Monday, June 27, 2011

Farewell Columbo

I will miss Peter Falk - one of the most consistently enjoyable actors of the past 50 years. He made everything he touched better - he was always a joy to watch. He was part of some of the best films of his era, specifically his collaborations with Cassavetes - and that after working with America's greatest filmmaker, even getting an Oscar nod out fo it.... And if he is best known for Columbo - that's just about as good - for my money, Columbo might be the second best television show of all time. Looking at why it was so good - you can start with the character, with Falk's performances, as well as his look - you can look at the writing, the care taken in building those mysteries, the care taken in working the formula. It was a very formulaic show - quite unapologetically - start with the crime, then bring in Columbo, almost as an afterthought, and have him find something... then work off the guest stars of the week. And that, I think, is really what made the show so great. All the pieces are there - the stories, the dialogue, the actors, the guest stars, Falk - but they are all worked together with such skill, and especially, the interactions between Falk and the guest stars. That's the core of the show - those direct confrontations between someone who thinks they've committed the perfect crime and Lieutenant Columbo - it's where the show worked all the variations it needed to stay fresh through all those mysteries. It's notable - the concept of the show derives pretty explicitly from Crime and Punishment - and don't forget that Raskalnikov is the main character of Crime and Punishment. I don't know if Falk got more screen time then the crooks or not - it had to be close a few times - but the show's ability to get close to the killers and stay there gave it it's poignancy. It may have been mostly from Columbo's POV, but you always got the crook's perspective too - the sense of something closing in, even if they couldn't be sure what... Yes. And it matters that a good number of the killers come off - well - some of them are positively sympathetic. Even some nasty sons of bitches come out - well, almost regrettable. They build rapport with Columbo - he seems almost disappointed when he catches them, disappointed in them, I suppose - and we share in it.

It depends on the guest stars - but they depend on Falk. Who shows, in those Cassavetes films, how well he works with other actors, how much he integrates into the ensemble. He does it here - he plays off the guest stars, they play off him - the best of them - Cassavetes himself, the Patrick McGoohan episodes, or the Johnny Cash episode (maybe the best of the series) - just sing, as the stars maneuver around each other. The formula allows for infinite variety - there are shows with sympathetic villains, others with monsters, who draw out a kind of shivery delight in Falk when he catches them - everything in between. It was an exquisite show - even when the stories weren't the best, the interplay between Falk and his victims could carry the show. I am eternally grateful to him for it...

No comments: