Way back in the innocent summer of 2015 I flung open a poll to invite Columbo fans to essentially choose their favourite child and vote for their single most-loved episode.
It’s no easy feat, I know. There are so many fabulous episodes to choose from that placing one ahead of the pack was a conundrum too big for some. I received emails / tweets / social media comments from folk who missed their own weddings, dream holiday flights, job interviews, heart bypass operations and more due to the time spent deliberating.
Despite that, over 2000 votes have been cast, giving an excellent representative sample. So for your viewing pleasure (can I get a drum roll please), here’s the top 10 Columbo episodes as voted for by the fans…
“Folk missed their own weddings, dream holiday flights, and heart bypass operations due to the time spent deliberating on their favourite Columbo…”
10. Double Exposure
Bad-to-the-bone Robert Culp being undone by his own subliminal cuts technique is uber-satisfying, and the episode is stylish in the extreme. It polled a heap more votes than Culp’s other 70s outings Death Lends a Hand and Most Crucial Game – possibly because the interplay between the two leads here is the actual personification of a cat-and-mouse game.
9. Troubled Waters
An absolute blast from start to finish, Troubled Waters (directed by Falk’s old buddy Ben Gazzara) sees Columbo revert back to old-skool sleuthing techniques to bring down Robert Vaughn’s crooked car salesman on the high seas. It’s so entertaining that the massive plot holes – and almost endless version of Volare – can be easily ignored. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, not to mention the sight of Vaughn pimpin’ it up like few other Columbo killers.
8. Suitable for Framing
A real personal favourite, the great joy of Suitable for Framing, for me, is the utter beastliness Ross Martin brings to the role of Dale Kingston. He’s slimy, he’s smarmy and he’s absolutely full of himself. Plus his multi-layered murder scheme has been so well plotted that he never suspects Columbo is on to him until the very last moment. His downfall – and Columbo’s gloved hand reveal – is to my mind the single greatest TV moment ever.
7. A Friend in Deed
An episode apart in many ways, A Friend in Deed (also directed by Ben Gazzara) is a very different type of Columbo – and its contrast to the norm makes it extremely memorable. A dark tale of police corruption, moral bankruptcy and greed, with very little humour, the good cop / bad cop battle between the Lieutenant and his superior is riveting stuff. And the gotcha moment? SEN-SAY-SHUN-UL!
“The good cop / bad cop battle between the Lieutenant and his superior is rivetting stuff.”
6. Etude in Black
Peter Falk teamed up with his best mate John Cassavetes to kick off Columbo‘s second season and the on-screen rapport between the two leads has captured hearts and minds of viewers for more than 4 decades. With a support cast to die for (including Myrna Loy and Blythe Danner), and a cinematic feel due to the location shooting and its sweeping, orchestral soundtrack, this is seriously ambitious TV and an amazing statement of intent for the series.
DISCLAIMER: despite much splendidness, Etude doesn’t make my own personal top 20. Read my full episode review here to find out why.
5. The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case
It’s my absolute favourite, so I’m pleased to see that many other viewers share my enjoyment. Although there are some highly improbable moments and some plot holes you could sail the Titanic through, it’s really got it where it counts: some wonderful humour, half of dozen of the series’ genuinely great moments and a fine turn by Theo Bikel as tortured genius Oliver Brandt. Bye-Bye also features that rarest of beasts – the Lieutenant actually telling us something real about his methods and motivations.
4. Swan Song
When a man as loved as Johnny Cash appears in an episode of Columbo, you can bet your bottom dollar it’s going to end up somewhere near the top of the heap when fans cast their vote. So it proves. Although Swan Song isn’t a great personal fave, the honest warmth Cash brings to the role of troubled gospel singer Tommy Brown is captivating, and you can almost want him to get away with it. And seeing Cash belt out a rendition of Sunday Morning Coming Down is pretty sweet, too.
