Opinion / Top 100

The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 8: 30-21

NB – If you’ve missed any of the previous instalments of the top 100 countdown, head here to check ’em out first.

Ten more magnificent moments await as we creep inexorably closer to unveiling the greatest Columbo moment of them all.

With scenes from episodes as treasured as Prescription: Murder, Double Exposure, Identity Crisis and Etude in Black in today’s countdown, you can look forward to some of the greatest TV moments of all time performed by A List actors at the top of their games. What are you waiting for?

30. The tear-stained finale – Playback

Gadget lover Harold Van Wick is certain that his manipulation of CCTV footage showing the shooting of his crone-like mother-in-law will  leave him in the clear and free to continue running the family’s electronics empire into the ground. After all, as his flashy digital watch clearly demonstrated, he was eyeing up brunettes at an art show at the supposed time of the crime.

Naturally, Columbo’s inquisitive mind (and good eye) hones in on the only fatal flaw in Harold’s dastardly video scheme: his invite to the art show could be seen on the sideboard behind the mother-in-law’s dead body; yet it is gone in the rigged footage he used to establish his alibi. Ergo, the murder occurred before Harold left the building.

It’s some great detective work by Columbo, who has managed to overcome his unfamiliarity of the cutting-edge video technology to spot a detail everyone else missed. However, the real beauty of this gotcha is in the contrasting reactions between Harold and his wheelchair-bound wife, Elizabeth.

Harold’s quivering, barely controlled rage at being foiled is starly set against the shock and despair of Elizabeth’s tear-stained face. It’s a masterclass from both Oskar Werner and Gena Rowlands, giving this closing scene an emotional punch few other episodes get close to.

29. Bossing the crime scene – Identity Crisis

Featuring super-cool cinematography, Columbo’s entrance in Identity Crisis might be the Lieutenant’s most stylish intro of the whole series.

Backlit to show a wild-haired Columbo largely in silhouette, and striding through a cloud of his own cigar smoke against a backdrop of police car lights, this is a noirish classic moment for which great credit must go to director (and episode co-star) Patrick McGoohan.

Notice, too, the atypical example of Columbo bossing the crime scene from the get-go. For the first time, he’s demonstrably the figure in charge and someone who has the full respect of his colleagues rather than being portrayed as a bumbling figure whom many of his fellow officers underappreciate. After four-and-a-half series, it seems entirely apt to see a more dominant Columbo taking charge in this way – and it was a sight that would be increasingly common throughout the rest of the 70s’ run.

28. Chopsticks at the Bowl – Etude in Black

Not much beats the simple pleasure of seeing Columbo indulging in some Chopsticks action at a deserted Hollywood Bowl. Not only is it charming in its own right, but the moment also leads into a delicious, extended hypothetical debate between the Lieutenant and Alex Benedict about whether the Maestro could have committed the crime.

Benedict appears to be in control until Columbo drops in one of the series’ very best ‘Just one more things…’ shattering Benedict’s aura of impregnability in the process. Even though the death of Jennifer Welles looks like a suicide, Columbo has convinced his superiors that it was murder – and he’s officially the lead investigator. Benedict’s “oh, sh*t” expression as the Lieutenant ambles away is a terrific signifier that the game done changed.

27. Columbo first contact – Prescription: Murder

One of the most pivotal TV characters of our time made one of the most low-key entrances imaginable. There are no fireworks or great theatre when Columbo enters stage right – and it works so well because of it.

Columbo’s emergence is as as understated as his character’s nature. As Dr Ray Flemming enters his apartment after returning from his Acapulco jaunt, he surveys the crime scene with an air of complete calm – until startled by the Lieutenant wandering out from another room, his first on-screen line simply being: “Dr Flemming?”

Just as true to his nature, Columbo takes something meaningful from the encounter, wondering why Dr Flemming didn’t call out to his wife to let her know he was back. It’s reason enough to suspect the doctor, and Columbo doesn’t let up until he has his man.

Steven Moffat expert analysis: “The way the shot is framed, and the space they give it, it’s very clear that they knew what they had. It’s a quietly sizzling moment of TV history.”

