“Just one more thing”: Columbo’s investigation of analog technologies

Curator's Note

The 1970s mystery series Columbo remarks neatly on the procedural through its narrative structure and its detective’s investigation process. The narrative “procedure” of each episode is always the same: we see a murder committed, Columbo comes on the scene to investigate, he appears to know almost immediately who the killer is, and he spends the rest of the episode gathering evidence against him or her in a sometimes subtle, sometimes irritating game of cat and mouse. At the same time, the detective’s process – and the procedure that he follows in his investigation -- always involves his own instruction in a technological and/or cultural object.

Several murderers’ crimes or alibis are enabled by and hinge around a particular techno-gadget. For instance, in “Fade in to Murder,” a VCR provides the killer’s alibi, but it also essentially “records” a clue to his crime. The murderer, Ward Fowler, is an actor who plays a television detective called “Detective Lucerne” and who kills his blackmailing, rich producer; to do so, he drugs a friend during a live baseball game on television, sets his VCR to record the rest while he runs out to commit the crime, and then returns home to rewind the game and awaken his friend so that it seems only a few moments have passed while he was out. The layers of self-reflexivity throughout this episode are therefore both performative and technological, dependent, as they are, on two primary conceits: Columbo’s ability to “act” as a “bad” detective (and the notoriously “bad” actor William Shatner’s ability to act as one who thinks he is a better one) and Columbo’s investigation of the very liveness of television, a state that can be easily undone by analog recording technologies.

Originally airing in October 1976, “Fade in to Murder” appears in the midst of the development of the new domestic apparatus (Betamax comes on the scene in 1975, while VHS appears in 1977). As with other gadgets similarly presented and investigated in the series, here we get a brief material history of this emerging technology: a visible evidence of emerging technological tools, an instructional guide for their use, and an acknowledgment of their monetary cost. As this particular machine records a live sporting event, the series records a historical and cultural moment in which this machine emerges. The VCR in particular, moreover, allows for a self-reflexive admission of the series’ own modus operandi: its dual investigation of cultural objects and the instruction of the detective himself in their operations.




Amelie --

This is one of my favorite Columbo episodes! To watch the competitive scenery-chewing of Falk and Shatner is such a treat! What do you think about Robert Goren of Law & Order: Criminal Intent as a descendant of Columbo?

I am very taken by your points about the procedural's self-reflexivity and, in this episode, how that reflexivity is manifest in the parallel investigations of the crime and the gadgets by which the crime is "captured" (quite literally in the case of the VCR as a recording technology).

I've been thinking about reflexivity in relationship to reenactments. These are very preliminary thoughts but in forensic procedurals I argue that the reenactment serves two primary functions: to test hypotheses that keep the 'mystery' alive by introducing then dismissing various red herrings and dead-ends and to reinforce the reflexive perspective of the scientist grounded in material fact and scientific data. Within the narrative the reenactment's reflexivity confers the status of "truth" on to a "version" of events. (There's another function of reenactments exposing viewers to a controlled but repetitive barrage of violence, but that's of less relevance to my point here.)

I have been intrigued by the variety of approaches to reenactments that crime fiction and non-fiction shows take. In news magazine shows, like 48 Hours and Dateline, the reenactments are staged primarily through audio and still photographic material so as not to undermine their status as "news" with fictional gestures. I argue, however, that these unstaged reenactments are tinged with the same kind of melodrama as the staged elements of shows like America's Most Wanted and Extreme Forensics, where actors  dramatize scenes that exceed the investigator's direct knowledge much the way those scenes are 'staged' in true crime novels, with imagined dialogue and intensified (if based in fact) action that enforce the police/prosecution's version of events. Again, based in fact but also stretching those facts to fit a specific crime narrative.

CSI allows its characters to 'come alive' and replay the events of their deaths according to the investigator's working theories. More complicated deaths are restaged through the use of stand-ins (animals, "dummies," and other simulated materials) but usually, at the end of an episode, there is one culminating reenactment when all the pieces of the "puzzle" fit and, conveniently, are confirmed as true (more often than not) by the criminal who confesses in the face of material truth.

In Bones when witnesses replay events, the characters come alive and act out the scene. When the investigators replay events they create experiments or use the "Angelator" to animate the story. Unlike CSI there is rarely the cumlinating reenactment to close the episode, instead, the final piece of material evidence (an xray, a bullet, a bone fragment) is produced in the criminal's presence. But like CSI there is a corresponding confession. In the same way that the 'gadget' of the Columbo episode allows viewers, as you say, "a brief material history of this emerging technology: a visible evidence of emerging technological tools, an instructional guide for their use, and an acknowledgment of their monetary cost", I'm trying to hypothesize the various use-values of reenactments. Your piece has given me some interesting ideas to consider!

