"Just one more question, sir..."
—Columbo, seconds before he closes a case.
Columbo: long-running Mystery of the Week series starring Oscar Nominee Peter Falk as Lieutenant Columbo, a blue-collar beat-down LA homicide detective whose clownish antics hide an exceptionally sharp wit. The series is composed of about thirty 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. 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").
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. 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 a trademark 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 he is most often seen instructing to stay in the car.
Another mild running gag was Columbo's first name, never revealed (everyone called 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.)
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.
- Absence of Evidence: The episode called "The Most Crucial Game" has the culprit 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 (the former is the murderer) in "Double Shock", one of the very few episodes where the real killer is unknown until the end.
- Actor Allusion: George Costanzo has a cameo in Columbo Goes To The Guillotine, playing a bar owner who happens to be a retired police sergeant. Costanzo was a police officer before he became an actor.
- The Alleged Car: An ancient silver Peugeot, of all things. 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 one case, he let the perp go (she was dying of a brain disease, and had actually forgotten she had committed the murder), and in another he accepted one killer's confession on the condition that her accomplice (her daughter) would not be arrested.
- The suspect in "No Time To Die" wasn't technically caught either, as he was shot dead by police officers.
- And in "A Deadly State Of Mind," Dr. Mark Collier actually gets away with Carl Donner's murder, then uses hypnosis to trick the late Donner's wife (Collier's lover) Nadia 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. But I can prove you killed Mr. Donner.
- And Another Thing: The entire show lives off this trope; it's Columbo's speciality, but many other characters end up doing it once or twice in their episode as well.
- Animated Adaptation: He's a police Lieutenant who wears a raincoat, drives a car that literally falls apart when he parks it, and keeps popping up when the villians least expect it. Oh, just one more thing... he's played by the dog from "Wacky Races".
- Artistic License Medicine: 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 the victim's own medications brought in form outside? Beyond being a convenient plot coupon for the killer to swap the medications and kill the victim, it makes no sense for a hospital to have outside drugs brought in when they likely had stock on hand.
- Subverted in Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health. The fatal dose of nicotine sulfate that Wade Anders administers to Budd Clarke by inserting a few drops into one of Budd's cigarettes, probably would kill a man as fast as was shown in the episode.
- Asshole Victim: A trademark. Subverted with a notable few, though.
- 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 the murderer 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 the crook had not tried to kill him, he would in fact have died. By beheading.
- The killer in Death Lends A Hand tried this, by offering Columbo a six-figure salary working for his private security firm in exchange for quitting the police department. It backfires of course and probably makes Columbo even MORE suspicious, especially since he'd suspected this guy from the start!
- Berserk Button: 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. 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 literally 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 the murderer'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 literally spray as the victim is shot, but when Columbo and the students find the body in the parking garage, blood has pooled quite heavily.
- Bunny Ears Lawyer: Averted. 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 wanted 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 was not as the suspect had dared him to dig up the land. Columbo's reasonings for this were also rather thin(sound, maybe, but thin). Not to mention 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.
- Canon Discontinuity: Let us all just be very clear on this: Mrs. Columbo was not Mrs. Columbo.
- Catch Phrase: "Just one more thing..." before he asks the question that gives the offender away.
- Conviction by Contradiction
- Cool Uncle: Columbo is this to Andy, his nephew from "No Time to Die".
- Deadpan Snarker: Columbo could be one from time to time. For example, in "The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case," when asking witnesses about the perpetrator'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."
- Deceased Fall Guy Gambit: This is the trope that Paul Galesko (Dick Van Dyke) pulls in "Negative Reaction": first, he takes his dominating wife Frances out to a country ranch house rented by Alvin Deschler, whom Galesko has roped into helping him. Once in the house, Galesko ties his wife to a chair, takes photos of her, and shoots her. Then 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 Deschler, places the gun in Deschler's hand, and shoots himself in the foot to claim self-defense.
- Detective Drama: Although typically the drama is on the perp's side.
- Defeating the Undefeatable: Luis Montoya 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 had 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 his friend 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. Of course, 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.
- Directed by Cast Member: Peter Falk directed "Blueprint for Murder".
- A Dog Named "Dog": Quite literally here
- 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 seemed to have no problem brandishing one on a man in "Undercover" though... but the guy did try to shoot him.
- Dolled-Up Installment: No Time to Die is an adaptation on the 87th Precinct novel So Long As You Both Shall Live, with Columbo taking the place of multiple 87th Precinct cops (in the novel Bert Kling's new wife Augusta is kidnapped on the day they're married, in this adaptation it's Columbo's nephew's wife who's taken).
- Undercover is also an 87th Precinct adaptation, of the novel Jigsaw. Unlike the above, this version includes one of the characters from the 87th (Arthur Brown, who's also one of the cops investigating in the book).
- Precious Puppies: Dog is a sly subversion.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": He once joked that his first name was "Lieutenant".
