Lt. Frank Columbo, played by Peter Falk, was the police detective with no first name. He solved cases involving the cunning, educated and frequently wealthy people of the LA upper class. It’s been about ten years since the last mystery featuring the rumbled, occasionally mumbling, always absentminded police detective aired on ABC. Some people these days may never have heard about him, or be familiar with how his stories typically unfold.
When you sit down to the typical murder mystery you meet the protagonist, who is typically a detective of some sort, be it police officer or hired investigator, the victim (sometimes) and the suspects. The murder may have occurred already, or maybe you’re given some time to watch the characters in their natural environment. Regardless, a corpse turns up and we watch the detective and his associates gather clues, piece them together, interview suspects and eventually pin the crime on someone (usually).
The typical episode of Columbo, on the other hand, opens with the careful preparations of the murderer. We know who he is and we see most of what he does to commit his crime and create an alibi. For the most part we don’t see Columbo until ten or fifteen minutes into the show. Then he arrives on the scene, spends approximately fifteen seconds looking around and notices it. That one detail. The one thing the murderer didn’t think of, or forgot in their hurry. And from that moment, Columbo knows, just as well as we do, who will go to jail at the end of the story. He just needs to prove it.
What follows is a series of escelating confrontations between Columbo and his prime suspect. Columbo conducts seemingly wandering interviews where he’ll ask a series of seemingly trivial questions and usually gets distracted by something at least once, and then start to leave. As the murderer begins to relax he “remembers” to ask the most significant question of the scene. At first his strange anecdotes about family members, open eyed wonder at the accomplishments of his victims and suspects and absentmindedness (whether real or affected) puts the suspect at ease, but it eventually becomes clear that Columbo is getting close to the truth. The dance gets more complex as people begin using social connections against him, which Columbo frequently counters with his good reputation on the police force and high esteem in the eyes of his captain, allowing him to close the case and put his suspect in jail.
So what made Columbo cool?
Well, a lot of things. Probably the biggest was his incredible ability to challenge those who thought they were his betters with humor, humility and grace. He never claims to be a man of great learning, and he’s frequently impressed with the many worthwhile accomplishments of the people he must eventually send to jail. He takes the time to learn from them and learn about them. And he does it all with a friendly demeanor.
Not that he’s harmless. Far from it. Columbo’s adversaries quickly come to dread his constant appearances, asking just a few more questions in the hope that they can help him sort out those nagging little details that he can’t get quite straight. The same years of experience that let him spot a single out of place detail in a busy murder scene help him sift through the details of a death and find the parts of the story that don’t line up quite right. And the same mind that goes to great lengths to learn more about the people he meets goes to great lengths to learn more about the murders he’s come to unravel.
Underneath his friendliness and strange habits is a cop who knows a great deal about how the world works, who has the cunning to set traps and force people to give up more and more evidence he can use and who won’t let the fact that a person is likable or even pitiable stop him from reminding them of the importance of justice.
Yet in contrast to the many hard-boiled detectives, Columbo remains friendly, good natured and pleasant. He’s mastered his job, it hasn’t mastered him.
Peter Falk was a great actor, and Columbo is one of his best loved characters. If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching them at work, I highly suggest you check them out.