Episode Guide / Opinion / Top 10

My top 10 favourite Columbo episodes

If you’re a lover of Columbo and you meet a fellow fan, the question of favourite episodes 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.

Stitch in Crime

Columbo and Dr Mayfield struggle to see eye-to-eye throughout

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.

Death Lends a Hand

Innovative editing techniques help Death Lends a Hand stand out

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.

Try and Catch Me

You’re goin’ down, Grandma…

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.

Friend in Deed

Halperin’s well-established wickedness plays a big part in the success of A Friend In Deed

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.

Negative Reaction

Falk and Van Dyke combine to great effect in Negative Reaction

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.

Murder by Book

Murder by the Book gets off to an arresting start – and it never lets up

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.

Double Shock cookery scene

The ad-libbed cookery scene in Double Shock never fails to delight

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.

Publish or Perish

Was Jack Cassidy at his VERY best as Riley Greenleaf? Discuss…

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.

Dale Kingston

Ross Martin excels as the slimy Dale Kingston in Suitable for Framing

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.

Columbo nightclub

Columbo cramps George’s style but wins crazy Suzie’s heart: just one of many terrific scenes in Bye-Bye

So there we have it. My top 10 in all its glory. I couldn’t find room for such classics as Double Exposure, Troubled WatersAny 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.

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84 thoughts on “My top 10 favourite Columbo episodes

  1. In my minds eye I see a lady sitting on a sofa & there’s a fireplace off to her right. Colombo is standing to her left. She has 4 months to live. The victim deserve to be killed. Colombo just walks out. No, I don’t think it is Forgotten Lady. Any other ideas?

  2. I’ve already watched the entire season 1 and season 2 till “The Most Crucial Game” included. So much fun ahead! I’ll try to make my own list when, one fine day, I’ll have watched all the episodes. I’ve enjoyed all episodes thus far (some more, some less, but I’ve enjoyed them all), but “Prescription: Murder” is my absolute, definite favorite as of today.

  3. I love the thought of an alternate reality version of Bye Bye, running time about 10 minutes. Shortly after the murder takes place and the police have arrived, Theo is downstairs, deep into his performance as the grieving friend, and feeling very pleased with himself for being so clever. No one will ever figure it out. Then Columbo walks out: “after a cursory initial search of the room, we just found this umbrella shoved inside the fireplace. Arrest that man.” The end.

  4. Hello Fellow Columbo Fanatics

    Greetings from South Africa. Television was launched here in 1976. It was only around the mid-80s that South Africans were introduced to the unforgettable Peter Falk and “Columbo”.

    For many years I yearned to revisit those marvellous episodes but, being out of touch with the internet (I was a very late starter), I gave up all hope of ever reliving the experience of watching the brilliant Columbo, again.

    Then, about a few years ago, I happened to watch Falk, together with the rat pack in the hilarious gangster-musical, “Robin and the Seven Hoods” deliver an outstanding performance and this was a turning point; all my suppressed longings returned instantaneously. It was from that moment that I started making an earnest endeavour to lay my hands on the Columbo gold. This was what led me to the internet and online shopping and Bingo: the complete box set! It was inevitable that I would eventually stumble onto this website.

    I’m enjoying the responses of the contributors, here, but I have not as yet decided on my top ten of all time. I need to apply my mind diligently to this engaging exercise, ensuring that I strive to attain a balance between the critical and the sentimental. One thing is certain, though: “The Last Salute to the Commodore” will definitely feature among the late 60s.

    It’s an enriching experience watching these episodes, some thirty years later, through a completely new set of lenses.

    I look forward to writing again.

    With best wishes.

    • Welcome to the club! Our learned COLUMBOPHILE keeps up the cool Columbo stuff and gives us his great writeups on episodes. Sometimes you’ll find your opinion on episodes shift as you watch them again. I’ve had several climb my list and fall. Let us know your favorites!

  5. Re: Negative Reaction episode. Better Call Saul paid homage to the end of this Columbo episode by using the “Are you a witness?” portion in their latest episode. It is mentioned on their Insider Podcast for episode 3-02. http://podbay.fm/show/96629

  6. 1. Now You See Him
    2. Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo
    3. Any Old Port in a Storm
    4. Murder by the Book
    5. Murder, a Self Portrait
    6. A Friend in Deed
    7. Playback
    8. Étude in Black
    9. Try and Catch Me
    10. The Bye-Bye Sky High I.Q. Murder Case
    Your list is very interesting, great list!