Hi Jules,

What a lot of suggestive ideas here! I agree with you in particular about the re-enactments on "news" shows (especially, as I imagine you're referring, in those ones that are an hour-long and dedicated to one horrible crime). In a way, these are re-enactments of fictional form -- like a re-make of a fictional format series and metaphorically a kind of screening of a "recorded" episode of a dramatic series like CSI or Bones enabled by domestic technologies like the VCR or DVR. That may be pushing it a little too far, but it does allow for a nice link between the three pieces curated on IMR thus far this week! However, I do think there are also neat parallels between the (fantasic) "Angelator" and the gadgets and forms to which we are regularly introduced on Columbo. At least both series offer a documentation of emerging technologies -- the analog in Columbo, the digital in Bones.

As for the connection between Goren and Columbo... I have to say: Goren. freaks. me. out. So I can't accept a paralle between the two! But besides my own personal response to him, I think Goren's role within the detective unit (we never see Columbo in a police station) and the seemingly emotionally unstable element of his own "bumbling" mean they don't seem to textually line up for me, either. Plus, I think Falk plays Columbo with a real sense of humor -- and that the fictional detective himself has a sense of humor. That's partly what invokes such affection for him. And in fact, I think we especially see that affectionate side (for him, of him) in this scene between Falk and Shatner, the two television detectives.

Hi Jules and Amelie!

I'm excited both of you keep coming back to the word "gadget," since I've been toying with a dissertation project on "gadgetry."

The term seems particularly apt here, both for the historical and narrative context of the VCR in this scene.  The "gadget," unlike the "gizmo" or the "widget" still names a definite object.  But the precise nature or function of this object is indeterminate--the gadget can be either a fictional stand-in for a series of problems, or quite the opposite, it can be an object that "exceeds your ability to understand how it works" (as Jonathan Ive recently gushed about the iPad).  Either way, "gadgetry" highlights the fictional dimensions of how we use and imagine technologies.

The presence (or the imagination of) the VCR here is just perfect.  This episode uses a truly narrative problem in order to define a brand new technology whose function had yet to be widely understood and whose market dominance was far from determined:  what if you could commit a murder using the TV as an alibi?  How would we have to change what we know about television in order for this to work?  The VCR then is precisely what you both have been calling it:  a form of gadgetry that allows us to solve technological and narrative problems at the same time.

I'm gonna go out now and get all the Columbo DVDs I can get my hands on…  What a great clip!

As impressively subtle as this episode of Columbo is in its self-reflexivity, the clip makes me think of the self-reflexive presence of technology in the procedural narrative more widely.  CSI, for instance, has its self-reflexive meditation on its own use of technology in "I Like to Watch," the episode when a reality-TV crew follows the crime team around the lab and in the field.  But there are also comparable moments in 40s and 50s film noir--moments when new technololgy is marked as such--as in Mike Hammer's answering machine in Kiss Me Deadly or the wire recording Orson Welles's character in Touch of Evil.  It also seems to me that as often as procedurals--or the crime story more generally--feature new technology as a means of registering links to modernity (implied already in the clip from Naked City), the procedural genre exploits the two sides to which technology can be put: that is, it can be used to serve the interests of the investigative apparatus (as in CSI and Bones, to use our examples of this week) or it can be used in the interest of covering up or commiting the crime (as in the Columbo) clip.   And it is also interesting to me to follow the transition, which the VCR marks, from the sonic to the  visual

Looking back at both Steven and Grant's recent posts, I'm reminded of the wonderful CSI episode, "Toe Tags" (Season 7) where the autopsied bodies in the morgue 'wake up' and talk with each other about how they got there. Each segment is given its own title and what I love about the episode is the way in which the 3rd person perspective on the investigation (usually just the perview of the viewer) is now implied to be shared by the dead victim as they "narrate" (through the lens not through voiceover) their own story of demise. I think the episode activates the "silent witness" discourse of forensic pathology & anthropology in a way that is diametrically opposed to the way it appears in Bones which is, quite literally, by dissecting the body into is component parts and having the scientific expert "speak" the details found therein.

As I read it in "Toe Tags" the previously disconnected processes of technological analysis are reattached to a specific person as each corpse confirms that the conclusion reached by the individual CSI that investigates their case is the truth. I'm not sure that's making sense because this is an idea that I'm just coming to as I've read these posts ... but it's as if the bodies oversee the ways in which CSIs manage the clues their bodies have left and the technology used to break those clues down into the elements that attaches guilt to the correct party. And this very literal reanimation of the dead to witness their own deaths' investigation both pushes the show's bounds of verisimilitude while simultaneously reasserting the verisimilitude of its representation of forensic investigation.

Sidebar: This kind of death-perspective is offered very clunkily (in my opinion) in the ABC series The Forgotten where "civilian volunteers" take up cold cases and their work is overseen by the victim who narrates from beyond. I must confess I was intrigued by the premise but barely made it through one episode. I might need to suck it up and try and watch more closely just to see whether there's anything interesting happening with this more literal invocation of corpse-witness. However, the show seems plagued by some of the same issues Peter Jackson encountered when trying to adapt The Lovely Bones for the screen.


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