Tag Archive: Film


Lieutenant Columbo

Lieutenant Columbo is a homicide detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, and the central figure in a mystery television film series created by William Link and Richard Levinson.

The show popularized what’s come to be known as the inverted detective story format. There’s no “whodunit”, here; the perpetrator’s identity is already known to the audience. The plot revolves mainly around how he or she will finally be caught and exposed.

The Man

Columbo is a friendly, chatty, disheveled police detective who is consistently underestimated by his suspects. They’re initially reassured and distracted by his rambling speech, then increasingly irritated by his pestering behavior. Right up to the point where he nabs them, for murder.

Though the name “Frank” can often be seen relatively clearly on his police ID (badge number 416, if you’re interested), Columbo’s first name is never explicitly mentioned, during the series. When asked, he always emphatically answers “Lieutenant”.

The character first appeared in a 1960 episode of the television-anthology series “The Chevy Mystery Show”, entitled “Enough Rope”. This was adapted by Levinson and Link from their short story “May I Come In”. This teleplay is available in the archives of the Paley Center for Media, in New York City and Los Angeles.

The first man to portray Columbo, Bert Freed, was a stocky character actor with a thatch of gray hair. Freed’s Columbo wore a rumpled suit and smoked a cigar, but otherwise had few of the other now-familiar Columbo mannerisms.

In 1968, the same play was made into a two-hour television movie on NBC. The writers suggested Lee J. Cobb and Bing Crosby for the role of Columbo. Cobb was unavailable, and Crosby turned it down. Director Richard Irving convinced Levinson and Link that Peter Falk, who wanted the role, would be ideal – even though he was much younger than what the writers had in mind.

Columbo’s wardrobe was provided by the actor himself; they were Falk’s own clothes, including the high-topped shoes and the shabby raincoat which made its first appearance in 1968’s “Prescription: Murder”.

Columbo’s unsettling, uneven-eyed stare was due to Falk’s own visual impairment; he had a glass eye in his right eye socket. It remained a mystery for 25 years whether the character had one as well, until 1997’s “Columbo: A Trace of Murder”, where he jokes: “You know, three eyes are better than one.”

Falk would often ad lib stuff like fumbling through his pockets for a piece of evidence and discovering a grocery list, asking to borrow a pencil, or becoming distracted by something irrelevant in the room at a dramatic point in a conversation. He inserted these into his performance to keep his fellow actors off-balance, and to help make their confused and impatient reactions to Columbo’s antics more genuine.

Here’s a YouTube compilation, to give you a bit of a character study:

His Method

Columbo reversed the format of the standard “whodunit”.

In almost every episode, the audience sees the crime unfold at the beginning, and knows the identity of the culprit. The murder isn’t always premeditated, but in each case the killer attempts to hide their crimes, creating a false scenario of how the death occurred, often trying to implicate a false culprit. The killer will drop numerous pieces of misleading evidence, and have a water-tight alibi for the murder.

The beauty of these tales lies in the way Columbo finds and follows the clues that lead him to the truth, and the tricks he uses to obtain information, or even a confession. The story unfolds in parallel, from the point of view of Columbo and the murderer, as they play cat and mouse.

In the first part of each episode, the soon-to-be murderer is introduced, and their professional or lifestyle setting is explored. Other characters (including the soon-to-be victim) are introduced through their relationship to the murderer.

As the premise and motivation for murder becomes apparent, the killer typically puts into motion a well-arranged plan, involving the death of the victim and the establishment of a viable cover story.

The second part begins with Columbo’s appearance after the discovery of the body, and usually opens at the scene of the crime, some time after the arrival of the police. So in some cases, Columbo doesn’t appear until halfway through an episode.

When he does, the murderer is usually keen to demonstrate a desire to assist Columbo in his investigations, and to be available for questioning. Which is the Lieutenant’s cue to pop up at all hours, with deceptively shrewd observations and follow-up questions.

Columbo generally maintains a friendly relationship with the murderer, apologizing repeatedly for taking up their time, even as his true suspicions become increasingly apparent.

As more and more evidence is revealed, Columbo shares with the killer his thoughts on the case, pointing out contradictions between the new evidence and the killer’s stated version of events in his bumbling, amiable style. Columbo’s formidable eye for detail and relentless approach, though apparent to the viewer, often become clear to the killer late – too late – in the story line.

