In Appreciation of Peter Falk
This one hurts.
I’m very picky about who I write these little “In Memory Of” articles. Because — once somebody dies, everybody writes one of these things. I don’t really like doing the whole, “This person died thing” either. I’m much more a fan of — Jeez, look at all the awesome shit this person did, especially when they’re someone whose major exploits might not be the first things you think of.
For instance, look at the two people I wrote one for already — John Barry and Sidney Lumet. Well, the John Barry one was more of a — it was upsetting he died and I posted a bunch of links to his Bond themes. It was more an excuse to start my Pic of the Day series. The Sidney Lumet one was more of an appreciation article. Because the man directed a lot of films, and a lot of people probably didn’t know the extent of his resume. And that’s what I wanted people to appreciate. I’m gonna do the same thing here. Because Peter Falk really does deserve it.
You’d think that everyone knew Falk as Columbo, right? At least, that’s what I think. I’ve never actually watched an episode of Columbo in my life, to be honest with you, so I know Peter Falk from everything I’m about to mention here.
He started out in the 50s, doing some television and minor movies before getting (I’d assume) his big break in Murder, Inc., a movie about the real-life organized crime syndicate. Falk plays a hitman in the syndicate, and was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for the role. He was good in it, but it as weird seeing Falk as a steely-eyed killer. A testament to the man’s abilities as an actor. The film itself is okay — I didn’t love it, but it was an interesting watch — but Falk was pretty good in the role.
What’s even more a testament to the man’s abilities was that he was nominated a second time for Best Supporting Actor the year after Murder, Inc., in 1961, for A Pocketful of Miracles.
A Pocketful of Miracles is interesting for several reasons. The main reason is that it was Frank Capra’s final film. It was also a remake of an earlier film he made in 1933 called Lady for a Day. That film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress. It’s about a poor apple-selling woman who gave her daughter up to a Spanish convent so she could have a better life. And she’s been writing her daughter, using hotel stationary, pretending to be a rich New York society woman the whole time. And now, her daughter is engaged to a Count, and wants him to meet her mother. So she has to find a way to keep up the charade. And she’s friends with a local mobster, Dave the Dude, who buys her apples because he believes they bring him luck. And his girlfriend convinces him to help her out, and they go on this whole comic attempt to transform Apple Annie into a society woman. They get her nice clothes, they get a crooked judge to pose as her husband, they use a mobster’s penthouse while he’s out of town — all that stuff.
In this version, A Pocketful of Miracles, Peter Falk plays Dave the Dude’s right hand man. Bette Davis is Apple Annie, Ann-Margret is her daughter, and Glenn Ford is Dave the Dude. Also in it are Thomas Mitchell (whom you’ll remember as the drunken doctor in Stagecoach, and Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With the Wind) and Edward Everett Horton, who everyone will remember as Fred Astaire’s friend in all the movies he did with Ginger Rogers. He was always the exasperated friend. Anyway, Peter Falk gets to play the — I guess the conscience of the film. He’s the one that’s always walking into rooms as stuff going on, going, “Am I drunk? There’s no way this can be happening.” And he’s always like, “This is never gonna work, this is never gonna work.” It’s a nice comedic performance. The film is a bit slow and long, and plays like an old director’s work. But Falk is good in it, and that’s what counts.
He had a pretty television-heavy career in the 60s, mostly appearing in single episodes of shows or in TV movies and stuff like that. He had a handful of film roles, notably in The Balcony, with Shelley Winters, Lee Grant, Ruby Dee and, of all people, Leonard Nimoy, which is about a madame at a whorehouse — just go with me here — a whorehouse where they create the client’s deepest fantasy. And the madame has no idea that a revolution is going on in the country. And her old friend — Peter Falk — the chief of police — comes and asks her to impersonate the queen (who has gone missing) in order to let the people know everything is all right. What happens instead is, she gets three of her customers to play a general, a bishop and a chief justice, who have all died. And it’s a drama. Imagine that. Or rather, a political satire. Not a comedy though. Which is strange, since, I can imagine this being played for laughs. I’m intrigued though. I want to see it now.
Falk also had small parts in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Great Race, which show his ability to easily move between drama and comedy. He was also in Robin and the 7 Hoods, a rat pack movie with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby and that whole crew. He played the Sir Guy of the film. It’s a musical too. Did I mention that?
Falk also first played Columbo in 1967, in the TV movie Prescription: Murder. He then went on to play Columbo for 68 more episodes between 1971 and 2003 — which is just incredible. That alone makes a career. But we’re not even close to being done yet.
