The original 1970s Columbo was pure entertainment gold: one of the best mystery series of all time, with Peter Falk playing the great detective as he matched wits with powerful and rich murderers played by some of Hollywood’s finest actors.
However, the Revived Columbo that returned in 1988 was a bit more like Silver laced with Bronze. Falk was still great, but the writing was problematic at times. It could be soap operatic or lame. They tinkered with the formulas and often not successfully. And plus, while the original Columbos were family programs, there were numerous attempts to sex-up Columbo scripts and make it more edgy, resulting in stories that felt out of place or even creepy.
But there were still more good movies than bad, more that recaptured the old magic rather that messing it up and still more that were tolerable thanks to Peter Falk’s presence. Over the next three weeks we’ll take a look at the worst and the best of the Revived Columbo series, starting with the five worst episodes and then celebrating the best from that era the next two weeks. So we begin with the top 5 worst Columbos of the revived series:
5) Murder with Too Many Notes (2000)
This was a story where the basic lack of a sensible motive really hurt. The Murderer Findlay Crawford reached an amicable agreement with Gabriel McEnery that would have allowed McEnery to begin a new career on his own without damaging Crawford’s reputation. And Crawford killed him because-—I don’t know. Beyond that, the pacing is slow and boring. The most interesting thing is the discussion of how music and films work. When your plot digressions are more interesting than your plot, that’s a problem. The movie does have an amusing bit between Columbo and Crawford that did go on a little too long. It also should be noted that the film begins with an intensely violent murder scene that actually does turn out just to be the film that Crawford but is kind of jarring and unpleasant.
4) Murder: A Self Portrait (1990)
The villain is a French painter who lives with his wife, his ex-wife, and his mistress. He kills his ex-wife and finds himself locked into a battle of wits with Columbo. The villain is such a stereotype, the only thing the plot forgot was to give him a mustache and a beret. The story itself had potential, and there are some fairly decent moments with Peter Falk, but it felt like the story was trying too hard both to be edgy and to tell a non-conventional story, and the painter’s rather dull collapse makes this one a disappointing conclusion and a bit of a mess..
3) No Time to Die (1992)
The first of two Columbo films that were adapted from Ed McBain books and abandoned typical Columbo formula. There is no major guest villain. Just Columbo and a team of dull cops chasing down clues to find the kidnapper of Columbo’s nephew’s bride. The story isn’t just below the standard of Columbo, the plot is below the standards of a decent made for TV mystery.
2) Uneasy Lies the Crown (1990):
A very clever title as it’s about a dentist who murders a patient through applying a temporary crown and the idea for the murder is actually well thought out. However, what overwhelms the best elements of the story is a poor performance from James Read as the villain and the way the story peters out towards the end as he folds like one of Columbo’s suits.
1) Strange Bedfellows (1995)
After TV show Cheers ended, George Wendt (who played Norm) had an opportunity to move beyond being Norm from Cheers and perhaps move to being a bigger star. He had a short-lived Sitcom and then there was this episode of Columbo. Sadly, it was not to be, and this film didn’t help. Wendt wasn’t bad in this, he even delivered the response to Columbo saying, “Just One More Thing,” that dozens of murderers only dreamed of. But this was a failure of concept and script, with probably the stupidest idea for a murderer to come up with the entire series.. Wendt plays stable owner Graham McVeigh, who kills his brother and decides to frame a mafia figure for it. Guess what? The Mafia didn’t like that. The film gets into a sort of alliance between Columbo and the mafia to squeeze McVeigh. This ends in an over the top and painfully bad scene that’s worst than the conclusion of, “Dagger of the Mind,” from the 1970s run. In many ways, this sort of squeeze play to force the villain to turn himself over to Columbo is reminiscent of the 1970s story, “A Case of Immunity,” which was far better than this film.
Despite the flaws and the many weaker installments, the series still starred Peter Falk who made many episodes watchable and even delightful particularly when matched with the right co-star.. And while I wouldn’t want put any of these episode in the same class as the best installments of the original series, there were plenty of fine episodes and we’ll turn to take a look at them next week.
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