Peter Falk has died. He was a terrific actor with a large and varied body of work, but it is as Lt. Columbo he will be remembered.
I happen to be in a bit of a Columbo marathon this week and it made me playful. Over on Facebook, I started to create a list of tips for the killers on the show, drawn from my pretty vast knowledge of the stories. I never stipulated my criteria, but I was compiling things that tripped up more than one killer, truisms, if you will, not one-offs. For example, a lot of Columbo killers put way too much effort into creating “perfect” alibis, which often center on asking someone else the time and complaining of a broken/fast watch. (Ross Hunter and Dick Van Dyke did it.) In Publish and Perish, Jack Cassidy arranges to be locked up overnight while a hit man kills the object of his disaffection, a novelist played by Mickey Spillane.
And they all talk too damn much.
But one of the things I’ve realized in my most recent Columbo binge is that he also epitomized the axiom: It’s smarter to be lucky. For example in “Lady in Waiting,” he’s got no case if the killer’s boyfriend doesn’t happen to arrive at the house about the same time she’s shooting her brother and trying to make it look like an accident. Later, he realizes that the shots came before the burglar alarm went off. And when the killer, played by Susan Clark, protests that her boyfriend may be wrong in his memory, Columbo’s response is that he’s an attorney with a very good memory.
It’s at times like these that I wonder how many of Columbo’s cases fell apart in court. You don’t have to be Johnnie Cochran to shred that one. A woman shot a man entering her bedroom through the French doors and has already been cleared at an inquest. So what if she got the sequence of events wrong? It’s not definitive proof of anything.
But I love Columbo, with one caveat. The episodes produced in the late ’80s, early ’90s simply didn’t hold up. I recently re-watched all of those to figure out why*. I’m still not sure. The photography looks sleazier, for one thing. The guest stars are less stellar. (Andrew Stevens? Fisher Stevens?) And in the one that stars Fisher Stephens as a Hollywood whiz kid — an episode that is very shrewd about Hollywood age-ism behind the camera — it ends with a horribly out-of-character bit of showmanship on Columbo’s part. He was never one to gloat. Sometimes, he seemed genuinely sorrowful. In “Try and Catch Me,” for example, he understands that Ruth Gordon’s character was attacking an injustice the only way available to her. He also seemed to have a soft spot for Johnny Cash in “Swan Song,” but maybe that’s my own soft spot. One thing to kill your horrible wife, but the girl, too?
Jack Cassidy is my all-time favorite villain, perhaps because two of his three appearances centered on publishing. I’ve mentioned “Publish and Perish,” in which Mickey Spillane’s character is writing what is clearly the worst Vietnam novel ever. But he also appeared in the marvelous, Speilberg-directed one with Martin Milner, in which he killed his partner — why? I’ve never quite understood that one. It didn’t solve his problem of losing the co-writer who did all the writing. Dude, you’ve hired a hitman. Just go to a party or something.
Columbo memories after the jump, where I also might put together my tips for Columbo’s killers. And if you don’t have any Columbo memories — I’m so sorry.
*Yes, I re-watched television shows that I hate to figure out why I hate them. That’s how dedicated I am.