Columbo was a unique detective show in that the murderer’s identity was (almost) always known from the beginning. What made the show interesting was how Columbo would solve the crime and where the flaw in the murder lay.
Each episode represented a battle of wits between Columbo and the murderer. Columbo, due to his disheveled appearance and quirkiness, would almost be underestimated by the killer, who would try to lead Columbo down the path they wanted him to follow. Sooner or later, they would realize that Columbo was no fool and they’d move from helpful to hostile.
Columbo in some ways was the opposite of Dragnet. It was almost a police fantasy where a Police Lieutenant rarely supervised any men and didn’t carry a gun, and all of his cases involved the rich and/or famous who committed murder at an alarming rate.
Somehow, it worked. Arguably, it worked best during the show’s original 1970s run. So far, the only Columbo revival movie I’d put in the same category as the best 1970s shows is 1989’s Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. However, I’ve not seen every one of the latter movies, so I’ll limit this list to the 1970s run:
10) The Conspirators (1978):
In “The Conspirators,” Irish poet and undercover IRA agent Joe Devlin (Clide Revill) kills an arms dealer who tried to double cross him and his conspirators.
Revill turns in a charming performance as Devlin with fantastic chemistry with Falk. The show has some fun and relaxing scenes as Columbo and Devlin play darts, make up limericks, and talk about their past.
The show also does have some serious undertones as it deals with the conflict in Northern Ireland. Unlike the 1975 episode, “A Case of Immunity,” the writers didn’t fictionalize world affairs. Devlin had publicly renounced violence and was raising funds for the victims of Northern Ireland, but the money was actually to be used to buy guns to go to Northern Ireland which sadly did happen with quite a few international charities.
Columbo’s challenge is not only to find the arms dealer’s murderer but to stop the arms from going to Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, Devlin has to get the arms without his dealer.
In a series that featured a lot insufferable snobs, the showdown with Devlin was a pleasant change that made for a memorable end to the 1970s run.
9) Murder Under Glass
At the other end of the relationship scale from the chummy Murder Under Glass. Columbo. In the 1977 episode, “Try and Catch Me” Columbo admits to liking people in general, and even some of the murderers he met, and explained his overall positive outlook on life:
It’s rare for Columbo to express dislike for a suspect which makes the ending of “Murder Under Glass” so interesting as both Columbo and the killer express their dislike for each other.
Throughout most of the episode, Columbo and food critic Paul Gerard remain polite, even cordial, however, it’s clear these two have growing contempt for each other. Gerard poisoned a restaurateur who had gotten tired of being blackmailed by Gerard. Gerard then frames a young Italian immigrant for the crime.
The case is fully based in the world of high class dining, and the writers did fantastic research to make the episode come alive. The most notable thing we learn in the episode is that Columbo is a good cook. While this contradicts an earlier episode, seeing Columbo cook was so fun, I don’t really care.
“Murder Under Glass” comes down to a final scene where Columbo and the murderer prepare a meal, with the murderer becoming one of the few Columbo killers to think of killing off the good Lieutenant to evade capture.
8 ) Requiem for a Falling Star (1973)
One became one of the cliche’s of Columbo series was Columbo saying to the murderer, “The wife and I are really big fans.” After a while, I developed the theory that the police could most easily catch murderers by placing anyone Mrs. Columbo is a fan of under police under surveilance.
One of the earliest and most effective examples of this was in “Requiem for a Falling Star.” Here, it really works.
Aging actress Nora Chandler (Anne Baxter) kills off her assistant. Columbo is called into investigate. He is very excited to meet Miss Chandler, so much so that he calls up his family.
Throughout the episode, Columbo remains very kind and respectful towards Chandler, even as her guilt becomes more obvious. Chandler remains gracious towards Columbo until the end when she really feels him closing in on her.
This episode also features quite a bit more mystery than your average Columbo episode. Oftentimes, both the motive and method of the crime are laid out completely. I have to admit that I was a little confused by how Chandler pulled off the murder, and the motive remained a mystery until the final scene.
Taken together with great chemistry between Peter Falk and Anne Baxter, this is one of the most enjoyable Columbos out there.
Continued next week…
The entire 1970s Columbo Series is available on DVD from Amazon, along the 1989 and 1990 Mystery Movies series. The 1991-93 Mystery Movies series will be available on DVD February 8th. Episodes of Columbo are also available on DVD and Instant Watch from Netflix.
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I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of your list. For my money, the NBC run of “Columbo” is the best detective series TV has ever presented. Peter Falk is excellent and the stable of “guest murderers” rarely disappoints. I’m not crazy about the ABC run either; I think the problems were weaker guest stars and stories padded to fit the 2-hour runtime. “Guillotine” is a high point; the other from ABC I would say hits the heights of the original series is “Agenda for Murder” with Patrick McGoohan.