DebraMilligan.com

 

Books for Everyone!

February 2020

Just One More Thing:

Columbo


I did not watch Columbo, or any of the NBC Mystery Movies when they were initially on the telly in the 1970s, or, more precisely, from 1971-1978. I did not watch much t.v. at all during that period of my life. Early adolescence through early adulthood took up most of my attention, which was focused on survival. I was on-the-run, and on-the-go. Lugging around a t.v. set was not part of my life style. It would have slowed me down.


I travelled light, very light. At times, I am stunned in recalling how unencumbered was my life, at least in material terms. My most basic essentials were two avocado green Amelia Earhart suitcases (the big one and the smaller one), along with the train case; my Cassell’s French dictionary; and a radio. Books I borrowed from the public lending library. Why burden myself with things?


I intensely dislike(d) The Rolling Stones, but I must avow that until I got married, I WAS a rolling stone. And right up until this very day, I still keep that part of my self well-tended and well-rehearsed. You never know when you’ll need to face upheaval . . . again.

Upheaval was the spoken and unspoken theme of societal TV in the 1970s. The hour-plus-long programs included performers and plots from what used to be Hollywood movies; indeed, studio film sets and locations were routinely used. And although I did not partake in those televisual feasts, I did keep very close track of the names of the actors and the actresses. along with the show titles so that I could successfully, incredibly successfully, do the Weekly TV Guide Crossword Puzzle. Success breeds success!


I also learned a lot of the facts and factoids about these television programs in the Work World at, yes, the water cooler:


Columbo, MacMillan and Wife, McCloud, The 6 Million Dollar Man, Baretta, The Rockford Files, Charlie’s Angels, even this sad statement about the 1970s, Happy Days.


I also kept a fashion-conscious eye on the hair styles and outfits from popular television shows that were splashed on a monthly, if not weekly, basis, all over U.S. magazine covers.

In particular, I tried to mimic the fashion of the “older women” in those tv series, as I ventured to look older and get better, higher-paying jobs. The results were comedic. The styles for American women of the 1970s expressed a rather sophisticated woman-of-the-world vibe, largely fabricated in polyester. Unfailingly, I looked like I’d just borrowed some outfits that did not suit me from Big Sister. My studious attempts to look older only made me look younger, and those authoritative jobs never went to me, the Command Decision-Maker. I suggested to one male co-worker that maybe I ought to try wearing fake glasses, the kind with just glass.


“NO!” He patiently explained to me the effect would be the reverse of what I was going for. Nowadays, whenever I see the nerdy-sexy-secretary-with-glasses look, I understand exactly what he meant. I didn’t, decades ago! Dress-for-Success has been replaced by Dress-for-the-Job-You-Want. I guess I was doing too much of the latter when the former was en vogue. And now I dress for the jobs I never got!

I just did not “fit into” the 1970s, and, in many ways, neither did Lieutenant Colombo. He was the outsider, the oddity, the only guy who knew the score, the only one who really understood what was going on. He therefore does not let other people know much, or even a little, of his knowledge.


It’s a very effective ploy, especially whenever you’re around Know-It-Alls and Holier-Than-Thous, and I-Don’t-Have-Time-For-You-the-Peon.


I therefore come to this review of Columbo with a complete dearth of the original experience of that dramatic series, but with plenty of similar experience of my own. My first encounter with Lieutenant Columbo was in the reincarnation ABC Mystery Movie from the 1990s, specifically 1989-2003, more than a decade after the end of its original run. I did, in fact, glean some details from the Columbo stratagem when creating the detective in my first novel, NORTHSTAR.

I’ve recently watched the first 4 episodes of Season One. This show is about as 1970s Southern California as you can get. The clothes, the hairstyles, the accessories, the furniture, the music, the shag rug, the appalling cars, the L.A. high-society life style — all unmistakably California culture of that epoch. Which is what makes Lieutenant Columbo stick out like a terrific sore thumb. I identify so well with the guy!


Peter Falk would become synonymous with this character. His acting ability was unique and utterly effortless by this time in his career. He remains one of my favorite actors, and the entire Columbo character is right up there with Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, albeit in a lackadaisical, rumpled Southern California way of the pre-1970s. Falk’s Columbo is a bit of a throwback to the late 1950s, early 1960s. He’s a film-noir figure in the bright lights of So-Cal, wherein the gumshoe wears a trench coat even though it never rains! The ironic contradictions are almost jarring.

Columbo offered the How-Catch-Em as opposed to the traditional Who-Done-It. The acting style of Falk flowed seamlessly into the more relaxed sensibility of this type of plot. The audience already knew who the Killer was; in a daydreaming sort of way, Columbo calmly fretted over whether he could finger the murderer!


The character of Columbo was created by the dynamic writing team of Richard Levinson and William Link. It was Peter Falk, nonetheless, who created the flesh-and-bones of the character from that whole-cloth of the trench coat, along with the junker car (the Peugeot 403 Cabriolet), the well-travelled cigar always in need of a match, and, later on, the basset hound. Falk, in fact, used his own clothes and developed the idiosyncrasies that became the stock-in-trade of this seemingly bumbling detective who never fumbles the case. The ad-libs are all his, and the viewer very quickly begins to feel very much at home with this very human character.

