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The brilliance of Columbo, in 5 great episodes

Watch these enduring classics from television’s best detective

Peter Falk smokes a cigar and puts his hands together as Columbo. Image: NBC/Everett Collection

Lieutenant Columbo, played with average Joe charm and unshowy, easy-to-miss dexterity by Peter Falk, is more than meets the eye — to the bad guys, not us, because we know how things will turn out.

They look at him, at the way he putters about with his brows furrowed beneath an unkempt thatch of graying hair and a cockeyed bit of mouth, and they don’t see anything formidable. He looks like a nobody, just another schlub.

And then, the moment comes, as it always does: the humble revelation. Garbed slovenly in rumpled beige, with a stub of a cigar and eyes agleam, the loquacious, polite guy apologizes to the killer for his intrusions. He even makes the variations of his catchphrase — “Just one more thing” (give or take a “just”) — genial as he explains the crime, tells us about the vital clue that everyone else missed, watches the cops cuff that week’s guest star, and goes home to eat dinner with Mrs. Columbo. This odd little man always bests the upper-crust killers. Ah, murder in the home, as Hitchcock said it should be with his Columbo precursor Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The character Columbo, inspired by Porfiry in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, was created by Richard Levinson and William Link. Columbo first appeared in a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Hour, played by Bert Freed. But it would be Peter Falk who would make the shaggy and sapiential sleuth a pop culture icon.

Columbo aired on Sunday nights as part of The NBC Mystery Movie umbrella program that ran from 1971 to 1977. In that glorious run, Columbo only grows irate once. That would be in “A Stitch in Crime,” opposite Leonard Nimoy, a man known for playing the stoical, logical Spock, who never yells and never wavers from his incorruptible morals. Otherwise, Columbo remains calm and careful. He catches you with kindness.

In honor of Kino Lorber’s monumental Blu-ray release of the first seven seasons, which have never looked or sounded better, here are five excellent episodes of Columbo (though by no means the best episodes; there are too many great ones). In addition to the physical release, all the episodes are available to watch on Peacock or for free with ads on Tubi and Freevee.

‘Murder by the Book’ (S1E1)

Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) nearly buckles under the weight of 10 heavy books as Jack Cassidy smiles in Murder By the Book, Columbo’s pilot episode. Image: Universal Television

From the first shot of the Steven Spielberg-directed season 1 premiere, “Murder by the Book” — a virtuosic pull, zoom, pan, focus-changing shot from an office gazing attentively at a car through the glinting lucidity of the squeaky-clean window — Columbo was obviously unlike anything else on television, a serious work that deserves to be taken as seriously as any film from the New Hollywood age.

Spielberg, the boy raised by television, gives us the amiable detective as a frumpy, unassuming genius. He is the slattern sleuth, a man who is neither Clint Eastwood manly or an abrasive Archie Bunker reactionary. He is aesthetically unmemorable, yet he has unexpected, unfailing sapience, and is, unlike Spielberg’s dad, a good husband. It’s amusing how the TV boy, about to ascend to the upper echelon of cinema and make a lot of people a lot of money, directs the heck out of a story about a writer who kills for success. And not just success, but, harkeninging to Hitchcock’s Rope, for the ontological rush of committing the perfect crime, the dastardly desire of a man with an engorged ego. From this episode, Columbo was one of the first shows fluent in cinematic language.

‘Étude in Black’ (S2E1)

John Cassavetes, wearing a black suit and white gloves, attempts to cover up a murder he committed in the Columbo episode Étude in Black Image: Universal Television

In the end (and it must inevitably end), it all comes down to a flower — a vibrant, pristine little carnation, unsullied yet integral to a case most foul — that falls from the lapel of the murderous maestro. It’s a minute, seemingly insignificant detail that would go unnoticed by any normal person. Just a flower on the floor. The 1972 season 2 premiere of Columbo, “Ètude in Black,” starring John Cassavetes as the killer, is the apogee of made-for-television filmmaking. It’s a riveting work of not whodunit but, at once, a dual character study (our frumpy detective and erudite killer) and a mystery as to how our beloved detective will get his guy, which we know he will do. Minutiae and murder.

