One of the very finest examples of a longer-running Columbo episode that never feels padded, Negative Reaction is one of the series’ most successful – and rib-tickling – outings.
The vein of humour running through it is so rich that this is surely the funniest episode of them all, with Peter Falk given multiple opportunities to show off his comic abilities. All the fun, however, masks a dark and dastardly double homicide, making the atypical casting of comedy clown Dick Van Dyke as photographer Paul Galesko particularly chilling.
There are countless moments to treasure in this one, making it one of the most rewarding episodes to watch time and again, but what are its very finest moments? It’s an extremely tough call, but my top 5 scenes are below…
5. The final insult
Frances Galesko hardly endears herself to viewers during her few on-screen minutes, her ceaseless nagging at and chiding of husband Paul painting a miserable picture of their life together.
However, when faced with her husband tying her to a chair in the dust-filled ranch, and then menacing her with a gun, she goes down fighting even squeezing in one last insult before he squeezes the trigger when she queries whether this is all an attempt to scare her with some “new-found masculinity”.
It’s only at the very last moment that we finally see terror in Frances’s eyes as she realises her husband is in earnest about slaying her in cold blood. And of course this means that the ‘divine Revere tea set’ Frances had her heart set on from the auction at Lilleby’s will be heading somewhere other than Galesko HQ.
4. Lovesick Dog
In a classic unsettling move, Columbo ends a meaningful conversation with Galesko with some utter drivel – this time spinning a yarn about how he’s taking Dog to the vet to help cure his broken heart since the cocker spaniel next door moved away.
Columbo’s suggested solution to the problem is to ask one of the world’s leading photographers whether he has a snap of a cocker spaniel lying around so a pin-up can be made to ease Dog’s love pangs. As one might expect, a disbelieving Galesko cannot assist.
It’s a ridiculous moment on paper, but Falk plays it so earnestly that it really warms the heart, while Van Dyke’s reaction, which is just the right side of polite incredulity, is spot on. An underrated gem of a scene.
3. The trying nun
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 (that coat, that coat, that coat…), 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 spoons 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 by superior comic turns 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.
2. Crossing the moral boundary
The gotcha here isn’t 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 Galesko’s alibi. He then openly lies 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 sight 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 crossed a moral boundary to close the case. Note how he avoids Galesko’s gaze and even mumbles an apology, while his slump-shouldered reaction at the closing freeze-frame says it all.
1. Livid Larry
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.
“Columbo’s encounter with Larry Storch’s irate and irritable driving instructor never fails to delight.”
Whaddya think, gang? Is your favourite moment here, or is it creating a scandal by its omission? Let me know your thoughts below.
If you’re gagging for a more in-depth analysis, read my episode review here. And if you’d simply LOVE to remind yourself of the episode’s enduring excellence you can watch the full episode in HD right here!
Until next time, compadres, keep outta trouble and keep enjoying Columbo!