Opinion / Top 100

The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 1: 100-91

Columbo No Time to Die
Let’s get this party started!

GET EXCITED! The first ever attempt at publishing a definitive list of Columbo’s 100 greatest moments is upon us!

Thanks to the endeavours of a panel of 12 Columbo super-fans and experts from around the world including, but not limited to, The Columbo Phile author Mark Dawidziak and Dr Who / Sherlock creator Steven Moffat (all are credited at the foot of this article), I can now unveil the first instalment of the list, which will count us down from #100-91.

Before that, though, here’s a quick reminder of how the rankings were arrived at. Each panellist provided their personal top 20 Columbo scenes / moments from all 45 episodes that aired between 1968 and 1978. These could be anything they liked: telling clues, jaw-dropping gotchas, emotional outbursts, comedy asides etc.

Scenes could be long or short, important or frivolous, and Columbo himself needn’t appear in them. Scenes selected by multiple panellists ranked higher in the list, making the top 50 relatively easy to compile. From positions 51-100, though, it was a lot harder to decide which scenes deserved their places.

As the final arbiter, when in doubt I followed my gut reaction and/or consulted Mrs Columbo. It was a slippery task and the final 20 positions in the chart changed hands on a regular basis. I apologise to my fellow panellists for any of their top choices that failed to make the top 100. Rest assured, many of my own personal highlights also didn’t make it, so I feel your pain. Still, I’m pretty happy with the overall list and think this has been a very worthwhile venture that ought to stimulate plenty of debate amongst Columbo fans.

Below, you’ll find text analysis of each of the chosen scenes along with a video clip to refresh your memory if you haven’t seen the corresponding episodes for a while. I would urge you to take your time with this article and enjoy the clips in their entirety, so you can savour the excellence of each scene to the maximum. It’ll be 20 minutes of your day very well spent.

The ones that got away

Close but no cigar… the modern art scene from Playback

In a show so packed with goodness as Columbo, there are always going to be high-profile casualties from any ‘best of’ lists. The top 100 scenes were certainly no exception, meaning some genuine TV gold just couldn’t be shoehorned in.

At some point, all 13 of the scenes below were in the top 100 until additional votes from other panellists forced the list to be reshuffled. All are delightful scenes and exemplify just how hard the task was to boil the show down to just 100 magical moments. In no particular order, those closest to making the cut were: –

  • Tommy and Edna’s blazing row in Swan Song
  • Columbo losing his appetite during the autopsy discussion at the gentleman’s club in Dagger of the Mind
  • The thoroughly modern murder from Playback
  • Columbo and Kay’s meeting of minds at her old family home in Make Me a Perfect Murder
  • Beth Chadwick’s moment of panic as the doorbell rings during her post-murder tidy up in Lady in Waiting
  • Columbo crashing Paul Gerard’s Japanese dinner party in Murder Under Glass
  • Leslie Williams’ ‘shopworn bag of tricks’ assessment of Columbo in Ransom for a Dead Man
  • The nude model scene in Suitable for Framing
  • Dr Mayfield’s clock winding when being informed of Sharon Martin’s murder in A Stitch in Crime
  • The hipsters at the lakeside club in Any Old Port in a Storm
  • The explosive opening titles in Publish or Perish
  • Columbo’s modern art confusion in Playback
  • Trading poverty stories in Abi’s Rolls in Try & Catch Me

If you haven’t immediately given this whole project up as a bad job on the back of these omissions, I’m very pleased. Now I invite you to read on as we countdown from numbers 100-91 on our list. Enjoy…

100. Elevating the down-and-out – Now You See Him

A beautiful example of Columbo’s everyman charm comes when the Lieutenant makes a positive impression during his visit to down-on-his-luck former high wire ace, Michael Lally.

Lally knows Santini from decades before when they trod the circuit together. He’s able to provide useful information about the magician’s changing accents and names, although he doesn’t know anything about his original identity. He’s helpful to a point but the beauty of the scene really lies in what it shows us about the real Columbo.

