Just one more think – the psychology of Columbo

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
Let the mind games begin!

Even the casual Columbo fan can hardly fail to notice how the Lieutenant loves to employ mind games in an attempt to bamboozle and fluster his foes.

The cat-and-mouse aspects of episodes like Double Exposure and Prescription: Murder are perhaps the stand-out examples of this, where both parties (and the lucky viewers) seem to openly enjoy the thrill of the chase in trying to outflank the other with their mental dexterity. But take a closer look into the nuances and intricacies of Columbo’s “shop-worn bag of tricks” and the depths to the psychological warfare he engages in to gain the advantage are quite staggering.

In this blog’s unending quest to provide Columbo fans with thought-provoking deep cuts into the show’s production and mythology, this guest post by regular commentator and occasional article contributor Glenn Stewart is an item to treasure. Here, Glenn lays out a meticulously researched essay on the hows, whys and whens of Columbo’s modus operandi, the leverage he gains from it and the real-world science behind it.

So fix yourself a coffee, a pot of tea or a glass of good vino and spend some quality time getting inside the head of Lieutenant Columbo like never before. Over to you, Glenn…

Dr. Ray Flemming: Columbo, you are magnificent. You really are.
Columbo: Well, what makes you say that, Doc?
Dr. Flemming: You’re the most persistent creature I’ve ever met, but likeable… You’re  a sly little elf, and you should be sitting under your own private little toadstool. You say you’ve been thrown off the case, and yet you have the flagrant audacity to come back here and bother me again. I respect that. It irritates me, but I respect it.


Dr. Eric Mason: You’re a fascinating man, Lieutenant.
Columbo: To a psychologist, sir?
Dr. Mason: You pass yourself off as a puppy in a raincoat happily running around the yard digging holes all over the garden, only you’re laying a mine field and wagging your tail.

Columbo Prescription: Murder
Prescription: Murder cast the die for Columbo’s use of psychology as a weapon

FROM THE very first case to its penultimate 70s episode, from sparring with a killer psychiatrist to a killer psychologist and all manner of villains in-between, Columbo has always been about mind games. No matter the adversary, the goal of our unassuming lieutenant has been to get into the head of his target suspect and shake loose the evidence needed to secure justice. The best episodes would feature a classic battle of wills and, more importantly, a battle of wits between antagonists. No guns, just verbal shootouts with Columbo using psychology as his weapon.

Us Columbo fans are quite familiar with the back-and-forth thrust-and-parry between parties, and the success of this formula has spawned plenty of armchair pundits who like to marry TV pop culture with their professional culture. These treatises often come with breathless titles like, “How Columbo Can Teach Us To Sell”, “Want to Write Better? Watch Columbo”, “10 Things Marketers Can Learn From Columbo”, and “What Columbo Can Teach Us About Internal Investigations”. Because Columbo uses psychology, it has multiple applications beyond detective work. (I have found no scholarly articles claiming to “Become a Better Therapist With Starsky & Hutch”).

In the application of Columbo Psychology to other professions, you’ll find a variety of labels to describe the practice. “The Columbo Technique”, “The Columbo Method”, “The Columbo Tactic”, “The Columbo Strategy” and “The Columbo Approach” are all shorthand for essentially the same thing – asking questions.

Columbophile provides a good summary of this in his fine blog essay “Life Lessons I Learned From Columbo”. Lesson Number 3 is “Question everything – in the right way… The ability to find the truth of the matter and arm yourself with the information you need to succeed is a real skill… The Columbo Method to extract inconsistencies in the stories of others through ‘repeated, temporally separated questioning about specific details’ in a non-confrontational fashion is actually a real thing.”

As CP implies, though, it’s not enough to simply ask some questions and slap the “Columbo” name onto the process. To have real psychological application, we have to know what kind of questions are being asked, and why. And Columbo’s actions and appearance have psychological application too. In simple terms, the villain would say that he’s annoying, but it’s a bit more involved than mere aggravation. Let’s look at exactly what Columbo is doing.

Columbo How to Dial a Murder
Columbo’s game face is on!

The Columbo character wasn’t dreamed up from a psychology textbook but creators Richard Levinson and William Link based him on the magistrate of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and G.K. Chesterson’s Father Brown, characters who used criminal psychology and knowledge of human nature to solve their cases. The psychology behind Columbo was no mere accident – it was clearly there from the character’s origins.

