CC TV: The Cars Of Columbo – Just One More Thing Sir…

While the show has been mentioned many times on this site, there’s never been a proper Cars of Columbo entry. Time to take care of that oversight and devote some time to one of TV’s most beloved and celebrated detectives. Not an easy achievement. After all, the world is filled with detectives of all types in the long-running murder mystery genre. But Peter Falk’s careful characterization and the show’s consistent storytelling certainly left a lasting legacy. Decades later, the self-effacing, deferential, and resolute Lt. Columbo of the LAPD still serves as a cultural reference.

Columbo’s first appearance was back in 1968, on the made-for-TV movie ‘Prescription: Murder.’ Even in that proto-state, many of the show’s traits were already in place: an upscale criminal mind plotting the perfect murder and executing elaborate machinations to concoct an ‘iron-clad’ alibi. Then, about a third into the proceedings, Lt. Columbo would show up to investigate; seeming aloof, exuding quirky traits, and looking out of his depth. A clever and dubious facade, perfect to trick suspects and viewers.

The eventual show would remain faithful to the formula seen in the 1968 film. Viewers would start each episode seeing the criminal painstakingly covering his tracks, all while thinking: “Gosh, looks like he/she didn’t overlook anything!” Then, Columbo would break each suspect slowly, with incisive questions shrouded in casual talk, just ‘hinting’ at his suspicions with his catchphrase “Just one more thing, sir…”

To see suspects sweat, as Columbo advanced the investigation through that ‘soft’ approach, was not unlike seeing a lobster boil. And a great pleasure to watch. In due time, Columbo’s unrelenting efforts would find a hole in the suspect’s story, and break the ‘iron-clad’ alibi thanks to some overlooked minor detail.

Naysayers probably take issue with the show’s formulaic approach. But just about every show back then had such reductive formats. It’s true that after a couple of episodes or so, one begins to wonder how all these criminal minds set on creating ‘perfect alibis’ always cross Columbo’s path. All rich and well living too. But cop and detective series are the only kinds of shows that can resort to such constrained storytelling and still work. After all, in the case of Columbo, much of the fun lies in trying to guess the ‘missing piece of evidence’ that will prove the criminal’s downfall.

The format may have been one thing, but the show’s soul rested on Peter Falk’s performance as the unrelenting detective. By the time Columbo came calling, Falk was an established actor from the silver screen. Beginning with small roles in 1957, the actor gained quick notoriety after receiving a Best Supporting Actor Award from the Academy for his role as a ruthless mob boss in Murder Inc. (1960).

Like a good big-screen star, concessions were made to lure him into TV. Most of all, his reluctance to commit to a regular TV series schedule. Appeasing those needs, Columbo instead became a ‘series’ of TV movies. As such, each season had a limited amount of ‘episodes’ and thus, benefited from higher production values. With less output pressure, the show’s scripts were tighter, and actors got a better chance to put more craft into their characters.

Since we’re talking about the show’s stars, it’s time to tackle the show’s automotive star; the Columbo-mobile. Needless to say, the detective’s worn-out 1959 Peugeot 403 is as much of a character as Columbo is. Its rickety and shabby condition blending perfectly with its owner’s appearance.

Not surprisingly, with CC having a fondness for old Peugeots, the 403 has a dedicated entry already.

Allow me a brief ‘Peugeot 403 in films’ detour. Should you want to see earlier 403s in good condition, go and take a look at Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) from 1959. A fantastic piece of French New Wave cinema. Truffaut’s trendsetting film centers on the life of a troubled youth on the verge of a criminal life, with a narrative making use of ‘slice of life’ sequences. The proceedings appear effortless, and the film’s casual feel would prove awfully influential for decades to come.

The film also nicely captures Parisian traffic of the time, with a few 403s sprinkled about. Plus, tons of other period vehicles as well. All a byproduct of the film’s semi-documentary approach. Not that the film’s focus is cars… but we’re car folk anyway. There’s just no way to help it.

Talking about which, Columbo isn’t a car-centered show either. But cars do appear, inevitably. And with the baddies being posh upper-crust folk from the ’70s, that means a lot of Brougham shows up. That and a good amount of luxury imports.

As often happens, some experimentation took place during the show’s early installments while it settled on a style. And so, its first season is the most daring and cinematic. That season one also seems to have the most car-per-minute content (someone needs to make a formula for that). Not that I measured it, but it feels so.

