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Excuse me, ma’am.
After the success of the tele-film Prescription: Murder, it seemed inevitable that Lt. Columbo would be invited into our living rooms as often as possible. However, Peter Falk originally declined a reprisal of the cunning detective, instead choosing to focus on a theatrical career. Columbo’s creators, Richard Levinson and William Link also had some doubts about the viability of making more episodes. According to their incredible behind-the-scenes book Stay Tuned, the filmmakers claimed they were “unconvinced that Columbo was the stuff of series television.” However, Sid Sheinberg, the head of Universal Television, disagreed. At the time, Sheinberg was putting together something we all came to know as The NBC Mystery Movie, which was to feature several rotating series that would air throughout the season. Columbo, McCloud and McMillan and Wife made this format an incredibly successful venture between Universal and NBC, and while each series has garnered much love and respect, nothing has come close to the phenomenon of Columbo. It went on to win several Emmys and was resurrected in the late 1980s and again in 2003, with Falk reprising his role as Columbo one final time in the fantastic Columbo Likes the Night Life. That’s a legacy that few other shows have been able to reproduce.
A huge part of Columbo’s charm came from Peter Falk, whose crumpled trenchcoat and beat up Peugeot 43 stole our hearts. The series was also decidedly un-70s-cop-show-like. Levinson and Link weren’t interested in creating a typical series, preferring instead to design a mythical Los Angeles, where the affluent committed a myriad of violent crimes. Critics called it a “slight subversive attack on the American class system in which a proletarian hero triumphed over the effete and monied members of the Establishment.”
Creating a non-violent cop show was also a novel approach. Levinson and Link had decided, “Columbo would never carry a gun. He would never be involved in a car chase (he’d be lucky, in fact, if his car even started when he turned the key), nor would he ever be in a fight.” It was because Columbo never carried a weapon but had no problem confronting killers on a regular basis that I came to see the detective as completely fearless and extremely confident, despite the rumpled hair and pocket fumbling.
For seven seasons in the 1970s, our favorite tousled detective made us all wait with bated breath as he asked just one more thing. This was no easy feat, as the series employed the "open book" mystery format, which meant the viewer knew who the criminal was from the outset. It was watching Columbo pursue the killer that kept us coming back for more. Columbo was magnificent, magnetic in his own unkempt ways, and above all else, he was blissfully entertaining. And after all of these years, he still lingers in our consciousness.
Different Columbo episodes have yielded different results, although the show is rarely disappointing. Everyone has a favorite episode. Mine is The Most Dangerous Match, which positions the endearing detective against a deaf chess player who has attempted to kill his rival. Airing on March 4th, 1973 during Columbo’s second season, The Most Dangerous Match stands out for many reasons. First, the attempted murder was especially brutal. Tomlin Dudek (Jack Kruschen) falls into a giant trash compactor thanks to some clever footwork from his nemesis Emmett Clayton (Laurence Harvey, who died just a few months after the episode aired). The idea of what Clayton had attempted to do has always haunted me. It is so utterly heartless, especially considering how gentle and kind Dudek appears to be. Second, for whatever reason, this is the episode I remember best from my childhood. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I grew up and became somewhat fascinated with Harvey’s low-budget cannibal exploitation flick Welcome to Arrow Beach. He finished the film as he was dying, and it stands as a unique, bizarre and strangely moving swan song for the actor-come-filmmaker. I also fell in love with Kruschen in another exploitation film called Satan’s Cheerleaders. And there’s just simply not enough space to fully explore my love for Lloyd Bochner, so let me just say… well, I adore him. In short, this episode gave me my first glimpse at several actors I would come to admire and love.
The Most Dangerous Match may have been inspired by what was christened The Match of the Century. In 1970, a chess competition pitted the USSR against what was dubbed The Rest of the World. The USSR took the championship. More than a chess match, The US and the USSR were knee-deep in the cold war, and juxtaposed against the Dudek vs. Clayton match, it represents more than a competition, or bravado. The political implications weigh heavily on Clayton’s shoulders, as we see in the bizarre opening nightmare sequence.
And then there is the second match that the affable, but cunning Columbo invites Clayton to participate in – that of the wills. What Clayton has going for him is that he’s pretty darn cold-blooded (i.e. using a trash compactor as a murder weapon). It’s interesting to note that his upcoming match with Dudek causes him more nightmares than the attempted murder. Surely, anytime Columbo is assigned to a case, the culprit’s days are numbered. However, Clayton is able to pull a fast one on Columbo, managing to finally kill off Dudek before he can wake and pinpoint his attacker. It only further establishes Clayton as calculating, and perhaps sociopathic, so watching his eventual comeuppance comes with a great sense of relief.
The second season of Columbo also marks a new addition to the series. Levinson and Link had been forced by the network to create a companion character and they wrote, “Steven Bochco was writing a script and we asked him to introduce a new member of the Columbo family – a dog. He gleefully complied, inserting a nameless mongrel into his teleplay... The dog looked like a blob of Silly-Putty, and in scene after scene it remained so totally inert that it almost seemed to be stuffed.” The dog first appeared in the second season premiere, Etude in Black, which featured John Cassavettes as a murderous orchestra conductor (and which is, coincidentally, my second favorite Columbo episode). Columbo’s dog is an important player in The Most Dangerous Match, as he helps Columbo understand how that creepy trash compactor works! And I should add, that’s the most active I think the dog has ever been!
My only quibble with this episode is the location. One of the major fascinations the grown-up version of me has with Columbo is the set design of those large, palatial, oh-so-70s mansions that the canny detective interlopes. The hotel that Clayton and Dudek are staying in is pretty darn groovy, but this episode is missing that little touch of vintage chic that I have come to expect from the series. But indeed, that is a minor quibble. The Most Dangerous Match is utterly fabulous in every other way. It’s cat and mouse perfect, wonderfully cast and thanks to the creepy choice of murder weapon, I’m still terrified of trash compactors.
Oh, and one more thing... As for the detective himself, Columbo is nothing short of sublime.