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Saturday, June 25, 2011

June 25, 2011 [Tribute Post 16]: Just A Few More Things

Legendary actor Peter Falk passed away today. Falk was great in a wide range of roles, including as a leading man in two John Cassavetes films and as the grandfather in and narrator of The Princess Bride (1987). But for me he will always first and foremost be Lieutenant (first name unknown) Columbo, the best TV detective (with all due respect to Vincent D’Onofrio’s Bobby Goren and Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, among other candidates) and one of the greatest TV characters period. To that end, and with Columbo’s signature “just one more question” in mind, here are two of the things that make his character an inspiring (fictional) American, plus, yes, just one more:
1)      He’s Comfortable In His Own Skin (Well, Raincoat): Much has been made of the ways in which Columbo plays up his confusion/befuddledness in order to catch too-clever-by-half murderers off-guard, and that’s certainly part of his detecting repertoire. But I would argue that the majority of his endearing mannerisms are, like that rumpled raincoat, just who the guy is; when he’s ordering the chili at his favorite diner or taking his dog for a walk, he’s not putting on an act, just being comfortably himself. Just so happens that himself is also brilliant, which works out.
2)      He Doesn’t Forget the Heart: That brilliance is Columbo’s foremost feature to be sure, and in some cases/episodes is the driving force throughout his investigation. But in others, including some of the show’s most memorable, Columbo also lets his very big heart come into the equation. Sometimes that means getting genuinely angry, especially with killers who are willing to sacrifice and/or injure other innocents along the way. And sometimes it means coming to care for a killer, and seeing justice as tragic if still necessary. But in any case, these moments just add one more layer to the character and portrayal, and I remember and treasure every one.
I think that’s it for now. Oh, I almost forgot, just one more inspiring detail:
3)      He’s a True Democrat: No, not in the political sense, although I do firmly believe that Columbo votes that way. But in the best philosophical sense: perhaps Columbo’s most defining quality is his complete, entirely polite but very thorough, destruction of hierarchies based on privilege or class or elite status of any kind. Not all of the murderers come from the very top rungs of society, but a great many of them do; and contrary to some narratives, Columbo doesn’t take them down due to some sort of anti-elite pose, but rather because they deserve it, irrespective of any status they might have. And as I noted above, he takes them as the individual people they are—the more sympathetic ones he comes to like and respect, the entirely unsympathetic ones he most certainly doesn’t, and the rest get the same thing every other person he meets does: justice, served with a sense of fairness and humor and genuine soul.
Thanks for all the inspiring moments, Peter. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1)      Great example of Columbo’s investigative style, with murderer Rip Torn:
2)      And a very different Falk, from Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974):
3)      OPEN: Any Peter memories to share?

1 comment:

  1. What made the show truly great, and what contemporary television mystery writers seem to forget or under-estimate, is that the focus needs to be on the crime and the art of detection. You were absolutely correct that Columbo would feel free to show his moral outrage at a villain who could endanger or take the life of an innocent, much like Agatha Christie's Poirot (on tonight thanks PBS!) but Columbo never allowed his own personal baggage to get in the way. Did he even have personal baggage? He couldn't, he was married to Capt. Janeway! Unlike Bobby Goren, who is a masterful detective Columbo didn't rely on bullying techniques ("talk!" while emphatically striking the metal table) nor did he become some crazy super-human encyclopedia of useless trivia like Sherlock (updated version now avaliable on Netflix... Watson is Bilbo in the Hobbit movie!). Columbo is a skillful detective and social anthropologist. He's a perfect cross of Poirot and Marple, but that coat seals the deal. The crime came first, and the drama came second, if it came at all.

    Personally, I'm a Murder She Wrote gal.