Having not found season 3 of Columbo as entertaining as other seasons I'd previously enjoyed I was hoping season 4 of the show would be an improvement on 3.
I am not going into full detail about each of the 6 episodes from season 4 but will describe the plot briefly, mention any notable guest stars and a brief analysis from this 1974/1975 season.
Episode 1 - An Exercise in Fatality
A health club owner Milo Janus (Robert Conrad) kills one of his franchisees and Columbo's on the case to prove how it was done especially as it seems the man died whilst working out alone at the gym with weights collapsing on his neck. This episode has some rather funny moments as Columbo tries to jog along with the killer whilst trying to question him but he's just too unfit to keep up and can't even catch his breath to ask the questions he needs to. In one scene we see Columbo out of his regular suit and raincoat and wearing a tracksuit whilst he works out on a treadmill at the gym. We see him limping around after coming off the treadmill with evident pain in his hamstrings! It's in this episode that Columbo talks to Janus about how his wife is depressed as she thinks she's fat and depression makes her eat more - apparently since she started watching Janus' fitness shows on TV she's been addicted to them, thereby forgetting to be depressed.
My rating for episode: 4 out of 5
Episode duration: 90 minutes
Episode 2 - Negative Reaction
This one has Dick Van Dyke (from Bewitched and Diagnosis Murder) as a Pullitzer prize winning photographer Paul Galesco, whose faked kidnapping of his nagging wife ending in her death causes Columbo to suspect the husband rather than the ex-con who Galesco made out to have carried out the kidnapping. The ex-con is shot and killed at the ransom exchange and Columbo has to try to outwit this clever killer somehow as he just seems too clever to have left any evidence. It was unusual to see Van Dyke in a negative role as I'm so used to seeing him as the charming and loveable Dr Sloane in Diagnosis Murder! It was also strange to see him sporting a full grey beard as this was in the mid 70s.
My rating for episode: 3 out of 5
Episode duration: 91 minutes
Episode3 - By Dawn's Early Light
Colonel Rumford (Patrick McGoohan) kills the chairman of the board of the military academy he runs as enrolments are down from 6000 to 1100 and the chairman of the school governors board, an ex-student of the academy himself, wants to turn the loss-making academy into a profitable co-ed college. Columbo, whose wife is away, stays at the academy and is horrified to be woken at random times of the night when spot inspections are done. But by letting Columbo sleep next door to the other cadets at the academy, Rumford doesn't account for the fact that Columbo can get through to these youngsters by talking about his days in the army and empathising with them rather than coming across as a stuffy police official, leading the cadets to will share secrets with him that they would never share with their seniors at the academy. It was interesting to see Columbo talk about his school days and how he gave his id bracelet to his sweetheart back in school and saw her 8 years ago at a wedding for her to tell him she still had it. It was a touching moment in the episode as Columbo is rarely seen to discuss his youth in the episodes. I liked the way Columbo dealt with the Colonel at the end of the episode too as it gave the proud man some dignity in his final moments at the academy that he was so passionate about. One might think the character of Colonel Rumford was stark raving mad in his obsession about the place but you could also see he was passionate about training men up to be good soldiers in order to protect civilians so they could rest easy in their beds at night.
My rating for episode: 5 out of 5
Episode duration: 100 minutes
Episode 4 - Troubled Waters
Columbo is on a cruise to Acapulco with his wife (who, of course, manages never to appear on screen during the whole trip) when the on board cabaret singer is murdered. Columbo's chief suspect, a wealthy businessman Hayden Danziger (Robert Vaughn), seems in the clear, as he was bed-ridden in the ship's hospital following a heart attack earlier in the day. How did he do it? It's up to Columbo to solve the case even though the captain and other crew are convinced the singer's ex boyfriend is the culprit. Columbo has to solve the case before they land as he really doesn't have any jurisdiction as an officer of the law on the ship. This episode had a plethora of well known guest stars including Dean Stockwell, Jane Greer, Bernard Fox and Patrick McNee. The cruise being staffed mostly by English people, it was funny to see Fox and McNee in white shorts as part of their uniform, they did look rather ridiculous to be honest but I suspect it was a ploy on the part of the show to make British people look foolish as often happens in US shows!
My rating for episode: 5 out of 5
Episode duration: 93 minutes
Episode 5 - Playback
Harold Van Wick (Oskar Werner) an errant husband shoots and kills his mother-in-law who's about to oust him from his high-powered job at her company whilst his wheel-chair bound wife Elizabeth (Gena Rowlands) sleeps upstairs. The whole thing is caught on video-tape, except that our murderer is an electronics expert who has managed to fake the video evidence so it seems he wasn't at home when the shooting takes place. Columbo, of course, digs and digs until he starts to really get under his suspect's skin. Gena Rowlands looked gorgeous in this episode as the frail and loving wife and I was very impressed by her beautiful wardrobe of chiffon and flowing outfits. This is an episode I'd seen many years ago on TV and recalled only vaguely how the murderer was caught out. Considering this was made in the id 70s, the technology used for gadgetry in the show was way ahead of its time.
