Wednesday, August 13, 2014

TV Review: Columbo: Murder by the Book

Directed by Steven Spielberg. 1971. 

I'm just another cop. My name's Columbo and I'm a lieutenant.

The first episode of Columbo is the best episode of crime television drama I've ever seen. Granted I'm no connoisseur of the genre, but this one episode easily out-classes its peers in cinematography, acting, music, and style. Whether it's the prodigious production value, the feature-length runtime, Steven Spielberg's cinematic eye at the precipice of his ingenuity, or the invisible weight of the late, great, Peter Falk which catapulted the show to excellence, this first of Columbo's 69 episodes blew me away by its craftsmanship and entertaining drama.

I would like to review this episode in detail, topic-by-topic, but we have to talk about its opening scene. Like any good murder mystery, Murder by the Book starts with–you guessed it–a murder. The death is no mere necessity for getting the protagonist to run around, though, rather Spielberg luxuriates in a fifteen minute prelude leading up to the murder. Again and again we're teased and toyed with by an ingenious array of delays, diversions, and details which tug and trick us into thinking that at last the tension will explode in the murder. Consider these details, half of which are introductory and half prevaricating:
  1. The audio of the author's keystrokes at the typewriter replace the audio of the murderer working his way to him, isolating the soon-to-be victim from his assassin.
  2. The camera cuts to a shot of a Newsweek cover depicting the two men as a "best-selling mystery team," telling us just enough for the moment.
  3. The killer's car enters passing under the "Exit-Only" sign, suggesting that the driver is up to no good.
  4. The close-up of the gun is obvious, but necessary.
  5. We then have the contrast and false release of the killer only pretending to threaten the victim, who laughs at the prank and unloaded gun.
  6. Then we have the further contrast of learning that there really is tension between the partners.
  7. The cork of the celebratory champagne pops too easily: was it taken off and re-sealed?
  8. The killer refers to the end of their partnership both as a divorce and also as the death of the literary character whom they together created: precursor to murder?
  9. The killer plants his lighter on the desk.
  10. The killer tells his partner, "I'm going to kidnap you." We think this is his real plan, but he's just joking again: he's inviting him to his cabin. Or is that a macabre joke?
  11. When the incipient assassin hurries back to the office to get the lighter he planted while his partner waits in the car, we wonder if it's wired to explode.
  12. The killer seems actually to forget his lighter for a moment.
  13. A close-up to the killer wearing gloves hearkens back to the beginning, when his partner calls his pranking bluff because he wasn't wearing gloves the way a killer would. Will he kill now? Nope, a few seconds later the gloves come off.
  14. On the ride to the cabin the uneasy author confesses to a feeling of deja-vu: is he living one of the murders about which he's written?
  15. The killer's gloves are back on: now?
  16. Uh oh, the couch is covered in plastic. Now.
This is a classic opening, brought to life with tremendous attention to technique.

It's also a fine way to introduce a villain, giving him center stage for a quarter of an hour. Here the villain is Ken Franklin, one half of a mystery-writing duo brought to life by the suave gravitas of Jack Cassidy. The performance is quite slick, really, with Cassidy switching imperceptibly from jovial smiles to deathly stares. Taking a page from Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt and the twisting, barely-restrained hands of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotton), Cassidy's smooth, deliberate gestures conceal his murderous intent. Satisfied little flourishes, a pat on his lapel, a little pause all reveal a calculating vanity behind the smooth, amiable veneer. Franklin is the polished, urbane counterpart to his other writing half, Jim Ferris (Martin Milner.) As you can guess, Ferris isn't around for long, but Milner's docile face is perfect for the agreeable Ferris, manipulated by his deft partner.

The long introduction also puts a lot of weight on the entry of the hero, Lieutenant Columbo. The entrance is itself one of understatement, fitting for the self-deprecating detective. After fifteen minutes of watching our brilliant killer and several more minutes of print-dusting cops and inquisitive detectives, the beleaguered wife of the deceased writer walks out into the hall. It's another smart, Hitchcockian touch that the fountain is broken, but it also gives Columbo his entry. "I think that's out of order, madam," he says. Classic Columbo, disguising his inquiry within small-talk, banal observations, and favors. Who can say no to the gentle, avuncular Columbo, when he offers to drive you home and make you an omelet?

