NB – If you’ve missed any of the previous instalments of the top 100 countdown, head here to check ’em out first.
Gee whizz, I was only a teen when this series of articles started, but the countdown of the top 100 Columbo scenes of the 70s officially ends here.
Every scene you see listed below cropped up in the top 20 lists of multiple members of the expert panel, with the top 4 moments particularly strongly represented. When you see them, I’m sure you’ll agree that some of the finest moments in the history of television have been chronicled here.
So without further ado, I invite you to get stuck in and enjoy this final selection. Can you resist the urge to scroll all the way down to find out the number one before reading the rest? If so, I congratulate you on your iron will. Enjoy…
10. Parting is bittersweet – Any Old Port in a Storm
Peter Falk’s own favourite scene from his favourite Columbo episode, the mutually respectful exchange of compliments and wine in Columbo’s car as he drives Adrian away from his winery to a life behind bars is a beautiful thing.
Two perfectionists, from completely different sides of the tracks, have found a genuine understanding and appreciation of the other. It’s the sort of TV moment that almost doesn’t exist any more and is all the more poignant because of it.
Mark Dawidziak expert analysis: “Perhaps Columbo never felt so unhappy about catching a murderer. In the course of his investigation, the dogged Lieutenant comes to appreciate Adrian Carsini’s love of the vineyards and honored traditions.”
9. Live cooking at its best – Double Shock
The legendary live cookery scene was almost entirely ad libbed by Peter Falk and Martin Landau – and it’s a masterclass in natural, comedic acting.
Called up on stage to be a reluctant assistant to Dexter Paris, Columbo is initially abashed and stunned, and barely able to string a coherent sentence together – much to the delight of the live studio audience. Yet he warms to the task, making a few wisecracks and milking the audience applause as his confidence grows.
The nature of the scene made it perfect for ad libbing, and Falk, in particular, absolutely nails it. He’s as warm and charming as we ever see him – just look at his face light up as he and Landau revel in playing off one another. This sense of fun is genuine and contagious. I, for one, find it impossible not to smile along. This is Columbo at his most adorable.
If this scene doesn’t warm the cockles of your heart, then I’m sorry to break it to you this way, but you’re probably already dead…
8. The hypothetical debate – Prescription: Murder
The extended ‘hypothetical’ conversation about the killing of Carol Flemming is the Granddaddy of many similar Columbo encounters down the years. It was much emulated but never bettered in the show’s 35-year life-span.
Adopting the ‘You know I did it; I know you know I did it; but you’ll still never catch me’ approach, Flemming oozes arrogant self-assuredness as the two men mentally size each other up. With such conversational gems as Flemming telling Columbo he’s “a sly little elf”, it’s a scene boasting great writing and fine performances from the contrasting leads, and which leaves the viewer justifiably asking: how on earth is the Lieutenant going to outsmart this guy?
Dean Matthews’ expert analysis: “When the doctor perfectly dissects the Lieutenant’s character, it sets up every single episode of Columbo to come. Time and again we will meet self-assured, brilliant, suave, sophisticated villains trying to get away with murder and underestimating Columbo. And here, even though Flemming knows exactly how his opponent ticks, even when he knows just how shrewd and brilliant the Lieutenant is, he still succumbs. This is quintessential Columbo, and this is why the scene is so compelling more than 50 years after it first aired.”
7. The quickest way down – The Greenhouse Jungle
Peter Falk showed he’s an ace at physical comedy in Greenhouse Jungle’s legendary hill fall scene. Directed towards the ‘quickest way down’ to the crash site by the eager Sergeant Wilson, Columbo’s perplexed look at the steep slope is hilarious in its own right, but it can’t compare to the mad capering that follows as the Lieutenant careers down the hill and ends up in a near neck-breaking heap at the bottom. “I’ll tell ya – it was the quickest way down,” he concedes as Wilson helps him to his feet.
With multiple different camera angles in play, we’re clearly shown that Peter Falk did his own stunts – and it’s a helluva performance in which he appears to have risked genuine physical harm. Whether it was scripted or thrown in as an ad lib by Falk has never been revealed, but it’s become an iconic Columbo moment – and one that is universally cherished by fans.
