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Six times Columbo loses his cool – and what it tells us

Columbo blueprint for murder
Butter wouldn’t melt? Don’t you believe it…

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!

Prescription Murder 6
Columbo goes ape – 60s style

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.

Columbo anger Case of  Immunity
Columbo looks about ready to commit murder himself here!

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.

Under Glass bellowing
Mario rip-rapped his pants in fear as Columbo put him to the sword

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

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Shock 10
Columbo learnt everything he knows about rage from Mrs Peck
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47 thoughts on “Six times Columbo loses his cool – and what it tells us

  1. Not a full rage, but just watched Etude in Black and seeing Columbo visibly frustrated in the jazz bar trying to get a scrap of evidence from ‘the other man’ was a nice peek behind the curtain as his patience wore thin!! By the end of that fruitless conversation he says a sarcastic goodbye, drops his hands dramatically, and storms off in a huff. Earlier in the same episode when laughed off by the murderer, Columbo casts off any sidestepping attempts and just calls out something directly like “Suppose you did it!” as the murder tries to walk away. So maybe not an outward rage- but definitely a LOT of simmering frustration that episode haha!

  2. Kardashian, is a taxi driver who comes into a suspects house with Columbo. I always thought it may have been the “famous” Kardashians, as they were in Los Angeles then too. I can’t remember which episode it was, write me and I’ll include it in this comment. Have A Nice Day. del-boy in London.

  3. Ransom For a Dead Man also springs to mind, when he gets pissed off at the brattish daughter faking evidence and then trying to slap him.

  4. My absolute favorite is the Exercise in Fatality scene. “You’re a devious man.” “That’s what they tell me.” Murderer realizes he’s been played by Columbo’s bumbling humility act, and identifies the detective’s actual brilliant technique – and Columbo nonchalantly admits it. A very candid exchange between predator and prey. No condescending flattery when the “superior” criminal starts to understand he’s being had by a very smart cop and tries to disarm Columbo with backhanded compliments. And Columbo lifts his mask of calculated inferiority which he uses to lull the suspect into false security.

    Second favorite is the pitcher slamming scene. Dr. Arrogant never expected that!!

  5. He doesn’t lose his cool with Nelson Hayward in Candidate for Crime. But by the time he blows Hayward’s story out of the water with the gas station closing, he’s plainly had enough of the man. That go-to-hell stare isn’t something we see too often.

  6. The best part about the blowup in Exercise in Fatality is, that Melvin guy is sitting there the whole time.

    Speaking of Melvin, I was just now watching Perry Mason: The Case of the Velvet Claws (March 21, 1963). It opens at an exclusive gambling club, the camera tracks across the opulent crowd and there’s the croupier and it’s Melvin! Maybe he was a friend of Jackson Gillis.

  7. I forgot to include A Deadly state of mind its defiantly in the right position/ranking , not quite as memorable as the banging the flask on the table in A stitch in crime . I think
    Columbophile has got them Spot on .

      • Hi columbophile , I misread it but now I realize there in chronological order prescription Murder 1968 – Murder under glass 1978 however but my personal favorite remains the interrogation scene in prescription murder, its the most memorable for me , Not just columbo raising his voice but the whole scene from eating an ice lolly outside the studios to telling Joan no you can go and then telling her she would be hounded and followed for the rest of her life until she spilled the beans on Dr Fleming .

  8. Hello columbophile , Great to see a New post and I like it a lot . The interrogation scene from Prescription murder DEFINITELY deserves Top spot . It is my favorite scene from prescription murder ( which is also in my top 20 overall episodes ) its very memorable both powerful Moving and lives long in my memory it was columbo at his best trying to break her down to get at that nasty Dr Fleming who thinks he will get the better of columbo .
    second spot I Agree with A stitch in crime very memorable against the evil Dr Barry may field 3rd spot an exercise in fatality that was a great scene although I am not a massive fan of an exercise in fatality .
    A case of immunity I dont quite remember because its not aired as much as other episodes but is still a good scene and as for murder under glass ill just say i not a fan of it at all its one of my least favorite columbos of all, the scene was okay ,but I think murder under glass was a forgettable one from the seventies Run ( I know some people wont agree) but its always going to be subjective

  9. Just brilliant, every episode. I was blown away by subliminal cuts, how very cleaver, only wish there was more about it on that episode as I believe some ‘big companies’ were taken to task for using this method of “selling merchandise” and it is illegal, way ahead of its time even then. Blows my mind every time I watch that episode and I’m sorry I can’t recall what it was called…..(and I call myself a Columbo fan, tut tut)
    Iknow it’s not what we are discussing here at the minute but I just to post somethink about it while I had the opportunity. Love the man to bits.

