Columbo: The Undeserving Rich

I like my job. Oh, I like it a lot and I’m not depressed by it, and I don’t think the world is full of criminals and full of murderers, because it isn’t. It’s full of nice people, just like you, and if it wasn’t for my job, I wouldn’t be getting to meet you like this. And I’ll tell you something else, even with some of the murderers that I meet, I even like them, too, sometimes, like ’em and even respect ’em–not for what they did, certainly not for that–but for that part of them which is intelligent or funny or just nice. Because there’s niceness in everyone, a little bit anyhow. You can take a cop’s word for it.

— Lieutenant Columbo, Columbo, “Try and Catch Me.”

Lieutenant Columbo, L.A. homicide detective to the stars, is a class warrior. The means and motives of murderers of the week run the gamut, but they are all, every last one, in the 1%. If Elizabeth Warren doesn’t want to tax you, Columbo doesn’t want to catch you. And yet, of all the cops in the world, these masters of the universe will be taken down by this cop: an apparently* absent-minded, starstruck, cowlicked peasant with scrupulously diffident manners, as dingy and intrusive as his half-smoked cigar and as impossible to read as his shining glass eye. He’s frequently mistaken for the help, a driver, a trespasser, even an actual bum, and sometimes that’s by other police. He spends a majority of one episode (“Double Shock”) being harried by the victim’s meticulous housekeeper for tracking messes throughout her employer’s home as he tries to solve his murder. And of course, Columbo is only too happy to feint with obsequiousness, enthusing about the murderer’s home, their car, their possessions, their accomplishments. Columbo is always a big fan of the murderer, or at least his wife is, and as such, he’s genuinely the nicest Fury ever to hound a person to their just reward. It’s as if instead of taking up a sling, David just followed Goliath around, distracting him with compliments until he tripped over his own giant feet and knocked himself out.

The story is always David and Goliath at its heart though. Columbo episodes aren’t really mysteries at all. They’re ballet. We know who the murderer is; it’s in the first scene and the TV Guide. These stories are about how Columbo manages to outwit the murderer: howcatchem, not whodunit. Plus, however creative the special guest murderer might be–and mind you, more than one episode involves animals as a murder weapon–the flow of almost every Columbo episode follows a set routine, and that routine spotlights the murderer first. I mean, Columbo can’t really show up until someone’s dead, or at least missing.** So, nice, nasty, or somewhere in-between, we get to know the murderer on his or her own terms first. Do they have a sympathetic reason for what they’re doing? Are they forced into a corner? Is it a crime of passion? Quite a few Columbo murderers are victims of blackmail, gotta say, and while some are definitely cold-blooded, no one kills for the fun of it.

Whatever the circumstances, there’s no editorializing by Columbo or anyone else. We are perched on the murderer’s shoulder until the deed is done and the alibi is faked, and we see everything for ourselves. Not only that, but we keep following the murderer even after they start dancing with Columbo, and that might include additional murders. And isn’t it interesting that, while our only true loyalty must be to Columbo and the forces of right and justice he represents, we begin in a position where we must naturally sort of root for the killer? We watch them plot and plan and encounter last-minute hiccups and adapt to unforeseen complications, and we’re holding our breath for them all the while. Whew, you can hear the car Roddy McDowall planted a bomb in blow up on the answering machine message, but they still think it crashed. [wipes forehead] That was close.

It’s worth noting, too, that the actors cast as Columbo villains were all familiar faces from TV and film in their own right, faces viewers already had a relationship with, and their celebrity infuses their character’s credibility. Decades later, when Columbo fans discuss their favorite episodes, no one uses the villain’s name. Fans surely realize that Jack Cassidy played Ken Franklin in “Murder By the Book.” You hear it constantly through the episode–Ken, Mr. Franklin, Ken, Mr. Franklin–but never when people talk about the episode. As far as that goes, the murderer could have been Jack Cassidy himself. You do not say, “My favorite murderer was Ken Franklin.” You say, “My favorite murderer was Jack Cassidy.”*** And you still say that even when you have to differentiate which Jack Cassidy, because he was actually the Guest Murderer three times.

This leads me to a side-effect of the David and Goliath class conflict baked into the Columbo formula that has nothing to do with justice or subliminal endorsement of the hegemony of the proletariat via a schlubby working class detective and everything to do with reaffirming the right of wealth and power despite the overt goal of catching the wealthy villain. Yes, it’s a dance between Columbo and the murderer, and we love to see it. Yes, Columbo always–in the guise of fawning–makes it extremely explicit how much money and power the murderer has, and usually contrasts it favorably against his own meager means. Take when he greets famous conductor Alex Benedict (John Cassavetes) at his home after the apparent suicide of the star pianist in his orchestra. Columbo admires its furnishings and spaciousness, before doing some impressive on the spot mental math to figure out what it costs annually, framing it in the terms of his own salary. “That’s 90 years’ work for me just to live here,” the Lieutenant muses. “Without eating.” The class lines are always drawn very clearly.

