Columbo was big in the seventies. Massive. It was one of the most popular programmes ever on US TV and travelled to over 40 countries worldwide. It’s one of those shows that (Star Trek style) is on somewhere in the World every second of the day. TheTV detectivehas always been a popular TV staple and there were many successful shows before Columbo, but the programme was a genuine game changer when it first appeared regularly in the late sixties. It transformed the genre with its inverted detective story style (whereby we know ‘whodunnit’ and how right from the start) and all small screen crime shows since – from Morse to Cracker to the revamped Sherlock – show signs of the Columbo’s influence.
Because the viewer knew the killer and had seen the crime up front the programme required skilled writing and indeed misdirection, obfuscation and other sleight of hand were all skilfully employed to move the story along and guarantee a genuinely unexpected twist toward the climax. But if you look at the overwhelming global success of the show you realise that even the best written and produced programme would ordinarily have been remade and recast to better suit the demands of the importing territory – it hasn’t. It was sometimes dubbed and occasionally subtitled, but one irreplaceable element could never be duplicated – the towering central performance of Peter Falk. He is more responsible than anything else for the show’s success and his skill in crafting a sublime character has been sadly underappreciated. He took a basic outline of an unorthodox detective and fleshed it onto a quite remarkable tour de force. In each and every episode he, at least, is absolutely perfect.
When he landed the role, Falk had enjoyed a lauded but only moderately successful career. He’d stood out in a few unremarkable films and TV shows (just so you don’t underestimate his acting ability he spent the seventies alternating shifts as Columbo with making improvisational films with legendary indie auteur John Cassavetes). But when Columbo came along something about the character and Falk clicked and he very quickly took creative control of the leiutenant’s development. He selected the clothes, thecarand inserted the fumbling mannerisms and circumstantial speech that befuddled both fictional killers and the actors playing them. He would deliberately insert additional dialogue and conversational right angles into scenes to keep the cast on their toes and as a means of drawing the audience away from any plot devices he thought too obvious.
Look at any part of any episode where Falk is onscreen and you’ll see him working the scene, he takes the script and the set and uses them as simply the base from which he takes off. He moves at his own speed and circumnavigates the central thrust of the scene until he’s wrung every nuance he can from the, sometimes hackneyed, lines. The other actors key off his performance and the pace and tone fall into place behind him.
When the inevitable happens and Falk slips into the hereafter it seems certain that there will follow lazy, under-appreciative obituaries focussing on the tics and catchphrases that have been made over-familiar by poor impressionists.
The Lieutenant is always referred to in terms of his look but even this is superbly thought through. He’s called shabby or shambolic or scruffy but it’s more the case that his dress is memorable because in the gaudy LA sunshine Columbo exists within only a small sector of the visible spectrum. Falk carefully selected every aspect of the visual style so that the clothes, car and cigar meld into a green/ brown /cream smudge that seems classic and ageless amongst the outdated high waists, platform shoes and comb-overs of the supporting cast.
It can be difficult to fully appreciate the brilliance of Falk’s performance as most of the episodes are now showing their age and while some of the guest star murderers overact gleefully, many are just bad (Billy Connolly’s turn being both a nadir in Columbo’s history and, amazingly, the worst performance in his already dire acting history). Falk, though, is always superb. He rarely shows up in the first half hour but once onscreen he provides a magnetic centre to proceedings, he steers all the movie length episodes with calm and grace and invites the viewers’ trust rather than demanding it.
Most importantly Columbo is incredibly likable. He has many commendable and enviable character traits; he’s determined, ingenious, charming and unfailingly polite – everyone is referred to as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. Again, it’s Falk that makes all of this work, the same script delivered by any other actor (or without as much skill) would run the risk or appearing cheesy or patronising or, worst of all, betray too much of Columbo’s thinking too early in the show. Falk underplays, knows when to step back, knows when to play for laughs, never misses a beat – it’s as good as TV acting gets and better than most in film.
With dementia reportedly responsible for a swift, terminal decline in Falk’s health the planned valedictory episode, Columbo’s Last Case, will never be made and while the 69 episodes in existence may seem too many for most they stand up to much repeated viewing. When the inevitable happens and Falk slips into the hereafter it seems certain that there will follow lazy, under-appreciative obituaries focussing on the tics and catchphrases that have been made over-familiar by poor impressionists. What they should focus on is the way Peter Falk designed and played far and away the greatest TV detective and probably the most distinctive, intelligent and simply enjoyable character in the history of the medium.
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