  7. I can’t wait to see your writeup on “A Friend in Need”, my number 1 episode of Columbo. I find as I watch that one again and again, more is revealed to me; a story of three men (Halprin, Jessup, Columbo), three different wives, and three levels of power in a society. I think the interplay between Falk (Columbo) and Avery (Jessup) to be some of their best work ever; a man with enormous power needing the help of a man who has none. Anyway can’t wait for the writeup!

    • A friend in deed is an absolute masterpiece. One of the darkest episodes with one of the very best endings. An effective villain in Kiley and everything works in this episode. Its perfect, one of the very very best.

  8. 1. Identity Crisis
    My favorite since the first time I saw it. I love that Columbo tracks down his suspect through sheer persistence and solid police work. Other episodes have better gotcha moments, but I believe this has the best initial meeting. Patrick McGoohan is so entertaining it should be criminal.

    2. A Stitch in Crime
    With a truly scary killer who is immune to much of Columbo’s oeuvre, therefore requiring a different kind of relationship, and a wickedly clever method of murder, this episode feels unique in many ways. What makes it extra fun is that the killer is so formidable and cold, yet there is no compromise on that to let him be caught.

    3. Murder by the Book
    “Did you ever get a feeling of déjà vu?” Once you find out what this line meant… it’s chilling. This is my favorite Jack Cassidy performance because it perfectly combines the charm and the danger. He’s a wolf. Spielberg’s directorial touches make the episode stand out even more.

    4. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
    The weighing puzzle blew my mind when I was a kid. I agree with everything you said about it: great moments among the best in the whole series, and Bikel’s performance creates a deeply memorable killer.

    5. Étude in Black
    Perhaps the best overall atmosphere and acting performances in the series. Cassavetes and Falk have great chemistry and a delicious contrast.

    6. Now You See Him
    7. Death Lends a Hand
    8. Troubled Waters
    9. Prescription: Murder
    10. Try and Catch Me

    Special mention to Fade in to Murder, which probably wouldn’t make my top 20, but only because it feels like a spinoff comedy companion to the regular series. It’s hilarious!

    • As a long-time Colombologist (as well as Colombophile), one of the great but underrated and seldom mentioned episodes is “A Deadly State of Mind,” co-starring George Hamilton as the murderer and Leslie Ann Warren as (one) victim. This movie has all of the ingredients that Colombo fans love and even newcomers will enjoy. The script by Peter Fisher–one of the best writers in the series–is first rate. The acting is superb. George Hamilton is especially good here in a serious role, playing against type, as he’s best known for comedic roles. The story and the tension builds in classic cat-and-mouse Colombo fashion. There’s a wonderful comedic scene in which some party goers at the house of the character played by Hamilton want to know more about Colombo’s investigative skills. And there’s the knockout “gotcha” moment at the end that I think ranks among the very best in the series.

      • I’m often surprised when I see how lowly Deadly State tends to rank in fan polls. I agree with you about all its plus points, particularly the gotcha, which is undoubtedly one of the very best of all. While it doesn’t make my top 10 it’s probably top 15. Really like it when Columbo shows a flash of temper to Collier’s sidekick Dr Borden, too. Lots to enjoy here.

      • its one of my favourites. Collier is so cocky its great fun, He makes the phone call to Leslie Ann Warren that will kill her while Columbo is sitting in the room with him!

        i also love this exchange of dialogue between Columbo and Collier

        Collier – Am i to presume that i am currently your chief suspect?
        Columbo – I’m not sure that suspect is a strong enough word!
        Collier – In that case i should be locked up! But of course i’m not, therefore i presume that you have no proof
        Columbo – Not yet
        Collier (smug smirk) – You’ll let me know when you do woncha!
        Columbo – You will be the first to know Dr!

        Great stuff

  9. For me:

    1. Swan Song
    2. Murder by the Book
    3. Double Exposure
    4. Candidate for a Crime
    5. A Friend in Deed
    6. Death Lends a Hand
    7. Try and Catch Me
    8. Now you see him
    9. By Dawn’s Early
    10. …

    So many deserve the last spot I can’t seem to pick:
    — Blueprint
    — A Stitch in Crime
    — Fade in to Muder (yes I know, but I do like the chemistry).
    — Any Old Port
    –Troubled Waters
    — Double Shock

  10. Pingback: Columbo top 10 episodes: as voted for by the fans | The columbophile

  11. Candidate for Crime doesn’t seem to get any love yet I think it has one of the best plot lines and most intriguing matchups. A politician and his campaign manager, corrupt to the core, and the politician’s desire to finally get from out from under the heel of the campaign manger. While he kills him because he wants to continue his relationship with the secretary, the truth is probably he would have tried to kill him anyway.

