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!
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.