The mystery author is determined to place a corpse on the lawn of his impressive Los Angeles-area home, just so. It’s important to maintain appearances, to ensure that he has a reasonable alibi for finding a dead body—that of his co-author—and to push any suspicion away from him. He’s the killer, of course, but he has to seem as innocent as possible. So the corpse must stay on the lawn, not as a sign of his guilt but instead as a threat by some invisible thug. Yet after moving the corpse and before the cops arrive, he opens his mail. “Bills are distracting,” the investigating officer says suspiciously.
It’s a welcome distraction at perhaps the worst possible time.
The ongoing pandemic has been a grim extended moment in world history, highlighting the gross inequities of gender, income, and race that have permeated Western society for decades. Locating a cultural outlet to decompress from the daily nightmare isn’t a top priority for any of us, yet nevertheless it’s important to help maintain just a smidgen of your sanity. There have been few, if any, balms for the culturally-inclined amidst this historically tragic time. Some people have shifted their hobby-ist focus to making the perfect loaf of sourdough bread. Others have chosen to discover culture that’s new to them, whether it’s a book or a film or music. For my own part, a brief cultural oasis in the last few months has been a new-to-me franchise I’ve been aware of for most of my life, a series that arrived in an earlier era and previously felt too old-fashioned to me.
It’s a piece of mainstream entertainment with an unexpected social message that resonates in—as the marketers of the world say—this uncertain time. This cultural object spanned five decades, and boasted award-winning luminaries of stage and screen like Martin Landau, John Cassavetes, Janet Leigh, Gena Rowlands, Oskar Werner, and more. Among its directors are two of the most celebrated in modern American cinema, Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme.
I am, of course, talking about the television program Columbo.
For a long time, if justice had a name, it had to be Lt. Columbo. Justice, in this case, also sported a recognizable outfit, a reliable pet, and an even more reliable catchphrase. Lt. Columbo of the Los Angeles Police Department was a constant on television, primarily during the 1970s—but he stuck around, as persistent a presence on television as he was as a cop, until 2003. I can’t quite put my finger on what inspired me to watch Prescription: Murder, the first TV-movie featuring Columbo (played by the delightful and dogged Peter Falk), back in early April. The IMDb TV app has the first seven seasons of Columbo, including this movie-length pilot from 1968. (With the arrival of the NBCUniversal streaming app Peacock, you can now watch every Columbo episode, including the revival from the 1990s.) A month into quarantine, any hesitation I may have had about watching an old-school detective show when there were plenty of other older classic films as yet unseen went right out the window. I knew Peter Falk already, from The Princess Bride and ‘70s-era films such as The In-Laws and Mikey and Nicky. But I also understood that he was Columbo first.
It doesn’t take too long to understand why Peter Falk and Lt. Columbo are culturally attached at the hip. Part of it boils down to the fact that Falk basically was Columbo—the long raincoat and shoes that are synonymous with the detective were the actor’s own. Much of the character’s charm is supplied by Falk as much as by the dialogue itself. Falk established in his memoir, Just One More Thing: Stories From My Life, that he would often deliberately improvise some of the shambling ways in which Columbo disarmed and confused the murderer of the week in order to keep the other actors off-balance. The character, embodying the very concept of the word “rumpled,” shuffles his way into a murder scene—and before the murderer even understands how or why, he’s figured out whodunit.
In the episode referenced at the start of this essay, “Murder by the Book,” Columbo is on the scene to solve the murder of one-half of a pair of celebrated mystery authors. The killer (played by Jack Cassidy, who was one of a few actors to play multiple killers throughout the series run) commits the heinous act to ensure that his swanky lifestyle won’t be upended by his co-writer ending their partnership. Yet in the episode (directed by Spielberg), the writer does exactly as described at the top: he moves the body and then opens his mail, a strange choice while you’re waiting for the fuzz to arrive if you’re an innocent man. Touches like that are what tip Columbo off.
