Shooting Columbo: The Lives and Deaths of TV’s Rumpled Detective, by David Koenig. 248pp. Bonaventure Press, 2021.
The story of Columbo is the story of Peter Falk. Not Richard Levinson and William Link, who created the show. Not Sid Sheinberg, the Universal executive who greenlit it. Not Patrick McGoohan, who directed five episodes, starred in four, and became a close confidant to Falk. Not NBC executive Dick Irving, nor producers Dean Hargrove and Everett Chambers, nor writer Jackson Gillis. No; the show’s reputation was formed, and later slipped away, on the back of its star, a Jew from the Bronx who lost his right eye at the age of three and didn’t begin to act professionally until the age of 30.
Though the role would substantiate his claim for induction into the pantheon of great TV characters, Falk was initially hesitant to take it on. Warned against TV’s one-dimensionality by reprobate indie denizens John Cassavetes and Elaine May, Falk instead wanted to work in films, in art, in The Cinema with all its haughty grandeur. An example: In 1970 he appeared in one of cult cinema’s most venerated works, Husbands, directed by his friend Cassavetes. Though he was tinged with discomfort given his inexperience with Cassavetes’s improvisational style, the experience was so overwhelming, so pure, that it had Falk aching for more.
Then, in late 1970, Falk’s business manager scampered off with $100,000 of his client’s money. And so, after a year of sustained pestering, NBC finally had their Columbo. We like to think of art as a romantic aligning of the stars, the product of an ineffable affinity between a writer and their subject, an actor and their script, a dancer and their beat. But sometimes it’s as simple as a guy needing a buck.
Despite his initial reticence, Falk soon became connected to the show with a depth he hadn’t foreseen. He would contribute to the early scripts, lead the cast on set, visit the editing room begging to see dailies. He was obsessed. Of course, obsession is philosophically ambiguous, and it often results in unpredicted trouble, shadow-dealing, Faustian bargains. At first, Falk’s dedication to the show birthed only an end product with compelling unity, mainly due to his performance. The result of this unity was a ratings success; the result of success was NBC and Universal becoming dependent on Falk to make the show gel; the result of dependence on Falk was Falk holding the show ransom; the result of the project’s ransoming was that, by season 7, Falk was making $500,000 an episode – even though each one would net NBC only about $400,000 on premiering. In other words, the Faustian bargain had been secured, the handshake irrevocable. The only question left was when the devil would come to collect his dues.
And come the devil did, but not before the show’s assemblage of talent produced what remains some of the best TV of its kind. This – the triumphant highs followed by the ignominious sunset – is the story told in David Koenig’s Shooting Columbo: The Lives and Deaths of TV’s Rumpled Detective, published by Bonaventure Press. Koenig, a journalist who has previously written multiple books on Disneyland and edited a couple more on Laurel and Hardy, brings his substantive affection to bear on this most underexplored of subjects. Columbo is by any measure a serious achievement in network television, a product of its inventive, uncouth, and decadent epoch, and fans have expressed a great deal of enthusiasm that its story is finally having its time in the sun.
I myself have been a fan of the show from an early age, having been exposed to it thanks to the enflamed nostalgia for Los Angeles that my parents insisted on bequeathing to me. I used to think I loved Columbo because of its inventiveness, its idiosyncrasy, its sheen of glamour. Revisiting the show after reading Koenig’s book, I’ve realised instead that, at least visually speaking, the show isn’t all that inventive, or unique, or glamorous. And its formal innovations, whatever they were in 1971, lose their lustre as the series wears on; in later seasons, the show can verge on formulaic and dull.
