Q: Other than Doctor Who, what other shows were 'appointment TV' for you when you were a child?
A: I really liked Doctor Who starring Jon Pertwee; Doctor Who starring Patrick Troughton; I was a particular devotee of Doctor Who starring Peter Davison. And Tom Baker. Doctor Who starring anyone really. It's so many shows in one, that I really required to know no other shows.
Okay, my serious answer is, I bloody loved Columbo. I think I would have written a good Columbo. And if Peter Falk would kindly bend to public opinion and stop being dead, I would very much like to write for him.
Оказывается, Моффат написал целую статью для журнала «Crime Scene» о гениальности «Коломбо». Мы все это знаем, но, как обычно у Моффата, хороши формулировки:
The Sherlock creator on the enduring genius of Columbo.
There’s a scene at the very start of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds which centres on the most terrifying interrogation you will ever witness – and if you haven’t seen it, and only know Tarantino by reputation, it’s almost certainly not what you think. The set up is this: German occupied France; a brave and decent dairy farmer is hiding a Jewish family beneath his floorboards; Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who is beyond amazing), the “Jew Hunter” of the SS drops by to ask a few questions. There are, very specifically, no threats. The men with guns are left outside. Hans produces nothing more threatening than a comedy Sherlock Holmes pipe and his manners are so exquisite, so militantly fastidious, that you start reviewing your own behaviour when you drop in on your friends unexpectedly. At the end of several minutes of sustained courtesy, the dairy farmer breaks down in tears, betrays his terrified friends, and stands by as they are slaughtered.
If I could explain here how that worked, then I could write like Tarantino, and there isn’t a day goes by I don’t pray for that – you’ll just have to watch the movie. And yes, I am aware that right now I am introducing an article on television’s most lovable detective by comparing him to a Nazi. So let’s be clear: Lieutenant Columbo is not, in any sense, the terrifying Hans Landa. But they both demonstrate exactly how to cut through the world to the truth beneath it. With a friendly smile, a steel trap mind, and the heart of joyful sadist.
Do you know Columbo? I mean, really know it? We all have a vague idea of a funny man in a rain coat, and at a push we might remember his “just one more thing” catchphrase, but if that’s the extent of your knowledge, then it’s time you fixed that. Because in all of television, Columbo is unique. Columbo is exactly the same every week.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: all shows are. Well, no, they’re not. They’re similar, they’re not identical. Not even James Bond movies are actually identical, if you think about it. Frankly, only a game show comes close to Columbo for reproducing the same narrative episode after episode.
And if that isn’t transgression enough, how about this: Columbo isn’t actually main the character – week after week, the hero is the murderer. Traditionally, Columbo doesn’t even show up for the first twenty minutes. The murderer gets more lines, more screen time, and God knows a bigger wardrobe budget. More than that: we get to know the murderer. We get the back story, we feel their pain, we understand the terrible needs that drove them to the awful moment, and the vanity or hubris that brings them crashing down at the end. Sometimes – quite often – we even like them. It would take a heart of stone not to side with Ruth Gordon in ‘Try & Catch Me’, and Patrick McGoohan will break your heart in ‘By Dawn’s Early Light’. We live with these people. But Columbo? The man we see as Lieutenant Columbo isn’t even real. He’s a trap. A conscious construct of homely anecdotes, loveable vagueness, and tales of a never-seen wife – all camouflage for a genius predator, circling the guilty, his teeth at their throat before they even know he’s there.
Sometimes I wonder about Columbo’s wife. I’ve even wondered if she exists at all. Columbo is usually investigating celebs – actors, authors, a chef, a magician – and every time his wife is a huge fan. He’s all about asking for autographs, and stories of his wife’s single-minded devotion to whoever-it-is this week. Now look, if all that’s true, by now Columbo must have arrested every single person his wife has ever admired. She must be terrified to watch a TV show or read a book. She must hesitate to reach for a recipe! The curse of Mrs Columbo – wife, mother, and serial prison visitor.
