Opinion / Top 100

The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 9: 20-11

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It’s been a looooooong journey so far, but this is where things start to get really serious as we enter the top 20 of the 100 best Columbo scenes of the 70s.

It’s my very great pleasure to present another 10 stratospherically good Columbo scenes – better than almost any other TV ever made. Revel in the majesty below…

20. Blind man’s bluff – A Deadly State of Mind

The take-down of Dr Mark Collier is so good because the reveal is such a stunning revelation to the villain, who, until that very moment, has believed himself to be in total control.

Collier’s emotional descent from mild irritation and complete self-satisfaction through to panic and despair through his own incriminating actions is wonderfully portrayed by Hamilton, and it’s a scene that leaves the viewer wanting to jump to their feet and roar their approval.

Rich Weill expert analysis:I shouldn’t like this ending as much as I do. The Morris brothers exist solely as a “gotcha” vehicle. They are otherwise superfluous to this story. But when David Morris advises us to “pack a bulky sweater and some heavy underwear” because “the mountains can get pretty cold at night,” I doubt anyone is complaining. If any killer deserved to be duped into incriminating himself, it was Mark Collier.”

19. Racing the clock – Make Me a Perfect Murder

Shown in glorious real-time, Kay’s four-minute mission to slay former lover Mark McAndrews and race back to the projection booth is televisual tension at its very best.

The cool, androgynous calm of Kay’s countdown voice on the tape offers a terrific contrast to the stressful and hectic nature of her mission – never more so than when the dithering security guard (Columbo favourite Mike Lally) blocks her path as he eyes a dirty magazine centrefold.

The pressure is almost unbearable – for the viewer as well as Kay – and we, like her, can breathe a sigh of relief when she finally makes it back to the booth. A brilliant scene, this is one of the best, most exciting murders of any Columbo episode.

Steven Moffat expert analysis: “A superbly chilling idea. We’d seen a lot of cool, calm killers by this point in the series – to find a new way to play it out is masterly.”

18. Riley’s rampage – Publish or Perish

Interspersed over many minutes of innovative split-screen editing, Riley Greenleaf’s faux drunken shenanigans as he aims to both incriminate and exonerate himself from the killing of Allen Mallory is some of the most enjoyable television ever recorded.

The heinous act of Mallory being slain by deranged hitman Eddie Kane is interspersed with Greenleaf’s drunken rampage at a seedy bar in Encino. Lurching from shambling aggression and outright rudeness to wicked fun, this is Jack Cassidy doing what he does best as he verbally tussles with everyone he encounters before challenging police officers to a physical rumble when they find him illegally parked.

The joy of these scenes is that Cassidy delivers the lines with a mischievous smile on his face throughout. He’s clearly having a blast, and that sense of fun is absolutely contagious. And that’s really the chief take-out from Publish or Perish – the unforgettable sight of Jack Cassidy in full flight.

David van den Bosch expert analysis: “Seeing an actor enjoying himself in a top performance is always a treat. Jack Cassidy as Riley Greenleaf makes the episode. In particular, the scene where a drunk Greenleaf drives his car into the van of an elderly couple and makes a scene, is a joy to watch.”

17. The mask slips – An Exercise in Fatality

Columbo losing his cool is such a rare thing that when it happens, it really matters. And when he loses his cool with Milo Janus at the hospital following Ruth Stafford’s overdose, it’s as angry as we ever see him.

We’ve seen flashes of temper from Columbo before, notably in Prescription: Murder and A Stitch in Crime. These incidents, though, were at least partly an act designed to force his quarry into giving the game away. There’s no subterfuge here as the disgusted Lieutenant enters into a prolonged diatribe against Janus that has nothing to do with furthering his case and everything to do with letting the world know what he really thinks of the man. It’s raw, authentic and totally gripping viewing.

Steven Moffat expert analysis: “Columbo absolutely tears into Milo Janus. The mask slips and it’s utterly thrilling.”

