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Review: Columbo Mystery Movie Collection 1994-2003

This collection contains the last seven TV movies featuring Columbo from the mid-1990s to 2003.  I wasn't in a rush to be out of Columbo so I watched them during platelet donations at the American Red Cross over the past year or so.

Columbo production slowed in the late 1990s. In 1994 and '95 there were a total of three films released, then four more from 1997-2003. Quality varied quite a bit.:

Butterfly in Shades of Grey: The good part is that this film marked William Shatner's second Columbo appearance. The bad part? His performance was a little off. He plays as a loud mouthed talk show host and the protective adoptive stepfather. He murders an aide whose trying to help her sell a broadway play and get away. The show really suggests that Shatner's character may be more sinister with hints that his interest in his adopted daughter may not be platonic. It was a disturbing plot twist and one they really didn't sell us on. Unlike Shatner's 1976 Columbo outing, "Fade to Murder," he felt miscast. Still, there were some decent interactions, so I'll give this one a B-.

Undercover: Once again, Falk attempts to have Columbo depart from the inverted mystery style of storytelling for an Ed McBain police procedural adaptation. The results? Not half bad actually. It's an intriguing story of people who are being killed over possession of parts of picture that provides a key to a fortune. True, this jigsaw murder stry is more procedural boilerplate than the typical more charming Columbo mystery, but Falk shows his talent that even near 70, he was able to stretch his usual characterization. Grade: B+

Strange Bedfellows: George Wendt plays the brother of man addicted to gambling. He's desperate to get his brother's stake in the family business in addition to the horse stables. He sets up a pretty decent murder scenario which begins to unravel but apparently not enough to convict. How Columbo gets the solution comes off as pretty cheap. Columbo did a far more appropriate and subdued version of this in a 1970s film in a way that worked and didn't stretch credibility. It really falls apart towards the end. The highlight of the film was Wendt saying to Columbo, "There is no one more thing." Otherwise,  this was just a failed attempt for Wendt to escape from his Cheers character of Norm. Grade: C

A Trace of Murder:  A woman (played by Falk's real life wife Shera Danese) and her lover (David Rasche) plan to kill one of her husband's enemies and frame her husband  for the crime. This is helped by the fact that the other man works as a police scientist. This is actually a very well-done episode. Columbo doesn't psychically know the complete solution until a couple key clues give it away, but once he puts it all together, he lays a very clever trap for the killers. A very solid, well-done episode. Grade: A-

Ashes to Ashes: Patrick McGoohan returns for his fourth Columbo appearance. This time he plays mortician to the stars Eric Prince. When a gossip reporter threatens to expose a misdeed at the center of Prince's successful mortician venture, Prince kills her and cremates the remains.  Really, if Falk had been looking for a classy story to exit on, this would have been it. McGoohan and Falk have great chemistry together, the mystery is pretty clever, and like the best Columbo films, this one features an unusual quirky. In this case, it's Falk questioning McGoohan at a mortician's convention where a morbid sense of humor is on display. An absolutely solid entry and the equal of McGoohan's other performances. Grade: A

Murder with Too Many Notes: A young uncredited composer (Gabriel McEnry) is perceived as the protege but of Scottish mystery film composer Findlay Crawford (Billy Connolly)  has (in reality) been providing the scores that Crawford has taken credit for. When the young man threatens to expose Crawford, Crawford kills him after promising him the opportunity to start his own career and guest conduct.  The mystery itself has some clever features as Crawford set it up to look like a suicide and his interactions with Columbo were humorous enough, and the bits about music in cinema were fun for fans of movies.

The weak spot in the story is total lack of motive.  Part of Crawford's lie to the young composer was that Crawford would talk things over with the studio boss in a way that would make clear that the young man was a talent worth of hire while still maintaining the older man's reputation. The younger man was happy with that. Why didn't the older man decide to pursue murder instead? Dead or alive, he was going to lose the younger man's services. The younger man wouldn't expose him if he just helped him get started, a reasonable request. To actually kill the younger man, Crawford would have to be deranged.

