Nothing quite gives away a killer’s level of desperation than seeing them square up to Columbo with a good old threat to report him to his superiors.
The dastardly killers believe that such tough-talking will take the wind out of the bumbling detective’s sails and intimidate him into taking a different line of inquiry. We viewers know better, though, and can cherish the fact that Columbo is several steps ahead of them in solving the case, and that they are well and truly rattled.
There are, however, occasions when the Lieutenant’s conduct falls short of what most folk would consider ideal. And while we know he’s pure of heart, there are times when his methods and actions could be considered questionable, if not utterly inappropriate. That’s what I’m considering today.
“While we know Columbo is pure of heart, there are times when his methods and actions could be considered questionable.”
Before you start reading, I must point out that the aim of this article is FUN, not about bashing the Lieutenant too seriously for his lapses in judgement. As you know, no human alive loves Columbo more than I, so do take this all with a pinch of salt.
As a final aside, these are in no particular order except for the top three, which really ought to have led to internal enquiries taking place within the homicide department of the LAPD. I’ve also limited myself to one selection per episode to avoid the creep-fest that is Last Salute to the Commodore overly dominating the list.
Got that? Good. Then read on…
The funeral crasher – Negative Reaction
The sheer lack of respect Columbo shows at the funeral of Frances Galesko is beyond frustrating, as the detective ruins a solemn occasion by taking happy snaps of the attendees. While he claims he’s doing it in case the killer happens to be in the crowd, we know it’s a move designed to unsettle his chief suspect, bearded photographer Paul Galesko.
Quite simply, this kind of behaviour is not OK – even from as lovable a chap as the Lieutenant. Although obviously annoyed, Galesko really ought to have been foaming at the mouth in fury at the callous attitude Columbo adopts. A complaint to (and reprimand from) his superiors would have been Columbo’s just desserts – and might have prevented similarly disrespectful scenes at subsequent funerals in Murder Under Glass and Grand Deceptions.
The five-finger discount – Any Old Port in a Storm
I’m not averse to a little trickery from our man in the pursuit of justice – far from it. His planting of evidence in Death Lends a Hand and tricking Galesko into selecting the incriminating camera in Negative Reaction are clever moves I can really dig – even if they may cross some moral boundaries. What’s less forgivable, though, is outright theft from a suspect – especially when that theft is of a highly valuable, highly prized asset from a connoisseur’s cherished wine collection, and taken at a stage of the inquiry when the ends certainly don’t justify the means.
The bottle of 1945 vintage Ferrier Port Columbo pockets from the Carsini cellar must have been valued at the very least at several hundred dollars in early 70s prices. To steal this item, and then have it opened and consumed without the owner’s permission as a ruse to ensnare him, is a little hard for this viewer to stomach. I can easily see the Lieutenant receiving a gargantuan rap on the knuckles for his conduct here.
Columbo’s visit to Karen Fielding’s home, late at night, on a mission of limited importance, was also very close to inclusion in this list. The good Lieutenant was not adhering to expected levels of decency in this one.
The yoga menace – Last Salute to the Commodore
Hot on the heels of cuddling up with Charles Clay in his Peugeot, and shortly before tying the same luckless suspect up in phone cords, Columbo made a total pest of himself in front of the late Commodore’s fiancee, Lisa King, in a move that should have led to immediate disciplinary action.
Interrupting the spiritual young woman’s yoga session, he invaded her personal space in a creepy and thoughtless manner, even nuzzling up to the side of her face and neck in scenes that make for extremely discomforting viewing. A harassment claim against him would have been justified.
Of course, pretty much everything Columbo does in this episode is weird, crackpot or plain creepy. In reality, his actions throughout would more likely have seen him demoted to Sergeant than congratulated on a job well done.
Sweet Caroline – The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
Yes, I’m aware that this is actually an example of Columbo thoughtfully complimenting a character in need of a morale boost, but seen through a 21st century filter, his interactions with 14-year-old Caroline in the Sigma Society library have not aged well.
Informing a vulnerable junior that they’re a ‘remarkably pretty girl’ might sit better with a modern audience if Columbo had witnessed evidence of her being downtrodden or criticised for her appearance. He hadn’t, meaning that his comments add an unsettling element to an otherwise excellent scene.
Humouring a madman – Fade in to Murder
Fade in to Murder is an episode not to be taken too seriously, replete as it is with in-jokes and meta references to Peter Falk’s own fraught relationship with Universal. That notwithstanding, his approach to investigating this particular crime defies conventional description, with Columbo having to play along with the musings of an apparent madman to close the case.
With Ward Fowler slipping in and out of third-person references to his TV alter ego Inspector Lucerne, Columbo has to tread a tightrope in order to make sense of proceedings and to allow Fowler to dig his own figurative grave. Sadly, this type of policing has no grounding in reality and one must question why such a consummate professional chose to be complicit with such silliness.
