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Celebrating Murder by the Book’s 50th anniversary

Murder by Book
Name a better opening 60 seconds of TV than this. I’ll wait…

September 15 marks the 50th anniversary of the first airing of Columbo Season 1 opener Murder by the Book – and it remains one of the most compelling pieces of episodic television ever made.

Directed by 24-year-old Steven Spielberg, then merely a promising new kid on the Universal block, the opening episode of Columbo’s first season proper helped catapult the show into the hearts and minds of the viewing public after their appetites had been whetted by official series pilot Ransom for a Dead Man six months earlier.

From the dizzying opening shot that pulls back from villain Ken Franklin’s car on the highway into the high-rise office of victim Jim Ferris, Murder by the Book grabs the attention and holds it tight for 75 thrilling minutes. Through Spielberg’s lens, we become part of proceedings through long, continuous scenes and extreme close ups, while the numerous POV shots help everything seem as large as life on the small screen. In essence, the viewer is injected into the action to become an eyewitness to Franklin’s murderous ways.

Peter Falk Steven Spielberg
Falk and Spielberg – a match made in heaven!

Series creators and producers William Link and Dick Levinson were so impressed by Spielberg’s visual mastery that Murder by the Book was bumped ahead of Death Lends a Hand to open the season. It proved a smart move. The episode was a critical hit and a ratings winner, and interest in the crumpled detective’s subsequent cases skyrocketed to make it one of the hottest TV tickets of the time.

But Murder by the Book is much more than just a master director’s announcement of his arrival on the global stage. Pretty much every element of the episode was aced, from future cult film-maker Larry Cohen’s original story concept, through Stephen Bochco’s classy teleplay, Billy Goldenberg’s spellbinding score, and the performances of the main cast.

“Arguably what most makes Murder by the Book sing is the presence of Jack Cassidy as the ultimate foil to the scruffy sleuth.”

Although still finding his way in the role, Peter Falk’s Lieutenant Columbo already feels authentically lived in, while disguising an intellect that is steel trap sharp. The range he provides between the warm, human cop who cooks an omelette for a traumatised Joanna Ferris and the shrewd investigator who bursts Franklin’s aura of invincibility by noticing he’d opened his bills right after finding his dead partner on his front lawn represents an actor at the top of his game.

However, what most makes Murder by the Book sing is the presence of Jack Cassidy as the ultimate foil to the scruffy Columbo. His Ken Franklin is urbane, stylish, arrogant, extroverted – and utterly heartless. Yet being a double murderer never seemed such fun given Cassidy’s gleeful wickedness that makes him one of the series’ most cherished guest stars.

Being wicked genuinely never seemed such fun!

Cassidy is my favourite Columbo guest star killer of all. I rate many others extremely highly, but Cassidy had the X-factor and was the absolutely perfect choice to play Franklin. Just as Donald Pleasence was born to play Adrian Carsini in Any Old Port in a Storm, no one could have embodied Franklin better than Cassidy. His contrast to the earthy Falk makes their every encounter absolutely zing.

Elsewhere, Martin Milner’s affability makes him one of the series’ most sympathetic victims as Jim Ferris, while Barbara Colby’s tragic and deluded Lily La Sanka bites off more than she can chew when she tries to make a deal with the devil himself, ultimately becoming Franklin’s second victim. Her bellow of “Mr Fraaaaanklin – yoo-hoo!” when she collars her man at the theatre is one of the series’ most memorable sound bites.

Even if the gotcha moment leaves some viewers a little underwhelmed, there is more than enough magic in Murder by the Book to ensure it’s as enjoyable to watch today as it was 50 years ago. The COVID pandemic has even helped a new, housebound audience discover Columbo, proving that outstanding writing and performances never go out of style – even in a world where a slow-paced, talky show seems something of a relic from a by-gone age.

That’s the power of Columbo, and Murder by the Book is one of its most essential chapters, making it one of the most important television episodes ever filmed. A thing of beauty is a joy forever, and I dare say that Murder by the Book will remain just as captivating for the discerning viewer of 2071 as it is for us today.

View Murder by the Book in full below

Courtesy of the official Columbo YouTube channel

What are your recollections of viewing Murder by the Book for the first time? Share your thoughts on this epic viewing experience in the comments section below. You can also read my full review of the episode here.

To mark the 50th anniversary of Murder by the Book’s first airing, a new book, Shooting Columbo, also goes on general release on September 15. You can read all about the book here, but I can assure you all that it’s a fantastic read and full of behind-the-scenes information never previously published. There’s a link to the book (and some others) on Amazon below (will ship globally), but you ought to be able to ask your local bookshop to stock it too, so everyone’s a winner!

And if that isn’t enough for you, you can also get your hands on a new, limited edition celebratory Murder by the Book artwork, created by ace illustrator and movie poster creator Tony Stella. The stunning work is pictured below and prints can be purchased via Tony’s website – along with several other splendid Columbo pieces that even Dale Kingston would approve of. It will sell out quickly, so get amongst it ASAP!

