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“Just one more thing.” Why we still love Peter Falk’s ‘Columbo’

The original run of police drama ‘Columbo’ had already come and gone before I took my first breath. Several decades after Lieutenant Columbo’s last case and twelve years after actor Peter Falk’s death, I’m addicted to the show and working my way through every single episode in broadcast order.

For anyone who hasn’t fallen in love with Peter Falk’s mesmerising performance as the dishevelled and amiable homicide detective Lieutenant Columbo of LAPD, my sudden passion for a cult classic American crime drama from the 1970s may seem a touch eccentric. After all, what could possible be the draw for a hobo detective in a shabby raincoat and clapped-out car? Well, allow me to explain!

Getting into ‘Columbo’ by chance

“Did you know that Janis Joplin took her last earthly drink here?” our friends asked, taking us to Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood for the first time. They were a hive of local information. They also mentioned that Columbo used to pop into Barney’s for his chilli. The series was filmed in Los Angeles and used familiar locations like the popular drinking haunt we hung out in (though the interiors were studio sets).

A few days later, in the memorial park looking for Marilyn Monroe’s final resting place, we happened upon Peter Falk’s grave. “I’m not here. I’m home with Shera,” the simple headstone says. We were being followed by Columbo!

The series kept coming in and out of my life. Season One was released on Blu-ray by Fabulous Films and I jumped at the chance to review it for EF, attracted to it by reputation and knowing that one of the original episodes was directed than none other than Steven Spielberg. I ended up watching every single episode on the discs.

When I mentioned how much I enjoyed it and that it was a shame no more seasons were being released, a friend who is a fellow Columbophile lent me Season Four on DVD. “You love Robert Vaughn don’t you? And Patrick McGoohan? They’re both villains in it.” I planned to watch a few episodes out of politeness and then return the discs, imagining that the series couldn’t possibly have been as good by the fourth season. In the end, I thought it was even better, and I whizzed through the whole lot in no time at all and ended up desperate to see more.

Columbo Peter Falk
Credit: Greg Jameson. Finding Peter Falk’s final resting place.

Room in the suitcase

After a few strange coincidences had built up, it took another trip to Los Angeles to take the ultimate step. On the last morning of the holiday I accompanied my husband to Target supermarket to buy a few essentials. For the past ten days I’d looked for a ‘Columbo’ DVD box set without finding one. Target sells very little home entertainment these days so I suspected I’d missed my chance. “If they have any ‘Columbo’, I’ll buy it,” I promised, knowing how unlikely it was that they’d have it in stock.

There, in the DVD section, on the top shelf, was ‘The Complete Columbo’ in an enormous DVD box set, at the incredibly reasonable price of $49. We couldn’t believe our eyes. Yet another ‘Columbo’ coincidence!

When we met our friends for a farewell drink later that evening, my husband said, “Tell them what you bought.”

“Well, it turns out that I had room in my suitcase for… just one more thing…”

Sharing the passion

To stop me going on and on about how great ‘Columbo’ is, my husband agreed to watch up to the end of the first season with me, and thereafter I’d be on my own. Quietly, I hoped he’d become as hooked as I was, but although he made good on his promise, he liked but didn’t love it. “It’s good, but it’s all a bit samey,” was his criticism. Is he right?

Columbo Peter Falk
Credit: Greg Jameson. The ‘Columbo’ memorial bench beside Peter Falk’s grave.

The ‘Columbo’ formula

I know what he means, but part of the reason that I love the show so much is that the formula is exceptionally good, and a lot of it is counterintuitive. Which other TV series holds back its title character until the second act? We hardly ever see Columbo before the murder has been committed (and when we do, it’s only to subvert our expectations). Instead, we follow characters we will never meet again for the first twenty minutes (although some splendid actors like Robert Culp and Jack Cassidy return as different murderers over and over again).

