Opinion / Top 100

The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 3: 80-71

Columbo Ransom for a Dead Man
Feast your (demonic) eyes on 10 more magical moments…
NB – If you’ve missed any of the previous installments, head here to catch up on what you’ve missed first.

You know the drill by now: here are 10 more magical moments from Columbo’s classic era, selected by a panel of experts for your viewing pleasure.

As we creep closer to the top 50, I’d like to take the chance once again to urge readers to clear sufficient space in their schedule to enjoy these scenes in their entirety, rather than charging through the article like a killer Doberman dashing towards an enemy throat. It’s what Peter would’ve wanted…

80. “Rosebud!” How to Dial a Murder

For the second episode in a row, a murderer attempts the unthinkable in doing their best to kill off the dear Lieutenant. Last time round it was Paul Gerard’s poisoned glass of wine in Murder Under Glass but now it’s a far more robust effort: Dr Eric Mason is hoping to see Columbo torn to ribbons by his attack dogs.

We know that Columbo has figured out great swathes of the case (including motive and opportunity), but we don’t know yet that he’s entirely cracked the code word that controls the murderous mood of the Dobermans. In order to prove murder, he has to wheedle it out of Mason, whom he expertly manoeuvres into a corner to force the doctor’s hand.

Believing in his own mental superiority until the last, Mason indeed supplies the final evidence eluding the Lieutenant, calling out ‘Rosebud’ and ordering the dogs to attack. Given that the viewer hasn’t seen how Columbo reprogrammed the dogs to ‘kiss not kill’ when they heard the command word, this is a supremely tense moment that really gets the blood pumping.

79. Limericks at 20 paces – The Conspirators

You want jovial wise-cracking between Columbo and one of his most outwardly amiable adversaries? You have it here in this raucous scene of ale-infused poetry recital, with both men on fine form and attempting to outdo the other with increasingly witty rhymes as onlookers roar their approval.

As well as the frivolity, this scene also features one of my personal favourite Columbo lines, when Devlin requests “Two ales, celebration size.” This is now my go-to order in any public house, showing what a lengthy shadow this moment of silliness has managed to cast.

David van den Bosch expert analysis: “The ultimate example of Columbo blending in and enjoying the company of his target whom he knows to be guilty of murder. Listen to Columbo’s pelican limerick closely. It’s a clever reference to Devlin, who has taken on more than he proved able to handle.”

78. Old skool sleuthing – Troubled Waters

Cut adrift (literally) from the boys in the lab back home, Columbo is required to indulge in some old skool policing to crack the case in Troubled Waters – and it’s so enjoyable to watch.

Using a Sherlock-style magnifying glass and graphite from a pencil, it’s fascinating to watch Columbo as he quietly goes about the business of obtaining a finger print from the inside of a surgical glove to prove that captain’s favourite Hayden Danziger is guilty of premeditated murder.

Notable for how Danziger’s confidence drains away as he realises Columbo has played him like a fiddle, this scene provides a fine example of how shrewd a detective Columbo is. The case in point: he noticed a pillow feather on the floor outside Danziger’s room in the ship’s hospital – a place where only foam rubber pillows are used to prevent triggering allergies.

For all of Danziger’s clever scheming, we learn that Columbo has been onto him from the very start – before the men were even formally introduced. What chance does any criminal have against smarts like that?

77. “I knooo-oooow!” Identity Crisis

Featuring Patrick McGoohan at his eccentric best, Nelson Brenner makes for a scintillating study when Columbo drops round to his home to repay a debt.

Firstly, Brenner orders a brooding man-servant to bring Columbo some Beaujolais, spouting what is presumably meant to be Korean but was really just gibbberish made up by the actor himself. Better follows when the two discuss music and Brenner virtually sings the line “I knooo-ooow!” when revealing that he’s aware of Mrs Columbo’s favourite piece of music because he’s had their house bugged.

Peter Falk has been quoted as saying that McGoohan’s line delivery skills were the greatest in the history of the show. Watching McGoohan’s performance in this short scene, it’s easy to see why he believed it.

76. Bungling the bin drop – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case

Having retrieved his umbrella from the Sigma Society library chimney, Oliver Brandt takes a stroll in the park to rid himself of the murder weapon (a revolver) by dumping it in a public bin – but he hasn’t reckoned on running into Columbo just as he’s about to make the drop.

Given a second chance when Columbo scampers off to buy an ice-cream, Brandt deposits the weapon in the trash basket – but he bungles it! The handle of the gun has slipped from the brown paper bag it was carelessly wrapped in and is visible for all the world to see. Surely a man of Columbo’s observational astuteness will spot it and Brandt’s game will be up? The sense of tension the scene generates is palpable – until a park worker comes to collect and empty the basket under their very noses.

