Columbo: Murder By The Book
July 27, 2014 6:25 AM - Season 1, Episode 1 - Subscribe

A member of a mystery-writing team goes missing under mysterious circumstances. Directed by Stephen Spielberg. In 1997 TV Guide ranked this episode number 16 on its '100 Greatest Episodes of All Time' list.
posted by bleep (15 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Spielberg stay as within the budget/technical limitations you'd expect from 70s TV, but still manages a few nice tricks, notably the typewriter clicking and tight editing in the opening.

I wonder how many of those 100 Greatest Episodes would still make the list 17 years later. It's been a helluva era for TV.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:24 AM on July 27, 2014

I started watching this recently, and I think it's held up really well. The direction is great, and it definitely gives it more the feel of a film than a TV show.

Coming into it fresh I was a little bit skeptical of the format, where the murder is revealed upfront and then it's a matter of Columbo having to ferret out the truth from a dastardly villain, but it definitely works.
posted by codacorolla at 2:33 PM on July 27, 2014

Codacorolla, is this a first watch for you? How exciting! Yes, the "how-done-it" isn't a gimmick or anything. I think it's really engaging to be in on it rather than sit passively while a mystery or detective show doles out clues (or doesn't) until the murderer is revealed at the end. In a way it's like we're watching it from Columbo's POV; we have the benefit of having witnessed the murder, but we both "know" who did it and we're both waiting to see what the killers do to give themselves away.

Is anyone familiar with San Diego? I'd swear for all the world that was really Big Bear.

I knew Jack Cassidy was very troubled, but before reading his wikipedia profile I'd forgotten about his horrible death. We lived in West Hollywood* at the time, too, and I remember it was very shocking to me, especially since I'd had the hugest crush on David Cassidy. (And now I have mentioned David Cassidy twice on FamFare in two days.)

*Technically still Los Angeles at the time. West Hollywood didn't become a city until the '80s. The More You Know!
posted by Room 641-A at 11:44 PM on July 27, 2014

Yep. I'm actually at around episode 5, but I slowed down for the rewatch.

I'm interested to see if they play with the format at all, or if it remains relatively the same.

RE: this episode, I really liked it. It was interesting seeing Cassidy's character become more and more depraved as the story winds on, and he does a good job of playing a smooth customer with a deep layer of dirtbag underneath. To a certain extent the show seems to be more about the villain, and Columbo is just sort of a force of nature (or justice, maybe) who comes in to sort things out. The real characterization and focus is on the villain, however.
posted by codacorolla at 8:21 AM on July 28, 2014

I haven't watched this yet but I just watched the first (Prescription:Murder) and second (Ransom for a Dead Man) TV movie ones because of the metafilter Columbo thread. It really holds up!

It was also a good reminder of how they've had to rewrite mysteries because of technology changes. (Just LOOK UP the phone bill to see if they're having an affair!)

Also: I want that starlet's "Greek" hairdo from Prescription:Murder. Awesome!

Also: So. Much. Smoking.
posted by small_ruminant at 12:42 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, the changes in technology do funny things to murder plots. In this episode, for instance, a key plot point is the writer's call to his wife. Welp, everyone agrees at first, if he said he was calling from the office, he obviously was. But of course, now, we have phone records.

(Sidebar: my dad worked for the phone company for many years. One of his pet peeves in the pre-Internet era was "check the phone records!" in tv shows and movies. Twenty plus years ago, unless phone calls were billable, generally, no records were kept. Think about how limited computer storage was in, say, 1988. Think about the size of hard drives. Why on earth, in that technological environment, would the phone company have shouldered the then-massive data storage costs of logging every customer's free local calls? Why? Answer: they didn't. Over the last few decades, that level of data storage has gotten cheap and is forever getting cheaper. So, yeah, that info gets logged. So the call to the guy's wife in this episode would have been pulled up in a nanosecond. Or hell... just ask the NSA for an MP3...)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:22 PM on July 28, 2014

I just realized it's actually Murder By the Book and not Death By the Book. I'm sorry, Columbo. I guess I can't hang with you.

I feel like the phone call plot would work better now with cell phones. He said he was at the office, but his phone was at the lake house!

On the other hand, Lilly La Sanka is one of the millions of acquaintances we accumulate in our phone contacts these days..

I just read that that actress was randomly murdered 4 years later, sad.
posted by bleep at 1:44 PM on July 28, 2014

I feel like the phone call plot would work better now with cell phones. He said he was at the office, but his phone was at the lake house!

Nope. They'd also have a record of which cell towers his phone used.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:48 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's what I was saying. The phone tower would prove where he was.
posted by bleep at 2:20 PM on July 28, 2014

Gotcha. I read that the other way, that you were describing his lie, not how he was caught. Now I'm with you.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:26 PM on July 28, 2014

To a certain extent the show seems to be more about the villain, and Columbo is just sort of a force of nature (or justice, maybe) who comes in to sort things out.

Yes, this is why so many actors decided to do Columbo episodes I think. The murderer is basically the protagonist. It's like a classical tragedy, the murderer is the fallen hero, and Lt. Columbo is the agent of the gods that brings about his downfall.
posted by JHarris at 7:24 PM on July 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just realized it's actually Murder By the Book and not Death By the Book.

Fixed! Oh, and one more thing...

posted by cortex at 9:38 AM on July 30, 2014

Columbo is one of those things that, because of my love of other mystery programs, TV classic, and 1970s TV in particular, I probably have pretended to have seen more of than I really have. And I'm sure I've never sat down to watch it (rather than had it on in the background.)

What a joy it is!

I'm so used to Columbo-as-imitation that I didn't realize how layered Falk's performance really was. And it is so good. Funny, sad, even often showing a little bit of anger without ever losing his cool.

As for this particular story, I really liked the mini-twist at the end that the plot for the seemingly-perfect murder was actually the murderer's only original idea that his partner had "stolen" from him. Classic.

(And yes, the endings to the lives of both the main guest stars is a really sad coincidence. Her performance as Lilly La Sanka was so tragic that I wondered why Barbara Colby wasn't in lots more, and, as bleep mentioned, really didn't like the answer.)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:07 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

My wife and I have exhausted the supply of police procedural shows that we tolerate, and The Toast's "The Case For Making Columbo America’s Doctor Who" post had Columbo on my mind, so we watched this episode and it was incredible. We're addicted.

The how-catch nature of the show is pretty familiar to us a fans of CSI: Las Vegas; they do a few of these kind of shows every season, so it wasn't a big inversion for us. Also, as fans of 45-minute police procedurals, it amps up the suspense of the show. Usually on an episode of, say, Bones, 35 minutes in you know that catching the killer is just around the corner. Columbo and the TV movie length throws off our procedural rhythm just enough to make it really exciting.

We're two episodes in and we're already making "oh, just one more thing" jokes.

We live in Southern California and agree that his cabin looked nothing like San Diego, but a lot like Big Bear. It's also funny that the "why didn't you fly back to LA?" point makes a lot less sense in two-thousand and fifteen, when it's basically impossible to book a flight and fly on the same day.
posted by sleeping bear at 3:44 PM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

This is a great one. Would love to see more Columbo episodes here in FanFare. I think what I enjoy most about Columbo is what an absolute antagonistic troll he is. It's so hilarious to watch.

Also, if you want to see Peter Falk as Columbo's downtrodden twin, check out his cameo in the Great Muppet Caper.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:34 PM on December 3, 2021

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