Dear Santa, I’ve been a VERY good boy this year…

As a general update for long-time readers, please accept my sincere thanks for the many on-going messages of support I continue to receive regarding my daughter’s health. She’s had a horrid few weeks, with lots of illness and painful side effects to chemo and radiation treatment, but she keeps bouncing back we’re hopeful she’ll be fully recovered before Christmas. I can’t be sure when the episode reviews will get back on track, as I just don’t have the time to devote to the cause anytime soon, so thanks for your patience and kind thoughts!

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Ain’t nobody yoo-hoos quite like Lily La Sanka
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24 thoughts on “Celebrating Murder by the Book’s 50th anniversary

  1. 50 years ago, isn’t that something. Never thought I would be around half a century after so many movies, songs, TV shows of the era of my youth but here it is.
    Timeless episode despite the typewriters, landline pay phones and other dated technology.

    • Much as I like the episode there are some plot holes that always puzzled my. For instance there is the clue of the real writer writing down the exact plan that Franklin uses to kill him, which is found later by Columbo. Yet when the time comes he falls right into the trap which Franklin sets, even calling from the murder scene to lie to his wife which is quite against his nature.

      • Hence the beauty of the “deja vu” scene, which resonates far more in retrospect than when we first see it. Jim only has a very dim memory of this plot idea (because, as we learn in the final lines, it was Ken’s idea, not his; all Jim did, as was his habit, was quickly jot it down — more than five years earlier).

        It all makes perfect sense.

  2. The episode with patrick o neal
    A the body in the trunk is blueprint for murder , one of the slightly underrated episodes and
    More enjoyable of the70s run for

  3. Several online articles are now popping up for the 50th Anniversary. They’re pretty straightforward, and I won’t reference all of them, but this one, on the site Everything Zoomer (https://www.everythingzoomer.com/arts-entertainment/2021/09/15/columbo-turns-50-why-the-legendary-detective-series-became-an-unexpected-pandemic-favourite/) gets in plugs/links for this here Columbophile blog, CP’s twitter feed, David Koenig’s “Shooting Columbo” and Mark Dawidziak’s “Casebook” – that’s the Grand Slam of Columbo writings!

  4. I was watching the Making Of My LIfe is Murder (an Aus/NZ murder mystery starring Lucy “Xena” Lawless) and several of the cast and crew were asked what their favourite detective show is. “Columbo” “Columbo” “Columbo”.

  5. OMG, welcome back! And hope all is well. What a wonderful anniversary, and this episode still remains my favourite even though it was the first (well almost the first) and in my view, Jack Cassidy’s best performance. I still think this had a lot to do with Steven Spielberg, and I’ve just finished watching Make me a Perfect Murder and I really think he should’ve been name checked rather than Francis Ford Coppola.
    Do let us know how you are with your family, and look forward to your continuing posts.

  6. I can confirm the Koenig book is well worth it, ordered on kindle yesterday and already half way through it – I had no idea the length and depth of all the battles/arguments that went on behind the scenes.
    It has to be said Peter Falk could occasionally be a right pain in a** especially during that first series.
    Glad you highlight the Catz book, ‘Under Glass’ as while his episode reviews are not in your league it is a good book for analysing and deconstructing the Columbo format.
    Best wishes to you and your daughter CP.

  7. A top 5 episode for me, Cassidy is brilliant and the perfect match with Falk, not unlike Robert Culp. The “gotcha” is a little weak though but other than that it is superb. Too anyone who hasn’t seen Columbo, just suggest a Culp or Cassidy episode.

    • I didn’t find Murder by the Book all that outstanding. It was a good episode. Cassidy was brilliant as was Miss Colby. However, there was nothing to set it apart. The setting was bland Los Angeles, there were no temper outbursts by the lieutenant, and no sneaky “gotcha.” I would rank Dawn’t Early Light, Friend in Deed, Stitch in Crime, Exercise in Fatality, Now You See Him, Matter of Honor and Troubled Waters above Murder by the Book. They all had something to set them apart. Personally, they were more enjoyable to watch.

      • The gotcha was weak but still a top 5 for me after Double Exposure, Any Old Port and the superb Stitch In Crime. Exercise and Now u See Him are also great and Friend In Deed is number 6 for me. Kinda surprised about Matter Of Honor and Dawns Early Light, both in the 30’s/40’s for me. Troubled Waters is a blast!

  8. Very sad that Jack Cassidy died in a tragic house fire about a block away from the office building used in this episode, in December 1976. I undersand the Mercedes Benz convertible used by Cassidy was his own car, later used in the Patrick O’Neil as killer architect episode, where the victims body is very noirishly in the trunk when O’Neil is pulled over by a policeman.

  9. “Larry Cohen’s original story concept”? I’m hoping this is an example of the kind of juicy inside information David Koenig has unearthed. (I’ve ordered his book, but it hasn’t yet arrived.) Cohen gets “story by” credit for “Any Old Port in a Storm,” “Candidate for Crime,” and “An Exercise in Fatality,” but nothing for MBTB. And yet, when you listen to Steven Bochco discuss his initial work on Columbo, it’s apparent that the story was unlikely his conception. He admitted that he didn’t “know anything about mystery writing” at the time (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O2wOnLS7lqc); Link and Levinson would “plot these damn things out” and he would write the scripts. I assumed that applied equally to MBTB, but look forward to learning more about the specific origins of this episode, my favorite.

