I read an interesting bit of news over at The Guardian, A Reboot of Columbo Is a Fantastic Idea—Apart From One Enormous Flaw. It reported on speculation that Mark Ruffalo may be cast as Columbo in an upcoming feature film. The “enormous flaw” in the title of the article is that Columbo wouldn’t work on the big screen and should remain a television show. This is true, but not for the reason that the anonymous writer claimed.
According to the article, “[A] movie—striving for event status, shouldering itself into the cultural conversation by claiming to be a once-in-a-lifetime event—simply doesn’t jibe with the lieutenant’s process.” The point is that Columbo’s whole process is slow and steady and so you really couldn’t appreciate it in a one-time event. As far as I’m concerned, this is not an enormous flaw.
The Columbo character first appeared on the stage. But The Guardian noted that its real place was on television. Well, maybe. I would say that theater and television are very similar: they are dialog centered. And that is the key to why Columbo wouldn’t work on the big screen. Now notice: I said wouldn’t, not couldn’t. The truth is, if it weren’t for our ridiculous copyright system, some young filmmakers could make any number of great low-budget Columbo films. (The character was created in 1962, and I think after 52 years, it is far past time that he is in the public domain.)
The problem is that no Hollywood studio would make a film that retained what we all liked about the television series. They would insist upon car chases and action sequences. And I’m sure that they could do that while being true to the character. But why? No one wants to see that. The article claimed, “The pleasure comes from seeing how Columbo applies his wily process to the murderer at hand.” But I disagree with even this. As murder mysteries go, Columbo isn’t very good. I’m often left at the end thinking, “That would never hold up in court.” The pleasure is just hanging out with Columbo and waiting for each, “Just one more thing…”
The essential nature of the show is two people talking to each other. And as far as Hollywood is concerned, this is death. It is no accident that My Dinner with Andre came out of the collaboration between a playwright and a theater director. Yet that film did work on the big screen. Although having watched it again recently, I know it works just as well on the small screen. And that’s the same thing about the character Columbo. There is no advantage to doing it on the big screen. And if Hollywood does it, they will screw it up.
But maybe there shouldn’t be a reboot of Columbo. I agree that Ruffalo could do a great job with the character. But wouldn’t the right thing be to bury Columbo with Peter Falk? I mean, just out of respect? But I doubt that will happen. The Columbo brand is worth too much money. So whether it is with Ruffalo or not, whether it is on the big screen or small, whether it is sooner rather than later: it will be done. And regardless of whether it is done well or not, the only thing that will matter is if it makes money. Because Columbo is not a beloved character owned by us all. It is a valuable commodity that must be used to maximize profits, because we are a great civilization—the first one to be totally lacking in a soul.