Monday, March 01, 2021

An Essential Second Shot of Columbo

Three years ago on this page, I celebrated the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Prescription: Murder, the figurative first pilot for the NBC Mystery Moviewheel seriesColumbo, starring Peter Falk. Now, thanks to The Columbopile, we mark a second, similarly noteworthy anniversary. It was half a century ago today, on March 1, 1971, that the official Columbo pilot, Ransom for a Dead Man, was broadcast.

As The Columbophile recalls,
[T]here was a lot riding on Ransom for a Dead Man. For Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link, this was a chance to fulfill their dreams of seeing their star creation granted a series of his own after the success of TV movie Prescription: Murder three years prior. For Peter Falk, meanwhile, it was an opportunity to really make his name after years of critically acclaimed roles in commercially unspectacular TV shows and movies.

There was also plenty at stake for
Ransom’s leading lady Lee Grant, as she continued her on-screen revival after ending up on the Hollywood Blacklist as an alleged Communist sympathizer from the early 1950s to the mid-’60s.

All the major players have reason to consider
Ransom for a Dead Man a big success. Despite that, though, Ransom remains on the periphery of many Columbo fans’ personal list of favourite episodes, and arguably doesn’t garner the appreciation it warrants.
Nonetheless, notes that blog’s anonymous author, Ransom for a Dead Man marked “a large evolution of the Columbo character from the headstrong and dapper detective of Prescription: Murder.
Initially intended as a one-off character, there are only shades of the Columbo we’ll come to know and love in Prescription. By the time Ransom came around, though, Falk was already well on the way to perfecting the good Lieutenant.

Granted, he might not have 100% mastered the character (he arguably didn’t do so until Season 2), but he’s very close. It’s a terrific performance, full of warmth and trickery, and packed with the idiosyncrasies that will come to define the character. It’s a big step up from
Prescription and sows the seeds of a character that we’ll truly take to our hearts.
Another memorable element of that pilot was composer Billy Goldenberg’s score for the film, which screenwriter and film historian Gary Gerani says “influenced the ‘elegant beauty’ style of music” employed in later detective shows. (A clip can be heard here.)

If it has been a while since you last watched Ransom for a Dead Man, click on over to The Columbophile to watch the entire movie.

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