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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