16. Which way? Double Exposure

Double Exposure is probably the series’ purest example of a cat-and-mouse game in action – and this delicious encounter between Columbo and Dr Bart Kepple is the most perfect illustration of that.

Kepple recognises Columbo’s request to accompany him to the scene of the murder of projectionist Roger White for what it is: a manoeuvre to reveal his involvement in the crime. “Alright Lieutenant, I’ll play,” he says with a smirk a mile wide.

More fun follows. Columbo doesn’t tell Kepple where the murder took place. So, when the Doctor agrees to drive them both to the crime scene, he sits waiting at the foot of the car park ramp. “Right or left? ” he asks, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth! “You didn’t tell me where the murder was committed, Lieutenant, so I couldn’t possibly know how to get there, could I?” When Columbo indicates right, Kepple says: “Nice try, though,” to which a wry Columbo responds: “Can’t win ’em all.”

This is a battle of wits that both are taking pleasure from. It’s so enjoyable to watch. It’s arguably the best example of ‘we both know I did it, but you’ll never prove it’ interplay since Prescription: Murder.

15. Were you a witness? Negative Reaction

It’s not the first time we see Columbo employing suspect tactics to get his man (plant evidence much in Death Lends a Hand, Lieutenant?), but the conclusion to Negative Reaction is so good because it gives us genuine insight into just what Columbo is willing to do in the line of duty – and how he feels about having done it.

First, he deliberately develops a reversed version of the key photographic evidence in order to blow chief suspect and ace photographer Paul Galesko’s alibi. He then spins a yarn to Galesko about how he’d accidentally destroyed the original photo by dropping it in acid, forcing the desperate snapper to grab the incriminating camera that Columbo has cleverly placed in plain view behind him. The trap is sprung. Only the killer could know which camera was used. Galesko, stunned, realises he’s done himself in.

Despite ultimately achieving his aims, this is a Pyrrhic victory for Columbo who knows he has has stooped low to conquer. His slump-shouldered reaction at the closing freeze-frame says it all.

Alex Deane expert analysis: “At the very end of the episode, a remarkably thoughtful and enigmatic moment, all the more so for not being explained to us. Alone, at the desk at which he triumphed, his back is to us. He half-puts on his coat – and slumps. I used to think this simply a moment of profound relief for he had come so close to failure. However, it is also a moment of pain. The Lieutenant had been reduced to trickery to catch the man he knew to be guilty, bending his principles in desperation and fear that otherwise he would fail. He has prevailed – but at what cost?”

14. A meeting of minds – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case

One of the finest examples of detective and suspect opening up and gaining a new level of understanding of the other, the honest exchange between Columbo and Oliver Brandt in the Sigma Society library is a scene to treasure.

For starters, Columbo talks at length – and for the first time in the entire series – about his background, his motivations and his work ethic. From a character we know so little about, it’s a fascinating monologue.

Brandt’s response is just as telling. He reveals his anguish about his troubled childhood, and how he’s had to disguise his intelligence through ‘painful, lonely years’. At some point it was important to him to be able to associate with others on a high intellectual plane. Not any more. Brandt is no better understood by the world at the end of the episode than he was in his childhood.

The majesty of this scene is that it helps firm up sympathy for Brandt. Yes, he committed a terrible crime, but his life has been largely joyless. Despite his supposed ‘gifts’ of intelligence, wealth and a nubile wife, Oliver Brandt is undoubtedly one of the series’ loneliest and most troubled souls.

Without this scene he’s just another callous killer. Because of it he’s a fragile shell, deserving of at least some level of sympathy. It makes for a truly special exchange between hunter and hunted.

13. Hayward’s bubble bursts – Candidate for Crime

Absolutely perfect theatre, the downfall of Nelson Hayward is another of those Columbo gotcha moments that leaves the viewer on the cusp of spontaneous applause at the brilliance of the reveal.

Here, following a bogus assassination stunt, the wind is sucked out of Hayward’s sails when Columbo calmly and simply refutes everything the would-be Senator suggests to prove he’s innocent of the killing of Harry Stone.

