NB – If you’ve missed any of the previous instalments of the top 100 countdown, head here to check ’em out first.
Things are really heating up now as we creep towards the business end of the countdown of the 100 finest Columbo scenes from his classic era.
Now that we’ve reached the top 50, we’re moving into less subjective territory, with every scene from here on out enjoying popular support from within the panel of experts. If your favourite scenes haven’t appeared in the list before now, start expecting them to crop up sooner rather than later. Now, read on! There’s a lot here to enjoy…
50. Psychedelic chess nightmare – The Most Dangerous Match
In an episode low on stand-out scenes, the screaming psychedelia of The Most Dangerous Match’s opening chess nightmare sequence is really quite something.
It’s bonkers and brilliant in equal measure and for a modern audience might seem ridiculous, but take it for what it is (a slice of kitsch 70s’ TV par excellence) and it’s one hell of a viewing experience. It’s not only about stylish visuals, either. There’s plot value in the scene as it efficiently delivers an unforgettable glimpse into the fragile mental state of chief antagonist, Emmett Clayton.
Just don’t watch this scene while under the influence of narcotics or you, too, may wake up howling, in a cold sweat – just like our mate Emmett.
Theo Solorio expert analysis: “As trippy as this opening scene is, you just can’t look away. I’m sure that many of us, even people my age (22), can appreciate the total weirdness of this nightmare sequence as it’s very different from anything you’d usually see in the show. Though I can imagine it catching someone off guard if seeing it for the first time, the colors and imagery are wonderfully creative.”
49. Off into the bright blue yonder – Last Salute to the Commodore
Beautifully filmed and scored, Columbo’s farewell in Last Salute would have graced any episode. That it rounds out one of the least-loved of the Lieutenant’s 70s’ adventures makes it all the more exceptional.
The on-running gag throughout the episode is that Columbo is giving up the cigars. In real life, the rumour was that Falk was leaving the show. So the ‘I thought you were quitting’ question put to Columbo by Sergeant Kramer, and the Lieutenant’s response of ‘not yet… not yet…’ had a delicious double meaning, leaving the door ajar for a sixth season.
Had it all ended there, Columbo rowing off into the bright blue yonder would have marked a fitting and poignant closure for the series. If the whole episode had matched the tone of this scene, Last Salute could have been a belter. Oh, for what might have been…
48. The Great Columbo – Now You See Him
Columbo often sets elaborate traps to draw out his suspects but he rarely indulges in theatrics of his own. Here, however, he revels in a touch of showmanship that even Sherlock Holmes would have approved of.
After Santini uses his magic skillz to incinerate an incriminating letter in which he’s said to be a former Nazi SS Guard (his motive for murder), Columbo produces some sleight of hand of his own to conjure up another copy of the letter. And another. And another. Even the guileless Sergeant Wilson joins in the fun in one of the series’ most memorable – and shamelessly flamboyant – finales.
47. Joan weathers the storm – Prescription: Murder
It’s not only Dr Ray Flemming who underestimates Joan Hudson. Columbo thinks that he can turn up the heat on her and get her to crack through shouting accusations at her in the workplace. He’s wrong.
Although she comes close to capitulating, Joan pulls herself together and refuses to give Columbo the hard evidence against Dr Flemming that he’s after. Even he has to admit that her resolve surprised him but he makes it perfectly clear that this is just the beginning. Sooner or later, he will get what he wants from her – and he’ll make her life merry hell until that time. For now, though, it’s honours even. Well done, Joan…
Dean Matthews expert analysis: “Columbo loses his temper and we see some true grit. It’s nice that such outbursts were rare, but I would have been happy to see this part of his personality show itself a little more often. He arguably ended up being too bumbly and friendly but I always loved seeing the ruthless side to him too.”
46. Edmund’s revenge – Try & Catch Me
Ignore the fact that it represents pretty dire police work to have not uncovered this mystery before now, and instead marvel in the dramatic reveal of Edmund gaining beyond-the-grave revenge on Abigail Mitchell.
Knowing he was almost certain to die a lingering, horrible death, Edmund had the poise of mind to scratch a death-bed confession message on a page of manuscript using a burnt match and stash it in the light bulb fixture of the walk-in safe where he was imprisoned.
Columbo finding the hidden note is great theatre and it’s a conclusion that would be absolutely apt in one of Abi’s own murder mystery novels. Just as compelling, this gives way to another golden moment between the killer and Columbo when, despite understanding why she did it, he refuses to consider turning a blind eye to the crime.
Featuring outstanding performances from Peter Falk and Ruth Gordon, and a really marvellous score by Patrick Williams, this is a scene as gripping today as when it first aired in 1977.
Aurora Bugallo expert analysis: “A standout episode replete with mystery, tension, and wonderful wit, the best moment for me has to be the final, heartfelt scene between two extraordinary actors.”
