NB – If you’re just joining the Columbo top 100 countdown, head here to check out the instalments you’ve missed.
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
- Top 100 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) | Part 8 (#30-21)
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.