Fortuitously, viewers first see Columbo at work as he pieces together the case against cold and calculating psychiatrist Dr. Ray Flemming (Prescription: Murder). Whether by design or lucky masterstroke, Levinson and Link are immediately able to introduce us to the psychological ploys used by the lieutenant, as seen through the eyes of Flemming, who can analyze Columbo’s moves with clinical precision and tell us all about them.

Dr Flemming: You pretend you’re something you’re not. Why? Because of your appearance. You think you cannot get by on looks and polish, so you turn a defect into a virtue. You take people by surprise. They underestimate you, and that’s where you trip them up… You’re an intelligent man, lieutenant, but you try to hide it.

Of course, the key conversation highlighting Columbo’s psychological underpinnings is the hypothetical murder chat between the detective and Flemming, an exchange which checked in at #8 in Columbophile’s Top 100 Columbo scenes.

This is a perfectly pleasant little tete-a-tete, right? Although the underlying meaning of the conversation is deadly serious, the surface tone is not contentious. Rarely is there a confrontation between Columbo and suspect – and never while he’s still trying to scratch for clues. Instead, Columbo looks for ways to relate to the villain as a human being, revealed in his off-the-cuff luncheon speech honoring Abigail Mitchell: “Some of the murderers I meet, I even like them too… Not for what they did, but for that part of them which is intelligent, or funny… or just nice.” Being empathetic and respectful, and not arrogant or aggressive, keeps the target from becoming defensive and shutting down. Early on, there will be no direct conflict, no blame cast.

To this end, and to lull the killer into a false sense of security, Columbo does not want to appear to be in the superior position. As Dr. Flemming correctly recognized, Columbo wants his adversaries to underestimate him. In the advantaged role, the suspect will remain open to talking with him, perhaps giving away a seemingly insignificant clue to the crime. In her 2021 book Columbo: A Rhetoric of Inquiry With Resistant Responders, Associate Professor Christyne Berzenyi terms this “antipotency… a façade of cluelessness”.

Clearly, Columbo uses his sloppy physical appearance to diminish himself and appear ineffectual. But Peter Falk is also literally of diminished stature at 5’6”, and every 70s male villain is taller than Columbo (in Try And Catch Me, Ruth Gordon’s 5-foot height cleverly inverts this trope). Not surprisingly, psychologists note that “taller people feel more socially dominant”, and they feel confident taking personal space away from others.

Physical advantage can take other forms. When Leslie Williams first meets him in Ransom For a Dead Man, disordered Columbo is bent over in a futile pencil search; in By Dawn’s Early Light, Colonel Rumford reprimands him while stooping for evidence on the school grounds. He’ll also endure humiliating physical discomfort from his rivals via plane (Ransom), boat (Dead Weight) and exercise (Exercise in Fatality).

Psychological warfare – Columbo style

BEFORE WE plunge ahead any further, I should clarify that I believe the behaviors and actions of Columbo to be authentic – he is not simply “putting on an act” to gain a psychological advantage. After all, we see him interacting in similar fashion with innocents and his fellow officers too – up to a point. He’ll ask for a pencil and fumble around in a sleep-deprived fog sans suspect, but Berzsenyi correctly notes that Columbo reveals his more compassionate, less exaggerated character when the killer’s not around. For example, we see this in his gentle questioning of Mrs. Ferris in Murder By The Book and Mrs. Norris in Double Exposure. But Columbo is cunning enough to know how his behaviors affect his prime suspects, and if pushing or exaggerating these behaviors gives him an extra psychological edge, why wouldn’t he take it?

Although Columbo’s physical appearance is the most obvious way to signal the villain’s superiority, this is conveyed in other subtle manners. Often, our Lieutenant is overly deferential to the killer. This can come in the form of looking for approval, as when Investigator Bremmer in Death Lends a Hand hears Columbo’s theory that the murder of Mrs. Kennicut was committed by someone who was left-handed and had a bad temper: “Maybe you’re right… I certainly wish I had your crystal ball, lieutenant.”

