Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Columbo season 3 (1973)

I’m now working my way through the third season of Columbo. I probably saw them all many years ago but the great thing is it was so long ago I’ve totally forgotten them so now they all seem new to me!

Lovely But Lethal kicks off the season and it’s worth it for Vincent Price’s performance. It’s an engagingly outrageous story centring on a miracle cosmetic formula.

Next up is Any Old Port in a Storm. This is a great episode with Donald Pleasence as a boutique winery owner. I love the clue relating to the sports car. The fencing between Donald Pleasence and Peter Falk is superb. Falk’s great strength as an actor was his ability to play off other actors and the better the guest star the better Falk’s performances were. It has a terrific (and oddly poignant) ending as Columbo shows off his newly acquired knowledge of fine wines. 

Candidate for Crime is also excellent. It’s politics mixes with murder. Great stuff with a clever (if unavailing) attempt at an absolutely unbreakable alibi.

Double Exposure guest stars Robert Culp as an advertising and motivational guru who sets up not one but two unbreakable alibis. The golf course scene as Columbo wears the murderer down by ruining his golf game while simultaneously beginning to tighten the noose is classic Columbo. Usually in a Columbo story the murderer remains fairly cool but in this one it’s fun to watch Robert Culp getting closer and closer to exploding in rage and frustration.

The stuff about subliminal advertising (which had been the subject of some controversy back in the 60s) adds to the fun.

In Publish or Perish a publisher murders a writer about to desert him for another publisher. The writer is played by Mickey Spillane, the real-life author of the MIke Hammer novels. This is another episode where the murderer really start to lose his cool under Columbo’s constant pressure. It’s typical Columbo. It’s a case that seems straightforward except for a couple of very minor details that don’t quite fit.

In Mind Over Mayhem Columbo investigates a murder at a high-tech research institute. The work of the institute includes computer modeling of nuclear war and it also includes robots. The robot in this case looks like a robot straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie (mostly because it is a robot straight out of a 1950s sci-fi movie) but since Columbo is a series that   never bothers much with tawdry realism it doesn’t matter and it adds some fun. 

Swan Song features country music legend Johnny Cash as the murderer. It does help if you’re a fan of the Man in Black since you get to hear him singing rather a lot. It also boasts the great Ida Lupino as his wife. She has a hold over her husband and is able to divert most of the money the successful singer makes into building a $5 million tabernacle. He’s less than happy about this, and he’s also less than happy that she also stops him chasing his young female backup singers. As an actor Johnny Cash is a great singer but he does have the right presence for the role.

Columbo has to enlist the help of an air crash investigator to unravel this puzzle. The murder method is far-fetched but it’s fun.

A Friend in Deed has a wonderfully elaborate plot which owes a very great deal indeed to a certain very well-known Hitchcock movie. A series of burglaries is being carried out by a professional and very skillful burglar who has now turned to murder. Of course we know that the burglar didn’t actually commit the murder. The murderer turns to an old friend for help but he finds himself mixed up in a whole lot more trouble that he hadn’t anticipated. To solve the case Columbo will have to match wits with the Police Commissioner himself. It all hinges, as usual, on a couple of puzzling clues. In this case it’s not fingerprints that bother Columbo, it’s the lack of fingerprints. It’s a delightfully far-fetched but very cleverly worked out plot.

Columbo was unusual for a 70s cop show in being so strongly plot-focused, and even more unusual in that so many of the plots work so well. At a time when crime fiction and crime movies were starting to focus to an excessive degree (in my opinion) on psychology, action and sordid realism it was like a throwback to the golden age of crime fiction when a detective story was intended to be entertainment. Entertainment of a somewhat intellectual  kind with its emphasis on puzzle-solving but still entertainment.

Columbo is squarely in the tradition of the detective fiction of the interwar years, the so-called golden age, in that it quite deliberately does not attempt to mirror reality. This is a kind of parallel universe in which rich successful famous people murder each other constantly. A real-life homicide cop would mostly deal with open-and-shut cases in which depressingly ordinary people murder each other for depressingly ordinary reasons, or obscure losers kill other obscure losers for five dollars in loose change. However every case that Lieutenant Columbo investigates deals with very smart people committing complex and ingenious murders for often incredibly esoteric motives. 

This is of course precisely the appeal of golden age detective fiction and it’s precisely the appeal of Columbo. Who wants to watch a TV show about boringly everyday crimes? Viewers want killers who are glamorous and also clever enough to provide Columbo with a real challenge in every episode. A battle of wits is no fun unless the combatants are evenly matched. Of course we know that Columbo will win the battle of wits but that’s no reflection on the intelligence of the murderers. The odds are stacked against murderers - they only have to make one tiny mistake and they’re undone - but the audience wants to feel that Columbo really has to use every ounce of his experience and his skill if he’s going to solve the case.

There’s nothing wrong with cop shows that aim at realism, but there’s also absolutely nothing wrong with mystery series like Columbo that ignore reality and concentrate on enjoyable intellectual puzzles that take place in a fantasy world of glamour and glitz. Personally my preference is for the approach taken by Columbo.

The series relied heavily on the quality of the guest stars and on the whole the producers were remarkably successful in finding just the right guest stars.

The third season maintains the very high standard set by the earlier seasons. Highly recommended.


  1. I've just started working through Season 3. Lovely But Lethal is not the most original story, although the murder is unusual in one way for Columbo; however, it's enlivened by a good cast and setting (the cosmetics and health industries), and a decent script. The Donald Pleasance one is, IMO, one of the best of the whole series, at least so far, in that the relationships between the characters don't pan out the way you expect. And the last scene is, as you say, charmingly poignant, and beautifully played, especially by Pleasance.

    Columbo is unusual in that the last part of each show is often the best part - not that the rest isn't great, but it rarely runs out of steam, but almost always builds up to a great conclusion.

    1. If you're going to do inverted detective stories there is always the danger that the ending will be a let-down because of its sheer inevitability. I agree that Columbo almost always managed to avoid that sense of let-down.