Columbo is a long-running Mystery of the Week series starring Oscar Nominee Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo, a blue-collar beat-down L.A. homicide detective whose clownish antics hide an exceptionally sharp wit. The series is composed of 69 TV-movies, beginning with every third episode of the '70s NBC Mystery Movie and running through a '90s solo revival.According to Word of God — a.k.a. prolific TV production partnership Levinson and Link — the film Les Diaboliques (1955) and its shabby inspector, Alfred Fichet, was the major initial inspiration for the character. Also Petrovich, the Russian inspector from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Lieutenant Columbo first failed to appear in the short story "May I Come In": the story ends with the detective knocking at the door. "May I Come In" was adapted as an episode of the anthology series The Chevy Mystery Show and then into the stageplay Prescription: Murder, which was then turned into the Columbo pilot-movie. Columbo went from being an off-screen character in "May I Come In" to a supporting character in the play, and finally to the lead of the TV movie.Columbo is the first and most famous Reverse Whodunnit (better known as the "open mystery"): for as much as the first quarter of each episode, the audience sees the motive set up and then actually watches as each guest villain tries to execute the perfect murder via an intricate — and often high-tech — endgame. Columbo himself then appears in the second act, as the first police presence on the scene... and the audience is left wondering not "whodunnit" but "howzhegonnagetim" (or, as the show's creators dubbed it, "howcatchum"). However, there are a very few episodes which are "whodunnits".Viewers who missed the first fifteen minutes could pick out the murderer pretty quickly anyway; it was usually either Robert Culp, Jack Cassidy or Patrick McGoohan (a close friend of Falk's, who also directed an episode). Barring that, it was the wealthy and/or brilliant character being the most smug about it. In most cases after all, it IS the most likely suspect. Notable one-offs included Richard Kiley, Robert Conrad, Ruth Gordon, Janet Leigh and Leonard Nimoy... oh, and the first Mystery Movie episode ("Murder by the Book") was directed by some random wunderkind named Spielberg.Albeit deliberately structured more on the formal "drawing-room mystery" (think Agatha Christie) than anything like a realistic police procedural, the show was generally an exception to Conviction by Contradiction: while an Encyclopedia Brown-style clue may first trigger Columbo's suspicions, the real chase is his attempts to get enough evidence for an arrest, often by exasperating/panicking the perp themselves into saying or doing something incriminating.Columbo was the master of Perp Sweating (i.e. shredding the Constitution, albeit totally under the Rule of Cool at all times). Though he generally settles on his horse from the outset, he never lets on, instead worming his way into their confidence via fawning adulation, begging their assistance as he "solves" the case. Usually he forces them to weave a huge web of lies until he can finally Pull the Thread — justified because he's always right. (Interestingly, while the Lieutenant is clearly over-the-top, he's arguably using a more true-to-life interview technique than the angry, confrontational interviews common in straight police dramas; flattery and interest in the other person's concerns are a more effective way of obtaining information.)A Throw It In accident during the filming of Prescription: Murder led to the show's most signature mannerism: after each interview with the suspect, Columbo begins to leave, the perp begins to relax — and then the Lieutenant returns to ask a significant and leading question, prefaced by a sheepish "Just one more thing, sir...".Columbo's other trademarks are his weatherbeaten raincoat, a cheap cigar, his broken-down car, his refusal to carry a gun (fortunately, perps always surrender gracefully when the jig is up), and constant references to The Ghost, his never-seen wife, Mrs. Columbo. Later, in an interesting subversion of Executive Meddling, the network tried to force a permanent sidekick on him. He got one: a shiftless, droopy Basset Hound that is most often seen being instructed to stay in the car.Another mild running gag was Columbo's first name, never revealed (everyone calls him "Lieutenant" instead). An early episode has him showing an ID badge with the name "Frank", a fact only visible with video technology not available when the episode first aired. Word of God confirmed that the name on the badge was not intended to be the character's canon name. (In the 1970s, famously, a trivia book author invented the first name "Philip" as a copyright trap. When the answer appeared in the game Trivial Pursuit, he sued for plagiarism. He lost the case, as the defense argued that they had merely been doing research.)Given all this, Columbo can be easily read as an expression of class struggle within the justice system. The perps are almost always powerful, privileged, and well-educated, while Columbo is, to put it mildly, not. Then again, the series creators have said that they weren't trying to send any message, just felt that Columbo would be more interesting as a fish out of water.Columbo's prop-laden buffoonishness is usually considered an act, but if so, it is an act he never admits to. Villains routinely accuse Columbo of putting up a false front, which he promptly disavows even more humbly. In Prescription: Murder, a murderous psychologist provides a (seemingly) perfect analysis of the Lieutenant: he believes he can't get by on his looks or charm, so he has turned his disadvantages into advantages. In "The Bye-Bye Sky-High I.Q. Murder Case", Columbo remarks that he knows he isn't the smartest guy around and attributes his success to merely working harder, thinking longer, and looking closer than anyone else would.Columbo has solved every case put before him onscreen (he sometimes claims that he only solves about a third total, but this could well be part of the humility act) and hasn't gotten his man only once — in which case the perp was dying anyway. In true classic mystery fashion, each ep wraps up with the Lieutenant confronting his prey with his train of deduction, culminating in the vital clue; the perp may not confess, but they know, and the viewer knows, they have been beaten. To show the subsequent arrest and trial might be interesting in a lot of cases, but would be entirely superfluous in all of them.Columbo's last appearance was in the 2003 TV movie Columbo Loves the Nightlife. A "finale" TV movie was planned and written, but ABC refused to insure it due to Falk's age and subsequent declining mental health, and Falk died in 2011 with the last script still in limbo.In England, Dirk Benedict had done the case of Prescription: Murder in a small run of theater, as the title detective.Columbo was also the primary inspiration for the British Locked Room Mystery series Jonathan Creek.
Just one more thing:
Absence of Evidence: The episode called "The Most Crucial Game" has Paul Hanlon get caught when Columbo found that the phone call the killer claimed to have made at 2:29 pm in his stadium box (and recorded by a bug on the line) lacked the sound of the half-hour chime of the anniversary clock in the box.