    What makes this one of my favorites is watching Columbo drive Jackie Coogan absolutely crazy as he explains his theory behind the murder. A man who doesn’t want to waste his time with this cop, is forced to pay attention because the cop is telling him that the ruse for his campaign manager’s death has been uncovered. And as he tries repeatedly to get Columbo out of his office, Columbo drives him to the border of insanity with his polite quirkiness.

    • I agree. One of my favs. This is a great list though, and the reviews are very insightful. Suprised not to see Swan Song here…

    • Candidate has some brilliant scenes, and one of the very best finales, but the longer running time really damages it in my eyes. If it were 15-20 mins shorter, losing a lot of unnecessary padding, it could be one of the very best.

  12. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Etude in Black | The columbophile

  13. My top 10

    1. Make Me A Perfect Murder
    2. A Friend In Deed
    3. Negative Reaction
    4. Suitable for Framing
    5. A Stitch In Crime
    6. Any Old Port In A Storm
    7. By Dawns Early Light
    8. Double Exposure
    9. Publish Or Perish
    10.An Exercise In Fatality

  14. Good list….entertainment value and strong plot are my metrics. Also, loved Cassavetes, Pleasance, Milland, and Cassidy.
    1) A Friend in Deed
    2) Any Old Port in the Storm
    3) Double Exposure
    4) Etude in Black
    5) Publish or Perish
    6) By the Dawn’s Early Light
    7) Murder by the Book
    8) Identity Crisis
    9) Now You See Him
    10) Greenhouse Jungle
    My worst would have to be the one set in England, watched it once, can’t remember the name, outlandish plot.

      • Just read it. Good review. It is one of my favourites. I agree with you completely that it isn’t the Columbo we are familiar with. I thought that when watching it, especially as he was putting the pressure on the young actress in the studio. As falk refined his character he didn’t need the aggression.

  15. Almost exactly a year later, here’s my list of favorites:
    10. Murder Under Glass- Jourdan is a particular pleasure to watch. Such an oily snake of a man. Also has a great victim in Gazzo’s Rossi, a great method of killing someone and a satisfying gotcha. Slightly let down by some pacing issues and weird behavior from Columbo but an episode I find myself returning to.
    9. Fade in to Murder- This was a huge return to form for the show after the disastrous calamity of Commodore. Shatner’s truly ambiguous in this episode. Is he suffering from multiple personality disorder or does he just feel guilty and want to be caught? Is he truly sympathetic even though he’s a prima donna who took advantage of his best friend, brutally pistol whipped a harmless innocent and killed a woman in cold blood? Also a brilliant example of the Columbo formula, a great introduction to the series for newcomers.
    8. Troubled Waters- rarely mentioned but a personal favorite. A lightweight and fun episode. Vaughn is deliciously slimy and I love his plan to get rid of a blackmailing floozy. The ship setting is unique and puts Columbo at a nice disadvantage. I also love the gotcha in this one with Falk slowly sliding the paper with graphite shavings over to Vaughn while whistling “This Old Man”.
    7. Now You See Him…- yet another Cassidy masterpiece, in this case his most sympathetic killer. He’s an ex-Nazi and a jerk but he cares for his daughter and he’s being taken advantage of by a scumbag of a blackmailer. The execution of the murder is particularly split-second precise as well. I also love Columbo regular Mike Lally’s cameo in this one as a worn out circus act and the definitely 70’s setting of a magic-based nightclub. Just great.
    6. An Exercise in Fatality- Conrad is such a heel in this episode, I just love to hate him. Also, he’s a brilliant foil to Columbo: genuinely smart and ruthless. The scene with Columbo and Janus facing off in the hospital is spine tingling as a fan of the show. I also think Paxton’s drunk, scattered but lovable Mrs. Stafford is one of the more effective guest star performances in the series. Slightly let down by a questionable gotcha.
    5. Suitable for Framing – perhaps the most underrated Columbo episode. It features great attempt at a perfect murder, excellent detective work by Columbo and the greatest gotcha in series history. Martin’s Kingston is the height of boorish arrogance and is a particularly noteworthy killer.
    4. By Dawn’s Early Light- a rightly popular episode from the heart of the series when it was running on all cylinders. McGoohan’s great as the Commandant, the (clearly southern) military academy location is a fresh change of pace for the show, there’s lots of great scenes, the plot is watertight, the clues are solid.
    3. A Stitch in Crime – Nimoy playing a true psychopath here, a man with no conscience and no empathy. The image of Nimoy sitting quietly in Harry’s apartment waiting to kill him is chilling. A dark, tense episode from the series’ early days. This also has the first time Columbo genuinely loses it and drops the mask. Brilliant.
    2. Murder by the Book – the series started with near perfection. Cassidy is a brilliantly despicable killer and Spielberg’s direction is flawless. Poor Mrs. La Sanka, poor Jim Ferris. The great vacation house, the delightfully cringe-worthy scene of Cassidy hitting on his interviewer. It’s iconic television. One small weakness: Columbo’s character hadn’t been fully fleshed out yet.
    1. Any Old Port in a Storm- Like a comfortable old shoe, probably my favorite hour+ of TV ever created. In my opinion, Pleasance’s performance is the single high point of the series. Is he truly sympathetic or does his brother Ric have a point that he’s a selfish, pompous ass? It’s hard to say. Also, features a particularly horrible method of killing someone (perhaps unintentionally?), a great setting and a brilliant wine-sharing coda. This episode is one of the reasons we all love Columbo.

