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(The classic TV series Columbo has come under increased popularity amongst cinefiles for it’s always clever scripting but, moreso for a steady parade of outstanding character actors. Jonathan Marlow digs into the Kino Lorber 4K Blu-ray collection of the show’s first seven seasons. Oh yeah, one more thing…)

Is there anything substantially new worthy of writing about a relatively old television program that has been dissected and detailed to death? If the show in question is Columbo, its final episode airing two decades ago, there are still plenty of seemingly worthwhile words to expend. In the midst of this holiday gift-giving season, a long-anticipated remastered-in-4K package of the first seven seasons (along with a handful of extras) arrives thanks to the “Studio Classics” efforts of Kino Lorber. Five discs. Roughly sixty-five hours of viewing. Arguably the pinnacle of the “how-done-it” genre, with its usual third-act reveal exposing how a deceptively clever detective has pieced together a fatal flaw in the criminal process.

The box set includes the “Movie of the Week” that started it all—Prescription Murder, initially a mystery magazine short story adapted into a one-off teleplay and then restructured as a stage-play (starring Thomas Mitchell, Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead, no less) before a re-adaptation back to television—along with the original pilot and a shorter (trimmed by twenty minutes) edit of one of its best episodes, Étude in Black. That initial PM incarnation introduced many of the characteristics of the Columbo character which, ultimately, were expanded-upon over the years and seasons that followed. The rumpled trench-coat, of course. An apparent befuddlement which catches the criminal off-guard. The oft-mentioned but never-seen wife. The persistent Italophilia.

Columbo, as it is remembered today, was part of the NBC Mystery Movie wheel-show, rotating with McMillan & Wife (with Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James), McCloud (as portrayed by Dennis Weaver) and, in the second year and for a few years thereafter, Hec Ramsey (featuring Richard Boone). It was this format of longer-episodes-made-less-frequently which allowed for a higher overall quality of each story, arguably a fair part of why the show is still discussed today. Granted, if that were the entirety of the reason, folks would still be discussing McCloud and McMillan & Wife. Not many references to either show lately. While far from forgotten, neither has the following of the frumpy sleuth in the 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet.

Undoubtedly, I vaguely recall childhood viewings with my mother while the series was in syndication (where it has been in constant rotation long since the show ceased). Such circumstances are applicable to only a handful of other television programs from a half-century ago. Kolchak: The Night Stalker, perhaps, among a few other possibilities, chiefly shows of retroactive popularity long after cancellation. Columbo, however, was popular when it first appeared and has remained a topic of television-oriented conversation ever since.

Much has understandably been made of the director of the initial episode of the debut season, Murder by the Book (with the “book” in question entitled Prescription Murder, natch), and its director, Steven Spielberg, who certainly made a mark in episodic television and made-for-TV movies before becoming one of the most well-known filmmakers of his generation. Admittedly, he was merely one of many notable directors associated with the show, a list extending to Jonathan Demme and Boris Sagal, for example, along with several actors-turned-directors, including Patrick McGoohan (responsible for several of the most compelling episodes), Norman Lloyd, Leo Penn, Ben Gazzara, Richard Quine, Nicholas Colasanto and Peter Falk himself. Much, too, is regularly mentioned of the impressive selection of actors making guest appearances as murders or victims, from Vincent Price, Ida Lupino, John Cassavetes, Sal Mineo, Janet Leigh, Dean Stockwell, Ray Milland, Ruth Gordon, Ricardo Montalbán and Johnny Cash to a brief pre-Halloween part for Jamie Lee Curtis and a recurring role in the early seasons for Timothy Carey (as Bert, the proprietor of a diner with what seems to be some mighty fine chili). The aforementioned Patrick McGoohan played the murderer in four episodes, Robert Culp and Jack Cassidy in three, William Shatner and George Hamilton in two. Recurring, yet caught all the same. Less-often mentioned but of exceptional importance are the impressive assortment of writers on the series, including the original playwrights Richard Levinson and William Link, Steven Bochco, Jonathan Latimer, Larry Cohen, Stephen Cannell and, in a deviation from the persistent “how-done-it” format (in later seasons, not included on the Blu-ray set), adaptations derived from a pair of Ed McBain stories.

If anything, beyond the above-average writing, acting and directing, a large sampling of the appeal is a fairly ideal and satisfying template: a brief prologue introducing the protagonist and victim; the deadly deed executed in (generally) premediated detail; the second-act arrival of Lieutenant Columbo who, seemingly bewildered and out-of-place, happens to identify the plausible culprit fairly quickly and “cat-and-mouses” the individual into an inevitable sequence of mistakes; a final explanation of where or how everything went entirely wrong (sometimes plausible, occasionally far-fetched). Is it any wonder that in the midst of the successful run Falk was cast as Sam Diamond (née Spade, a la Dashiell Hammett) in the whodunit spoof Murder by Death and then a near-retread of that Humphrey Bogart pseudo-impression in a subsequent The Cheap Detective, both written by Neil Simon and directed by Robert Moore? Fortunately, the interrupted pacing of Columbo filming allowed the actor to continue appearances in feature-lengths in parallel with the series or else we would not have the privilege of his memorable contributions to Husbands, A Woman Under the Influence, Mikey and Nicky or The Brink’s Job.

Given the various streaming-service options available at the moment, Columbo episodes can be found with relative ease. Not quite as convenient as physical media, however, with the picture-quality of this set superior to anything you’ve likely seen before. Commercial-free, too! Since many episodes are worthy of an occasional revisit for years or decades ahead, owning it is presumably preferable to the potential that streaming-availability could evaporate at any moment. For whatever else would you be waiting?

You were expecting, “One more thing…?” Temptation resisted.

COLUMBO (1968 –  1978)

dir. various  [3,800(!)min.]  Kino Lorber Studio Classics

[with sincere appreciation for the comments and assorted episode-recommendations of the
multi-talented Anne Hockens, Director of Communications at the Film Noir Foundation]


Jonathan Marlow|  @aliasMarlow [Twitter ] @marlowesque [BlueSky]

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