Of course, the episode’s chief take-out is I Saw the Light. So here it is, guaranteed to be in your head for approx 6 weeks after every listen. You’re welcome…
“The honest warmth Cash brings to the role of troubled gospel singer Tommy Brown is captivating, and you can almost want him to get away with it.”
3. Now You See Him
It’s no surprise for me to see this take its place on the rostrum, as it has so many ingredients that make it memorable for both die-hards and casual fans. The magic cabaret setting is unique for starters, and Jack Cassidy is typically inspired as the villainous Santini. Throw in a hated new coat for Columbo, the return of Sergeant Wilson and the Lieutenant indulging in a Sherlockian reveal at episode’s end, and you have 90 minutes of TV to treasure.
“The magic cabaret setting is unique, and Jack Cassidy is typically inspired as the villainous Santini.”
2. Murder by the Book
It’s one of the most important TV episodes ever to air, and Murder by the Book still has the capacity to mesmerise more than 45 years on. With Spielberg at the helm capturing some spell-binding shots of the action, and Jack Cassidy establishing himself straight away as the archetypal Columbo baddie, there’s nothing here not to like. Billy Goldenberg’s iconic score adds further gloss. It’s nigh-on perfect, with only the slightly unconvincing ‘gotcha’ not matching all that comes before it.
1. Any Old Port in a Storm
“An exciting meal has been ruined by the presence of this LIQUID FILTH!“
While the above line may not single-handedly be the reason why Any Old Port in a Storm tops the standings (by a mile), it may be the stand-out example in what was a lesson in line delivery from Donald Pleasence throughout. His pompous Adrian Carsini is the beneficiary of a truly vintage script, which affords him countless opportunities to put his clipped British accent to exceptional use.
Any Old Port is certainly an aural treat, but it’s perhaps the final scene that hits home most with viewers. The mutually respectful exchange in Columbo’s car, as he drives Carsini away from his winery to a life behind bars, is a beautiful thing. Two perfectionists, from completely different sides of the tracks, have found a common ground. It’s the sort of TV moment that almost doesn’t exist any more, and it’s all the more poignant because of it.
“The mutually respectful exchange in Columbo’s car, as he drives Carsini away from his winery to a life behind bars, is a beautiful TV moment.”
So there we have it: the fans’ favourites as voted for by you. And you! Aaaaaaand you! If you want to see how they square up against my own personal top 10, click here immediately!
But before I head off, I thought it would be nice to give you an overview of some of the other key findings from the poll.
So near but so far…
There are always going to be some amazing episodes that miss out in a public vote, and so it proved here. The ones to just miss out on top 10 honours were Try & Catch Me, A Stitch in Crime and Negative Reaction, filling positions 11-13 respectively. Interestingly, all three made my personal top 10.
Best of a bad bunch?
Regular readers will know that I’m not entirely enamoured with the ‘new’ Columbo episodes that ran from 1989-2003 (read more here), although there are certainly a handful I consider top notch. It looks like pollsters agree, with two of my faves from the new run, Columbo Goes to College and Rest in Peace Mrs Columbo, filling positions 14-15 in the list. There isn’t another in the top 30…
Where are the women?
Female killers in Columbo are far fewer than their male counterparts – perhaps explaining why there are none represented in the top 10. As referenced above, Abigail Mitchell from Try & Catch Me and Vivian Dimitri from RIP Mrs Columbo are the highest-rated episodes with female killers. Janet Leigh’s tragic Grace Wheeler from Forgotten Lady is next highest in 16th position.
Any big fat zeroes?
At time of writing, three episodes had failed to register a single vote. No Time to Die and Murder in Malibu from the 90s run are, admittedly, DIRE. But similarly unloved was 1975’s Matter of Honor. Despite the reassuring presence of Ricardo Montalban, viewers clearly prefer seeing Columbo solving crimes in his own backyard than in stereotype-tastic Mexico.
A HUGE THANKS to all who voted, and even if you haven’t you can go and skew the above findings straight away by casting your vote here.