Between his first appearance as Columbo and the mid-70s, he appeared in several films, most notably Anzio, a war movie with Robert Mitchum and Robert Ryan, about one of the bloodiest WWII battles, Castle Keep with Burt Lancaster and Bruce Dern, about a group of soldiers trying to hold onto a castle against the advancing German army, and Husbands, with John Cassavetes. This last film is the most important, because it starts is collaboration with John Cassavetes, which really reached his peak with the next film I’m going to talk about, A Woman Under the Influence.
This film is an incredible movie, one that I felt Gena Rowlands should have won Best Actress for. It’s shot in the Cassavetes style, which is handheld, documentary style, tightly scripted but very open to interpretation. The way he worked was, he gave the actors a script, and told them to do what they wanted. And he just followed them with a camera. And the film is about a married couple, Nick and Mabel. We first see Mabel getting ready to have a night with her husband, getting the kids off with her mother and getting ready. Then he calls and has to work overtime and can’t make it. And then we see that she’s a little — off her rocker, a bit. Even though he says he’ll call in sick the next day and they’ll have the day together, she impulsively goes out and sleeps with another man (something she really regrets in the morning). And then we get the great scene where he comes home with all his buddies from work and she fixes spaghetti for them, which is really just a fantastic scene.
The film is great because it sets you up to think Mabel is the crazy one, and then, by the end, you’re really not sure. You think it could be Nick, and that Mabel could just be eccentric. It’s a really great film. For anyone looking for the best Cassavetes film for the average viewer, this is probably the one.
The film is also great because it’s really the best example of Peter Falk’s tremendous dramatic capabilities, something he didn’t always show in his roles. He honestly was good enough to be nominated for Best Actor that year, and probably would have if the category weren’t so stacked. But, I single out A Woman Under the Influence for several reasons. First, it’s a great film and Falk is great in it, but also — the year after that film, Falk made another film, which I consider to be as great a comedic achievement by him as A Woman Under the Influence is a dramatic achievement.
The film Murder By Death is one I consider to be one of the funniest films ever made. It’s just wonderful, through and through.
It’s great because it was written by Neil Simon, who is a very funny man and wrote some very funny movies in his time. It’s also a detective spoof. And when I say spoof, I mean it. It’s also — if you’ve seen the movie Clue, and I suspect you have — Clue actually stole the entire plot from Murder By Death when it was made. They took the plot and added the Clue characters onto it. Seriously. If you watch them as a double feature, you’ll see what I mean.
The film itself though is hilarious. So much funnier than Clue, and I say that as a Clue fan. It’s basically a movie that takes all the famous literary detectives (and, in a way, the film adaptations of them), and throws them all in a room, solving the same crime. That is —
The film starts with the butler of a Mr. Lionel Twain — the butler is played by Alec Guinness, who, while on the set read a script for a film he would do shortly after called Star Wars, and Lionel Twain was played by Truman Capote. I am not making that up. Truman Capote actually acts in this movie — inviting to Twain’s mansion several guests. These guests include:
Inspector Sidney Wang (and his “adopted son” Willy, who is Japanese), played by Peter Sellers, and based off Charlie Chan. He talks in fortune cookie dialogue and his grammar is constantly being critiqued by everybody, especially, humorously enough, Capote. For example, Sellers says, “What is meaning of this?” and Capote is like, “Use your goddamn prepositions and articles! “The” meaning. What it THE Meaning of this?”
Milo Perrier (played by the great James Coco, who would later go on to be Oscar nominated in Only When I Laugh), based on Hercule Poirot, who shows up as stuffy, Belgian (and hates when they think he is French), and very hungry. He shows up with his manservant, played by James Cromwell, and is very annoyed at having to do anything.
Miss Jessica Marbles, based on Miss Marple, played by Elsa Lanchester (the Bride of Frankenstein herself), who comes with her “nurse”, who is older than she is, played by Estelle Winwood (who was “Hold me, touch me” in The Producers).
Dick and Dora Charleston, based on Nick and Nora Charles, played by David Niven and Maggie Smith, who, sadly, unlike the Thin Man movies, are not shown as being raging drunks, but rather as an enormously well-bred society couple, whose good breeding prevents them from getting killed several times. Still funny, though.
And finally — Sam Diamond — clearly based on Sam Spade, and brilliantly played by Peter Falk. It’s based on the Bogart Sam Spade, and Falk just fucking nails it He shows up with his secretary and mistress (that’s how he introduces her), played by Eileen Brennan (which is hysterical, because she played Mrs. White in Clue).
And what happens is, Twain brings them all to the house and says, “A murder is going to be committed, and you all need to figure out who did it.” And what happens is, Twain is the one who ends up dead, and they need to figure out who dun it. An the film is pretty ridiculous, one crazy turn after another, ending with a great string of revelations that really plays on the crazy endings of detective novels. What happens is, each detective comes into the room and “solves” the case, one at a time, and the whole thing gets more and more ridiculous.
