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.
Top 100 previous installments
- Top 100 main navigation page
- Part 1 (#100-91) | Part 2 (#90-81) | Part 3 (#80-71) | Part 4 (#70-61)
Part 5 (#60-51) | Part 6 (#50-41) | Part 7 (#40-31)
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.