  10. The Prescription Murder scene is slightly different because the relatively young Peter Falk was clearly a “Method” student (with a touch of Brando) and so probably relished the chance to show a bit of dramatic range. My ABSOLUTE favourite however is Exercise in Fatality – a great scene in a superbly acted and scripted episode.
    A particular feature of Excerise in Fatality is the wonderful, semi comic support acting – which is also a hallmark of several of the early (1971-73) episodes. (I note several of these actors also had esteemed theatre and film reputations.) Bearing in mind that Columbo is himself semi-comic, a lot of lead actors would not tolerate being upstaged like this ! Perhaps this could be a future topic for Columbofile ?

  11. What about when Columbo lost his temper with Margaret in “Ransom for a Dead Man” after she forged evidence?

    • That very well could have been part of the plot he was working on with Margaret. It would make Leslie assume they were at odds with each other rather than working hand in hand, making it that much easier to fool her.

    • Yes I agree that could have been included , there was also a small bit of rage in blueprint for Murder at the construction site where columbo shouts , maybe ill have a statement of my own but perhaps to small to count .

  12. The murder under glass scene is one of my favorites, he isn’t ripping into Mario, he’s playing for Gerard who is there watching. It’s a fantastic scene.

  13. This is my favorite show ever! I never missed an episode still watch today and have the whole series on dvd.! Rip Peter falk I love you.

    • CP…..btw, I’ve looked everywhere for a script for “Murder Under Glass” so that i could view/translate the exchange between the Lt. and Mario. It was a very short ‘putting to the sword’, and did, indeed, feel very staged on Columbo’s part. I don’t think that Mario was, in fact, lily-livered. I think he was simply very young and very naive. (the actor who portrayed Mario was Alan Alda’s half-brother, Anthony). If you know where the script may be found online, I should really love to see the exchange for myself.

  14. Great list and your explanations are spot on. The scene from “Deadly State Of Mind” is indeed overlooked. Columbo is known for his patience and doing a dance with the person he’s interviewing. But he was in no mood for any crap from Dr. Borden, and her cavalier attitude set him off.

    I always enjoy scenes where Columbo drops the Act and shows us who he really is. For all of his patience, politeness, and otherwise amiable nature he isn’t someone you want mad at you.

  15. I just watched all 93 episodes of the 3 seasons of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR and you could swear that there’s a pilot’s pilot for COLUMBO in the episode DEAR UNCLE GEORGE from the first season. It is written by Richard Levinson & William Link as are many other stories, Gene Barry is the star with the same face as in PRESCRIPTION MURDER and with exactly the same sets and same locations, but you can also see what a disaster COLUMBO would have been without Peter Falk in the person of this other uncharismatic actor as the detective. Other episodes are also similar to COLUMBO with Patrick O’Neal and several others. I thought this could be interesting to some potential viewers. Very interesting indeed to me!

    • When I read this, I looked up the episode and watched it. Inevitably, you can’t help but compare the Lou Jacobi detective character, Lt. Wolfson, to Columbo. In appearance, he very much resembles how Columbo is described in the original play “Prescription: Murder”: “A rumpled police officer of indeterminate age” who “wears an indistinguished brown suit, an old topcoat, and a battered hat.” He’s obviously less shrewd than Columbo, and more willing to jump to conclusions before all the loose ends are tied up.

      By the way, I found the “gotcha” at the end less than entirely satisfying. [SPOILER ALERT] So what if Chambers answered Mrs. Weatherby’s Uncle George letter? The letter was anonymous. And his wife had told him independently of Mrs. Weatherby’s peeping (as Aldritch may have known as well). What proof is there that he knew who the letter-writer was when he responded? In fact, he didn’t. Early Link and Levinson perhaps had a fondness for stories where the murderer is rightly caught, but for the wrong reason.]

      • I don’t remember the plot perfectly after 92 other stories but if I recall, what the old woman said at the very end strictly from her correspondence with Dear Uncle George in front of the police and in front of him in person and NOT KNOWING WHO HE WAS IN REAL LIFE, this was enough proof to hang Uncle George as it was additional information for the others who knew that HE was Uncle George. But I’ll watch it again later for sure to clear it up!

        • It’s left very loose. Mrs. Weatherby says what she wrote to Uncle George and what he responded. Lt. Wolfson, knowing Uncle George’s identity, looks suspiciously at Chambers. Chambers looks guilty. End of episode.

  16. There are also many amazing scenes of directorial constraint where Columbo becomes frustrated or impatient with technology, and An Exercise in Fatality has a great one in the data processing scene.

