6 reasons why ''Negative Reaction'' is the most delightful Columbo episode
Columbo makes the case that he is comedy gold.
Columbo may be filed under "Mystery," but this crime series could serve up more laughs than most sitcoms. In particular, the 1974 episode "Negative Reaction," stands out as a work of expert humor.
Surprisingly, that is not due to the fact that Dick Van Dyke plays the killer. Sure, the comedy legend is wonderful — and sports a beard — but he plays against type. His character is, appropriately, wicked.
No, it is Peter Falk who serves up a masterclass in subtle comic acting. Early in his career, because of his looks, Falk was the one typically cast as a killer, a tough. His breakout role was portraying a killer in Murder, Inc. (1960), remember. Later in his career, he worked more in comedy, in films like The Princess Bride, Vibe, All the Marbles and The Cheap Detective.
But those roles were largely thanks to his comedic work on Columbo. Speaking of the "cheap detective," much of the humor in "Negative Reaction" is mined from the quirky character traits of Lt. Columbo.
Here are six things that truly tickle us about this gem.
1. Columbo is mistaken for a bum.
The disheveled appearance of the detective leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the series. The lieutenant follows a lead to the St Mathew's Mission, where a kind nun, a Sister of Mercy (Joyce Van Patten), assumes Columbo is a homeless man in need. "You're hungry and tired, I can see that," she says with pity. After taking one look at his iconic rumpled raincoat, she shakes her head and says, "Oh, that coat… that coat, that coat, that coat." When Columbo explains that he is, in fact, a cop, the nun then assumes he is undercover and in disguise. Columbo shrugs and sits down for a meal in the shelter.
2. His car is mistaken for junk.
The raincoat was hardly the only well-worn possession of Columbo. He also drove a real beater, a 1959 Peugeot. When we first see the detective in this episode, he is pulling into a junk lot. "We Buy Junk Cars," a sign declares above the scrap heap. Naturally, the officer policing the scene assumes that Columbo is bringing his lemon of a car to the lot to be scrapped. He stops Columbo and says tells him the junk lot is closed. "I'm sorry, sir," the beat cop says. "Out of business." Columbo gets no respect throughout this episode!
3. Larry Storch plays a driving instructor in a hilarious scene.
Speaking of the Peugeot, the heap comes back late in the episode for a killer scene (in the comedic sense) with Larry Storch (F Troop) playing a nebbish driving instructor. The instructor is horrified to learn that the Peugeot has no seat belts. Columbo asks if that's a requirement. Yes. Yes, it is, detective. The instructor reminds Columbo to "look behind you" after he pulls out of the parking space. Columbo, of course, starts driving forward while looking backward. The scene has little to do with the overall plot, but it is delightful.
4. It had an ironic "Negative" type of product placement.
In this episode, Dick Van Dyke portrayed an acclaimed photographer. Today, that might not seem notable, but at the time, in the 1970s, Van Dyke was the spokesman for Kodak. He appeared in loads of print ads and TV commercials for the cameras and film. The Kodak brand and logo pops up throughout the episode. That might seem like helpful product placement… but the brand's spokesman was playing a murderous killer! They might have been aware of this reversal. When Columbo nabs the killer, he tells Van Dyke, "You didn't accidentally reverse the film." Behind Columbo is a Kodak logo — reversed! Maybe, just maybe, they were aware of how they were inverting Van Dyke's typical role.
5. Columbo uses dog photography to unsettle the killer.
Another piece of Columbo's lovable character is his role as a dog owner. You know, his dog named "Dog." The detective uses his Bassett hound to disarm his suspect. He concocts a cockamamie story about his dog falling in love with a Cocker Spaniel, who has died. This tragic end to the canine romance has put Dog into a funk. So Columbo asks the Pulitzer-winning photographer if he happens to have a "picture of a Cocker Spaniel" lying around, in one of those classic "Just one more thing…" moments. The bizarre request befuddles Van Dyke. Columbo's brilliant method of getting under a killer's skin works again.
6. There's a future superhero in disguise.
Look for a young JoAnna Cameron in this episode. Recognize her, Seventies kids? A year later, she would become a DC Comics hero in the series The Secret of Isis. See for yourself!
Image: The Everett Collection