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Peter Falk Returns as the Rumpled but Brilliant ‘Columbo’

It’s night, and the interior of the broken-down car is dark until the driver puts a match to his cigar, illuminating his creased, weary face. A dirty, rumpled raincoat clings to his body. Birds could nest in his hair. The man is a shambles, human pollution.

It’s Lt. Columbo.

One of the series of the ‘70s, “Columbo” shot Peter Falk to stardom while creating one of the best-known characters of TV literature, a calculatingly obliging, self-effacing destroyer of super criminals who was as slovenly as he was effective.

“Columbo” premiered as one of the original rotating elements of NBC’s “Sunday Mystery Movie” along with the less successful “McMillan and Wife” and “McCloud.”

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And now, after an absence of more than 11 years, it’s back, only this time alternating with Burt Reynolds’ “B. L. Stryker” and Louis Gossett Jr.'s “Gideon Oliver” on ABC’s new “Monday Night Mystery Movie” at 9 p.m. on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.

Stryker is destined to become a private eye. Oliver is an anthropology professor. And Columbo is, well, Columbo.

More than just having tricks up his sleeve, the shrewd, resourceful Columbo has tricks up his tricks tonight as he confronts his latest foe. This one’s the brilliant, arrogant and predictably overconfident Eliot Blake, a phony psychic who decapitates a magician with the victim’s own trick guillotine.

Although ingeniously covering his tracks, Blake is suspected by Columbo. Why does Columbo immediately deduce that Blake is guilty? Because he’s Columbo, that’s why--an amazing detective who is instinctively able to connect “A” to “Z” without the benefit of evidence. Just when his antagonists have underestimated him and seem assured of getting away with the crime as he walks off shaking his head in apparent frustration, he pivots and lets them have it between the eyes:

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“One more thing. . . .”

Tonight, however, Falk seems to be trying so hard to live up to the old Columbo that at times he is almost a caricature, laying it on too thick with the shuffling feet and phony politeness, even getting on your nerves. As he creeps along ever so slowly, you wish he’d just shut up, get on with it and make the arrest.

Much more engaging, in fact, is Anthony Andrews as Blake. He is the consummate cad and a perfect counterpoint to Columbo: tall, elegant, urbane and smooth, haughtily sniffing and sneering his way through these two hours until the lieutenant finally closes the trap. It’s a very neat performance.

It would seem that as goes the villain, so goes “Columbo.”

The traditional “Columbo” is far less a mystery than it is a duel of wits between geniuses. “B. L. Stryker,” which premieres next Monday, is constructed along more traditional lines, with the audience and Stryker equally in the dark about the murderer. Not that it makes much difference, for the true test of a TV production is whether you would leave your house--or pay money--to see it. With “B.L. Stryker,” the answer is no.

A former New Orleans cop now living in Palm Beach, Fla. (and about to start a second career as a private eye), Stryker at least has promise as a character. Moreover, Reynolds gives him an interesting texture. And the premiere’s supporting cast--Ozzie Davis, Rita Moreno and Helen Shaver--is first-rate. Davis and Moreno are regulars.

The problem is much more fundamental, simply that much of the opening story is so cryptic and muddled that you hardly know what’s happening or what Stryker is doing in Palm Beach or how he makes his living. He mostly drives around being cool and mysterious and worrying about a creep who ties up pretty girls, rubs oil on their nude bodies, dances in front of them and then assaults them.

So what else is new? In prime time, that happens almost every night.

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