One of the big twists with Columbo was how it flipped the script on the common whodunit—though there were rare exceptions, the show’s format was such that each episode began with the audience learning exactly who’s committed a murder and why. Only after the dirty deed is done does Lt. Columbo show up, thus making the thrill of the chase the major focal point. Suspense seeps through the proceedings no matter the setting and killer—it’s just a matter of wondering how and when Columbo will figure out what’s what.
In the early going of the pandemic, I glommed onto a few aspects of the show that felt especially delicious outside of the procedural elements that marked each episode. First, there was the 1970s style, which dripped through every frame—from wide-collared shirts to teased-out hairstyles, large-framed glasses to ostentatiously appointed penthouse apartments straight out of an architectural magazine. Though Columbo himself was shabbily dressed, the same wasn’t true for many of the murderers, from celebrity chefs to world-renowned authors to doctors to stage magicians. Moreover, each of the 45 episodes that aired between 1968 and 1978 offered a new opportunity for our ruffled hero to gaze and gawk at how the better half lived in Los Angeles. These episodes—much more than the late-stage revival that aired on ABC—lean heavily into the glamour of the era, down to the smallest architectural details in each high-ceilinged house and condo. Though the act of murder itself is grim and violent (but notably never depicted as explicit or bloody), the murderers firmly believe their higher class status is to be flaunted. Rare is the episode where Columbo doesn’t gawk in amazement at some fancy device, from electronic doors that open and close at the push of a button to a piece of memorabilia from Citizen Kane.
Falk’s performance is carefully modulated; the actor walks a fine line to avoid making the detective a parody. His shambling nature ensures that when he’s able to deduce who the true killer likely is, it almost goes unnoticed; in between all of the self-conscious tapping of coat pockets to locate a pen or pad, Falk is able to hide the key moment when Columbo pinpoints the killer of the week. He keeps the “aha!” moment to himself, and thus away from us. Everything he tells us, by design, could be either true or a fib he’s just lobbing to disarm a suspect; unlike future procedurals, we are decidedly not invited into the lieutenant’s personal life, and have to take it on faith that he’s sharing real information about himself.
When Lt. Columbo acts impressed, it’s not always easy to know if he’s telling the truth or if he’s just spotted someone who responds well to personal flattery. Just as he often knows the murderer by reputation, feeding his perceived amazement at entering their world, the murderers almost always act above Columbo without fail. Everything about the lieutenant is designed to fool them into thinking that they really have committed the perfect murder—there’s just no way that some random cop who looks like a wino would be able to finger them. One of the show’s strengths is its steadfast unwillingness to build out Columbo as a true character. We never see his home, nor his wife, the oft-mentioned Mrs. Columbo. Even in an episode where the husband and wife are taking a cruise on which a murder occurs, we only ever see the lieutenant and only in the context of the case. (If you’re wondering: Columbo and his wife won that cruise as a prize. He quickly notes to the captain of the cruise that he could never afford such a luxury.)
The way Columbo presents himself is as key to the show’s pleasures as the fancy, upper-crust settings. In the pilot episode, the lieutenant (looking less disheveled than he would in the ‘70s-era installment, admittedly) goes up against a supercilious and smug psychiatrist (Gene Barry) who kills his wife (Academy Award-nominee Nina Foch, best remembered from An American in Paris) so that he can be free to fool around with a young actress. At one point, Columbo’s persistence has become so pressing that the shrink has called in a few favors and gotten Columbo removed from the case. During a lengthy scene at his well-designed office, the psychiatrist sums Columbo up perfectly, as if he were delivering a mission statement for the hero and the entire series: “You are the most persistent creature I’ve ever met. But likeable. The astonishing thing is, you’re likeable!…You’re a sly little elf.” Perhaps the swiftest summation comes later in the scene, as the psychiatrist notes, “You’re a bag of tricks, Columbo.”
Though the way in which most episodes are designed—Columbo rarely appears on screen within the first 20 minutes, during which time we learn about the killer of the week and why they’re committing such a heinous crime—is the most familiar way in which the show upended procedural conventions, that quote highlights another aspect of what makes Columbo so different. The episodes are frequently built around Columbo and the episode’s killer getting to know each other, and almost becoming friendly with each other. Consider one of the series’ greatest episodes, “Double Shock,” which builds in a fun and rare twist: Martin Landau plays identical twins, one of whom has killed their uncle. However, we don’t find out exactly how the scheme worked, or even which twin killed the uncle, until the very end.
