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Lieutenant Columbo is a homicide detective working for the Los Angeles Police Department. He is not, however, your conventional detective. Always scruffy, with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, he doesn't look as if he could tie his shoe laces, let alone solve a murder. This, however, is the mistake that everyone makes; Columbo is actually very astute and, if you believe the TV series, always gets his criminal, usually by noticing the smallest of discrepancies in the murderer's story. What makes the TV show that little bit different from other shows is that we see the crime and who commits it right at the beginning of the episode. Columbo is then brought in and puts all the pieces together, usually driving the murderer mad in his deliberately bumbling attempts at making them slip up.
Peter Falk plays Columbo in a role that seems to have been made for him. He was not, however, the original choice for the role, which was written for a much older man. Falk has definitely made the role his own though and, backed up by some good plots, he really makes the show the first class entertainment that it is. During the course of the show, which ran from 1968 to 2003 (the later episodes were TV movies and specials), Peter Falk obviously ages quite a bit, yet it suits the character - the absent-mindedness that he exudes seems even more natural. Series 4 was made in the 1970s, so Columbo is still relatively young here, yet Falk, ever the professional, albeit a scruffy one, is just as competent as ever. Columbo is a married man, which is about the only thing we find out about his personal life, but we never actually get to meet Mrs Columbo (at least not in any of the Columbo episodes, although she does appear in a special feature!). I think this speaks volumes. Other fictional detectives need a private life to draw in the viewer, but Columbo manages all this without.
Columbo is well known for using famous actors and actresses in the role of the murderer. As this is an American show and this series was made in the 1970s, not all the names are familiar to me. However, there are three names that particularly stand out. The first is Dick Van Dyke, who plays a photographer with a nagging wife in the second episode (Negative Reaction). I'm very familiar with Van Dyke as an actor, but I didn't recognise him at first because of a face-encompassing beard! Nevertheless, he was great in a straight role and managed the switch between murderer and innocent husband very well. Patrick McGoohan plays the head of a military academy in By Dawn's Early Light and also directed the episode. Again, I didn't recognise him, but then the character is so bland that I didn't really take a good look at him. Finally, there's George Hamilton in A Deadly State of Mind, who plays a murdering psychiatrist. Hamilton's a funny one. He is most definitely a face of the seventies, with a thick head of hair and tangoed skin, and this does put me off; nevertheless, he is completely convincing and is very very creepy.
There are six episodes in series four, over three discs, with an extra episode classed as a special feature. As usual, the quality is consistent. However, if I had to chose the best one, it would be Troubled Waters, which is set on a cruise ship. Columbo is there with his wife (although he's always looking for her, never with her), when a cabaret singer is murdered. I think it appeals to me because of the enclosed space - I love mysteries that involve a restricted number of suspects (even though we know who the suspect is here). Also we get to see Columbo on holiday, and realise that he is just the same off duty as on duty - he really is married to his job. My least favourite episode is By Dawn's Early Light - mainly because it is set in a military academy, which is very alien to me. The motive for murder didn't seem all that convincing either. However, compared with the majority of other cop shows, it is still an entertaining episode.
The two episodes I haven't yet mentioned are An Exercise in Fatality and Playback. Both are excellent stories, but use technical aspects that in today's society just aren't possible. That doesn't stop the episodes from being entertaining, but it did prey on my mind a little while I was watching.
There is no doubt that the format for each episode is exactly the same, as is every episode of every other series. Someone commits a crime, aiming to cover it up. Columbo is called in, meets the murderer, who at that point is not a suspect, befriends him and then proceeds to follow him or her around driving them mad until they crack. Which they always do - there is no doubt about that. In most other shows, this sameness would be boring. Yet somehow Columbo gets away with it, partly because of Peter Falk's characterisation, but partly because of the writing. The concept of Columbo was created by Richard Levinson and William Link, but the writers and directors changed from episode to episode, which perhaps explains the freshness. Somehow the stories of the main characters makes up for the fact that we know exactly how it is going to end.
The special feature, is an episode of Mrs Columbo, a TV show about Columbo's wife, a reporter, who also has her own cases to solve. Unfortunately, the show didn't take off and was quickly cancelled. Watching it, I can understand why. The story, about a ventriloquist who murders his puppet-maker, is fine in itself, and I quite enjoyed it. Mrs Columbo herself, however, is all wrong. Played by actress Kate Mulgrew, she is just too young and pretty. Columbo always hints at his wife being a bit of a battle-axe and certainly a homekeeper, so this charming, articulate, sociable woman just doesn't suit. Columbo himself doesn't appear at all, and there are very few references to him. As a special feature, I was quite happy with it, but I certainly wouldn't bother with it otherwise.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching this series. I love Columbo because each episode is of a high quality, so I know in advance I'm going to enjoy it, and series 4 is no exception. However, I'm not sure I would recommend buying the series on DVD to everyone. Every week, there seems to be an episode of Columbo on the television and it just seems like a waste of money unless you are a big fan and really want the episodes on tap. For this reason alone, I'm dropping a star - otherwise, I most certainly recommend the episodes to anyone who likes crime fiction. Recommended.
The DVD set is available from play.com for £14.99.
Running time: 8 hours 35 minutes