Acting for Two: Martin Landau as the twins Dexter and Norman Paris in "Double Shock", one of the very few episodes where the real killer is unknown until the end. Dexter is the murderer, but Norman is also in on it.
Paul Gerard from "Murder Under Glass" is quite a charming person to be around. Too bad he was extorting from restaurants and killed Vittorio Rossi to keep this quiet, and was more than willing to kill Columbo.
Joe Devlin, from "The Conspirators" is a poet who is quite social and pleasant in nature... too bad he was an IRA terrorist using all this as a cover to raise money to buy weapons. Columbo even went out drinking with him two separate times.
Rudy Strasse, from "No Time to Die" is close. Unfortunately, he's already quite unhinged and beyond that point, but does show signs.
The Alleged Car: An ancient silver Peugeot. Asked about it, Columbo affects great pride in owning "a classic car. Yeah, my car's a French car."
Columbo: My wife's got a car, too, but that's nothing special. Just transportation.
Always Gets His Man: In the final Patrick McGoohan episode, Columbo tells him that yes, he does always get his man.
Well, almost always. In "Forgotten Lady" he let Grace Wheeler go (she was dying of a brain disease, and had actually forgotten she had committed the murder), and in "It's All in the Game," he accepted Lauren Staton's confession on the condition that her accomplice (her daughter) would not be arrested.
Rudy Strasse in "No Time to Die" wasn't technically caught either, as he was shot dead by police officers.
In "A Deadly State of Mind", Dr. Mark Collier (George Hamilton in his first Columbo appearance) actually gets away with Nadia Donner's murder, having used hypnosis to trick her into diving off a balcony to her death, and in the denouement Columbo, for the only time, admits defeat. Sort of...
Columbo: I can't prove you killed Mrs. Donner.note The reason why is because Dr. Collier was across town when Nadia died, and Nadia was alone when she died. But I can prove you killed Mr. Donner.note The proof that Collier killed Nadia's husband Carl was a blind man walking his dog past the house that Collier nearly ran over when driving away from the scene.
And Another Thing...: The entire show lives off this trope; it's Columbo's specialty, but many other characters end up doing it once or twice in their episode as well.
Artistic License - Biology: Perhaps the oddest, most out-of-place moment in the entire series is in "Columbo Goes to the Guillotine", where Columbo gets close to a plant, and the plant begins SCREAMING and shaking in fear because his lit cigar is too close. Despite the institute centering its tests around mental abilities and ESP, and a tour guide stating they were running tests on plants, come on... this was just a bit cartoonish.
Artistic License - Gun Safety: "Fade in to Murder" involves an actor who steals various goods from the studio prop department to commit his crime — jacket, stocking mask, and a gun with bullets. Rather odd that a studio — which films TV shows, mostly — would have real guns and live ammunition on hand, instead of prop guns designed to chamber blanks which wouldn't likely even take actual ammunition, let alone fire it.
Artistic License - Law: Considering Columbo's methods and the fact that many of his cases literally lack a shred of physical evidence, most of those Columbo has arrested would have quickly walked free, likely winning a big monetary compensation afterwards. A fan joke states that this is the precise reason why Columbo hasn't received a promotion in decades.
"Murder Under Glass" features blowfish poison used as the murder weapon, which kills the victim in about a minute. In reality, it'd have taken the man hours, possibly even a full day to die, and that's IF he died considering that proper medical treatment would probably have saved his life. He wouldn't have collapsed and died that fast.
A rather major one involving hospitals in "The Most Dangerous Match". Why did the hospital ask for Tomlin Dudek's own medications brought in from outside? Beyond being a convenient plot coupon for Emmett Clayton to swap the medications and kill Dudek, it makes no sense for a hospital to have outside drugs brought in when they likely have stock on hand.
Subverted in "Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health". The fatal dose of nicotine sulfate, administered by Wade Anders to Budd Clarke by inserting a few drops into one of his Victory King cigarettes, probably would kill a man as fast as was shown in the episode. Obviously, Wade may have added a little more poison than necessary in order to guarantee that it would work.
Awesome but Impractical: The ways in which Columbo can "prove" his targets' guilt are usually very subtle and, for the most part, wouldn't carry much weight in court — the way someone tied their shoelaces, a clean lightbulb, a bottle of cider, a lighter stone, a match... A skilled lawyer would probably got all of Columbo's targets off, but that doesn't matter — what matters is the awesomeness of his reasoning, the way he puts the puzzle together with all the neatness and order his clothes lack.
Batman Gambit: If he couldn't find that one piece of evidence that proves the murderer's guilt, Columbo would pull one of these to get the murderer to incriminate himself.
Some of these were extremely daring, especially in "Columbo Goes to the Guillotine", in which Columbo hatches a Batman Gambit that requires Elliott Blake to try to kill him. There are in fact several episodes where Columbo pulls this trick, but this one was uncommonly gutsy, because if Columbo had been wrong, and Blake had not tried to kill him, he would in fact have died. By beheading.
Brimmer in "Death Lends a Hand" tries this by offering Columbo a six-figure salary working for his private security firm in exchange for quitting the police department. It backfires and probably makes Columbo even more suspicious, especially since he'd suspected this guy from the start!
Showing any callous disregard for human life — especially if it was the murderer acting pompous and indifferent — would set off the usually friendly Columbo into a rage that often led to him telling off the suspect (such as in "A Stitch In Time"). Messing with Columbo's family is also a terrible idea, as "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo" and "No Time to Die" showed us.
On the flip side, Columbo had a habit of pressing the berserk button of others around him. Sometimes, he'd do this on purpose to the suspect, other times, his mere, persistent presence would do this to innocent people. He also had a habit of doing this to his superiors.
Bloodless Carnage: Probably due in part to the TV content limitations of the time but many of the '70s Columbo films either feature gunshot wounds that either only have a small red spot or no blood or bullet wound at all. "Lady in Waiting" is probably the worst example of this: the victim is shot in the chest and dragged — face down — across about 20 feet of carpet but leaves no blood whatsoever, which if it had would've blown Beth Chadwick's story open in 2 seconds. This was eventually subverted in the much later films where more blood was allowed, perhaps best seen in "Columbo Goes to College" where not only does blood spray as the victim is shot, but when Columbo and the students find the body in the parking garage, blood has pooled quite heavily.