Yet, that's never stated and we never get a handle on why he committed the crime. It would have been okay had the motive been unknown before the investigation. That was  the case in the 1976 story "A Matter of Honor," we really didn't understand why the matador played by Ricardo Montalban committed the crime and to solve the crime, Columbo had to find the motive. The story helped us believe the motive. However, we get no such satisfaction here. In addition, the film contains one of the most violent scenes in Columbo history though its not related to murder, but showing the scene that the musicians are playing over in a murder mystery. Very disturbing. Grade: C+

Columbo Likes the Night Life:  This film was released in 2003 when Peter Falk was 75. A man with underworld ties who is planning to invest in a new rave is extremely jealous about his ex-wife, who is dating the club he's about to invest in. When he finds about the relationship, he attacks his ex-wife and he's accidentally killed in the struggle. She and her boyfriend hide the body and keep up the appearance that he's live until the investment goes through. However, a down and reporter spots the killing and tries to blackmail the couple. The club owner kills the reporter and tries to make it look like a suicide. However, Columbo sees through it and unravels the case.

The actors in this film are virtual unknowns and the interaction between Columbo and the killers are quite a bit less than in older Columbo films. This is a much more workmanlike solution to the case.  Yet, what comes through is truly the greatness of Peter Falk in this role. His portrayal is spot on and great right up until the very end. If not for the ravages of time on his mind and body, Falk had the God-given Talent to play this role forever.  His portrayal was truly timeless.

This film also features one of the three best denouements in the latter day Columbo (and clearly the best since 1990) as 21st century cutting edge technology backs up Columbo's old fashioned intuition. Grade: B+

Overall, the collection was not as good as either the 1970s shows or the 1991-93 collection, and about on par with the 1989 and 90 movies.  It was a mixed bag with some gems and also a couple stinkers. Overall, I think the collection deserves a grade of: B.

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DVD Set Review: The Columbo Mystery Movie Collection: 1991-93

If quantity was more important than quality that the first two seasons of Columbo's revival in the 1989 and 1990 movie sets would be a high point. The truth is that Peter Falk remained brilliant as Columbo making the programs worth watching. However, an old spark was missing.

Perhaps, the biggest difference between these early films and the 1970s Columbo were the guest villains. The 1970s series had featured some of Hollywood's most distinguished actors as foils for Columbo: Gene Barry, Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy, Donald Pleasence, Roddy McDowall, Leonardy Nimoy, William Shatner, Janet Leigh, and Patrick McGoohan.

By contrast the first twelve Revival movies over ABC had a cast of Hollywood unknowns. The exceptions to this were McGoohan who starred in Agenda for Murder (1990)  and walked away with an Emmy nomination and Golden Globes winner Anthony Andrews who led off with Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. When researching the actors, many of them looked good on paper with many nominations for awards. A surprising number of Soap Opera actors made their way to be Columbo guest villains.  When cast with the Columbo in his iconic rain coat they showed they weren't quite ready for "prime time."

The next six movies took a difference pace. Over 1991-93, a total of six Columbo movies were released and in 2011, these six were released on DVD. However, these had far superior guest murderers which produced some better movies, particularly the first three.

The set has absolutely no extras, but Columbo fans will glad take the presence of our favorite police Lieutenant with no bells and whistles:

Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health (1991): George Hamilton became the second actor to play a Columbo killer in both the 70s and 1990s. He plays Wade Anders, a man who hosts an America's Most Wanted Style TV show. The man who he beat out for the job (Peter Haskell) threatens to reveal Anders participation in a porno decades previously: information sure to undermine his credibility. The non-smoking Anders poisons the chain-smoking Anderson's cigarettes, and plans to make the death look like an accident. Then Columbo comes on the case. He and Columbo have some memorable scenes including a hilarious non-speaking scene in a parking lot.  Overall, a very well-done professional Columbo film. Grade: A-

Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star (1991): Dabney Coleman, in an Emmy-nominated performance, plays a high-powered defense attorney who murders his live in girlfriend. Coleman's lawyer is slick and charismatic,  making this game of cat and mouse between him and Columbo particularly enjoyable. Grade: A-

Death Hits the Jackpot (1991): A man going through a divorce wins the lottery but doesn't want to split the proceeds with his soon-to-be ex-wife. So he turns to his Uncle Leon Lamar (Rip Torn) for help. The Uncle (who is financially in trouble) comes up with a clever idea: let him cash in the ticket and then he'll pay off the nephew later quietly once the attention has died down. Instead, he murders his nephew and attempts to keep the money for himself with the help of the nephew's ex-wife.  Torn is perhaps the most sinister and cold-blooded Columbo murderer since Lee Grant in "Ransom for a Dead Man."  I cheered for Columbo like never before in this one. Grade: A

No Time to Die (1992): "No Time to Die" was based on an Ed McBain novel and really tossed the Columbo formula out the window in favor of a more straight police procedural. The result was an "okay" somewhat average TV mystery movie. For fans of the series, there's a lack of Columbo being Columbo and he does unColumbo-like things like carrying a gun.