But the episode’s best scene—and arguably the single best scene in a Columbo episode—comes earlier, before we know what’s really going on and before Columbo can wrap his mind around the mystery. Landau, as celebrity chef Dexter Paris, is filming his daily TV show and invites Columbo on stage as a volunteer. Few scenes better exemplify the push-pull between the rich killers and Lt. Columbo, each trying to flatter the other. The killers hope their flattery will ensure the lieutenant leaves them alone, while the lieutenant hopes that ingratiating his way into the killer’s life will allow them to let their guard down. Dexter has chosen Columbo to embarrass the presumably bumbling cop in front of an audience, whereas Columbo may wish to encourage Dexter to imply something by accident by letting the performer do what he does best.
Whatever the case is, the chemistry between Landau and Falk is remarkable and infectious. After describing Columbo as the “typical downtrodden American husband,” Dexter tries to walk the lieutenant through a cooking demonstration. Columbo gamely follows along, but can barely string together a sentence in front of the crowd. When Dexter asks if the lieutenant cooks a lot at home, he can only say “Uh…” in a slightly lower timbre than usual. It’s the rare moment when Columbo can only laugh at his loss for words. “Oh, I broke that [egg]…nobody saw that,” Columbo then mutters, laughing at his struggle on live TV.
The scene feels largely improvised and is full of gleeful laughter—within the confines of the plot, it’s not necessary for us to see Dexter and Columbo make an omelet together—yet it serves as an emblem of Falk’s inner, extensive charm. Why would a killer let a cop get close to them? In the case of Columbo, it’s simple: the killer assumes the cop is a dolt. The killers on Columbo are so rich that they presume their wealth affords them intelligence. And like the psychiatrist in Prescription: Murder, most of the time, the killer can’t help but like Columbo even as he represents everything they should fear.
The last few months of our lives have, among other things, shone a bright, unfeeling light on the class inequities in our country. Billionaires keep getting richer, while the unemployment rate soars and joblessness floods the streets. There’s little actual victory to be seen against the rich, so we have to take the victories we can get in popular culture. Columbo may not seem like an obvious example of culture portraying class warfare from either side of the battle, but it’s a major ingredient of this procedural. And when you compare Columbo to other procedurals of the 1970s and 1980s, that ingredient is not only unavoidable—it’s what makes this show special.
Compare Columbo with another well-liked procedural among older millennials, Murder, She Wrote. Both shows have some of the same DNA: the creators of Columbo—Richard Levinson and William Link—co-created the 12-season CBS drama about mystery author Jessica Fletcher, and the third co-creator—Peter S. Fischer—wrote on Columbo, too. Both shows are functionally similar in that there’s only ever one constant: just as Falk was the only regular character on Columbo, the same is true of Angela Lansbury. And both shows feature our lead sleuths bumping shoulders with the upper crust. However, there is one key difference: Lt. Columbo is always, always established as working class, but Jessica Fletcher’s success as a mystery author means she’s upper class through and through. Yes, Jessica’s uncovering murders among the wealthy, but she’s one of them. She’s not cutting the rich down a peg or two, as much as taking bad apples out of a larger bunch. Lt. Columbo is decidedly unwelcome in the world of the rich, and an exclusionary sensation hovers over every scene.
Before I forget, there’s just one more thing. One area in which Columbo has gained a different layer of interest in the last few months is in its presentation of the hero cop. Police brutality is nothing new. It’s plagued the Black community in America for more than a century. Yet the worldwide protests kicked off by the brutal police murder of George Floyd (as well as the police shooting of Jacob Blake, the police murder of Breonna Taylor and the subsequent lack of charges, and countless other people of color) have brought the issue into focus for a wider range of Americans. One of the many unexpected side effects of this seemingly newfound awareness is that watching most cop shows and films seems incredibly distasteful because they almost always valorize the police, a notion that’s impossibly hard to stomach today. It would be unfair to talk about Columbo without talking about this issue; the man is a cop, after all.
