Tip of the Spielberg: Columbo – “Murder by the Book”

In 1971, Peter Falk made his way onto the small screen as the lovable and affable Lt. Columbo. That’s a lie. That was in 1968, with the first proper episode titled Perscription: Murder. But by 1971, creators William Link and Richard Levinson had worked out all the kinks and had Columbo as a regular part of The NBC Mystery Movie. These two decided to begin the show’s first regular season (after a second pilot episode) with a capable star in Jack Cassidy and a young director named Steven Spielberg. Before becoming a big screen legend, Spielberg cut his teeth on television from shows like Night Gallery, The Name of the Game, etc. The reason to focus on this one is that it’s the most widely available and because Columbo effin’ rules.

Columbo forgoes the standard whodunit format for an inverted detective story or “howcatchem” if you wanna have fun with it. We see the killer and crime. We know how the clues and how it happened. The thrill comes from how Columbo will nab the murderer in the first place. Columbo feigns stupidity at times to ask a variety of questions. He makes witnesses reveal clues through casual conversation. I adore it when he asks so many questions to the point the murderer is ready to blow a fuse. I love when they also look annoyed at the very presence of Columbo. His signature, “Just one more thing..” leaves us excited as he lays out one more trick to his trade to get the result to let the murderer break. All of the best of Columbo is captured in the first episode. And the next one. Honestly, the entire first season can be summarized as “Oops, all bangers.”

“Murder by the Book” is no exception, setting the scene with writer Jim Ferris (Martin Milner) severing ties with his longtime writing partner Ken Franklin (Cassidy). Both wrote a series of murder novels with their character Mrs. Melville solving murders like a proto Jessica Fletcher. Franklin hates to sever ties, so he ends them by blowing his partner’s brains out. He succeeds, divulging a whole plan to make sure he does not get caught. Unfortunately for him, Columbo (Falk) is on the case to stop him. So now it’s just a matter of nabbing Ken.

What’s remarkable about this episode and episodes that follow suit is watching Columbo at work. The causal nature makes him feel like an old friend, someone everyone is comfortable dropping their guard down. Falk captures that side of him with the simplest of ease. Columbo stands out for being the opposite of what is expected from a detective working on a case. There’s a reason Falk did this for so many seasons and TV movies. He is perfect. Now seeing him stand toe-to-toe with Jack Cassidy is perfect. 

Cassidy shows Ken’s hatred for Columbo through and through. Ken is a pompous and pretentious ass, focused on his fame rather than anyone else. He uses his fame and others’ fandom of him to manipulate them, sway them into his arms, and seduce them for a kill in one instance. The treatment of Lilly La Sanka (Barabara Colby) is the stuff of nightmares. That nightmare is made all the more terrifying with shots of Ken in the kitchen lights illuminated while La Sanka remains in shadow, up close in our view, unaware of his true intentions. She’s kept in the dark. Then, moments later, a POV shot of Ken ending her life. It’s brutal with Spielberg taking a page out of Peeping Tom to set the scene. Given Colby’s tragic end in reality, it is hard to watch.

Lt. Columbo (Peter Falk) and Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) drink whiskey together. Source: Universal Television

Spielberg’s eye is displayed here with up-close-and-personal shots and the use of focus. Yet, it’s still very much a television episode. He focuses on the clue and the relevant information, which is perfect for a mystery drama. There are two great shots in the episode outside of the POV shot. One is near the beginning, where Ken has the gun pointed at Jim. It focuses on the barrel and then on Ken as the holder. When it’s first shown, it’s a practical joke (which isn’t very funny at all, that’s some weird humor you got there, Ken.). When it appears again at the cabin, it’s a similar shot and pan before cutting to the sound of a gunshot from the phone Jim’s wife Joanna (Rosemary Forsyth) is holding. It’s a standout going from gleeful to downright cold. The second shot I adore is a two-shot of Ken talking to Joanna close in the frame. But right down the middle of the frame is Columbo, ready to interrupt with more questions. Columbo is the only one in the way between them and their conversation and will continue to meddle in Ken’s business. 

It’s a significant step in the proper direction, making what boils down to a TV movie disguised as a show to give Spielberg the shot he needed. When watching Duel after this episode for this essay, I watched Spielberg discuss how he got the job. As it turns out, it was after showing studio heads at Universal the rough cut of this episode in particular that landed him the job. Talk about foresight. Also, if you read this and are urged to watch Columbo, please do it as soon as possible. It’s a great show to sit in on and spend a few hours watching Columbo nab some baddies. 

Revue Rating: 4 out of 5

Next time, Spielberg breaks out the big guns for the ABC Movie of the Week with Dennis Weaver in the road-rage thriller Duel.

Just one more thing….how many times did Jack Cassidy play a bad guy in Columbo? He and Robert Culp must have had salacious info on a producer.

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