If you’re unfamiliar with Peter Falk’s iconic L.A. detective, Lt. Columbo, one thing you need to know is that it isn’t like other crime shows. Each installment begins with a fairly lengthy setup (at least 20 minutes) that shows exactly whodunnit, howdunnit and whydunnit. Then Falk’s scruffy, cigar-chomping, raincoat-wearing central character shows up to solve the crime. Since the viewer already knows the sordid details, the fun of “Columbo” is in watching Falk piece together clues and outwit the killer, which he accomplishes by leading the suspect to believe he’s an irritating boob who shouldn’t be taken even remotely seriously. No matter how many times the formula’s played, it’s always a pleasure seeing him take down the bad guy. Indeed, most of the villains even seem to have a sort of respect for the lieutenant after having been outmaneuvered by him.
In 1989, “Columbo” had been absent from TV screens for more than 10 years. ABC decided to resurrect the character in five 90-minute (sans commercials) movies that played throughout that year. Falk returned as the titular lead -- a grayer and scruffier lieutenant to be sure, but his wit and skill remained razor sharp. Because of Falk’s always-impeccable performance, there is no such thing as bad “Columbo,” only installments that aren’t quite as good as others. This set is something of a mixed bag, although a forgivable one, given how long the concept had been away from TV screens.
The first offering, “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine,” centers around fake psychic Elliot Blake (Anthony Andrews, a sort of a poor man’s Jeremy Irons) who offs magician Max Dyson (Anthony Zerbe) after the pair have conspired to hornswoggle a government agency into believing in Blake’s powers. For the most part it’s a decent entry, dragged down only by Andrews’ boring performance. “Columbo” works best when Falk’s got a great villain to play off, and here he does not. “Night Court” enthusiasts should keep an eye out for that show’s first season leading lady, Karen Austin.
“Murder, Smoke and Shadows” is likely the most entertaining of the bunch. Here, Columbo must discover how hotshot Hollywood director Alex Bradey (Fisher Stevens) killed his college chum, Lenny (Jeff Perry). Much of this tale was clearly shot on the Universal lot, and it makes good use of studio equipment for the surrounding props. While logic dictates it probably made for a cheaper production, the entire affair looks fantastic. It’s interesting to note that a young Steven Spielberg directed one of the very first episodes of “Columbo” (1971’s “Murder by the Book”), and this seems to be poking gentle fun at the Hollywood giant. Stevens is really good as the increasingly frazzled director and Falk knows just how to push his buttons.
In “Sex and the Married Detective,” Lindsay Crouse stars as successful radio talk show host and sex therapist Joan Allenby. But when she discovers her long-term beau (Stephen Macht) is doing some sex therapy of his own, she concocts an elaborate scheme involving a “lady in black” to take care of him. Of all the villains in this set, Crouse easily delivers the best performance, and when she slips on her disguise and vamps it up, she’s sexier than a black widow climbing up from prostitute hell (well, she is). This is one of the few Columbo’s I’ve ever seen where it’s just possible the guest villain outdoes Falk in the acting arena. It’s also an installment that sees Columbo feeling just a little bit sorry for having to do what’s gotta be done. “Babylon 5” fans should look for Peter Jurasik in a miniscule role.
“Grand Deceptions,” where Robert Foxworth (“Six Feet Under”) is an Army colonel who kills a sergeant major, is so gripping that…ack, I gotta be honest: I fell asleep during this one.
Lastly, in “Murder, A Self Portrait,” renowned artist Max Barsini (Patrick Bauchau, “Carnivale”) achieves the American dream/nightmare by having two wives and a model/girlfriend all living with him. (This was way before “Big Love.”) When one turns up dead, Columbo is on the case. This one’s sorta oddball, but that’s sorta what I liked about it. It breaks with the formula by beginning with a scene of Columbo at a dog show, which pays off later on, but ultimately smacks of a studio note saying, “Can’t we get Columbo in on the action a little sooner?” Later on, Columbo plays audio tapes of the victim’s dreams for Barsini as the artist paints the detective. The dreams are visualized in stark black and white scenarios that feature both actors sitting in the background as removed parts of the action. It’s a directorial flourish that works mostly because it seems so out of place in a “Columbo” movie.
This set isn’t the best intro to “Columbo,” but for someone new to the fold, the more current production values might make a fan out of one who could be turned off by the ‘70s-era tales.Special Features: Just one: a 30-minute featurette titled “America’s Top Sleuths,” produced by Universal’s Sleuth Channel. It’s basically a Top 10 list ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Crockett and Tubbs, with commentaries as diverse as comedian Eddie Griffin, TV Guide’s Matt Roush, and even Peter Falk himself. The only mystery here is why “Columbo” doesn’t nab the number one spot. He comes in at number two, for the record, but I’ll let you discover for yourself who the lucky winner is. No points for guessing why most of the Top 10 are Universal properties.