NB – if you missed Part 1 of this countdown, I recommend starting there before reading this!
Well folks, the ball is well and truly rolling now on the countdown to reveal the 100 greatest Columbo scenes from 1968-78.
My sincere thanks to all who read, commented on and shared Part 1 of the list at the weekend. More of the same will be much appreciated to ensure as many fans as possible get to share in this celebration of the very, very best of Columbo.
Without further preamble, let’s dive in and savour #90-81 on the countdown. Again, I’d urge readers to take their time over this and enjoy the clips in their entirety (especially #90) to get the most of the article. So, grab a coffee or a bowl of chilli and settle back for half an hour of some of the most enjoyable TV ever filmed…
90. Volare without end – Troubled Waters
An inclusion that might surprise some fans due to its cheesy nature and interminable length, Rosanna Welles’ rousing rendition of Volare aboard The Sea Palace in front of an audience of enrapt pensioners nevertheless remains one of the most memorable scenes in Columbo history.
Not only does it absolutely epitomise the cruise ship experience of the 70s, it’s also effectively interspersed with scenes of killer Hayden Danziger busting free from the ship’s hospital and jalloping through the bowels of the
boat ship so he can reach Rosanna’s cabin ahead of her mid-show break. It’s breathless stuff from all involved.
Alex Deane expert opinion: “This is, objectively, an appalling moment, both in television and in the history of music. The magnificently arrogant victim butchers a song over the course of eleven hours (or so it feels), in a ship’s lounge that looks like the offspring of a library mating with a retirement home. And yet, no single other moment so identifies a Columbo fan to another. The single word ‘Volare’, elongated slightly to echo the extraordinary punishment it took in the episode, is the password, the shibboleth, that identifies one aficionado to another.”
89. Columbo’s fishing trip – Dead Weight
A variation on the “we both know I did it, but you’ll never prove it, so CLEAR ORF” chit-chat so familiar to keen viewers, Dead Weight features a fine exchange between Hollister and Columbo on the jetty by the General’s house.
Returning from an early morning outing on his yacht, Hollister finds Columbo lying in wait for him. On the surface, the Lieutenant is just having a jolly fishing jaunt. In reality, he wants to unsettle the General by encroaching on his territory and asking a series of telling questions. A grizzled war veteran isn’t likely to be spooked by such tactics and so it proves as Hollister dishes out some advice laced with double meaning: “Find a different spot, or use a different bait. Otherwise you’re not going to catch anything, Lieutenant.”
It’s a good example of the episode’s sharp script and a loaded exchange even the Lieutenant seems to enjoy. To put it in Sherlockian terms, the game is afoot, our confrontation is just warming up and our interest is piquing very nicely indeed.
88. Chilli at Chasen’s – Publish or Perish
Columbo catches up with publishing duo Jeffrey Neal and Eileen McRae at fashionable Chasen’s restaurant, where the hungry detective finds the uppity options on the menu not quite to his taste. Instead, he requests a bowl of chilli, along with an iced tea – much to the disgust of the stereotypically snooty French waiter.
Columbo’s amazement at the high price of the bill for such meagre fare is classic Falk – even more so when the waiter adjusts the bill upwards for neglecting to add the iced tea at the first time of asking. All in all, then, it’s a rib-tickling scene, the great joke being that Chasen’s was revered for its chilli, which was a favourite amongst Hollywood luminaries.
The scene also works well in entertainingly delivering key information to the Lieutenant, notably that Mallory’s incomplete novel had already been picked up by Universal as a Rock Hudson vehicle, necessitating a re-write of the final chapters, because “For $100,000, you don’t kill off Rock Hudson.” It’s the info that will ultimately do in for Riley Greenleaf.
Bonus points for Mariette Hartley looking foxy in a red stetson, too!
87. Father loves his son – Mind Over Mayhem
Despite being one of the poorer episodes of the classic era, Mind Over Mayhem successfully manages to round out on a poignant note.
After deliberately fitting up Dr Marshall Cahill’s son, Neil, for murder, Columbo has deduced that a father’s love for his son will ensure that justice is done. After Neil is dragged off by police, Columbo lies in wait for Cahill, whom he correctly deduces will give desperate chase. And although they never saw eye-to-eye throughout the episode, the two men share a respectful smoke as the Lieutenant explains how he cracked the case.
The scene humanises the otherwise unlikable Cahill, who, in killing to protect his son – and in now admitting his guilt to free his son – was, at last, acting out of love. Can we consider this the first step on the path to redemption for Cahill after years of dominating and browbeating his son? Perhaps. And that may ultimately be the episode’s biggest success: leaving the reflective viewer with deeper questions to ponder well beyond the closing credits.
86. Beth’s boardroom coup – Lady in Waiting
Beth Chadwick takes the concept of power dressing to a whole new level as she essentially stages a hostile takeover of her family advertising agency by placing herself in charge after her killing of hated brother Bryce – all while dressed in an unforgettable all-pink-and-purple hatted ensemble.
Beth’s message is clear from her appearance and her domineering tone: there’s a new cat in town – and she’s going to rock the establishment. Anyone within the company’s old boys’ network not willing to dance to the beat of her drum may as well hit the road now before she sweeps the rug out from under them.