Columbo Suitable for Framing
Columbo playing the fool helps keep arrogant killers’ guard down around him

When Columbo asks for something from the suspect, even an item as trivial as a pencil, a match, or an autograph, he is in the deferential position – the giver is the more powerful of the pair. If not approval or a physical token, Columbo might directly ask for the killer’s assistance on the case, as he does of Dale Kingston (“You’re the art critic, and I’m going to need a lot of your help… I suppose you’ve noticed that already.”) Even if not directly part of the investigation, Columbo may look to the suspect’s expertise in a particular area, simply for self-improvement and education. Through the course of the 70s, Columbo learns about wine, food delicacies, advertising, horticulture, art, and more, thanks to the wisdom conferred by particular killers-of-the month.

The Columbo Strategy” addresses workplace power dynamics, recommending that put-upon subordinates assume a role of looking to their superiors for guidance and education in a “self-deprecating stance that appears non-threatening… someone who needs enlightening.” In her book, Berzenyi discusses the ancient Greek virtue of sophrosyne, demonstrating “restraint and discretion”. Aristotle incorporates this into a theory of rhetoric – a persuasion tactic that gets those in a superior position to let their guard down (p.67). In an extreme example of this subordinate/superior relationship, just picture snotty Ken Franklin as he not-so-subtly mocks our hero’s intelligence (“I’ll tell you something lieutenant, if Mrs. Melville were on this case, she’d be leaps and bounds ahead of you by now! Let me see if I can explain it to you….”).

To enhance the superiority of the antagonist, Columbo is not averse to himself playing up the killer’s privileged position. In the popular culture, it is one of the most oft-noted aspects of Columbo that there is a class divide between the rich, high-and-mighty murderers and the humble, down-to-earth, working stiff detective.

What is not remarked upon, however, is the intersection here between class and psychology. Rich, powerful, or famous Columbo killers personify the superiority complex, and Columbo feeds this – it’s exactly what he wants. Columbo himself will deliberately point to the socio-economic standing of his target, in essence, taking advantage of their advantage to remind them of his own insignificance. A celebrated example of this is his visit to conductor Alex Benedict’s mansion in Etude in Black (“What do you pay in taxes on this place?”). Columbo shares that he makes $11,000 a year (about $69,000 today) – not slave wages, but not a princely sum compared to Benedict.

I’m confident that Columbo has a genuine curiosity about such matters, which is why he’ll additionally query non-suspects like lawyer Walter Cunnell (The Most Crucial Game) about the price of his shoes. His interests in wines, art, horticulture and the like also seem quite authentic, if perhaps embellished. But Columbo is too savvy to allow these moments to pass without also using them as ways to feed the pomposity and arrogance of the killers.

Columbo’s projection of inferiority is also seen in less obvious ways. Something as minor as his unfamiliarity with fancy soaps (“the ones shaped like little lemons”) send a clear signal to Leslie Williams that this is an unsophisticated blue-collar plebeian. Oh, and he’ll gladly peel potatoes, too.

If not socio-economic position, Columbo will puff up the celebrity status of the more famous of California’s killers to ingratiate himself. It’s always a fun discussion debating the accuracy of Columbo’s claims about Mrs. Columbo, but count me as sceptical that she’s actually a “big fan” of each and every one of the following: Tommy Brown, Alex Benedict, Grace Wheeler, “Detective Lucerne”, Abigail Mitchell, Dexter Paris, Viveca Scott, Nelson Hayward, Milo Janus, or Dr. Eric Mason (I’ll give you Nora Chandler, as Columbo called home so she could speak with her). Columbo’s motive here is to stroke the egos of these murderers to reinforce their stature and fame, just as he highlights others’ bank accounts.

Columbo Ransom for a Dead Man
Up until this moment, Leslie Williams still thought she was a step ahead of the Lieutenant

Using Mrs. Columbo to assist her husband in this fluffery is another strategic psychological choice by Columbo. Indeed, the whole retinue of extended family members Columbo name-checks – real or imagined or a combination of the two – has a very concrete purpose. Leslie Williams astutely picks up on it: “…The way you come slouching in here with your shop-worn bag of tricks. The humility, the seeming absent-mindedness, the uh [smirking], homey anecdotes about the family, the wife, you know?”