The scream-aloud tension melts away – both for the viewer and Brandt himself. Indeed, so imbued with confidence is he that Brandt is able to indulge in a wonderful, pompous monologue about the best place for a gentleman to keep their umbrella to minimise the chance of being rained on. Theo Bickel’s mesmerising portrayal of both sides of Brandt’s character makes this a scene that’s impossible to forget.

75. Leslie’s joyride – Ransom for a Dead Man

It’s been an intriguing power play between Leslie Williams and Columbo throughout, with both having reason to feel they have the upper hand at various points, but when it comes to this airborne encounter, Leslie is the top dog by a nautical mile.

While the lady lawyer has never seemed so assured and in control, Columbo swiftly degenerates into a nervous wreck who is barely able to turn his mind to the questions he planned to ask. It’s advantage Leslie – for now.

Combining glorious footage of a light aircraft spiralling over the Tehachapi Mountains with Billy Goldenberg’s cinema-worthy score, this is a scene that speaks volumes about the show’s ambition and scope. With such grandeur on its side, no wonder NBC commissioned a full series off the back of it.

74. Strange bedfellows? A Friend in Deed

Nothing shows off Columbo’s ability to win hearts and minds of prince or pauper quite as effectively as his handling of a pressure-cooker situation with combustible jewel thief Artie Jessup.

Seeking information from the man most of his colleagues seem to think is guilty of double homicide, Columbo’s visit to the dive bar where Jessup hangs out gets off to a bad start when the furious burglar flips out at the sight of a police badge.

Not only does Columbo manage to calm Jessup down, he’s swiftly able to make an ally of him and Jessup will play a vital role in helping to bring down Commissioner Halperin. This scene is a great example of how the real Columbo is able to effortlessly build rapport with almost anyone he wants to – even those from the wrong side of the tracks.

As a bonus, it’s also a rare treat to see Columbo in the underbelly of the city when we’ve become accustomed to seeing him nosing around the palatial homes of LA’s filthy rich.

73. Sleeping on the job – Suitable for Framing

Columbo artfully engineers a way to gain access to Kingston’s apartment under the pretence that he’s going to pop around while Dale is out ‘just to borrow some books’ about art to help him in his case. Kingston plays along as he smugly wants to prove to the Lieutenant that he has nothing to hide. Little does he suspect that when he does have something to hide (the stolen Degas’ pastels that he committed double homicide for), Columbo will be lying in wait.

Thus when Kingston enters his home late at night, fresh from slaying accomplice Tracey, he finds Columbo ‘asleep’ in an easy chair. The detective insists that he accidentally dropped off and has no idea of the time, but we know him too well to buy that.

Columbo’s stunt pays off handsomely, though, as he’s able to get his mitts on the stolen pastels in Kingston’s art folder before the angry critic can stop him. And that, of course, is his means of snaring Kingston at episode’s end. To quote Adrian Carsini: “You really are a sly one, Lieutenant!

72. The final stitch-up – A Stitch in Crime

Columbo’s inherent ability to comprehend the characters of his adversaries allows him to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the dramatic conclusion to A Stitch in Crime.

Although it almost eludes him, Columbo figures out that Dr Mayfield’s act of shoving him angrily aside in the operating theatre was out of character for a man who is usually so calm and collected. What would drive a man to act that way? Desperation to hide the one piece of evidence (dissolving suture) that will definitively tie him to two murders and an attempted third.

Notice, too, how steely Columbo can be when push comes to shove. Earlier in the episode, he couldn’t bring himself to even peep down from the observation gallery to the colon operation unfolding below. When the stakes are at their highest, he’s observing every move of an open-heart surgery without batting an eyelid. It’s quite a transformation.

71. Who actually dunnit? Last Salute to the Commodore

Although we didn’t actually see Charles Clay strike down the Commodore, surely no first-time viewer ever doubts he’s the killer. Why else would Robert Vaughn even be in this episode? Columbo and his sidekicks Kramer and Mac believe so, too, but no sooner have they congratulated themselves on getting to the bottom of the mystery than their chief suspect shows up dead.

For both the viewer and Columbo, this is a stunning revelation which gives us the series’ first true whodunnit. Last Salute is an episode that takes a lot of flak (much of it deservedly), but writer Jackson Gillis’s sleight of hand here hits home with the force of a belaying pin to the skull. It’s surely the greatest surprise of the Columbo classic era.

“The death of Charles Clay is a stunning revelation which gives us the series’ first true whodunnit.”

