There are as many types of fictional detectives as there are writers and actors and actresses but all great detectives primarily use their brains or their brawn to solve their cases. I feel that the endpoints of the detective spectrum are Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes at the ‘brains’ side and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer at the ‘brawn’ end. Of course Holmes was well versed in the martial arts and Hammer was no dummy but while Sherlock Holmes tended to solve his cases with deductive reasoning Hammer’s answers were more likely to come from his fists or his Colt .45. When I was growing up Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was a modern version of Mike Hammer while the Holmes vein was well represented by the Perry Mason reruns – yes Mason was a defense attorney but he would inevitably prove his client’s innocence via deductive reasoning and the facts gathered by Paul Drake, his trusted private investigator.
Most all detective shows fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. There are brainy lawyers or detectives like Matlock or Barnaby Jones with a younger sidekick to handle the ‘brawn’ part of the equation with plenty of police shows with characters like Blue Bloods’ Danny Reagan or Law & Order: SVU’s Elliot Stabler that think with their fists and guns first before using their brains.
There is one type of detective that fits in the brainy spectrum and yet are in a class by themselves. For lack of a better term I would call these detective’s the ‘Quirky Detectives’. The quirkiest television detective is Adrian Monk. Monk has numerous phobias and is deathly afraid of germs but uses his obsessive compulsions to keep everything around him in order and eventually leads him to discover the holes in every ‘perfect crime’ he is asked to solve.
Another quirky detective is Vincent D’onofrio’s Bobby Goren in Law & Order: Criminal Intent. Goren comes from a broken home and eventually finds out his father is a serial killer. Goren’s extreme intelligence continually keeps him in hot water with his superiors as he insists on using his unconventional though effective methods to uncover the real motivations of his murder suspects.
My all-time favorite television detective comes from the ‘quirky’ tree and that is Peter Falk’s Columbo, who made his debut as part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotation in the early 1970’s. When the show was cancelled in 1978 the character took an 11 year hiatus before returning to ABC as a series of made for television movies running from 1989 to 2003. Falk’s Columbo looked to be a buffoon with an ancient foreign car, a rumpled raincoat, an omnipresent cigar, wiht an occasional appearance by his Columbo-like basset hound named 'Dog'. Columbo has the habit of seemingly forever rummaging through his pockets looking for a scrap of paper while pestering his suspect with the most inane questions meant to elicit their unknowing help in proving their own guilt. But beneath the bumbling veneer was a brilliant detective mind not unlike a Monk or Sherlock Holmes. One of the hallmarks of the Columbo movies was the audience witnesses the murder in the first part of the show which would set up an inevitable battle of wits between a normally well to do murderer (the series was set in Los Angeles) and the rumpled Columbo.
Why am I going on about Columbo? Because Kathy got me a boxed set of all the ABC Columbo movies for Christmas and I am struck with the exception quality of the movies after watching the first handful. The movies don’t make a parody of the Columbo character but are self-aware of the character’s foibles. These later movies make it seem that Columbo knows how annoying he is to his suspects by popping up in their social settings and continually asking ‘Just one more thing’ as soon as it appears he has finally left. I’ve watched three of the first five movies this past month and they are all classics but one was by far my favorite Columbo movie that I happily watched even though I’d seen it many times before.
‘Columbo: Murder, A Self-Portrait’ stars Patrick Bauchau as a noted painter Max Barsini who is busy paintings nudes of his nubile model Julie for an upcoming exhibition. He does his painting and has an affair with Julie under the watchful eye of his wife\business manager Vanessa (played by Peter Falk’s wife Shera Danese). Vanessa understands the situation because she was one Max’s model and he married her after divorcing his first wife Louise who lives next door to Max. All three women combine to meet Max’s many needs as Julie serves as his ‘muse’, Vanessa manages his fortune, and Louise cooks cioppino for the group dinner in the group’s introductory scenes.
Max’s world becomes complicated when Louise declares her intention to marry her former psychologist and leave Max’s sphere of influence. Max and Louise have a heated conversation when he asks her if she and her fiancé have ever discussed ‘that which they have never spoken of’ implying some grisly deed of the past. Max then plans Louise’s murder and gives himself an alibi by offering to make a painting of the bar he and Louise lived above when he was a struggling artist in order to help the bar owner attract customers. The bar owner agrees and Max gives the proviso that he will paint his picture in the upstairs loft of the bar and must not be disturbed. While Vito the bar owner is downstairs thinking Max is painting the picture Max (who has already painted the picture in his studio before) is sneaking off to the beach where Louise swims, suffocates her with a rag doused in paint thinner, and dumps her on the beach.
This is where Columbo comes in. He meets Max on the beach and is immediately suspicious of foul play when he finds that the drowned Louise is wearing one contact lens and the other lens is in her case. In order to stay close to the investigation, Max offers to paint a portrait of Columbo. During Columbo’s investigation he receives audio tapes from Louise’s fiancé from therapy sessions where Louise talks about three terrifying dreams and he shares these with Max while seated for his portrait.
Eventually Columbo uncovers Max’s fatal slip up and elicits the inevitable confession while finally getting to view his finished portrait. All in all the plot follows the standard Columbo plot but what makes this movie (and many of the early ABC remakes of Columbo) special was the incredible attention to detail. When Columbo plays the audio tapes of Louise’s dreams, the dreams are replayed in black and white but Columbo and Max are in each dream as painter and subject while a maelstrom of dream activity swirls around them. The movie has a detailed musical score where Barsini has his own ‘Vader’ like theme which Columbo shares as he uncovers key plot points aside from the Columbo theme song “This Old Man”. It is a great movie of with great characters and performances.
This was just a taste of what I like so much about Columbo. I think if Columbo was a programmer he would be a lot like me – continually underestimated by appearance but always getting results. Columbo is equally about the iconic character and the great plots and ‘guest murderers’. With so many TV shows and characters being ‘rebooted’ it must only be a matter of time until Columbo get a chance to be reincarnated. I have no idea who would play the title character. The first name that comes to mind is Nicholas Turturro who played Sgt. Renzulli on Blue Bloods for a number of years along with many other character roles. Rebooting this successful formula show is an idea whose time will come at some point and I’m looking forward to it.