All those Columbo relatives and “homey anecdotes” position him firmly as a Good Family Man. But to the more arrogant killers, it could also position Columbo as a Weak Man, revealing a soft domestic underbelly not displayed by a dominant, so-called “Alpha Male”. Falk himself provided another explanation, saying that Columbo didn’t want to confront the villain with his own smarts, so he used “family members” as proxies, supplying the lieutenant info that could advance the case against the suspect (think of the attorney brother-in-law in Blueprint For Murder). Those seemingly off-the-cuff homey references can really be viewed as yet another way for Columbo to subtly give his antagonist another edge in the show of gamesmanship.

With the killer believing him/herself on firm footing in the superior role, Columbo then proceeds to unsettle them into making mistakes or admissions that busts their balloons. In intelligence-speak, Columbo employs psyops, psychological operations to destabilize an adversary. This can apply to governments, but also to individuals, as a way of influencing their emotions and objective reasoning. For Columbo, these psyops can take several forms.

One of the most common is the invasion of personal boundaries. This is the science of proxemics, studying the effect of our interrelationships with the use of space. Individual brains have a type of “buffer zone”, with neurons that keep track of nearby objects. Violations of personal space (also called “peripersonal space”) have a physical component – so we don’t bash our shoulder walking through a doorway – and a concurrent social component as a buffer between individuals. Disruptions of these boundaries create discomfort and tension.

Columbo Last Salute to the Commodore
Columbo perfectly demonstrating the practical application of the science of proxemics

For an exaggerated display of this, watch Columbo’s physical interactions throughout Last Salute to the Commodore (Go on, I dare you). Mercifully for all, he is usually more subtle, and uses “sensory invasions” instead. Examples of such, according to Psychology Today, would include “excessive noise, smells, poor hygiene, food or drink, and engaging in undesired conversation.”

For Columbo, this might take the form of personal questions that hit a little too close to home. Will Dr. Flemming be dining with “lady friend” Joan Hudson tonight? “I don’t think it’s any of your business, Columbo.” When the lieutenant enters a scene coughing, wheezing and sneezing, is he really that sick? More importantly, does it matter? Real or feigned, it’s an incursion into the villain’s personal sensory space.

But let’s talk about Columbo’s most foul assault on the senses – his cigars. Dr. Flemming calls it a “prop cigar”, but Columbo uses it as much more than a visual crutch. Today’s smoking laws have created an artificial buffer zone in public locales, so the impact of cigar smoking may be lost on younger viewers. But Columbo smoked cheap and common stogies from the supermarket (Mind Over Mayhem), and these were renowned for their fetid odor. In By Dawn’s Early Light, Colonel Rumford offers Columbo a Cuban by saying, “Would you like to try one of quality for a change?”

Apart from the stink, the visual cloud serves as another sensory offensive – observe Dale Kingston trying to inconspicuously wave it away when encountering the lieutenant at the Suitable for Framing crime scene. This was not Columbo merely trying to annoy a killer (unless you think that he actually suspected Mrs. Peck of offing her employer in Double Shock). But its use as a psychological weapon of sorts can’t be denied, although Milo Janus might try when he angrily declares, “You can huff and puff on that rotten cigar until next July, and you’ll never prove [I’m guilty].”

Columbo Exercise in Fatality
No mind games here – just outright dislike between two determined foes

Personal space extends to an expectation of privacy. “Not being able to take a break, or being constantly supervised or controlled are clear invasions….” Columbo is an expert at disrupting suspects’ routines and private areas, with a long list of interruptions at homes, apartments, restaurants, dinner parties, offices, boat docks, gymnasiums, airports, bars, airport bars, solariums, hospitals, grocery stores, stadium skyboxes, beaches, television and recording studios, movie sets, classroom lectures, public parks, dance studios, dressing rooms, fat farms, golf courses, auto shops, construction sites… and that’s just the 70s.

According to Onmanorama.com: “Proxemics can be deliberately manipulated in the workplace or social arena to send out specific signals to signify the nature of the relationship between the interacting people. Thus, for instance, the dominant person in a workplace relationship has the privilege of entering the less dominant person’s space without his permission, but not so the other way around… Police interrogations often use the strategy [of invading personal space]… to give the officer a psychological advantage.” Columbo is simply taking this strategy on the road to fluster his targets.

