Monday, January 21, 2013

Columbo: Season One Review

I've officially watched every episode of Columbo that's available for instant streaming on Netflix, which includes almost -- but not every -- episode over the course of its seven seasons, after which it went into hiatus for over a decade and came back on a different network. So I can't say I've officially watch every episode of Columbo, since that would require tracking down the DVDs so I can watch the ones that are mysteriously left off of Netflix. But I did buy the first season DVD set the other day, so I can say I have watching every episode of the first season, as well as the two TV movies that preceded the series pilot.

Basically all I do lately is watch Columbo and then bore my friends by talking about it, so now I'm going to branch out and try to bore every body else who stumbles upon my blog by giving my thoughts on every episode from the original series of Columbo, and then my thoughts on every episode of every other season as I finally watch them all. This is what my life is now. I have become a Columbo watching machine.

Anyway, here we go:

Oh wait... just one more thing before we begin... I just wanted to point out that Columbo is the best detective show of all time, and front runner for being the best TV series of all time over all, at least among those that don't have "Star Trek" in their title.

Prescription: Murder (February 20th, 1968)
This TV movie was the first appearance of Peter Falk as Columbo, although the character had appeared before, first as a short story, then as an episode of a mystery anthology show featuring Bert Freed as Columbo, making him notable as the first actor to portray the character and that's about it. I suppose if I really want to claim to be a Columbo fan, I should track this down and watch it. I'll put it on my list stuff no reasonable person would ever want to do but I seem to do it anyway.

After that is where things get interesting. This story was then adapted into a stage play starring Joseph Cotten as the murderer, Agnes Morehead as the victim, and Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. That sounds amazing. Cotten and Moorehead, of course, are famous as two of the players from Orson Welle's Mercury theater productons (although Moorehead is probably more famous for playing Andora on Bewitched than she is for playing the mother of Citizen Kane), while Thomas Mitchell is best known as Uncle Billy from It's a Wonderful Life. If there's any actor who could maybe out Columbo Peter Falk, it's Thomas Mitchell. I'd put that on my list of things to watch, but I would need a time machine because I don't think it was ever filmed. That's a shame, because that's a cool cast.

And then, finally, it was turned into a TV movie, and NBC originally wanted Lee J Cobb or Bing Crosby in the starring role. Both great actors, but both turned it down. They decided to go with Peter Falk, and history was made, not to mention one of the best made for TV movies in the history of the medium. This is just a brilliant mystery story with a great script and a fantastic cast. The killer is played by Gene Barry, a staple of 70s tv but he isn't really remembered much these days except for maybe as the star of the 1953 version of War of the Worlds. If you watched my video about Spielberg's early TV work, you might know him as the star of that weird sci-fi movie where he was transported to the Los Angeles of the future. I made a joke in that video about how there were only, like, five actors in the 70s. Well, he was one of them.

Anyway, I think it's safe to call this the first real appearance of Columbo, since at this point Peter Falk is Columbo, and it's pretty fantastic. Gene Barry plays a psychiatrist who murders his wife, and he perfectly set up the archetype for almost every Columbo villain to come: The smug, wealthy son of a bitch who can't understand how he or she got outsmarted by Columbo.

This episode also sets up the archetype for how each episode is structured. Columbo is interesting in that every episode opens with the murder taking place, with Columbo often not appearing from anywhere from ten to maybe even thirty minutes in. Columbo isn't a "who done it?" since we know exactly who did it and how it happened, so the fun and appeal comes from watching how Columbo figures it out and finally catches his perp.

Anyway, this is a great first Columbo and well worth checking out for fans of the series or just mysteries in general. And, I hope, every other episode review won't be this long.

Ransom For a Dead Man (March 1st, 1971)
This second Columbo movie didn't interest me as much as the first, but it's still good and worth watching.

Our villain this time is played by some actress named Lee Grant whom I've never heard of but apparently she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Shampoo. I didn't see it. Anyway, she plays a lawyer who murders her husband and then makes it look like a kidnapping, but Columbo sees through her bullshit because he's Columbo.

This was good, but not great. The story was lacking and the final resolution felt a bit forced, but Falk was still great.

Murder By the Book (September 15th, 1971)
This is considered the first episode of Columbo since this is where it went to series, but it's important to note it went to series as a part of the NBC Mystery Movie, so every episode was feature length. I already briefly talked about this episode in my review of Steven Spielberg's TV work (since he directed it), but having watched it again since then, I don't think I really gave it the praise it deserved. All things considered, this is a great mystery story and a fantastic entry in the series.

