At the beginning of the 1970s NBC launched the first “wheel series” - the idea was that rather than making a single series for a particular timeslot they would make three different series which would screen on a three-week rotation in the same timeslot under the umbrella title The NBC Mystery Movie. The three series would comprise feature-length episodes made in conjunction with Universal. The three series were Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife. The network was either very lucky or they displayed remarkably good judgment in selecting these three series - all three turned out to be major hits.
Columbo was a very big hit indeed, running from 1971 to 1978 and then being revived (on the ABC network) from 1989 to 2003.
The character of Lieutenant Columbo was actually created as early as 1960, in an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show written by William Link and Richard Levinson. Columbo was played by Bert Freed. A couple of years later Link and Levinson used the character again in a play called Prescription: Murder, with Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. The play was turned into a TV movie for NBC in 1968. Mitchell had passed away by that time and although the character had been written as a much older man Peter Falk landed the role this time. The TV movie was successful enough that in 1971 NBC authorised a pilot episode for a possible series. The series materialised later that same year.
In Prescription: Murder Columbo matches wits with a psychiatrist (played by Gene Barry) who has murdered his wife. What makes things really interesting is that Lieutenant Columbo is at this stage more or less the Columbo who would become so familiar to viewers, but not quite. His distinctive methods are already in place - he tries to appear more foolish and more absent-minded than he really is in order to lull the suspects into a false sense of security and he wears them down with an annoying but apparently friendly persistence. On the other hand he’s more abrasive and more aggressive, even becoming quite intimidating to a witness at one point. He’s closer to being the typical cop than he would ever be in the series proper.
The first episode of the series proper, Murder by the Book, was directed by some guy named Steven Spielberg. I wonder whatever happened to him? It sets the tone for the series. Not only does the series take its inspiration from the golden age of mystery fiction - this episode is about a murder committed by a writer of that very type of fiction! There are obviously lots of opportunities for detective fiction in-jokes.
Columbo is easier to write about than most mystery series since virtually every episode is an inverted detective story, a form invented by R. Austin Freeman in the early years of the 20th century in which the killer’s identity is revealed right at the outset. The interest of the story lies in the way in which the detective unravels the mystery and finds enough evidence to make an arrest. Since the audience knows who the murderer is right from the start there is no need to worry about revealing spoilers!
That format was only ever going to work if the murderers were clever and ruthless enough to prove worthy adversaries for the shabby but brilliant detective, and if the guest stars were of sufficient calibre to carry a feature-length episode. Gene Barry as the psychiatrist in Prescription: Murder had certainly met both criteria. In the series pilot, Ransom for a Dead Man, Columbo comes up against a murder suspect every bit as formidable in the person of one of the country’s top trial lawyers, played by the very capable Lee Grant. The plot was equally clever and the series was given the green light.
Big name guest stars continued to be a feature of the series, with Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino, Roddy McDowall and Anne Francis all making appearances in season one, along with cult TV notables like Robert Culp (from I Spy) and Ross Martin (from The Wild Wild West).
By the early 1970s cop movies and TV cop shows were changing - the trend was towards harder-edged series with tough-guy maverick cops who break all the rules battling pimps, drug dealers, vicious hoodlums on the mean streets of the big city. The levels of violence and sleaze steadily rose, and this was accompanied by an unhealthy obsession with psychos, serial killers and sex crimes. The creators of Columbo, William Link and Richard Levinson, decided to turn their backs on these pernicious trends. Columbo would recreate the feel and the tone of the classic detective stories of the past. There would be no mean streets in Columbo. The emphasis is on the psychological duel between detective and suspect, with (mercifully) no interest in social commentary and few concessions to the “realism” that would become more and more of a fetish in TV cop shows during the course of the 70s. This is pure entertainment and it’s all the better for it.
Another interesting feature of this series is that we know very little definite about the hero. This is a little odd since Columbo tends to talk incessantly about his wife and various family members. We get the strong suspicion however that this is merely part of his unusual approach to crime-solving - that it’s more than possible that Columbo says whatever he thinks is likely to provoke the reactions he wants from witnesses. Some of these family members may not even exist - it’s even just barely possible that Mrs Columbo doesn’t exist! And, famously, Columbo’s first name is never mentioned at any time. Aside from all this it’s equally possible that the entire persona he presents when on duty is just a mask. We know he’s a lot smarter than he pretends to be and even the notorious absent-mindedness might well be feigned, or (more probably) wildly exaggerated. We don’t really know how much the real Columbo actually resembles the persona he adopts, or how much is carefully calculated. That might seem like a potential weakness but in practice it makes the series more interesting since it’s Columbo the detective who matters, not Columbo the man, and part of the fun is seeing just how useful his carefully crafted professional persona is to him.
By the time we get to episode 4, Suitable for Framing, the formula has become more or less set - the murder will take place among the rich and famous, the killer will be a clever psychopath, despite his cleverness Columbo will be convinced of his guilt, the suspect will use his influence to try to get the annoying detective taken off the case and the case will come down to a psychological struggle between detective and suspect. The surprising thing is that despite the rigidity of the formula it works extremely well. Much of the credit for this is due to Peter Falk - he really is a joy to watch. The consistently high production values don’t hurt either.
The Region 1 season one boxed set includes both the earlier Prescription: Murder and the later pilot Ransom for a Dead Man. There are no extras but the transfers are good.
Columbo is an interesting throwback to an age when murder was civilised entertainment. It’s enormous fun. Highly recommended.