We see this immediately in our introduction to the character in Prescription: Murder when he encounters Dr. Flemming in his apartment. The lieutenant is already present when Flemming arrives after his trip, and Columbo emerges from the Doc’s bedroom (symbol of privacy) to silently slide up behind him. In this way, Columbo cleverly makes the killer seem to be intruding upon Columbo’s space, instantly unsettling Flemming using proxemics. Later, Flemming catches Columbo crouching at his apartment door, literally trying to break in on his privacy!

Even more brazenly, Columbo is found asleep (real or faked, no matter) at Dale Kingston’s pad after the killer critic returns that evening from Murder #2. The lieutenant had manipulated Kingston into grudgingly providing his apartment key without objection, and the privacy invasion unnerves Kingston, further exacerbated when Columbo violates more personal space by dipping a hand into his art bag to fondle some “water colors” and presage the classic Gotcha. Finally, Columbo gets a call on Kingston’s phone line from the police about the accident/murder that Dale had committed earlier. The pre-cell phone era made for a good excuse to have Columbo reached on a suspect’s telephone, but the invasion of personal privacy is an added bonus that through the years we’ll find Columbo often taking advantage of.

Most indiscreetly (or thoughtlessly), Columbo had no hesitation showing up at funerals, one of the most hallowed of private occasions. When he does this in Negative Reaction to spook Paul Galesko, he introduces a second “sensory invasion” when he loudly clicks photographs of the solemn service with the lame excuse of trying to find an accomplice to Frances Galesko’s murder. If Columbo had smoked at the funeral, he could have hit the invasion trifecta.

Columbo Negative Reaction
Ruining funerals is a key weapon in the Columbo armory of tricks

Such privacy and personal space intrusions were easy-to-replicate ploys that could be regularly used by Columbo as part of his psychological manipulation of each villain. Additionally, he occasionally used outlandish stunts to rattle various killers: the cigar box in a moving tram used to unhinge Roger Stafford; staging the phony suicide of Joan Hudson for Dr. Flemming; subliminal images to trigger Mr. (sorry, Doctor) Bart Kepple; “Liquid filth!”. As Gotchas or set-ups to Gotchas, these were psyops of a bit grander scale. 

Playing the long game

AS WE’VE seen, Columbo steers clear of early confrontations. Instead of direct challenging, he employs a questioning tactic that avoids accusation called “deploying discrepancies”. These discrepancies arise from using a statistical model that social science dubs “Posterior Predictive Checks”. This is the comparison between what a model predicts would happen in a particular situation and the actual observed data, which will tell if the model is inadequate to describe the data.

Columbo observes a scene or listens to a killer’s story, uses the available facts, then sees how well all of that creates the ending – the death being investigated. “The goal… is to drive intuitions about the qualitative manner in which the model succeeds or fails, and about what sort of new model formulation might better capture the trends in the data.” This is a social scientist’s way of explaining what’s in Columbo’s head and gut when he sees clues that don’t match the initial account of the murder scene: “I worry. I mean, little things bother me. I’m a worrier… little insignificant details. I lose my appetite, I can’t eat.” (Ransom For a Dead Man)

In Etude in Black, the initial explanation of Jennifer Welles’ death seems like a clear suicide. But little things immediately disrupt this model: the lack of a clear motive; the gassing of her beloved pet cockatoo; the typed – not written – suicide note. Then, it’s the mileage on Benedict’s car, and the paper placement in the typewriter. The “little things” start adding up.

When the puzzle pieces don’t fit, Columbo begins a process called Motivational Interviewing by deploying discrepancies, an approach recommended for therapists. “With the Columbo approach, an interviewer makes a curious enquiry about discrepant behaviors without being judgmental or blaming. In a non-confrontational manner, information that is contradictory is juxtaposed, allowing the therapist [in our case, Columbo] to address discrepancies between what clients say and their behavior without evoking defensiveness or resistance.” Therapists using this approach are breaking down a client’s resistance to change, but Columbo uses it to raise awareness of a problem – a discrepancy – with the murder scene or the suspect’s remarks or actions.

Columbo: Gee, I just can’t help thinking though, but…if I was in the hands of kidnappers, and my wife didn’t ask me if I was okay, uh…I’d think about that.
Agent Carlson: What’s your point, Lieutenant?
Columbo: Point? No, no, no point. Just that, uh… she’s a unique person.