My friends, that brings us to a halt for now. I do hope you’re enjoying the countdown but please share your opinions on what you’ve seen so far, whether you agree with the choices or not.

Plenty more goodness lies in store, so remember to check back on Thursday when we’ll be unveiling #70-61 on the chart. There’s certain to be something you’ll enjoy. See you then!

Read Part 4 of the countdown here

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.

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40 thoughts on “The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 3: 80-71

  1. My criticism of the ending scene in “How to Dial a Murder” is that Mason programmed the dogs to respond to the “Rosebud” command by shredding the SPEAKER of the command. Laurel and Hardy should then have “attacked” Mason himself, not Columbo.

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

  3. I rate identity crisis very highly , people give it stick generally for the conclusion but ive never had a problem with it myself and it has plenty of memorable scenes , my favourite has to be the cia intervention at the amusment paek i always enjoy it.

  4. Leslie’s joyride is a great scene but not in the same class with “I can’t have you convicted on the wrong evidence.” Surely that one is coming up soon?

  5. Am I the only one who finds Oliver Brandt’s umbrella monologue insufferable? If any speech marks Brandt as a obnoxious pedant, this is it. Not someone imprisoned by his smartness, but the last person with whom you would want to share a stuck elevator. For me, it is the low point of TBBSHIQMC (not in my top 10, but still a most enjoyable episode).

    Worse still, his conclusion (that the most sensible place to keep an umbrella is at home) makes no sense. He’s walking around on a sunny day carrying an umbrella. He’s trying the convince Columbo that this isn’t suspicious behavior. He’s made the case that you can’t keep an umbrella in any one place and be 100% safe. Isn’t the logical conclusion to his argument — as well as the one most likely to ease Columbo’s suspicions — that the best place to keep an umbrella is IN YOUR HAND!? (I’ll never learn. Every time I watch TBBSHIQMC after a long hiatus, that’s what I expect him to say.)

  6. The selection of “Strange Bedfellows” from A Friend in Deed is just one of the many reasons I love this site. I’ve watched that episode numerous times and for some reason I never caught how wonderful that interaction between the Lieutenant and Jessup truly is. Now I keep watching it on here. Thank you.
    I’m also surprised that “I KNOW!” isn’t higher on the list but like someone else mentioned it just shows how many great moments are yet to come.

  7. I genuinley couldnt pick a memorable moment from murder in malibu it is awful from start to finish it is not only bad but long and boring and weird theres these these moments that are supposed to be funny but are painfully bad such as the gun suicide victim at the morge some human organs in a jar and columbo feeling some womens underwear which i almost cannot sleep the following night , saying paaanties repeatedly , i could go on and on plus the acting is terrible to boot very bad episode i agree .

    • I agree, “Malibu” is pretty awful, like other 90s episodes. (NTTD, Undercover..😒.) The magic of the 70s gone, time passes, people change, so it is what it is. Thank goodness for the magic of DVDs…. and many episodes are available online for free- one can watch an episode or several episodes lots of times… or when one wants, after a long day at work…..


  8. I agree last salute has a twist and an air of mystery but it dosent come off well enough for me because its also very boring at the same time which takes the good out of that aspect along with all the other nonsense and annoying charachters involved
    really spoils it , if only this had been done in a more exciting and conventional episode it could have been a gem
    oh what a shame.

  9. Good thought , i find that limerick scene in the irish pub quite funny and deserves a place in the list as it shows great charisma interacction between columbo and murderer but im not a fan of the conspirators overall its actually in my bottom 10 seventies.

  10. Where the heck can I watch columbo series 8-12, prime had 1-7 but no streaming site has 8-12, hulu says it allegedly does for $55 a month, but not going to stream it for that price. Not on google play either.

  11. Two errors.
    1. In How to Dial a Murder, we saw Columbo figure out the magic word, AND taking the dogs to be reprogrammed.
    2. In A Friend in Deed, NO ONE in the department thought that Artie Jessup was the killer.

    • In How to Dial we see that the Dogs have gone berserk and are chewing the recorder. We don’t hear what specifically triggered them. We see Columbo in montage speaking to the dog training lady but we don’t see the dogs at all. We know he’s figured something important out but quite what that is is only clear after Mason sets the dogs on him. If we knew everything he’d done to reprogram the dogs before this moment, it would lose all its dramatic tension.

      As for Jessup’s guilt, everyone except Columbo seems to buy into Halperin’s assertion that Jessup is guilty – even Lieutenant Duffy who earlier scotched the idea that he might have done the murders.

  12. More lovely choices here. My favourite from these is Columbo caught napping at Dale’s apartment. What a cunning devil!

