Peter Falk passed away. He had along career. I think I first noticed him in Natalie Wood's The Great Race. He played Jack Lemmon's assistant Max. Like all of America, I knew him best as Columbo.
I want to write about Columbo a little bit differently than what you're going to read about elsewhere.
Back in the 70s when there were only three networks and PBS was just starting you might be lucky enough to have a local independent station or two which mainly played reruns and movies. So what was on ABC, CBS and NBC was what everybody pretty much watched. And there were censors back then. Not people who showed up after the fact and edited footage, but people on the set of each show going over the scripts and watching filmings.
Back then they had to sneak in a lot. Remember that.
NBC Sunday Mystery Movie was what Columbo was a part of. Every Sunday, NBC aired alternating mystery shows. It's where McMillian and Wife showed up and McCloud and Columbo. There were other attempts (and other nights NBC tried the program) but those were the three that hauled in viewers.
It was cool when it started with those three programs because of Susan Saint James. I'm referring to younger viewers. Rock Hudson brought in many viewers, the movie star doing TV. But Susan Saint James was cool. The Name of the Game and a guest spot on It Takes A Thief had made her cool and representative. In fact, she was "the youth voice" on The Name of the Game. If they'd gone older for the role of Sally McMillan, most of young America would have turned elsewhere on Sunday nights. But Sally prime our interest.
And a lot of us had spent forever decoding Beatles albums and others. And had to because of censors. I do have a point.
Though you probably won't read this in any write of Falk's death, one of the reasons Columbo became an anti-hero was because Columbo's way of interacting and detecting were seen as stoned by a number of people. Columbo was seen as a stoner.
McCloud was more than a little straight-laced and square. But you watched for Sally and Mac and just knew Sally was sparking up and probably getting Mac to as well and there was Columbo solving crimes in a stoner phase.
Now maybe it was different in the San Francisco area than the rest of the country? You could be correct. But the thing is, I wasn't just there. I followed a number of tours (as a photographer) across the country. This wasn't just confined to San Francisco. And though this interpretation wasn't universal, it was common enough among young people to give Columbo a credibility that a lot of shows lack.
And to allow him to be seen as anti-hero. Peter Falk was amazing in the role. But Rock Hudson was popular as Mac and Dennis Weaver as McCloud. Only Columbo had the lasting power. There weren't attempts to do movies of the other shows after they got the axe.
Peter Falk's career defining role is Columbo and he's great in it. But he also did a number of outstanding performances in films. I have an all-time favorite Peter Falk film.
Mikey & Nicky -- a classic performance in a classic film directed by Elaine May.
Murder By Death -- a classic Neil Simon comedy that creates parodies of some of the most famous literary and film detectives. The cast includes Maggie Smith, Peter Sellers, Eileen Brennan, David Niven and the woman who played the bride in The Bride of Frankenstein Elsa Lanchester.
The Cheap Detective -- another classic, Neil Simon send up of detectives. Madeline Kahn is among the reasons this film is great, and to that list don't forget Ann-Margaret and Stockard Channing.
Vibes -- I always says this as Peter Falk sending up Don Adams' Get Smart character in that everytime his sleazy character gets found out, he's basically trying a 'would you believe?' In this comedy, he tries to use Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Goldbloom (and their powers) to steal a 'treasure' that would allow for world domination.
Tune In Tomorrow -- In this film's finest moments, Falk has some really great moments with Barbara Hershey and Keanu Reeves. He writes a radio soap opera and is always looking for a scapegoat. This is a very funny comedy.
Made -- Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau follow up Swingers with this film which is probably stronger than Swingers was. And I loved Swingers.
And Peter Falk's finest performance?
In The Spirit. He's married to Elaine May. He loses his job. They're going to lose their mansion. Elaine decides they should move back to NYC where they kept their old place and that he can try to get a job there. Olympia Dukakis introduces Elaine to Marlo Thomas who is an interiror decorator. Though Marlo makes it sound great, the place is a disaster. Elaine and Roger have to move in with new age Marlo while they wait for the apartment to be finished.
This allows Peter Falk so many classic moments including during a teach-in where he has a panic attack, or when he's complaining that they're in Marlo's nephew's room and he has to fold his pants twice on the hanger because it's a kid's closet. But his best moment is when he's attempting to get a job interview and bluffing on the phone and Jeannie Berlin (who co-wrote it) barges in with her date book. She's a former porn actress and a hooker. And she's involved with the mob and crooked cops. And she's destroying Peter's call. He begins screaming for Elaine May who runs in and hustles Berlin out (Elaine May is also Berlin's mother) and Peter gets to deliver his best line of the movie, "I would never believe a professional prostitute could be so boring."
In The Spirit is a classic film and it contains one of his finest performance, he gets to play comedy in many variations and also has many nice dramatic notes (Falk's character Roger worries about being homeless and, once he has no money, suddenly is obsessed with the son he left behind on his road to success).
Closing with C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot:"
Each Monday morning (except during pledge drives), the latest Law and Disorder Radio airs on WBAI and around the country on various radio stations throughout the week. Attorneys Heidi Boghosian, Michael S. Smith and Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights are the co-hosts of the program. On this week's program, Michael Ratner spoke with former FBI agent and now an attorney Mike German about the war on dissent in this country. Michael Ratner has teamed with Margaret Ratner Kunstler for the new book Hell No, Your Right To Dissent. And until it's August 9th release by the New Press, you can read the column that Michael Ratner and Margaret Ratner Kunstler have written (The Progressive) about the current war on protest and dissent in the US. Excerpt:
President Obama campaigned on protecting our civil liberties, so you might have expected his attorney general, Eric Holder, to provide people with greater protections from FBI snoops. But he has not. And it is about to get even worse.
The new Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide will empower the FBI to dispatch surveillance teams, to follow targets, to dig through trash, to search commercial databases and to expand the use of informants to infiltrate a wide range of organizations.
If you are part of a group that disagrees with government policy in Iraq or Afghanistan, or that dislikes nuclear energy, the next time you throw out your trash, an FBI agent may be examining it a few hours later -- from what you eat to what you buy to what you read and think.
The next time you attend a meeting to fight for better schools, protest drug testing on animals or criticize almost any aspect of government policy, the person next to you may be an informant, recording everything you say. Or perhaps the informant will participate in the meeting, steering the organization's activities in ways the government wishes.
It is now almost ten years after 9/11, the event that frightened many into giving the FBI broad spying authority -- authority that now threatens the very essence of democracy. Piece by piece, the constitutional protections for dissent are disappearing.