What it always is, however, is well executed, and always a good time. Its formula, in fact, has something to do with this. Early in the book, Koenig lays out the “rules of Columbo” – the unchanging elements the anticipation of which keeps viewers returning every week. Every episode is, of course, an inverted mystery; Columbo was, if not the very first, then one of the earliest adopters of the “howdunnit” approach. Class archetypes are also inverted. More or less all the murderers are elites who kill with impunity, buttressed by an unwavering entitlement. This is derivative of the show’s vision of Los Angeles as a decadent, morally ambiguous playground of haute société. The murders, Koenig writes, “would take place in a sanitized, almost fantasy Los Angeles, devoid of shootouts, car chases, drug busts, or prostitutes. In their place would be stately mansions inhabited by proper, haughty professionals to provide a sharp contrast to the motley detective.” So enabled are these “haughty professionals” that they become convinced they can get away with the killings if only they can construct the perfect murder, conjoined to an airtight alibi. Thus it becomes a game of arranging the chess pieces, stacking the deck, so that each case seems at first glance unsolvable.
But what the criminals can’t account for is the ingenuity of the glass-eyed detective. Columbo might seem just another old-timer, tucked behind a shabby coat and driving a busted-up lemon around the lawless L.A. streets. But his nose for a story’s loose strands is preternaturally precise. It’s for this reason that some weigh the success or failure of each episode against its “pop” – the decisive moment in the final scene in which the one loose end the murderer hadn’t thought to tie up is brought out by the detective and left smouldering in the light. If we accept this “pop”-heavy rubric, episodes like “Murder by the Book” – directed by a 24-year-old Steven Spielberg no less – and “Negative Reaction” – guest-starring Dick Van Dyke as a photographer who conceives perhaps the most impeccable crime in any Columbo – stand out as undoubtedly the series’ greatest achievements.
As great as they are, I’m more inclined toward episodes like “Suitable for Framing” or “Any Old Port in a Storm.” Episodes that are so outstandingly acted, scored, edited, and shot – are, in other words, such tours de force of old-fashioned cinematic craftsmanship – that the crime itself sinks away beneath the episode’s visual, sensual, and dramatic frisson. Episodes that meld high and low art with exquisite self-awareness. Episodes that keep you on your toes.
A disclaimer: I’m offering out a necessary degree of art-critical discussion, because it’s entirely missing from Koenig’s work. He opts instead for laying out facts, narratives, tales tall and small about the show’s production. The book is ordered chronologically, following the shooting schedule of each episode. Koenig doesn’t hold fastidiously to his structure, and digressions are sometimes allowed; but even the digressions are tightly bound, whipped into relevance. The tone is professorial, journalistic. The detail can be painstaking, particularly as it pertains to some of the more arcane titles of the era: Lanigan’s Rabbi? Tenafly? Christine Cromwell? Koenig evidently knows these shows, and throws them into the text off-handedly, but for many readers they may add to the overall feeling that what Koenig is drawing isn’t so much a loving portrait of a classic TV show, but more of a detached memorandum: the who, the what, the where, the how.
But the research is undeniably comprehensive and, from time to time, immersive. After all, the world in 1971 is a very different one from ours. It’s a world of reruns and Saturday night network movies. It’s a world of “wheels” – a series in which multiple shows are given rotation across the same weekly time slot, sometimes under an umbrella title. (Columbo was a part of the NBC Mystery Movie wheel from 1971 to 1974, rotating with McCloud, McMillan & Wife, and Hec Ramsey.) It’s a world with such a paucity of workable content that unholy spinoffs like Mrs. Columbo, starring Kate Mulgrew, get greenlit – for two seasons. And, as Koenig so charmingly details, it’s a world of prima donna actors and even more sycophantic producers. “We’re gonna lose the actor. Get to the Beverly Hills Hotel and kiss Oskar Werner’s ass,” says one producer, quoted by Koenig. It doesn’t matter who, or why, or what he was even talking about. The quote says it all: It’s an era where you’d have to kiss Oskar Werner’s ass just to get an episode made.
Koenig’s research inspires certain moments of revelation that are enough to make the reader step back and audibly gasp. Moments that suggest what could have been, or what thankfully was never. Koenig reports, for example, that Brian De Palma was in line to direct a Columbo in which the killer is a splenetic writer who, standing four foot nine, is almost entirely based on Truman Capote. When De Palma couldn’t commit to the episode, he tried to tee up his pal Martin Scorsese to direct instead. When I read this I grew weak at the knees, even though I was sitting down. But then, when we later hear about the proposal for an episode in which a madman would kidnap Columbo’s wife, we perhaps retreat into being careful what we wish for.
