Columbo: Season One
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Columbo: Season One

Most people love a good old fashion who done it, the mystery is by far one of the most popular of all genres on the big and small screen. With out a doubt one of the most beloved of all television sleuths is Lieutenant Columbo (Peter Falk). His method for solving crimes is simple and absolutely brilliant. He arrives at the scene of the murder in his trademark rumpled trench coat, chomping on his cigar (this was way before the smoking ban in LA) and he assesses the details of the crime with a critical eye. Still, the suspect doesn’t see anything professional about this little man, they see only the bumbling, annoying pest. Columbo is always polite, especially to the one he suspects. He always has just one more question before he leaves and talks on and on about his always unseen wife. The biggest mystery of the series is Columbo’s first name, like the name of his wife it is never revealed.

The format of the series is simple and brilliant as its main character. The audience is always privy to the crime. We get to see the murderer take a life in inventive manner and the set up is what seems to be a perfect crime. No matter how the killer plots and plans there is always a mistake. A lot of the fun of watching these mysteries is to see if you can pick out the errors before Columbo finds them. As the Lieutenant begins to get under the skin of the killer there is inevitably a duel, a fencing match of wits that never fails to entertain.

Columbo’s façade is perfect. Everyone underestimates the detective; unaware until it’s far too late that he is past genius in intellect, the perfect combination of attention to detail and psychologist. It’s the later that I find so interesting about this character. He notices the little things about how people react. In the pilot movie the beginnings of his suspicions is when the killer comes home and doesn’t call out to his wife. Human nature would dictate that a husband would call to see if his wife is home. Little slips like this always betray the murderer, the infamous ‘one more thing’ questions begin to piece things together in the steel trap mind of the detective.

Peter Falk owns this role completely. He is physically unimposing, there appears to be no threat at all from the man in the messy rain coat. The murder always treats him like a pest that can be dealt with. No matter how intelligent the criminal may be Columbo is always one step ahead of him. Falk underplays his character; there is nothing of the usual television detective about his demeanor. Falk is unassuming in his portrayal; he breathes life into his character like few actors could have. Unlike other television detective shows there is usually no gun play at all, no counting the occasional use of fire arms in the opening murder. Columbo does not seem to even carry a gun; his wits are far more deadly.

Another reason this show has endured for so long is the producers select excellent actors for the villains. Gene Barry, Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp and Ross Martin are counted among the many killers brought to justice by the good Lieutenant. Each one plays their parts in a cool, detached fashion that helps the audience to hope for their ultimate fall. Personally I enjoy the femme fatale episodes where the killer is a woman and Columbo must resist the wiles of his adversary.

Each episode of the series is either a 90 minute or two hour production. They all have the feel more of a theatrical film than the typical television mystery. In each episode the writing is tight with nothing wasted. By the time the show ends all the little loose ends are bound and there is a satisfaction to be had. There is also nothing that really requires a leap of faith to accept. Unlike so many mysteries nothing is actually impossible. The story lines are imaginative and completely entertaining. While the modern approach to crime dramas is the use of hard evidence and scientific probing here the enjoyment is observing the clash of the personalities involved.

The direction of these mini-films is also top notch. The first real episode of the television series (after two pilot films) was a young, fairly unknown director named Steven Spielberg. Before he hit is big with a fish tale and a little alien Spielberg earned a nice living and garnered a good reputation directing episodic television. It seems that Universal is making the most of documenting the early career of one of the most influential directors of our time. In recent weeks I have had the pleasure of reviewing a good deal of his early works released by Universal including Sugarland Express, Duel and episodes of Night Gallery. Universal is to be credited for not overtly mentioning this fact, its better to let fans see the credits and be pleasantly surprised. The last episode of the first season of Columbo permitted Peter Falk to display his talents on both sides of the camera as he directed that installment.

The presentation of the first season on DVD is excellent. The video is full screen and usually very clear. There are the occasional flecks and specks that reveal the age of the source material. Still, the video is far better than most of us will remember while watching the show on television. The audio is Dolby two channel mono. While most DVD enthusiast expect full surround sound the lack here is acceptable. The sound is clear, the dialogue always undistorted. Universal is dedicated to giving the purchaser as much as possible for their money. Here, not only to you get the advertised entire first season, all seven episode, but you get the first two hour television movies to boot. I’ve reviewed season sets form many studios but Universal is rapidly becoming my favorite. They know these shows are loved by their fans and they respect it. Whether you are a long time fan or just discovering the series for the first time this is one set that is a must have for your collection.

Posted 9/3/04

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