    The MBTB story concept is a terrific one. Mystery drama is full of mystery-wrter-as-murderer plots (e.g., “Sleuth”; “Deathtrap”) — including a mystery writer who uses an abandoned story idea for his crime: Frederick Knott’s play “Write Me a Murder” (his follow-up to “Dial ‘M’ for Murder”). Knott’s play also involved a writing team in which one member did all the plotting (the “key” to Columbo’s solution here). It’s a very realistic premise. Teams often divide up the work. (In the Ellery Queen collaboration, Frederic Dannay did all the plotting, Manfred Lee did all the writing.)

    CP writes that “some viewers” don’t care for the ending of MBTB. I’m not one of them. Many’s the time I will pull up the episode, scroll ahead to the “matchbook scene” (the moment Columbo realizes the full implications of Ferris having all the plot ideas), and watch from that point forward. Through the best last lines in all of Columbo (“You wanna know the irony of all this? That is my idea. The only really good one I ever had. I must’ve told it to Jim over five years ago. Whoever thought that idiot would write it down?”). Among all the 70’s Columbo, MBTB is one of only two episodes solved with a clue that long preexisted the crime. (“Greenhouse Jungle” is the other.)

    What a great episode. The more I can learn about its origins, the better.

  10. Watching it now on Prime. My wife goes nuts every time this episode starts, and I crank up the sound of Jim’s fingers clickety-clacking away on that old school typewriter…….one of the best episodes of all time television….

    • I think Ms. LaSanka got what what was coming to her in MBTB. Not Barbara Colby (who was brutally murdered in real life and the case is still cold), but the Lily character in this episode. She extorted $ from Ken, threatened his livelihood, was a busy-body into his personal amorous affairs, and worst of all, she interrupted Ken on his night out in town with an incredibly attractive dish a la mode, the lovely Anitra Ford.

      Sure, Ken deserved getting the murder rap for what he did to Jim, but horse-chompers La Sanka’s evil-doings were also beyond the pale.

      A young Señor Spielberg’s camera angle genius was evident in this episode, as well as the Night Gallery episodes he directed around the same time.

      • So you think murder is a good solution for a difficult, non-violent threat (extortion/blackmail and its resultant threat to one’s income) and petty annoyance (busybodying and interrupting a date)? Hah! Hope no one is unlucky enough to get on your bad side! LOL!

  11. This episode would be the third television collaboration between Steven Spielberg and composer Billy Goldenberg. They began on a 1969 Night Gallery pilot episode called “Eyes” starring Joan Crawford (for the curious, its on vimeo), then paired for a weird sci-fi it-was-all-a-dream episode of the series The Name of the Game (for the really really curious, it’s on youtube). But they would save their best for the TV movie “Duel”, which debuted 2 months after “Murder By The Book”, and featured a jarring Goldenberg score that synced perfectly with Spielberg’s vision of an unseen trucker and his big rig stalking a jittery travelling businessman on an open desert highway. (If you think “Murder” holds up well after 50 years, you must watch/rewatch “Duel”).

    Here’s 2 genius moments from them in “Murder”, and they both happen before Ferris and Franklin leave the parking lot. First, from Goldenberg. After the musically silent typewriter opening (#5 of CP’s Top 100 Columbo moments), Goldenberg’s theme for Franklin doesn’t make an appearance until 6 minutes into the episode, when Ken goes back to Jim’s office to “retrieve his lighter”. In “The Columbophile Casebook”, Mark Dawidziak notes, “Picking up on the typewriter sound, Goldenberg ran typing rhythms through a synthesizer and integrated the results into his suspenseful musical score.” Superb….But what goes unmentioned and makes the moment even more striking is that this is a very specific and localized musical effect, as the synthesized typewriter sounds are only used in Goldenberg’s moody theme at the episode’s beginning and end, each time when Franklin is in Ferris’ working office – almost as if Ferris is at his desk haunting Franklin’s musical piece. In other locales, such as the ride to Ken’s cabin retreat, the synthesized typewriter sounds are absent from the killer’s theme. Brilliant!

    Any genius Spielberg moment is visual, so go to the full episode embedded at the end of CP’s tribute. Roll it ahead to the 5:03 mark to begin an extended chat between F&F. They are fairly tightly framed, but between them is hanging a gawdy poster for one of their books, with the title in garish red. Go ahead, have a look….I’ll wait. [Glenn waits, amuses self]. Now isn’t that creepy and inspired? It took one of my rewatches to catch that, and the foreshadowing blew me away.

    CP, here’s hoping you and your family get the Christmas present you deserve!

  12. Hi CP. Thanks for taking the time to post a new article on an important Columbo anniversary.

    And thank you also for the update on your daughter. Sounds like she’s doing well.


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