Of course, there is a point, but “deploying discrepancies” means making it in a civil, non-judgmental way. Leave it to a psychiatrist to figure this out.

Dr. Mark Collier: You know something, Lieutenant? You’re a marvelously deceptive man. You know, the way you get to the point without really getting to the point.

Columbo Mark Collier
Psychiatrists like Dr Collier recognise the games Columbo is playing – but they still succumb

The aptly titled, “How To Confront Liars Using The Columbo Method” further explains: “Columbo did not accuse those he was questioning. By taking the responsibility for his confusion, he disarmed the other person — who then would slowly feel comfortable telling him the things he needed to know to solve the crime. The Columbo Method is to present the facts that appear to conflict, give the person the benefit of the doubt, and then ask questions for clarification.”

And as we all know, some of most important of these discrepancies are posed to the suspect as seeming afterthoughts, as the conversation is winding down or even apparently over. This comes from Negative Reaction, but it could be from virtually any episode: “Uh, one more thing sir, I almost forgot… uh, one more thing that I wanted to check on… um, probably not important. That phone call that Deschler made…” Columbo’s presentation is halting and hesitant, almost apologizing to Paul Galesko for bringing up such a small and seemingly insignificant detail, and the presentation helps sell the illusion that Columbo is just doing a job and not, as we know, being a shark.

Employing the “one more thing” device, also called the “false exit”, is shrewd. Although creators Levinson and Link didn’t initially intend it as a clever psychological trick – it was merely meant to add dialogue to a scene that was written too short – it brilliantly dovetails with something called the Closure Principle. Simply stated, we seek closure as a release from tension.

Columbo’s conversation with the suspect may be superficially friendly and disarming, and the questions phrased indirectly, but it has pointed out discrepancies in the killer’s story. This creates tension. Closure – ending the conversation – will release the tension. As the chat gets closer to finishing, the anticipation of closure – being left alone by that pesky detective – creates relief. So when Columbo circles back and continues the conversation with “just one more thing,” the killer’s desire for closure leaves them open to suggestions that will close the dialogue and end the tension. This is particularly true if Columbo has held back a crucial question for last. “The more ‘trivial’ a thing is, the more damning it proves,” says Psychology Today. “As an application of psychology, it’s a superb tactic and it slowly but surely grinds down the criminal’s resistance.”

Another tactic to defer closure and heighten the suspect’s tension is the momentary distraction, where Columbo sets up an important question, then delays asking it.

Columbo: And the skid marks… I mean, they were really funny… say, what is this thing, sir?
Jarvis Goodland: That is a multi-colored Cattleya bulb from Brazil.
Columbo (inspecting): You don’t say… really?
Goodland (waiting): Skid marks, Lieutenant?
Columbo (still inspecting): Huh?
Goodland (exasperated): Skid marks?

Columbo Greenhouse Jungle
We feel ya, Jarvis

Case study: the downfall of Hayden Danziger

LET’S BREAK down one of Columbo’s seemingly casual interrogations. For this exercise, I’ve chosen the lieutenant speaking with Hayden Danziger in Troubled Waters, as it has so many of the classic elements of Columbo’s psychology. The dialogue begins as Columbo interrupts Danziger relaxing with a game of quoits, throwing rings on the cruise boat (sorry, ship). They move to the empty restaurant, where Columbo explains why he’s checking out previous passengers.

Columbo: It’s the timing [of the murder], sir… that would suggest a member of the crew or a member of the band. A passenger wouldn’t know that – not on the first night, but a previous passenger would. You see?
Danziger: That’s good thinking, lieutenant.
Columbo: Oh, thank you sir.

Columbo begins by ingratiating himself to Danziger and getting his approval, putting Danziger in the superior position – or so he thinks. Discussion turns to the letter “L” scrawled with lipstick on the victim’s mirror, which Columbo long ago dismissed as a phony clue. But instead of pointing out that discrepancy, Columbo uses it as a pretext to ask Danziger about his auto salesmen cruise-mates.

Columbo: Let me tell you what’s bothering me. The gun was found in the laundry room, so whoever did this had to have had a key to the laundry room…. The criminal had to have had a bunch of keys. Or…
Danziger: A master key.

