Columbo: Season Three
In the annals of television many series come up with a catch phrase, something that is often repeated and is identified with the characters. From "You loves ya baby" with Kojack to "Book ‘em Danno’ on Hawaii Five-O, none are as well known as the phrase so often used by a cigar chomping little man in a rumpled rain coat, "Just one more thing." Peter Falk’s portrayal of Lt. Columbo made this role more than television; it was part of the American television landscape for more than a decade. What helped to make this series such an institution is the simplicity of the premise. Columbo is not at all what he seems, when he arrives at the scene of the murder, everyone sees an odd fellow, poking around, peering into every corner and asking an intolerable number of questions. The way he dresses in the every messy coat one would assume that this man cold barely dresses himself, let alone actually solve a perfectly devised murder. This is usually the fatal flaw the murder makes, underestimating the brilliance that is really Columbo. Rarely does the lieutenant confront the suspect directly, more often than not he devises a trap that only the real killer would fall into, catching the murder in his (or her) own lies. The fact is Columbo is a murder solving machine, no detail gets past his keen eye, he beads in on the one thing that does not appear to be right and builds the case from that. Columbo is also a master at psychology, he often determines the identity of the murderer by how they react to question that to others seem innocuous but the killer gives a telling glance that only the lieutenant catches. Even thought the audience always gets to see the murder, we are always privy to the identity of the killer; the fun of this series is watching the battle of the minds between Columbo and his prey.
Season three, presented in this latest DVD box set, contains many of the most remembered classic episodes. In Lovely but Lethal, Vera Miles plays the aging queen of a beauty product empire. When she learns that a competitor and former lover, wonderfully portrayed by Martin Sheen, shed realizes that she must prevent his announcement of a miraculous new cream. In a fit of anger she kills him and Columbo uses the slim clue of a bottle’s shape to catch her. One of the more cleaver episodes concerns a vintner Adrian Carsini (Donald Pleasence) who murders his brother in order to keep the vineyard in the family name. Columbo comes upon a clue, a spoiled bottle of wine that only Carsini knows has gone bad. Before Columbo takes him in to justice they share a quiet glass of very expensive wine. This is indicative of many endings of this series. There is almost a respect between the adversaries. This series often managed to get some get guest stars, usually in roles that the audience would never imagine them in. One case is the case of a singer, played by Johnny Cash, who murders his wife and mistress when they conspire to blackmail him. Of course no Columbo season would be complete with out the murder played by Jack Cassidy or Robert Culp. Each of these excellent actors shows up frequently in Columbo but never fail to entertain the audience. There is also an episode where Columbo’s incredible deductive powers are pitted against the head of a think tank played by veteran actor Jose Ferrer. Here the killer uses the hi tech method of programming a robot (guest starring the famous Robbie the Robot) to perform the dastardly deed. Of course, this super intelligent man is no match for the disheveled detective.
Few television actors are able to own a role like Peter Falk owned this one. He personified the character of Columbo perfectly. His success in this regard is due not only to the incredible talent of the man but also his ability to come across as the regular guy next door. Columbo is a family man, always relating some innocent story about the never seen Mrs. Columbo. He is so non-threatening that everyone, including the suspect, completely underestimates the man. Falk plays the cat and mouse game always close to the vest. He almost annoys the killer into revealing his hand. This is where his famous catch phrase comes in. Just as Columbo appears to be done interviewing the suspect and is about to leave he turns and states, ‘Just one more thing.’ It is in this moment that the murder is caught off guard, not ready for that last, all telling question. This is the moment of truth, when Columbo and the audience know that it is only a matter of time before he will resolve the case.
Not only is one of the hallmarks of this series gathering talent in front of the camera, they garnered the best to sit behind the camera and direct. Men usually known for edgy films have taken on the director’s chair for various episodes. Among them are such notables as Leo Penn, father of Sean Penn, John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara. This serves to give each episode the feel and depth of a full length film instead of a rushed television episode. This is something almost completely lost in the current round of television dramatic series. Now, the action has to be presented in some forty one minutes, in order to allow for commercials. With this season of Columbo most episodes where designed to fit into a 90 minute time block with far fewer commercial breaks. As such, the pacing here was more deliberate, building slowly to the climax. While there are always ancillary cast members the typical Columbo reduces down to a two person stage play, adversaries playing against each other, polite on the surface but both aware of just what is at stake. This is quality television at is very best. NBC had a novel idea back then. Columbo was one of several mystery shows rotated each week. This gave the producers enough time to give real quality to the audience.
As usual, Universal does well in the presentation of this season on DVD. The full screen video does show some signs of age, typically with the random white speak that pops up on the screen. For the most part the colors are bright and realistic with only the occasional muting. The audio is in the typical Dolby two channel mono and while it lacks some depth it does get the job done considering the material presented. There is a delightful extra provided with this set. An episode of the short lived series Mrs. Columbo is provided. Staring Kate Mulgrew the series looked at the previously unseen better half of the Columbo family. If you are one of the rare people out there that are unaware of this series this is a perfect introduction to one of the best television series every presented. For the majority out there this is a must have addition to your collection.