Bluffing the Murderer: How Columbo proves the murderer guilty in "Negative Reaction". Columbo enlarges the photograph of the victim that was taken supposedly taken by Alvin Deschler (which was all a lie) and flips it, so the clock in the background says it's ten o'clock when it's really two o'clock and claims it proves Paul Galesko was the culprit. Galesko, himself a photographer, points out that this is completely false and the original photograph would prove this, but Columbo says it was accidentally destroyed. Galesko then says they should use the original negative and picks out the camera that took the photograph — but he shouldn't know which camera it was or that the negative was still inside.
Bullying a Dragon: Trying to shake down someone that you know for a fact is a cold-blooded murderer seems to be one of the leading causes of death in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. This happens in, among other episodes, "Dagger of the Mind", "Short Fuse", and "Lovely But Lethal".
Columbo applies his quirkiness, politeness, absentmindedness, humility and curiosity to off balance the suspect. This seems at first glance to be an act but if you observe how he interacts with people he knows well, it turns out he's actually like that all the time. Columbo's abilities as a detective are never questioned by his superiors, only by the suspects and that's usually because he's getting too close to catching them.
This was lampshaded in Prescription: Murder, when Columbo says that his superiors are well aware that a suspect is sweating when they call to complain about him. Any attempt to get him off the case, even by calling in favors, never seems to work well.
The biggest example was "Columbo Cries Wolf". The case had already drawn massive media attention, and Columbo wants to dig up a significant portion of a large estate to look for a body that may or may not have been buried there, and likely is not as Sean Brantley has dared him to dig up the land. Columbo's reasonings for this are also rather thin (sound, maybe, but thin). Plus the massive expense of digging up that much land (which he apparently forgot about from such an endeavor in the first season's "Blueprint for Murder"). The mayor of Los Angeles decides to approve of this anyway, even based on thin evidence, just because it's Columbo who wants it done.
Busman's Holiday: In common with many detective series of the period once their creators got bored with the standard milieu. Wherever Columbo goes to relax, somebody else will die. "Troubled Waters" and "A Matter of Honor" are examples.
"Double Exposure" overlaps with the events of the prior episode, "Candidate for Crime". As Columbo arrives at the crime scene he mentions working on the Nelson Hayward case.
"Candidate for Crime" is referenced again at the end of "Publish or Perish".
The events of "Troubled Waters" made the newspapers in Mexico, which is why the Mexican police knew who he was in "A Matter of Honor" about a year later.
Columbo's cruise from "Troubled Water" is referenced again in "Try and Catch Me".
In "Columbo Goes to College", Columbo's lecture includes mentioning events about incriminating Oscar Finch in "Agenda for Murder".
"Sex and the Married Detective" features a Sgt. Burke, a young man on the force who seem to be Columbo's assigned underling. Could he have been the son of the Sgt. Burke who showed up throughout seasons 4 through 7?
Chief Superintendent Durk of New Scotland Yard, Columbo's liaison in "Dagger of the Mind", was mentioned by name many seasons later in "Columbo Cries Wolf".
California Doubling: Generally subverted as the show took place in Los Angeles. "Dagger of the Mind" did have certain scenes(mainly exterior shots) filmed in London, though much was filmed in Hollywood (in fact, one of the British actors had to remain in the US, as he was wanted for tax evasion in the UK).
Cool Uncle: Columbo is this to Andy, his nephew from "No Time to Die".
Correction Bait: In-Universe example: in "The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case", this is how Columbo tricks the killer into revealing themselves.
Dawson Casting: In "An Exercise in Fatality", Robert Conrad plays a 53-year-old fitness expert whose healthy lifestyle leaves him looking like he's in his thirties. Conrad actually was 39 at the time of filming.
For example, in "The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case", when asking witnesses about the killer's build, one said he was heavy, another claimed he seemed average, and a third claimed he was light and possibly even a woman. Columbo's reaction to this was a deadpan, "Well that clears that up."
Murderer's sister: I'll have you disbarred for this — whatever that word is. Columbo: Yes, ma'am. "Fired", I think, is the word you want.
Death by Sex: In "Sex and the Married Detective", Dr. Joan Allenby shoots David Kincaid in a therapy bedroom at her clinic, then stages the scene to make it look like this trope happened.
This is the trope that Paul Galesko (Dick Van Dyke) pulls this off brilliantly in "Negative Reaction" to murder his dominating wife Frances. First, he takes Frances out to a country ranch house rented by Alvin Deschler, an ex-con and former extortionist whom Galesko has roped into helping him. Once in the house, Galesko ties his wife to a chair, then he puts a clock up on the fireplace mantle, sets the time to 2:00 PM so that he will have an alibi for himself. He then takes photos of her with the clock in the picture, then he shoots her with a P38 pistol. The next day, Galesko breaks into Deschler's motel room to plant evidence that frames him for the murder/kidnapping, then meets with Deschler at a junkyard. There, Galesko shoots and kills the unwitting Deschler with a revolver, places the pistol he used to shoot Frances in Deschler's hand, then shoots himself in the leg with that gun to make it look like self-defence.
In "Strange Bedfellows": Graham McVeigh, a thoroughbred horse raiser, is tired of the fact that his brother Teddy is a gambler who is in serious debt with local bookie Bruno Romano, who owns a local restaurant. First, Graham makes Teddy lose a lot of money at the race track by drugging his own horse so that it loses. Then, disguised, Graham goes to Romano's restaurant, where he sets mice in the bathroom. While Romano is distracted getting rid of the mice, Graham calls Teddy from his back office phone so that it will look like Teddy was setting up a meeting with Romano. Graham and Teddy then drive out to a spot on a secluded back road, with Teddy driving. Under the pretence of getting fresh air, Graham gets out, walks around the car, steps up to Teddy's window and shoots him at point-blank range, then rides away on a folding bike stashed in the trunk. The next day, he calls Romano to come out to the ranch, ostensibly to pay Teddy's debt. When Romano looks at the briefcase containing the money, Graham shoots him, switches Romano's pistol for the identical murder weapon, and makes it look like self-defense.
