Lt. Columbo, Class Warrior

With the passing of the great Peter Falk, most of his obituaries are focusing on his role as Lieutenant Columbo, one of the best known characters in the world. I remember seeing Falk in a documentary filmed in the Andes, during which he walked through a market in a small village that probably didn’t have electricity, much less television. The natives clustered around him, pointing and saying “Columbo! Columbo!”.

What the commentaries about Columbo I have read today miss, and what explains a large measure of its international appeal, is that Columbo is the ultimate show about working class resentment of and triumph over the rich and powerful. Ever notice how this Los Angeles homicide detective never had a case in which a gas station attendant beat his wife to death or two drug dealers had a fatal shootout? The villains are uniformly movie producers, physicians, famous writers, monied gentry and globe-trotting business people. They are also usually good looking and well dressed, and look down on the rumpled, uncouth, Columbo, so clearly out of place in “their” world.

And of course we the audience know they are underestimating our hero, who despite outward appearances is morally and intellectually superior to them. They send him on wild goose chases and he doggedly checks each out (“Yes, sir, we did look into your theory of mobsters, we questioned 100 of them and none of them were involved”), because he is a dedicated working class guy who unlike the upper crust suspects, isn’t sloppy or arrogant enough to forget that one critical detail that undoes the whole endeavor. There are many conversations in the series that are suffused with class resentment. Columbo asks one villain “How much does a home like this cost?” and when he finds out says “Oh, sir, I could never afford that on a policeman’s salary”. And we love these exchanges, because we know that this working class hero is still conning his prey, and he’s going to bring that smug, rich S.O.B. down in the end.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

24 thoughts on “Lt. Columbo, Class Warrior”

  1. He was also great in “Wings of Desire” by Wim Wenders, where his character was a former angel who became human, but can still perceive the presence of other angels. “I can’t see you, but I know you’re there” was how he began talking to Damiel, the angel who is thinking about becoming human, speaking of the particular pleasures of being in a human body. “When it is cold, you rub your hands together, and it feels good.” I saw it on a cold winter’s afternoon in 1989, and that line stayed with me as I walked home, changing the experience of the chilly air from an inconvenience into a pleasure. The message of gratitude for small things, spoken of not in a preaching tone but in that gravely voice, was my favorite part of that messy but remarkable film.

  2. Not to mention his turn as Dr. Fate’s bumbling assistant Max in The Great Race.

    The thing I liked most about Columbo was the twist in the mystery: they were not whodunnits, because we knew whodunnit in the first act. They were Howzegonnaget’ems. I had never cast the show in terms of class warfare, but that subtext is surely there.

  3. And let’s note that the tone of the show was set equally (or more)
    by the writers, who set the stage for Falk’s brilliance.

  4. Ed: “Wings of Desire” means a lot to me too. Falk had several strands in his career, and of them was as a star in art house films like that and Cassavettes’ Films. A bit of trivia that reflects his varied career: He was the first actor in history to be nominated for an Emmy and an Oscar in the same year.

  5. Huh. I had noticed that when watching the DVDs (the late lamented Captain Video had most seasons of Columbo for rent), but hadn’t thought to put it down to class, mostly because the character seemed to be most sincerely in awe of the accomplishments of the (guilty) suspects. But yes. Class and the arrogance of those with great earthly gifts taking life.

    There was a short story I read many, many years ago in which a character about to be murdered prayed for “a smart policeman.” Columbo was that smart policeman.

  6. @ Donald,

    Performance arts require three entities to create: the writer, the performer, and the audience. Performers get a lot of the adulation, but without good writing they’re crippled. Writers and composers alone can’t get the art out. Without the audience there’s no one to appreciate it.

    Yes, the writers (and the whole production crew) deserve credit. But Columbo is a creature of Peter Falk: he brought many of the mannerisms to the character. Some actors make such an impression on a role that there is no one else for a generation. Robert Preston as Harold Hill in Willson’s The Music Man was an example. Peter Falk’s Columbo is another. Because that work is preserved (and because Columbo has never been rewritten for the stage) it’s possible that no one will try to revive those scripts. No one could do it as well, much less better.

  7. I’ve enjoyed watching many of the Columbo episodes, but there was one element that required a very strong willing suspension of disbelief.

    With all these high-profile cases he’s given, Columbo would have been a famous media figure in the world of the story. At least half of the his cases involved a killer whose fame was comparable to that of O.J. Simpson. Everybody would have recognized him.

    This angle was never brought up in the series, as far as I remember. I’ve never seen, for example, one of the killers saying, “It’s Columbo! He’s the guy who investigated all those other high-profile cases!”