But then what does he do? The next step in the dance is befriending the murderer, not just questioning them, but enlisting their help and advice, eventually getting to know them as people. It’s all on the pretext of building a case and pressuring the murderer with constant scrutiny, of course, but is that all it achieves? For winemaker Adrian Carsini (Donald Pleasance), Columbo cultivates enough wine scholarship to pass as an expert, earning an intimate rapport with a man who bludgeoned his brother and left him to suffocate in a wine cellar. With famous TV detective Ward Fowler (William Shatner), Columbo treats the actor as if he’s the brilliant detective he plays on the screen, graciously meeting him where he’s most at home: pretending. For gospel singer Tommy Brown (Johnny Cash), Columbo presents as a huge fan, and, as he pauses to listen to Brown’s hit single before booking him for the murders of his wife and underage lover, you have to think Columbo done played himself and became one for real.

And it must be said that Columbo usually has a pretty damn good time with the murderers of the week anyway. He enjoys the best gourmet food while he stalks food critic Paul Gerard (Louis Jourdan); he partakes of good Irish whiskey and limerick contests with lauded poet and secret IRA terrorist Joe Devlin (Clive Revill); he gets to assist during a segment of Dexter Paris’ (Martin Landau) cooking show. Even when psychologist Dr. Eric Mason (Nicol Williamson) tries to kill Columbo, the detective gets to kick around his awesome memorabilia-stuffed game room and beat him at pool first. It’s not just that Columbo is an unlikely class warrior. It’s that so often the way he catches the murderer is by leveling with them, and that only makes them more human in the process. One can fairly look at that as the working man taking down the rich guy a peg, but consider, too, that when Columbo befriends the villain of the week, so do we. And we started the episode kinda sorta on their side, too, didn’t we? 

And that friendship doesn’t solely serve to put the murderer within the reach of the law. Arguably the best Columbo episodes, my favorites anyway, are the ones where the special guest murderer doesn’t mistake all his flattery and naive questions as genuine–at least, not for long. The best Columbo episodes are the ones where the murderer knows Columbo isn’t really following a faceless superior’s orders hunting down little, seemingly unimportant details, that he’s not starstruck or confused, that he’s not really here for advice on how to save his wife’s dying houseplant, nope. The best Columbo episodes are the episodes where the Lieutenant and his quarry understand each other all too well. That doesn’t mean they’re hostile. Usually, the murderer is only too happy to entertain Columbo’s questions, even after they realize they might not be the cat in this game of cat and mouse after all. Take this classic exchange between Columbo and Dr. Bart Keppel (Robert Culp), a renowned expert in behavioral psychology.

Lt. Columbo: You know, Doctor, I’m going over there now, and I was wondering, uhh…
Dr. Keppel: You were wondering if I would go with you…to the scene of the crime?
Lt. Columbo: How did you know that?
Dr. Keppel: Oh… Lieutenant, I know where you’re coming from, and I know where you’re going, and it isn’t very difficult to figure you out.
Lt. Columbo: I don’t understand.
Dr. Keppel: Well, for some reason, you have come up with the remarkable notion that I am guilty of Vic Norris’ murder. Never mind that I have no motive, or that I scarcely knew the man, or that he was my best client. Your innuendos keep clumping through our conversations like hobnailed boots, and if I didn’t find you an extraordinarily amusing fellow, I might even be offended.
Lt. Columbo: Doc, if I’d have known I was making that kind of impression, I would have left and never come back. The fact of the matter is, I knew White worked for ya, and I thought you might wanna come. And I thought you might be able to help. Honest. I think you’d be a great detective.
Dr. Keppel: All right, Lieutenant. I’ll play.

Columbo, “Double Exposure.”

Columbo villains who respect Columbo in this way become more relatable, not less, as the Lieutenant hones in on them. That respect for Columbo subtly rehabilitates them, possibly more than genuine regret could, which is also reflected in Columbo’s respect for them–genuine now, not a ploy. In “Try and Catch Me,” when Columbo discovers the damning deathbed testimony of mystery author Abigail Mitchell’s (Ruth Gordon) victim, his first instinct is to grimly affirm to her, “I understand why you did it, ma’am.” He knows she was avenging the death of a beloved niece, and in return, Abigail wishes Columbo had been on the case when her niece died so she wouldn’t have needed to take justice into her own hands. Despite Adrian Carsini’s lack of remorse for killing his brother, Columbo takes the time to drive by Carsini’s beloved winery and assure him it will all go on, offering him a dessert wine Carsini approves of as very suitable “for the last course.” He likewise reassures Tommy Brown that he’s not afraid to be alone with a killer because “Any man who can sing like that can’t be all bad.” He even reluctantly permits a couple murderers to avoid the full weight of the law because of his sympathy–and our sympathy–with their personal circumstances. In “Forgotten Lady,” he allows ailing dancer Grace Wheeler (Janet Leigh) to escape prosecution under the cloak of her old friend and dancing partner’s false confession, knowing that a degenerative condition has erased her memory of the crime and that she hasn’t long to live herself. He accepts the confession of Ruth Lytton (Joyce Van Patten) for the murders of her brother and a hired gun, knowing that she is also guilty of murdering her sister’s husband years before, but also realizing that revelations would hurt Lytton’s niece, to whom she’s been like a mother.