26. Saving Grace – Forgotten Lady

The poignant conclusion to an episode packed with pathos is arguably the single most heart-wrenching moment of the 70s’ series.

Ned Diamond, who has been protecting Grace Wheeler from harm throughout the episode, is racked with grief as he comes to accept that his long-time love is both a murderer and mortally ill. Rather than allowing her to face what little time she has left alive behind bars, he steps up to take the rap and calm Grace’s desperately fraying nerves.

Combining gentle tones with utterly convincing body language and expressions, it’s as believable a display of love as you’ll ever see on the small screen. Forgotten Lady marked John Payne’s final screen appearance. He certainly went out on a high.

Janet Leigh is just as good at her portrayal of a woman whose mind has slipped away from her without her even knowing it. Whatever you might have felt about Grace throughout this episode, it’s a seriously hard-hearted viewer that doesn’t feel tremendous sadness at her fate here as she sits transfixed at her own image on the movie screen as her two male companions determine her fate.

If all that wasn’t enough, the scene also provides rare insight into Columbo’s moral boundaries as he allows a killer to go free for the first (and only) time in the series – something that was cleverly signposted throughout the episode as the Lieutenant went to great lengths to avoid taking a mandatory gun test.

Alex Deane expert analysis: “Janet Leigh’s killer gazing at her own imagery on screen – her acts forgotten, her mind slipping away – is the peak moment in a great and brave performance.”

25. Livid Larry – Negative Reaction

Columbo’s encounter with Larry Storch’s irate and irritable driving instructor, Mr Weekly, never fails to delight.

When we meet Weekly, he’s furious at the roadside after a driving test he was overseeing went horribly wrong, leaving the car in need of towing and Weekly in need of a lift back to his office. What he didn’t need was time in the car with Columbo – a man not known for his careful driving or the road worthiness of his vehicle.

Weekly predictably finds fault with every aspect of the process and when Columbo nearly collides with a car pulling out from a side street, his shattered nerves can take it no longer. “Pull over!” he insists, dabbing his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief and deciding to walk back to the office to avoid spending another second in Columbo’s shabby Peugeot.

Even though the scene does little to push the plot forward, it’s a wonderful and well-paced 5 minutes of screen time that I suspect was largely ad libbed and that gives both stars the chance to flex their considerable comedic muscles. For many viewers (myself included), this is the highlight of an episode packed with greatness.

24. Subliminal cut! Double Exposure

Right after Columbo catches Dr Kepple red-handedly removing a calibration converter from his office lamp, the detective starts explaining himself to the shell-shocked villain.

Admitting his admiration for the cleverness of using a converter, and for the method of hiding it, Columbo says: “Doc I would have sworn you had a gun hidden in here, and I was trying to smoke you out – but I never figured on this.” It’s then that the awful realisation dawns on Kepple. “Subliminal cut! You used a subliminal cut!” he gasps as he finally computes what drove him to his ruinous actions.

The sudden shock and awe is perfectly conveyed by Robert Culp, while the viewer can revel in one of the biggest table-turns in the show’s proud history. Epic!

23. Did he, or didn’t he? Death Lends a Hand

After artfully out-manoeuvering Investigator Brimmer into confessing to the the killing of Lenore Kennicut, the post-gotcha scene in the garage between Columbo and Arthur Kennicut is a thing of beauty.

After seemingly planting evidence in Brimmer’s car to force his hand, Columbo also hints broadly to Kennicut that he was also responsible for Brimmer’s car being out of action through a potato in the exhaust pipe. The enigmatic Lieutenant then turns tail to leave the garage while an intrigued Kennicut starts to look at the car exhaust, checks himself, then spins on his heel and follows Columbo’s lead.

The scene is wonderful on two levels. Firstly it reinforces the generally cordial relationship between these two very different men. But, more importantly, by not looking up the car exhaust, Kennicut helps protect Columbo’s aura of mystery, which will be a key theme throughout the series. We must always ask ourselves: is anything Columbo tells us true? Or does he make it up on the spot to suit his circumstances? Letting the viewer make their own mind up about what to believe is a pivotal factor in connecting with the character.

