The question I am most commonly asked on Twitter is what my favourite episodes are. Indeed, if you’re a lover of Columbo and you meet a fellow fan, the question is always a good ice-breaker and guarantees a lively discussion.
I hope that an article on the subject could be a good way of encouraging debate amongst readers. There’s every chance you won’t agree with all my choices and, as always with articles of this type, there are some absolutely terrific episodes that haven’t made it on to my list.
But I make no apologies for that. Selecting the best Columbo episodes is always going to be subjective. As I said in my ‘Top 10 gotchas’ blog, you’ve got to choose from the heart, not to satisfy public demand. So the choices below are are my favourite episodes simply because they are the ones that I enjoy the most, and the ones that I come back to time and again and again when I need my Columbo fix.
Spoiler alert: It won’t surprise most people who know me to learn there are no ‘new’ episodes included within this list. I love Columbo Goes to College and Agenda for Murder from 1990, but I’m a purist at heart and nothing can beat the 70s classics.
10. A Stitch in Crime (1973)
Ace surgeon Dr Barry Mayfield has a heart as cold as glacial ice. He not only tries to bump off lovable Grandpa Walton (Will Greer) through use of dissolving suture after heart surgery – he also kills the nurse who figures it out with a tyre iron to the head. Worse follows as he slays a reformed-drug-addict-now-petting-zoo employee in one of the saddest scenarios the entire series serves up. Little wonder, then, that Columbo can’t stand him. The friction between the two makes for delicious viewing – never more so than when the Lieutenant loses his cool when Mayfield laughs off his accusations and slams a pitcher down on his desk in a rare show of genuine emotion. It all helps make Mayfield’s ultimate downfall all the more satisfying.
9. Death Lends a Hand (1971)
The first episode of Season 1 to be filmed, Death Lends a Hand was ultimately bumped back from opening the series by the superior Murder by the Book, but it remains one of the show’s strongest chapters.
In the role of Investigator Brimmer, Robert Culp brings a barely contained rage to Columbo that makes for compelling viewing. He’s a superb foil to the Lieutenant and a very dangerous foe. In contrast is Ray Milland’s dignified turn as wronged media mogul Arthur Kennicut. He’s rich, powerful and used to having his way, but Milland successfully conveys his vulnerable edge and sadness at the death of his wife (at Brimmer’s furious hands). Throw in Falk’s exquisite performance and you have a Great Triumvirate at the peak of their powers.
Notable for a beautifully presented murder scene, which at once shows us everything and nothing, and some innovative editing where the aftermath of the crime is played out in a montage on Brimmer’s glasses, this is a slice of 70s TV at its most absorbing. And in catching his quarry we see Columbo employ a range of tricks and subterfuge that show just what he’s willing to do in the course of duty – a theme that will reappear time and again throughout the series.
8. Try and Catch Me (1978)
Ruth Gordon’s charming turn as diminutive mystery writer Abigail Mitchell (the oldest Columbo killer by a stretch) elevates this episode to stellar heights. Many fans rate it amongst their very favourites and I’m no different. The murder itself (Abi traps her supposedly treacherous nephew in an air-tight safe) is first rate, the conclusion is rewarding, but it is the rapport between Abi and the Lieutenant that really makes it sing.
In a series of memorable scenes, Columbo gives away more of his real personality than we usually see in a single episode. His monologue to the ladies’ lunch, the exchange with Abi from behind the wheel of her Rolls Royce, and his sympathy with her for the loss of her niece all give good insights into his character and his past. But the real highlight is the moment at the docks when Abi tells Columbo she thinks he’s a very kind man. “Don’t count on that, Miss Mitchell. Don’t count on it,” he responds. The message is clear: he may be polite, he may be respectful. But he’s out to get her.
7. A Friend in Deed (1974)
A bleak and brooding tale of police corruption, cover-up and murder, A Friend In Deed is an episode apart in many ways. If every episode was as dark and humourless as this, it’s unlikely that Columbo would have been such an enduringly popular show, but as a one-off it packs a real punch.
Its great success is the contrast between the two leads: the corrupt and morally bankrupt Commissioner Halperin set against the doughty and dependable Columbo in a battle of wits that will either see one jailed or one out of a job. Boasting one of the best scripts of any episode, some glorious action sequences (Commissioner Halperin jumping out of a helicopter into a swimming pool, anyone?), and fine examples of Columbo’s everyman appeal in his conversations with ex-con Artie Jessup, this is an entirely successful addition to the series.
6. Negative Reaction (1974)
Surely the funniest of all episodes, Negative Reaction combines magical comic moments with strong performances across the board – not least from Dick Van Dyke, who plays against type as dastardly photographer-cum-wife-killer Paul Galesko. While Van Dyke plays it straight, there’s humour abound throughout: a nun mistaking Columbo for a hobo and trying to find him a new coat; Columbo asking Galesko for a photo of a cocker spaniel to ease his pining basset hound’s broken heart; and, best of all, Columbo terrorising Larry Storch’s highly strung driving instructor through his lack of attention on the road.
It all wraps up with a great gotcha moment and a poignant freeze-frame ending to effectively off-set all the fun. Mighty impressive stuff.
5. Murder by the Book (1971)
A typewriter pounds. A Mercedes cruises through the LA streets. A writer in a high-rise is lost in a world of his own invention. As the typewriter continues to pound the car parks in an empty lot, the driver steps out and slips a gun into his jacket. So begins one of the pivotal TV experiences of our time.