Jenn Zuko expert analysis: “As a stunt person myself, this is one of my favourite Columbo scenes and one of the very rare stunts to appear in the show. I’m convinced that this is an actual fall, and that Falk really lost his balance and fell badly. You can see the moment where his weight goes too far forward and he can’t catch up with it—any of you who grew up hiking will know exactly how that feels, and how hard it is to regain your balance.
“The landing, too, looks hard and painful. You can see that he tries to land on his feet but ends up crash-landing on his knees before rolling over. In other words, it’s not a self-cushioning fall the way a pro would set it up. I think he was supposed to appear to lose his balance and run down the hill too fast, but not to actually lose his balance and fall. I imagine he wouldn’t have wanted to do another take after landing like that! Ouch!”
6. “I knew you could do it.” Now You See Him
The entire scene of Columbo volunteering to assist Santini during his live act represents entertainment at its finest. So determined is he to test the magician’s lock-picking skills that Columbo virtually storms the stage, giving Santini no option but to accept his presence – a decision that plays a major part in sealing his fate.
The array of card tricks Santini plays on Columbo is delightful enough but the piece de resistance is the tense build-up to Santini escaping from the unbreakable handcuffs. As the camera draws in on Columbo’s face, we see that all the jollity has gone, replaced by a grim and intense satisfaction as his hunch that Santini could have picked the lock on Jerome’s office door is proved right.
From this point on, you just know there’s no way Santini’s going to elude the detective’s clutches – whether he’s a master of escapology or not.
Alex Deane expert analysis: “For Santini to fail to escape from the cuffs would mean failure before his audience. Unfortunately for him, to succeed will prove to Columbo that he broke into Jerome’s office on the night he was murdered. Columbo closely watches the meaning of the moment as it impacts upon him, and then, as the audience whoops at his release from the chains, he winks and says – with perhaps the best double meaning in television – “I knew you could do it.” It’s probably the series’ most perfect cinematic moment.”
5. Murder by the Book’s opening minute
An intro so arresting it still has the power to amaze nearly 50 years later, Murder by the Book‘s opening minute is a masterclass in film-making.
All due credit to director Steven Spielberg and director of photography Russell Metty for the dizzying opening pull-back shot that immediately provides a sense of scale and majesty usually reserved for the silver screen.
We’re also given a faultless, efficient introduction to murderer and victim within the episode’s opening 60 seconds. The diligent Jim Ferris is typing away, completely absorbed in a world of his own making. Carefree Ken Franklin, meanwhile, drives his Mercedes up the car park’s ‘Exit Only’ ramp in a clear indication that he’s a hedonist who plays by his own rules.
It’s simply terrific storytelling, all achieved without a single word being spoken. No wonders viewers of the day were riveted from the very start.
Rich Weill expert analysis: “Total silence except for Jim Ferris typing his Mrs. Melville denouement. It is Columbo serving aural notice to the audience that something special is in store.”
4. “LIQUID FILTH!” Any Old Port in a Storm
No one reading this needs to be told why this is a great scene. The Carsini meltdown is one of the most enjoyable scenes of its type ever filmed, culminating in the explosive “LIQUID FILTH” line of legend – a line that no actor could have delivered better than Donald Pleasence.
Beyond that, though, the scene has many aspects to treasure: Carsini’s surprise and delight at Columbo’s wine selections, and his masterful warning to Karen not to smoke and ruin the vintage port; Vito Scotti’s simpering Maitre D’; and the Lieutenant sneaking back in after the hullabaloo to slip the humiliated waiting staff a couple of dollars.
It also represents another superb example of Columbo knowing exactly how to pull the strings to force his suspects into action when he arranges to have the spoiled wine served. Carsini’s exemplary palate and insistence on excellence means he simply cannot resist the in-built urge to explode with rage – incriminating himself in the process.
Jenny Hammerton expert analysis: “One of my favourite lines in the whole series occurs in this, my all-time favourite episode. I laugh like a drain whenever I think of wine snob Adrian Carsini blowing a gasket over a sub-standard bottle of Ferrier Port at a fancy restaurant. I, too, am waiting for the right opportunity to yell at a waiter: An exciting meal has been ruined by the presence of this liquid filth!”