Luis Montoya (Ricardo Montalban) from "A Matter of Honor" most certainly counts. He was one of the top celebrities and most influential people in Mexico, so the local police were practically afraid to investigate the crime once it became suspected, and Columbo was in a foreign country. While Columbo has challenged a few big time people over his career, his job could have ended and he'd have been in severe trouble if not for showing everyone that Montoya was not a great man, was in fact a coward and had killed Hector Rangel to try and hide that fact, causing Montoya to surrender.
This came very close in "A Case of Immunity" where Hassan Salah was a foreign national with diplomatic immunity, and could have had Columbo fired. Columbo didn't have to take any big risks to catch the guy... after all, Columbo was on good terms with the king of that particular foreign nation and merely got the guy to spill a confession while the king listened. In this case, the suspect wasn't undefeatable, just hard to touch.
Borders between this and Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu? in "A Friend in Deed" when Columbo busts Deputy Police Commissioner Mark Halperin for murdering his wife and assisted Hugh Caldwell in helping cover up the murder of Caldwell's wife. He took down his own corrupt boss, of all people!
Doesn't Like Guns: And is a notoriously bad shot. He appears to get other cops to take his shooting qualifications ("Forgotten Lady"). He'll carry a gun when the situation absolutely calls for it, but even then... He probably doesn't have great depth-perception anyway. He seems to have no problem brandishing one on Mo Weinberg in "Undercover" though, but Weinberg does try to shoot him.
Prescription: Murder, being the first film, hadn't yet set the formula. It opens with a trippy animated ink blot title sequence, features music not heard elsewhere in the series, and Peter Falk has a much shorter haircut than we were familiar with. Columbo himself isn't even seen until 33 minutes into the episode.
"Death Lends A Hand" features a still shot of Robert Culp's face with his cleanup of the crime scene reflected in his glasses.
"Etude In Black" features a zoom-in view of the flower on the floor in the killer's sunglasses.
Everyone Can See It: In "Undercover", both Geraldine Ferguson and Mo Weinberg are convinced that Columbo is a cop despite Columbo's attempt to pose as a lowlife named Arthur Stokes. This despite the fact that Columbo was often mistaken for either a tramp or a homeless man several times over the years while wearing his normal police clothes. Perhaps the captain should have just let him wear his usual clothes after all... considering that another character later in "Undercover" mistook him for a bum after he resumed wearing his usual clothing!
Evil Cannot Comprehend Good: This is what brings down Leslie Williams in "Ransom for a Dead Man". Being The Sociopath herself, it doesn't occur to her to question whether a man's daughter would actually be willing to forget about his murder in exchange for a payoff.
Evil Twin: Dexter Paris in the episode "Double Shock" has a history of lying, petty crime and sponging off of others, but it is unclear if he is the killer or his brother Norman, a serious and stoical but principled banker. It was Dexter, but Norman was in on it.
Exasperated Perp: One of the great pleasures of the format is watching a smug perp kindly encouraging Columbo.
Executive Meddling: An in-universe example happens in "Make Me a Perfect Murder". Kay Freestone, a network assistant executive with high goals, dictates and practically directs a film that the network wants and guarantees it will be a success. When she is told she can't have her boyfriend Mark McAndrews's job after his promotion to New York (as he doesn't feel she's qualified), she shoots and kills McAndrews in his office to get the job. Afterwards, her plans to bring Valerie Kirk, an old friend and former star who also happens to be a pill junkie, out of retirement for a TV special falls apart, and the film the network ordered is a massive bomb when it finally airs (because she desperately put the film up to replace the cancelled special, thus running it suddenly with no advertising beforehand). As the head of the network told her, she "doesn't make decisions", she "makes guesses". Getting arrested by Columbo doesn't really help either, but her career is really over well before that.
Abigail Mitchell, the murder mystery writer, to Agatha Christie — who was mentioned by name in the episode in question.
Sir Harry Matthews, the wealthy British businessman from "Columbo Cries Wolf", to real-life British media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Alex Bradey is heavily based on Steven Spielberg. He even looks like a young Spielberg.
Max Dyson, psychic debunker is based heavily on The Amazing Randi.
Eye Scream: The magnificent stare of Columbo, where one of his eyes constantly looks into the opposite direction, has yet to be forgotten. Yeah, Peter Falk's really got a false eye, though...
Fictional Country: Suari, the Middle Eastern nation from "A Case of Immunity" is made up.
Forbidden Planet: Robbie the Robot makes a cameo in one episode, as does Robbie's co-star Leslie Nielsen.
The Ghost: Mrs. Columbo. We know she exists, but his descriptions of her vary immensely. He's always describing her to the perp though, so it's unlikely he'd give them an actual description.
Go-Karting with Bowser: Even when Columbo knows who committed the murder, or at least is highly suspicious of them, he still makes small talk with them about things like their job and interests. Often this is to pay attention to subtle things they say or noticeable tells that can unintentionally incriminate them. In some episodes, however, Columbo seems to genuinely like some of his suspects, and regrets having some of them arrested before he reminds himself that it was the right thing to do.
The best example? Perhaps in "The Conspirators", where he goes drinking, not once, but twice, with Joe Devlin, a secret IRA terrorist. He only stumbled on key evidence by pure accident when he noted that Devlin's favorite whiskey was the same brand as seen at the crime scene, and that Devlin also notched the bottles the same as the one found at the scene.
Gosh Dang It to Heck!: Throughout the majority of Columbo films, "hell" and "damn" are the extent of the swearing. Later films of the '80s and '90s eventually saw occasional use of the word "bitch" here and there. But the only real subversions are likely "Undercover" and "A Trace of Murder" where characters say the word "bullshit". "Undercover" is uncensored on the DVD release, though "A Trace of Murder" has the censoring in place. Though cleverly, the censorship in "A Trace of Murder" occurs when Clifford Calvert slams shut a cigar box as he says "shit", the clasp of the lid acting as the censor.
In "Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health", Columbo's car is scratched by Budd Clarke's dog when he arrives at the scene for the first time. He proves Wade Anders is lying when he says he has never been to the house upon discovering identical claw marks on Anders' car.
In "Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star", the clue comes in the form of berries from a tree that only grows in a certain area.
Graceful Loser: Usually. Columbo has the good sense to plan ahead for when this doesn't seem likely.