  16. I mostly agree, though I would have swapped out Sky High for Any Port in a Storm. Suitable for Framing is underrated on other Columbo sites. I would also single out Death Lends a Hand for its musical score. The return of the main theme at the end makes Columbo’s reveal about the potato in the tailpipe an indelible moment.

  17. Interesting to me is the range of quality in the various episodes. Don’t want to “name names,” but a few Columbo episodes just fall flat compared to those that perennially make these Top-10 lists. Peter Falk never fails to turn in a stellar performance, and the writing is equally consistent. So why is it some episodes simply do not work? Direction? Guest star? For me, if it has Jack Cassidy or Ruth Gordon, then it’s a great episode, one I never grow tired of watching.

    • All of the above! I think a lot of the episodes that work less well either feature a poor clue (Last Salute, Dead Weight, Mind Over Mayhem), an uninteresting or repetitive crime (eg Old Fashioned Murder), or poor plotting/storylines (Short Fuse, Dagger of the Mind). There weren’t many did guest stars, in fact the strike rate for the 70s episodes was remarkably high on almost all elements, but the very best 10-20 episodes combine so many good elements they’re very hard to beat.

    • I think acting and directing, as you hinted, make the difference. Cassidy, for example, makes any episode entertaining while the direction of Commodore ruins the episode. I tend to gravitate to the lighter episodes, though Friend in Deed had such a compelling plot even though it was mostly humorless.

      • Friend in Deed is a great exception. I’m similar to you, like the lighter episodes as a rule, but Friend is such a strong, dark story that it makes for a really interesting addition to the series.

  18. I also like your list very much. I have a different ranking of the episodes, however. Here’s my top ten:
    1. A Friend in Deed
    2. Negative Reaction
    3, A Stitch in Crime
    4. Murder by the Book
    5. Blueprint for Murder
    6. The Most Crucial Game
    7. Playback
    8. Any Old Port in the Storm
    9. Columbo Goes to College
    10. By Dawn’s Early Light

    • Hi Patricia, thanks for your comments. I’m always interested in the lists of others and there are some gems there. This reminds me that I need to get back on the review trail, as I’m well overdue doing a write up of Short Fuse (spoiler: it’s not a favourite of mine!)

      • My favorites,

        10. Short Fuse(First episode I watched, sorry)
        9. Stitch in a Crime
        8. Death Lends a Hand
        7. Any Old Port in a Storm
        6. Blueprint for Murder
        5. Playback
        4. Lovely But Lethal
        3. Suitable for Framing
        2. Try and Catch Me
        1. Double Shock

    • The reason double shock is so high is the fact that it has some comedic tones to it, I find quite enjoyable to also watch Martin landau and Peter falk interact, also I thought that it was a nice change of pace because you don’t know which twin could have done it, obviously both were involved but still, they did a good job

  19. This is a brilliant site dedicated to my favourite detective series. Loving the love for all things Columbo. Your top ten contains some of my favourites as well. I do have a soft spot for the Bye Bye Sky High IQ murder case (love the ending) and Bikel’s performance especially. A Friend In Deed although a relatively darker episode is a certain top five with me. But this site has got me in the mood for my own Columbo re-watch (although I must have seen each episode lots of times) and hopefully I will sort out a top ten – it wont be easy.

