NB – If you’ve missed any of the previous instalments of the top 100 countdown, head here to check ’em out first.
Welcome back to 10 more of the most enjoyable moments ever committed to celluloid as the countdown of the 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s continues at pace.
I’m running out of things to write in these intros already (a worrying sign with six further instalments to come), so let’s just cut to the chase and get on with the #70-61 of the countdown…
70. The Darryl treatment – Old Fashioned Murder
Columbo was in for a shock to the system when he paid an innocent visit to Darryl’s hair salon seeking information on murder victim Milton Schaeffer’s new haircut and manicure.
After being asked for an interview in the middle of a busy working day, the stylist is having none of it. When Columbo duly informs him that it’s a murder investigation, and if Darryl won’t be more helpful he’ll have to accompany the detective downtown, the crazed coiffeur goes into meltdown – and the only way the Lieutenant can de-escalate the situation is to agree to having a trim, leading to a hilarious (and short-lived) new look.
This is a scene that is invariably edited out of network broadcasts of the episode but it’s so enjoyable, it’s worth buying the entire DVD box-set just so you can enjoy it whenever you please as Darryl’s histrionics add much-needed energy and laughs to a rather plodding outing.
69. Rumford routed – By Dawn’s Early Light
Colonel Rumford’s hard-wired aversion to lapses of discipline in his cadets allows Columbo to force his public surrender in unforgettable fashion.
Having been alerted to the presence of the contraband cider, Rumford believes he’s about to savour the victory he’d craved over the misbehaving cadets. Instead, Columbo utterly routs him, proving beyond doubt that the Colonel had to have been at the rigged ceremonial cannon on the morning it was used to kill William Haynes. Had Rumford not been such a stickler for the rules, he could have avoided the trap but Columbo understood the mind of his suspect so well that he was able to mentally outflank him.
As well as accentuating the Lieutenant’s intellectual acuity, this scene is notable for the mutual respect each man affords the other. Rumford congratulates Columbo on a job well done, while the detective repays the favour by allowing the Colonel one last chance to address the cadets: an unashamed nod towards the historic chivalry of warfare while the unpopular conflict in Vietnam continued to rage.
Paul Hughes expert analysis: “Columbo countermanding Colonel Rumford’s orders in the final scene of By Dawn’s Early Light underscores the loss of the latter’s power over everything in his life – including the inevitable closing of the academy he killed to safeguard.”
68. On the clock – The Most Crucial Game
Columbo has been up against it all the way in his clash with the fiery Paul Hanlon but he finally manages to burst the murderer’s bubble in a suitably dramatic conclusion.
Despite Hanlon’s patience with the detective wearing to wafer-thin levels, Columbo confidently states his case and ultimately smashes Hanlon’s rock-solid alibi when a tape recorded phone conversation pointedly doesn’t feature the chimes of the clock in Hanlon’s private booth.
Sure, it may struggle to hold up in court but the very real pleasure of seeing Hanlon finally struck speechless after an episode of snarling cannot be underestimated. Falk’s assured performance (it really feels like Columbo’s enjoying this one) shows just how hard-nosed the Lieutenant really is beneath his bumbling veneer, while Culp’s stunned reaction at being so caught out is brilliantly realised.
67. Quick-draw Kingston – Suitable for Framing
A pleasant, calming scene of a lovable old boy playing Chopin on a grand piano gives way to gun fire and shrieking music in what is surely the series’ most arresting opening gambit.
The velvet-tux wearing Dale Kingston pulls the trigger to end his uncle Rudy’s life within the episode’s first 60 seconds, making it the show’s quickest on-screen killing by a distance. The scene is masterfully constructed and perfectly scored with a chilling strings crescendo accentuating the stunning crime as the camera jumps between the faces on the paintings on the walls. It’s shock and awe TV at its 70s’ best.
66. Markham’s near miss – Blueprint for Murder
A chirpy Elliott Markham is racing to the construction site with Bo Williamson’s long-dead body in his trunk when he runs into trouble. A blown tyre leaves him narrowly avoiding a nasty smash but just when he thinks he’s gotten away with it, a traffic cop pulls up behind him.
After congratulating Markham on his fine driving skillz, the cop then invites him to open the dead body-filled trunk so he can help replace the tyre. The dastardly architect is forced to think on his feet to avoid being caught red-handed.
It’s a scene of unrivalled tension – and one that was originally written for Murder by the Book as a means of explaining why it took Ken Franklin so long to get back to LA from San Diego. Although it was cut for timing reasons then, it’s heartening that a scene this good wasn’t lost to history.