Heroic BSOD: While Columbo never went as far as a total breakdown... and while he's usually not too easy to anger, it's still not a very good idea to piss Columbo off, which has happened.
Prescription: Murder — After figuring out Joan Hudson's role in the killing, Columbo threatens to have her followed and stalked until he finally breaks the case. This also serves to set up the fake suicide surprise for the audience.
"A Stitch in Crime" — The famous scene where Columbo picks up a heavy desk ornament and slams it down hard in front of Dr. Mayfield, giving it to him straight that he believed Dr. Mayfield killed Sharon Martin and was trying to kill Dr. Hidemann as well.
"An Exercise in Fatality" — In the hospital waiting room when Gene Stafford's wife is admitted after her suicide attempt, Columbo practically tears Milo Janus a new one concerning the case in front of several people.
"Columbo Goes to the Guillotine" — An elaborate set-up at the end, tricking Elliott Blake into revealing himself as the killer leads into Columbo pulling a gun and saying he has to play judge, jury AND executioner. Though the gun was just a "bang" flag pistol, it probably scared the killer, though the audience either knew it was a ruse (Columbo hates guns and refuses to carry or fire them unless absolutely necessary) or had been momentarily tricked into thinking he'd lost his mind.
Hoist by His Own Petard: Quite a lot of murderers are exposed when they try to outwit Columbo, usually concocting some clever plan to "clinch" the case and exonerate themselves. Most of the time, if they'd sat tight, they would go free. Some murderers are defeated in an especially ironic way, including:
Dr. Bart Keppel, expert in the field of Subliminal Advertising, is tricked into revealing the location of the device he used to change the caliber of his gun when Columbo plants subliminal pictures of himself finding it in "Double Exposure".
Ken Franklin stages the murder of his writing partner using the only good idea for a murder he ever had as a mystery novelist, which is not enough to fool Columbo.
Stage Magician the "Great Santini" exposes himself when, as a stage trick, he demonstrates his ability to pick complicated locks. (Both these characters were played by Jack Cassidy.)
Hollywood Silencer: If a gun is the murder weapon, there's about a 50% chance it'll have a silencer attached which will make no noise... and if a silencer is attached, it's probably a revolver.
Played with in "The Conspirators": the murder weapon Joe Devlin uses to shoot Vincent Pauley is a special pistol with a built-in silencer.
How We Got Here: "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo" starts with Mrs. Columbo's funeral. Vivian Dmitri's murder of her boss's partner Charlie Chambers, and the investigation scenes leading up to this funeral, are then told as lengthy flashbacks.
The opening sequence of "Make Me a Perfect Murder" has Columbo driving while singing, ignoring his police radio, and remaining completely oblivious to the police sirens around him while he fiddles with his rear view mirror. The mirror piece comes off, and he attempts to reattach it while driving, without once pulling over and swerving all over the road. This entire time, his police radio is reporting the chatter of the car following him. This ends with him slamming on his brakes to avoid hitting one police car, while the one behind his car hits him, giving Columbo whiplash. Even for a character known for Obfuscating Stupidity the scene plays out to the point of making the character look incompetent.
He seems to be holding the idiot ball in both "Try and Catch Me" and "Undercover". In both cases he reaches his finger into a light bulb socket to remove a piece of evidence. This might be fine if he'd either unplugged the lamp (in the latter case) or had the circuit breaker shut off (in the former — it was a ceiling fixture). Instead, he simply reaches in with his finger without so much as making sure their power sources were off.
That's ignoring his repeated annoyance of the housekeeper in "Double Shock"... much of which could be written off as Columbo being Columbo, though while he normally annoyed the suspect, he seemed to be more annoying to her with his mannerisms. But that's nothing compared to how he tested his theory of the electrocution — which he does so by dropping an electric device into a bathtub, then running to change the fuse. This not only burns out all the electricity in the house, but also ruins the housekeeper's TV set. Then he does it again! Even someone like Columbo could have thought to test his theory out without blowing out the fuse since all he really needs to verify is how long it would take to run from the upstairs bathroom to the basement fuse box.
Inspector Lestrade: Subverted; Columbo is very much a competent officer, but plays up this trope masterfully for all it's worth.
Just for the Heli of It: In the episode "A Friend in Deed", Richard Kiley plays a deputy police commissioner who covers for his friend's accidental killing of his wife and then demands the friend's help to cover up his own wife's murder. Kiley's character tries to make it seem as if an unknown burglar-cum-killer is besetting his posh neighbourhood, and at one point he rides along in a helicopter in hopes of catching this person. It turns out the chopper ride was part of the construction of his alibi, plus it made it seem the LAPD was putting a high priority on catching this non-existent crook, and the guy used it in part because he had the power to do so. Before the flight, Columbo actually asks the deputy commissioner if the helicopter was really necessary.
Karma Houdini: The unnamed weapons dealer (played by L.Q. Jones) from "The Conspirators". He seems like a normal man who runs an RV dealership but runs guns. He sells the guns to Joe Devlin, takes the cash... and while Joe and his IRA cell are caught, the gun dealer is never busted. It is never mentioned if Devlin ratted him out after the fact hoping for some leniency.
Limited Wardrobe: Columbo wore the exact same coat in every episode, with the same hopeless suit below it.
Lampshaded in "Now You See Him", when he appears in a new coat that he can't avoid, since the Mrs. bought it for his birthday. He (intentionally) keeps forgetting it, and by the end has traded it in for his old one, albeit a newly-bought copy.
In another episode he appears without his trademark raincoat for the first time... naturally it was pouring with rain.
Military Moonshiner: In "By Dawn's Early Light", Colonel Lyle Rumford incriminates himself in William Haynes's murder by going on a crusade to track down the boys who are making alcoholic apple cider (hanging the bottle outside in the wee hours of the morning to help it ferment). Columbo is able to show that the only way he could have been aware of it was if he was standing by the academy cannon while rigging it to explode.
Murder by Cremation: In "Ashes to Ashes", mortician Eric Prince gets rid of gossip reporter Verity Chandler in this way. He bludgeons her, then puts her corpse in a coffin, switching it with a different man's body scheduled for cremation, then Chandler is cremated and her ashes are scattered by helicopter over the hills.
