NB – This article has been superseded by the 2019 fans’ top 10 list, which you can read here!
In what has become a charming annual tradition, in the middle of each year I fling open the proverbial doors to fellow Columbo fans and invite them to cast their votes for their single favourite episode.It’s no easy feat, I know. Common feedback is that choosing just one episode is akin to selecting a favourite child. Yet thousands have managed to make that agonising decision and cast their votes accordingly. So for your viewing pleasure (can I get a drum roll please), here are the top 10 Columbo episodes as voted for by the fans, as of August 2018. There aren’t many jaw-dropping surprises, but with two new entries, a re-entry and lots of movement elsewhere there’s enough intrigue to warrant a few minutes of your day, so READ ON!
10. Suitable for Framing – RE-ENTRY (2017 = 11th; 2016 = 8th)Suitable for Framing is fabulous entertainment from the get-go, starting with the quickest ever Columbo killing (within 60 seconds) and concluding with the gloved hand reveal, which I rate as the single greatest TV moment ever. In between it’s terrific stuff every step of the way, with Ross Martin excelling as slimy art critic Dale Kingston, and a support cast boasting Oscar-winning talent Don Ameche and Kim Hunter all at the top of their games. Read my full episode review here.
9. Troubled Waters (last year = 8th)An absolute blast from start to finish, Troubled Waters (directed by Falk’s old buddy Ben Gazzara) sees Columbo revert back to old-skool sleuthing techniques to bring down Robert Vaughn’s crooked, murderous car salesman on the high seas. It’s so entertaining that the massive plot holes – and almost endless version of Volare – can be easily ignored. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, not to mention the sight of Vaughn pimpin’ it up like few other Columbo killers.
8. An Exercise in Fatality – NEW ENTRYSwaggering into the top 10 like a loin-clothed beefcake at Muscle Beach, Season 4 opener An Exercise in Fatality earns fans’ appreciation through a heady mix of humorous injections and a detestable baddie in Milo Janus. It’s an absolute pleasure to see Janus taken comprehensively down by the Lieutenant – especially after the rare sight of Columbo totally losing his cool at his foe at the hospital. But Exercise does levity well, too, not least when an out-of-shape Columbo tries to keep up with Janus on his morning workout. Add in Gretchen Corbett in a bikini and all the ingredients are there for a memorable outing. Read my full episode review here.
7. Try & Catch Me (last year = 9th)Try & Catch Me delights time and again because the interplay between Ruth Gordan’s cheeky Abigail Mitchell (at 80 the oldest Columbo killer by a mile) and the Lieutenant is so enjoyable throughout. One can almost hope the old dear gets away with it, but there’s no sentimentality from Columbo. In one of the episode highlights, Abigail coos about what a nice man Columbo is. “Don’t count on that, Miss Mitchell,” he warns. “Don’t count on it.”
6. Negative Reaction – NEW ENTRYOnly 17th last year, Dick Van Dyke and beard spring confidently into the top 10 – a well-earned accolade in this correspondent’s opinion, as Negative Reaction is a near perfect combination of steely drama and rib-tickling humour. Playing hugely against type, Van Dyke is seriously good as evil photographer Paul Galesko – a man so sick of his wife’s nagging that he’s happy to commit murder. A wonderfully paced episode, the comic interludes featuring a jolly nun and a livid driving instructor never fail to delight, while the gotcha ranks up there with the very best. Read my full episode review here.
5. A Stitch in Crime (last year = 4th)Stitch in Crime is a magnificent tale of ambition and ruthlessness, as Leonard Nimoy’s superbly cool Dr Barry Mayfield attempts to kill his research partner and mentor through use of dissolving suture, and actually does kill two others who stand in his way – including an entirely innocent, troubled war veteran, who never knew what hit him. Nimoy is so heartless that he even elicits a rare display of genuine anger from the usually polite detective after Mayfield laughs in his face. The power of that emotional outburst makes it extra sweet when Columbo takes him down at episode’s end. Read my full episode review here.
4. Now You See Him (last year = 3rd)Never far off the top of the list, Now You See Him has many ingredients that make it memorable for both die-hards and casual fans. The magic cabaret setting is unique for starters, and Jack Cassidy is typically inspired as the villainous Santini. Throw in a hated new coat for Columbo, the return of Sergeant Wilson and the Lieutenant indulging in a Sherlockian reveal at the end, and you have 90 minutes of TV to treasure.
3. Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (last year = 5th)It’s my absolute favourite, so I’m pleased to see that many other viewers share my enjoyment. Although there are some highly improbable moments and some plot holes you could sail the Titanic through, it’s really got it where it counts: some wonderful humour, half of dozen of the series’ genuinely great moments, a beautifully edited final sequence and a fine turn by Theo Bikel as tortured genius Oliver Brandt. Bye-Bye also features that rarest of beasts – the Lieutenant actually telling us something real about his methods and motivations in a touching heart-to-heart with Brandt as the episode reaches its denouement. What’s not to like? Read my tribute to Theo Bikel here.
“Bye-Bye is my absolute favourite, so I’m pleased to see that many other viewers share my enjoyment.”
2. Murder by the Book (non-mover)It’s one of the most important TV episodes ever to air, and Murder by the Book still has the capacity to mesmerise more than 45 years on. With Spielberg at the helm capturing spell-binding shots of the action, and Jack Cassidy establishing himself straight away as the archetypal Columbo baddie, it’s nigh-on perfect, with only the slightly unconvincing ‘gotcha’ not matching all that comes before it. When it comes to characters and script, Murder by the Book sets the benchmark that all other episodes are compared against. Kudos, then, to episode writer Stephen Bochco, who sadly passed away earlier this year, and further praise is reserved for Billy Goldenberg’s iconic score. Read my full episode review here.
“Murder by the Book sets the benchmark that all other Columbo episodes are compared against.”
1. Any Old Port in a Storm (non-mover)
“An exciting meal has been ruined by the presence of this LIQUID FILTH!”While the above line may not single-handedly be the reason why Any Old Port in a Storm continues to top the standings by a mile, it is arguably the stand-out example in what was a lesson in line delivery from Donald Pleasence throughout. His pompous Adrian Carsini is the beneficiary of a truly vintage script, which affords him countless opportunities to put his clipped British accent to exceptional use. Any Old Port is certainly an aural treat, but it’s perhaps the final scene that hits home most with viewers. The mutually respectful exchange in Columbo’s car, as he drives Carsini away from his winery to a life behind bars, is a beautiful thing. Two perfectionists, from completely different sides of the tracks, have found a common ground. It’s the sort of TV moment that almost doesn’t exist any more, and it’s all the more poignant because of it. Read my episode review here.
So there we have it: the fans’ favourites as voted for by you – for this year at least. But the fun doesn’t end there! Oh no, dear readers. But before I beat it, here’s a round-up of some of the other key findings from the poll.
“The mutually respectful exchange in Columbo’s car, as he drives Carsini away from his winery to a life behind bars, is a beautiful TV moment.”
Jack Cassidy, Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan made the best villains, in my opinion. I enjoyed every episode which that they starred in and think those episodes are among the best. Any Old Port was extremely boring to me, I am very surprised it was voted number one. Death Lends a Hand, Agenda for Murder, The Conspirators, A Friend in Deed, Etude in Black are all very worthy contenders. A lot of episodes were not good. I think the early Columbo’s were the best.
Pardon me but I thought the I.Q. one was at the bottom. Ridiculous method of murder which couldn’t happen. Why folks like this one near number 3 is beyond my understanding. So many better ones, (like where are the Robett Culp ones?) that could replace this one here.
I’m sick of seeing the same episodes of Columbo – fed up of Jack Cassidy, Patrick McGoohan, Dick van Dyke, etc. Why not show All of them e.g The Dean’s Death. I’ve never seen a voting form for Columbo, so how do you know the favourites selected ARE the favourites chosen by ALL the fans (not just Americans). I would like to watch the episodes with less well-known actors and actresses, as watching the same episodes get very wearing and boring. I don’t watch them any more, though I love Peter Falk in them.
Great choices my fellow Columbophiles, but three “Forgotten Lady”s that deserve Honorable Mention are below:
-Identity Crisis: I just got into this episode last week. One watch tells you it was no wonder why Patrick McGoohan was a 4xer on this show, his performance is simply fantastic; he plays a pompous arrogant jerk. He snickers upon hearing of the victim’s death from Columbo, a rare form of callousness. Leslie Nielsen’s portrayal is so titillating and conspiratorial with McGoohan that you wonder at the beginning if Nielsen is going to be a villain, even with his shoulder rig. After seeing this it’s a favorite and I’ll never think of Frank Drebbin the same way again. Also Bruce Kirby’s impatient (with Columbo!) Sgt. Cramer is well-played and nice cameo by Cassavetes alumni Val Avery, who plays a very believable ex-cop turned bartender.
