Created by Richard Levinson and William Link, the series debuted in 1971 with "Murder by the Book," which was actually the third appearance of Falk's Columbo (there had been two previous two-hour NBC World Premiere Movies prior to the series launch.) Interestingly, "Murder by the Book" was directed by a then unknown talent: Steven Spielberg.
Columbo was unique in so many ways, the first was that the viewer learned the killer's identity in the first few minutes of every episode. Up until then, detective shows and mysteries had tried to keep the audience guessing "Who Done It?" until the very final scene. Levinson and Link turned that formula upside down, letting viewers in on the intracacies of the crime from the killer's viewpoint, their motivation, and what they did to cover their tracks to avoid discovery.
Often, Columbo was not even introduced until 20 minutes or more into the episodes (which ran a network 90 minutes with commercials instead of the usual 60 minutes for dramas.)
However, as soon as the audience caught a glimpse of the short, rumpled, cigar-smoking detective with the tan rain coat, they knew that they were watching something really special. Columbo feigned a scatter-brained approach, but it was soon obvious to viewers and the episode's killer that beneath his step-and-fetch-it manner lay the cooly brilliant mind of a master detective. And, it was the cat-and-mouse interplay and dialog between Columbo and the criminal that was at the heart of this brilliant series.Read more ›
Most people are familiar with the Columbo formula: guest star plots murder; guest star kills victim (a series trademark - we know all along who the killer is); Columbo appears on scene; Columbo investigates - "Ahh, just one more thing, maam/sir"; just as it looks like guest star will get away with it, Columbo discovers piece of evidence that seals the case; Columbo nails guest star with evidence; guest star is led away to jail. A formula, yes, but a formula that worked incredibly well for over 40 episodes in its original run.
The first season contains two of my favorites: "Death Lends a Hand" - Robert Culp plays a private investigator who kills a client's wife, then is hired by the unknowing client to help Columbo with the investigation; and "Suitable for Framing" - an art critic murders his uncle in order to obtain two priceless paintings...this episode has one of the best endings in the series. For the possible exception of "Lady in Waiting", the other five episodes from the first season are also very strong.
And while details of the DVD haven't been released yet, I only hope this will also include the two rarely seen T.V. movies, "Prescription Murder" and "Ransom For a Dead Man", that introduced Lt. Columbo before it was decided to include the character in a rotation of Sunday night detective series on NBC.
These are a must for fans of detective dramas. Thanks, Universal, for finally releasing these!