The writers must have realised viewers would be scratching their heads at such antics, because they have an annoyed Sid Daley reprimand Columbo for indulging Fowler’s mania. “Will you stop calling him Lieutenant Lucerne?” cries the desperate producer as we close in on the conclusion. “He’s a television detective. You can’t conduct an investigation based on his suspicions.”
At that moment, we are all Sid Daley and one can imagine the irate TV exec making a stern call to LAPD head honchos to express his dissatisfaction pretty darn quickly.
The dance class rendezvous – Etude in Black
Call me a lib-leaning snowflake if you must, but the sight of a mac-wearing, cigar-smoking, middle-aged man wandering uninvited into a room full of leotard-wearing, pre-teen ballerinas sets some severe alarm bells ringing. That he’s there to grab the overly precocious Audrey is only adding fuel to the fire.
Theirs is an unusual relationship anyway, with Audrey establishing herself as the dominant partner despite her tender years. She also makes a quip in this very scene about whether Columbo is most impressed with her body or her mind – at which point a sensible detective ought to have run a mile before Audrey’s parents make a dangerous assessment of the nature of their relationship.
Rocking the dumb waiter – Murder Under Glass
A rather odd scene, and one that doesn’t portray Columbo in the best light, this is a rare example of faux aggression from the slippery detective in what is reminiscent of his altercation with Joan Hudson in Prescription: Murder 10 years earlier, with the Lieutenant getting heavy with a suspected weak link in his investigation.
Here we see Columbo roaring at timid young waiter Mario, accusing him of lying and of assassinating his uncle Vittorio. Given that Mario was already traumatised at having found his uncle’s dead body, this represents a cruel act by Columbo, and portrays him as an uncaring tool – a far cry from the kind and compassionate man we know him to be.
Luckily, poor, simple Mario doesn’t hold a grudge, because if I were Columbo’s senior officer I’d be putting a toe to his behind after this harsh treatment of a harmless and simpering youth.
3. Breaking and entering – Lady in Waiting
No neutral could have convicted Beth Chadwick had she gunned Columbo down in the finale to Lady in Waiting, as the detective is behaving in a most curious – some would say highly inappropriate – fashion.
Not only does he deliberately scare a lone, scantily clad female by rattling her window frames at the dead of night, but he goes several steps further by actually entering her home and her bedroom without invitation (although presumably with a warrant).
We all know that the good Lieutenant had no sinister intentions towards the delectable Miss Chadwick – but that doesn’t excuse this late-night intrusion that could very easily have been interpreted as him hoping to have his wicked way with her, and that could justifiably have led to his death. Yikes!
2. Married to the mob – Strange Bedfellows
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t an officer of the law supposed to avoid collaborating with the Mafia in the course of normal duties? Here, Columbo incinerates that unwritten rule by teaming up with mob boss Vincenzo Fortelli and his hired goons to draw a confession out of two-time killer Graham McVeigh.
Lacking the requisite proof needed to nab McVeigh himself, Columbo is only able to solve the case by setting up an elaborate set-piece in which he allows his chief suspect to be roughed up, held against his will and threatened with summary execution. Only under this extreme duress does McVeigh confess and provide the needed proof to allow Columbo to place him under arrest.
This behaviour is wrong on so many levels that I wonder how Peter Falk, as Executive Producer and custodian of the character, ever allowed it. Mob collusion goes against Columbo’s inherent nobility in every way, while embroiling the Lieutenant in a wealth of felonies that a man with his moral compass would have avoided at all costs. The pally farewell he has with Fortelli at the end of the episode is an insult to fans.
1. The stitching of Neil Cahill – Mind Over Mayhem
If his antics in Strange Bedfellows were more dangerous, Columbo’s stitch-up of the troubled and completely innocent Neil Cahill in order to draw out his murderous father Marshall was just as immoral and may well represent his most heartless act.
Cahill Junior has had enough on his plate dealing with constant browbeating by his overbearing father for decades. Being an unwitting pawn in a sting operation that saw him arrested for murder and in which outright lies were cooked up about his relationship with a married woman, therefore, seems pretty rough justice.
It’s even harder to accept when you consider it all came hot on the heels of Neil bravely admitting to having plagiarised his award-winning theory of molecular matter. This earned him further ire from his hard-to-please pappy, making Neil’s day a seriously bad one on multiple levels.
Despite Columbo’s feeble promise that Neil would swiftly be released from police custody following Marshall’s confession of murder, that’s unlikely to be much comfort for the younger Cahill who has been traumatised and seen his entire life turned upside down. It all equates to a desperately poor show from the Lieutenant, whose nice guy image takes one hell of a beating.
“Columbo’s stitch-up of the completely innocent Neil Cahill may well represent his most heartless act.”
There we have it, folks. I’d be most interested to hear your thoughts on the above list and any other examples where you believe Columbo’s superiors might have had reason to haul him over the coals, or that saw him fall short of his usual behavioural standards.
I’ll remind readers again not to take this list too seriously. You may not agree with everything I’ve written, but PLEASE don’t report me to my superiors…