We'll start this Spielberg marathon ever so softly, with the Columbo episode Murder by the Book, which aired the 15th of September 1971. It was the first regular episode that aired, and Steven Spielberg was only 25 years old when he directed it. It followed two TV-movies. The first, Prescription: Murder, was aired on the 20th of February 1968, while the second, Ransom for a Dead Man, aired almost 3 years later.
Before being given this opportunity Spielberg had worked on several other TV-shows, including Night Gallery and The Psychiatrist. Very soon, though, this young TV director, would graduate to the major leagues...
Two writers, Ken Franklin (Jack Cassidy) and James Ferris (Martin Milner), have found fame and fortune writing a series of mystery novels, but now their partnership is ending, because Ferris wants to write about more serious subjects on his own.
Franklin is not too happy about this, especially because he didn't actually do any of the writing, he just handled the publicity, while Ferris did the all the real work. So what the hell is he going to do now? Why, kill his partner and collect the insurance money of course! So this is what he does. Franklin believes he's devised a bulletproof plan to bump off his partner. A plan so clever, no one will be able to see through it. No one except Lt. Columbo.
The Columbo format is fairly unusual in serialized TV, because the identity of the killer and the exact nature of his (or her) crime is revealed to us upfront. This also means that our title character never shows up until 10 or 20 minutes have passed, which is also unusual. And when he does show up we're not meant to guess along with the cunning detective, like in so many other crime shows, because we're not dealing with a traditional mystery. Instead of trying to figure out how the killer thinks, we have to figure out how the detective thinks, our eyes are not focused on the trail of clues leading to the bad guy, but rather the bad guy's furious attempt to erase that trail, either through actions, or through dialogue. Truthfully Columbo (played with perfect timing by Peter Falk) is never actually the lead character, we stay with the bad guys, we rarely follow Columbo when he leaves. The format has its advantages, but certainly also its drawbacks. You don't want to watch more than a couple of Columbo episodes back to back, trust me on this.
For its first many years the Columbo series was more like a series of TV movies than a regular TV show, and the "episodes" would run somewhere between 90 and 75 minutes. This particular episode is of the short variety, which is a good thing, because those episodes tend to be better paced.
In preparation for this review I also re-watched the first two Columbo TV movies that came before, to get an idea about what Spielberg added to the show, if anything. I was actually surprised to find that almost all of the idiosyncrasies we've later come to associate with the shabby looking lieutenant were present and accounted for in his very first outing.
The episode itself is a pretty entertaining, conventional fare. Our killer is overly smug, and quite condescending towards Columbo, which makes his unavoidable downfall all the more satisfying. Also, this episode features not one, but TWO murders, so there's enough action to keep us occupied.
When turning our attention to Spielberg's contribution, it's important not to romanticize his influence. He was just a simple staff director back then, very low on the food chain. Still, the episode does feature some quite impressive elements that can only be contributed to the director, things the writers or the producers would not have been involved in. It turns out that the young Spielberg was quite an adventurous young fellow! There's a lot more experimenting going on here, than I would have expected.
The entire opening sequence, for example, plays out with nothing more than the sound of a busy typewrite on the soundtrack. Everything else is muted. The sound of the typewriter returns later, when it's incorporated into the score providing an effective heartbeat to the story. I can't help but recall Atonement (2007), where director Joe Wright uses the same technique to tie his opening together. I'm not saying that Wright copied a Columbo episode, I just think that it's an interesting and very cinematic approach to something as "trivial" as a TV show. When we get to that traditional first interrogation, at the scene of the crime, Spielberg shoots the scene in a very chaotic style. A frantic witness is questioned by two detectives in the middle of a busy, semi-dark room, intercut with handheld shots of cops trying to clean up the place. Later in the episode, when another body is found, the sound landscape consists of radio-chatter from the police band, in a sort of montage style, while the camera slowly zooms in on the scene from afar, a style reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 masterpiece The Conversation (1974). None of these scenes have that traditional (perhaps a bit) sleepy Columbo feel, we're familiar with. In fact I would be surprised if I found visual "stunts" like these in any show produced before the '90s!
The episode also provides us with an early example of another Spielberg favorite: The One-Shot-Scene, when Columbo interrogates a suspect, while cooking an omelet for her. The scene plays out over a few minutes, in a very tiny kitchen, and consists of nothing more than two actors and some dialogue. Rather than shooting it the traditional way - two close-ups, and a wide master shot - most of the scene is shot in one take. Spielberg repositions the camera a few times, but mostly it's the actors' pacing around that keeps the frame alive. Notice how well this scene works, compared to scenes in other shows where the actors are standing frozen on their marks in front of an unresponsive camera. The elements are the same, but the sense of dynamic that this approach brings to the scene makes all the difference.
I said earlier that we shouldn't romanticize Spielberg's contribution to this episode, but looking at the examples mentioned above, and comparing this to other episodes of the series, it's easy to get carried away. There are too many clever visual touches, and too much playing around with compositions, for this to be the work of a random director for hire.
The director behind this episode was clearly trying to prove a point.
Columbo is what he is, and the story in Murder by the Book is perhaps not any more memorable than countless other crime dramas from the '70s, however, the visual flair at display here is hard to ignore.
There's no doubt that Steven Spielberg's work in this particular episode caught the eye of the powers that be. This must have been one of the main reasons he was hired to direct a certain TV movie called The Duel (1971).
All things being equal Murder by the Book is a fun episode, and it can easily be watched out of context. So do that, and realize that even Steven Spielberg had to work for a living once, but he managed to do so, without phoning it in.
Next up: We're gonna need a bigger truck.
This-Boy-is-a-Genius-O-Meter: 4/10. There's something there. There's definitely something there.
Beard Factor: Zero. No beards. At all.
Composition: 65% crime drama, 30% police brutality, 5% murder, 0% special effects.
The Sound of Williams: Naught. Score is composed by Billy Goldenberg, but it's quite clever.