Columbo lets Danziger complete the thought, continuing the impression that Danziger is actually helping the lieutenant, and is not an adversary. As to who could have a master key? Well, through his extended-family brother-in-law, Columbo has heard of a device.

Columbo Troubled Waters
Sure, it’s all smiles now, but wait till the mind games begin in earnest…

Columbo: He’s got a tool. It’s called a, uh… a Curtis…
Danziger: A Curtis Clipper.
Columbo: Right. I knew you knew that. Because he told me that auto dealers, they use these all the time.

Again, Danziger completes the thought, and can’t object when Columbo “innocently” remarks, “I knew you knew that,” which in another context might be heard as a direct accusation. (He’ll use a virtually identical line on The Great Santini just over a year later). Instead, Danziger does the only thing he can do – he changes the subject.

Danziger: Didn’t you say that Harrington’s gun was the murder weapon?
Columbo: But he denies owning it, sir.
Danzinger: Naturally… What about the receipt in his room?
Columbo: I happen to feel that somebody planted that sir, and it could have been the perpetrator.
Danziger: Lieutenant, I would say that falls in the area of speculation.
Columbo: I don’t think so, sir… Care to sit down?

Danziger and Columbo have been in simpatico, but that changes as the ever-polite Columbo starts deploying discrepancies, explaining that the gun receipt is not a tax write-off like Harrington’s other receipts. Danziger has no counter: “I see your point.” Columbo then sweeps an arm toward the ocean – “That’s the biggest garbage dump in the world. Why didn’t he just throw the gun overboard?” Thus begins the trap, which Danziger helpfully steps into by trying to reassert a superior position in the conversation.

Danziger (slightly smirking): Lieutenant, I can see you don’t know much about ships. He didn’t have time. A ship is a much larger place than people think… He had to rush back to the bandstand so he wouldn’t be late.
Columbo: Yes, that sounds plausible.
Danziger: So, he stashed the gun in the nearest convenient place.

Danziger further establishes his expert ship knowledge when Columbo deploys another discrepancy, asking why the gun wasn’t simply thrown out Wells’ room’s porthole. This time, Danziger does have a counter, and smugly replies.

Danziger: The portholes are part of the décor. They don’t open.
Columbo: They don’t.
Danziger: No way.
Columbo: Oh… Well, you know Mr. Danziger, that’s a very good theory. That’s probably exactly the way it happened… (jokingly) You probably couldn’t tell, but I’ve never been on a boat before.

Columbo Troubled Waters
Danziger starts to get (ahem) that SINKING FEELING in Troubled Waters

They share a mild laugh as Danziger says he’ll “get back to my game”, stepping out of the restaurant and onto the deck. The killer “escapes” from the room where Columbo has been ratcheting up the tension with discrepancies, and the relief – the closure – for Danziger is palpable. But it’s only a brief moment of release, as Columbo follows him onto the deck. He doesn’t say “One more thing”, but Danziger’s exasperated and pained expression tells the story.

Columbo (shouting and catching up): “Mr. Danziger! About your theory, and it’s very good, my problem is I didn’t find any prints on the gun.
Danziger: He wore gloves.
Columbo: But if he wore gloves sir, why didn’t he stash the gloves with the gun in the laundry room?
Danziger (thinking): He couldn’t have thrown them overboard, because if he had time to throw the gloves overboard, why not the gun too?
Columbo: Exactly, sir.

Another discrepancy, and I believe that this is where Danziger thinks he made a crucial mistake that will keep Columbo asking questions and keep him from fingering Harrington. The Closure Principle applies once again. “In closure, we get to completion, and if there are any gaps left, our minds will helpfully fill them in, like connecting together a dotted line”. That’s what Danziger does to finally get closure on the discussion.

Danziger: Then there were no gloves.
Columbo: No gloves?
Danziger: Of course not, don’t you see? The gun was found in the laundry room, so Harrington must have used a towel, something like that, not gloves. He threw them both into the laundry room, and nobody paid any attention to the towel.
Columbo: That’s a very good thought, sir. I’ll have to think about that. A towel…

As you can see, Columbo is using psychology to engage, bait, and snare his victims. And he’s not done yet. Later in the episode, he pulls Danziger away from a boat (uh, ship) party to put the kibosh on the towel theory that Danziger thought had wrapped up the case.

