Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Just one more question for ya, ma'am..."

Star Trek. Warner Brothers. The Lion in Winter. I, Claudius. David Attenborough. My Fair Lady. And Columbo. These are the movie and television staples on which I was raised. (Oh all right; and Murder She Wrote. But that's not as cool.)

Netflix recently made available for Instant View almost all of the original 1970s Columbo episodes. Being an indolent leech on the flank of society has its advantages; I've gotten through twelve episodes so far. It's so much fun to rewatch these as an adult.

Columbo is unique among murder-mystery series in that the viewer knows from the beginning whodunit -- most episodes open by actually showing a character (usually played by a semi-famous guest star) plan and execute a murder. This allows the show to be unusually psychological and character-driven; any suspense one feels is felt in identification with the killer, as Columbo lays his traps and pokes and prods and manipulates. 

Peter Falk is shrewd and endearing in the part. One of the main draws of the show is seeing what sort of rapport Columbo will develop with the murderer, who is sometimes very charming and likable, sometimes guilt-ridden, sometimes perceptive enough to see right through Columbo's strategic bumbling and bold enough to call him on it. The quality of the acting also varies from the unashamedly melodramatic to the surprisingly genuine. Overall, I find the series much more natural and subtle than most of the slick, shiny, over-produced television of today. 

And of course, much of the fun comes from the "period piece" factor. Bad suits, strange soundtrack choices, "cutting edge" camera techniques, shag carpet, and sexism abound -- not to mention delightfully smarmy guest stars like George Hamilton and Jack Cassidy! What's not to like?

Some of the very best (IMO) eps are, sadly, not available. But here are a few recommendations from among those that are:

Season 1:
Death Lends a Hand
Suitable for Framing

Season 2:
A Stitch in Crime
The Most Dangerous Match
Double Shock

Season 4:
An Exercise in Fatality
By Dawn's Early Light

Season 6-7:
Old Fashioned Murder
How to Dial a Murder
Try and Catch Me
Murder under Glass
Make Me a Perfect Murder

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