During the final act, Columbo drops any remaining pretence of uncertainty, and shares with the killer details of his findings and his arrival at the conclusion of the killer’s guilt.

The killer’s reaction varies, with some conceding in a friendly manner the error that closed the case, and others becoming aggressive or despondent. After this, the episode generally ends, with no following or concluding scenes.

His Caseload

Originally a one-off TV-Movie-of-the-Week, 1968’s “Prescription: Murder” had Falk’s Columbo pitted against a psychiatrist (Gene Barry). Due to its success, NBC requested a pilot for a potential series be made, to see if the character could be sustained on a regular basis.

The 1971 film, “Ransom For a Dead Man” had Lee Grant playing the killer. The popularity of this second movie prompted a regular series on NBC. “Columbo” premiered in the fall of 1971 as part of the wheel series, NBC Mystery Movie rotations: McCloud, McMillan & Wife, and other whodunits.

The network arranged for the “Columbo” segments to air once a month on Wednesday nights, to allow for Peter Falk’s other commitments as a motion picture star.

“Columbo” aired regularly from 1971–78 on NBC. The series was revived on ABC between 1989 and 2003 for several new seasons, and a few made-for-TV movie “specials”.

His Legacy

Despite solving numerous murders over several decades, in Falk’s last appearance as Columbo in the 2003 cable-TV movie “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”, the detective is still a lieutenant.

To his senior brass, Columbo is the preferred investigator for high-profile crimes – a dedicated case officer who’s something of a legend, and thus has a powerful position within the police force.

Obviously doing something right.

Peter Falk died on June 23, 2011, aged 83.

That’s it, for this one.

Hope you’ll join me, for our next installment.

Till then.

Peace.

Nicely Assembled

Image

Marvel Studios’ production of Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers”, I mean.

A huge-budget, huger-scale, and hugely ambitious project that was the culmination of several years’ work.

The sum of many parts. And many characters.

“The Avengers” comic book title first brought several of them together in the 1960s, as a fighting force composed of “Earth’s mightiest heroes”. As does the film of 2012.

If you are a follower of recent cinema, you will no doubt be aware of the commercial and critical successes Marvel has scored with its various flagship characters. All filmed under the Marvel Studios banner – but each movie done in collaboration with separate studios.

Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.).

Thor (Chris Hemsworth).

Captain America (Chris Evans).

The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo – the third actor to play the Hulk’s human alter-ego, Bruce Banner, in the wake of Eric Bana and Ed Norton).

The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, previously seen in “Iron Man 2”).

And Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, who had a brief cameo in “Thor”).

“The Avengers” movie unites the team in a single adventure, under the direction of Joss Whedon (who co-wrote the tale).

He has done a fine job. Not surprising, really.

The creator of television Sci-Fi classics like “Firefly”, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel”, and “Dollhouse” is noted for delivering intelligent, witty fantasies, played out by diverse characters. “The Avengers” continues in this fine tradition.

Each of the main characters has a chance to shine, much to do, and an opportunity for humor, in an epic saga which assembles the team for the first time, under the watchful (single) eye of Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson), head of the global security agency known as SHIELD. (Both Fury and SHIELD have featured in some capacity in all of the heroes’ individual franchise films.)

The Avengers must defeat the global threat posed by Thor’s adoptive brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston, in hissingly evil pantomime form) and the Ch’tari – an alien race brought to Earth by the Tesseract (the blue power cube Odin stole from the Frost Giants, in “Thor”, and which the Red Skull used against “Captain America: The First Avenger”. Wheels, within wheels.)

Cue in-fighting, between the heroes, intrigue, and full-out inter-dimensional warfare, above the streets of Manhattan.
All that, plus an aircraft carrier that turns into a flying fortress.

It’s brilliant fun, and highly entertaining.

And will, of course, spawn a sequel (or two).
There are allusions to this, at the end of the film – by which time The Avengers’ trademark mansion is already being put together by Iron Man / Tony Stark.

But we won’t be seeing the group as a whole until after their next round of solo adventures.

Do yourself a favor, in the meantime.
Grab some popcorn, and see this movie.

And I’ll see you, soon.

Peace.