  13. I was hoping the “limericks at 20 paces” scene would be rated higher; hopefully it just means there are plenty of mo’ better moments ahead!

  14. I agree i watched last salute in full today and once again i didnt enjoy it , i can never make any sense of whats going on but i do like the charming end scene with columbo rowing off into the sunset that may well be included and dont worry im certain the murder countdown from make scene wilmake the list maybe eventop 10
    its one my favorite scenes and episodes

  15. Since it was the pilot episode they had a bigger budget, that along with a very strong plot and excellent acting by Lee Grant made it a classic.

  16. I agree. Columbo is, to some extent, a proponent of the Woody Allen philosophy of life. Eighty percent of detecting is just showing up.

  17. I simply cannot believe that you included any moment whatsoever in this list from last salute to the Commodore. There are so many wonderful moments in Colombo and the last salute to the Commodore does not contain any of them. The last salute to the Commodore was a comedy of errors in every way. Bad acting, bad directing, lousy story, annoying and annoying characters.
    It was simply a claustrophobic, bungling irritating waste of time. It was an example of the worst that could be put on television. It was an example of the license that can be taken when friends have worked together too long.
    It seems to me that there must have been some heavy drinking going on during the filming of that piece of garbage.
    If you want a fantastic moment how about the countdown scene in make me a perfect murder? That will get your heart pumping. I would rather watch Eddie Kane blow up rats with Molotov cocktails than watch 3 Idiots in the front seat of a car driving around in a circle.

    • I respectfully disagree. Whatever else one may vehemently dislike about “Last Salute,” the way our expectations about Robert Vaughn’s character (Charles Clay) were first reinforced, and then, in a moment, turned completely inside out, was masterful.

      • I concur with your opinion. It’s the only redeeming aspect of a hugely equivocal entry. The episode threatens to pick up from there but it never happens, as we all know too well.

      • A poor episode needn’t equate to it having no redeeming features. There’s something to enjoy in every Columbo episode, even Last Salute, which is dreadful in a lot of ways.

    • No one dislikes Last Salute more than me but, as I’ve said time again on the blog, even the lesser episodes still contain moments to treasure. The revelation of Charles Clay’s death turned the whole episode on its head and entirely succeeds in surprising the viewer. That it comes from a poor episode doesn’t erode the power of the moment at all. Fortunately this moment features Falk being far more restrained than he generally is in this episode. You also mention the car scene from this episode. I dislike it, but there are many viewers who find it genuinely amusing, just highlighting how subjective list-making can be. Some folk even rate Last Salute as their absolute favourite episode…

  18. I find it easy to buy that Columbo actually did fall asleep at Kingston’s pad. He had no way of knowing that Dale would arrive that night with the stolen paintings – if he did, of course, he would have solved the case right there. I think Columbo pieced things together after seeing Kingston’s reaction to Columbo’s curiosity, and that set up Kingston for an epic pants-drop gotcha from the lieutenant later on.

    • To be clear, Columbo obviously had Kingston on his radar already, but the ploy of camping out at his apartment was really just a way to annoy him. I imagine that when he got there, Columbo took a look around the place for any evidence – I mean, why not, Dale gave him the key – found nothing, and then settled in. The worst outcome would be not getting any clues, but at least spooking his target. When Kingston got prickly about touching the paintings….well, that’s when Columbo started to put together his gotcha trap.

    • I think this misses the point. The way to understand this scene, in my view, is to start with the creators’ assessment of what makes “Suitable for Framing” unique: “Falk’s fingerprints nails the murderer. Not the murderer’s fingerprints. It had never been done before and hasn’t since. The detective’s fingerprints nail the murderer.”

      If this was the starting point, as it appears, the writer (Jackson Gillis) then had to find away to put the “detective’s fingerprint” on the key evidence. He had to be where the evidence was. Why was he there? And keep working backwards.

      The obvious backwards plotting is my only real gripe with this episode.

  19. These articles are simply wonderful. It’s bringing back all of the episodes as fresh memories. I feel like I’ve just re-watched them. I am enjoying this series immensely!

    • I can see why you like it. A perfect example of the early Columbo’s attention to detail, high production values and classy atmosphere.

      • It reflects other times, another way of doing television. Great acting, great script and awesome decor/settings, an excellent production, The Colombo angle of the powerful (not all) as criminals versus the good lieutenant. People so well dressed and elegant- other times indeed. The “duel” between the “lady lawyer” and Lieutenant Columbo, and the following confabulation between Columbo and the stepdaughter, very well presented and acted.

        Ed from Florida 👋


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