But of course, it’s all lies, that’s the point. We only know Columbo from the point of view of the killers he haunts – and he’s too focussed and sly to ever give away anything real about himself. Except maybe once. In all the shows, I think there is one moment when we see the real man – and when the storm breaks, it is gloriously exciting. In ‘An Exercise In Fatality’ Columbo loses his temper (I still think that should be the title.) Robert Conrad is the suave, infuriating killer, and in one giddy scene, Columbo just loses it. All that fumbling, vagueness vanishes in a blink, and there is tough little bastard telling a killer he’s going to bring him down. For any other detective show, that would be the most conventional scene imaginable: for Columbo, it’s a shock – a snarling face revealed in a lightning flash. It never happens again, but you never forget it.
Part of what makes it unforgettable, of course, is that anything different in a Columbo episode slaps you in the face. I mentioned that this is a show that runs on rigid lines: it’s time I delivered on that. Here, then, is a comprehensive spoiler for ( just about) every single Columbo episode. But don’t worry – I’m going to try to leave out all the good bits.
Murder Most Complicated
You’re about to see a murder, but not just any old murder – this will be a really good one. You know that final thrilling chapter of an Agatha Christie, when Poirot (or whoever is on duty that book) reveals how the super-clever murder was done? I love those bits. I love the machinery, and ingenuity of it. I remember properly gasping at the cleverness of ‘Evil Under The Sun’ and ‘Death On The Nile’. Well the genius creators of Columbo, Richard Levinson and William Link had a genius idea: if those chapters are the best bit of the story (and they are) why not do them first? Sure, you’ll know who the killer is from the very start, but think of the red herring time you’ll save. And better than that: you, sitting in the audience, are morally compromised. You meet (and often like) the killer. You understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. Often, you sympathise. And then you can’t help admiring the sheer craft and ingenuity of the terrible thing they do. And there’s proper tension too! The meticulous plan goes into effect, but splitsecond timing is needed, there are moments when it all threatens to go wrong – and there you are, gripping the arms of the your chair, sweating alongside a ruthless killer, willing the death of an another human being.
And oh, there are some brilliant murders in Columbo. ‘Double Exposure’ is a particular favourite of mine. When I was 12 I thought the murder in ‘Playback’ was the cleverest thing I’d ever seen. The murder in ‘Murder By The Book’ (written by Steve Bochco, directed by Steven Spielberg, in case you’re feeling in any way adequate) is so damned simple and ingenious, they need to have the killer commit a second murder, that’s a bit easier to solve.
Watching them now, of course, can be trickier. There’s a killer who establishes his alibi by showing people his digital watch – and they all remember it perfectly, because they’ve never seen one before! William Shatner establishes a brilliant alibi, by using a clever piece of technology called a VCR which can (I’m told) show television programmes at a time other than when they were originally broadcast.
But in general, if you’re a fan of killing people in complicated ways (and which of us isn’t?) the first 20 minute stretch of any given Columbo is a joy, a mini-thriller that puts you on the wrong side of the law…
Enter A Hobo
Back in the day, when I watched Columbo on ITV, that murder would always run up to the first ad break. And then, when the show resumed, there would be a crime scene. There would be police swarming everywhere, blue flashing lights, a tape outline on the floor and, in a moment, the elegant murderer, gliding through, affecting surprise and disdain in equal measure. The police are all fools, of course – instantly taken in by the killer’s charm and offers of help. And then, the moment you wait for every week: here he comes. Backing out of a cupboard in his grubby coat, scrabbling about out on his knees on an expensive rug, or shambling out of the bathroom to ask how you can put mini-soaps back in the dish without them sticking to the other minisoaps, is the incomparable, the charming, the clueless, the irredeemably shabby, Lieutenant Columbo.
Often, our killer will assume that a tramp has wandered in from the street, and make moves to have him ejected. When the tramp in question has fumbled through his pockets and produced some dog-eared ID, then comes one of the lovely moments of almost every single episode. You see it flicker across the killer’s face: not only have I committed the cleverest murderer in the history of mankind, I’m being investigated by an insanitary moron. With one eye.
And if you know your Columbo, you’re sitting back, grinning your face off, because the games are about to begin. Columbo is confused. Columbo is apologetic. He’s flapping his hands, he’s rubbing the back of his neck and guess what, the poor dear is even asking the actual murderer for help in the case. Because gee, this a difficult one.
Mistake one: the killer is elated. The endgame is in sight. Look at this poor hapless guy, it’s going to be a breeze. Hey, it might even be fun to be friends with this funny little fella.