Which other detective drama tells viewers who the killer is right from the start? Where most shows would take the wind out of its dramatic sails by removing the ‘whodunnit?’ element of suspense, ‘Columbo’ works in a completely different way. How is he going to prove his suspect’s guilt and make the arrest? That’s what hooks us.

And who doesn’t like a catchphrase? Once it’s established, the delight is waiting for Falk to say it. Yet Lt Columbo goes through variations on a theme before settling on the “Just one more thing” schtick. “One thing bothers me,” is an earlier iteration to look out for.

I’ve always had a fascination for off-stage characters. Captain Mainwaring’s wife Elizabeth would often telephone him during episodes of ‘Dad’s Army’, but we never met her or heard her voice. She was much more fearsome in our imaginations, after all! Mrs Columbo is referenced in virtually every episode. She’s always a terrific fan of whoever the famous celebrity murderer of the week is. Deciding whether or not she actually exists (the season three episode ‘A Friend in Deed’ strongly implies that Columbo lives alone) or is just a rhetorical device for Columbo to win the confidence of his suspect is all part of the fun!

Each episode follows a familiar pattern. We see a murder take place and then Lt Columbo arrives on the crime scene. He quickly forms suspicions about the killer, and then using his charm and apparently bumbling, forgetful persona, allows the killer to underrate him. Sometimes, as with Donald Pleasence (see the excellent episode ‘Any Old Port in a Storm’), they almost seem like friends. But it’s all an act (as the killer in the pilot episode ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’ quickly works out). Columbo only affects a shabby and absent-minded persona to disguise his razor-sharp Sherlock Holmes-like powers of observation and deduction. The more arrogant and haughtily superior the killer, the more likely they are to fall for Columbo’s act of humble piety and imagine that they’ll easily pull the wool over his eyes and get away with murder. Just as you wonder how on earth Columbo will tighten the net around the suspect, he reveals an ingenious gotcha that often has the keenest viewers squealing in delight (or me, at any rate)!

Columbo Peter Falk
Credit: Greg Jameson. The memorial park in Hollywood where Peter Falk is buried.

The winning ingredients

What exactly is it that I find so compelling about ‘Columbo’? It boils down to three things:

Firstly, it’s comfort TV. The established formula, Columbo’s customary methods of deduction and the Los Angeles setting ensure that, however innovative the set-up (and when Johnny Cash plays the murderer in ‘Swan Song’, he really does come up with a highly original wheeze!) you stay in recognisable territory. Just as sitcoms press the reset button at the end of each episode and the sets never change, just as slipping on an old jumper is always the cosiest embrace, just as traditions and customs provide us with the comfort of familiarity, ‘Columbo’ meets your expectations and allows fans to lose themselves in its magic.

Secondly, ‘Columbo’ is high-quality television drama. The scripts usually sparkle with ideas and snappy dialogue. The stories are almost always intelligently-structured and intriguing, keeping your interest from start to finish over seventy to ninety minutes. For police procedural drama, it’s a class act and a cut above the rest with enough unique twists and eccentricities to keep it distinctive.

Thirdly, the murderers are usually from the upper echelons of Hollywood high society. They swan about in mansions with swimming pools and wear loud and fancy fashions. They’re used to getting their own way and see no reason why they shouldn’t be able to get away with murder. Watching a scruffy little fellow in a battered pink suit get the better of them is simply delicious. Columbo is the best man for the job in delivering their fall from grace.

Peter Falk is so great in the part that it’s inconceivable to imagine any other actor playing ‘Columbo’. I sincerely hope they never reboot the show. The 45 classic episodes from the late 1960s and 1970s retain their magic five decades on. You don’t need anything else.

Next time I will discuss some episodes of ‘Columbo’ that have really caught my attention. But for a deep dive into this wonderful series, look no further than my constant companion ‘The Columbophile Blog‘. Their witty analysis is truly incomparable.

Greg Jameson
Greg Jameson
Book editor, with an interest in cult TV.

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