Beth’s boldness here is such good TV because it shows us the double-edged sword of her recent emancipation. It may very well be just what the business needs to have a challenging, progressive woman in charge, but the damage being done to her relationship with the noble Peter Hamilton has never been more apparent. Here we see with crystal clarity that Beth won’t be able to have her cake and eat it. Was it worth her killing Bryce, after all?
Jenny Hammerton expert opinion: “Have you ever worn a huge, pink, broad-brimmed baker boy hat and a floral suit with massive lapels to a board meeting? Beth Chadwick does and I love her for it. The moment she starts bossing all the blokes around after she has staged a corporate coup thrills me every time I see it. Girl power, early 70s’ style!”
85. Chadwick’s challenge – Candidate for Crime
In his second of his six guest star appearances, Vito Scotti delights once more in the role of Nelson Hayward’s snooty tailor, Mr Chadwick.
Scotti is on vintage form and it’s a blast to watch his reaction to the shabby detective, which is just on the polite side of disdain as he attempts to help Columbo find a jacket for an impending bowling league dinner dance – ultimately being unable to help due to the quick turnaround time required.
The humour of the scene works perfectly but it also has a pay-off in that Columbo learns just how far in advance Hayward had to order his own replacement jacket for the one Stone was killed in (10 days). While not conclusive, the revelation is a key element in Columbo’s strengthening case against the crooked candidate.
84. The tragic end of Lily La Sanka – Murder by the Book
Lily’s demise was clearly telegraphed earlier in the episode when her dinner for two with Ken in a scarlet-hued LA restaurant essentially portrayed the lonely widow making a pact with the Devil himself. Their second date at Lily’s country shack proved just that, with Devil Ken dispatching her with a Champagne-bottle bludgeoning.
The beauty of the scene, as with many Columbo murders, is that much is left to our imagination. In this instance, we see Ken wrap the bottle tightly in a napkin and stealthily approach Lily, who is distractedly counting her blackmail money. We then cut to her turning to the camera and screaming in terror as she realises too late what fate has in store for her.
Made even more powerful by director Steven Spielberg’s decision to cut the sound of the scream and have only music before fading out to a commercial break (a decision he had to fight for against a sceptical Levinson and Link), it’s a moment that almost out-Hitchcocks Hitchcock.
83. The garden party showdown – A Case of Immunity
Eschewing his normal pleasantries, Columbo gets straight to the point during his conversation with Hassan Salah and details precisely how he knows the Suari Legation First Secretary committed double homicide.
Given how dangerous a foe Salah is, this is an extremely ballsy move on Columbo’s part – especially since the confrontation essentially happens on foreign soil where Salah’s word is law. There’s no doubt that the First Secretary has the power to make good on his threat to have Columbo thrown off the force, yet our man refuses to back down even when armed guards are called to escort him off the premises.
That Columbo breaks free from the guards to hand Salah an “official letter of apology” after all this makes it one of the best f*** yous of the entire series. Better still, he’s rocking a tuxedo as he does it, giving this scene a Bond-esque flavour with Columbo dabbling in international affairs well beyond his usual pay grade.
82. The leap of faith – Forgotten Lady
Columbo’s leap from Dr Willis’s balcony onto the adjacent tree combines ace deductive reasoning with Peter Falk’s natural comic gifts to deliver a scene that works on multiple levels.
His tree-dangling and cavorting with Dog warm the cockles, but the heart of the scene is the glimpse we’re given into Grace Wheeler’s increasingly shaky grasp on reality. She ought to be feeling the heat of a detective for all intents and purposes proving that her husband could have been murdered – by her. Instead, she assumes Columbo is only there because of her magnetic allure and his attraction to “the MAGIC of show business!“
All credit to Janet Leigh, whose wide-eyed portrayal of Grace becoming ever more lost in a world of her own is entirely convincing – and increasingly heartbreaking.
81. Caught in the rain – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
When Columbo became a series back in 1971, creators William Link and Dick Levinson had the notion that when the show finally ended, the very last scene should be the Lieutenant caught in a rain shower without his ever-present mac.
Although that never eventuated, we did get this brilliantly subtle riff on the idea as Columbo closes in on Oliver Brandt in Bye-Bye Sky High. It’s the first time in the series that we’ve been shown rain in LA and – wouldn’t you know it? – Mrs Columbo is testing out a new spot remover on the famous coat. As a result, the good Lieutenant is given a darn good soaking as he dashes down the Brandt residence driveway with an ineffectual umbrella.
Columbo being Columbo, of course, there’s some subterfuge at work and we must assume it was all a deliberate ruse to enable the detective to nab Brandt’s own umbrella and take it for testing. Nevertheless, it’s a lovely moment and a great Easter Egg for keen fans.
OK fellow Lieutenant Lovers, that’s all for today. As always, your thoughts on the list so far are to be encouraged, so get amongst it down in the comments section. There’s no such thing as a ‘best of’ list that will please every fan, but I hope you’re at least enjoying the ride so far.
Check back this coming Sunday for Part 3, which will count us down from #80-71. Until then, PEACE OUT!
Top 100 previous installments
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.