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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