Self-evidently, Columbo’s wife’s kidnapping was evidence of a show getting to the end of its tether. At this point, we’re six seasons in, and cracks are beginning to emerge. For one, the financial weight of the show’s commitments cannot hold. Falk alone commanding the salary he did left little room for shoot overruns, despite Koenig giving us the impression that 68 of the show’s 69 episodes went over schedule and over budget. Additionally, the show’s ability to cajole big-name guest appearances was commercially hamstrung. But when Dick Irving finally says “Enough is enough!”, refusing to accede to Falk’s demands, he knows he’s really only playing bad cop. He must surely understand that the good cop will eventually win Falk over, that the unconscionable deal will get signed, that the wheel will continue to roll. And it did – Irving called Falk’s bluff after five seasons; Columbo finished for good after nine.
It is these later seasons that, for some Columbo fans, leave a bad taste in the mouth. Such is the passion of the love affair Columbo induces in its devotees that watching the later seasons can, at times, feel like gazing on a sickly pet that needs to be put out of its misery. For instance, as Koenig describes the events leading up to the show’s revival in 1986, the reader is all too aware that those events are only setting the ball rolling on Columbo’s lowest point. “Falk expressed to [Simmons] that, like Link, he was against messing with the successful formula,” Koenig reports. “He wanted to revive the show, not reinvent it. Falk pulled out the original, fraying raincoat. The studio tracked down and refurbished one of the original Peugeots, and also found a replacement Dog.” In other words, they were utterly out of ideas. But Koenig insists on doing these late episodes justice, giving them the requisite attention and assiduity that his journalistic instinct demands. The effect, of course, is to prolong the narrative beyond reasonable interest, so that by its latter stages the book is lurching to the finish line. “Falk had looked forward to playing Columbo in his old age,” we read, “when the character’s forgetfulness and other eccentricities might seem normal. Yet his performance had the opposite effect. Columbo started to come across as borderline senile.” How utterly depressing!
The greatest shame about Shooting Columbo, however, is that it fails to address what exactly makes the show so good. For that, Columbo fans are better off diving into the all-consuming output of the Columbophile, a blogger (and obsessive) who has reviewed every episode and conducted a number of researches – with stylistic flourish and unmissable élan to boot. Koenig, on the other hand, would rather describe, historicise, recount. A slew of facts, some interesting and some not so, presented without analysis. And perhaps we should praise him for his commitment to the bit; for holding fast to his journalistic capabilities, and deploying them with unapologetic candour. Yet even so, there are still moments where his journalistic approach falls soft. The $100,000 swindle that pushes Falk over the line, for example, is presented without the close examination necessitated by such an important moment.
Of course, many Columbo fans won’t mind. A thorough retelling of the many oscillations encountered in the making of one of TV’s greatest-ever detective shows, the book is an interesting piece of social history in its own right. It will undoubtedly please its audience. But I’m more concerned with the effect of those oscillations on the final product. It’s not enough to know why Donald Pleasance was cast as Carsini for “Any Old Port in a Storm,” because by the time you’ve answered that question, another one is instantly invoked: how does it show up on the screen? What does it do to the episode? Why does or doesn’t it work?
But then, what I’m after is an entirely different prospect from that which Koenig has presented to us. Certainly, a meaningful addition has been added to the Columbo corpus. Yet I can’t help but feel that an opportunity has been missed, and that it will take another writer engaging in an earnest process of aesthetic appraisal to truly give Columbo the memorial it deserves. In other words, I wanted a paean and instead got a memo. That it’s an often interesting and occasionally expansive memo isn’t enough to keep me from wanting the paean that Falk’s endearing detective so richly deserves.
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All images are screenshots from the series.