Ask a Columbo fan about their very favourite scenes and it’s odds-on that a flash of Columbo rage will rank pretty highly in their estimations.
In terms of his real personality, the Lieutenant is something of an enigma. He keeps his emotions in check most of the time, so it’s hard to know what he really thinks of a given scenario or a given person. However, there are those rare occasions when circumstances force his inner character to be revealed, and inevitably these are scenes to treasure.
Of particular interest is a bout of Columbo rage – the rarest Columbo reveal of all. There are plenty of times he could flip out, particularly as he meets low lives galore who treat him with disdain, but the Lieutenant inevitably retains an enviable emotional equilibrium and a cool head. How he maintains his composure with Paul Gerard, a man he can’t stand, in Murder Under Glass is a fine example of this mental discipline.
So what does it mean when he actually does lash out? Has he been pushed too far, or is it all a calculated act to unsettle his suspects? Here I consider six examples of Columbo losing his cool and analyse whether the anger exhibited was genuine, and what these displays of emotion really mean in the wider context of the character and the show.
“There are plenty of times Columbo could flip out, but he inevitably retains a cool head. So what does it mean when he actually does lash out?”
1. Prescription: Murder
THE SCENARIO: Columbo blows his top at poor Joan Hudson during a memorable encounter at the movie studio, as he vows to keep on hounding the distraught accomplice until she gives away her murderous lover, Dr Flemming. After some serious lip-quivering, Joan weathers the storm and refuses to cave in – for now!
WHAT IT MEANS: Some folk subscribe to the theory that Columbo is genuinely angry with Joan and are surprised at his uncharacteristic behaviour. Actually he’s not mad at all – this is purely a calculating act to target the weak link in his investigation. And it very nearly works. It’s certainly an aggressive act by a pragmatic officer willing to do all within the law to crack the case, and a side of Columbo that is dialled right back for the series proper. But genuine anger? Naaaaaaah…
2. A Stitch in Crime
THE SCENARIO: Goaded by Dr Mayfield openly laughing at his theories, a fuming Columbo slams a pitcher down on the Doctor’s desk – briefly wiping the smirk off the doctor’s face in the process. The Lieutenant goes on to growl a warning to Mayfield to make sure his patient, Dr Heidemann, stays alive to avoid an autopsy that will surely reveal dissolving sutures were used in the original heart operation.
WHAT IT MEANS: Similar to the previous example, Columbo uses an act of anger in an attempt to force his quarry’s hand – and this time it works far better. Here, Columbo challenges Dr Mayfield to make sure would-be dissolving suture victim Dr Heidemann stays alive – and to do that Mayfield over-medicates his patient in order to justify a further heart op to remove the incriminating sutures. Clever, yes, but Columbo anticipates the move and just about manages to outsmart his fiendishly clever opponent.
I prefer to think of this example as an evolution of the rage act unleashed on Joan Hudson four years earlier. Columbo is genuinely angry about the Doctor’s callous and condescending actions, but he channels it effectively to drive a positive outcome. On both fronts, it’s a terrifically powerful scene.
3. An Exercise in Fatality
THE SCENARIO: Stunned and saddened by Ruth Stafford’s scrape with death after OD-ing on pills and booze following a dinner meeting with Milo Janus, Columbo is no mood for pleasantries when the gym franchise kingpin encounters him in the hospital waiting room. Unable to keep his disdain for Janus at bay, Columbo unleashes a tirade against his chief suspect, publicly accusing him of murder and trashing his supposed alibi.
WHAT IT MEANS: Columbo is visibly upset when coming out of his bedside meeting with Ruth Stafford, and being confronted with Janus’s insincere questions about her condition is the straw that breaks the camels back. What follows is raw, unfiltered emotion. Columbo doesn’t normally air his dirty laundry in public, but he really hates this guy and doesn’t care who knows it.
