are you now or have you ever...

Friday, July 29, 2005

Columbo: Season One, Pilot

I am now in possession of the first season of the Columbo television movies. Last night I viewed the pilot for the first time. Very interesting. Peter Falk's Columbo is a little different in this version and so is the obligatory villain played by Gene Barry.

Barry is a psychiatrist who crafts the perfect murder of his wife who is threatening to ruin his medical practice with a scandalous divorce. His execution is picture perfect. Enough issues to keep Columbo on his tail, but no proof, not even circumstantial evidence. The scenes where Columbo and the murderous psychiatrist engage in conversational duels are outstanding, particularly when they begin to speak more frankly.

At one point, the two speak of a hypothetical murderer and Columbo asks the psychiatrist to construct a profile. They both know he will be speaking of himself. He states that the murderer is highly intelligent, a professional man, patient, strong nervous system, etc. Columbo interjects: "But wouldn't someone who takes a human life in cold blood be insane?" "No," the psychiatrist answers, "Morals are all relative and murder is simply one option among many. An intelligent man would use it if need be." Paraphrasing a bit here. This is the great part. Columbo says, "Well, that's interesting. I guess a fellow like that would figure he's very hard to catch, but there's a problem. The murderer gets one chance to commit the crime. One chance to learn. But a man like me sees a hundred crimes like this in a year. It's my business." Finally, the psychiatrist begins to pale a bit as he realizes he may be outgunned.

The Columbo of the pilot is a little bit different from the detective of the long-running series. He is younger, better groomed, and angrier, much angrier. Any fan of the series needs to see this episode, which is surely the least-aired of the bunch.


S. T. Karnick said...

Excellent review, Hunter. As you say, the Columbo of the pilot is much younger and less personable than how Falk played him in the series. His anger certainly fits the spririt of the times, the late 1969s. It makes for quite an interesting detective, but it was clearly wise for the producers to make him more likeable in subsequent episodes, to ensure greater audience appeal.

Gene Barry does an excellent job as the killer: the authors' observation that his character's personal philosophy leads him to certain ends is very well expressed. This concept is one that Levinson and Link, the creators of the series, brought up frequently in their work.

The conversation about the hypothetical murderer is one that I remember well, as it is the kind of scene that one really enjoys in a mystery, where the detective and suspect fence with each other with great intelligence and depth. (In this case, of course, we know that the suspect is indeed the killer.) It is reminiscent of several scenes in Dial M for Murder, Alfred Hitchcock's excellent 1950s murder story.

I, too, highly recommend this excellent TV movie.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Even more illuminating is that the episode, "Prescription Murder" was written as a stage play in the early 60s!

(Yet more effluvia from yr humble, etc., tvd.)

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks for the fascinating reference, TVD. I can well imagine that Thomas Mitchell would have made an excellent Columbo. He seemed very down-to-earth and quite personable in his many, many movie roles.

A side note: I have long thought that the detective in William Peter Blatty's novel The Exorcist, William Kinderman, might have been strongly influenced by Columbo. Perhaps there is something in this: the Columbo of the play sounds even more like Kinderman than does the TV version.