    Columbo is the ant-Steve Jobs of new technologies.

  17. I love angry Columbo. 🙂 I personally think his outburst in A Stitch In Crime is as genuine as the one in An Exercise In Fatality. He hates both men, and their shared arrogance really gets under his skin. Agree that some of these are calculated to try and unsettle and trap the suspects though.

    I also love scenes where he puts on the act and tells people that his wife has heard of them, or that she is a massive fan of their work. I think those scenes serve to make them feel secure around him. He acts like he’s overwhelmed and thrilled to be around these people.

    • I must agree that we saw true rage play out in Stitch in Crime from the way some act whrn they break the law. Then have the audacity to try and laugh about it(!) Ewwww!!! I wanted to see that fake heart butcher get served by the kind of justice he deserved on a golden platter. But producers chose to deny us those great pleasures at the end.

  18. Another fascinating and thought-provoking piece. I generally agree with your assessments regarding these six rage incidents, with two semi-exceptions: 1) In A Stitch in Crime, I think it is both genuine anger, and a tactic. He enters the room set upon informing Mayfield that he is onto him and his fiendish plan. When the doctor laughs in his face, I think Columbo truly wants to indicate his utter disgust for him – both because of the murder he already committed, and because of the cold-blooded way he is planning to commit another. In contrast to the Jane Hudson case, where it was 90% tactical, here it is 50/50 in my opinion. He wants to put Mayfield on notice, but he also really wants to just tell him what an evil pig he is, and that desire outweighs his nature of being courteous even to cold-blooded murderers. 2) In a Deadly State of Mind, I believe there is a unique aspect that you fail to touch upon. IMHO, Columbo understands human nature, and he accepts that murderers and their cohorts, or lovers, or family members, will lie to cover their tracks. But here, we have a highly intelligent doctor who will not be risking anything critical if she tells the truth. Moreover, the ethics of her profession should require her to help uncover her colleague’s abuse of their profession in order to cover up the first murder and in order to commit another murder. Yet she brushes him off and basically says “I don’t give a damn,” and with a smile on her face, to boot. This so upsets Columbo’s moral standards that he must blow his top. That is how I read it.

  19. Great article again. It’s those rare scenes that make Columbo more human.The scene from A stitch in Crime is one of my absolute favourites.
    The scene in Murder under Glass deserves a bit more credit I think. Columbo knows Mario is used to emotional scenes, because Vito was a very emotional man, so he knows Mario will be allright (as it turns out). Besides, it’s very clear from the start that Columbo puts on an act here.
    Can I add a seventh scene?
    Towards the end of Columbo Cries Wolf, Columbo is offered a glass of champagne by the culprit, at the one moment in his career he’s been made a fool of. His reaction, raising the glass and then turning it over, emptying it on the ground, and his look…. that’s very impressive. The fact that he doesn’t fly into a rage makes it even worse, he’s as angry here as he’ll ever be. Unless you exclude the 90’s episodes, that scene could make the list as well, in my opinion.

    • I tend to agree with you. I haven’t seen Murder Under Glass in a while, so I’d have to refresh my memory, but IIRC, this scene is at the point where Columbo still is not certain who the killer is, and he wants to eliminate the young chap outright. However, he is certain that he is not a cold and calculated killer. If he killed his uncle, it was in a more spontaneous burst of Italian rage. Thus, Columbo assumes that if he will angrily accuse him of murder, the guy will show some indication of guilt if he really did it. Knowing that his suffering will be no more than a few seconds, I don’t see this as problematic at all, even given Columbo’s high standards of decency.

      • At the end of the episode, Columbo tells Gerard he suspected him from the very beginning because he didn’t go to a hospital after being informed that the man he had just dined with died of poison. Instead, he went straight to the crime scene to obey police instructions. Thus, Columbo knows that Mario is innocent, but Gerard is watching that scene, so I believe Columbo wants to show him something – maybe his persistence in tracing the murderer? Or to the contrary – maybe Columbo wants to mislead Gerard into thinking that he suspects Mario? Anyway, this is a great scene and one of my favorite episodes!

  20. I might have remembered it wrong, but I believe the scene in “Murder Under Glass” was set before eyes of the actual murderer. So it was a set-up to draw him into sense of false safety.

  21. Good morning,

    Thanks for another great article this morning – I’ve just been trying to post a response to it but I don’t think it’s working. I suspect you either won’t have it, or will have had it 3 or 4 times. So, if you do have it multiple times, then sorry about that.

    If not, is there a problem with the site at the moment that means I can’t post?




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