NB – This article has been superceded by the 2019 fans’ top 10 list, which you can read here!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!
“Common feedback is that choosing just one episode is akin to selecting a favourite child – yet thousands have cast their votes.”
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.
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.
“It’s so entertaining that the massive plot holes – and almost endless version of Volare – can be easily ignored.”
8. An Exercise in Fatality – NEW ENTRY
Swaggering 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.
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 ENTRY
Only 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.
“Negative Reaction is a near perfect combination of steely drama and rib-tickling humour.”
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.
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?
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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 episodes dropping out
With two new entries and a re-entry this year, it necessarily equates to three episodes dropping out. In this case the luckless trio of Swan Song, Publish or Perish and A Friend in Deed slip down the pecking order.
Friend in Deed drops one place to 11th; Publish drops 6 places to 12th, while Swan Song plummets like a flaming light aircraft from 7th to 13th. All three remain within touching distance of the top 10, though, so we mustn’t rule out Lazarus-like returns in 2019.
The lack of Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan representation in the top 10 remains interesting. McGoohan’s highest ranked episode is 14th (By Dawn’s Early Light), two spaces ahead of Culp’s highest, Double Exposure (a former top 10 episode back in 2016). The two are sandwiched around Etude in Black, which continues its slide down the table from 6th in 2016 to 12th last year. How do you like those apples, Maestro?
How are the ‘new’ kids settling in?
Columbo’s comeback episodes predictably fare less well in the popularity stakes than the 70s classics with only Columbo Goes to College (18th) claiming a top 20 spot. It’s followed by Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo in 23rd but elsewhere it’s slim pickings with only Agenda for Murder (31st), Columbo Cries Wolf, and It’s All in the Game (both tied 36th) making the top 40.
Propping up the rest?
There are no big fat zeroes with voters, but it’ll come as no surprise to purists to learn that the lower echelons of the standings are packed with ‘new’ episodes.
Only two of the 10 lowest-polling episodes are from the 1970s’ run (Old Fashioned Murder and Matter of Honor), while the three least loved of all are Grand Deceptions, No Time to Die and Strange Bedfellows – the latter propping up all the rest.
A HUGE THANKS to all who voted, and even if you haven’t you can go and skew the above findings straight away by casting your vote here.