Columbo’s first official episode, Murder By The Book from 1971, was certainly cinematic. No wonder, as it was directed by a young Steven Spielberg. Those familiar with the director’s work will feel his presence in the episode’s camera work, noticeable from the very first shot. The action starts with a camera zoom-out, moving from a close shot of the traffic down below an office’s window, slowly pulling away and revealing a writer laboriously typing. Minor spoiler alert: he’s the victim.

How do I know he’s the victim? Other than having already seen the episode, because, for some reason or other, most killers in the show drive foreign jobs and he doesn’t even own a car.

Instead, he takes a ride in this very stylish -yet suspicious-looking- Mercedes 280 SE.

Behind the Mercedes’s wheel, the episode’s murderer appears, portrayed by Jack Cassidy. As the show’s seasons progressed, it’s easy to see which actors were in Peter Falk’s favor, as they made repeat appearances.

Cassidy was such a case and one can see why. He had a talent for portraying poised, controlled, and elegant individuals, always with a hint of menace and ill-will beneath the surface. Thanks to those qualities, the actor would make repeated runs in the show. Always as a murderer, of course.

The Spielberg-directed installment has a few nice shots of LA traffic from the period. In this frame, Cassidy’s Mercedes really stands out against its surroundings. Probably the reason behind being chosen as the villain’s car. I mean, do you really want one more Caddy in this shot? (I can see at least three.)

Some minutes after the murder takes place, Columbo finally makes his appearance just as his 403 is pulled over by a cop (a running gag in the show). By the way, that’s a nice used car lot in the back, with a cool ’71 Grand Prix by the sidewalk.

Deviating from the norm, in episode 2, Death Lends a Hand, the murderer’s ride is an El Dorado—one of the few occasions where a villain rides American metal through the series.

The dark and chiseled Eldo certainly has a menacing presence in the episode. Also with a menacing presence, the installment’s murderer, as portrayed by Robert Culp. A killer with a cold and controlled demeanor, prone to sudden busts of violence. Sinister, yet elegant and oozing style.

Talking about style, this was one Columbo entry with perhaps too much of it. In one of the most unusual flourishes in the series, once the murder takes place the action freezes and a split screen appears on Culp’s glasses. A montage of sequences follows up, appearing on each lens, showing how the killer attempts to cover his tracks. It’s an odd resource and anchors the episode with late-sixties filmmaking quirks (The Thomas Crown Affair’s multiple screens).

Culp is probably better known for his work in ‘I Spy,’ the light fare 1960s spy show that gave him and Bill Cosby fame. Along with Jack Cassidy, he is another actor who had numerous starring appearances in Columbo. In all honesty, always more or less playing himself. Which is fine by me. Culp was one actor who could stand next to Falk in the charisma department. An essential quality for Columbo’s rivals.

In either case, by season 2’s The Most Crucial Game, Culp plays a murderous football team owner. Here he’s riding an early Chevy Apache truck, disguised as an ice cream delivery guy.

Yes, that’s a Columbo murderer right there. A rich guy, willing to wear disguises, play pretend, and break into places whenever it’s needed. Where do rich folk learn to do all those things? The ‘Perfect Alibi Home Journal’?

Finally, in season 3’s Double Exposure, Culp is a murderous advertising executive and rides a Lincoln Continental limousine. Now that I think about it, why is he always the one killer riding American cars? A contract request on Culp’s part?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Backtracking to season 1’s Suitable For Framing, a neat ’70 Lincoln Continental shows up, in full Brougham splendor.

By now, you should know that the Continental is not the murderer’s ride. Instead, it’s this -very- vintage ’55 Mercedes 300. As the next shots will prove, Columbo’s murderers just don’t like American iron;

The ’71 Ferrari is the killer’s drive from season 1’s Short Fuse. The ’69 Jaguar is from season 2’s Étude In Black, where John Cassavetes plays a killer musician. Finally, the ’59 Bentley Continental is from The Greenhouse Jungle. Also from season 2, and also the murderer’s ride. In the world of Columbo, watch your step if your pals drive foreign cars.

Another Jaguar appears in that same episode, a neat ’62 yellow one. Or better said, two Jaguars are featured, pretending to be just one. The Jaguar after the ‘accident’ has some bits missing in too-strategic a way for a car that was really rolled down a hill.  Also, that looks like tinfoil around the headlights, not real bezels, and those wheels are too perfectly aligned.

Let’s leave aside those foreign jobs for now and retreat to Brougham territory. Season 1’s final episode, Blueprint For Murder, has one very Broughamey highlight; a glistening ’71 El Dorado, appropriately looking very gold-like.

