Columbo meets an early pro-sporno
Having given up on Netflix and the 21st Century, I’ve been watching Columbo – Amazon Prime Video have the first seven seasons (1971-8), gloriously restored, and digitally remastered in HD. Always a high-production value show, it can now be appreciated as never before – in detail.
I love Columbo because there’s none of that annoying ‘whodunnit’ nonsense, which is always a shell game, involving massive cheating. Instead, you see exactly ‘whodunnit’ and how in the first few minutes. The rest of the ‘mystery movie’ is a confrontation/dance between Columbo and the scheming, self-confident villain. An analytic hour or so.
And unlike today, there is never any gore – or attempt at realism.
Columbo, played disarmingly distractedly of course by Peter Falk, is more of a supernatural figure than a detective. He has round-the-clock and ‘uncanny’ access to the killer, walking in on them at their (very important) workplace, playing at the (exclusive) tennis club, relaxing in their (Beverly Hills) mansion – and he is never refused. Because he cannot be refused. There is no escape. No appointments are ever necessary because you can’t schedule fate. Lawyers might be invoked occasionally but are never actually called because there are no earthly lawyers that can help.
Columbo is the bedraggled embodiment of what’s left of the conscience of the killer – relentlessly pursuing them, forever asking questions: trivial, silly, embarrassed questions – ‘Oh! Just. One. More. Thing!’ – that get increasingly insistent until they become unbearable and irresistible and the arrogant, clever, previously exalted killer crumbles, submits and confesses all to the modest, badly-dressed, poorly-paid, blue-collar guy in the beaten up ancient little foreign car.
And Columbo, like a good therapist – who are also detectives, according to that other cigar-fan Sigmund Freud – remains polite, humble, friendly, solicitous even, usually to the end.
Satisfyingly, they don’t continue to protest their innocence or need to be cuffed and dragged away screaming. They finally, quietly accept their guilt and their fate, confessing freely. They have been released from the burden of their own grandiosity as much as their guilt. The apparently ego-free detective slowly undermines their (highly developed) ego-defences until they collapse completely, and our subject finally accepts what they have been strenuously avoiding.
Completely unlike real life, in other words.
This is most explicit in the famous 1974 Johnny Cash episode ‘Swan Song’, where Cash, playing a murderous but highly likeable country and western singer Tommy Brown, is cornered late at night in a forest by Colombo, having been provoked into retrieving crucial and damning evidence (remembrance?) of his guilt, asks:
Tommy Brown : Aren’t you afraid, bein’ up here alone with a killer?
Lt. Columbo : No, sir. No, sir, I had a feeling that sooner or later… you would have confessed, even if I hadn’t caught you.
Tommy Brown : Yeah, you’re right, Lieutenant. I would’ve… ’cause it was gettin’ to me and I’m glad it’s over.
You’re probably wondering, ‘Fine – but where do men’s bums fit in to this?’ Well, you may not believe it, but another reason I love Columbo is because there is no prospect of distracting eros ‘popping’ up. I’m safe in the snug, pre-homo, crumpled, cigar-ash-covered, full-length raincoat world of 1970s TV.
But I was wrong. This week I started Season 4. The first episode is called ‘An Exercise in Fatality’ – in it, Robert Conrad‘s polyester-clad, Only Fans-ready muscle bubble butt (and packet) turns up and hogs the screen in a way that is so wildly outrageous I wanted to write to Mary Whitehouse.
Such perfectly formed male buttocks (and thighs) didn’t really exist in 1970s telly – at least until The Dukes of Hazzard, all four of them, bounced out of their Dodge Chargers and onto our screens at decade’s end in 1979. Oh, and Gil Gerard’s intergalactically tight white pants in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century the same year.
Though, come to think of it – and clearly, I am thinking of it now, lots – they were allowed in 1978, but only if they were stained green and wore torn denim shorts (Lou Ferrigno in The Incredible Hulk.)
The Farah trousers Mr Conrad has somehow squeezed those glutes, quads, and hams into are so tight that he looks like he’s wearing more when he’s swimming and running in just a pair of disappointingly floppy shorts.
And all this was achieved without the use of lycra (the key ingredient of today’s spornowear). Or silicone.
Conrad, who even now looks more like a porn star than an actor (and I mean that as a compliment) plays Milo Janus, a name that seems to denote here ‘Beloved Buttocks’ (‘Milo’ derived from Slavic ‘dear’ or ‘beloved’; ‘Janus’ was the Roman god of ‘gates, transitions, duality, passages and ending’).
