The first thing you notice watching an episode of “Columbo” isn’t that we know who committed the murder but the relatively long buildup to murder. Jerry Orbach and the “Law and Order” squad would already be grilling the suspect by the time a “Columbo” victim finally falls dead. And that’s part of the fun: the episodes are longer than an hour, billed in their day as “mystery movies,” and the added time allows the characters to come more alive.
A friend recently lent me the two-DVD set “Columbo: The Complete Third Season” (1973-74). Being year three, there was at least one silly episode and two more that resembled each other too closely, down to the choice of murder weapon and the point of blunt impact. Already, the writing team must have been running low on ideas. Nonetheless, most of the season maintained a high level with at least one episode hitting a peak in cinematography and several featuring interesting guest stars. Mickey Spillane played a murder writer who gets murdered. And Johnny Cash stared as a country gospel singer who kills his manipulative, sanctimonious wife.
With his 5 o’clock shadow at noon and rumpled raincoat worn rain or shine, Peter Falk transformed the idea of the outwardly bumbling, inwardly cunning Lieut. Columbo into one of fiction’s most memorable detectives. His persistent questions over small details and seemingly insignificant anomalies, his pointedly irritating show of everyman affability, was rooted in the police inspector who nailed Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s great novel Crime and Punishment. Other literary references are apparent. Even if creativity was starting to flag in season three, “Columbo” was still vastly more entertaining than most television then and now. The detective’s penchant for bringing down the well healed and well connected plays well in today’s disgruntled world.