There are, of course, Columbo villains who are vicious, nasty, and can never be redeemed: Ross Martin’s preening art critic Dale Kingston in “Suitable For Framing” and Gene Barry’s philandering psychiatrist in “Prescription: Murder,” for example. Leonard Nimoy’s cardiologist in “A Stitch in Crime” is pretty sociopathic, too. They’re all mean, confident to the point of being tacky, not to mention plainly insulting to Columbo, and thus delightful to watch get got. And even sympathetic villains like Dick Van Dyke’s Paul Galesko, who’s browbeaten in a loveless marriage, can alienate the audience by being too hostile to the Lieutenant. But they are outliers, number one, and number two, the fact that what makes a Columbo villain irredeemable is less who and why they’ve killed than how companionable they are with the Lieutenant is telling. And you don’t need to take my word for it. You’ve got the Lieutenant’s.

But just one more thing. Sure, Columbo villains are rich people who commit the ultimate sin of taking another human life and expect to get away with it; it should be nothing but schadenfreude to see them undone by the messiest, yet sweetest version of Javert. Sometimes that’s true, but more often it’s not. The “how” in the Columbo howcatchem formula requires the Lieutenant’s unique insight into the murderer, and that prescribes a unique relationship, even a friendship, that the audience will inevitably share. It means caring more, in the end, about the murderer than the victim, and that’s a strange dynamic for either a detective show or a subliminal Marxist critique of parasitic affluence. In broad outlines then, Columbo may indeed be a class warrior, the working class guy bringing justice to the Jack Cassidys of the world, but his ability, much less his inclination,**** to absolve the sins of the undeserving rich, to find the good in them and value it as something worth saving, suggests that Columbo very much isn’t. 

All seasons of Columbo–yes, including the 90s episodes–are currently streaming on Peacock.

*I say apparently. We all know Columbo lies as much as Sheriff Andy Taylor.

** There is one episode that is more of a classic whodunit, “Last Salute to the Commodore,” and while I’m sure it has its fans, as everything does, um, I will go on the limb to say I personally hate it, and note that they never messed with the formula again. Well, okay, “Columbo Cries Wolf” was tricksy, but…And yeah, Columbo does show up before the murder in a couple episodes, like “Troubled Waters,” which takes place on a cruise that Columbo just happens to be on. 

***My favorite murderer was Robert Culp, specifically when he was Bart Keppel in “Double Exposure,” because he also was Special Guest Murderer three times (with a bonus fourth appearance as a murderer’s daddy in “Columbo Goes to College.”)

****Okay, Columbo superfans, I hear you being all, “But it was an act! However much empathy he has, he’s clear-eyed about what the murderers have done! The Lieutenant’s moral compass was unwavering!” I grant you the rare glimpses of Columbo’s real self in the show are so uncompromising as to be jarring, but I’m talking about the Columbo he presents, not necessarily the Columbo beneath the mask we barely see. As far as that Columbo goes, probably half the cases he brings to the D.A. would fall apart if not for the murderer gamely conceding his or her guilt. He uses entrapment kind of a lot, you know, and these guys have the spendy lawyers.

Angela wants to check out the timeline where Richard Dawson was a murderer on Columbo.

1 reply »

  1. Reading this excellent piece, I couldn’t help thinking about something I think about fairly often–one the difference between cozy/drawing room / whodunnit mysteries and hardboiled detective fiction and how Columbo plays with its form. Columbo not only inverts the formula becoming, like you say, a “howcatchem.” But Columbo recognizes an underlying moral ambiguity in cozy mysteries–we need the murder to happen so we can enjoy the pleasure of solving it. A lot of hardboiled detective fiction, like horror, is about the fall out of things like murder, the destructiveness of it, and like horror, is often understood as immoral in representing that. Before your piece, I hadn’t thought about how Columbo recognizes this dynamic and uses it to create the intimacy with the murderer. That in some sense, when we’re reading Poirot or Holmes or Miss Marple or Lord Peter Whimsy, we were always starting on the side of the murderer anyway, because damn we need it to happen so the fun can begin.

    Anyway, this is excellent!


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