Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Columbo - Murder by the Book (1971)

To mark Steven Spielberg's long overdue return to cinema screens this week with The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, a 40th anniversary look back at my favourite episode of my, well, second favourite detective series - Columbo's "Murder by the Book", a very early directorial outing for Spielberg, first broadcast in the US on Wednesday 15th September, 1971 as the premiere episode of The NBC Mystery Movie.

Columbo represents guilt.  That’s how I’ve always seen him anyway, as a manifestation of the murderer’s conscience, needling away, never giving up until they break down.  Just how does he so instinctively know whodunnit every time?  In fact maybe he doesn’t actually exist at all, [SPOILER ALERT] like Tyler Durden in Fight Club.  Actually, I’m not so sure that works, but I’m throwing it out there anyway...  I genuinely think that’s why the show is such a cult.  It can be read on so many different levels.  It is of course, first and foremost, the best TV detective series of them all (sorry, Eddie).

"I saw it at the beginning!  Copyright, MCMLXXI - that's 1971..."
“Murder by the Book”, actually the second series episode to be filmed, after “Death Lends A Hand”, is my favourite episode.  What’s not to like?  Levinson and Link; Peter Falk and Jack Cassidy; composer Billy Goldenberg; cinematographer Russell L Metty; Steven Bochco; Steven Spielberg!  A coming together of some of the greatest talents ever to work in series television.

Ferris and Franklin (l-r, Martin Milner and Jack Cassidy) crime fiction co-writers probably inspired by Columbo creators Levinson and Link
The plot in a nutshell: successful crime fiction writing team James Ferris (Martin Milner) and Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) are on the verge of a breakup which will expose the latter as having made no creative contribution.  Profligate ladies’ man Franklin murders his partner after driving him to his remote cabin and having him phone his wife (Rosemary Forsythe) and tell her he’s still at his office in the city.  Franklyn tries to tie the murder to a non-fiction book Ferris was working on about organised crime, but hasn’t figured on the dogged Lieutenant Columbo of the LAPD being assigned to the case not to mention a would-be blackmailer (Barbara Colby) with designs on him...

If I was being honest, I would have to say that the denouement isn’t the greatest in the show’s history.  That final clue about the idea for the murder being written down five years before by Ferris is weak and proves nothing - although Ferris’s line about having “the feeling of déjà vu” while Franklyn is driving him to the cabin is a nice foreshadowing.  But the episode is so rich in every other regard that it still stands up all these years later.

Lt. Columbo comes face to face with his quarry for the first time - marked by one of Spielberg's trademark close-ups of people's faces
First we have Jack Cassidy as Ken Franklin, surely the ultimate Columbo villain.  Co-creator William Link on the actor: “Our favourite.  He was...juicy without going over the top.  Jack had a wonderfully humorous utter contempt for this bug who wouldn’t leave him alone – Columbo”.  Cassidy’s growing irritation with Falk’s persistent interruptions to his playboy lifestyle is played with a comic touch that is a delight to watch.

The brilliant Cassidy went on to play two more Columbo murderers, in Season 3’s “Publish or Perish” and Season 5’s “Now You See Him”.  He tragically died in a fire at his West Hollywood home in 1976.

Then we have the script by 27-year old Steven Bochco (with assistance from Levinson and Link).  Bochco, hired as Story Editor on that first season at the suggestion of director Richard Irving, of course went on to create Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue and Murder One amongst many other groundbreaking shows.  There’s not a dull scene in ‘Murder by the Book’ and it’s a glorious template for how the show would develop.  The storytelling is clear and concise, and the murder plot is simply set up (not always the case later on in the series unfortunately). The 75m running time helps too, with the Columbo-less Act One lasting a concise 16 minutes.

David Wayne as a wife-murderer who receives unwanted police help in the 1957 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "One More Mile to Go".  A similar sequence was cut from "Murder by the Book".
There is actually an interesting sequence in the script which didn’t make it to the screen: right after the Lieutenant’s first scene, when he introduces himself to Joanna Ferris, the victim's wife, Ken Franklin is described driving back to Los Angeles with his partner’s body in the trunk when he has a blow-out and receives unwanted assistance from a motorcycle cop.  This is a very Hitchcockian idea (particularly, the 1957 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “One More Mile to Go”, directed by the great man himself, which is effectively a half-hour expansion of this very scenario) as we are firmly on the side of Franklin in not wanting the body to be discovered.  It’s rather a shame this has been omitted but it does highlight how much of Hitchcock’s sensibilities are present and correct in Columbo.  The series’ roots can be located in many sources, Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” being the ultimate, but Hitch’s influence shouldn’t be overlooked.

