In Memoriam: Peter Falk (1927-2011)

I came home last night to the sad news of the death, at the age of 83, of the actor Peter Falk, most famous for his role as the eponymous Lieutenant in the TV detective series Columbo. The newspapers are rightly filled with tributes today, but it can’t do any harm to add one more of my own. Falk was a fine actor, and I think the character of Lieutenant Columbo was a truly brilliant creation. I’m going to spend this evening watching a few old episodes on DVD.

Columbo was remarkable in many ways. For a start it eschewed the conventions of the usual detective story because the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen before it’s even started. Its lack of reliance on the traditional elements of a murder mystery means that you don’t watch Columbo to find out who did it, or whether or not the Lieutenant will ensnare them. We know who did it and that Columbo will catch them out. But how will he do it?

Every episode begins with the murderer – nearly always a highly intelligent, highly successful and extremely confident individual, often from the upper echelons of society – carefully planning and executing what looks like the perfect crime – establishing an alibi, removing forensic evidence, and so on. It always seems to work, at least until the shabby character of Columbo shuffles in to inspect the scene. The criminal always underestimates Columbo, at least at first, but in that grubby raincoat hides his nemesis. The lieutenant is a lot smarter than he looks. Sub pallio sordido sapientia.

The show’s creators, Richard Levinson and William Link, in fact based the character of Columbo on Petrovitch, the detective in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Both men have keen intellects masked by shambolic exteriors, and way the detective drives to distraction, and inevitable capture, a criminal who makes no attempt to run also echoes the great Russian novel.  It was an ingenious idea, but it needed a great TV actor to make it work. In Falk’s hands what might have been a clumsy stereotype became a marvellously believable character, sometimes infuriating, sometimes comical, in his own way lovable, and always fascinating.

There’s also Columbo’s wrong-footing “false exit”, accompanied by the catchprase “There’s just one more thing…”.  Just when the perpetrator has begun to relax, the bloodhound returns. The more trivial the “thing” is, the more damning it proves. As an application of psychology, it’s a superb tactic and it slowly but surely grinds down the criminal’s resistance. Often the murderer’s exasperation at Columbo’s relentless badgering  leads to rash actions and errors; the second murder, if there is one, is never as carefully planned as the first. .

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why this plot format works so well, but it certainly does. Episodes of Columbo are still shown on TV all around the world. As a matter of fact, I watched one on TV in my hotel room in Copenhagen on Thursday night (with Danish subtitles). Part of it is the delight in seeing the humble but decent detective bring down the rich yet evil murderer. But most, I think, is just the excellence of the central performance by Peter Falk. He didn’t do much else of any consequence – an exception is a very amusing self-parody in the spoof detective film Murder by Death – but who cares? As Columbo he was quite superb, and he’s left a woderful legacy.

Rest in peace, Peter Falk.

P.S. It’s no secret that I named my cat Columbo in honour of the detective, largely because of his habit of leaving through the catflap only to return suddenly a moment later. He doesn’t say “just one more thing…” but I’m sure he would if he could. I do hope the passing of Peter Falk isn’t an omen for my Columbo…

10 Responses to “In Memoriam: Peter Falk (1927-2011)”

  1. They don’t make them like him any more. <>.

  2. I’m not a great fan of detective stories per se, but Columbo was an exception (Morse would be the other one). I loved the character as played by Falk, and I think his shambolic appearance and mannerisms made his appeal to me even the greater.

    I understand, from what I heard on the radio this morning, that he had Alzheimers. They didn’t say for how long, but if that is the case then it will be a release for his family – as the family seems to be the ones to suffer the most when someone has Alzheimers.

    And, talking of Alzheimers, I found the Terry Pratchett programme about Dignitas a few weeks ago fascinating. He knows that, assuming his Alzheimers progresses, that he faces a rather uncomfortable and upsetting for his loved-ones decline. It seemed from the programme that he is seriously considering assisted suicide, but the dilemma he faces is that, if he leaves it too late, he will not fulfill the criteria Dignitas has of understanding the full implications of one going there to die. The programme followed two people who went to Dignitas to die, and we saw one of them take the lethal drug and slip away. It was powerful stuff.

    • Gunter Sachs, who was a naturalised Swiss citizen and lived in Switzerland, also feared Alzheimer’s disease and saw suicide as an alternative. He shot himself. Apart from his “research” into astrology, quite an admirable character.

  3. The nostalgia channel over here (TV4 Guld) shows a Columbo episode every evening. I’m (not so) ashamed to admit that myself and Mrs Dave try not to miss it.

    • telescoper Says:

      Not many people know about the short-lived spinoff series called “Mrs Columbo”… but it did exist. I even have one episode on DVD!

  4. telescoper Says:

    Actually Columbo was so good that it’s hard to believe the same two writers were responsible for the dire “Murder She Wrote…”

  5. Columbo shows were part of my life in early 1970s US when I was doing my graduate studies and working. Tricky Dicky at that time was busily denying that he had anything to do with Watergate break in, and the scandal was kept alive by the likes of Washington Post and Walter Cronkite. Hawaii Five O, and Columbo were my escapist route,plus Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family and Bob Newart weekly shows thrown in. I am sad this fine actor is no more.

  6. Just one more thing. I think Falk’s two Oscar nominations are of consequence. While Oscars themselves are a bit random, these nominations at least show he was a highly respected actor by his peers well before he did Columbo

  7. […] of the phrase) only for it to be the most important question that he “forgot to ask”. As an obituary at the In The Dark website on Peter Falk […]

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