Spielberg's direction is flashy and stylish right from the opening shot, which is a long tracking shot of a car on a street that slowly pulls back until it's revealed we were looking out a window from the top of a giant sky scraper where a writer is working on a manuscript. That writer is played by Martin Milner, who is murdered by his writing partner played by the amazing and underrated Jack Cassidy. Cassidy actually appears as the murdered a few times on Columbo, and he's always been great.

Anyway, this is a great start to the regular series. It's a classic, with one of the most clever murder plots and one of the best villains of the series.

Death Lends a Hand
Robert Culp is another actor who has played multiple villains on different episodes of Columbo, and he's fantastic here as a private investigator who tries to cover up his accidental killing of the wife of one of his clients. Ray Milland also appears, and he later appears in a different episode as a killer. As I said, there were only about five actors back in the 70s.

Anyway, this is one of my favorites, mostly for the excellent performance by Robert Culp. There's a scene at the end where Culp asks Columbo when he figured out that he was guilty, and Columbo basically said he knew as soon as he met him, and he had just been spending the past couple days finding the evidence he needed to arrest him. That's classic Columbo.

This is the first episode available to watch on Netflix Instant. If you want to see those three other installments, you've got to buy the DVD.

Dead Weight
Eddie Albert (the husband on Green Acres) plays a retired general who kills one of his business partners, and then tries to seduce the only witness to his crime. This episode doesn't suck because no episodes of Columbo suck, but this isn't one of the best. Eddie Albert is always fun and Suzanne Pleshette is luminous as the witness to the murder, but the mystery plot is pretty weak.

Suitable for Framing
Classic Columbo! This episode has a great story about a man who murders his uncle in order to inherit his priceless collection of paintings and an incredible performance by Ross Martin as the murderer. Martin sets the standard all other Columbo villains have to follow as the smug, self-righteous, pompous ass art critic. Seriously, this guy is the best asshole in the history of TV. There are also fun performances by Vic Tayback, Kim Hunter, and Don Ameche.

This is one of my favorites, and probably the best episode from season one.

Lady in Waiting
This episode is just weird. It's an awkwardly plotted story about a woman who murders here domineering brother so she can get out from under his thumb, be independent, and run the family business herself. Her story arc is strange as she turns from a frumpy spinster into a total slut. The actress is the mom from Webster and her fiance is played by Leslie Nielsen.

This isn't one of the best.

Short Fuse
Roddy McDowall in a very fun, campy role as a young demolitions expert who murders his uncle so he could take control of the family business. He kills him by rigging a box of cigars to explode. This is a fun story and Roddy McDowall is a fun villain. The victim is plays by James Gregory, which is interesting because both he and McDowall plays simians in the Planet of the Apes films, although Gregory was in Beneath the Planet of the Apes which is the one film in the series that didn't feature Roddy McDowall. But wait, there's more! William Windom also appears in this episode, and he was in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.

And come to think of it, Kim Hunter was also in those Planet of the Apes films, for whatever that's worth. Was any of that the least bit interesting?

Blueprint For Murder
This is the only episode from season one that is not available on Netflix Instant, for whatever reason. That's a shame since it's another great episode, this time featuring the directorial debut of Peter Falk himself. He does a pretty good job, but for whatever reason he never directs another episode. Anyway, this episode is about an architect who murders one of his investors played by Forrest Tucker after he threatens to pull his funds from his latest project. The murderer was played be some actor I'd never seen before, but he was pretty awesome and was a great match for Columbo. This is the one episode where I thought the murderer was so on top of things I honesty thought he might get away with it. But what kind of Columbo would that be?

Anyway, this was a great end to a great season. I say... go watch them.


Mugato said...

I always wondered if Columbo still held up. I guess it does. Peter Falk is so great

Donald said...

It totally holds up. In fact, just yesterday I watched some Columbo TV movie from the 90s you'd love: Greg Evigan was in it.

Anonymous said...

I think I remember in an interview, Falk wanting to direct an episode. They let him direct one of the more difficult episodes to direct to shut him up and discourage him from wanting to do more.

Heather1 said...

My dad and I watch 2 or 3 at a time. The stories really do hold up and Peter Falk is amazing. Plus my dad gets a kick out of watching the old TV and movie stars who made guest appearances.