How I Learned to Love Columbo
This week, I recorded my third appearance on Just One More Thing, a podcast about Columbo hosted by my friends Jon Morris and RJ White. I was the first guest the show ever had, and despite that, Jon and RJ were kind enough to have me back. It’s been a pleasure every time, and the main reason for that is the compelling character of Lt. (Frank? His given name is in dispute, despite being one of the most recognizable figures in television history) Columbo himself.
I had no particular reason to be drawn to Columbo. Aside from a few clever tricks pulled off by his creator, William Link, and the writers of the series, the show was more or less a standard work of detective fiction, and dating as it did from the period where only soap operas and mini-series sported a serial format, each episode could vary wildly in quality. As an adult, I’ve always been drawn to noir for its fatalism and its moral murkiness; Colombo possessed little of the former and none of the latter. Even as a child, when I began watching the show basically by default (there weren’t a lot of entertainment options for latchkey kids in the 1970s), it came in second to The Rockford Files, whose main character possessed a louche charm I found appealing, and which didn’t ask me to sympathize too heavily with a cop.
Still, there was always something about Lt. Columbo that appealed to me, and that appeal has only deepened returning to the series as a grown man with an entirely different set of aesthetic standards. Much of this has to do with the performance of the late Peter Falk, whose irreplaceable imprint on the character is one of many reasons I hope the series is never revived; my fear is that any other actor (or actress) cast as Columbo would reduce their performance to mere imitation, or even worse, offer an interpretation so original as to make the character unrecognizable and possibly far less relatable. However, I don’t really want to focus on Falk’s performance here, great as it was.
The structure of the show, too, had a lot to do with the appeal of Columbo (and of Columbo). Most episodes took the unusual step of showing you in advance who the killer was, and leaving it to Lt. Columbo to lure that killer into his trap a tiny, frustrating bit at a time; this performed a fascinating inversion of the usual whodunit. In most standard detective fiction, especially those popular in the 1970s of Colombo, the identity of the killer went unrevealed until the end of the story, and although the rules of the genre dictated that to be fair, the author gave you just enough information to figure it out yourself, there was always a hint of uncertainty, and this played hell with your sympathies. What if you eliminated someone as a suspect who turned out to be the murderer? Then you’d have been played for a chump by a killer! Or what if, worse still, you pegged someone as guilty who turned out not to be the killer, even if they were an obnoxious creep? Then you’d just as good as sent an innocent person to the death house! This allowed for a certain degree of moral murk, but by establishing right away who was guilty, Columbo made up for what it lost in ambiguity by putting all your sympathy with the awkward, naïve-seeming detective, creating a series of powerful proairetic sequences that left you practically praying for the smarmy creep who did it to finally slip up.
Even this, though, wouldn’t have made much difference if the character of Lt. Columbo wasn’t written the way he was. If he was too straight and narrow, too much of an confident jerk, too much the handsome and square-jawed hero of so many police stories of the ’50s and ’60s, his act would seem obnoxious. If he was too much of a nebbish, it wouldn’t be believable. But the character is written so perfectly, as an obviously determined but deceptively agreeable nudge, that you can absolutely buy him as the one detective in all of Los Angeles who gets assigned to high-profile cases of glitz and glamour and always comes away with a win because he’s perpetually underestimated.
Much is made of the way Columbo brings class issues to the fore, an aspect that makes rooting for a cop much more palatable. Lt. Columbo rarely pursues pushers, street thugs, mobsters, or other killers that come from minority communities or the underclass; his targets are business tycoons, the literati, Hollywood elites, and other self-involved big shots whose privilege makes them think they can literally get away with murder. Columbo is a creature of the working class, and identifies most with young people, servants, and people who sell their labor; he is forever expressing awe at the baubles and affectations of the haute monde in which he travels, as well as their extravagant price tags.
