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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Columbo - The Complete Fifth Season
Columbo - The Complete Fifth Season
Universal // Unrated // June 27, 2006
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted July 30, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
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Columbo: The Complete Fifth Season maintains the high standard of previous years; the teleplays, direction, and performances are consistently several notches above practically everything else airing in prime time in the mid-1970s. At its worst this iconic detective show was an irresistible vehicle for star Peter Falk, whose outwardly unkempt, disheveled and unsophisticated homicide detective apologetically badgered his rich and powerful murder suspects straight into the pop culture consciousness, literally all over the world.

For the uninitiated, the typical Columbo mystery (which originally aired in 90-minute and 120-minute time slots), begins which a long set-up, often the first half-hour of screentime, in which a murder is shown and the murderer's identity plainly revealed. The cover-up to the murders and the creation of false alibis tend to be simple but ingenious, though unfortunately later Columbos relied on extravagantly complex crimes (as in Now You See Him) that strain all credibility - the best Columbo murders, however, were often the simplest.

The murderer is almost always wealthy, powerful, cultured, arrogant, and intimidating. All this is a sharp contrast to Lt. Columbo, who is the epitome of the working class, who is unsophisticated, exceedingly polite and self-deprecating. In nearly every episode upon meeting Columbo the murderer unwisely assumes they've got it made, that this dumb schlub couldn't find his way out of a paper bag much less solve a murder, and are amused by his total lack of sophistication. Gradually though, as Columbo shrewdly, quietly amasses evidence against his suspect, the murderer becomes increasing impatient with Columbo's endless if always contrite relentlessness. ("I'm sorry to bother you," he'd typically say, "It's probably nothing. There's just a few loose ends I want to clear up.")

Of course, the whole point is that Columbo knows exactly what he's doing, and goads his suspects into losing their cool and revealing themselves. It's a marvelously entertaining game of cat and mouse, partly because it's entirely psychological; almost every Columbo show is built around the detective wearing down his suspect's patience and pretense of polite cooperation past the breaking point. Ultimately, the great charm of the series is that Columbo is an everyman, outsmarting the arrogantly privileged who think themselves above the law.

At its best, Columbo transcended its TV-movie budgets (and producer Universal Television's signature artlessness) with stories and performances on par with top-drawer theatrical features. The six movie-length episodes on Columbo: The Complete Fifth Season - Forgotten Lady, A Case of Immunity, Identity Crisis (all 1975), A Matter of Honor, Now You See Him, and Last Salute to the Commodore (all 1976) - are a mixed though always entertaining bag. The first and last ones are excellent, the second is pretty weak (by Columbo standards), the third is an interesting misfire, and the fourth and fifth are about par for the series.

The unevenness of these later Columbos has to do with the fact that the show's producers and/or writers weren't content limiting Columbo's investigations to rich and powerful but otherwise ordinary Angelinos. Over time, their crimes became more elaborate (and subsequently less believable), and more fish-out-of-water episodes took the detective outside his jurisdiction for even more improbable adventures in England, aboard a cruise ship and, during this season, to Mexico and on the sovereign grounds of an Arabian embassy.

The series had ingeniously created an alternate world for Columbo often discussed but never seen. In every episode he talks about the activities of his never-seen wife and various relatives. Mrs. Columbo is always just off-camera, in another room or on the other end of a telephone conversation, but not once is see ever even glimpsed or her voice heard (see Extra Features below) and, as with Columbo, we're never privy to her first name.

Though this deliberate, casual, omission from the Columbo universe became as much its trademark as Columbo's famously rumpled raincoat, the producers, or perhaps the networks, felt the need to saddle Columbo with other baggage he frankly could have done without. A few seasons back Columbo adopted a slobbery basset hound to up the cute quotient (or something), and twice during season five Columbo is paired with younger, less experienced partners, which at times play as if Universal was testing these young actors out for their own potential series: perennial TV bridesmaid Dennis Dugan in one episode, Bob Dishy in another.

That said, even the weaker episodes still work reasonably well, partly because of the careful casting of actors who could play intimidating, forceful characters: the greater the contrast with Columbo, the better. Hence, lesser shows like A Case of Immunity, A Matter of Honor, and Now You See Him work because of the performances of Hector Elizondo, Ricardo Montalban, and Jack Cassidy, respectively.