Lally is clearly down on his luck. He lives in a dive and has to share toilets and showers with other tenants. All he owns in the apartment is his TV and a hotplate. His final years on this earth look bleak and lonely – a far cry from the life in the spotlight he once knew. Yet Columbo makes him feel like the place he’s in is a palace, not a slum, sharing a beer with his host and displaying his rare gift of being able to connect with and put at ease people from all walks of life.

It’s superb stuff – and an additional treat for serious fans to see Lally the actor given a decent speaking part after being an extra in so many previous episodes.

99. Bad Dog! Mind Over Mayhem

In a pleasant change to the norm, our first encounter with the Lieutenant in Mind Over Mayhem isn’t at the crime scene. Instead he’s having to deal with the errant behaviour of his slovenly dog, who has been expelled from obedience school for ‘demoralising the other students’.

What did the lovable basset do that led to this drastic action? Did he go berserk and worry at an instructor’s throat? Did he perhaps try and get frisky with one of his foxy classmates? Or did he simply sit and drool instead of fetching the stick? We never find out but his antics cause the poor detective no small amount of shame in what is a cute and charming scene.

The gag is subtly followed up on later in the episode when we hear a desperate Columbo berating Dog on cassette as he records his thoughts on a dictaphone. Nice!

98. De-escalation, the Columbo way – A Friend in Deed

At a time of racial tensions in the US, this short scene of Columbo de-escalating an encounter between a heavy-handed law enforcer and an innocent black man carries additional weight to a modern audience.

Here, a black man has shown up in a prosperous white neighbourhood at a house where a murder has just been committed. He’s a good guy who is there for all the right reasons – to check up on the whereabouts of Margaret Halperin after she failed to show up to an awards dinner – but is immediately viewed with deep suspicion by one of the detectives on the scene.

Fortunately, Columbo is an officer free from prejudice. He steps in and ensures the situation doesn’t get out of hand just as we see the first indications that tensions are starting to rise. This was a telling scene back in 1974. It remains wholly relevant today.

97. Don’t be so Cincinnati – The Most Crucial Game

When the bashful Lieutenant pays a visit to the apartment of high-class call girl Eve Babcock, you’d better believe there are going to be a few smiles. And so it proves throughout a rib-tickling few minutes of screen time.

Columbo drops by just as Ms Babcock is expecting a ‘gentleman caller’. She welcomes him with well-rehearsed lines, noting his immediate discomfort and telling him not to be ‘so Cincinnati’. As she attempts to bustle him out to a dinner appointment and Columbo indicates he hadn’t planned on dinner, her face is a picture!

Before he gets round to questioning her, Ms Babcock’s actual date arrives – a stockbroker called ‘Smitty’, who’s looking for some real action. As soon as Columbo introduces himself as being from the LAPD, Smitty’s out of there in a heartbeat! It’s a really funny scene and a reminder of how well Falk plays comedy. And, of course, Queen of Comedy Valerie Harper’s presence boosts our enjoyment no end.

96. Cat fight at the catwalk – Lovely but Lethal

The episode’s delicious early encounter between catty beauty industry rivals David Lang and Viveca Scott at the fashion show is terrific entertainment. It’s exposition heavy, but in a good way as the audience is succinctly and plausibly introduced to the troubles facing Viveca’s company through Lang’s snide comments at her expense.

Viveca gives as good as she gets and the foundations are laid for a mouth-watering battle between the two which, sadly, never entirely eventuates. Still, the presence of Vincent Price combined with the outrageous, opulent fashions of the early 1970s – including Viveca’s unbelievable fashion turban – provides a hugely enjoyable scene that holds the promise of untold delights to come.

95. Wrecking the take – Fade in to Murder

You’d think that a man who has spent so much of his career investigating showbiz crimes would be a bit more careful when wandering about a TV set. You’d be wrong.

