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…