Monday, July 15, 2013

Columbo: The Most Dangerous Match

This post is part of Me-TV's Summer of Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Please visit the Classic TV Blog Association website to view more posts in this blogathon. You can also go here to learn more about Me-TV and view its summer line-up of classic TV shows.

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.


Joanna said...

You've inspired me to check out more Columbo installments! Great post.

Caftan Woman said...

The joy of watching Peter Falk match wits with the guest starring murderer can never be dimmed. I recently rewatched the joust with Harvey and he truly was cold-blooded.

My personal favourite episode may be "A Friend in Deed". I just love Richard Kiley and the killer look he gives the Lt. at the end is searing.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Amanda, what a fine choice for the Me-TV Blogathon! I rarely missed COLUMBO as a kid. My favorite episodes were those that featured cunning adversaries worthy of matching wits with Columbo and acting skills with that scene stealer, Peter Falk. Laurence Harvey's killer was certainly up to the task on both counts. Additionally, the chess analogy is a rich one for COLUMBO, for it reflects the show's structure. The viewer already knows the murderer so the whole show is a chess match between detective and killer. We just watch waiting for Columbo to call check mate!

Gilby37 said...

This is episode is a great example of why Columbo has stood the test of time. The guest villain was always perfectly cast and this installment especially shows it. Harvey was great as cold, calculating types. Plus, this episode had what I often refer to as "those great 70's guest stars" like Lloyd Bochner and Jack Kruschen. I like the article and love the Bert Convy wallpaper!

Citizen Screen said...

Amanda -

My love for Columbo knows no bounds so I'm thrilled to start my way through this blogathon with your tribute to this fantastic show and one of the most memorable characters in television history.

Wonderful post!


Hal said...

One thing that made the 1970's episodes so much more satisfying than most of the episodes from the ABC revival: the villains were not only rich, but also highly intelligent and worthy adversaries for the Lieutenant more often than not. (IDENTITY CRISIS and DEAD WEIGHT come to mind, among others)

Harvey did this episode around the same time that he guest starred so memorably on NIGHT GALLERY in "The Caterpillar". It's a shame he had such a short time left to live (he died in 1973.
Great writeup of a fine 2nd season episode!

Danny said...

This definitely piqued my interest in Columbo. I probably haven't seen the show since I was a kid, but Peter Falk's persona as a saintly kind of guy-- even when he played a crook-- always stuck with me. I'll have to check some of it out; thanks for giving me a good starting place!

Amanda By Night said...

Hi everyone,

I was so pleased to see all these wonderful comments. You don't even know how much I enjoy seeing all the love for Falk and Columbo. Such a great, timeless show.

Thank you all for taking the time to read this and comment. So appreciated!

Jeff Flugel said...

Terrific post on a terrific series, Amanda! I love the 70s-era COLUMBO, with all the quality guest killers; the 90s version suffered by comparison, with its generally week casting and flat 80s look (though Falk himself was always gold).

"The Most Dangerous Match" is a really fine episode, and Harvey indeed a very cold, calculating villain, and I like how the script gives him a disability (his hearing aid) yet doesn't make any attempt to make him sympathetic.

My favorite COLUMBOs are when the scruffy Lieutenant squares off against smug, arrogant slimeballs (like Leonard Nimoy in "A Stitch in Time," the rare episode where Columbo blows his top in one brief but very effective scene). Conversely, some of my favorites also include the rare sympathetic killer, such as Donald Pleasence in "Any Old Port in a Storm," or Johnny Cash in "Swan Song."

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

This is obe of my favorite Columbo episodes, too, Amanda. Mostly for the presence of Jack Kruschen, who's always been a favorite (his distinctive voice is so easy to pick out when you hear him on an old-time radio broadcast).

Loved the mention about the subtle way they worked class consciousness into the show, by the way.

Propagatrix said...

Hey, "Etude in Black" is my second favorite episode too! I adore Anjanette Comer, who was so wonderful in "The Loved One" and "The Baby."

My favorite episode is "Short Fuse" because of the cast: Roddy McDowall, Anne Francis, James Gregory, AND Ida Lupino! Roddy is ever so very mod and nifty.