Columbo somehow ends up behind the scenery on the set of Lieutenant Lucerne as Ward Fowler’s fictional detective is investigating a crime of his own – ruining the take in the process. As well as the humour derived from Columbo’s bumbling, William Shatner’s typically hammy posturing as the cane-wielding, fedora-wearing Lucerne are guaranteed to raise a smile.

This scene does a fine job in exemplifying the fun and games that lie ahead as TV’s greatest fictional detective enlists the help of TV’s greatest fictional fictional detective in his most self-referential adventure to date.

94. Addled on the doorstep – An Exercise in Fatality

What could have been a meaningless moment achieved iconic status when Milo Janus’s stunning lover Jessica Conroy opened the door to Columbo while wearing just a tiny, cherry-print bikini.

Echoing the likely reaction of a high proportion of viewers, the addled Lieutenant loses his chain of thought completely and burbles away on the doorstep while a smiling Jessica gently prods fun at his momentary lapse.

It may not be one of the most important Columbo moments but it’s a whole lot of fun and goes a long way to explaining why Gretchen Corbett maintains a special place in the heart of millions of fans to this day.

93. RV having fun yet? The Conspirators

For all the frivolity and fun shared between Joe Devlin and Columbo in The Conspirators, one of the episode’s most truly entertaining moments comes courtesy of magnetic bit-part player, Chuck Jensen – the silver-tongued RV salesman perfectly captured by LQ Jones.

Jensen is the actual arms supplier for whom victim Vincent Pauley was acting as go-between, and the scene when he tracks Devlin down to complete the deal is pure gold. As Jensen gleefully reveals hundreds of machine guns stowed in the RV’s cupboards, drawers, oven and microwave, being wicked never seemed such fun. And in an episode packed with unconvincing Irish caricatures, this mesmerising southerner feels both authentic and intriguing.

Columbo as a show has always done secondary characters well and Jensen is a wonderful example. Here’s a guy with less than 5 minutes’ screen time in the whole episode who practically steals the show. I would’ve watched a Chuck Jensen spin-off with no qualms at all.

92. Tommy sees the light – Swan Song

Was ever a killer caught as red-handed as Tommy Brown? Only Investigator Brimmer (Death Lends a Hand) and Elliott Markham (Blueprint for Murder) give the biblical crooner a run for his money after he’s quite literally caught in the headlights with his arms full of incriminating parachute silk.

Columbo has figured out that Tommy will be compelled to return to the mountainside to retrieve the hidden parachute that the detective wouldn’t otherwise have a cat-in-hell’s chance of uncovering. It’s the decisive proof he needs to dispel Tommy’s claim that he was thrown clear of the plane crash in what appeared to have been an Act of God.

The beauty of the scene lies in Columbo’s tender treatment of Tommy, the detective claiming that “any man who can sing like that can’t be all bad.” For his part, Tommy reveals he’s glad it’s all over in a clear indication that he’s finally seen the light, both figuratively and literally.

Although reminiscent of the admittedly superior closing exchange between Columbo and Adrian Carsini in Any Old Port in a Storm, this is still a dramatic and poignant way to round out one of Columbo’s most popular cases.

91. Jim’s sense of foreboding – Murder by the Book

During the drive to Ken’s lakeside cabin, Jim references a sense of deja vu, feeling that he’s been in this situation before. This clever, subtle moment passes a lot of viewers by but it superbly foreshadows the means of Ken’s ultimate downfall.

Jim’s feeling of familiarity with this moment is because it’s an old idea of Ken’s for a mystery that the duo never expanded upon in their Mrs Melville stories. Jim wrote everything down, including this little snippet years earlier – much to Ken’s surprise and irritation when Columbo tracks down the incriminating jotting and uses it to seal Ken’s fate at episode’s end. Throw in a slice of Billy Goldenberg’s sinister score, and you have a moment to treasure.