The first episode of Season 1 is rough; Columbo is nearly nasty in his hard-edged approach toward the killer, a shrink so smooth that a leisure suit would glide right onto him. But this killer, played by Gene Barry, is debonair, well-mannered, and GQ-dressed. By Episode Two, Colombo has softened, considerably. The killer is a woman, portrayed by the coldly attractive Lee Grant. Peter Falk is up against an actress of considerable heft, and his investigative plan-of-attack becomes a lot more subtle.


Episode Three complicates the plot with a weirdly slick and sick killer, played by Jack Cassidy. I found this dramatic sketch disturbingly realistic, perhaps because it was an early Steven Spielberg directorial show-off assignment. Episode Four features Robert Culp at his most almost-about-to-go-out-of-control; Patricia Crowley with beauty, elegance and sass; and a nearly bald Ray Milland, the dramatic Hollywood movie star who makes this small screen look big. Peter Falk gets to enact a very gentle side of the Columbo character.

By this fourth episode, Columbo has begun to take on fuller shapes and contours, working toward an almost complete embodiment of what would become an unforgettable character. The writers knew they had a smash hit, an immediate hit, on their hands. The titles of the episodes were superbly coined; even more telling attention now gets paid to the already crisp dialogue, as well as to the locations.


The writers must have enjoyed drawing a jolting contrast between the schmoozy amoral jet-setters of the era, and the down-to-earth, ethical, blue-collar detective Columbo, a guy who eats at beaneries and hot dog stands. He’s not a slob, but sartorial excellence is not high on his list, even if he can find the list! He is, however, the essence of a true-gentlemen of the working class. His etiquette, like his sense of decency, is innate; but manners, along with any morals, got tossed in the aqueduct by the Beverly Hills crowd on their way to Rodeo Drive. They have, however, learned to fake politesse; and it is, in fact, that fraudulent farce of silky civility that often tips off the Lieutenant to the real murderer. He perceives just a glimpse of the real face behind the glossy mask of practiced propriety, and he quietly goes for the jugular of the murderous phoney!

Peter Falk accepted this television role with the idea that it was a rotating “wheel” show, and not demanding of a full-series shooting schedule. Lack of commitment or fear of one might have been an excellent motivation! Falk wanted to still have time for his film career. He then took the character Columbo and ran with it, all the way to 4 Emmys! His nearly scientific understanding of the detective, Lieutenant Columbo, garnered him professional acclaim in Seasons 1, 4, 5, and then for a rebooted series from 1990.

Although Peter Falk was a movie actor of some achievement before he “became” Columbo, for this actor, this role came to define him, in much the same way that “Kojak” defined Telly Salavas (another television series I haven’t seen). Whether or not Falk ever felt trapped by his living, breathing invention is perhaps immaterial. He formulated a form which broke the mold. In that sense, it was he that owned Columbo, and not the other way around.


This mystery presentation also placed a definite serious emphasis on the musical score of each episode, which can be LOUD, unlike the Mystery Movie Theme that was composed by Henry Mancini. This quintessential-Mancini composition (beautifully melodic, with the Telltale Sound Effect) was also used to introduce the two other original “wheel shows”: McCloud and MacMillan and Wife.

The ABC Mystery Movie of a decade later was my first introduction to Peter Falk and his peerless character, Detective Columbo. There were 24 of them, from 1989-2003. I watched many of them, but my favorite is “Murder, A Self-Portrait.”


This made-for-tv-movie features tremendously gifted thespians: Patrick Bauchau, Fionnula Flanagan, Vito Scotti, and Shera Danese (Falk’s wife). The sets are no longer 1970s California. We instead have late-1980s/1990s California! The beach house was always a facet in the Columbo world. The 1970s ones were dumps; these newer beach houses are worthy of cinema. There are very compelling Dream Sequences woven into the story-telling that add a complex dimension to an otherwise straight-forward plot. The stellar acting is aided by very punchy dialogue.

The TV-screen of the 1970s offered up a lot of performances that made use of the movie sets of the defunct studios of the Golden Era of Hollywood. Outdoor shots were, by and large, on the streets of L.A., and on the beach, sometimes out in the desert, in the Hollywood hills, or in a typical Movie Ranch location. It is amazing and, at times, amazingly sad, to watch the sights and scenes of a much-less-densely populated Southern California that pretty much no longer exists.


The producers and directors of these shows busily created characters and scripts that either made it, or didn’t. If the show took off, spin-offs were probable. And so on and so on and so on. The concept of the Prequel, drafting off of any and all previous Success, had not yet emerged to threaten any and all prior plot lines and characters. For Hollywood, back then, there was always the possibility of re-makes in the future. For Hollywood now, well, there is no Hollywood now, anymore. The current climate of streaming the Past into the present world of digital Vintage TV is filled with intriguing opportunities to watch television shows that pre-date the advent of even video-tape.


Just one more thing” is something that Lieutenant Columbo might say today as a way of giving us pause — to reflect upon the days when TV shows were fun, frivolous and filled with laughs without the lawyers!


Oh, just one more thing. I typed 2010 instead of 2020 when I first input this essay. Keeping track of the decades has always been a challenge for me!