-The Conspirators: Clive Revill’s Joe Devlin is absolutely masterful which cannot be overlooked. How he kills Mr. Paulie in cold blood, with the bottle of Full’s Irish Dew being knocked over and rolled in place to stage the scene of the crime becomes one of Devlin’s first fatal mistakes (his first was the inscription in Paulie’s book). We learn how Columbo was a Patrolman in the NYPD years before moving to LA, where he learned his stock in trade in Manhattan South’s 12th Precinct (fictional number, shared with Barney Miller) under the tutelage of the sainted Sergeant Gilhooley. These moments where Columbo and Devlin pall around and throw darts with a couple of tall ones are priceless. We also see Jeanette Nolan (who amazingly doesn’t call our beloved Lieutenant a ‘bum’ here) as the mother of the house of Devlin, which incidentally pays handsomely. Nice play on the pyramid money scheme, being funneled from the pockets of devoted ‘Joe Devlin Night’ followers to buy guns for the IRA. And L.Q. Jones probably has one of the best cameos of the series as the RV salesman. This is the last installment of the original series, which makes it even more special.
-3: This one was very tough; there are so many great Columbos out there to choose from, but Prescription: Murder is where it all started, and Gene Barry plays a real steely-eyed evil villain in this one. And it has William Windom, which makes this episode even better. Columbo’s raincoat may be new and crisp, and all the haircuts and collars slender and trim for 1968, but this episode is the birthplace of Lt. Frank Columbo, LAPD Homicide, so it must receive my 3rd Honorable Mention. (If there weren’t a Pilot, I would have inserted Etude in Black and John Cassavetes here, another wholly contemptible, unsympathetic murderer with no redeeming qualities whatsoever).
The acting in the last twenty minutes of Bye Mrs Columbo for me is really superb FW
There is no favorite !!! All and any Columbos are favorites !! Greatest television show ever !! in History!!! All hail Columbo now ! Columbo was the best!!
If I could have Columbo on tap and reply when I’m in heaven id be a lucky guy!!
why was the AC unit in the wine vault turned off in the first place? can someone explain…been bugging me for years
The true reason is that doing so serves the plot point of the wine becoming superheated. However, it’s a totally illogical action. I think we can read into it that Carsini does so to ensure Ric suffocates. However, there’d be days and days of oxygen in a cellar of that size so it’s really not a strong aspect of the episode.
That’s not the reason… Surely the AC is turned off to keep the body temperature artificially warm, thus skewing the Time Of Death for the autopsy?
I’ve always assumed that is the reason and it makes the most sense why he does it.
But wouldn’t turning off AC actually speed up decomposition? Adrian needs the body to hold on long enough to expire while he is days into his alibi. I think it is indeed the suffocation angle, and you just kind of have to roll with. Or, how’s this, the plan was a lethal combo of thin oxygen, no water, and a severe concussion. Without the first bit, Ric may have hung on too long and had a time of death too close to Adrian’s return.
The presence of this much discussion about the wine vault’s environment is reassuring to me. As a very favorite episode, I will continue to be bothered and confused about the reason for Adrian’s brother’s death (he WAS alive, or Adrian wouldn’t have tied him up right?) and Columbo’s obsession with the weather over the weekend that Adrian and his secretary were out of town. Are they saying that air conditioning has something to do with the availability of oxygen in the vault? Was it ever mentioned as being air tight?
I watch a Columbo episode every day!
Prescription: Murder — is this not considered part of the series? It’s a great movie.
Dont see why “Double Exposure” isn’t here (so ingenious of Robert Culp to get the guy)…and why folks think Any Old Port is so great-but that’s me…
I would change 8 with Forgotten Lady and 7 with Blueprint for Murder. Instead of 3 I’d select Identity Crisis. I agree with the others.
How can you cast your vote for an episode?
There’s a poll here: https://columbophile.com/2015/08/04/whats-your-ultimate-favourite-columbo-episode/