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Columbo – The Complete First Season (A TV on DVD Review)

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

Columbo - The Complete First Season

Columbo – The Complete First Season


The Complete First Season 1971 (Universal-2004)

Columbo had them at hello.

The fun in watching TV’s greatest detective is not merely in piecing together murder mysteries along with him – he’s way past the sniffing stage, and besides, we’ve already spent the first twenty-five minutes witnessing the actual killing, the reasons leading up to the murder (usually strangely justified) and the careful steps of the cover up (usually air tight and amazingly free of clues, as far as civilians like us are concerned). In most cases, we don’t even as much as smell Columbo’s cigar smoke until a good thirty minutes into the episode (with its first terrific season now available on DVD).

The real fun of the series, from the moment the amazing Peter Falk makes his rumpled, familiar appearance on the scene, is not “if” but exactly “how” his bumbling but brilliant character is going to pin the tail on the donkey.

He knows the killer – we know the killer: that’s not important. However, we experience a sadistic pleasure in watching Columbo as the cat toying with his mouse before he sinks in his fangs for the kill. The formula never changes, nor do we want it to: the killer literally gets away with murder (we see this with our own eyes), then slowly devolves from uneasily arrogant to downright terrified as Columbo puts together the necessary evidence he needs to convict. How long can the suspect keep up the charade? When exactly will he or she become unglued?  And Columbo is nothing if not dedicated. It’s a process, all right, and we’re loving every minute of it.

Columbo disarms his suspect with such charm and casual clumsiness that the murderer is thrown off guard; we watch them think they are smarter.  In fact, they can’t believe their continuing good fortune in having to deal with this seemingly pea-brained civil servant assigned to their case. However, unlike the murderer, we know this is a ruse, and we can’t help but grin as we watch the spider set the trap for the fly.

We delight as the guilt rises to the top and the suspect, episode after fascinating episode,  slowly realizes that this raincoat-wearing, cigar chomping, forgetful little man is actually a master, and that they never really stood a chance. The fulfillment of the final scene, in which Columbo finally nails his man or woman, is so powerfully satisfying that it becomes addictive. We keep coming back for more (68 movies and counting since 1971!). No other TV detective consistently delivers the goods.

We respect Columbo’s uncanny ability to appear clueless even though he’s bursting with clues. “My wife tells me I have to have strings on all ten fingers,” he comments modestly about his memory. He’s forever losing his pen and asking for a light. He works alone – there are no tiresome love interests to slow down the plot, no “buddy/cop” retreads, no personal soul searching and other whining, and only an occasional but loving reference to his never-seen wife, Mrs. Columbo — yet this character is so fully realized that we know him inside out and want to buy him that bowl of chili he loves so much. We’ll have what he’s having: we want to discover what makes him tick.

Columbo lets us think that his mind is cloudy, that his eyes are permanently squinted, but he actually has a zestful passion for life. For instance, if the murder involves architecture (as when a body is buried in a foundation of a new building), he learns all he can about architecture. He’s a thinking man, and he goes out of his way to allow his “victim” to feel otherwise.

However, these murderers are not stupid; they are nothing if not all about planning and seeing ahead. “Why do I have the feeling that you already know the answers to these questions?” an exasperated Patrick O’ Neill asks him at long last. And Robert Culp nervously comments, “You’re a very observant man, lieutenant.” Ross Martin agrees, in another episode, when he says, creepily, “My, how observant you are.” And later, when Columbo is closing in on him, he rambles to anyone who will listen, “in case you haven’t noticed, he’s a very haphazard individual.” Even Eddie Albert, playing a retired Marine general who kills one of his men, says suspiciously, “You sure don’t look like a police lieutenant.”

What these murderers are seeing in Columbo is themselves. He even offers a glimpse into that steel trap of a noggin, reflecting that, “Do you know that there is a reasonable explanation for everything if you just put your mind to it?”

However, it’s his self-effacing rambling that keeps his suspects from seeing the light bulb over their guilty heads too soon, because if he lets on, that would be no fun. What they all learn is too little, too late: you can never plan too much if Columbo is working your case. Minimizing your risks is a fruitless task.

This first season takes place in that weird netherworld between the late sixties and early seventies. The scene is changing, but luckily for us, Columbo never changes. In fact, he seems to transcend time. The affluent backdrop of Beverly Hills, at the time reeling from the Manson murders and the beat in which Columbo toils, is neat and clean and orderly, with long, black Cadillacs with telephones in them. Even Jack Cassidy’s Mercedes Benz sports a bumper sticker that says, “Have A Nice Day!” We’re in that demilitarized zone between The Beverly Hillbillies and Beverly Hills 90210.

However, we are allowed into its fictionalized, highly polished version of its dark side. In fact, it’s not dark at all, but sunny and bright and well-maintained. It’s not real, and we know it, but it’s how we imagine it: bodies land with a thump on shag carpeting; a society matron histrionically exclaims, “It’s lucky for you I’m too well bred to throw a tantrum.” Columbo sticks out like a sore thumb – if his beat was a more inner-city or working-class neighborhood, the stories wouldn’t be as interesting, and neither would Columbo.

The palatial estates in which most of the murders take place are huge and breathtaking, and Columbo never completely makes an exit. He’ll half turn, just when you think he’s finally gone, and say, “there’s just one thing that’s bothering me…” or “excuse me, ma’m, I know I’m making a pest of myself, but I’m trying to understand this” or “thank you…thank you…that’s very interesting.” In the hands of a less talented actor, this would be pure agony and annoyance. Falk, however, takes suspicion to a high art.

Of course, any weak link in the series is just a happenstance of the era: a young hippie girl refers to him as “the fuzz.” Suzanne Pleshette, playing a witness to a murder, is considered loopy and unreliable because she’s divorced and teaches art to children. However, Columbo comes to her rescue by paying her the highest compliment you can be paid in 1971: “You are a very individual person.” We are expected to be awed by the then rich man’s toy of a telephone answering machine. A top man in Robert Culp’s security operation can reel in an astounding $30,000 a year. Roddy McDowall looks like a Bee Gee. And in the most surreal of all Columbo scenes, Vic Tayback (Mel from Alice) and Sandra Gould (Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched) have a conversation about art. Columbo even walks through beaded curtains (groovy!) in one episode.

The real standout achievement in this collection is the episode directed by a pre-superstar Steven Spielberg (and written by Steven Bochco, later to create and write Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue). It’s as good as you can imagine, more closely resembling a good movie than a TV show because of its beautiful visual realization, smart dialogue and un-TV-like camera angles. In it, Jack Cassidy shoots and kills Martin Milner, who plays a successful murder mystery novelist. “They’re tricky,” Columbo says ironically, regarding the books. “I could never figure those things out.”

In the end, the murderers show a grudging respect for him, even though they’re being led away in handcuffs. Lee Grant, upon her character’s gig being up, says to Columbo, “I’m going to miss you, lieutenant. You and your fascinating little details.” Perhaps they will become pen pals while she serves her life sentence, but you won’t have to miss him as long as you have this DVD to devour, and to revel in all the fascinating little details.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 13, 2004.

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