“Étude in Black,” penned by series creators Richard Levinson and William Link, with dialogue by Steven Bochco (who would fundamentally change the course of mature, intelligent television with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue), is the work of a television director. It does not come from an auteur or Hollywood filmmaker, like Tobe Hooper making Salem’s Lot, probably the other best TV movie of the decade. It was directed by Nicholas Colasanto, best known as the affable airhead Coach from Cheers, one of television’s most pure-hearted, lovable characters. “Étude in Black’’ is something like the spiritual ilk of Mikey and Nicky, in which Falk plays a mendacious friend of Cassavetes’ frazzled low-life who pissed off the wrong mobster. In that movie, Falk turns him in, gets him killed, and at the end it is Cassavetes’ agonized yowls for help, his hopeless begging, with which they end their friendship. “Étude in Black” ends with Falk again “victorious” over Cassavetes, but instead of futilely desperate bellows, instead of crushing malaise, it’s a simple handshake, an exchange of smiles.

‘Any Old Port in a Storm’ (S3E2)

Donald Pleasance and Peter Falk sip wine glasses in the Columbo episode Any Old Port in a Storm Image: Universal Television

Before Halloween, Donald Pleasance played a murderer thwarted by Columbo. An oenophile with financial problems, he grows desperate and ends up with a body in his wine cellar. Compared to other killers on Columbo, Pleasance is kind of pathetic, not an evil creature but a man mired in dolorous desperation, a man watching his dream dissipate.

Whereas most Columbo creeps are seeking financial gain, selfish men and women who will pry money from the cold dead hands of whoever or otherwise trying to cover up a crime of passion, Pleasance’s piteous killer seems upset over his diabolical deed, and lacks the calmness of the more committed killers trying to get away with it. You see, he is a wine expert seeking acceptance among the upper-class connoisseurs, hoping to bottle his own wine to their satisfaction. The first two shots are the winery and the fine red stuff glistening with sanguine beauty through the spotless glasses, catching the light cinematically, a romantic, filmic presentation of wine and the men who worship it — and an unexceptional man pained with hope to be accepted by them. He kills to be upper class.

‘A Friend in Deed’ (S3E8)

Peter Falk talks to Rosemary Murphy, who is holding a small bouquet of flowers, in the Columbo episode A Friend in Deed Image: Universal Television

The most stygian of Columbo’s ’70s run, the season 3 finale was directed by Falk’s buddy and fellow Cassavetes consort Ben Gazzara. Gazzara excelled at complicated characters spanning the spectrum of villainy — a man trying to reclaim the vigor of youth with his buddies in Husbands, a loser aspiring for something else who finds himself alone against it all in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, menacing in Dogville. Here, he directs with the astuteness of one who understands acting, getting a downright nasty performance out of Michael McGuire as the corrupt deputy commissioner, a man who lives in perpetual sin and sleaze. The episode is dark, mostly (but not to its detriment) devoid of levity and humor, nothing breezy to make the depravity more palatable. The writing has a John Milius quality but flipped; instead of stoical stud and tough guy Clint Eastwood standing against his unscrupulous seniors, we get kindly little Columbo.

‘Negative Reaction’ (S4E2)

A bearded Dick Van Dyke wears a suit in the Columbo episode Negative Reaction Image: Universal Television

1968’s Prescription: Murder, starring Dick Van Dyke in a rare nefarious role as a desperate, white-haired man in fine suits who kills a man who doesn’t deserve it, should not be confused with the ’90s Van Dyke show Diagnosis: Murder, in which the fabled funnyman plays a doctor who catches criminals with such affability it makes Columbo look cranky. Here, he plays a Pulitzer-winning photographer who, anticipating Fargo, plans a sham kidnapping of his daughter. “I have this dream, Frances,” the bearded Van Dyke says to his beloved strapped to a chair with rope. “I’m working and there’s a phone call and he says, ‘Terribly sorry, Mr Galesko, but your wife’s dead. Unfortunate accident… ’” He never raises his voice as he calls her “a domineering, nagging, suffocating woman who took all the joy out of my life.”

An ex-con of calm composition and great gullibility has been running errands and performing odd jobs for Van Dyke, but for his trouble he will be rewarded with a bullet. If Van Dyke’s diabolical lensman initially seems like a hen-pecked victim of a shrill scold, we now see his scheme unspooling and recognize his true self. The pacing of the episode is careful and controlled, never boring, never hasty — even the incidental scenes are fun, with more comedy than most of the other episodes. Van Dyke is unsettling and enchanting, the dark foil to his chimney sweep clan leader with the bad British accent.