September 7, 2015


In all honesty, I had no intention of starting this feature so early - or with this episode. But last night, out of boredom, I turned on MeTV and found myself drawn back into this episode.

(It also serves as a nice tribute to Martin Milner, who passed away yesterday).

This is considered the first "official" episode of Columbo the series (after two pilot films - Prescription: Murder and Ransom for a Dead Man). The film has a very impressive pedigree - it was one of Steven Spielberg's early works for Universal (along with Night Gallery and Duel), and was one of the first scripts written by Steven Bochco.

Yes, that Steven Bochco.

The plot concerns the breakup of a long-standing mystery writing team played by Jack Cassidy and Martin Milner. Of course, Ken Franklin (Cassidy) is not too happy with the breakup; after all, the loss of the partnership means losing the perks of celebrity....and a consistent income. (Seems that Jim Ferris - the silent part of the partnership played by Mr. Milner - was doing all of the work). So Ken Franklin engages in a plan to eliminate Mr. Ferris....

....and no, that's not a spoiler. Columbo perfected the "inverted mystery" for television the same way R. Austin Freeman used the form in his Victorian-era Dr. Thorndyke mysteries. (And trust me - his essay The Art of the Detective Story is your must-read about mysteries, slightly behind Raymond Chandler's The Simple Art of Murder. What's remarkable about Columbo - even at this early stage - is how well it plays to its strengths: the cat-and-mouse between Columbo and the murderer; the outright class-based conflict (between Cassidy with Columbo and Ms. LaSanka, his wannabe paramour), and the speculation as to what-will-trip-up-Cassidy.

(And that's part of the reason I'm not focusing on the 1980s revival - too many variations on the formula, and a little too much of their time).

But it's Jack Cassidy who nearly steals the show - his three performances in Columbo are the equivalent of Jack Klugman and Burgess Meredith's appearances on The Twilight Zone. Cassidy manages to swing between affability and implied menace with chilling ease. (And if he looks familiar, well....he's this young lady's grandfather). Even as the victim, Milner creates an inherent likability and warmth in what should have been a one-note portrayal. It's to Milner's credit that by the end, the viewer takes great glee in Franklin's downfall....because he murdered such a nice, likeable character.

Available via streaming and DVD, Murder By the Book is a great intro film for newbies. Although I will not be discussing the films in chronological order, I am proud to introduce this as a first entry in this series.

And as always, if you disagree, have suggestions for other episodes, etc, just leave them in the comments below.

Oh, just one more thing - yes, this was definitely made in the 1970s, but watching in 2015, there's a definite Mad Men vibe.

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