Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lessons from Columbo

Lately I've been enjoying the original episodes of "Columbo", the series about a rumpled detective who pretended to be pretty dim but would always catch the murderer in the end. The show--an essential piece of early '70s American culture--always began by showing the murder taking place, so the viewer never doubted who committed it. The only question was how Columbo would catch him or her, and it usually took some rambling discussion about the detective's unseen wife and how odd it was that say a left handed man would have his wristwatch on his right hand, or a burned out lightbulb would be cleaned by household staff rather than replaced. The show avoided certain annoyances that many police shows would have (such as the detective's bosses doubting him--Columbo was highly regarded by the force) and was largely carried by Peter Falk's charm and some great has-been guest stars.

You can also learn a great deal about murder in early '70s Los Angeles from watching the show.

1) Murderers are always wealthy, educated people. If you're walking down a dark alley and a middle aged man in a 3-piece suit is following you, run! He's likely got several kills under his belt. Columbo never seems to get "junkie stabbed by hooker" cases, or "he done goofed and stole my lawn chair so I stabbed him!" cases.

2) Although the murderers are well-to-do and presumably highly educated, they have no problem letting a police lieutenant into their home and engage them in several long conversations about the case, even though the Miranda ruling came out a few years earlier. Apparently rich people didn't have lawyers back then.

3) If you know anyone who looks exactly like Robert Culp, run! He seems to change identity and go on a new killing spree every few weeks. (He also starred with the lovely Natalie Wood in "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice", and that actress died under mysterious circumstances about a decade later. Culp must have done it!)

4) It may never rain in Southern California, but a police lieutenant is still required to wear a raincoat at all times.

5) The actors Dean Stockwell and Sam Rockwell are quite clearly the same person. It's eerie!

6) When you're rich, you will always commit murders by yourself and never hire a professional killer or a cheap junkie to do the job. Unfortunately, this means coming up with an alibi that sounds great on the surface but will unravel under a detective's seemingly harmless questioning.

7) If you drink Scotch or any other hard liquor from a fancy glass at your well stocked bar at home, you're quite obviously a killer, or about to be killed. Develop a new habit!

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