Columbo's first scene is a perfect example of the detective's approach and of his character. He starts off self-deprecating, asking where everything is in the kitchen. He drops an eggshell in the yolk. Then as he's gained the trust of the Joanna, Jim's wife, he's asking questions and expertly moving about the kitchen, whisking up and chopping the food. Columbo is content to keep his skill under wraps and his cleverness to himself as he goes about his work.

The scene is also a good example of simple and effective cinematography. We move from quick shots and reverse shots over a kitchen counter for Columbo's rapport-building questions, to long unbroken takes along the counter as Columbo imperceptibly begins his inquiry. These lengthwise shots are also nice and long, emphasizing the trust which Columbo has built up with the woman and the information which now flows because of that trust. In fact the longest shot is one minute and forty one seconds, a length unheard of in today's era of finely chopped scenes.

Another shock to us in this scene is the quality in the supporting cast. Today we make a big fuss over film actors transitioning to television work, but while some of these performances are fine, most are phoned-in work with actors playing themselves, replaying old roles, or merely spouting the lines. Rosemary Forsyth brings something unique to the role of Jim's widow. There's a heedless urgency to her opening scene where she learns of her husband's abduction. Her statements are confused and disordered, and she repeats herself. She lurches and shuffles around as if she doesn't know what to do with her body. Yet later we see her, calmed by Columbo's gentle demeanor, as an articulate woman. She's not stupid and not there just to make Columbo look good, rather she realizes that Colombo has disarmed her distrust and agrees to talk with him.

Likewise, Barbara Colby finely played with a nervous naiveté, Lilly, the unfortunate witness to Ken's crime. Even this character has some depth, and in one scene she confronts Ken coming out of a theater show with information that implicates him in his partner's disappearance. It is a tense confrontation because it's the first time anyone has crossed the villain, and it's not a detective, let alone Columbo, who crosses him, but this vulnerable woman. Vulnerable I say, because she not only has a crush on Ken, and is thus ripe for his manipulation, but because her simplicity is unlikely to out-maneuver his ruthlessness. When she tries to blackmail him we know how it'll end. All of her scenes are fraught with tension between her admiration and desperation, and Ken's veiled contempt and cruelty. There's also a little complexity here: we pity her because she is manipulated by Ken, but she's also blackmailing him and letting a murdered walk free.

Since the plot gives away the identity of the murderer at the outset, the excitement comes from watching Columbo figure out the case and from the villain trying to dodge his inquiries and throw him off the track. The cat and mouse game is pretty entertaining at that, with Columbo showing up in the oddest places and times with just a few more questions by which he slowly pens in the murderer.

Amidst the acting and cinematic technique there are many enriching details, like the broken water fountain, the rhythm of the theme being tapped out on the keyboard throughout the soundtrack, Ken's date eyeing other men, and his bumper sticker which reads "Have a Nice Day." There's also a lot of innuendo to Ken's dialogue, for example when he responds to Lilly's welcome by saying that he's come, "bearing gifts," when of course his disguised motive is to kill her. Ken is so vain that with his words and hands he can't help revealing himself.

Even the score is beyond what we expect from television today, with variety in orchestration–piano, pizzicato strings, harpsichord, synthesizer–and a clever, interior theme which nonetheless manages to reveal itself. The prolific Billy Goldenberg would go on to compose more for Columbo, having collaborated with Spielberg here and on Duel.

Finally, the story is brought to life so authentically by the actors and vividly by the style and craft that the show is much more engaging than those with more complexity. Today's shows are often elaborate, but without any satisfaction for the viewer. We are satisfied here because we figure out as Columbo does, with the same information. We're not deliberately kept in the dark while the protagonist acts on secret clues. Likewise today's shows are very polished, but they're all so similar and similarly dull because the visuals are so uninteresting. They're flashy, loud, and fast-paced, but boring.

Just one more thing, though. Not only is there no equal to the hardboiled, soft-hearted charm of Lieutenant Columbo, but few shows have so finely crafted a realistic world in which the star can persuasively be the hero than Spielberg has in this pilot. Columbo is so satisfying because more than in the mere success of the clever author, of the good cop/bad cop duo, of the brilliant lawyer, or the high-tech nerd, there is something unique in the modest man's triumph over the arrogance of the criminal which is profoundly just. Columbo is the classic American detective.

You may also enjoy: Ten Frames from Columbo: Murder by the Book

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