Of course, other TV shows such as The Rockford Files and Simon and Simon adapted novel plots for TV episodes. The difference was that they adapted that fit the tenure of the series. Columbo comes from a much more soft boiled tradition like Poirot. Throwing him into a procedural was entirely bizarre. The whole case centers around the kidnapping of a policeman's new bride on his wedding night by a psychopathic sexual pervert. It's not Columbo stuff. Falk did the best he could with it, but from me it just gets a: C+

A Bird in the Hand (1992): A problem gambler (Greg Evigan)  decides to murder his sports team owner father.  He wires his dad's car with a bomb, but his father dies in an apparent hit-and-run accident, and his bomb instead kills the family gardener. This episode is an interesting experiment as we follow one person who plans the killing, but another person executes in an entirely different way. It doesn't work out quite as well on the screen mainly because the writers did not give the talented Tyne Daley enough work with in her role as the not-so grief stricken widow. Grade: B

It's All In the Game (1993): A wealthy socialite (Faye Dunaway) plots the murder of her boyfriend with the help of another woman he's dating. Columbo is very courteous to her at the crime scene, but he's also suspicious that the theory of a robbery motive for the murder may be wrong. Her plan to stop Columbo? Seduce him.  In the process, she actually starts to fall in love with him, telling her daughter that Columbo is "fun to be with." While Columbo does like her, there are numerous signs that in the "romance" he's only playing along until he gets what he needs: signs that she misses. Her confidence that her feminine wiles can get a veteran homicide cop to change a report border between attractive and over the top.

The episode also was made memorable by the fact that while we saw the murder, we were left with many mysteries as to the why and who the young woman with Dunaway's character was. Overall, this was a very solid latter episode. Grade: A-

Overall set rating: B+

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1990s Mystery Fans Rejoice: Columbo Has one More Thing and Father Dowling Comes to DVD

I checked the website TVShowsonDVD and came across two interesting items.

First of all, all the Columbo movies will be on DVD in the United States next year with the release of the final DVD movie set.  The final 7 columbo movies span from 1994-2003, though Falk slowed down greatly towards the end with the first three films coming from 1994 and '95 and Falk averaging a film every other year for the last eight years. Some highlights of the set include the second appearance of William Shatner as a Columbo guest villain in Butterfly in Shades of Grey and Patrick McGoohan plays a killer mortifician in Ashes to Ashes. This is, of course, overdue for eager U.S. Columbo fans. 

It's worth noting that the entire series will be available on January 10, 2012 or nearly 2 1/2 years after the series was avialable in Great Britain.  Not certain the reason for this. It's always seemed curious that DVD season for American TV shows come out in other countries before they do in the U.S. just as official releases Bonanza came to Germany long before they made it to the U.S.

Meanwhile another program that had been released already overseas (in this case, in Australia) will find its way to television in February 2012. The first season of the Father Dowling Mysteries is set for DVD release. The release will include the 1987 pilot movie as well as the seven episodes that made up season one.

The show starred Tom Bosley as Father Frank Dowling, a kindly crime-solving priest with Tracy Nelson as Sister Stephanie 'Steve' Oskowski. Tom Bosley was best known for his role  as Howard Cunningham on Happy Days. Prior to starring in Father Dowling, Bosley had played Sheriff Amos Tupper on Murder She Wrote. In 1986, he took on the role of a Priest who played a minor role in Perry Mason and the Case of the Notrious Nun. The next year, he made the Father Dowling pilot movie.

Hopefully, the next two seasons of the series will be released without much further delay.

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A Review of the Columbo Collection

[This was originally slated to be posted on July 9th but was moved to today due to the passing of the great Peter Falk. You may also enjoy our look at the top 10 1970s Columbo episodes in parts one, two, and three ]

It's been nearly eight and a half years since the last Columbo movie and with star Peter Falk's health issues assured there would be no sequel. Now Falk's death may have some folks wanting a little bit more Columbo.

Creator William Link, has returned to working on Columbo sans Peter Falk, writing a play, Columbo Takes the Rap. Last year, Link released The Columbo Collection, the first ever compilation of Columbo short stories, featuring twelve Columbo adventures.