Danziger: What gloves? I thought we decided that there were no gloves.
Columbo: No, not really sir. We just toyed around with that idea, and it sounded good until I checked the hospital. There could be a pair of surgical gloves missing.

Did you notice how both Danziger and Columbo each use the word “we” to describe their theorizing? Even at this late point in the episode, Danziger believes that they are not in opposition. But what was once closed is now open again, and Columbo has the perfect opportunity to employ a variation on brainwashing, that is, putting an idea into someone’s head. “People like to believe they’re clever. We cling to ideas that we believe are ours. The trick is to convince people that your idea is actually their idea… To plant an idea in someone’s mind and have them believe it was their own, lay clues without being too obvious.”

Columbo: Here’s my problem. I can’t find the gloves. I mean, I have searched every inch of that ship… So I’m right back where I started.
Danziger: You’re a stickler for details, lieutenant.
Columbo: Look, I hope I’m not boring you with this, but it helps to talk it out… You know, sometimes my thoughts, it gets like a traffic jam. You see, Mr. Harrington did not leave any prints on the gun. That’s going to make it very hard for the prosecutor to prove he did it. I gotta find those gloves with the powder burns on the outside because when I find them that’s when I can prove why Mr. Harrington’s prints weren’t on the gun. I don’t know why I’m bothering you with this, it’s my problem.

By feigning concern over an element of the case – no matter how unlikely or tangential – Columbo uses discrepancies to manipulate his formerly-confident mark into nervously sharing that concern. Danziger becomes compelled to “clean up” a crime – provide closure – that really didn’t need any more attention, and the very act of cleaning it up by creating a new set of gloved powder burns becomes the final proof of guilt. Eleven months earlier, Columbo had used a similar tactic on Tommy Brown by alerting him that the mountain would be searched for his missing thermos bottle, and even explicitly pointed this trick out to the uniformed cop assigned to the lieutenant (“I planted a seed…”)

Columbo Swan Song
Columbo plays Tommy Brown like a D-35 Martin acoustic guitar in Swan Song

Seventies Columbo is a psychology course unto itself. Through countless episode rewatchings, we can learn to recognize and appreciate the mind-games and head-tricks that our sneaky lieutenant uses to peel away his antagonists’ lies and discover the truth. We have observed that using the science of proxemics, personal space, psyop stunts, inferiority projection, ingratiation, and planting suggestions, Columbo can dent the confidence of any killer.

But it’s Columbo’s questioning strategy that inspires so many psychological applications to other professions, as I noted to begin this piece. And I came across a final application that will provide my own form of closure. I happened to stumble upon what might be the most fascinating use of Columbo psychology, an actual manual for an online academy – for Christian apologetics, “Tactics In Defending The Faith”.

Apologetics is the religious discipline of defense against doubters by using discourse, and influencing others to convert to, in this case, Christianity. Columbo is continually and explicitly referenced, with questioning methods that are quite familiar to Columbo fandom. “The main goal of the Columbo tactic is not to force someone to accept our views. The goal of the Columbo tactic is to put a stone in the person’s shoe. The goal is to make the person seriously consider if their current beliefs are backed by solid reason, and offer the view of Christianity as a belief that is backed by good evidence.”  

Now, not every interplay between Columbo and killer will use all the elements of Columbo psychology. But the next time you’re watching (OK, even a 90s episode), try to spot when our Lieutenant busts out a few psychological moves on his adversary. Paying attention to the mental tools of Columbo’s trade is worthwhile and will only add to your Columbo rewatching pleasure.

Glenn Stewart spent 25 years in the music radio business across the United States specializing in classic rock. For the past 15 years he has been working in History, English, Education Assessment, and writing Social Studies curriculum for the juvenile justice system. He has also taught “Issues In Media Industries” as adjunct faculty at a New England university. His favorite pre-1980 TV rewatchables are Columbo, Mission: Impossible, Batman, The Prisoner, and The Twilight Zone. Read Glenn’s other Columbophile Blog contributions here.

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Columbo Dead Weight
Even hardened war vets can’t play the game like the dear Lieutenant can

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