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Universal Studios Home Video presents
Columbo: The Complete First Season (1971)

"Some men do not want to look like an unmade bed."
- Helen Stewart (Suzanne Pleschette)

Review By: Jeff Ulmer  
Published: September 14, 2004

Stars: Peter Falk
Other Stars: Gene Barry, Katherine Justice, Jed Allan, Lee Grant, John Fink, Harold Gould, Jack Cassidy, Martin Milner, Barbara Colby, Robert Culp, Pat Crowley, Ray Milland, Eddie Albert, Suzanne Pleshette, Kate Reid, Ross Martin, Kim Hunter, Don Ameche, Vic Tayback, Susan Clark, Jessie Royce Landis, Richard Anderson, Leslie Nielsen, Roddy McDowall, Ida Lupino, James Gregory, William Windom, Patrick O'Neal, Forrest Tucker, Janis Paige
Director: Richard Irving, Steven Spielberg, Bernard L. Kowalski, Jack Smight, Hy Averback, Norman Lloyd, Edward M. Abroms, Peter Falk

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 12h:02m:36s
Release Date: September 07, 2004
UPC: 025192558320
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

There are those rare times when an actor becomes so completely immersed in a character that they become indistinguishable from one another. Peter Falk's Columbo is one such role, becoming such a worldwide icon that director Wim Wenders wrote a part for Falk, as himself, for his 1987 feature film, Wings of Desire, in which Berliners refer to him as by the detective's name. In the 30-plus years since the show launched, Columbo has become an institution, ranking with the likes of Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, and Sam Spade as one of the greatest fictional detectives. However, unlike the tales of his notable counterparts, Columbo follows an open book style of storytelling, a device created by British author Richard Austin Freeman; the audience knows who the killer is from the start, and the fun is in seeing the detective unravel the mystery to get his man.

With his wrinkled tan trench coat, cheap cigars, and famous false exits, Columbo is an unassuming character with an instinctive nose for his work, chipping away at seemingly meaningless details to flush out his killer. His approach is usually passive in appearance, interrogating his suspects with a sly familiarity, throwing in anecdotes about his wife and family, giving the false impression that he is disorganized and completely befuddled by the case to throw them off guard. However, if there is not enough concrete evidence to get his killer, the detective is not afraid to set a trap or lull his target into believing they are off the hook. Since the crimes are exposed at the start of the show, the interest lies in how Columbo assembles his clues and puts the pieces together, and while usually aware of the criminal early on, keying in on that one piece of evidence that will close the case. His psychological cat-and-mouse games pull the audience in, as we are party to the unveiling of the fatal mistake that will convict the guilty.

Inspired by the police magistrate, Porfiry Petrovitch, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, Columbo's character was first conceived by writers Richard Levison and William Link in a short story published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. It was then adapted for the 1960 television series The Chevy Mystery Show episode, Enough Rope, which starred Bert Freed as the detective, and later rewritten for Broadway with Thomas Mitchell in the role.

Falk's debut as the bumbling detective came in the 1968 telemovie Prescription: Murder, starring opposite Gene Barry as a psychiatrist who uses his patient/mistress to create the perfect alibi for his wife's murder—an alibi only the clever lieutenant can see through. The popularity of a second TV movie, Ransom for a Dead Man, which costars Lee Grant in an Emmy-nominated role as a wife whose husband is kidnapped and later killed, paved the way for a recurring spot in the NBC Mystery Movie lineup. As such, Columbo was not a regular television series, but part of a rotating wheel of shows that also included McCloud and McMillan and Wife. Columbo would last seven seasons on NBC, ending in 1978, with Falk returning to the role in the late 1980s for four more seasons on ABC. Eight TV specials have since been produced. Although this first season encompasses only seven episodes, most are ninety minutes in duration.

Columbo was seen as being in the upper echelon of television productions, and was therefore able to draw on a finer talent pool for most of its episodes. The lieutenant has his work cut out for him in this inaugural season, which features a host of well known guest stars. Jack Cassidy plays one half of a murder mystery writing team, who uses his background in the genre to set up the perfect crime in the Steven Spielberg-directed season opener, Murder by the Book. Robert Culp plays a P.I. turned killer in Death Lends a Hand opposite Ray Milland as the husband whose wife has been killed. In Dead Weight,, Green Acres star Eddie Albert turns in a great performance as an honored military officer accused of murder by a bubbly Suzanne Pleschette. Ross Martin (Falk's real-life acting coach at one time) teams up with Kim Hunter, Don Ameche, and Vic Tayback as an art critic who offs his uncle for his art collection in Suitable for Framing. Susan Clark is the Lady in Waiting, who plots to kill her meddling brother (Richard Anderson) for interfering in her love affair with Leslie Nielsen. Roddy McDowall thwarts a blackmail attempt to expose his sordid past to his aunt (Ida Lupino) by murdering his uncle (James Gregory) in Short Fuse, and Forrest Tucker, as a business tycoon, becomes a scheming architect's (Patrick O'Neal) victim in Blueprint for Murder.

The interplay between Falk and his co-stars is usually quite memorable, especially when the detective is in an uncomfortable situation, such as being given an aerial workout or enduring the nautical exploits of his chief suspect. There are enough twists to hold interest through the longer-than-average viewing time, and as we witness the story unfold, we are tossed red herrings that will turn the tables and reveal the culprit. Unfortunately, the writing is sometimes lacking the attention to detail that can make a great mystery work, and also includes a number of obvious oversights in the police investigations that would have made Columbo's job easier—prints that should have been found, tire marks shown that aren't located, drag marks on a carpet that should have been seen. There are also a few of the stories where it is a little too convenient in how Columbo figures out the crime, but for the most part these are all high quality entertainment, and an essential part of any mystery lover's collection.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Although this may not have undergone a complete restoration, the image quality here is very high calibre. For the most part, colors are strong, but not oversaturated. There is the odd shot that is a little softer, but overall detail, clarity and sharpness is excellent. Source defects are relatively minor, consisting of the usual dust and light scratches, but nothing really distracting. Grain is moderate but natural looking. Not completely perfect, but far better than I ever recall seeing this show over the air.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Mono audio is clear, full range, and free of any major technical deficiencies. There is a bit of location noise on occasion, but aside from that, there is little to complain about.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
Packaging: Digipak
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Two original Columbo movies
Extras Review: Although there are none of the usual extras available, Universal has wisely included Columbo's two original telemovies in the package. The first, Prescription Murder, was filmed three years before the regular series got underway, and is interesting for Falk's very young appearance, for not introducing Columbo until over a half-hour in. The second pilot, Ransom for a Dead Man, introduces Columbo's trademark 1959 Peugeot 403 Cabriolet, along with the first of the detective's many phobias, which his suspects always seem to use to their advantage.

The set is spread out on five discs, housed in a boxed, foldout Digipak. Each disc has an episode guide and Play All feature. The episodes have a scant four chapters apiece.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

I can fondly recall huddling around the TV with the family waiting for this week's mystery movie, with Columbo being a household favorite. Aside from a few more extras, Universal's presentation of the complete first season leaves little else to be desired. Our favorite frumpy detective has never looked so good.


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