About 9 months ago I wrote a post on Tumblr recounting how much I enjoyed the Columbo series.
Recently People magazine said farewell to Peter Falk in 4 paragraphs.
I can’t do the man or his career justice, but I feel that it’s worth sharing again my thoughts on Columbo.
I’ve mentioned before on Twitter that I’m a big fan of Peter Falk and specifically the “Columbo” detective series that he starred in. It was an unusual type of series in that there were gaps between seasons and even shows as it was in a rotation with other shows like “McMillan and Wife” and “McCloud”. They were also of a longer duration often running 1.5 to 2 hours.
The first “Columbo” hit TV as a movie in 1968 but the series didn’t hit stride until 1971. I was born in 1972 and the series stopped running regularly in 1978. The purpose of all the dates is because I do remember catching the regularly running series at the tail end while I was very young. At the time I wasn’t able to follow all the plot points, but that wasn’t really important. The series was never really about the plot and sometimes made fun of itself by pushing plot believability just beyond the bursting point.
What I enjoyed early on was the larger than life characters. Starting with the central character who is rumpled, apologetic, and fiercely focused on his search for the truth, all while keeping a little sparkle in his eye and a slight quirk of a smile as he shared a joke with the suspected killer. The cast of guest villains were equally big. Jack Cassidy as murdering magician overwhelmed everyone he was onscreen with, except for Columbo. William Shatner played an actor who starred in a detective series and he was … well he was William Shatner.
As the years went by the movies were spread further apart and my appreciation for the show evolved. As I mentioned earlier, plot was secondary to character which is why the inverted detective story (showing the crime and the guilty party first) lent itself so well to this creation. It’s also why I probably identify so much with Rex Stout’s detective series featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. It also relies on character as the primary means of drawing the observer into the story. It’s not who did it, but how will they be caught.
There’s also a part of me that respects the core part of who Columbo is. While those committing the crimes are confident in their abilities and intelligence they automatically place Columbo on a level beneath them. But Columbo is constant. He doesn’t believe he is smarter than anyone else and will readily admit that which he doesn’t know. And that is where the writers gave him his most important tool, a willingness to ask a question and learn. To be fair, he often plays himself as less aware of external factors than he really is, but it’s that relentless search. Cassidy’s character described him as a “philosopher searching for his truth”.
I’m able to identify with Columbo. Not in the sense that I can go around solving mysteries, but I’m acutely aware of the number of people who know much more than I do about practically any subject. I also am aware that over the years I have been misjudged as knowing less than I actually do. Most of us have felt that way at least once, and some of us much more often.
Through the inverted detective story every viewer started on a level playing field with the other viewers and with an advantage over the hero. We not only get to root for Columbo as he uncovers misstep after misstep, but we get to feel vindication about ourselves when the murderer realizes that the guy they overlooked just discovered how it was done.
I’ve been watching some of the Columbo movies again as Netflix has them in the streaming section. I can watch them on my phone when I need to unwind or have some downtime. I watch them because it doesn’t matter that I know who the killer is. I watch them because I like watching Columbo fuss over a new raincoat he doesn’t like, a dog that snores, an assistant who is too eager. I watch them because they make me feel better about myself. I watch them to remind me that I too can fall into the trap of underestimating someone and that would be a crime.