“This clever, subtle moment superbly foreshadows the means of Ken’s ultimate downfall.”

That’s all for today, amigos, but these countdown articles are going to be coming thick and fast to ensure you’re not kept waiting too long for the next cliff-hanging instalment. Look out for new posts each Thursday and Sunday until 12 July. Then there’ll be a week’s gap before the BIG REVEAL of the top 10 on Sunday 19 July.

I hope you’ll join us for the whole journey and your on-going thoughts on the list will be much enjoyed. Any chance you get to share the articles on your own social channels would also be most welcome and will ensure the countdown can be enjoyed by as many Columbo fans as possible.

Have a good week – and keep an eye out for Part 2 of the list on Thursday, which will count us down from numbers 90-81. Until then, take care of yourselves – and each other.

Read Part 2 of the list here

Thanks to my fellow expert panellists: Steven Moffat, Mark Dawidziak, Aurora Bugallo, Alex Deane, Jenny Hammerton, Paul Hughes, Dean Matthews, Theo Solorio, David van den Bosch, Rich Weill and Jenn Zuko. Read more about ’em all here.

I don’t claim to own the copyright of the videos featured in this article, which are the property of NBCUniversal. The clips accompanying this article are either already in the public domain via the official Columbo YouTube channel, or being used under Fair Use legislation as part of my on-going efforts to thoroughly critique and analyse the series. I encourage readers to invest in the DVD box-set if financially viable.

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Better luck next time, Bazza!
How did you like this article?

49 thoughts on “The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 1: 100-91

  1. Wow! What a stunning amount of work your team put into this “greatest scenes” series. It’s fun to read and remember all the episodes. Thanks for providing this excellent distraction from the daily news.

  2. I love the blazing row scene between tommy and edna , the acting is top notch and really sets the tone for a great episode
    Swan song is one of my favs johny cash ( who o am a fan of paticulary his country and western)
    Ida lupino is great in this however she also appeared as aunt dory in short fuse where she was simply wasted

  3. Pingback: The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 4: 70-61 | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  4. Pingback: The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 5: 60-51 | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  5. The wrecking the takescene in fade in to murder is quite funny but i dont rate the end/gotcha Scene very highly in fact i think its abit lacllustre.
    overall i dont dislike fade in to murder but i dont consider it to anywhere near the best of the seventies episodes.

  6. Pingback: The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 3: 80-71 | THE COLUMBOPHILE

  7. I know some people may beg to differ but I really do wish NBC had granted the good Lieutenant two more seasons of 4 episodes each (which worked like gangbusters for Season 7)… and THEN cancelled or not renewed it rather than cancelling it at least one season too soon, followed by the ABC years which, with a very few exceptions, didn’t come close to the 1970’s golden age, alas…

    • Correction; meant to say 5 episodes like Season 7 not 4 as incorrectly stated.

      Either way, I wholeheartedly agree with ‘Columbo’ co-creator William Link when he stated the show was good for at least one more season on NBC…

  8. This is brilliant thanks so much for putting this together. On the back of this article I’ve been compelled to go and buy the DVD box set at long last so I can enjoy the episodes in full.

  9. Everyone keep in mind that when you say “I’m surprised (scene) wasn’t on the list “ This is just part 1! (91-100) Your scene could be higher on the list!

  10. The ruining the scene in ” Fade into murder” is fun,I also ,always enjoy the ” Average height” scene.

    • Yes, did enjoy the climax scene when William Shatner winces when Columbo mentions the height and lifts issue in front of the husband and girlfriend.

  11. The commments section is just as engaging/entertaining as the articles, I do love reading 👀👀👀Columbophile !!! 🙌🙌

  12. How about when Columbo realizes his house is bugged in Identity Crisis? Patrick McGoohan answers…..” I know'” in his great fluctuating high octave.