Being a Cadillac, you should know by now that this is the victim’s ride, which happens to be a Texan millionaire. To fit with its fictional owner, the Eldo is decked out with plenty of ‘Texan’ details such as revolvers in the door handles, and what seems to be a horse (?) on the hood.

Yes, it does seem to be a horse on the hood in this shot from the passenger’s side seat. A Torino wagon with Di-Noc briefly appears in this scene as well.

Another car-related highlight in this episode is that it’s one of few where Columbo appears in any car but his own. If you wonder, he’s sitting in there looking for clues. But I would think he’s also testing out that much-vaunted “Cadillac feel.” Let’s not forget, the brand still had lots of cachet at the time.

I can hear some of you thinking by this point, are there no female killers in Columbo? Of course there are! None other than Anne Baxter, Nefretiri from The Ten Commandments, appears as one in Season 2’s Requiem For a Falling Star. Her cold and fierce self, glowing with menace throughout her appearance.

Although a villain, Mrs. Baxter is seen briefly at the wheel of a ’72 Lincoln Mark IV. Not the usual on a Columbo killer, but I’ll let that digression slide. It’s, after all, a company car and not technically ‘hers.’

The episode may be from 1973, but Mrs. Baxter still knew how to do her “My whole empire is crumbling” face very well.

Either that, or it’s her face after riding in Columbo’s smoke-filled Peugeot. Here she’s with Falk, in another scene from the same episode.

A great deal of fun in Columbo is to see the faces of renowned stars being featured. On many occasions, playing against their type. And with the show’s better production values (for the time), their appearances are no mere cash-grabs á la The Love Boat.

Here are a few, in clockwork direction from the top left; that’s Leonard Nimoy in A Stitch In Crime, Dick Van Dyke in Negative Reaction, Martin Landau in Double Shock, and Vincent Price in Lovely But Lethal. Not many cars in those episodes, however, so these guys just get a mention.

Another cool celebrity appearance is that of Johnny Cash, playing a sympathetic musician driven to murder by a life-sucking contract. Cash pretty much plays himself -minus the murder part, I would think- and does a decent enough job against Falk. Obviously, the installment features him busting out some tunes.

Curiously, Cash is also one of the few killers who gets to drive an American car in the show. But well, we know Mr. Cash was fond of defying norms and shattering stereotypes. Even in Columbo.

What about regular cars? Show up they do, though barely. Those who wish to see those Chrysler products perenially featured in other ’70s shows, will only get brief glimpses. So keep your eyes open if you want to check out those.

And hey, that’s probably my old Beetle by the sidewalk in the shot above! (Nope, different license plate…).

Talking about Beetles, low-cost models only tend to appear as an accomplice’s ride. Beetles show up on more than one occasion, and Plymouths occasionally do, with one Cricket having a few seconds of prominence.

(Automotive spoiler alert: anyone driving a cheap car in the show, is dead meat).

Other than clothing -and that curious Robert Culp eyeglasses-split screen- the show’s format and storytelling is pretty straightforward. The lack of tacky filmmaking flourishes from the period is likely another reason behind the show’s long-lasting success.

Not that anyone can escape from fashion completely. A reality rather evident with this curiously color-coordinated Corvette-driving suspect (matching red stitches on a jacket?). I never met anyone color-coordinating their attire to their cars, but the ’70s were quite something in the color department. Those of us who were there, know it.

On the other hand, this guy is standing next to a ‘Vette. Maybe that’s all that’s truly needed to proudly stand with such an attire and just not give a damn.

Ok, this has been a pretty long post, but I feel compelled to add one more automotive thing. Not my favorite episode, but Season 2’s Dagger of the Mind has Columbo traveling to the UK. For once, Columbo’s trench coat finally makes sense with its surroundings, and he also gets to share some screen with Honor Blackman (Miss Pussy Galore herself!).

The episode captures some nice traffic of the period, and Columbo is driven around in a nice-looking Rover. Also, I’m no professional sleuth, but I’m pretty certain that brown Hillman Avenger behind Columbo has been in automotive heaven for decades by now.

I’ll stop here, as that sort of covers the show’s first three seasons’ automotive content. I could go on forever, as the show went on for 9 ‘seasons’ through the span of over two decades. I know I’m missing a lot, from memorable guest stars to notable episodes and yet more cars that deserved mention. So a second installment may be needed. But for today, that should do it for this Columbo post.

But before I go, and sorry to trouble you, if I could only add just one more thing…


Further reading:

Curbside Classic: Peugeot 403 Sedan And Cabriolet – The Beginning Of The Pininfarina Era Or Who’s The Fairest Pug Of Them All?