'... Just One More Thing' - Remembering Columbo's Relentless War on Crime
“There’s just one more thing …”
With those words, Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) would engage in what would amount to a 90-minute battle of wits with a killer who has – by all appearances – committed the perfect crime.
In a way, the crime is perfect – with the killer using either expertise or technology to try to maintain his alibi. Yet, when this disheveled detective driving a clunker shows up to investigate, the killer soon finds himself in trouble – even resorting to murdering someone else to keep Columbo at bay.
They think it will work, but they keep getting more desperate as Columbo is closing in. Sometimes, Columbo himself was the target of the killer.
So why was "Columbo" so popular that Falk considered tackling a new "Columbo" film as late as 2007 - 39 years after the character first graced TV screens - before health complications scuttled the project?
The biggest reason was the battle of wits that viewers could see as the rumpled detective takes what should be the perfect crime and proceeds to catch the killer and arrest him.
For one of the best examples of Columbo at work, consider the “Negative Reaction” episode. Dick Van Dyke plays a photographer who murdered his wife and framed a man for the crime. Later, his character rubs out the framed man, too.
No loose ends, right? Not exactly.
Van Dyke – who brilliantly played against type – appears to have Columbo outwitted. But it is not to be … as is the case, the killer is identified, and justice is done.
Bit by bit, Columbo starts to unravel the facts behind the killings. Ultimtely, he figures it out by focusing on the small inconsistencies. How does Columbo outwit Van Dyke's killer in the end? Ultimately, he gets Van Dyke’s character to reach for the camera in the murder scene out of a collection of cameras – having worn him down with constant questions – and by a bluff (or was it?) on Columbo's part.
With "CSI," the focus in on science nailing the killer – the cops are now turning to the techs. It almost doesn’t matter who is laying out the facts to the suspect at the end – if it is Gil Grissom, Ray Langston, or D. B.Russell, the science is the star, with the criminologists as the supporting cast.
On "Columbo," often the killers use technology to try to avoid suspicion – and they have an edge. Modern cop shows, like the "CSI" and "Law & Order" franchises, or "Blue Bloods" feature the detectives dishing out a tough interrogation at the precinct. "Columbo" hardly ever featured that in its NBC run. Indeed, for what amounts to a 90-minute murder mystery, "Columbo" is very family friendly. Indeed, it is the battle of wits and the innate charisma that Falk brought to the character that draws you in and holds you – as well as the fact that you know who the killer is from the get-go.
In a very real sense, people "misunderestimated" Columbo long before President George W. Bush coined the term. One would think that some of the show's villains – many of whom are very cunning – could outwit Columbo, but the detective always wins.
That is why Columbo has aged so well. Beneath the character's unkempt exterior, there is clearly a genius who uses his mind to help bring killers to justice and give the victims justice.
It's a superb approach, one dating back to when Cain killed Abel.