      • Good moment , I am a big fan of mc goohan and Identity crisis , one scene that I find funny is one that i dont hear much is at the arcade where columbo arrives at the rubber duck shoot stand ( or whatever the fairground attraction is named ) columbo asks what do you have to do to win one of those things , the guy replies shoot 10 out of 10 and columbo replies If i was standing on the dock I Couldn’t hit the water , I found that funny and typical of the seventies episodes .

      • Great choice re:
        Columbo’s ….calm and knd “de-escalation”…from 98 A Friend in Deed…an episode that grew on me …and now one of my faves…
        the most “I didn’t see it coming” gotcha ending.
        Kiley a superb actor

        Only thing I find puzzling is…wouldnt Columbo’s history of solving murders …be known down at HQ?Lol

        If so..i don’t think the Commissioner would hand pick our Lieutenant to work on the case.

        The interplay between the two….especially given Kiley is THE supreme cop…..is excellent


  13. Heres a great moment. Columbo tells Mrs. Goodland In Greenhouse Jungle that her lover some guy with a deep sun tan had agreed to get out of her life for 50,000 dollars..
    Then she looks at Ken ( William Smith ) and He looks so guilty as he swallows like the cat who was caught eating the proverbial Canary. Priceless.

  14. It is really interesting, that two selected scenes have some reference to Hungary and Hungarian accent.

    – 100th, when Lally confirms that Santini had a Hungarian accent and they two have met in Budapest (capital of Hungary).

    – 97th, when miss Babcock’s accent became sounding similar to Columbo’s nephew’s Hungarian wife.

    I’m almost sure that many Hungarian staff worked on the show in LA back then, and as I’m from Hungary, it is also very-very delights me!

    Thank you so much Columbophile that you selected these scenes amongst the top100!

  15. The swingin’ music in Prescription Murder coupled with the adroit sound effects make this episode a masterpiece. In a way it was so good it was downhill from there on. Lucky for us they started out on the dizzying pinnacle of perfection .

  16. TRTHMASTR, I have a sneaky suspicion that the top 100 moments already have been selected.

      • True. My personal top 100 would be quite different from the final top 100 we’ll see listed here. Positions 51-100 are much more subjective because there are so many good scenes to consider. From 50 downwards there was a lot more consensus on top scenes.

        • It will be interesting to see how many scenes from the most dangerous match and old fashioned murder make the list ,
          Apart from The Daryl scene at the hairdressers which CP has already stated is a fan of and the restaurant scene / meeting between dudek and Clayton and the phone call which from the vet mistaken by Clayton to be about dudek Not too many in fact
          I am going to guess at 5 tops for Most dangerous match and 3 for old fashioned murder which I consider most un funny and boring episode of the seventies I find it very hard to dig out a funny or memorable moment from that one, we will have to wait and see but i generally agree which the choices so far .

        • Never stepped out to tell folks this. Vito Scotti was in “Negative Reaction” with Dick Van Dyke, they had worked together before. Vito was the painter also in the Dick Van Dyke Show., “Give Me Your Walls”. of the 1960’s . character’s name was, “Vito Giotto.” Know this, cause I am his son.

    • The scene where Dr. Fleming and Columbo talk in the Dr.’s office.
      And again the exquisite scene where Columbo girlls Joan Hudson. Tremendous performances all around. Katherine Justice smolders white hot. I love it when she tries to walk away, and Columbo tells her the charges and she freezes in fear. BEAUTIFUL. …….” WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE SOME PICTURES OF HER, WE TOOK THEM AT THE MORGUE!” At that point her voice goes all husky. The ending extreme close up of her face is impeccable. Columbo ends the scene talking to her shuddering backs he tells her he feels sorry for her because she’s the weak link and hes going to hound her. FANTASTIC!

      • I love the interrogation scene in prescription murder and rate it very highly the acting and setting in the film studio is very well done its easily my favourite scene from that episode I prefer it than the hypothetical conversation in Dr Flemings office which I find a tad long and boring .