He’s a charming, carrot juice-swilling fitness guru/franchiser, who is full of generous health advice – ‘those cigars will kill you’ – but ruthlessly bumps off one of his, it must be said, ugly and unpleasant, franchisees after they rumble his rigged business plan and supplements scam. Janus makes it look like he died in a nasty bench-press accident. His catchphrase for dealing with angry franchisees is the Arnie-esque ‘When I grow, you grow’.
It’s fascinating as a glimpse of the beginnings of the modern fitness industry, three years before Pumping Iron, which is still portrayed as mostly overweight (late) middle-aged businessmen ordered to exercise by their doctor, sweating ineffectually on exercise bikes in modesty-saving fluffy dressing gowns and towels. And the way that Janus – a proto pro-sporno – is presented as using his desirable, covetable body as the basis both of his business and his personal power over others. Both the ‘product’ and the brand – it is on display in pretty much the entire episode, as a lure, a treat, a wondrous incentive, and a threat. (Though there seems to have been a policy to keep his swim shorts in tasteful long shot – but not, thankfully, his polyester-sprayed bum and packet.)
Lt. Columbo asks Janus’ pretty young secretary how old her boss is. She tells an astonished Columbo that he’s fifty-three. (In fact, Conrad was forty years old at the time – but does look what Hollywood male stars in their fifties are expected to look like now.) ’Fifty-three!’ exclaims Columbo in amazement. ‘That’s fantastic! And that’s from the working out?’ (Falk was forty-seven at the time.)
In one hilarious scene, Janus in his shorts is pursued along the beach by Columbo in his shirt, tie, old suit, and rumpled raincoat wanting to ‘just ask a few questions’. Janus turns it into a sado PT session, barking encouragement at our breathless hero. When they finally get back to Janus’ huge home, Columbo flops on a poolside chair, sweating, panting, still fully over-dressed, hair even more awry than usual.
For a while, he is physically incapable of asking Janus those ‘few questions’ – as Janus ominously pummels a poolside punchbag, his muscled, tanned body glistening in the sun. His arse filling out his shorts.
Lt. Columbo definitely doesn’t have an arse. Columbo doesn’t even have a body. We certainly never see it. He almost doesn’t have a material existence, with his threadbare clothes and old wreck of a car and perennial lack of cash – certainly when compared to the people he investigates. Lt. Columbo is simply (razor-sharp) Mind inhabiting a shabby raincoat disguise, waving a smelly cigar in your face to distract you.
When they move indoors so Janus can fix a breakfast of carrot juice and protein pills – ‘Sir! There’s something wrong with this orange juice!’ – the greater intimacy only heightens the visual tension between nearly naked, buff Janus, and multi-layered, saggy Lt. Columbo. (See top photo.)
Janus’ huge carrot-juice-fridge-and-supplements cabinet is a major feature of this scene and deserves its own billing. There are in fact two of them – one at his home and one at his office. In other Columbo episodes, the cabinets would be full of booze – and Janus would be swilling spirits as often as we see him knocking back the carrot juice. At the time, his cabinets would have been a sign of his weirdness. Now we – or maybe it’s just me – wonder ‘Where can I can get one of those?’
Columbo of course eventually recovers enough from his exertions to ask his questions, and Hugh Janus (sorry) eventually gets nailed (sorry again).
Perhaps partly because of his vanity – something still very much frowned upon in 1970s US (Wasp) men – and perhaps also because of the way that our folk hero has been physically humiliated by Janus (a name which everyone seems to pronounce ‘Janice’), Mr Beloved Buttocks is one of the show’s most unsympathetic villains. He is highly resistant to the Lootenant’s analysis.
So much so he provokes an uncharacteristically angry scene in a busy hospital waiting area from the usually mild-mannered and discreet detective, where Columbo accuses him of the murder. Prompting shocked and titillated looks from bored waiting relatives and patients.
The on-screen tension was fed by a personal animosity between the two leads, who had some ego-friction – and which may or may not have had to do with the fact that they shared the same surname. Richard Conrad was born Conrad Robert Falk, reversing his forenames (Janus-like) and dropping the Falk when becoming an actor. Likely because that name was already very much taken in showbiz.
Still, Falk may have had the name and a more successful career, but Conrad had those buttocks. He also had, judging by some of the stills from his 1960s Sci-Fi Western TV series, The Wild Wild West, a lot of leather chaps slapping fun.