Never Suicide: Justified, since Columbo usually rules suicide out for good psychological reasons.
An especially good take on the trope is made in "Étude in Black", where Columbo is prepared to believe Jennifer Welles did commit suicide (there was evidence of an unhappy love life), until he discovered that her death also killed her beloved pet, and that didn't fit in.
In "Forgotten Lady", the victim was an old man in very poor health — but then it is discovered that not only did he borrow several humorous books from a library, he also carefully marked his place in the one he's been reading before he died.
Likewise, Janet Leigh did the same — one of her character Grace Wheeler's favorite starring roles was an old Janet Leigh picture.
Wade Anders from "Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health" may be played by George Hamilton, but his personality is like Rex Kramer.
Alex Bradey in "Murder, Smoke and Shadows" is a rather mean-spirited caricature of Steven Spielberg.
Findlay Crawford in "Murder with Too Many Notes" is very Hans Zimmer-esque, being as he is an Oscar-winning film composer who's the mentor to a younger tunesmith, Gabriel McEnery, who's worked on some of his scores (the title also harks back to "Too Many Notes, Not Enough Rests," from Zimmer's Drop Zone) and played by Michael Kamen-lookalike Billy Connolly to boot (Kamen was also inclined to support young talent).
No Name Given: Not strictly true — as per above, when asked directly, he jokingly claims his first name is Lieutenant. Then there's the badge shot mentioned in the intro, but again, Word of God claims it's not canon.
Not So Stoic: Every suspect that meets Columbo at first keeps their calm, but whenever he hints the slightest that he is on to him/her, they freak out as soon as he leaves. One example, in "Lady in Waiting", Beth Chadwick tosses a light bulb (the same one she uses when she shoots and kills her brother) across the board room when she realizes that Columbo is getting closer to finding out.
Columbo, and how! Just see the page quote for a start.
This was also true of Susie Endicott, the material witness in the episode "Undercover", Irving Krutch's ditzy, giggling girlfriend who was his alibi for the shootings of Mo Weinberg and Geraldine Ferguson. When Columbo reveals that he has evidence that proves she's lying (thus making her liable as an accomplice to murder), Susie's previously dopey eyes turn ice cold and she turns Krutch in without remorse.
Oh Crap: Happens roughly Once per Episode when Columbo finally catches the perp. Depending on the actor, they range from sheer rage to looking as if they've hang-glided over the walls of Hell.
Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Peter Falk is of Polish descent and Jewish faith, while Columbo is Italian of possibly Roman Catholic faith. In a lot of the later seasons, Falk's voice was noticeably different and a Yiddish accent tended to slip through on occasion.
Out-Gambitted: Eventually all of the culprits' plots turn out to be this.
While the previous example was a minor one, "No Time to Die" completely went against grain of the series. It abandoned the usual murder plot and told a story of a kidnapping that played like a psychological thriller. Columbo's nephew, Andy, is married to a model. Immediately after the ceremony, Andy's new wife is kidnapped. Columbo has to work with much of the LAPD police force to find Andy's wife before an insane medical student can rape and kill her. The story takes place over the course of a single night.
"Undercover" plays with this a bit by mixing in the usual Columbo murder mystery with a hunt for pieces of a photograph leading to the location of money stolen from a bank heist years before. Both this and "No Time to Die" were based on 87th Precinct novels.
"Mind Over Mayhem" takes a brief detour into Science Fiction, with a Teen Genius who has invented a robot (played by Robbie the Robot of Forbidden Planet fame) so sophisticated that it seems to have artifical intelligence (not only does it play chess, but it gets angry when it loses).
Perp Sweating: This was usually done in a psychological manner by Columbo. While it was rare to see a normal interrogation, they did occasionally show them, the most notable example being "Murder of a Rock Star".
Personal Arcade: The episode "The Conspirators" has Columbo and a suspect talking over games of pinball in the suspect's home.
Playing Against Type: Most of the guest stars played murderers, and many of them carried their typical screen personas into the role. Others did no such thing:
Dick Van Dyke was famous for his wacky, pratfalling antics on The Dick Van Dyke Show. But in "Negative Reaction," his murderer character was even more heartless and cold than most of the series' killers.
Similarly, George Wendt played a humorless, bitter killer, in stark contrast to the silly, self-deprecating shlemazel he played in Cheers.
Puffer Fish: Puffer fish poison was the murder weapon in "Murder Under Glass".
Pull the Thread: Columbo's ability to see through cover stories forces the killers to usually come up with an even more complicated web of lies in an attempt to cover their involvement.
Pun-Based Title: Most episode names are a pun related to the murder committed. For example, in "An Exercise in Fatality" (an exercise in futility) Milo Janus strangles Gene Stafford and makes it look like an exercise mishap. In "Caution: Murder (Cigarette smoking) Can Be Hazardous To Your Health", Wade Anders kills Budd Clarke with poisoned cigarette.
Rewind, Replay, Repeat: Done several times in order to prove that the tape being used for an alibi was faked somehow.
In "Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health", the inconsistency Columbo points out is the hedges behind the door in the tape Wade Anders has set up for his alibi.
In "A Bird in the Hand", Columbo replays the news footage of Harold McCain's gardener blowing up to show Dolores (Tyne Daly) that Harold flinched in anticipation of the pipe bomb exploding.
"Playback" features Harold Van Wick using a very expensive, very elaborate in-home security system (which for the 1970s, was NOT all that common) to record him shooting his mother-in-law (from out of frame) and play it back while at a party so that the security guard at the gatehouse will see it. Columbo discovers the ruse when spotting the party invitation on the desk in the footage of the shooting, which vanishes seconds later and was presented at the party itself.
Science Marches On: Most of the schemes the killers use to establish their alibis, disguise the cause of death or change the apparent time of the murder would today be handily disproved by modern forensic science, without any need for Columbo's unique investigatory techniques.
In "Double Exposure", both the killer's method of luring the victim to his doom and Columbo's plan to catch him depend on the use of Subliminal Advertising, which has since been totally debunked.
In "Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star", Columbo takes down the top of his Peugot convertible and says it's the first time he's had the top down since buying the car. Except it was down in "Last Salute to the Commodore", and possibly other episodes. He was definitely driving around with the top down in "The Most Dangerous Match". Well, it was a long time, so he may have forgotten those past occasions.