- 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. Kate Freestone, a network assistant executive with high goals, dictates and practically directs a film that the network wants and guarantees it'll be a success. When she is told she can't have her boyfriend's hob after his promotion (as he doesn't feel she's qualified), she kills him to get the job. Afterwards, her plan to bring a former pill junkie and former star out of retirement for a TV special falls apart, and the film the network ordered is a massive bomb when it finally airs. As the head of the network told her, she "doesn't make decisions", she "makes guesses". Being arrested by Columbo didn't matter as her career was pretty much over with at this point.
- Expy: Abigail Mitchell, the murder mystery writer, to Agatha Christie- who was mentioned by name in the episode in question.
- 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...
- Fake Nationality: Lt. Columbo is Italian-American, as was made a point of numerous times. Peter Falk is of Russian and Polish descent. Likewise, whereas Falk was Jewish, it was often hinted that Columbo was Catholic (at the very least, his own nephew's wedding was a traditional church-type wedding).
- Hector Elizondo playing an Arabic national in A Case Of Immunity. Although Elizondo does arguably have the appropriate profile to fit such a person.
- Forbidden Planet: Forbidden's Robbie the Robot makes a cameo in one episode, as does Robbie's co-star Leslie Neilsen.
- The Ghost: Mrs. Columbo. We know she exists, but his descriptions of her vary immensely. He's pretty much 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. Oftentimes 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.
- 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.
- GPS Evidence: there are quite a number of cases of this. Examples:
- In "Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health," Columbo's car is scratched by Budd Clarke's dog when he arrives at a crime scene. 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.
- "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 was the killer and was trying to kill Dr. Hidemann as well.
- "An Exercise in Fatality" -- In the hospital waiting room after Mrs. Stafford 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 setup 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 holy hell out of 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.
- 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 where the murder weapon is a special pistol with a built-in silencer.
- Hyper Awareness: Has a knack for noticing small inconsistencies in a case, which plays straight into...
- Idiot Ball: The opening sequence of Make Me A Perfect Murder has Columbo driving while singing, totally 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 Exposure... 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 Columbo could have thought to test his theory out without blowing out the fuse since all he needed to verify was how long it'd 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.
- 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.
- Kensington Gore: Played straight in Columbo Goes To College with the massive pool of blood. Subverted in the earlier episodes where blood was usually just bright red paint, if it was shown at all.
- Subverted hard in A Stitch In Crime where an IV bottle of blood during the surgery is water with red food coloring.
- Life Imitates Art: The deliberate use of Obfuscating Stupidity by police and legal interrogators has been -- unsurprisingly -- dubbed the "Columbo Method". It works, too.
- Limited Wardrobe: Columbo wore the exact same coat in every episode, with the same hopeless suit below it.
- Lampshaded in one episode 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.
- Mad Magazine
- Military Moonshiner: The head of a military academy incriminated himself when he went on a crusade to track down what boys were making alcoholic apple cider (hanging the bottle outside in wee hours to help it ferment), but Columbo is able to show that the only way he could have been aware of it was if he was in the exact location the fatal sabotage of the school's cannon was taking place.
- Missed Moment of Awesome: "Rest in Peace, Mrs. Columbo" involved the ex-wife of a man Columbo had arrested years before, plotting to kill Columbo's wife because her husband died in prison and she blamed Columbo. It's too bad that the case in question was never one that had been filmed as an episode, leaving us to merely guess at the exact details.
- Mystery of the Week
- Mythology Gag
- "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 Haywood 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", he discusses an event that happened 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?
- 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 a Morning Person: Columbo becomes, ah, even more so before he's had his coffee.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: And HOW!
- This was also true of one material witness in the episode "Undercover," the murderer's ditzy, giggling girlfriend who was his alibi. When Columbo reveals that he has evidence that proves she's lying (thus making her liable as an accomplice to murder), her previously dopey eyes turn ice cold and she turns him in without remorse.
- Oh Crap: Happens roughly Once an Episode when Columbo finally catches the perp. Depending on the actor, they range from sheer rage to looking as if they've hanglided over the walls of Hell.
- Out-Gambitted: Eventually all of the culprits' plots turn out to be this.
- Out-of-Genre Experience
- "Last Salute to the Commodore" completely scraps the usual idea of showing the murder first. The man we think is the killer is not. The real killer is not revealed until the very end. This episode also, unusually, has both its murders - the prime suspect is himself murdered - take place offscreen.
- 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 "No Time to Die" and "Undercover" were based on 87th Precinct novels.
- "Double Shock" also plays with this; Martin Landau plays twins, one of whom is the murderer.
- 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".
- Police Procedural
- Playing Against Type: Dick Van Dyke, who usually plays the comic relief in musicals like Mary Poppins or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as a comedy writer on the The Dick Van Dyke Show, played a particularly ruthless Murderer of the Week in one episode -- a henpecked photographer who shoots his wife and a recently-released prisoner that he'd hired to run small errands, in an attempt to make it look as if the other man was the kidnapper.