Despite Hayward’s security entourage believing an assassin had attempted to shoot and kill him moments earlier, Columbo had taken the bullet out of the wall hours earlier – right after Hayward went to vote following a request to make some private phone calls. Columbo knew Hayward wasn’t making any calls because he was monitoring the indicator lights on the phone lines.

In the meantime, ballistics have proved that the bullet was fired by the same gun used to kill Stone. Ergo, Hayward is the killer and Columbo busts his bluster in unforgettable fashion: “I dug this bullet out of that wall three hours before you said that somebody fired it at you three minutes ago [immense pause for effect]. You’re under arrest, sir.”

Hayward can only close his eyes and say a silent prayer. Another one bites the dust…

12. The trying nun – Negative Reaction

The funniest Columbo episode of them all delivers another scene of comedy gold as the scruffy Lieutenant is mistaken for a hobo by a saintly nun at St Matthew’s Mission.

Seeking information from alcoholic down-and-out Thomas Dolan, Columbo instead runs into the Sister of Mercy, who tuts at his appearance – especially the state of his treasured raincoat, which she makes her mission to replace, stat.

A bowl of stew is foisted upon the bemused detective before his protests can be heard, and he adopts an ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ approach as he gulps it down. Finally encountering the now-sober Dolan, Columbo is again interrupted by the nun, who tries to push a new coat onto him before staring wide-eyed in amazement when he reveals he’s a police officer, and lavishing praise on his appearance, which she believes is a disguise.

Boosted no end by superior comic performances from Joyce Van Patten and the ever-watchable Vito Scotti, this scene is pure delight from start to finish. Critics could argue that, ultimately, the scene has no pay-off, because Dolan can’t help Columbo with his enquiries. But when TV is as entertaining as this, it really doesn’t matter.

11. Don’t count on it – Try & Catch Me

Similar to the incident above from Bye-Bye Sky High, we are given another wonderful example here of two episode leads establishing a level of common understanding in a beautifully written and performed scene.

Columbo clearly has his doubts about Abigail Mitchell – so much so that he’s willing to trail her to the docks to catch her off guard at a supposedly coincidental meeting. And, naturally, it’s not long before the conversation turns to subjects relevant to the investigation – and to the death of Abi’s niece, Phyllis.

“That must have been very hard losing someone you love like that,” says Columbo. “I’ve been very lucky. I lost my parents, that’s the way of the world. But to lose someone that young, that’s like being cheated.”

Sensing a sympathetic ear, Abi is suitably charmed. “I’m beginning to be very fond of you, Lieutenant. I think you’re a very kind man,” she beams. But the detective’s response would have been enough to send alarms bells coursing through her tiny frame. “Don’t count on that, Miss Mitchell,” he replies. “Don’t count on it.”

There’s no menace in Columbo’s tone, but the message is crystal clear: he may be courteous; he may understand her pain; but he’s still got a job to do – and that job is to bring her down.

“The two episode leads establish a level of common understanding in a beautifully written and performed scene.”

So, dear friends, those sensational scenes have taken us to the very brink of the top 10. The drum-roll has officially started and it will be rumbling in the background for a whole week until the final reveal of the 10 best Columbo scenes of the 70s on Sunday 19 July. Be there, or be extremely square…

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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Not feeling quite so smug now, are we doc?
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38 thoughts on “The 100 greatest Columbo scenes of the 70s, Part 9: 20-11

  1. As far as coincidences go make me a perfect murder , canditated for crime , negative reaction a nd publish or perish all aired today on 5 usa and i enjoyrd all of them but i paticullary enjoyed Negative reaction , i rate it very highly i really cant find fault in it , well paced , a double murder , a false blackmail plot , outdoor scenes
    Falk amd van dyke both on craking form and veryf unny aswell without being silly or time wasting and a cracking gotcha to crown it all off negative
    Reaction is desevedley a top 5 episode for me , however im not a great fan of candidate for crime while it good its not truly great and the humour is acceptable but its at times overun with the political aspect and full of time wasting moments , i know cp likes the roadside chek of columbos carbut i dont find it very funny but the undercover / inderpaid gag at the garage is good and could have been included in the 100 great moments list .

