A suave, sophisticated figure of high society has committed a crime; a most ingenious crime, ridding him of some pestering trouble that threatened to upset his cozy little world. The figure is wealthy, well-educated, and intelligent, and he’s confident that no one will even suspect him of the crime.
Then, little by little, his elaborately constructed scheme is pulled to ribbons by a chatty, disheveled, cigar-chomping, one-eyed Italian in a dirty raincoat.
That is a summary of both the formula and essential appeal of Columbo: the long-running detective series starring the late Peter Falk as the ultimate unassuming detective. Columbo (no first name is ever given, though sharp-eyed viewers might spot it on his badge) is an expert at employing what is known as “obfuscating stupidity.” That is, he deliberately acts much dumber than he really is. Or rather, he doesn’t bother to bring his personality up to the level of his intellect. He acts pretty much like he looks; a blue-collar cop with little formal education and not much culture. But behind this he has a mind like a steel trap, and though he has only one eye, it’s a sharp one.
Columbo himself denies being especially intelligent; rather, he credits his success to two things. One is that he puts in the time to learn and understand the facts of the case, and to pay attention to every detail. In this he has a kind of philosophy; it’s the little details, the things you pass over, that you don’t think of that hang you. The murderers are usually done in by things they simply didn’t consider, or didn’t think worth noticing: the ink ribbon on a typewriter, the sound of a clock striking the half-hour, or even the way someone’s shoelaces are tied. Just as they didn’t think Columbo himself was worth noticing…until he makes himself impossible to ignore. Columbo works in stages; usually he’ll pick up on some small clue or inconsistency right away that points him to his target. Then the rest of the episode is working this one hole in the story bigger and bigger until the whole thing comes down on the murderer’s head.
The other thing? Even simpler: murder is his job. He’s an expert. The murderers are all amateurs, usually on their first or second attempt. Smart as they are, this is his game and they’re out of their league. But since Columbo gives off such a convincing air of befuddlement and unsophistication most don’t realize how out-classed they are until the last moment. In at least one episode Columbo confesses to the murderer that he suspected him the moment they met. When the man protests that this is impossible, Columbo explains: having been told that the man he had just eaten dinner with was poisoned, the murderer came right over to help the police. Any ordinary man would have rushed to the hospital to have himself examined. These are the things the murderers never even consider, but which Columbo sees through immediately.
Columbo’s investigative technique owes quite a lot to Chesterton’s Father Brown, who was one of the inspirations for the character (they also share a dumpy, unassuming appearance and both rely on their extensive professional experience as much as any innate intelligence). The technique involves slipping under the radar and getting into the perpetrator’s head to figure out what kind of person they are, and what sort of person in what frame of mind would do the kinds of things the facts indicate. Columbo focuses as much on the why as on the what and how. In some cases, even more. It’s always a question of why: why wouldn’t someone be relieved to hear he wasn’t the target of an assassination attempt? Why would someone angrily demand to see a subordinate in the morning and then genially brush him off in the afternoon? Why does a man suddenly break a long-standing habit just about the time another man disappears?
To answer these questions, Columbo ingratiates himself with his target by using his own unassuming nature to his advantage: flattering and complimenting the killer, inviting suggestions, often pretending to go along with their version of the events even as he silently collects the clues he’ll use to destroy them.
Though Columbo’s persona isn’t completely put on either; he really is a simple blue-collar cop. He likes football and the movies, can’t sing, is a good cook, and he plays a mean game of pool. He makes near-constant references to his never-seen wife and other family members, occasionally calling up the former to ask about dinner or what he should pick up on the way home from work. He drives a beaten-up old car (which Falk himself discovered and brought to the set as suitable for the character) and is sometimes accompanied by his shiftless basset hound, Dog. He served in the Army during Korea, and he estimates his income at $11,000 a year. The point of the series isn’t that a brilliant detective might act like a simple man; it’s that a simple man can also be a brilliant detective.
Meanwhile, his opponents are, almost to a man, wealthy, sophisticated, and well-educated society rollers. They’re the kinds of people who attend black-tie parties, run multi-million-dollar businesses, or have several books in print (Columbo often asks for an autograph). Once he tackled a foreign diplomat, and on another occasion, a Senator. Some were facing exposure for past crimes, others faced the prospect of losing their life’s work, still others wanted to get rid of a rival or an irritant or someone who stood in the way of their growing even richer. Whatever the reason, they all commit murder, and so bring Columbo upon themselves. And all their wealth, power, and influence doesn’t change anything. Indeed, in some of the best episodes the thing that gets the villains is the very cleverness of their schemes; in attempting to divert any suspicion from themselves, they in fact trap themselves. It is the sense of their own superiority and sophistication that finally destroys them. “You tried to contrive the perfect alibi,” Columbo tells one particularly unpleasant murderer with evident relish. “And it’s your perfect alibi that gonna hang you.”
