Falk makes ‘Columbo’ work (1972)
By Lawrence Laurent – Washington Post-Capital Times (DC) November 17, 1972
He always wears a raincoat, but works in a town where the rains stay away 10 months a year. His suit is nondescript, off the rack, and badly in need of a press. He has one pair of shoes that cost $17, and his cigars look as though they’ve been used just as hard as that one pair of shoes.
This is “Columbo,” a detective in the homicide division of the Los Angeles Police Department.
“Columbo” is the most popular character appearing in the four-part “Sunday Mystery Movie” (Sundays NBC). The others in this quartet are “McMillan and Wife”, “McCloud”, and “Hec Ramsey.”
What makes “Columbo” work is, simply, Peter Falk. He is one of the busiest actors in America, moving easily among the Broadway stage, motion pictures and this abbreviated television series.
He’s not the kind of man who wants to be tied down an entire year with just a television series, and the success of “Columbo” may point the way to the kinds of programming for the future.
Peter Falk became a top name despite 10 years of typecasting and a persistent effort in Hollywood to make him into another John Garfield. He quit a good job in public administration to go into acting and survived some lean years while learning his trade.
His second motion picture established him as a major performer. He played Abe Relis in a movie called “Murder, Inc.” And it won him a nomination for an Academy Award.
He worked nearly all the major dramatic series in the early 1960s, nearly always cast as a hoodlum, a narcotics addict or a pathological character.
“His specialty is villainy,” columnist John Crosby wrote at the end of 1961. “He played just about every variety of vicious monster on television, and the mere vicious he gets the more the public likes his performance.”
Falk responded: “The public likes ’em. I hate ’em. Most of television is garbage.”
As television moved West, so did Falk. “I don’t despise California,” he said. “On the other hand, I don’t love it. I don’t mind it.”
He teamed with producer Martin Ramsohoff in 1965 for a full TV series called “The Trials of O’Brien.” He played a lawyer who defends criminals, who is always behind in alimony payments and who can usually be found in a pool room. The series lasted one season.
A movie of no great distinction turned up in 1966. It was called “Penelope,” starred Natalie Wood and had Peter Falk as an amiable, seemingly puzzled, police detective. The character he played in that film is almost the same as the one he plays in “Columbo.”
Just one more thing…
Falk’s series is part of the “Sunday Mystery Movie,” and that umbrella title is misleading. There is never a “mystery” on “Columbo.”
The audience knows, even before the second commercial, just who committed the crime, how he did it, and for what reason. The suspense comes from the methods that detective Columbo will use to catch the criminal.
The style of gathering evidence is haphazard, casual and apologetic. Questions begin with, “Sir, you don’t mind if I ask you a personal question?” or “… Well, I just happened to wonder” or “Got a minute?” or “I couldn’t help but noticing” or, to complete the list, “That’s what I call a loose end; something I got to tie up.”
The detective is fond of quoting his wife, a character who is never seen. She is, for one thing, “mad at everyone.” She is, for another, a woman who has an accent, which comes out “only when she’s excited.”
“Columbo” really is a triumph of characterization over shabby plots and weak dramatic construction.
Detective Columbo, for example, would rarely win a conviction in court with the kind of evidence he produces. He practices a form of entrapment in which a suspect is never told of his right to silence.
Worse, he asks the kinds of questions that no competent attorney would permit a suspect to answer. In a recent episode, nearly all of Columbo’s evidence came from a private and illegal wiretap.
This perhaps is pointing out the obvious and the unimportant. “Columbo” is a hit, and Peter Falk does give stunning performances. In this year of undistinguished television, that ought to be enough.
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