      • I really can’t describe it, it’s just a good mixture of comedy and typical mystery, and as you had mentioned it’s one of those episodes that gets better every time you watch it. I just think it’s a really great episode.

  20. Columbo fan here in Spain…My top 10 are
    1. Candidate for crime
    2. Murder by the book
    3. Negative reaction
    4. Ransom for a dead man
    5. Death hits the jackpot
    6. Agenda for murder
    7. Publish or perish
    8. Swan song
    9. Any port in a storm
    10. Death lends a hand

    • 1. Huge fan of this episode. Huge. Arguably my favorite and nice to see someone who feels the same way. Great ending.

      2. Can’t understand the love affair of this episode. It is very good. I like it but I thought the ending was somewhat weaker than others. Just my opinion.

      Here are some of my favorites.

      1. A friend in Deed. Well done.
      2. Try and catch me.
      3. Etude in Black. The chemistry between Casavettes and Falk is great.
      4. Where is Now you see him? That is a keeper.

      • Thanks for your comment, and I see we share a lot of common favourites. I love ‘Now You See Him’ but there are so many good episodes I couldn’t squeeze it in. I’d probably rate it my 11th or 12th favourite.

  21. “Murder by the Book” is at the top of my list, including the ending (as I’ve expressed elsewhere on this site). “Bye Bye Sky High” is up there, but not at the top. (I could never understand Mark Dawidziak’s antipathy for that episode. It’s ending is 100% in keeping with the character of the murderer.)

    I would also include on my list: “Dagger of the Mind” (for the English murder mystery ambiance), “Swan Song” (for the one-two punch ending, the parachute and the car keys), and “Murder Under Glass” (the only Columbo script to win an Edgar award).

    One episode on your list that bothers me (to quote Columbo) is “Publish or Perish.” For one, I’ve never understood why Riley Greenleaf wasn’t satisfied with clearing himself. He only got into trouble when he went overboard to pin the crime on Eddie Kane. And why did he wait until after Mallory’s murder to start framing Kane? That part seemed much too improvisational for a Columbo villain. Finally, the ending proved nothing except that Greenleaf lied about the Kane manuscript. It didn’t prove that Greenleaf murdered anyone. So I give that episode’s first half high marks, but I don’t buy the second half.

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  23. Thank you for the wonderful website, the great Top Ten list, and your insights into each of the episodes listed. My list would have to include By Dawn’s Early Light, for one very special reason…the outstanding performance by Patrick McGoohan. I understand he won an Emmy for this episode and I can understand why. Each time I watch it I find one more little, subtle, thing that he adds to the character to make him seem so real. He has a knack for changes in mood, voice inflection, meaningful looks, and quirky mannerisms that make his character in this episode so 3-dimensional and someone you admire despite the crime. Jack Cassidy often gets the praises but Patrick McGoohan delivers like no other.

    • Hi Peter. You’re right, he did win an Emmy for that one, and it was a really top class performance, and very restrained by his Columbo standards! It helps give that episode a very different feel to most Columbo episodes.

  24. I don’t remember the name, but there was one where a pocket watch was broke and Columbo brought one in and showed it to a room full of suspects and ask them to identify. All agreed it was the watch of the victim but one man said, “it can’t be” and Columbo proved he was the one who smashed it to determine when the murder took place. Then Columbo took a small boat over to enjoy lunch with his wife. Brilliant.

      • Hi, a great website for a classic TV show! I really enjoy lists but I find I could not do my own since it would be so hard to decide. To me, rating Columbo episodes is akin to splitting hairs. I will opine instead that TV is about moments as Henry Fonda once famously said and that is certainly true of Columbo. One of mine comes in ‘Publish or Perish’ when Columbo questions a restaurant bill only to learn that he was actualy undercharged and no must pay the difference. The actor who played the waiter was a terrific foil. That to me is Columbo in a nutshell. If solving crimes had been his only function in life, Columbo would actually be quite boring although probably more content to be left alone to do his thing. Instead, its all the mannerisms, eccentricities, and BS conversations had with the suspect that make the character so special. There are so many of those ‘moments’ that it hard to keep track!

