Last night Valarie and I revisited one of our all-time favorite TV shows: Columbo. As always, Peter Falk starred as the eponymous Lieutenant Columbo, the disheveled, cigar-smoking homicide investigator with a baggy trenchcoat and a beat-up Peugeot. While a rotating guest star as the villain in each episode means the show has always known a wide variety of actors, this 1972 episode was a particularly intriguing confluence of many personalities, personas and backstories.
The murderer was played by John Cassavettes, a friend and collaborator of Falk’s outside the Columbo series. Despite being so strongly associated in people’s minds with his Columbo role, Falk has managed to involve himself with some exceptionally interesting, quality work. Not only is there the sublime Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire, in which Falk essentially plays himself (only he's also an angel who has returned to earth--but that's a whole other line of conversation). But his work with Cassavettes, the popular Hollywood actor turned iconoclastic writer-director, is also equally if not more interesting because it constitutes more of a departure from Columbo.
Falk is particularly memorable in Cassavettes's 1974 film A Woman Under the Influence, a devastatingly emotional drama about mental collapse. He stars alongside the great Gena Rowlands in what may be her best performance as a wife and mother trying desperately to keep her marbles. Because the working method on Cassavettes films always consisted of actors improvising extensively in front of the camera, it's also the antithesis of Columbo. That kind of yin-yang to an actor's resume is impressive--especially for a shlub with a glass eye.
In Étude in Black, the Columbo episode we watched last night, Cassavettes played a classical music conductor who murders his mistress because she was trying to blackmail him into marrying her. Sneaking out of his dressing room just before a televised performance at the Hollywood Bowl is about to begin, Cassavettes seems to pull off a perfect crime by making the killing look like an accident, wherein she slipped, fell and was knocked unconscious with the oven on and the gas running. But he accidentally drops his tuxedo boutonniere on the living room carpet of the victim's apartment. That's child's play for Columbo. The real fun was watching Cassavettes and Falk play off each other, with a wink that was almost but never quite ironic. Which is the perfect way to play it.
The conductor’s adoring young wife was played by Blythe Danner, mother of Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, Danner was pregnant with Gwyneth, the future Oscar winner, during filming of the episode. Legendary actress Myrna Loy, who had first gained fame 38 years earlier in The Thin Man and several sequels with William Powell as Nick and Nora, played the conductor’s mother in law. And Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, of Happy Days and The Karate Kid fame, had a small role as a butler.
The writer of Étude in Black was Steven Botchko, who would go on to create Hill Street Blues, LA Law and several other TV shows. And the episode was directed by none other than Nicholas Colasanto, who in addition to being a veteran TV director for series like Starsky & Hutch and SWAT, gained far greater notoriety in front of the camera as Ernie “The Coach” Pantuso on Cheers. Curiously, one of Colasanto's other roles, albeit a small one, was as a mobster in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. And just to bring everything full-circle, John Cassavettes, whom Colasanto directed in Étude in Black, was an important filmmaking mentor to Scorsese.
Despite the colorful lineup involved with the episode, they never for a moment change the fact that Columbo’s success lies primarily in its formula. Each week we watch some seemingly foolproof murder unspooled by the lieutenant, who identifies the murderer early on but engages in a cat-and-mouse game with his prey, all the while using a seemingly bashful ineptitude as his camouflage. I wouldn’t want most of the big and small-screen dramas I watch to be so predictable, but in the case of Columbo it’s reassuring and, oddly, never boring.
I suppose, also, that it’s precisely the formulaic nature of Columbo that makes it an interesting challenge to the actors. When you know the route, you can traverse its curves and straightaways with more precision. And that's true for the viewers, too -- as long as there's nice scenery along the way.
And besides its formulaic plot, the show also follows a very familiar and successful trajectory in the relationship between its two opposing characters. Columbo is the modest one who’s constantly underestimated but has determination and moxie on his side. The guest star plays an arrogant murderer who thinks this poor lieutenant has no chance of unearthing the brilliantly conceived crime. And guess who always goes down? It could be a murder mystery or classical mythology or a Bugs Bunny cartoon.
Funny what a fine line there is when it comes to following formula. As Joseph Campbell has noted, there’s a reason certain kinds of stories have been passed through the generations and across a spectrum of world cultures. They're elementary and elemental. They endure because they're always relevant. But there is no greater pratfall to storytellers than cliché. Somehow the key is to be rooted in a transcendent theme but to decorate the tree, so to speak, with your own unique ornaments.
Which, more than anything else, explains the row of Columbo episodes on our DVD shelf.