The beauty of this scene, and what sets it apart from the others, is that Columbo isn’t using the scenario to further his investigations – he’s simply out to make Janus hurt and let him know he’s onto him. In terms of genuine anger this is as real as it gets from Columbo – and is glorious viewing as a result. It also reaffirms what we already know: this time it’s personal and the Lieutenant will stop at nothing to get his man.
4. A Deadly State of Mind
THE SCENARIO: Having spent a night investigating the death of Nadia Donner, and having tried, unsuccessfully, to get a little rest in his car, Columbo is in no mood to be trifled with. However, when the breezy Dr Anita Borden takes a casual approach to answering the detective’s questions about his arch-suspect Dr Mark Collier, Columbo snaps, snarling: “I’m asking you! I’m asking you about a murder!” Dr Borden won’t make the mistake of shrugging off the diminutive detective again.
WHAT IT MEANS: Exhausted, unkempt and pissed off, Columbo’s usual act of a well-meaning but non-threatening plodder falls away fast when Dr Borden doesn’t recognise the urgency of his need for information. On another day he might have fallen back onto softer techniques to get the answers, but in this mood he just wants to cut through the crap and nail Dr Collier – yet another medical man that Columbo takes a dislike to. It works, as a stunned Dr Borden appears ready to tell all at the conclusion of the encounter.
This is a bit of an under-the-radar scene, but I believe it’s quietly one of the 70s series’ best-ever moments.
5. A Case of Immunity
THE SCENARIO: Annoyed at the double-whammy of having been mistakenly assigned to the Suari Security Task Force and a vending machine appearing to take his money and not deliver the goods, Columbo looks set to get punchy. His mood is quelled by the ‘good news’ that a murder has been committed at the Suari Legation, so he’s swiftly able to let the rage go and get onto his favourite task of tracking down a killer.
WHAT IT MEANS: Columbo is human, like the rest of us, and little things at work sometimes get the better of him. He’s clearly unimpressed at (and irritated by) his latest assignment – and this dissatisfaction is exacerbated by the vending machine stealing his cash. We’ve all been there, right? Who wouldn’t be a little peeved?
It also tells us that Columbo is suitably comfortable around senior colleagues to express his emotions in the workplace – perhaps in part due to his ‘legendary status’ in the department. Note that his captain doesn’t seem surprised at Columbo’s demeanour, suggesting the Lieutenant may wear his heart on his sleeve more regularly when not on the case.
6. Murder Under Glass
THE SCENARIO: In an attempt to discern what happened in the last moments of poisoning victim Vittorio’s agony-stricken life, Columbo questions trembling Italian waiter Mario, who witnessed Vitto’s collapse. Unable to speak a word of English, young Mario re-enacts Vitto’s demise before an aggressive Columbo, speaking fluent Italian, accuses the lad of murder – almost triggering a state of panic in the lily-livered Genovese, before the Lieutenant calms him down and sends him on his way.
WHAT IT MEANS: A rather odd scene, and one that doesn’t portray Columbo in the best light, this is another example of faux aggression from the slippery detective. Indeed, this is really a heavily-diluted rehash of the Joan Hudson scenario from Prescription: Murder 10 years earlier, with Columbo getting heavy with a suspected weak link in his investigation.
However, given that young Mario is such a timid drip and clearly not capable of murdering a fly let alone a roaring moustachio like Vitto, it seems a rather cruel and unnecessary stunt by Columbo and is really rather out of character. Still, at least the Lieutenant and Mario are firm friends by episode’s end, which at least shows the snivelling waiter is the forgiving type after his public humiliation.
“An aggressive Columbo, speaking fluent Italian, accuses the lily-livered Mario of murder.”
So there we have it. I’d love to hear about your favourite COLUMBO RAGE moment, and whether you agree with my assessments above. And do you have a view on whether Columbo has had to fight to control the inner rage throughout his career? I like to think that when he was a younger officer, Columbo had a counter-productive angry streak that he had to learn to control in order to realise his potential.
Thanks, as always, for reading, and I wish you a calm and rage-free day wherever you may be! Peace out…