  8. rachelrachel, maybe we should view each Columbo episode as self-contained. None ever referred to an earlier one, did it? It wasn’t a series in the sense that it developed. Otherwise, you have a good point, even if you may be the only one who thought of it.

  9. I’ve long thought the exact same thing about Columbo, but then I think of the episode in which Johnny Cash was the murderer. Isn’t he another working-class hero?

  10. I missed that one — did Johnny Cash play himself? If so, he must have been a rather wealthy working class hero.

  11. Johnny didn’t play himself, but he did play a country singer who’d hit the big time. The character wasn’t otherwise particularly close to Cash.

  12. I think of the episode in which Johnny Cash was the murderer.

    Did he shoot a man in Reno?

  13. …did Johnny Cash play himself? If so, he must have been a rather wealthy working class hero.

    Fair point- I’ve misapplied the term when I really meant hero to the working class. In any case that episode was always a counterexample to Keith’s theory, as it existed in my mind.

  14. If I remember the episode correctly, Johnny Cash played an gospel singer who escaped by a makeshift parachute from a plane that crashed, killing the rest of his entourage. That entourage included a young woman with whom the Cash character had violated the Mann Act, as well the singer’s wife, who was blackmailing the singer with that information.

    Columbo caught on because the Cash character ordinarily brought his fine guitar on the plane with him, but this time the guitar was transported apart from the plane, along with the other instruments. Also, when Lt. Columbo asked about his duties while in military service, the Cash character lied and failed to disclose that he had been a paratrooper.

  15. I’ve been thinking more about rachelrachel’s point, and have another response to it. I don’t think that Columbo would have been a famous media figure because he investigated so many high-profile murderers. How many detectives’ names do you know from high-profile cases? We know Mark Fuhrman’s from the O.J. Simpson trial, but that trial was televised and I think must be regarded as an exception. No trial in past 50 has received as much attention; one might have to go back to the Rosenbergs’ trial, 60 years ago, for one that received comparable attention.

  16. @ John,

    That’s correct, gospel rather country, although there used to be a lot of cross-over between those genres. The rest of your synopsis is correct to my memory, too.

    My brother-in-law is an insurance adjuster. One common way that arson-for-hire is detected is that the owners remove all their memorabilia before the fire. He told me about a suspicious claim he was investigating. He wasn’t sure but had a feeling about the claim. He put his finger on it when he told the wife how sorry he was that the Company couldn’t replace her wedding photographs. “Oh, no, that’s not a problem at all! I have them right here,” she said.


  17. Yet another take on rachelrachel’s point: it could also be another way of highlighting the arrogance and obliviousness of the perps: they don’t care that a high-profile detective is investigating them, because they’re smarter and more powerful than that. (Fuhrman would be a case in point there — if you were rich and smart and powerful, would you feel worried that he was heading your investigation, or relieved?)

  18. Two Columbo-related things I always wanted to see and never will:

    1. An episode where the high-status murderer perceives Columbo’s well-concealed gifts, and, as a strategy, candidly proclaims himself an obvious suspect and sets out a bunch of fake clues pointing to him that the dogged Columbo himself discredits, as the suspect knows he would. Columbo would eventually work his way through to the truth.
    2. A Columbo-Murder She Wrote crossover in which Jessica Fletcher, on a book tour in LA, causes yet another murder. (Never go to a JB Fletcher book signing or party.) The two of them work the case together, and at the end, Jessica is on the phone to her agent saying: “Irving, I have the greatest idea for a new series character.”

  19. Law & Order also figured out that rich people are more interesting suspects. Also, mystery novelists going back to Sherlock Holmes. Real crime of the sort on “Cops” is more mundane and deadening as you consume more of it.

  20. This has begun to bother me a bit of late with the Columbo series. I use old tv series rented from the library to exercise to and rewatched all but one season of Murder She Wrote then went to Columbo and am in season six or so. Murder She Wrote had a lot of rich villains, but it didn’t strike me in the same way as Columbo does for some reason. It really is the working class detective, pitted against the rich villain. For some reason, it bothers me some. Entertaining but does bug me. Was it more of a sign of the times, as it is an older series? Murder She Wrote didn’t bother me that way, as Jessica Fletcher may have not lived rich, but we know she would have been. Actually, the main thing in Murder She Wrote that struck me oddly was realizing that she never drove. She didn’t know how to drive apparently in the show. Today, you would not have that in a woman character, ever, at least not in the US.

  21. I was going to say "Great Post!" but that sounds kind of spammy. I think it is one, but no matter. The class aspect is definitely present in Columbo. We want to see him get his killer, and that's what matters most to him as well.

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