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.
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.
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!
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!