Anyway, Falk plays Sam Diamond, and he is fucking great in the role. It’s the perfect parody of Bogart. He shows up, and, even though they don’t really mention it, you notice there are two bullet holes in the back of his jacket, and he makes all those Bogart-like accusations and his secretary is like, “You’ll have to excuse him, he was shot in the head last week. Doctors didn’t want him to leave the hospital, but you know Sam.” It’s perfect. Really.
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It’s Watch Instant on Netflix, and, believe me, it’s one of the best decisions you’ll ever make. It’s hilarious.
And the film really shows, along with A Woman Under the Influence, just how great Peter Falk is as an actor. How he could so seamlessly go back and forth from comedy to drama.
He was so good in Murder By Death that, the year after the film came out, Neil Simon wrote an entire film for him to do. The Cheap Detective.
The whole film was a parody of the Bogart films, and is a complete spoof. It’s almost exactly what Airplane! would do two years later, with sight gags and ridiculous scenes played straight. Peter Falk is perfect for this kind of film, the kind of perfect that Leslie Nielson was. And look at the cast too. It’s incredible. I really recommend this film as well. It’s a bit more ridiculous than Murder By Death is, but it’s still a really good time. Peter Falk really is amazing.
After that film, he made this one — The In-Laws.
A wonderful film and one of the classic comedies of all time. Alan Arkin is a meek dentist whose daguther is marrying Peter Falk’s son, and Falk just happens to work for the CIA, and gets Arkin involved in an whole conspiracy/murder plot. It’s a hysterical film. It’s really one of the great comedies of all time. Don’t bother with the remake with Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas. It’s okay, but it’s nowhere near as good as the original. This one is just — incredible.
After this, Falk continued playing Columbo into the 80s, and did a couple of films, most notably Big Trouble, which was John Cassavetes last film, which also co-starred Alan Arkin, and Wings of Desire, the great Wim Wenders film that would later be remade as City of Angels. See the Wenders one first, please. Cage is nice, but — see the Wenders one first.
Falk also made another movie in the 80s, probably the one most people my age would know him for — The Princess Bride. You may have heard of it.
He plays the grandfather reading the story to Fred Savage. For those of you who only knew him from this role and just went, “Aww, he died?” — see more movies. Seriously.
He stopped appearing in stuff as he got older — naturally — though he still played Columbo. His most notable roles, post-Princess Bride, were in a TV movie version of The Sunshine Boys, where he played Willie to Woody Allen’s Al. That is, he played the Matthau part and Allen played the Burns part. Haven’t seen it, but am very interested to now. He was also in Made, the Favreau and Vaughn movie that wasn’t as good as Swingers. He’s Favreau’s mobster boss. He was also in Corky Romano, as Corky’s father. I’m sure we all remember him fondly for that one. I know I do. (Note a joke.)
He was also in Undisputed, a film that I’ve been wanting to see since it came out in 2002. (Also not a joke). Not sure who he played, but I’m sure it was a relatively small role. He voiced a shark in Shark Tale. And then he made three “old man” movies, only one of which I’ve seen, though I’m very interested in seeing the other two.
The first is Checking Out, a film about an old actor who brings his family together for a party, telling them he plans on committing suicide afterwards. It was an interesting little film. Not great, but interesting. Falk was great in it. He also made The Thing About My Folks, written by and starring Paul Reiser, which — actually I did watch 20 minutes of this one, and didn’t really care for it. But it’s a movie about a road trip between Reiser and Falk. Father/son thing. He also did — and this is the one I’m most excited about — Three Days to Vegas, with him, Rip Torn and George Segal, as three old men who escape the retirement home to go to Vegas to stop one of their daughters from marrying a douchebag. This film also includes appearances by Bill Cobbs, Taylor Nergron (a man I will always remember for playing the idiot assistant guy in Angels in the Outfield. The one they keep playing pranks on all movie), Mario Cantone, Coolio, Charlie Murphy, and Reginald VelJohnson (Sgt. Al Powell and Carl Winslow himself). Tell me — how can this not be a good movie?
Falk also appeared in Next, with Nicolas Cage. This is surprisingly one of the few Cage movies I have not seen, and I’m not sure why. Probably because Netflix is making me rent the DVD and not allowing me to watch it Instant. It just doesn’t seem worth it. I’m convinced I’ll see it some other way before I have to rent it.
Anyway, Peter Falk has done a shitload of stuff in his lifetime, is a real legend, a great actor, and is someone who should be appreciated for all he did, and not just the few things people know him for.
If anything, I hope this article gets you to go out and see Murder By Death and/or A Woman Under the Influence, because they’re fucking incredible.