  17. Being from Cincinnati I always laughed at the “Don’t be so Cincinnati” scene, Valerie Harper was great in it. Also LQ Jones stole the show in the Conspirators and i’m glad it made the list, great picks so far.

  18. Another excellent scene is the anniversary party scene in prescription murder. All those beautiful elegant people in that elegant home having an elegant party. And another scene that ties into it is the scene when he comes home and she’s waiting for him in her little sailor’s outfit nightgown. “lucky for you I’m too well-bred to throw a tantrum “

  19. Another scene with tremendous power that showcases superlative acting skills is the countdown scene in make me a perfect murder. The tension is palpable.

  20. I also love the confrontation scene in play back when the beleaguered mother verbally calls on the carpet her philandering son-in-law. Excellent scene. Excellent writing.” I suppose you want me to kneel. You can stand on your head my dear boy any position you want that braces you for a shock. “

  21. Thank you for the great article 100 best scenes. I truly enjoyed it and it does a great job of highlighting all the many countless wonderful scenes in this great series. A great series which was chock-full of wonderful character actors beautiful scenes scenery and sets and exquisite writing. Thank you.

  22. You shoul include Donald Pleasence’s fantastic scene when he Rails against his brother’s decision to sell the winery. Watching Donald Pleasence wind-up from a quiet Urbane man into a hurricane of anger is truly a treat. This man was a fantastic actor with the years of acting experience at hand. and the writing in this scene is exquisite as Donald Pleasence calls his brother a muscle-bound hedonist.

  23. The confrontation scene in Dagger of the mind, when the would be benefactor lays it out for Lilly. ..” how you so conveniently had a headache. ” I finally had to realize that I have been taken by a ham and a tart. “

  24. I I like the scene in ransom for a dead man when the daughter corners her stepmother at home and harangues her with various ploys and incriminations. She also shoots her with blanks. Another good one is when Columbo goes into the beauty parlor to question Beth Davenport and gets a spray can of hairspray in the face for his trouble. A really excellent moment is when the Killer is caught going out of the Lanai by Columbo in Requiem for a falling star. Another notable scene for its pure visual beauty is the swimming pool scene at the beginning of prescription murder showcasing Katherine Justices’ tremendous Beauty. Another scene which to me is fantastic is the explosive power of the built-up anger Robert Culp displays in death lends a hand when he back hands his non-compliant victim.

    • I love the scene where Ken dines with Mrs. Lasanka. Also when she corners him at the theater……best line…..Who is that? ” someone who should be somewhere else. “

  25. If I was going for something from Exercise in Fatality, it would probably be the brilliant Collin Wilcox (as Ruth Stafford) throwing wine over sleazy and manipulative Robert Conrad. Whenever I see this scene I wonder how many takes might have been required and how much fun the actors must have had.
    So many great early Columbo scenes involved wonderful support actors.

    Also surprised hilarious art gallery scene from Playback (with Falk doing Bob Newhart routine) didn’t make final list !

    • I also like the scene where Columbo asks Ruth how to spell the name of someone she barely remembers, “…is it l-o-u or l-e-w,” and she laughs because it’s a little absurd that she would know that. It’s such a real reaction, it brings me out of it because it’s too real. She was playing the character half-smashed all the time, so her relaxed nature probably has more to do with that than carefully crafted acting, but it works nonetheless and I look forward to that scene when I watch that episode.

  26. “You’re a sanctimonious hypocrite of a Bible-spouting Blackmailer and I’ve given you your last chance to be fair!”
    Just kidding.

  27. Really looking forward to this countdown! But how can the hipsters scene not make the top 100? Top 20 in my book!

    • Alas, there wasn’t sufficient popular support for the scene to include it, although it’s a big favourite of mine. Just shows what a tricky task it is.

    • You mean the dancing by the lake In Any Port In Storm? Great little scene. I like the twisting bikini broad.


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