        I do take issue to a certain extent with many fans leaving the ‘Commodore’ episode towards the bottom of their lists. Peter Falk himself apparently complained about the show’s quality suffering during the later seasons and I thought that began to be the case from Season 5. To me, ‘Commodore’ stands out because it was an attempt to introduce new elements to a formula that arguably had fallen victim to repetition and predictability, a tendency in long-running series. In the original series, ‘Commodore’ breaks with tradition by attempting to deceive the audience into believing that the suspect covering up evidence is also the killer (prior to that, they had always been one in the same). What’s more, Columbo believes this is the case, too! It is only when the prime suspect (Robert Vaughn) turns up murdered that Columbo realizes he must re-evaluate. Add to it the dysfunctional nature of the family system complete with outbursts, rampant substance abuse, jealously/envy and so on and the episode made for compelling theater. Finally, I found the repartee between Columbo and Mac (Columbo’s disciple) kind of interesting in that it appeared that Dugan was authentically and spontaneously activated at Peter Falk or his portrayal of Columbo to where I began wondering if the two were truly acting in their scenes together.

        Finally, I think the other element that made Columbo so successful was his ability to bond to his suspects — specifically, to find a likeable attribute as hard as it was in some of the episodes. My favorite in that regard was the regular series finale, The Conspirators, in which the major scenes of the episode consist largely of raconteuring (?) between murderer (Clive Revill) and Columbo. The plot itself was simple enough so it was up to the episode’s protagonists to give it life which they did marvelously well. It was through the murderer’s convivial nature which Columbo recognized from the outset and exploited to the hilt that the motive and killer’s rationale is revealed.

      • Hi there, and thanks so much for such a full comment! I like the sentiment that TV is about moments. That’s part of the appeal of Columbo. Even mediocre episodes have wonderful moments, eg Columbo’s haircut in Old Fashioned Murder; his conversation with a cop who ‘wasn’t listening’ at the crime scene in Candidate for Crime, and dozens more. Gives the show great repeat viewing value!

      • With regard to Last Salute, I’m one of those who isn’t a fan. It’s my least favourite 70s episode by a mile. I’m all for tweaking the formula, but I think they took it far too far. I’ve already written my review of it, although it won’t appear on the blog for many moons.

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  27. “Top 10” always has a hint of boldness about it, because there are so many slots where we in the peanut gallery can slip in our choices … but “Top 3” is WAY harder to do … so, here we are.

    My #1 is The Conspirators and after that it gets difficult …

    • I concur, very difficult as there’s so much quality and so little to choose between so many episodes. I’m pretty locked into this top 10, though, having given it lots of thought. Now You See Him, Troubled Waters and Identity Crisis the closest also rans. Interestingly I’m not sure Conspirators would make my top 20. I never really warmed to it. Perhaps because of family’s Northern Irish heritage.

  28. This is wonderfully written. So many of your observations are ones I completely agree with. I like how you touch on the darkness of A Friend in Deed, which on reflection is darker than anything in the series with the possible exception of No Time to Die, which is hardly a representative Columbo episode anyway. I also love reading your thoughts on Bye Bye, which is an episode that in my opinion deserves special attention. Obviously my list would be a bit different, but the only episode I’m not a huge fan of in your list is Double Shock, simply because I’ve never been a fan of actors playing twins. Really enjoyed reading this and hopefully I’ll write a list on my blog one day.

  29. Love this site! Like this selection but mine would also have to include The Most Crucial Game, An Exercise in Fatality, Troubled Waters and How to Dial a Murder. Love these.

  30. My Top Ten… (NBC years)

    1. “Étude in Black”
    2. “Double Exposure”
    3. “Now You See Him…”
    4. “Troubled Waters”
    5. “By Dawn’s Early Light”
    6. “A Stitch In Crime”
    7. “Death Lends a Hand”
    8. “Murder by the Book”
    9. “Any Old Port In a Storm”
    10. “Double Shock”

    Hard to pick. The top 5 are all neck and neck.

      • top ten or otherwise…

        top ten performances by guest stars
        top ten most clever murders
        top ten most sympathetic murderers (or the opposite)
        top ten performances by female guest stars

        plot holes… best of the abc years…

        Looking forward to more stuff. Love it.

  31. I’d personally happily drop Bye Bye Sky High to have Double Exposure in there.

    I watched Try and catch me again last week and it’s such a lovely road episode and the characters fit so well together.

    Whilst the episode was good I never warmed to the performance of Halperin so that’s not one of my favourites.

    Lady in waiting was great too.Oh just too many to try and squeeze to 10!

    • It’s always fun to list, but always leads to some high-profile casualties. However, these have been pretty much locked in as my top 10 for a few years. Now You See Him would be the closest to breaking in.

  32. Great list. I agree with your top 2 as I have seen both probably more than any other. Personally I would have to find room for Any Port In A Storm. I cannot for the life of me remember Double Shock so hoping it’s one I somehow missed. Unlikely as i own all the dvds

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