Happens again in "Murder with Too Many Notes", as Columbo asks one of the musicians to teach him how to play "This Old Man" on the piano at the end of the episode. Except he played the song perfectly on piano in "Try and Catch Me". Both examples could be hand-waved as Columbo lying as part of his Obfuscating Stupidity act.
This happens within the episode "Forgotten Lady". Dr. Willis' bedroom was supposed to be on the other end of the house from the film room. However, when Columbo tries climbing down the tree outside the bedroom window, it's suddenly directly above the film room as Grace wheeler sees him through the film-room window.
A brief clip of Johnny Carson giving a monologue can be seen in "Forgotten Lady" as well as references to the show being 90 minutes long, as it was at the time.
"Forgotten Lady" also features Janet Leigh's character, Grace Wheeler, watching the old film Walking My Baby Back Home, in which Leigh starred.
The news reel that Luis Montoya is watching in "A Matter of Honor"? It's actually an older film that Ricardo Montalbon starred in, playing a bull fighter.
Showy Invincible Hero: Does the bad guy have a chance? No way. The fun is seeing Columbo make them squirm.
Smug Snake: Many of the killers. Roddy McDowell was a good example. Another, played by Leonard Nimoy, was so smug that Columbo has one of his few moments of anger with him.
The Sociopath: Quite a few of the killers over the years, but Dr. Fleming in Prescription: Murder and Leslie Williams in "Ransom for a Dead Man" particularly stand out because their utter lack of conscience and capacity for normal human empathy becomes crucial to Columbo's Batman-Gambits against them.
Split Personality: Ward Fowler, the killer from "Fade in to Murder" seems to be suffering from this. He keeps slipping into the persona of Detective Lucerne, his TV role, to help Columbo, and practically hands Columbo evidence to hang himself.
Squick: In-universe, Columbo finds the sight of an operation and most autopsies to be unbearable to watch... though his mood will fluctuate on this depending on the situation. Most attempts to show him such things freak him out quite bad at even the suggestion he witness, though at the end of "A Stitch in Crime", his nerves harden up and he watches the surgery intensely.
Status Quo Is God: During an interview with WABC'sMark Simone, Falk was asked after all those years of solving all those high profile cases, why was Columbo still a Lieutenant? Falk chuckled and said "I guess he probably turned down a promotion here and there so he could keep on doing the work he loved."
"Candidate for Crime" involves Nelson Hayward killing Harry Stone and then the time of death being established by a broken watch. Columbo figures the watch must have been planted on the victim's body with the time pre-set, because he was a tough sportsman who wouldn't have wanted to be seen dead wearing such a wimpy, fragile timepiece.
This happens again in "Death Hits the Jackpot", when Leon Lamarr (Rip Torn) sets his nephew Fredy Brower's watch and breaks it to try to establish the time of death so that it will look like he was at his Halloween party when Fredy drowned. However, this fails to work when Columbo notices that this supposedly expensive watch is a counterfeit knockoff of a name brand watch... which Lamaar didn't know, as he'd bought Fredy the real deal as a gift some time before, and didn't know that Fredy had sold it and bought a knockoff. This was a major plot point as the knockoff was not waterproof, unlike the real watch — so, if Fredy had really been bathing, he would have taken his watch off.
Subliminal Advertising: Dr. Bart Keppel is an expert in this technique in "Double Exposure". He uses it to lure Vic Norris to the spot he's picked out for the murder. Later, Columbo uses it against him to push him into revealing the location of the key evidence against him.
Sympathetic Murderer: Some of the best episodes have the audience actively hoping the Lieutenant won't catch the perp.
An interesting case in "Lady in Waiting" that plays with this trope. Beth Chadwick kills her controlling brother because he's trying to end the relationship between her and Peter, who works for him, by threatening to fire him. After his death she starts becoming as controlling and inconsiderate of other viewpoints as her brother — she even almost decides to shoot Columbo when he catches her! She only stops because he says she's "too classy" to do such a thing.
In "Try and Catch Me", he gives a tale to an audience of crime writing fans and says that his favourite part of his job is meeting nice people, even killers, because although what they have done is horrible, that doesn't mean they aren't genuinelly nice people and he often understands their motives and sympathises with them. This was a bit manipulative since the killer of that story is Abigail Mitchell, who was in said audience and it was doubtless for her ears too (she was more or less sympathetic, for the record), but based on the evidence, there is little reason to believe that he wasn't being truthful. Also, her motivation for murdering her son-in-law in the first place was that he had murdered her daughter years earlier.
In "Swan Song", the episode featuring Johnny Cash, we know that we are supposed to be sympathetic to Tommy Brown (Cash) once we realize that he is tired of being controlled by his religiously fanatic, blackmailing wife. Tommy even expresses relief that he's been caught, and admits that he would eventually have given himself up. In a rather touching moment, Columbo reassures Tommy that there is still some good in him.
Paul Galesko (Dick Van Dyke) from "Negative Reaction" also murders his screeching, domineering wife. But unlike Tommy Brown, Galesko is utterly cold and indifferent to what he's done, and his treatment of Deschler (Galesko frames Deschler and then kills him) is even more upsetting, since Deschler had done absolutely nothing to offend him.
The widow of a Columbo killer (never given an episode) who tries to hurt Columbo's wife due to her desire for Revenge.
Adrian Carsini in "Any Old Port in a Storm". Columbo likes him so much that, after arresting him, he pulls over to the side of the road so they can share one last bottle of wine before he hauls him off to be booked.
Take That: Alex Bradey, the film director from "Murder, Smoke and Shadows" is a rather less-than-kind expy of Steven Spielberg. Bradey is an up-and-coming film director with a lot of ideas, but by the end of the episode he's shown to be little more than a Man Child who thinks he's above everything else, only for not only Columbo to catch him, but his studio boss to fire him for being such a jerk. Perhaps even harsher considering that Spielberg directed one of the first-season Columbo films.
Technology Porn / Technology Marches On: A number of episodes center around a killer making inventive use of the latest technological marvels, and relying on the police failing to know how they work. A contemporary viewer will get a few chuckles out of:
"Ransom for a Dead Man" — Leslie Williams shoots her husband and dumps his body, then uses a dictaphone recording to fake his kidnapping.