  2. I quite like the clown reveal scene in playback its very well done and true detective work and all harold can come up with fabricated false on the spot the story which columbo didnt buy , i would easily replace it with the chess dream sequence from most dangerous match , and i know cp loves that opening scene i have never found it entertaining but in fairness i dont think there is any other great scene except maybe for the vets phonecall so maybe the board wanted at least one scene from every episode from the seventies which is fair enough .

  3. Anyone who thinks ‘Columbo’ was a series in creative decline by Season 7 needs to watch Kay’s real-time race against the clock above… simply marvelous… Jack Bauer couldn’t have done it better himself…

    That series was absolutely good for one more gangbusters (eighth) season… damn you Fred Silverman!!!

  4. At about 1:08 when Van Patten says “no false pride” its seems her and Falk are ready to break character and start laughing.

  5. Yes both endings with hamilton include dogs and were exceleent gotchas and good episodes but while a deadly state of mind is a solid episode i actually prefer his new 90s episode caution murder
    Can be hazardous to your health
    I find it funnier and more entertaining overall .

  6. I disagree that Columbo did anything wrong in tricking Galesko in Negative Reaction. Galesko’s reactions were entirely voluntary, which is how the ruse was designed. While police have to be very careful when lying, essentially, they are not barred from doing so as long as certain lines aren’t crossed. They can not, as in entrapment, entice an otherwise innocent individual into committing a crime. They can not lie to a suspect or arrestee about their rights. What Columbo does here, however, is cleverly set up to elicit a response from Galesko that could not have come from an innocent man. Now, a good lawyer would try to argue otherwise, but I do not believe Columbo’s posture in the end indicated that he felt he did something against his principles.

    • His actions were pretty underhand. Columbo even says sorry to Galesko right before he asks Sergeant Hoffman to read him his rights. He’s really not happy with himself.

      • I don’t really see why it’s any worse than any of the other times he deceives a suspect, e.g. in ‘Death Lends a Hand’?

        • The only truly illegal and unconstitutional behavior was in the episode “Strange Bedfellows”……Police are allowed to lie to suspects in order to solve a crime, but that episode was outlandish.

            • Columbo deceives or tricks in some other episodes as well I recall. Reversing the photograph and placing many cameras to choose from. Stealing a rare wine in hopes of evaluating if the suspect could determine it was spoiled from the extreme heat.

              Some episodes though are pretty straight up great detective work…those I most enjoy.

            • He doesn’t directly lie to Brimmer about that incident. The inferring that he may have planted the evidence comes from his conversation with Kennicut.

        • Exactly. I don’t find it any more deceptive than what he did in deliberately misleading George Hamilton with the blind man’s brother (it was a lie to present the brother as the actual witness; he was not). Police can lie within certain legal limits at this point in an investigation and allowed to do so with perfectly good reason. There’s nothing wrong in using a degree of deception in order to get someone to incriminate themselves, especially for something as heinous as murder. Columbo knows this, and he also knows that he skates a very fine line in doing so, but didn’t cross it in this case. I think the initial interpretation of relief (provided above) is more accurate, although it is interesting that Columbo apologizes. Some suspects, like Donald Pleasance, he seemed to form affection towards, but he didn’t seem to particularly like Galesko. Intriguing topic!

        • Columbo’s most troublesome act during the 1970’s is what he does immediately before Greatest Scene No. 87 (“Father loves his son – Mind Over Mayhem”) — when Columbo arrests Neil Cahill knowing him to be innocent. That one crosses the line for me.