Probably everyone and his mother coveted a guest shot as a murderer on Columbo, but the producers were wise to favor actors like Robert Culp and Patrick McGoohan, who each made multiple appearances, over bigger but less appropriate names. (However, a few actors cast against type made exceptionally good suspects, most notably Johnny Cash in a terrific, offbeat episode).

Peter Falk and the show's creators seemed to pounce upon especially promising shows, lavishing them with greater care than routine episodes that could be cranked out in 10 days or so. These best shows, usually around two per season, are fascinating on many levels. They work as great character studies which often greatly expand upon the arrogant rich man vs. working class stiff premise of the program. Past episodes like the superb By Dawn's Early Light (with Patrick McGoohan, in maybe the series' single best guest star performance, as a troubled military academy commandant) offered multi-layered, exceptionally complex characters rare for American television, while other shows like Double Shock (with Martin Landau) proved that the writers could surprise viewers with twists worthy of Agatha Christie.

There are examples of both attributes in The Complete Fifth Season. In Forgotten Lady, Columbo suspects an aging film star (Janet Leigh) of murdering her much older, infirm but wealthy husband (Sam Jaffe). Featuring top-notch support from Maurice Evans (as her butler) and, in his last role, John Payne (as her former leading man), the episode offers an unexpectedly touching portrait of a modern-day Norma Desmond-type figure, and an ingenious resolution.

More good writing is on display in Last Salute to the Commodore when, after the murder of a wealthy shipbuilder (John Dehner), Columbo sets his sights on the victim's greedy son-in-law (Robert Vaughn). But there's more this story than meets the eye, and though the resolution is itself disappointing, the show's experimentation with the form is largely successful.

Another interesting facet about the show is that though it rarely strayed far from its established formula, directors were given surprising latitude and Falk himself was admirably open to varying the subtleties of his character. Early shows had been stylishly directed by upstart Universal discoveries like Steven Spielberg and Jeannot Szwarc, but as time when on Falk gradually brought in friends and frequent collaborators. Pal Ben Gazarra directed the excellent A Friend in Deed with performances and a grittiness much like a Peter Falk-John Cassevetes movie (Cassevetes himself played a memorable Columbo murderer). In Season Five, frequent guest star McGoohan, who also stars in the disappointing Identity Crisis, helms Last Salute to the Commodore with the same level of subtlety he brought to his performance in By Dawn's Early Light.

Part of the greatness of Peter Falk as Columbo is that in these shows he actually varies his performance quite a bit. For example, in both the Gazarra and McGoohan-directed shows (both, notably, actors themselves), Falk plays Columbo in a very naturalistic manner, in episodes that are basically straightforward police procedurals, albeit laced with humor

The show's dazzling line-up of bigger-than-you'd-expect guest stars and character players continue to impress. Among the actors also appearing this season: Sal Mineo (in an episode that aired four months before his murder), Kenneth Tobey, Leslie Nielsen, Bruce Kirby (in several episodes), Vito Scotti (another semi-regular), Emilio Fernandez, Robert Loggia, Diane Baker, and Wilfred Hyde-White.

Video & Audio

Columbo: The Complete Fifth Season is presented in its original full frame format in excellent transfers that are big improvement over the earlier Region 2 DVDs released in Japan several years back. The original teasers are retained though they're so full of spoilers I wish Universal had opted to stick them elsewhere on the discs as an extra feature. Missing from the set is the wonderful NBC Mystery Movie theme (by Henri Mancini) that opened each episode, and which presumably is not included because of rights issues. Optional English subtitles are included.

Extra Features

As with earlier season sets, the lone extra is a good one, an episode called Caviar with Everything from Columbo's woe-begotten spin-off Mrs. Columbo (1979). Starring the excellent but alarmingly miscast Kate Mulgrew, the show is passable on its own terms, and Mulgrew is quite charming, but a disaster in its insistence that the 23-year-old with the Bryn Mawr accent was married to the (now) never-seen homicide detective. Also, Kate Columbo's perennially sunny disposition, a cover for her probing amateur sleuthing, is appealing but doesn't work within the context presented in this episode. Where in Columbo audiences were entertained watching his "little gray cells" hard at work beneath a veneer of ineptitude, one gets the sense Kate Columbo is simply oblivious to the mayhem around her and her sudden entrapment of the murderer at the end comes as an unbelievable surprise.

Parting Thoughts

Those new to Columbo's universe are strongly urged to start at the series' beginning, while those who have been picking up these sets all along won't be disappointed with this one. Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.

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