22. The ice cream man cometh – The Most Crucial Game

The “What did you pay for those shoes?” line may be the definitive dialogue from The Most Crucial Game, but the beautifully constructed murder scene manages to eclipse it.

As the Ding-a-Ling ice cream man-uniformed Paul Hanlon slinks menacingly towards his quarry, we’re treated to Jaws-esque underwater shots of the unsuspecting victim awaiting his grisly fate.

The editing of the scene is perfect. Music and picture work in magnificent harmony to ramp up the tension ahead of the fatal blow. And it’s all the more chilling because of Culp’s ridiculous costume and the absolute silence of his stalking.

21. Cigars and white roses – By Dawn’s Early Light

He may be better known for his natural eccentricity, but Patrick McGoohan put in one of the great, straight performances as Colonel Lyle C. Rumford in his first Columbo outing – and his conversation with the Lieutenant about cigars and roses represents the zenith of his performance.

It’s a quiet and highly personal moment that humanises Rumford and enables the viewer to understand his motivations, even if we can’t fully sympathise with him. Without this scene, he’s a much less relatable figure and McGoohan’s performance here is absolutely stellar.

The scene also features the series’ first example of a killer directly asking for Columbo’s first name in a bid to more fully connect with him. And despite the cordiality of the moment, Columbo keeps his professional distance when he responds by saying he does have a first name, but only Mrs Columbo calls him by it.

Jenn Zuko expert analysis: “It’s easy to see why McGoohan was awarded an Emmy for this performance—his acting is superb. You can see his incredible skill as you watch this speech in particular: the way his face changes expression when he talks about being a slob, his voice as he mentions his roses, his attempt to connect to Columbo in a profound way by paralleling their uniforms. You can sense, too, in the tension of this speech that he’s maybe considering confessing.”

“It’s a quiet and highly personal moment that humanises Rumford and enables the viewer to understand his motivations.”

Exciting times, Columbo fans! In our next instalment on Sunday, we enter the top 20! Thanks, as ever, for reading – and have a great few days until we meet again.

Read Part 9 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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20 thoughts on “The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 8: 30-21

  1. “I had a woman the other day, would you believe it, she backed into a mailbox. A mailbox. Now, that’s not a joke, that’s a fact.” One of my very favorite Columbo scenes, occurring in a cracker-jack episode packed with delicious scenes.

    • 10 great moments all of which are very good my own favourite would be the tear stained finale from playback it s very well done and very emotional with a great musical score , Funniest would have to go to the driving instructor Negative reaction
      for anyone who has 5 USA heres tomorows line up and its full of goodies

      9.10 Murder smoke and shadows
      11.10 suitable for framing ( top pick )
      12 .40 The most crucial game
      2.15 The greenhouse jungle
      3.50 The conspirators
      5.55 A deadly state of mind
      7.30 How to dial a murder
      plenty good stuff to watch tomorrow my least favourite of these would be The conspirators and greenhouse jungle but i quite like how to dial a murder and A deadly state of mind but they would still fall short of my top 10 but lots of good stuff to enjoy .

    • Quite hilarious, and Columbo just snickers……also “These people mean nothing to me” when being asked about the student/victim. Storch was perfect for the role.

  2. You can sense the quality rising. The descriptions of each scene continue to elevate the series.

    Many thanks to Columbophile.

  3. Count me as a seriously hard-hearted viewer of Forgotten Lady. Grace Wheeler is a Class A narcissist who has always had a huge ego, and apparently has always used people to get what she wants of out life. She ignores Ned Diamond’s love and devotion, blaming him for the loss of her career, and marries an old, rich man who acknowledges that Grace doesn’t really love him. She blames the younger dancers for her failure to keep up with them. She has to be the center of attention constantly. She is not a likeable person. Killing her husband to further her own ambitions is totally within her character.

    Grace’s mental decline (oddly explained by some medical technobabble) is sad to watch, especially if you’ve had family or friends go through this, as I have. With Grace, this is almost a descent into madness, as her submersion into the fantasy film world of her past becomes her new reality. Janet Leigh does a superb acting job here.