From those first arresting moments, Murder by the Book grabs the viewer by the throat and never lets go. It’s still a cause of pride and joy for Columbo fans that a young Steven Spielberg was in the director’s chair for this. His touch and flair make this a visually unique outing, but he’s only one reason for its success. Peter Falk and Jack Cassidy establish an on-screen rapport that would enrich the series on three occasions, while Steven Bochco’s script and Blly Goldenberg’s score are world class. In short, it’s an A Grade cast and crew and they all bring their A Game to proceedings.
If there is a criticism it’s that the gotcha itself is relatively disappointing compared to all that’s come before it, but that almost doesn’t matter. It may not be my ultimate favourite, but Murder by the Book remains a seminal piece of TV – and is always the episode I recommend newcomers to the series cut their Columbo teeth on. After that, they’ll be hooked for life.
4. Double Shock (1973)
Columbo threw a curve ball to viewers at the end of Season 2, offering up this magnificent ‘whodunnit’ mystery, with feuding identical twins Dexter and Norman Paris (both played by Martin Landau) both having motives to kill their rich uncle – and both blaming the other for the crime.
At times wickedly funny – especially when the ferocious Mrs Peck puts Columbo to the sword – and home to a handful of the most memorable Columbo moments (the famed ad-libbed ‘cookery scene’ chief amongst them), it’s arguably Peter Falk’s single best performance as the Lieutenant. By the end of Season 2 he had absolutely perfected the character and all its nuances. It really shows. As such it’s an episode that gets better with each watch, as the viewer uncovers more and more elements of Falk’s performance to treasure.
3. Publish or Perish (1973)
Any episode featuring Jack Cassidy is a thing of joy, but to my mind he was never better than this outing as sleazy publisher Riley Greenleaf. The early scenes, when Greenleaf establishes his alibi with his shambling faux drunk antics are priceless. He brays at a barkeep; magnificently puts down some luckless patrons in the car park; and finally challenges police officers to remove him from his vehicle when he’s illegally parked. Jack must have been having such a blast while filming, and that sense of fun and mischief is absolutely contagious.
Aside from Jack’s star turn, this is also one of the series’ most gripping stories. From its explosive start at the junkyard to its tense conclusion, Publish is packed with intrigue, clever touches, a terrific script and a memorable climax. Be warned: there’s a lot packed into the 75-minute running time, so it’s an episode that demands close attention to enjoy to the max. But viewers that give it their all will be rewarded, not least by that most magnificent of Columbo sights: Jack Cassidy in full flight.
2. Suitable for Framing (1971)
Featuring the best Columbo ‘gotcha’ moment of all, Suitable for Framing is a truly great piece of TV, which satisfies on every level. Ross Martin is perfect as our chief protagonist, smarmy art critic Dale Kingston. He’s a velvet tuxedo wearer, who laughs uproariously at his own high-brow jokes, kills his own uncle, and is prepared to frame his lovable and dotty Aunt Edna to get his hands on a priceless art collection.
Kingston is more condescending and dismissive than the average Columbo killer, so it’s easy for the viewer to loathe him. But at the same time we are shown abundant signs of Columbo’s slyness and mental acuity. He effortlessly arranges to tap Kingston’s phone, pretends to fall asleep at Kingston’s house to unsettle him when he gets home, and, unusually, has a supportive superior officer on hand, backing him to the hilt. A magnificent Billy Goldenberg score, stellar supporting cast (including Don Ameche) and some wonderful location shooting add further gloss. The ‘gloved hand reveal’ at the end is simply the icing on the cake, leaving the viewer on the verge of spontaneous applause as credits roll.
1. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case (1977)
As a 10-year-old in the late ’80s, Bye-Bye was the first Columbo episode I ever recall watching and enjoying, and it has remained my favourite ever since. A lot of that I attribute to the splendid efforts of Theo Bikel as the pompous, yet ultimately fragile killer Oliver Brandt (read more about that here), while Peter Falk is on sparkling form as Lieutenant Columbo, adding just the right amount of whimsy to his performance as he investigates a murder at a society of geniuses.
There are flaws in this episode. For starters, it’s inconceivable that the argument between Brandt and his partner Bertie that preceded the murder wouldn’t have been heard by their fellow Sigma Society members. How did the police not find Brandt’s umbrella in the chimney when investigating the crime? And, really, Brandt is the only viable suspect whose motives are quickly and clearly established.
But these shortcomings don’t matter because the episode as a whole is so good and so entertaining. It boasts several of the very best Columbo scenes, including, but not limited to: the Lieutenant’s rib-tickling conversations with the Sigma Society members about their views on the crime; the tense moment in the park where Brandt bins the murder weapon; a surly young waitress (Jamie Lee Curtis in her screen debut) confiscating Columbo’s donut; and Columbo cramping young accountant George’s style at a nightclub. We even see what we’ve been waiting to see since the series debuted: the Lieutenant caught in the rain without his raincoat. It’s magical stuff.
As covered in the ‘top 10 gotchas’ article, the denouement is right up there with the series’ finest, too, with simple edits between the two leads’ faces building to a frenzied climax amid lightning and thunder. And it proves to the viewer what we’ve always known deep down: that the humble, dishevelled Lieutenant has one of the great minds of his time.So there we have it. My top 10 in all its glory. I couldn’t find room for such classics as Double Exposure, Troubled Waters, Any Old Port in a Storm, Etude in Black, or Now You See Him – all perennial favourites amongst the fan base – but don’t hold that against me.
What do you think are the best Columbo episodes? I’d love to hear about your own favourites, so please leave a comment below, or vote for your single favourite episode in my fan poll.
Thanks, as always, for reading, and if you’d care to share this article to stimulate further debate, I’d be delighted.