"Fade in to Murder" — Ward Fowler (William Shatner) using a VCR to fake an alibi by time-delaying a baseball game so that his guest will vouch for his location at the time the game was broadcast.
"Butterfly in Shades of Gray" — Fielding Chase (also Shatner) who has killed Gerry Winters and made it look like Winters was killed while talking to Chase on the phone. Chase makes a 911 call on his car phone once he leaves the scene, and makes it seem like he called 911 shortly after leaving his own house. His story falls apart when Columbo reveals that Chase could not have called 911 from where he claimed he was, because said location happens to be in a mountainous area where there is a dead zone and it is impossble to get a phone signal.
"Columbo Cries Wolf" — The victim's body is revealed when Columbo calls her wrist pager.
"An Exercise in Fatality" — Milo Janus hides his location by making a call from multi-line phone system.
The final episode, "Columbo Likes the Nightlife", has the killer write out a fake suicide note on the victim's computer. It is easily discovered to be fake when Columbo gets immediately suspicious, has the forensics person check the keyboard and finds several keys have no prints on them.
"Playback"... oh wow... Harold Van Wick's got an in-house security system complete with cameras, microphones and a live feed to the guard house, plus a film room to record everything. A digital watch that prints the time in bright LED numbers. Doors that can open and close by clapping or other loud noises (Van Wick's wife is in a wheelchair). A wheelchair elevator for the staircase. All of it could be considered mundane by today's standards but for the time the episode was made, certainly high tech.
Too Clever by Half: This is actually pretty common. A lot of these killers would have gotten away free if they'd just kept things simple, but many had to take it an extra step further by trying to set up a scene or frame someone, which caused them to make mistakes.
If Alex Benedict in "Étude in Black" didn't come back for his flower pin, or just not wear it at all after retrieving it from the crime scene, he probably would never have been caught.
"A Stitch in Crime" is a perfect example: if Dr. Mayfield had simply killed Sharon Martin in the parking lot, no doubt he'd have been free, but the plot to make it look like a killing over drugs complicated the situation, caused far too many problems and led to his capture.
"A Deadly State of Mind" has a great example: Dr. Collier knows Columbo's game at the end is a ruse and that the man couldn't have seen him for an identification because he's blind. However, aside from the glasses, there was no indication at all the man Columbo had in the room was blind. Dr. Collier practically gave away too much information for his own good.
In "An Exercise in Fatality", Milo Janus successfully makes the murder look like an accident without leaving any evidence conclusively proving that it wasn't. But then he goes and tries to construct a perfect alibi (which he didn't really need, since the murder looked like an accident), which leads to Conviction by Contradiction when Columbo finishes ripping it apart. If he'd just not bothered with an alibi at all, he might have looked suspicious, but there would have been no evidence of any sort against him.
Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: One happens in "Sex and the Married Detective", when Dr. Joan Allenby arrives at her clinic the morning after she kills David Kincaid there. She gets in the elevator to go up, and then Columbo jumps on. The entire scene is done in awkward silence, with Columbo looking down and noticing a tag on Joan's coat and him then noticing the no-smoking sign when he is reaching for his cigar.
Unwitting Pawn: Murderers on the show usually don't have accomplices, but when they do, the accomplice may be killed as part of a larger plan.
For example, in "Old-Fashioned Murder", Ruth Lytton hires a just fired ex-con security guard, Milton Shaeffer, to break in and steal artifacts, claiming it's so she can get the insurance money. Her actual plan is to shoot him when he breaks in as part of a Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit so she can shoot her brother and frame him.
In "Negative Reaction", Paul Galesko also uses the Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit variation to cover up the shooting of his wife.
In "A Case of Immunity", Rachman Habib is Hassan Salah's accomplice in killing the head of security at the Suari Legation headquarters. He goes into hiding, though Hassan kills him after the fact to keep him quiet.
In "Suitable for Framing", Dale Kingston starts shrieking at the top of his lungs that Columbo planted his own fingerprints on the stolen paintings, only to be struck completely dumb when Columbo reveals that he's wearing gloves.
In "Short Fuse", Roger Stanford goes Laughing Mad when he realizes that there is no bomb and he's just exposed his M.O. in front of witnesses.
In "Dagger of the Mind", Nicholas Frame starts giggling to himself and babbling a monologue from Macbeth when he realizes (or, to be perfectly accurate, is tricked into believing) that Columbo has found a key piece of evidence against him.
Wheel Program: This program and Banacek are two of the shows that were on the Wheel.
Woman in Black: In "Sex and the Married Detective", Dr. Joan Allenby disguises herself as one to kill her lover David Kincaid after she catches him cheating on her with her assistant Cindy Galt. She accomplishes this with a wig, lots of dark black and sexy clothing, and a man's fedora hat.
Worthy Opponent: "The Bye-Bye Sky-High IQ Murder Case" is set at a Mensa-style club, with the killer, Oliver Brandt, being an Insufferable Genius who considers the victim, Bertie Hastings, and the other members of the club, to be inferior to his own intellect. When dealing with Columbo, he occasionally gets glimpses through Columbo's façade, and by the time of his arrest, is relieved to have been caught by someone now considered a peer, intellectually — since Columbo solved the intellectual puzzle Brandt suggested to him with a very logical solution.
You Look Familiar: In addition to the stars mentioned above who appeared as killers more than once, Character Actor Vitto Scotti appeared in a number of supporting roles, Bruce Kirby appeared nine times (usually as Sergeant Kramer), William Shatner and George Hamilton appeared as murderers on both NBC and ABC episodes (Shatner was Ward Fowler and Fielding Chase, Hamilton was both Dr. Mark Collier and Wade Anders), and Leslie Nielsen appeared twice — once as a murder victim and once as the boyfriend of the episode's murderess. This is also especially true of Shera Danese, Falk's real-life wife, who was in several of the films and had major roles in some of them. She appears in six episodes. In fact, Shera Danese and Peter Falk first met while filming the episode Fade in to Murder. She only has one small scene in that episode but quickly got bigger roles in later episodes of the series.
Your Favorite: A bowl of chili and saltines, especially if it's from Barney's Beanery.