Sunday, June 26, 2011

28/06 VOX POPULI: Columbo hangs up his rumpled trench coat

Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a daily column that runs on Page 1 of the vernacular Asahi Shimbun.

In one episode of the popular U.S. television crime fiction series "Columbo," the murderer gets away scot-free.

She is a former movie star who kills her husband in order to make a screen comeback. But she has an incurable brain disease and does not remember committing the crime. Her close friend, a film director, knows she has only a few months to live. He falsely confesses to the crime to protect her. Lieutenant Columbo chides him for his misplaced gallantry, but heeds his plea to let her live her remaining months in peace.

Peter Falk, who played the bumbling but brilliant Columbo, died on June 23 at age 83. His passing prompted a flood of memories. Some episodes were touching, like the one mentioned above, while others mesmerized me with Columbo's expert demolitions of criminals' most carefully crafted alibis.

Falk reportedly suffered from Alzheimer's disease in his final years. But fans will always remember him as the iconic police detective he played.

He was a civil servant pushing 30 when he landed the TV contract that would define his career and started playing Columbo, which seemed a natural fit for him, after he was 40. He needed no makeup to portray the disheveled character, with his signature stubble and unkempt mop of hair. In his autobiography, Falk said his beat-up vintage car, rumpled trench coat and the face he was born with were all he needed to play the role.

Just as nobody in Japan could ever imagine anyone but the late Kiyoshi Atsumi (1928-1996) in the title role of the Tora-san movie series, only Falk could be Columbo, and the Japanese-dubbed version had to have actor Asao Koike (1931-1985) doing Columbo's voice.

The series guest-starred big Hollywood stars playing rich, successful individuals turning to murder under unavoidable--and sometimes tragic--circumstances.

Aside from the spellbinding pitting of wits between Columbo and the criminals, I also secretly enjoyed the glimpses I got of how America's upper classes lived. I believe Columbo made for a perfect "guide" because of Falk's endearing personality.

On one occasion, Falk reportedly described Columbo as an "ass-backwards Sherlock Holmes." The success of the Columbo series spawned a whole array of what one might call "ass-backwards Columbo" detective dramas around the world.

In my mind's eye, I can almost see Falk disappearing into a sea of fog now, rowing a boat and perhaps whistling contentedly.

--The Asahi Shimbun, June 26

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.

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