The Columbo Collection is a must for any fan of the series. Usually, writing these sort of volumes falls to people who are not really associated with the series or whose affiliation is loose, and they can't get the character accurate. Link brings credibility to the stories and gets Columbo pretty close to right.

To truly enjoy the book, your expectations have to be properly set.  Reading the stories is not going to come close to replaciating the fun of watching Columbo on television or the depth of the stories.  Each story is between 15-26 pages long. Some of the preludes to the murder in TV episodes would take longer than that to tell.

Columbo's unique structure doesn't lend itself well to these sort of limitations, so it's no surprise that the book is a mixed bag.

On the positive side, as a master of mystery, Link created several memorable gems, some of which approached the level of being lik e a mini-Columbo episode (imagine Columbo as a half hour TV show):

"The Criminal Criminal Defense Attorney"- A lawyer gets his client acquitted of  rape and then kills him. This story does a good job portraying the mental duel between Columbo and the attorney, and the final clue is classic Columbo. Also, a high powered defense attorney is perhaps the closest any of the stories come to Columbo's usual battle against an elitest.  The only weak spot of this story is that the motive is hard to believe.

"The Blackest Mail"-The longest story in the book  and well-worth the read. An actress murders a man who is trying to blackmail her by trying to make it look like self-defense. Now she has to evade Columbo. This one did a great job with the cat and mouse chase.

"Trance"-In several stories, Link doesn't show us the murder, but it's clear from the beginning who Columbo thinks is "the guy" (to quote Monk.) Such as is the case with "Trance" as we know from the beginning that Columbo's suspicion lies firmly on a hypnotist that has an airtight alibi. The way that Columbo breaks the alibi is classic. Unfortunately, the way Columbo puts the murderer at the scene of the crime is not credible.

"Murder Allegro"-Another where we don't see the murder, but are relying on Columbo who is sure that a musician murdered his wife, who was also part of the band. This one is not only a howcatchem but a howdidit. On both points, this story works.

"Photo Finish"-This story was unique in staying in the viewpoint of the murderer from start to finish as she plots the murder of her philandering husband. This character has a very distinct voice as a woman scorned out for revenge at all costs and annoyed by her amateur mistakes in the murder game. Unfortunatley for her, Columbo basically walks into the solution.

Opposite the table of contents, The Columbo Collection also features a very nice sketch of Columbo drawn by Peter Falk.  Link also writes an introduction to his piece that contains much the same information as he's posted on his website but had a couple interesting added details.

One was about Bert Freed, who was the first actor to play Columbo as the first Columbo telepay was an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show. Link ran into Freed and found out that Freed had forgotten he'd ever played Columbo. Freed had want Link called actor's amnesia, and it's easy to forget one role on a forgotten TV show dcades before.  I found it amusing that if Freed had somehow landed on Celebrity Jeopardy, he would missed the question, "The first actor to play Columbo."

On the negative side,  the story Grief was the weakest of the lot. Everything about the story was tedious. And the story was made worse when Columbo tried to mitigate one elderly man running over another, because the driver thought the pedestrian had committed a hit and run on his dog.

Most of the other stories that aren't listed above are forgettable, with weak plots, weak conclusions, or weak characters. They don't possess all of these problems, but they're seriously handicapped by the short story format and trying to have Columbo have a battle of wits and solve a case in 20 pages.

Also, in many of these stories, Link does a poor job choosing his villains. Part of the appeal of Columbo is the every man again battling the rich, famous, and powerful. Putting Columbo up against other everymen as Link does when he puts Columbo against a Gardener-War Veteran, another cop of about equal rank, a retiree, and a man who lost his girlfriend to a would-be-assassn's ricochet does just that. Of course, that would be realistic, but Columbo has never been about realism.

The first five stories contain motives buried in psychobabble that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Thankfully, Link proceeds to a pattern of using more traditional motives like jealousy, greed, and revenge which work  far better in short story form.

One hopeful sign is that these stories do appear to be published in the order  in which Link wrote them and the last few attempts are far more refined, with the last three stories all making my list of the gems in the book., which means if he opts to do another Columbo collection, he may be in better form.

Personally, I would probably have much preferred a collection of three or four Columbo novellas which would have provided more time for the format to work.  Still, it was a worthy read, particularly for fans that miss that rumpled rain coat.

Rating:Three Stars out of Five.

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