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..."|
|Ferris and Franklin (l-r, Martin Milner and Jack Cassidy) crime fiction co-writers probably inspired by Columbo creators Levinson and Link|
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|
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".|
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.|
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|
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.|
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|