So the murderer starts to chat. They expound. They theorise. And there’s Columbo thanking them gratefully, and making notes in his little book, so happy for this help so graciously provided. And he’s leaving. It’s all over, and the clever old killer can pour that drink at last and contemplate a life free from care – and from the door, at the last possible moment, come the words that will haunt their every prison night…
“Just One More Thing…”
It’s so much more than a catch phrase – it’s sadism in the name of law and order. From the point of view of the killer, it’s torture beyond endurance. Just when you think the conversation is over, just as you start to relax, that silly little monocular detective has one more irritating question. Just one tiny thing he doesn’t quite understand… Just one more thing! Again and again and again. Every time you think he’s finally out the door, those words. ’Til you can’t pour that drink for your hand shaking.
And oh, I so want to spoiler you. Because over the course of so many Columbo episodes, those questions are genius. I want to tell you my favourites so you can enjoy the sheer unbridled cleverness of so many brilliant writers. Keep in mind, this is the show that plays fair. You’ve seen the whole damn murder. Uniquely, you know more than the detective. If there’s a mistake in that murder you’d have seen it, surely? Yet time after time, those questions come out the blue. You don’t spot the mistake, you don’t see what Columbo sees: you are, every time, outplayed. I have a list of the very best Just One More Things, and I promise you it is an act of will not to type them here. Go and watch them yourself. Be amazed that one show ever set the bar so high as to play the same trick over and over again and fool you every time. You know it’s coming – and every time, it comes right out of nowhere.
And so the terrible haunting begins. In its purest form (and because the show is so constant in form it’s possible to have a Platonic ideal of an episode) we only ever see Columbo from the killer’s point of view. But that’s okay, because Lt. Columbo is suddenly everywhere they look – from every shadow there is the sound of a striking match, the glow of a cigar, and then the Lieutenant stepping, smiling, into the light. Doesn’t matter where they go, where they hide themselves away, somehow, impossibly, he is there. There is, as they slowly realise, no escape. “Just one more thing...” again and again, till the game is up and the prison bars clang shut.
The Coup De Grace
A cat only plays with a mouse for so long: eventually, the little guy gets squished. And by the end of a Columbo there’s no doubt who the little guy was all along. The coup de grace is generally delicious and comes in two forms: the Trap and the Mistake In Plain Sight.
The trap ending – a setup by Columbo to trick the murder into a fatal error – is slightly more common, and (if you’ll forgive the piety of the true fan) the lesser of the two options. But be assured, they are amazingly clever traps. Watch how he ensnares Dick Van Dyke (yes, really) at the end of ‘Negative Reaction’. Or how Robert Culp gets hoist by his own petard in ‘Double Exposure’. Columbo’s clincher in ‘Suitable For Framing’ will have you punching the air, and when the lights slam on in ‘Blueprint For A Murder’, expect to cheer. Technically its the victim himself who entraps Ruth Gordon in ‘Try & Catch Me’, but it’s so ingenious you forgive it for that.
In my heart, though, the Mistake In Plain Sight is just that bit more pure. It’s sort of the ultimate Just One More Thing: a mistake made by the murderer, right at the top of the show, in full view of the audience, that no one notices till Columbo, sweetly and gently, points it out. The one at the end of ‘The Most Crucial Game’ is pretty damned clever, though I doubt it would stand up in court. There’s rather a beauty in ‘Uneasy Lies The Crown’, but best of all is the one at the end of ‘Murder Under Glass’.
It’s the final moments of the episode: technically the coup de grace has been accomplished and this week’s killer, Louis Jordan, has capitulated. There’s just one more thing. “When did you first suspect I was the murderer?” Louis asks Columbo, over a sumptuous dinner.
“Oh, I knew from the moment I met you,” replies Columbo. “How is that possible?” demands Louis.
Columbo’s answer is sublime. The next sound you will hear is your own hand smacking your forehead. A mistake in plain sight, and one you just spent 80 minutes not noticing…
Oh, just one more thing of my own. How is it possible I just wrote so many words about my favourite ever detective show, and forgot to mention one man. I hope you’ll all go and watch Columbo all over again (or for the first time, you lucky person) and when you do, you’ll be smarter than me and give thanks for the ungodly brilliance of the man who made him real – the gorgeous, sexy, glass-eyed and irreplaceable, Peter Falk.