65. Ice-cool killer – Double Exposure
Double Exposure doesn’t just feature one of the show’s most fiendishly clever murder set-ups – it also tops it off with what is probably the single most stylishly presented killing of the entire series.
Robert Culp looks movie-star cool when pulling the trigger, while his fluid motions in the aftermath portray a man with an ice-cold temperament whom you can just sense isn’t going to put a foot wrong. We know very little about Dr Bart Kepple at this early stage but already it’s crystal clear that he’s got the poise and intelligence to give Columbo a damn good run for his money – something that augurs extremely well for the rest of the episode.
64. This far and no farther – The Conspirators
After concluding what was arguably the crowning achievement of his career in preventing a shipment of guns reaching enemy hands on top of catching a murderer, Columbo has every right to indulge in a celebratory drop of Full’s Irish Dew – even if his drinking partner is murderer and terror supporter Joe Devlin.
When he said the closing line “This far and no farther,” Peter Falk didn’t know whether Columbo would ever return to screens but with negotiations still up in the air over an eighth season, the line gave the series an understated yet unmistakable sense of finality.
Given that it would be another 11 years before Columbo would next appear in a new episode, this beautiful final exchange made for an entirely apt send-off for one of the most cherished TV characters of all time.
63. Unrepentant Kay – Make Me a Perfect Murder
Kay Freestone has had a day to forget. Having to desperately retrieve a gun from an elevator roof was followed up by her being ruthlessly sacked by her big boss for an array of questionable decisions. Columbo placing her under arrest for murder was simply the pièce de résistance of a spectacularly bad day at the office.
Anyone expecting her to break down with emotion would have been disappointed, though, as Kay matter-of-factly accepts her fate. A born survivor, Kay is down but not out and as she tells Columbo that she’ll fight on and that she might even win, it’s very likely that a high proportion of viewers are hoping she’ll do precisely that.
Steven Moffat expert analysis: “Trish Van Devere is so good, and the writing so precise, that it’s probably the only example of a murderer with whom you can sympathise without feeling sorry for. She’s deadly cold and properly bad but you get her. Empathy without pity. That’s top-class writing.”
62. Milo’s downfall – An Exercise in Fatality
Columbo can’t stand Milo Janus – a fact he doesn’t even try to hide, such is the low esteem he holds the man in. It makes the gotcha scene spectacularly satisfying, for both the viewer and the Lieutenant, as Columbo reveals a lengthy list of damning evidence.
From the broken alibi and shoelace knots that prove somebody else dressed Gene in his gym gear, to the splices found in a tape recording of Gene ringing the office, Columbo has compiled a complete case that will give Janus no wriggle room in a court of law.
The best bit? Janus’s own sworn testimony that Gene was already in his gym clothes during the phony conversation after the murder is what will prove to be his undoing. “You tried to contrive a perfect alibi, sir,” Columbo chides with no small amount of pleasure. “And it’s your perfect alibi that’s going to hang ya.” That’s karma, baby!
61. Carsini unleashed – Any Old Port in a Storm
There’s a distinct lack of brotherly love in evidence when Adrian and Ric Carsini clash horns in the early moments of Any Old Port in a Storm, with each man’s utter disdain for the other gloriously portrayed.
What begins as a spat swiftly escalates to murderous fury as Ric goads Adrian for putting his pursuit of excellence ahead of profit, and finally reveals that he will sell the land the family vineyard is on to mass-market wine producers the “69 cents per gallon Marino Brothers“. The cornered Adrian comes out fighting and dashes Ric over the head in a desperate bid to protect the only thing in his life that matters to him.
A scene of great drama is enhanced by a truly vintage script that allows Donald Pleasence’s clipped English accent to be put to wonderful use. In quick succession we hear Adrian describe Ric as an “adolescent imbecile“, a “muscle-bound hedonist” and an “ignorant Neapolitan” during a series of put-downs as enjoyable as any in the series’ history. It’s a real treat for the senses.
I’ve said it before and will say it again: Donald Pleasence gives Carsini such richness, and appears so comfortable in his skin, that it’s incredible to think he was a one-off character and not a role he’d been perfecting for years.
“A scene of great drama is enhanced no end by a truly vintage script.”
Well ladies and germs, that’s Part 4 done and dusted! See you on Sunday as we roll down the list from #60-51. If you get the chance to share this article on your social channels, please do! That way we can ensure as many Columbo fans as possible can join in the fun.
Until we meet again, play nice and don’t do anything that Mrs Columbo wouldn’t approve of. She cries easily you know…
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.