Another interesting point is the contrast between the oft-chaotic and deviant family and sexual lives of the suspects and Columbo’s own cheerfully unseen domesticity. The detective often relates rueful or humorous anecdotes about his wife, but the idea of his being unfaithful or leaving her is as ridiculous as the ide of his committing a murder himself. We never once doubt that, for all we never see them, Columbo loves his wife and kids and is perfectly happy in his marriage. He also sometimes lists off anecdotes about his broad extended family; his nephews, nieces, brothers, sisters, in-laws, and so on, all of whom he appears to be on perfectly good terms with (he claims that advice from one of his nephews – a botanist – was key to cracking at least one case).
Meanwhile, the killers tend to have unhappy or immoral family habits: most are in the midst of non-marital or extra-marital affairs. Many also have strained or hateful relationships with their siblings or parents or in-laws (this state of affairs supplies many a victim and motive). In short, they live the stereotypical ‘glamorous’ lifestyle of the rich and powerful: no rules, no boundaries. And this is often the exact thing that leads them into murder.
Columbo himself never judges or admonishes them for this kind of behavior, usually acknowledging it with little more than a grimace and an averted eye. But the fact is that the easy-going, blue-collar domesticity we glimpse in Columbo’s anecdotes is really a good deal more attractive than the no-rules, no-boundaries lifestyle of his opponents. As a matter of fact, several of the murderers – most notably Johnny Cash’s Gospel singer – commit their crimes in order to achieve this kind of glamorous life, only to find that it isn’t as glamorous as they thought it would be.
Columbo is, really, a wonderfully Catholic character. I don’t just mean that Columbo himself is, presumably, a Catholic (being a thoroughbred Italian). I mean he is universal; he looks at everyone and everything as though it has value, and he can find goodness even in the murderers he hunts. In one episode he has a rather remarkable speech in which he admits (to a bunch of mystery fans) that he admires many of the people he pursues, because they’re often very smart, talented, and even nice people. He quickly clarifies that this doesn’t mean he approves what they do, only he sees that they are not just murderers, but people. He hates the sin, but he often loves the sinner.
Indeed, there are a number of episodes where he genuinely bonds with the killer. Among the most poignant are Donald Pleasance’s wine connoisseur, with whom he shares a taste for excellence, Patrick McGoohan’s dignified Army Colonel, who sees in Columbo a kindred spirit, and Theodore Bikel’s Mensa member, who finds in the end that the detective is the only person in his life he can really connect to. Other times, when faced with truly cold-blooded or overly-smug villains, Columbo is quite capable of expressing his disgust with them. “I respect your talents,” he tells one. “But I don’t like anything else about you.”
Columbo is a relatively rare fictional detective who remains firmly aware of his opponents’ humanity, even as he works to have them arrested. The episodes are almost as much character studies of the murderers as they are mysteries. We get to know them very well; their hopes, fears, desires, and generally the things that make them tick. In this it preaches another important Catholic message: that murderers are not inhuman monsters, but just ordinary people; people who, under normal circumstances, would be perfectly pleasant and even virtuous. Murder, we see, is not an identity, as though there were murderers and non-murderers; it’s just a sin like any other, a conscious choice that a man makes. A man doesn’t commit murder because he is a murderer; he’s a murderer because he chooses to commit murder. And a man commits murder for the same reason he commits any other sin: because it would be convenient for him and he thinks he can get away with it. Sometimes a man becomes a murderer because he is already an extremely proud or unpleasant person. Other times he’s as upright or even kind a person as you could hope to meet.
Thus, Columbo studiously avoids the problem that many other police dramas fall into of turning the murderers into gratuitous caricatures. They may be unpleasant, but the villains are never caricatures, nor do they ever feel like the writers had any particular axe to grind. Even the escaped Nazi has a degree of humanity to him. He replies to a reminder about his past with a weary “I was 21; I was merely a boy.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time that any movie or TV show ever allowed a Nazi to actually make a plea for himself that, in other contexts, is often held to be a viable excuse.
That is the great thing about Columbo: it’s all about a working-class Joe taking down rich and powerful snobs, but it dares to extend its sympathy to the snobs. Here is a show that never loses sight of the common humanity of the rich and the poor, and even the criminal. No one, not even the most repulsive, is simply dismissed as beneath notice, just as no one, not even the wealthiest and most talented, is above the law.
And one more thing…
Another source of Columbo’s appeal is the sheer caliber of acting talent on display. One of the three distinguishing ‘marks’ of the show’s formula is to have the murderer of the week played by some of the most famous and talented actors of the time (the other two were the ‘reverse-mystery’ style and Falk himself). I already mentioned Donald Pleasance, Patrick McGoohan, and Johnny Cash, but other stars included Vera Miles, Dick van Dyke, Robert Culp, Ricardo Montalban, Jose Ferrer, Leonard Nimoy, and Joyce Van Patten. That’s just off the top of my head. The supporting casts also tend to be strong, and have featured the likes of Ida Lupino, Myrna Loy, Mako, and Vincent Price (who surprisingly enough does not play the murderer). It’s a parade of talent that, more often than not, is very well served by the writers and makes the show a joy to watch just for the sake of the acting talent.
Vivat Christus Rex!