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From Page to Screen

About Mostly Inadvertent Offences

Previous Entry From Page to Screen Mar. 7th, 2020 @ 08:22 am Next Entry


After two pilot episodes in which, particularly the first one, the action was often confined to sound stages, the first regular episode of Columbo, "Murder by the Book", gets a massive upgrade with director Steven Spielberg at the helm. The 1971 episode comes long before he became an established name as a feature film director but the episode greatly benefits from Spielberg's talent for dynamic visuals already in ample evidence.



An early shot establishes the murder victim (Martin Milner) working in his high rise office before the camera tracks out through a window to show the murderer (Jack Cassidy) arriving far below. No cardboard sky backdrop for Mr. Spielberg.



The teleplay by Steven Bochco concerns two writing partners who have created a series of murder mystery books together with a female protagonist somewhat like Miss Marple. The almost immediately coy and adversarial relationship between Cassidy and Columbo (Peter Falk) has the murderer condescendingly giving our hero a stack of books to learn how it's done. And Columbo, of course, is never put off balance, happily reading all of them and gushing like a fan boy next time he sees Cassidy.



Columbo's introduction in the episode is subdued--as usual, he appears separate from the other cops in a strangely mundane circumstance, in this case by a water cooler to meet the victim's wife (Barbara Colby). The contrast with the smug and bitter Cassidy is great. In these first three episodes, the relationship between detective and murderer doesn't usually seem to be about what the two are doing to each other now, trying to break each other down now, as watching both see how well they've lain the groundwork for their plans to execute themselves. It's like watching two inventors stand back while their robots fight each other.

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