Season five was a very bumpy ride – and the show was nearly cancelled – but season six starts with the most exquisitely delightful Columbo episode yet.
I didn’t know that William Shatner appeared in Columbo. Google tells me he appeared in not one but two episodes, the second in 1994, which I haven’t seen (though the clips look terrifying), and which anyway isn’t included in the Amazon Prime Video Columbo collection I’m currently bingeing on (which only covers the canonical 1970s Columbo – not the Columbo reboot from 1989 on).
So you can only imagine my excitement when I saw Shatner – someone you will know looms large in my childhood – pop up as a sympathetic, charming villain Ward Fowler in ‘Fade into Murder’ (there’s even a cameo by Walter Koenig/Pavel Chekhov.
So sympathetic in fact that Fowler is the star of a successful TV detective show, Inspector Lucerne, ‘the highest paid detective in the world’ as Lieutenant Columbo puts it. (Peter Falk of course being by this point the highest paid detective in the world.) ‘My wife and I never miss a show!’
After my initial elation, I worried that it might be a bit cringe: could there really be enough room for both legends in one TV show? But it turns out to be a clever, postmodern (long before that became tired), self-mocking, and hilarious episode with fine, touching performances from both Peter Falk and William Shatner, who are quite magical in their scenes together.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the best performance by The Great Big Head I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know the old ham had it in him. His character has a kind of postmodern breakdown during the course of the episode, which Shatner portrays very well.
Shatner/Fowler’s TV detective is a dandy figure, with his white fedora, fancy cane, colourful Ascot, immaculate suit, and floral buttonhole. The whole effect is deliberately effete if not outright effeminate by US standards – intended as a comical contrast to Columbo’s shabby, cigar-smoking, ‘masculine’ appearance. (Lucerne’s ensemble is slightly reminiscent of John Hurt’s Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant aired the previous year.)
Shatner enhances the effect by playing Fowler as fey and affected, nibbling celery sticks – real men don’t eat celery – and delicately rubbing his fingers together after.
In my favourite scene, Columbo noses around in Fowler’s empty dressing room trailer looking for clues. Trying on Fowler’s shoes, he finds that they have lifts, and enjoying his new-found stature, he then tries on Lucerne’s fedora and plays with his cane in front of a portrait of Fowler as Inspector Lucerne on the wall. Columbo is essentially cross-dressing in heels and hat.
Fowler walks in on Columbo’s ‘moment’, and Columbo turns still wearing the fedora/bonnet, blushes and giggles. Fowler joins him in his giggles.
There is a real sense of intimacy between the two characters in their scenes, as Lucerne helps Columbo out in his investigations, eventually going so far as to incriminate Fowler. (In keeping with my thesis that Columbo is the killer’s insistent conscience.) With Columbo you strongly suspect his compliments and thanks to the killer are insincere, ironic, or manipulative, but in this case, you tend to believe them. Lucerne is a man after Columbo’s own heart: ‘Oh, that’s very good sir!’
And then there’s Fowler’s classic line: “Listen Columbo, just for a minute how about we stop pretending that I’m brilliant and you’re simple!” Which of course mocks the format of the entire show.
Likewise, the murderer usually begins by pretending to indulge and help the inspector, but eventually loses patience. But Fowler never does – he just becomes more and more enamoured, and more and more ‘helpful’.
In another scene, towards the end, Fowler videotapes a bashful Columbo with his new-fangled video camera and small-house-sized early VCR – they are both giggling again. He then plays the giggly footage of Columbo back on his VCR as they watch, giggling on the sofa.
In doing so, he stiches up his own alibi which depended on a crafty use of his VCR to fool an employee that he was with them when the murder occurred, but by this point it’s clear that his love for Lieutenant Columbo won’t be denied.
When he is finally fingered (by forgetting to wipe the rounds in the revolver he used to shoot Claire Daley, his blackmailer) he immediately, freely confesses, but again in a way that once again spells out the now very familiar tropes of the Columbo format itself – while going out of his way to ‘satisfy’ the Lieutenant.
‘Damn! I had to forget something. That’s always how the third act ends! But you see I had no rehearsal as a murderer. I am after all, the detective.’
LC: ‘You did kill Claire Daley, didn’t you sir?’
WF: ‘She was a blackmailer. And I killed her. And up till now I’m glad I killed her. And I believe in this killing the murderer has the sympathetic part. Does that satisfy you?
LC: ‘Yes sir, that satisfies me.’
To which Fowler replies: ‘Lieutenant you would do me an enormous favour if you stopped calling me “Sir”’.
At which Columbo nods, once again acknowledging Fowler’s knowledge of him, and the credits roll. Leaving us to hope that he and Ward, who have in effect been on first name terms for some time, were finally actually using their first names when he was being booked down at the station.