Farley Granger (l) and John Dall (r) as the murderers whose intellectual game is foiled by their former housemaster, played by James Stewart, in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) from the Patrick Hamilton play.  There are definite shades of Columbo in the cat and mouse dialogue between the three.
Here he is on the subject of his 1948 picture Rope, in which John Dall and Farley Granger play roommates who murder an acquaintance for their own intellectual amusement and then hold a dinner party for his family and friends: “The audience knows everything from the start.  It certainly is not a whodunit for the simple reason that everyone knows out front who did it.  As far as I’m concerned you have suspense when you let the audience play God.  Will the murderers break and give themselves away?”.  This is Columbo, surely?  He has also stated “The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture.  That is a cardinal rule”.  Nuff said.

Back to “Murder by the Book”, I’m missing it...  Billy Goldenberg’s musical score is a gem, cleverly weaving in typewriter sounds to unsettling effect.  The two ‘bergs collaborated on a number of television projects at Universal in the early 1970s, most famously Duel just a few months later, which launched the young director on his stratospheric career.

And then 64 year-old cinematographer Russell L Metty’s contribution to the episode is a vital one too: famously clashing with both Levinson & Link and Spielberg during the shoot, he was responsible for the noir lighting which gives the episode such flavour (and helps mark it out from the flat lighting style of so much contemporary episodic TV).  This was not what the producers wanted though, and he eventually acceded to their wishes for a brighter look later in the season.

Steven Spielberg around the time of his stint as a "journeyman" television director for Universal Studios, which was for the main part throughout 1970 and 1971.
And so we come to Steven Spielberg, the most successful film director in the history of the medium and also one of the best - not to mention, one of my personal favourites.  The fact that he directed a Columbo knocks me out every time I think of it.  Heck, it's like finding out he's a Doctor Who fan or somethin'.  But having said that, is it better directed than the average episode?  Would it even be noticeably better than the norm if his name wasn’t on it..?

Hell, yes -- it’s fantastic!  The moment that opening long shot of Franklin’s car dollies back to reveal we’re actually in Ferris’s office you know you’re in the hands of a maestro.  Spielberg’s direction is actually fairly unobtrusive on the whole, but it’s a sure sign of directorial maturity in the 24 year-old(!).  He had at this stage been working as a so-called journeyman TV director at Universal for a couple of years (with segments of the likes of Night Gallery, The Name of the Game and the forgotten Roy Thinnes vehicle The Psychiatrist – which landed him the Columbo gig – under his belt), a situation he wasn’t altogether content with, but had come to a kind of peace with by the time of “Murder by the Book”: “It was a great honour to be invited to do that first show, and when I read the script, I said man, this is the best script anyone has ever given me to direct” So I treated that like a little mini-movie and I made [it] with the psychology of a film director, not a TV director.  I said “They’re giving me $130,000?  Within the time they’re giving me, I’m going to make this look like a million bucks!”

The lieutenant further annoys Franklin by tracking him down to his lakeside cabin, the scene of the crime
He did, too.  The episode looks gorgeous.  Would I just love to see it on the big screen.  Full of Spielbergian touches, such as bringing the actors’ faces just that much closer to the camera than everyone else – one of the secrets of his huge success in my view – it’s an essential part of his filmography.  It appears not to have gone over its 12-day shooting schedule, and was filmed late May to mid-June of 1971 in Los Angeles and 100 miles north-east in the picturesesque Big Bear Lake.

Incidentally, this might not have turned out to be Steven Spielberg’s one-and-only Columbo.  In March 1988 at a Los Angeles County Museum of Art event celebrating the series, William Link told the audience about receiving a phone call from him expressing interest in directing the opening episode of the just-announced revival.  Why this didn’t happen I don’t know, although the 1988-89 US television season was delayed by a writers’ strike.  I can however lament...

The late, great Peter Falk as Columbo, still defining the character in "Murder by the Book", here making an omelette for the victim's wife.  Can't see Joe Friday doing it.
But what about the man himself, Peter Falk?  For me, it’s the first time he plays the part as we know and love Lt. Columbo.  Before this he had filmed the TV movies Prescription: Murder, Ransom for a Dead Man and series episode “Death Lends A Hand”.  Falk’s always brilliant in the role but is it my imagination or is he just that little bit more consciously wilier, less humble in these?  There are elements of this in “Murder by the Book” too, but the deferential side of the character is coming to the fore.  Spielberg: “Peter was still finding things.  I was able to discover “Columbo-isms” along with Peter that [he] kept in his repertoire”.

I’d also like to pay tribute to Barbara Colby, who gives such a lovely performance as Ken Franklin’s half-hearted blackmailer, Lily La Sanka.  Sadly, Ms Colby's fate was as tragic as that of Jack Cassidy - the victim of a drive-by shooting in 1975.

Barbara Colby as Ken Franklin's unwanted admirer, Lily La Sanka
Watching Columbo holds many joys, but “Murder by the Book” in particular is like an old, dear friend I could never tire of seeing.  I’ve even had it on in the background as I type this, and fittingly I can just hear Goldenberg’s closing credit music now...

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