    Ironically, Ned doesn’t need to sacrifice himself for her, nor does Colombo need to let her go. She would not live to see a trial in any event, given how slow court proceedings are, and accepting the medical prognosis literally. She will not live long enough to be held responsible for the murder she committed. And of course, her lawyers would argue that she was not mentally competent to stand trial, or that she didn’t understand right from wrong. They may be right. But lots of mentally ill or impaired people have been deemed fit for trial. Grace executed a rather complex, premeditated, and effective plan.

    There are many murderers in the Colombo pantheon that I feel a lot of sympathy for, sometimes to the point of wishing that this might be the one case that Colombo fails to solve, but Grace Wheeler is not one of them. Forgotten Lady is definitely on my Top 10 episode list, even if she did get away with it in the end.

    • Completely agree whith your assesment of Grace’s character. And there is one more point that occured to me, Columbo’s decision to let her be is also irresponsible and potentially dangerous to other people around her. After all he knows full well that she has already killed one person in that mental state of hers. Who can guarantee that from now on she will just content herself with rewatching old movies and not succumb to any other crazy ideas?
      And what about the victim? Columbo’s decision completely writes him off and his right for justice, he is now sort of a footnote in Grace’s biography, that doesn’t even merit an afterthought. Why? How Grace’s state precludes police from at least officially recognising her as a killer and assuming the case to be solved? As you said it is not necessary for her to stand trial, but the victim’s rights would be respected.
      So if you think of it twice Columbo’s “humane” decision doesn’t look very good under scrutiny.

    • Thank you; I always felt like a hard-hearted hound for not approving of the ending, but you’ve explained so clearly why Columbo should not have let the charade go on. Given Grace’s fame, age, and condition, there’s frankly no chance of her rotting in jail the rest of her life; she’d be placed in a care facility, which would be much better for her (and everybody else).

    • In March 2019, when this episode was reviewed, I posted a comment pertinent here. So I’m reposting it. Apologies to anyone who read it before:

      Just one more thing …

      I have a theory about “Forgotten Lady.” I can’t prove it. Writer Bill Driskill, sadly, is gone. I don’t know what became of his files (because I’d love to sneak a peek at his first draft, outline, or notes for this episode). Nonetheless, I have a gnawing feeling I’m right.

      I think “Forgotten Lady,” as originally conceived, included nothing about Grace having an “inoperable aneurysm” or that “she can recall things from a long time ago, but she’s very shaky about anything now.”

      Why? Because of the intricacy of the crime she committed; everything she had to remember. Look at the complexity of her crime’s timing: fitting its various steps within not one but two precisely timed reel changes (without the assistance of a timing device like Kay Freestone (Trish Van Devere) used in “Make Me a Perfect Murder”). Remembering to swipe an extra sleeping pill even before giving Dr. Willis one last chance to back her Broadway venture. Remembering where Willis kept his medical file. Wearing a black leotard while slipping in and out of a white covering garment to conceal any possible blood splatter or dirt stains. Remembering to bring a handkerchief to Willis’ car, to leave no fingerprints on either his glove compartment or gun. And after splicing the film and waiting for Raymond to make the next reel change, even remembering to burn the length of film she’d removed.

      This was not a crime committed by someone who’s “very shaky about anything now.” And if you think about the “gotcha” — Columbo making the film break again, timing Grace’s repair job, and explaining to Ned how this proves she committed the crime — nothing about this sequence (up to Columbo’s line: “But I have a problem with this case”) requires that Grace have an aneurysm.

      But a healthy Grace would have made her completely unsympathetic, and I think that bothered people. So, under my theory, Driskill revised the script to add the aneurysm, Grace’s sporadic memory lapses to foreshadow the idea that “I don’t believe that she even remembers killing him,” and Ned’s final response. And while this changed the entire flavor of the episode (for the good), it did leave a huge inconsistency: an intricately detailed crime purportedly committed by someone with “a progressive memory disease that knocks out the memory cells.” Indeed, it’s even hard to imagine someone in that condition remembering new, intricate dance steps. Furthermore, if you watch Grace’s banter with Columbo about the crime, her memory seems pretty good (even as she can’t remember his name).