I found this bitchy set of lines rather hilarious during this episode:
"Van Wick: Mother dear, have you done something to your hair?
Van Wick: That's what I thought."
My rating for episode: 4 out of 5
Episode duration: 73 minutes
Episode 6 - A Deadly State of Mind
Dr Collier is psychiatrist (George Hamilton) who's having an affair with Nadia Donner, a married patient (Leslie Warren) who is totally dependent on him but ends up killing her husband when he confronts Collier about the affair. He makes Nadia cover up by claiming masked intruders broke into their beach house, stealing jewellery and killing her husband in the process. The problem is Nadia is unreliable in her current mental state so Collier has to take drastic action to make sure he doesn't get done for murder, but this makes him commit another murder (how clever)! Columbo doesn't buy Nadia's story and is on Collier's case from early on. I was a bit confused to see the actress I know as Leslie Ann Warren billed as Leslie Warren. I thought the storyline was a bit unrealistic here as regardless of the lack of ethics displayed by having an affair with a patient, Collier actually does kill her husband in self defence so if he'd come forward about the accidental death, there would also have been the clear evidence of Donner battering his wife. This is probably one of the very few times I've seen Hamilton looking less than orange in colour (for those not in the know, this actor has mostly been more famous for his permanent tan than his acting skills)!
My rating for episode: 3 out of 5
Episode duration: 70 minutes
Bonus Episode - A Riddle for Puppets
This is an episode from the TV spinoff series of the Columbo series entitled "Mrs Columbo". Mrs C gets involved in a case of a murderer puppet-maker/legendary ventriloquist and she makes it her mission to prove that his protégée killed him.
My rating for episode: 4 out of 5
Episode duration: 45 minutes
*What Did I Think?*
As with all episodes of Columbo season 4 episodes follow the same formula with the audience seeing from the start of the episode who the murderer is and how they commit the crime. It's like we're let into a big secret from the start and we have to watch to see how Columbo solves the case each time and which clues crop up that will give the game away. As usual we see Columbo smoke his cigars throughout each episode and drop his cigar ash wherever he is seemingly oblivious to the fact that he's doing so.
I found "Troubled Waters" particularly amusing with the side storyline of Columbo unable to track his wife down on board the ship when he first boards and then unable to disembark with her too. He's able to get fully involved in a murder investigation whilst being on holiday and it was nice to see the wardrobe department dress him in some bright colourful short sleeved shirts for a change rather than have him run around on board a ship donning his raincoat for the whole episode! When the purser initially asks Columbo to come to see the Captain, Columbo (not realising it's because a murder has been committed) asks if it's about his wife as "I mean... she likes to have a good time, sometimes she gets carried away..."
We continue to see rich and/or powerful suspects thinking they're so much better and far cleverer than our Lt Columbo but really can anyone ever get the better of our dear crumpled raincoat wearing bumbling detective? You'd have to watch and see.
In the bonus episode, Kate Mulgrew stars as Mrs Columbo and although we don't hear anyone refer to her by name, in the starting credits we see her full name above an article as she writes for a local paper. "Kate" is the first name of Columbo's wife who was never shown in any of the Columbo episodes and nor was she ever referred to by her first name. The only reference made to Columbo during this episode is when Mrs C visits Mr C's aunt at a hospital and says he's out of town with work. During the opening credits we also see the family dog (who was never officially given a name, poor thing) and Columbo's battered old Peugeot parked outside their house. I had been wondering for some time what Mrs Columbo would be like and even though the character wasn't what I ever expected her to be like, I disagree with comments I've read about her saying that her Kate Mulgrew didn't fit the physical appearance of how Columbo described her at times. He had mentioned in "An Exercise in Fatality" that his wife was depressed because she thought she was fat and because she was depressed she was eating more. Kate Mulgrew was definitely not fat but she was by no means stick thin either. Columbo also says that he preferred women to be more curvy than thin.
The DVD box set for season 4 has 3 disks with full subtitles available for each of the 6 Columbo episodes as well as for the bonus episode of Mrs Columbo. The film seems to have transferred to DVD more clearly all round than episodes in season 3; they seem somehow crisper and sharper.
In this box set, some of the episodes are classed as PG and some are 12, so the overall certification for the set has been given a 12. The box set is available from around £7 (used) to £12 (new) from Amazon at the time of writing.
Overall the second season of Columbo gets a decent 4 out of 5 stars from me. I think of all the seasons viewed so far, the 2 episodes I've rated as 5 out of 5 above are my favourites so far!
Starring: Peter Falk
Guest stars: Robert Conrad, Patrick McGoohan, Robert Vaughan, Dean Stockwell, Dick Van Dyke, Patrick McNee, Bernard Fox, Gena Rowlands
Directors: Bernard L Kowalski (2 episodes), Alf Kjellin, Harvey Hart (2 episodes), Ben Gazzara,
DVD release date: September 2006
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