45. Keeping up with the Janus – An Exercise in Fatality
Too many cigars and too much chilli take their toll on Columbo when a Q&A session with Milo Janus takes an unwelcome twist. Collaring Janus during his morning workout at the beach, Columbo is unwittingly drawn into a long and arduous jog across punishing sands while fully attired in his usual wok outfit – raincoat and all.
The red-faced and sweaty Lieutenant that emerges at Janus’s home at the end of the jog is a spent force, while his foe symbolically remains bursting with energy. Luckily for Columbo, cracking the case is a marathon, not a sprint – and in the long run, we can be confident he’ll ultimately prevail.
Theo Solorio expert analysis: “Scenes like Columbo trying to keep up with the ever-athletic Milo work well because they make him more relatable to viewers. Even after he catches up to Milo at the pool, Columbo takes a long time to catch his breath and the discreet dumping of the sand out of his shoe is so funny! This scene always makes me laugh because it feels so authentic.”
44. Bills are distracting – Murder by the Book
Cool customer Ken Franklin believes he’s several steps ahead of the police when he dumps the body of partner Jim Ferris on his own front lawn in what he wants to be considered the action of a professional hitman. But he’s too cool and collected for his own good, ultimately betraying himself in the process.
In the act of phoning in the ‘crime’ to the police, Franklin casually opens his own mail. Columbo doesn’t witness that act, but he does find the open mail when nosing around the house later – and leaves Franklin in no doubt that he considers it significant. “Bills are distracting,” he says knowingly as he leaves, leaving a flapping Franklin digging for a suitable response. From now on, Franklin is Columbo’s only viable suspect – and he only has himself to blame for it.
43. What did you pay for those shoes? The Most Crucial Game
It’s one of the series’ most iconic lines, giving us both an insight into the mind of Lieutenant Columbo – and of Peter Falk himself.
Viewed from the perspective of Columbo, we have a typical example of the detective wishing to both disarm and unsettle his quarry – in this case Wagner family lawyer, Walter Cunnell. After expressing his desire to ask Cunnell a ‘personal question’, Columbo ignores the case at hand to ask: “What did you pay for those shoes?” A stuttering Cunnell is completely thrown.
Reading between the lines, you know the Lieutenant has thrown him this curveball in order to allow the lawyer to underestimate his mental prowess: a classic Columbo move. From Falk’s point of view, this was another classic gambit – that of throwing in an unexpected ad lib to see how his fellow actors dealt with it. It all adds up to being an ostensibly throwaway line that has earned its place in the pantheons of TV greatness.
42. A good walk spoiled – Double Exposure
In one of the series’ finest examples of the cat-and-mouse chase, Columbo crashes Dr Kepple’s golf match to pile the pressure on his chief suspect.
Columbo doesn’t merely annoy Kepple here, he properly rattles him for the first time, leading the motivational research guru to chop his ball all over the course as he struggles to regain his composure. Kepple even shows his true colours by openly cheating, flinging his ball out from beside a tree to play it more easily. Anyone who plays golf will know that those who break the game’s moral code absolutely cannot be trusted. For all his sense of superiority, Kepple is amongst the lowest of the low.
Recovering from his shock, Kepple finally hits a good one up to the green. “For a while there I thought I was going to spoil your game,” says Columbo. “Not a chance Lieutenant,” the now-chipper Kepple clucks as he turns his heel on the detective.
It’s been a high-stakes game between Columbo and Kepple all the way and despite a wobble here, it looks like Kepple firmly has the upper hand once again. His downfall, when it comes, will be extra sweet because of it.
41. Enter Goldie – Blueprint for Murder
You want impact? You got it with Goldie, whose sass, style, and straight talking illuminate every scene she graces – not least her early introduction to viewers.
When Columbo first meets Mrs Bo Williamson V1.0, she’s partially clothed on a masseuse’s table – leading, predictably, to much eye-averting embarrassment from the abashed Lieutenant. Recognising Columbo’s shy nature, Goldie invites him to look away as she dons a kimono lest she ‘corrupt’ him. Yet the two are swiftly firm friends – at Goldie’s insistence. “My friends call me Goldie, and since I’m standing here practically naked with you, you better be my friend.”
Coming from an era when girl power as we know it was a distant prospect (Charlie’s Angels wouldn’t hit screens for another five years), Goldie is a welcome breath of fresh air and quite unlike any Columbo character we’ve ever met. It raises the question: how good would Janis Paige have been as a Columbo killer in her own right? Judging by this performance, very good indeed.
Jenn Zuko expert analysis: “Every single thing Goldie does in this episode is incredible. Her wardrobe and her personality are goals! She is an icon and I just love the confident way she introduces herself to Columbo.”
“You want impact? You got it with Goldie, whose sass, style, and straight talking illuminate every scene she graces.”
Well folks, we’re another 10 scenes closer to finding out what our panel believes is the greatest Columbo moment of them all. Thanks for being part of the journey so far. See you again very soon for the next 10!
Top 100 previous installments
- Top 100 navigation page
- Part 1 (#100-91) | Part 2 (#90-81) | Part 3 (#80-71) | Part 4 (#70-61)
Part 5 (#60-51)
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.