          • I totally agree…quite upsetting really…cringing, as most endings, seem to provide a sense of satisfaction as problem solving is shared with the audience with a sense of gentlemen morality. The episode broke with this tradition and was a shocker ending…I certainly was not sold on the reasoning, yet do understand the supposed necessity as last resort. Also, the robot and technology could have played more of a role in solving this puzzle…quite puzzling episode, so is certainly not my favorite.

            • Yes, same here – I found that particular ‘gotcha’ totally out of line and very unsatisfying. I struggle to believe it would be legal, let alone that Cahill’s confession would hold up in court (no one else heard it, wasn’t read his rights, etc.)

  7. Joyce turn as the nun was very memorable and funny pity the same cant be said as her role in old fashioned murder i find her role and the episode very dull and uninteresting theres also a sergeant with columbo who plays dumb a lot of the time which i dont find funny and only makes the episode worse

  8. I like all the scenes listed here i thought the dont count on it scene would be in the top 10 and i love any scene from negative reaction , my least fav of these would marginally be the blinds man s bluff whist the scene is very good and memorable i find it a bit difficult
    To accept that a top doc / shrink and level headed and clever murderer like collier could be tricked so easily nut thats only a very monor beef i have

  9. Yes kay racing against the clock is very memorable , great musical score sets the tone , i would have put this in the top 10 myself , the scene at kays childhood home is okay too , one could argue it dosent have the best of gotchas and i dislike the valerie sub plot but trish is grea in this as is patrick oneill and walter and i rate the episode very highly overall .

  10. This is soul-affirming stuff. Ten more terrific choices that remind us just how great a program Columbo really was. I couldn’t be more pumped for the top 10, although I’ll be a little sad that this fun count down will be over.

    • Well, there could always a list for the comparable greatest moments of the ABC run… am I right?

      *** sound of crickets ***

      Yeah, it would be a pretty damn short list, I know.

      Never mind… don’t get up, I’ll let myself out…

        • The ABC run has some good episodes and scenes (no genuinely GREAT ones, alas), but let’s face it, it was a significant drop-off overall from the NBC golden age… so if we’re talking about COMPARABLE (as in equal to quality) scenes in comparison to the NBC episodes, a list of the best ABC era moments would be a darn sight shorter.

          If ‘Columbo’ had got a Season 8 of the NBC era before ending it’s run and Peter Falk never again played his signature role, I honestly don’t think we would have missed out on anything. I think there’s about a half-dozen ABC episodes that could be considered pretty darn good (two of them include Patrick McGoohan, not coincidentally), but all of them would still be considered middling efforts if they hypothetically had been made during the magisterial NBC run… and therein is the difference between the two eras in a nutshell.

          When you have to substantially start mixing up the formula of a show just to keep it somewhat fresh – as the ABC era invariably did – it’s time to call it a day…

          Just my own humble opinion, of course.

  11. If Columbo playing the tuba in Sex And The Married Detective – is in the TOP
    10 – I’ll buy everyone a drink.
    Ah. It’s a 70’s list?
    My wallet remains as untouched as any incriminating evidence at a murder scene, before Columbo gets there.

  12. Kay’s ‘racing the clock’ sequence is my all-time favourite Columbo scene. Glad to see it place so highly!

    • I also love the scene when she is trying to get the gun down from the elevator roof and when Columbo hounds her on the TV screens

  13. What I’ve always enjoyed in “Make me a Perfect Murder” was the little Easter egg on the last frame of the episode. The little circle at the top right of the frame on the movie reels was an important element of the crime, as the killer needed to swap out the reels precisely when she saw the circle so that there would be no lapse in continuity for the movie viewer. On the last frame of the episode itself when the closing credits appear, a little circle (albeit a more precise static circle) clicked onto the Upper right of the screen. I laughed out loud when I saw it. What a delightful little inside-joke.

  14. “Riley’s Rampage” was great and as for Jack Cassidy doing what he does best, he was just being himself! He was a really rude guy as a person. The resentment he held for the fame of his sons David and Shawn, that really surpassed his, was a source of rage in his life. He simply wasn’t a good guy, and playing a scene like this came so naturally because all he had to do was be himself. It really wasn’t acting at all.

