Friday, November 11, 2011
I Almost Forgot....
Now that I've seen all the original episodes of Columbo - all the installments from NBC's Sunday Night Mystery Movie from 1971-78, plus the two pilot movies that were made - what strikes me is that this was really the last of the great anthology series. Sure, the character brilliantly portrayed by Peter Falk towers over each episode, but that's basically the only bit of connective tissue.
Since we never see Columbo at his office or even (with very rare exceptions) at police headquarters, and we certainly never see him at his home, we're never on the same set twice. The effect is of everything being shot on location, with new venues being explored in every episode. The cast is also fresh with every episode. Bob Dishy appears twice as Sgt. Wilson (IMDB says he had a different first name in the two episodes, though), and Bruce Kirby (father of Bruno, who also shows up a time or two) makes four appearances as Sgt. Kramer - but he also makes appearances as other characters as well, such as a TV repairman, so the effect is more that of his being part of the repertory company than of playing a recurring character.
The only true recurring character is Columbo's nameless dog: "Sometimes we call him 'Hey,' sometimes we call him 'Dog,' sometimes we just whistle. It don't matter what we call him, because he never comes anyway." And again, with very rare exceptions, Columbo himself doesn't even appear until the second or third act. So for the first 20 minutes or so of every installment, we had an entirely fresh set of characters, stories, settings - it was all new.
Because of this, Columbo gives a much truer picture of the 1970s than the series that, at the time, seemed much more pegged into the zeitgeist, like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. But with their limited roster of cast members and sets, those shows, seen today, capture the mores of the 1970s very well but give very little insight into what those times looked and felt like.
In contrast, consider a Columbo episode like "An Exercise in Fatality," with Robert Conrad (who runs around for long stretches wearing only tight shorts) as the murderous owner of a string of gyms. The idea of a health club, as you probably know, was pretty new in the 1970s, and one of the benefits of this show is that we get to see exactly what they looked like: dank, cramped, covered with gold lame wallpaper, nothing at all like today's airy, high-ceilinged monstrosities. The treadmills all appear to be heading uphill. One gym even had a Ping Pong table in the middle of an otherwise empty room.
Stephen Bowie fave Collin Wilcox steals this episode as Conrad's alcoholic yet somehow dignified ex-wife; you watch her scenes and immediately want to rewind them and watch her again. Incidentally, if you're at all interested in this stuff, you need to be reading Bowie's blog. He has been writing about Kojak lately and has pointed out how 1970s police dramas have been largely overlooked as cultural touchstones in favor of the (admittedly outstanding) sitcoms of that era. Similarly, Mark Marquardt has been writing about The Rockford Files and its portrayal of 1970s-style grimy masculinity.
The director of "An Exercise in Fatality," Bernard Kowalski, probably wasn't intending to give us a slice of mid-1970s life, and certainly didn't consider the notion that people might be watching this show in 2011. But I for one am very happy to have it.