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
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.
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.