most well-concealed of crimes.

Trey: Columbo had two movie "pilot episodes" in 1968 and 1971, then series aired on NBC from 1971 to 1978 as one of the rotating programs of The NBC Mystery Movie. It was brought back in the 80s on ABC on a sporadic basis from 1989 to 2003. That's when I became acquainted with it.

Columbo was partially inspired by Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment character Porfiry Petrovich as well as (according to Wikipedia) G. K. Chesterton's cleric-detective Father Brown.

The first episode of the 1971 series follows the (at the time) innovative formula of showing the audience the crime from the beginning, thus removing the mystery ask, except in regard to just how Columbo will eventually catch them. It was written by Steven Bochco and directed by Steven Spielberg. In the episode, a member of a mystery writing duo resorts to murder to break from his less talented partner.

Jason: I remember the presence of Columbo in the pop culture of my childhood but don't recall ever having seen the show in its day, possibly due to the draconian bedtime I strove against in my single-digit years. For decades, references to the series and impersonations of Falk were ubiquitous. I've previously mentioned my general lack of interest in the crime drama genre which, like many things, was once strident but has softened over time. I enjoyed this chance to better acquaint myself with the series and character that became, for all intents and purposes, iconic.  

The young Spielberg wastes no time distinguishing himself with a cinematic approach and clever visual storytelling even as the credits roll. While perhaps trying a bit too hard at times, the episode amounts to a very effective portfolio piece. Somebody give this kid a feature!

Trey: Yeah, I think he's got something and is going to go places. Wonder whatever happened to him? I'd also call out writer Steven Bochco as the creator of Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue among other credits. 

Jason: The titular character doesn't show up until nearly the 20 minute mark, as goes the show's formula, and he doesn't disappoint. As everyone already knows, Falk is uniquely charming in the role. 
His opponent, as expertly portrayed by Jack Cassidy, couldn't be more arrogant, slimy and unlikeable, despite his sophistication and impeccable manners. The rest of the cast give naturalistic performances, leaving it to the leads to provide the understated climactic fireworks.

Trey: In latter series, they did a lot of celebrity casting of the "murderers of the episode" and that and the focus on their viewpoint sometimes gives you (or at least gave me) a bit of sympathy for them: "Alright, alright, Columbo. They're guilty! Quit playing with them and arrest them, already!" Not here, though.

Jason: As an unsophisticated newcomer to the genre, I give this show high marks. I'm tempted to watch more. 

Unlike many of the shows featured here in the Flashback Universe, this one is anything but obscure and much ink has been spilled on its behalf. I found this article to be an effective expression of the warm regard Columbo still enjoys. Exhibit A: BBC Why the World Still Loves the 1970s Detective Show Columbo. Oh, and here's a Columbo statue in Budapest, Hungary. My only regret is that his dog doesn't appear in this episode!

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