The long-awaited Blu-Ray of the first season of Columbo is here, one of the better-made TV shows of the ‘70s, has arrived. The high quality was mainly due to Peter Falk, one of the most underappreciated actors ever, as he was able to create a character so effortlessly, but they were also well-shot and well-directed. Some major names, and some up-and-comers like some kids called Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme, made episodes (I don’t know what happened to those kids…). There was a collection of great character actors and an unusual structure for mysteries—usually the audience knows who did it up front, which reminds me of some Peter Weir movies—which has been described as a ‘howcatchem’ instead of a ‘whodunnit.’ Probably the most famous example of this style would be Dial M for Murder, or Alfred Bester’s detective-science fiction novel The Demolished Man.
The Season 1 box set includes seven episodes, plus the two TV movies made before the series began. It puts Falk’s bumbling, super-smart detective who no one knows is this great sleuth until it’s too late. From 1971-1977, a new Columbo series started each year in the fall. They were part of the NBC Mystery Movie of the Week slot for years. Notable contributors included Patrick McGoohan, who popped frequently up the murderer of the week, and Roddy MacDowell, William Shatner and even Johnny Cash. As the series continued, more stars did a turn, from Janet Leigh to Dick Van Dyck. John Cassavetes, who was one of Peter Falk’s closest friends, also appeared, and directed an episode (though it wasn’t during this season.)
In this set Leslie Neilson (back in his days as a serious actor) and Roddy MacDowell can be seen. The most notable director here is Spielberg (“Murder By the Book,” the first episode of the series proper, and one of his earliest paid gigs as a filmmaker before he moved into being a feature film director, he made some film about a Shark later?). Jack Smight also directed an episode, as did Norman Lloyd, best-known for his lifelong collaboration with Hitchcock. Lloyd (who is still alive at 104!) was one of the key creatives behind both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The series uses stylised mystery-film conventions, including film noir, and was definitely more creative than the typical TV show of the time. Although there were other actors who could have filled the role (the producers even considered Bing Crosby for some reason), but it’s Falk who really made it distinctive. He was already a veteran of high-end TV (Hitchcock Presents, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone, The Naked City), and had a long film career behind him as well. He was an actor ho put a lot of effort into his parts, resulting in a performance that looked easy and natural.
The Columbo character was created much earlier by Richard Levenson and Richard Link, and Falk was not the first person to play him (some say Columbo was inspired by the inspector in Clouzot’s Les Diabolique). Levinson and Link’s character first appeared in 1960 in ‘’Enough Rope,” an episode of The Chevy Mystery Show anthology series, where he was played by Bert Freed. Thomas Mitchell then had the role in the 1962 stage play Prescription Murder, which was later adapted to a TV movie—which is where Falk comes in.
In this set you get the episodes from September 1971 to February 1972, plus the two pilots on the third disc. You don’t need to watch the episodes in order, they are all self-contained stories, almost like an anthology show. It was one of the most intelligent and well-made television shows in a decade not known for them, so worth a watch. In a small way, it was a show that certainly pushed the boundaries of the medium and put some atmosphere into what was otherwise a super-commercialised medium. It’s would also serve as a perfect present this holiday season.