And yet, in almost every aspect aside from the badge he carries, Columbo and Columbo are as far from the traditional cop as possible. Columbo is never in a standard-issue police uniform. He doesn’t have a partner, and the few episodes in which we see him interact with other cops either make those interactions fleeting or make the other cops look over-assertive and largely stupid. He doesn’t drive a typical cop car; instead, his vehicle is the truly junky Peugeot 403. The show, too, steadfastly avoids the gruesome aftermath of any murder, down to the point where Columbo is physically queasy at the sight of autopsies and blood itself. Most importantly, Columbo doesn’t like guns; it’s not that he finds their use distasteful, but that he’s both terrible at using them and unwilling to do so. In one late-‘70s episode, there’s a subplot in which Columbo literally bribes another cop to take the shooting test he’s delayed for the last 10 years. It’s without question that Columbo is an excellent investigator, a persistent and unwavering sort who refuses to let up on the tiniest details possibly pointing in the direction of a killer. But Columbo, at least in the cultural image that we all hold, is a pretty terrible cop.
Columbo rarely spends time depicting other cops at all, as heroes or bumblers or anything in between. (In the season-three finale, “A Friend in Deed,” directed by Falk’s acting cohort Ben Gazzara, the killer is Columbo’s boss, an arrogant deputy commissioner who we’re more than happy to see captured.) Where other procedurals embrace cops—or, as in the case of Murder, She Wrote, treat them as loudmouth idiots unwilling to listen to the vastly more intelligent heroine—Columbo simply has little interest in the policing lifestyle.
All of these are qualifiers, of course. Columbo is many things, and he may be as untraditional as they come, but he’s still a cop. Because Columbo is largely set amongst the upper class, and because the network show took place primarily in the 1970s, it’s largely, unavoidably driven by white men. In the first 45 episodes, just six of the killers were women, and all of the killers and victims were white. (None of the show’s directors were women, and just two different women are credited with either the story or teleplay for a given episode.) The show’s sexual politics are shaky at best, too. In an early episode, “Lady in Waiting,” the killer, played by Susan Clark, starts out as a meek woman whose confidence blooms after killing her cruel older brother. But when her confidence manifests as sexual power, and an urge to dominate in the boardroom, even her fiancé blanches, as if her ambitions are worse than her propensity for murder. It’s one thing for the audience to dislike her because of how she’s gained her power; it’s another for her in-the-dark lover to be bothered by a woman acting strongly and in her own self-interest.
None of this makes Columbo particularly problematic, certainly no more so than any television show airing in the 1970s. Both before and after the spate of summertime protests, Columbo wound up being a strange source of cultural comfort for me. It would be easy to dismiss Columbo as copaganda—even if he’s a strange idea of a cop, he’s preternaturally intelligent and could have easily inspired people to join the force. But unlike the gritty CBS procedurals about the police lifestyle, or even the wacky sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Columbo feels incidentally connected to cop culture. Its morality, and the way that Columbo can sometimes sympathize with the killer or the situation in which a murder occurred, keep it in stark contrast to most cop shows. Or maybe I’m just qualifying my enjoyment to give this one a pass.
Qualifiers aside, what makes Columbo a true source of joy in this demented mulligan of a year is that its rumpled hero embodies the bubbling, roiling sense of fury directed at the elite of this country. Sometimes, Columbo makes something close to a friend out of the killer or killers he’s investigating, but just as often, he’s putting on a show for someone whose guts he just cannot stand. That fury typically hides underneath the surface; it’s only when Columbo comes up against truly condescending figures, from a snobbish doctor (played by a post-Star Trek Leonard Nimoy) or a haughty food critic, that he either loses his temper or flat-out admits that he hates the suspect. Those few times he breaks the facade of acting friendly even when he’s furious were entertaining enough because of Falk’s innate charisma. Yet what makes Columbo so resonant in 2020 is watching a smart man from the other side of the tracks catch a killer in his misstep. In a world where the rich keep getting richer, it’s thrilling to peek into a window where the opposite is true and justice has arrived to collect its due.