      To my mind, the only thing that explains this inconsistency is a revision of the original story to make Grace a sympathetic character while, of necessity, leaving her “perfect crime” and its solution in place. If someone with direct knowledge of this script’s creation could weigh in, I’d love to learn what really happened.

  4. I always took it that ‘Prescription Murder’ was Columbo’s first big murder case with the LAPD after transferring there… that’s why he’s a little more formal, in dress and mannerisms, than when we see him again three years later… but he’s perfected The Act and got it down to a science by the time we’re re-introduced to the good Lieutenant in ‘Ransom for a Dead Man’.

    Seeing these clips again is wonderful… and really makes me wish NBC and Peter Falk had been able to agree on ‘just one more’ season back in the day, alas… they were absolutely good for it!

  5. Pingback: Top 100 Greatest Columbo Scenes of the 1970s - Silver Screen Suppers

  6. First post at this GREAT website. Been lurking for a few months.
    I would assume that the great, comedic scene from “Negative Reaction” between Peter Falk and the Sister of Mercy (played by Joyce Van Patten) will be in the top 20. Add in Vito Scotti as a bum and it’s about as good as Columbo gets.
    That scene always brings a smile to my face!
    We shall see where it ranks soon.
    Thanks for providing such a great blog, Columbophile!

  7. “Death Lends a Hand” has many brilliant little moments, which can take more than one viewing to fully appreciate. It’s no coincidence that this is the only series script Levinson and Link wrote on their own. Columbo’s entrance was originally intended as his opening series scene (until the order of the first two episodes was flipped), and works so well as his series introduction.

  8. A superb group of scenes. Love that you picked “Did he or didn’t he?” from Death Lends a hand, it was a clever and great ending to a fantastic episode. You can still see the hurt in Kennicut from losing his wife, but also the slight humor and bewilderment from Columbos antics. Milland did a really good job in this episode. Also Larry Storch as the driving instructor was gold. Negative reaction had several scenes that were money. Once again great job.

  9. When I sit though interminably drawnout filler scenes whether it be tuba playing, musical interludes or serenading undertakers; it’s good to stop and remind myself that when they’re done right – and bring us charming and sometimes even important insights into the Lieutenant’s character and life – then they are never a waste of time.

    And that is more true than ever with the wonderful cameo from the poor suffering Mr Weekly. It’s comedy gold but it also serves quite an important function in that it reminds us that Columbo is a diverse character. On the one hand we know that the buffoon act is often a cover for what is of course an astute and actually hardnosed detective.

    But it’s tempting to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s all put on to fool the murderer and that in reality the warm shabbiness is a lie. But as scenes like this show – or for example him losing his cigar in Commissioner Halperin’s car – at times he really is genuinely clumsy for no ulterior reason but just that’s who he is. And that for me, makes him so much more rounded and appealing than the idea of some conniving man behind the klutz mask.

  10. Always enjoy the subliminal cuts episode, and it’s a great reveal. Unfortunately they don’t actually work, after watching this episode myself and a good mate who was at the time a projectionist at the local odeon tried out the concept when the theatre was shut.
    However at 24 frames per second, the standard rate film moves at through a cinema projector the cut in frame is clearly present as a fuzzy flash on the screen, the splicing tape ruining the frames either side too.
    Great fun for columbo though!

    Incidently the other gotcha that doesn’t work in real life is reading typing off a carbon ribbon (Now you see him), the IBM typewriter moves the ribbon up and down as it types, so the result is just a mish mash of letters rather than a readable line. Of course the machines movements are sequenced, so it could be decoded, but not read out like in the episode.

  11. I really enjoyed Patrick McGoohan’s letting0his-hair-down moment in “Dawn’s Early Light”. It rounded out a picture of Colonel Rumford and what motivates a warrior when there’s no war. It also shows a connection with and a respect for Columbo…..one warrior talking to another, scabbards sheathed and sharing their professions.


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