Actor Peter Falk’s depiction of Detective Columbo made him simultaneously a lovable and a maddening character, but also a formidable adversary.
When it came to the Whodunit on television, Columbo was unique.
Most of the time, the audience was as clueless as the lead detective when it came to who committed the crime. The plot, then, would focus on the detective’s efforts to figure out who murdered whom while the audience tried to outguess the detective.
Columbo turned that familiar formula for success on its ear, however. Before the character ever made an appearance, the audience saw not only the murder as it happened, but also saw who did it and — at least to an extent — how it was done in an effort to hide the truth from police.
So when the famous lieutenant, in his wrinkled trenchcoat, walked into a crime scene, we, the audience, already knew what he didn’t. The fun of Columbo was trying to figure out how Columbo would figure it out.
Here are my 10 favorite episodes of the original series.
1. Any Old Port in the Storm
A winemaker kills his younger brother who was planning to sell the winery their father left to both of them. Columbo manages to use the winemaker’s rare talent at detecting even slight imperfections in wine against hm.
2. A Stitch in Crime
Will Geer, the grandfather on The Waltons, plays a renowned physician whose medical partner, Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy, plans to kill so he can profit from their shared research. Only part of the plan comes together, but Columbo even ventures into the operating room, after amusing scenes showing how uncomfortable he is in hospitals and around blood, to close the case.
3. Try and Catch Me
This one made the list despite my problem with the title’s grammar: it should be “Try to Catch Me.” In any case, Ruth Gordon stars as a famous crime fiction author who decides to try her hand at a real murder to avenge the death of a beloved niece at the hands, she’s convinced, of her nephew-by-marriage. She has quick answers for anything Columbo throws at her, except for the clue her victim leaves behind.
4. Negative Reaction
Dick Van Dyke stars as a famed photographer who wants to kill his wife. Columbo knows something doesn’t add up. His investigation includes a great scene at a homeless shelter where a nun, after taking one look at the craggy-looking detective, assumes he must be homeless and tries to help. In the end, Columbo manages to trick the photographer with the very photo that provided the alibi.
5. How to Dial a Murder
A psychologist and movie buff trains his Doberman Pinchers, Laurel and Hardy, to kill when they hear a famous word from an even more famous film. Columbo is convinced the dog attack wasn’t random, but nearly misses the truth when a clever attempt to prove it fails. But thanks to Columbo’s ingenuity, the plan ends up working and Columbo is able to give the psychologist a big surprise.
6. Swan Song
Singer Johnny Cash causes a plane crash to kill his wife and daughter, then pretends to be the sole survivor. Cash proves a clever villain, but Columbo, in the end, prompts Cash to deliver the missing evidence against himself.
7. Ransom for a Dead Man
This episode served as the second pilot with Falk before the series began. It stars Lee Grant as an attorney who shoots her husband minutes into the episode, then fakes his kidnapping. Columbo reveals to her that “little details” bother him and it’s that obsession that helps him solve the case.
8. Forgotten Lady
Psycho star Janet Leigh stars as a forgotten movie star who plots to kill her husband when he decides not to finance her chance at a comeback. But there’s something very unique about this case: it’s the only time the murderer isn’t arrested.
9. A Deadly State of Mind
A psychiatrist kills the client with whom he’s having an affair, and is at first frightened when he spots a potential witness. He quickly realizes the witness is blind, and when Columbo later presents this same witness, the psychiatrist falls right into Columbo’s trap.
10. Etude in Black
A conductor decides to kill a young pianist with whom he’s having an affair. But a broadcast of the concert the day of the murder reveals the tiny detail that allows Columbo to solve the crime.
Were you a fan of Columbo?