Two of TV's best writers, Richard Levinson and William Link, introduced one of the medium's best-known characters in the 1968 telefilm Prescription: Murder. Lieutenant Columbo, a detective for the LAPD, returned in 1971, as a part of the NBC Mystery Movie series of rotating telefilms. Easily overshadowing McMillan and Wife and McCloud, Columbo hit big, with Falk playing the role on a regular basis into the late '70s. Falk would return to his signature role in 1989 (in 18 more installments as a part of the ABC Mystery Movie series), and for six more sporadic installments in the mid-nineties and early aughts, the last airing in 2003.
Columbo's appeal partly rests in the ingenious design of Levinson and Link, who established the formula of revealing the killer and his or her modus operandi at the outset. The audience's interest, then, would lie in watching Columbo put the pieces together and devise a way to trap the killer. As such, Columbo was, in a way, the ultimate "procedural" show. On the other hand, the show's success owed its biggest debt to the synthesis of its idiosyncratic star and central character. Though Columbo's alluded to his personal life—specifically, his never-seen wife—as a matter of course, one could never be sure a word of it was true. Columbo's key character trait was his craftiness, hidden under deceptive simplicity.
By Columbo's fifth season, the character was firmly established. Self-deprecating ("I know I'm a pest...") and seemingly scatterbrained, the gumshoe with the rumpled raincoat and shambling manner would cultivate false confidence in the murderers he quickly pegged. From Falk's glass eye to Columbo's jalopy (a 1959 Peugeot convertible) to his sometime companion, a basset hound named only "Dog," every detail contributed delicious eccentricity to a character as unpredictable to criminals as the proverbial curious cat. The capper were Columbo's false exits, paired with his catch phrase, some variant of "Oh, sir, just one more thing. I forgot one more thing, sir."
The fifth season kicked off with "Forgotten Lady," starring Janet Leigh as Grace Wheeler Willis, a deluded faded star (à la Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.) who knocks off her husband (Sam Jaffee) to pave the way for a comeback. Leigh's 1953 musical Walking My Baby Back Home stands in for Willis' favorite film; it's also a clue for Columbo, who delivers the priceless line—while tapping his forehead—"A light goes on up here, and sometimes I can't turn it off." Maurice Evans (Planet of the Apes), Army Archerd, and, in his final role, John Payne (Miracle on 34th Street) fill out the remainder of the guest cast. Without giving away the ending, I'll just say that the story's resolution is unique in the Columbo canon.
"A Case of Immunity" broached a novel situation: murder in a foreign legation. Hector Elizondo plays the secretary of the "Suarian" legation, who conspires with an aide (Sal Mineo of Rebel Without a Cause) to murder the chief of security and rob the legation of a large sum. Naturally, Columbo foils the plot in his inimitable manner. Kenneth Tobey also appears, as the police commissioner, and look fast to spot Jeff Goldblum, unmistakeable as an extra among the student protestors.
After winning an Emmy for his guest spot in the previous season's "By the Dawn's Early Light," Patrick McGoohan returned to play a secretly rogue domestic operative (or "spy," if you prefer) who murders a too-suspicious fellow agent (Leslie Nielsen). The driving force of the TV classic The Prisoner (to which he alludes here by saying, several times, "Be seeing you"), McGoohan makes a truly formidable adversary who seems both to mirror and mock Columbo by smoking expensive cigars. McGoohan always brought added snap to Columbo, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he punched up the script, which he also directed (McGoohan also clearly relishes taking on the disguise of an old Russian named Steinmetz). McGoohan would twice more play a Columbo killer, and directed four more installments, including season-ender "Last Salute to the Commodore."
"A Matter of Honor" stars a top-form Ricardo Montalban as Luis Montoya, a famed former bullfighter who operates a Mexican bull ranch. A vacationing Columbo gets roped into a murder investigation after Montoya uses a bull to off his top employee. The episode gets added punch by keeping the killer's motivation a secret until the episode's end. Pedro Armendariz Jr. (The Mask of Zorro) plays Commandante Sanchez, who ruthlessly impounds Columbo's car to ensure his aid in the investigation; A Martinez plays the young bullfighter whose father is murdered.
"Now You See Him" draws Columbo into the world of magic, where an added layer of secrecy shrouds the truth about the homicide of a nightclub manager (Nehemiah Persoff of The Wrong Man). In his third Columbo killer role, Jack Cassidy plays the smooth and smarmy Great Santini, a former Nazi turned popular magician. To maintain his cover, the illusionist murders the manager during the magic act, but he can't fool The Great Columbo. Robert Loggia also has a featured role, as the kitchen manager.
The season concluded with "Last Salute to the Commodore," an especially twisty Columbo outing involving two separate but related murders. Unlike most Columbo episodes, this one culminates in a drawing-room discussion of "whodunnit?" Headliner Robert Vaughn shares two traits with director McGoohan: both were famed as '60s TV spies (Vaughn on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.), and both starred in season-four Columbo episodes (Vaughn in "Troubled Waters"). The guest cast also includes Wilfred Hyde-White (My Fair Lady), Diane Baker (The Silence of the Lambs), and film, TV, and radio vet John Dehner. Aside from its upending of the series' formula, "Last Salute to the Commodore" features what may be Falk's most outrageous performance as Columbo. Whether Falk or the character was bored isn't immediately apparent, but the results are intentionally hilarious as Columbo cuddles up to suspects, bellows, and mutters ("the mizzen boom jibed...") as if stoned out of his gourd.
The fifth season also develops some entertaining "B" storylines. In "Forgotten Lady," the LAPD hounds the slippery detective to submit to a long-overdue gun-range test, and in "Now You See Him," Columbo attempts to ditch the form-fitting new raincoat his wife has given him. To give Columbo someone other than killers to play off of, writers penned in a number of other policemen. Beside Commandante Sanchez, recurring character Sgt. George Kramer (Bruce Kirby) appeared in two fifth-season outings ("Identity Crisis," "Last Salute to the Commodore"), Bob Dishy returned for his second and last appearance as Sgt. Wilson ("Now You See Him"), and Dennis Dugan played Theodore Albinksy, a young detective assigned to soak up knowledge from Columbo ("Last Salute to the Commodore").
The season ended on an odd note, with Kramer telling Columbo, "I thought you were going to quit" and Columbo replying, "Not yet," then rowing off into the sunset whistling what would become the character's theme song, "This Old Man."
Though Universal has yet to convince any talent to participate in documentaries, featurettes, or commentaries, they have wisely chosen to parcel out episodes of Mrs. Columbo on these sets. The short-lived Mrs. Columbo (1979)—a.k.a. Kate Loves a Mystery, Kate Columbo, and Kate the Detective—purported to portray Columbo's oft-mentioned, never-seen wife.
Kate Mulgrew played Kate, who tended for daughter Jenny (Lili Hayden) and the family basset hound Dog, and worked for Josh Alden (Henry Jones) at the suburban weekly The Valley Advocate. The latter was a vehicle for Kate to stumble onto murders and, much in the style of her husband, solve them. As the series flopped, the producers back-pedalled by renaming the character Kate Callahan and erasing overt references to Columbo.
Though the series was an uncontested dud, it remains a curiosity. The episode "Caviar with Everything," included in this set, demonstrates Mulgrew's unfortunate mugging, the show's lame banter, and the character's familiar traits (like her husband, she's pushy and has a knack for coming back when suspects think she's left). The first disc in the set also includes "Sneak Peeks" of Coach, Miami Vice, and Munich.
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