Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

Farewell, Peter Falk.

“Just one more thing, ma’am.” That was your catchphrase. Though the great man had a distinguished career — particularly in the films of John Cassavetes — Peter Falk would, almost certainly, not object to the phrase “best known for playing …

Sun, Jun 26, 2011, 12:46

   

“Just one more thing, ma’am.” That was your catchphrase.

Though the great man had a distinguished career — particularly in the films of John Cassavetes — Peter Falk would, almost certainly, not object to the phrase “best known for playing Lieutenant Columbo” appearing towards the top of his many obituaries. Falk clearly loved the character. In 1989, a decade after the series proper ended, he returned to the role for a perfectly decent — if still somewhat unsatisfactory — reprise of the greatest of all American mystery dramas. A few years ago, interviewed on BBC Radio 4, he explained that he was still pitching Columbo plots to producers. The notion of an octogenarian cop doesn’t sound entirely plausible. But it’s nice to know he still cared.

Let’s go back to a phrase in the paragraph above. Yes, I think, with apologies to The Rockford Files, Columbo does stand out as the very best American mystery series. If nothing else, the show — directed by the likes of Steven Spielberg and Jonathan Demme — demonstrated the virtues of devising a strict formula and sticking closely to it. Every classic-era Columbo was the same and every one was delightfully different. We saw the crime being committed. Columbo then stumbled onto screen and began annoying — and, occasionally, befriending — the murderer. He would nag away at apparently minor quandaries. (“I’m sorry ma’am. It’s probably nothing. But my boss is a stickler for these details.”) The murderer would offer a simple solution. (“Now, why didn’t I think of that?”) He would go away for a while, before returning with some hole in the neat explanation. Eventually, the worrying problems would coalesce into a damning case against Robert Culp, William Shatner, Ruth Gordon, Janet Leigh, Anne Baxter, Johnny Cash or whoever it was that week.

The weekly alterations in the relations between detective and murderer were what gave the show its insidious watchability. Quite often, he became quite pally with the guilty party. More often than not, he displayed ingenuous delight at learning details of their trade. Wine buff Donald Pleasence taught him about the differences between various clarets. Restaurant critic Louis Jourdan lectured him about fine dining. In one fine episode, William Shatner, who plays a suave sleuth on the telly, actually dares to explain crime detection to the macintosh-clad genius. All the while, you’re never quite sure whether Columbo is pretending to his ignorance and to his admiration of the great man or woman. (“Could you just phone my wife, ma’am. She would get such a kick out of it. She’s seen all your movies.”)

It’s hard to pick out a favourite. But if put up against a wall, I would select the punningly titled Any Old Port in a Storm from 1973. That’s the one where Pleasence kills his useless younger brother because the rake is planning to flog the family’s vineyards. All the classic elements are in place: a super guest star, a great final dramatic gambit by Columbo, a particularly nuanced relationship between between pursuer and pursued. You can watch it a hundred times and never tire. Honest. I’ve done so.

One final point about Columbo. Here’a a trivia question. What links Inspector Columbo, Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, Norm in ┬áCheers and Niles in Frasier? The answer: they all had wives who, though frequently mentioned, were never seen. What can it mean?

As for other Falk performances, he was, of course, great in Wings of Desire. But even that role features references to Columbo. The best place to look are the films of John Cassavetes (himself a guest murderer in a fine 1972 episode). He is particularly good in both A Woman Under the Influence and Husbands. Nobody else does grimy realism like Cassavetes.

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