But there’s much more to the appeal of Columbo than that. In one of Lt. Columbo’s most famous speeches, he explains how he became such a skillful detective, how he acquired the relentless ability to worry apart every detail of a case until he finds the one element that sends his prey up the river: “All my life, I kept running into smart people,” he confesses, “and when I first joined the force, sir, they had some very clever people there. And I could tell right away it wasn’t gonna be easy making detective as long as they were around. But I figured if I worked harder than they did, put in more time, read the books, kept my eyes open, maybe I could make it happen. And I did.” Columbo is no natural. He wasn’t born with a brilliant intellect or an instinct for human psychology; he’s just a remorselessly determined man who figured out what the requirements were to become good at his job.
In a certain way, this speech, and other clues about Lt. Columbo, make it clear that he could have become a very different person. There are a lot of very contradictory things about Lt. Columbo: he is a New York figure out of his element in L.A. (everything about him, from his accent to his demeanor to his trademark rumpled suit and raincoat, speaks of an East Coast upbringing). He’s a unrepentantly working-class figure who is almost always assigned to cases involving the city’s rich and famous. He’s a devoted family man who keeps his private life — and even his name — shrouded in mystery. He as much as admits that he invents elements of his life out of whole cloth to throw his suspects off their games. He even seems to make friends of some of the murderers he investigates, enthusiastically quizzing them about every detail of their lives, gazing in wonder at their homes and their clothes, always making them feel like they’re in control of the situation until the final moment he leads them, almost willingly, into that one final trap.
If that makes him sound sinister, I mean it to. Remember that crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor, and that razor-thin line that separates the cop from the crook: and consider what might happen if someone of Lt. Columbo’s perseverance, meticulousness, intelligence, and experience had chosen to become a criminal instead of a policeman. We know from hints dropped about his past that he was something of a hoodlum when he was young; even that line from his origin story — about how he might not have been able to make detective with smarter people around — takes on a menacing tone in this light. Lt. Columbo without his badge, with a bit more of a tendency to take shortcuts or with a bit more genuine a desire for the finer things in life, might have become not Lt. Columbo at all, but rather Tom Ripley. He wouldn’t be like the arrogant snobs he puts away week after week; he’d be a inexorable killer the police could barely even find, let alone stop.
Luckily for us, Columbo has one grace note that prevents this from happening. It’s not that he’s especially moral; time and time again we see him wave off crimes ranging from drug violations to blackmail, and it’s clear he doesn’t even hold murderers in any kind of contempt that stems from a particular sense of ethical outrage. But if Columbo is one thing, he is fair. He doesn’t like to see anyone take advantage. He doesn’t like it when people break the rules — not because he thinks the rules are so great, but (and here’s that class element again) he doesn’t think they should apply to some people and not to others. He doesn’t get mad when people assume he’s an idiot or try to string him along; he gets even. It’s one of the reasons he never resorts to strong-arming his suspects; it’s not so much that he finds the idea morally offensive, it’s that he thinks of it as cheating. It’s the job of criminals to commit crimes, in Columbo‘s cosmology, and it’s the job of policemen to prove that they’ve committed those crimes. If both sides are honest in their work, then the world is as it should be. It’s only when one side or the other starts cheating that his sense of right and wrong kicks in.
For all the rules of Columbo‘s game, there is a fair amount of room for diversion. Sometimes the victims of the murders he investigates are innocents, while other times they are themselves morally corrupt; sometimes the killers are essentially likable people who unhappily find themselves in an impossible situation, and other times they’re utterly detestable creeps who you can’t wait to see get what’s coming to them. But only very rarely — almost never, in the course of the show — do they ever try to escape, or react violently to the endgame where Columbo shows he’s had their number all the time. He’s worn them out, you see; he’s exhausted them. He’s fussed and bothered at their alibis like a dog chewing on a piece of hide, and that final moment is when it finally gives out and breaks in two. It may not be a moment of great moral clarity, but it is a moment of supreme relief and release: everyone can give up the game. Lt. Columbo can stop pretending to be an amiable dunce; the killer can give up the pretense of innocence. This is the genius of Columbo, the show, and Columbo, the character: there may be doubt about what the game is, and why it is being played, but Lt. Columbo plays it extremely well, anticipating every move and punishing to death any attempt to not respect its rules. His victory is one of a masterful player using every tool, and it is enormously satisfying.