    • Cassidy often tended toward melodramatics. And more than any scene in his three great Columbo appearances, this scene was custom-tailored to his special flair for laying it on with a trowel. It was Jack Cassidy as John Barrymore (whom he would portray two years later in “W.C. Fields and Me”).

    • Jack was, like me and Churchill, and Stephen Fry, and many creatives out there, a manic depressive, so don’t be too hard on the guy. Knowing myself as I do, and the condition so well, we are a complete nightmare to live with ourselves, let alone for others to put up with. I’m sure Jack was like me, when he was up he was impossible to keep up with, and when down impossible to be around and angry at the world.
      I recognise Jacks performance here as a bi-polar man on an up day, zinging with creativity and that flair for the melodramatic we all have in common – I would bet he was a whirling dervish of creativity on set that day.
      Sadly he perished himself in a dreadful way in a fire at his home, possibly suicide, sadly not uncommon. Treatment options were limited back then to things like valium and lithium, long before SSRIs became a thing or the condition became properly understood.

  15. On Deadly State of Mind, I have thoughts:
    1) I really like the gotcha, but I do wish it had been slightly better executed. I totally understand why some people say that brother David could easily be pegged as a blind man, which would let Dr. Collier off the hook. But I would argue that for the first part of the charade, this is hard to assume. David’s movements are slow, but they do not seem unnaturally “Hey, he’s blind!” stiff. The problem comes when there is movement in the room, and David’s eyes do not do the natural thing – follow the movement. Watch the above clip carefully. When Columbo moves away from David and toward Collier, David’s eyes do not shift, even for a millisecond. Alone, this is not conclusive. But when Collier comes forward to approach David and reaches his side, the man is staring straight ahead and continues to do so even while Collier bends over for the magazine, steps to the side, and says, “Read a few pages of this…” The brother continues to sit stiffly in the chair, which, when paired with the lack of motion awareness, could conceivably lead one to the Blind Man conclusion. (Whether by accident or directoral design by Harvey Hart, the shot is not framed to see how David reacts in those first moments that Collier walks toward him, when the lack of eye movement would have been even more obvious to the casual witness).
    2) One might wonder why Collier is dumb enough to fall into the “We have a witness to the crime” trap Columbo sets. After all, couldn’t Columbo have produced a Playboy model, or a 10 year-old boy, or a little old lady as the “witness”? By this logic, wouldn’t Collier have then said, “That person was not there!” and given the game away, which is what he effectively did when “identifying” the blind man? No, its not the same, and this is the brilliance of Peter Fischer’s writing here. In these cases, Collier would certainly have been aware enough to keep his mouth shut, taken his lumps, and see how things played out legally. But Columbo producing a “blind man” to “prove” guilt….aha, that’s going to draw the doctor into the trap because Columbo has already told Collier that he believes he’s guilty, and the cat-and-mouse is in progress. The “blind man” gambit blinds (pun intended) Collier, who can’t resist the chance to “obviously” one-up the lieutenant once Columbo produced brother Dave.
    3) Personally, I think this episode would have benefitted by a re-write and having Collier’s hypnotic killer phone call to Nadia be the first murder and not the second. I know that some folks find that murder a bit far-fetched, but Columbo magically finding a tiny lighter flint nub in the carpet is, frankly, boring. Much more interesting would be, 20 minutes into the ep, Columbo seeing the Nadia murder scene and thinking about those “loose ends” (stripping naked, the bundled valuables in the shoe, the phone off the hook) before Collier even makes his appearance. Then, when the doctor inevitably shows up, Columbo could start putting the puzzle pieces together. As it is, Columbo already suspects Collier, so he’s inclined to come to the conclusion that the murder scene shows that a psychological weapon was used.

  16. It is really interesting that George Hamilton acts 2 times as a killer in the Columbo TV show, and both gotcha scene have a dog. 🙂 The best friend of the man. 🙂


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