- Puffer Fish: Puffer fish poison was the murder weapon in Murder Under Glass.
- Pull the Thread
- Real Life Relative: Bruce Kirby Jr. and Sr. in "By the Dawn's Early Light".
- Peter Falk and Shera Danese. They were married shortly after her first appearance in the series and remained so until Falk's death.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Some particularly smug villains like to give this to Columbo when they've reached their limit.
- Retcon: 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.
- Yes, he was definitely driving around with the top down in The Most Dangerous Match.
- 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.
- 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 Anders 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.
- Series Continuity Error: A rather bad one happens in the episode "Forgotten Lady". It's mentioned several times that Dr. Willis' bedroom is at the other end of the house from the film projection room, which explains why no one heard the gunshot. Until later on in the episode where Columbo is trying to climb down the tree outside the bedroom... Grace looks out the window of the projection room to see Columbo, hanging from a tree that's supposed to be at the other end of the house!
- More than one fan of Patrick McGoohan's 60's spy show chuckled when the actor slipped a "Be seeing you" into one of his Columbo appearances.
- 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", which starred Janet Leigh.
- 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 had one of his few moments of anger with him.
- Spanner in the Works: Arguably.
- 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 found the sight of an operation and most autopsies to be unbearable to watch... though his mood would fluctuate on this depending on the situation. Most attempts to show him such things freaked 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's Mark 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."
- Stopped Clock: One episode involves 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 one of the later episodes, when the killer sets the victim's watch and breaks it to try to establish time of death. However, this fails to work when Columbo notices that this supposedly expensive watch is a counterfeit knockoff of a name brand watch... which the killer didn't know, as he'd bought the victim the real deal as a gift some time before, and didn't know that the victim had sold it and bought a knockoff. This was a major plot point as the knockoff was not waterproof, unlike the real watch, and if the victim had really been bathing would have taken his watch off.
- 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. The murderer kills her controlling brother because he's trying to end the relationship between her and Leslie Nielsen's character, who works for him, by threatening to fire him. But 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 another episode 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 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.
- 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 manchild 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: A number of episodes center around a killer making inventive use of the latest technological marvels, and even relying on the police failing to know how they work. A contemporary viewer will get a few chuckles out of:
- A killer murdering her husband, then using a dictaphone recording to fake his kidnapping.
- A killer (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.
- A killer (also Shatner) whose alibi falls apart when Columbo discovers a cell phone dead zone where he'd claimed to have been.
- A victim's body found when Columbo calls her pager.
- A killer hiding his location by making a call from multi-line phone system.
- The final episode, Columbo Likes The Nightlife, had the killer write out a fake suicide note on the victim's computer. It was 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.
- Third-Act Stupidity: Plays around with it.
- Throw It In: "Just one more thing..." In addition, many of Peter Falk's absent-minded moments were ad-libbed. He figured that if they were all scripted, it would be harder for his fellow cast members to react genuinely. So, in the middle of scenes with the suspect, Falk would unexpectedly start fumbling around for his shopping list or pretend to forget what he was talking about. The standard perp expression that seems to say "What is with this guy?" is thus usually very real.
- Too Clever by Half: If the criminal in "Etude 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.
- 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. A Stitch In Crime is a perfect example- if the killer had simply killed the nurse 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.
- Too Dumb to Live: Whenever the victim isn't an Asshole Victim, they're usually this. Though occasionally the two are combined.
- Trans-Atlantic Equivalent
- Jonathan Creek was originally pitched as "A British Columbo", although it gradually evolved away from this.
- Furuhata Ninzaburo is often called a "Japanese Columbo".
- Columbo could be considered the American version of French Alfred Fichet.
- Trope Codifier: Reverse Whodunnit, Trope Maker being R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke.
- 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, a woman running a museum hires a guard to break in and steal artifacts, claiming it's so she can get the insurance money. Her actual plan is to kill him when he breaks in as part of a Deceased Fall Guy Gambit.
- Vacation Episode
- Villainous BSOD: Roger Stanford in "Short Fuse". Lillian Stanhope in "Dagger of the Mind". Harold Van Wick in "Playback". All three's characters went completely insane upon being revealed as the killers.
- Wheel Program
- The Wonka: 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.
- Worthy Opponent: "The Bye-Bye Sky-High IQ Murder Case" is set at a Mensa-style club, with the killer being an Insufferable Genius who considered the victim, and the other members of the club, to be inferior to his own intellect. When dealing with Columbo, he occasionally got glimpses through Columbo's façade, and by the time of the his arrest, was relieved to have been caught by someone he now considered a peer, intellectually.
- 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, and Leslie Neilsen 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 even had major roles in some of them.
- Your Favorite: A bowl of chili and saltines, especially if it's from Barney's Beanery.