3. A flash of anger – A Stitch in Crime
Columbo’s flash of anger at Dr Mayfield’s callous arrogance is one of the best, most important Columbo scenes of all because it’s such a rare sight to see him drop the veneer and show us what he really thinks about another character’s actions and personality. Indeed, this was the first such instance in the series proper, making it especially memorable.
Genuine displays of anger from the Lieutenant are few and far between, which makes them all the more powerful. Here, it marks that the game has changed. From here on out, Columbo is out to get the doc and he’ll take no small amount of pleasure from besting a foe he so clearly loathes. And you know what? We’ll share that pleasure immensely as Mayfield proves himself to be the most loathsome Columbo killer of them all.
David van den Bosch expert analysis: “Columbo episodes are such a joy and a comfort for me to watch that I hardly ever feel any true resentment even to the worst of killers. This scene, where Columbo confronts Dr Mayfield, actually shocked me and it makes Mayfield’s undoing all the more satisfying.”
2. The downfall of Commissioner Halperin – A Friend in Deed
A truly magnificent moment, the take-down of crooked Commissioner Mark Halperin is so darn satisfying – time after time.
Halperin has fallen hook, line and sinker for Columbo’s ruse of leading him to search an apartment he believes to be Jessup’s – having already planted some stolen jewels there to incriminate the thief. And while Columbo warns his superior officer that he’s making a mistake, Halperin charges ahead in a bid to clear himself of any suspicion.
As the scene unfolds, Columbo calmly outlines why he believes the Commissioner killed his wife, leading to Halperin’s icy response: “You just lost your badge, my friend,” – easily one of the best-delivered lines of the entire series.
When the jewels show up under a mattress, Halperin thinks he’s home and dry, only for Columbo to deliver the ultimate table turn: this isn’t Jessup’s apartment at all – Columbo has rented it to complete the sting operation, and only the Commissioner saw the false address in Columbo’s files. In the space of 90 glorious seconds, Halperin plummets from triumph to silent resignation. It’s simply great TV from a series firing on all cylinders.
Aurora Bugallo expert analysis: “The final showdown with the murderer is particularly tense, and the look on Kiley’s face when he realizes he has been tricked, and cannot avoid a lengthy jail sentence, is unforgettable.”
1. The gloved-hand reveal – Suitable for Framing
When just about every member of an expert panel rates a scene in the upper echelons of their favourite Columbo highlights, you know you have a truly special, even transcendental, televisual moment. The thrilling denouement to Suitable for Framing is just that.
A moment so marvellous it’s hard not to roar with approval, the wordless revelation that seals Dale Kingston’s fate is a work of art in its own right. It’s such a clever conclusion and is arrived at so startlingly – nicely mirroring the opening scene – that there’s nothing Kingston can say in his defence.
Up until the fingerprints revelation, Kingston still believed he was in total charge of the situation. His descent from smarmy assurance to rising panic is fabulously portrayed by Ross Martin, whose lip-quivering silence when Columbo’s gloved hands come out of the raincoat pockets is one of TV’s greatest “oh sh*t” moments.
It’s spellbinding stuff, absolutely perfect drama, and I’ve long considered it to be the single-best TV moment ever recorded. I’m heartened that so many of my most-respected commentators share a similarly high opinion of it.
“A moment so marvellous it’s hard not to roar with approval, the wordless revelation that seals Kingston’s fate is a work of art.”
Well folks (sob), the countdown is over and it’s been an emotional journey. I do hope you’ve enjoyed the top 100 and are at least reasonably satisfied with how it’s panned out. Naturally, there’s no way to please everyone when compiling lists of this sort, so if your personal favourite scenes didn’t make the top 100, please don’t take it to heart. That notwithstanding, I’d love to hear from you if you believe there have been any glaring omissions in this pantheon of greatness.
I’d like to take one last opportunity to thank my fellow expert panellists for their contribution to this series. I doff my hat to 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. Columbo heroes, each and every one of ’em…
Sincere thanks, too, to everyone who has engaged with the top 100 countdown through reading, sharing, commenting and generally being a fabulous human being doing your bit to keep the Columbo legacy alive. I salute you and look forward to our next meeting as I get my episode review bandwagon back on the road. Until then, adieu…
Top 100 previous installments
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- 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) | Part 9 (#20-11)
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, or sign up to NBCUniversal’s on-demand streaming service Peacock, which offers all 69 Columbo episodes to stream for free.