The Peugeot 403 – Columbo’s Car
By Alex Ricciuti
I’ve been wanting to write this column for years but haven’t because of the inevitable consequence of being considered odd…or eccentric…or just plain crazy. But I’m going to write this anyway, all you avatars of hipness be damned.
Let it be stated it for the record: I love Columbo.
Before the audaciously boring litany of CSI’s; Las Vegas, Miami, NY, Poughkeepsie, before the current slate of idiot-savant detectives such as Monk or that guy who wiggles wildly on Law & Order: Criminal Intent (is there another kind of intent when committing crimes?), before Law & Order: Parking Lot Surveillance, there was a scruffy, Italian-American police lieutenant in a beat-up old French car named Columbo.
Columbo is a short, gruff (I already used the word scruffy), cigar-smoking, tattered trench coat wearing LAPD Homicide detective. He is the eternal underdog; seemingly dumb, unpolished and forgetful. In one episode he actually gets mistaken for a hobo when locating a witness at a homeless shelter and he’s often taken for a weirdo onlooker meandering around a crime scene. But Columbo possesses a Sisyphusian doggedness and a well-disguised meticulousness and he comes to bag his prey by sheer attrition. There’s always ‘one more thing’ to ask about.
Columbo was played by Peter Falk, who was not Italian at all, instead a mix of Eastern European. But as Columbo he aptly embodied the Italian saying that goes: “I’m not a fool. But I play the fool. Because in playing the fool, I make you the fool.”
And Columbo drove a Peugeot – a 1959/1960 Peugeot 403. And if I were in charge of marketing at the French car maker I’d definitely find a way to have an ad spot where Peter Falk finally gets a new 207 or 307 CC. My hunch has always been that Columbo drives a Peugeot in homage to the character of detective Alfred Fichet, the commissioner in Les Diaboliques, a French murder-thriller from 1955 directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Fichet goes about unraveling the ingenious plot in that film in much the same unassuming/underhanded way as Columbo does, and I am one of those who believes the character of Columbo was inspired by that film. Although, the creators of the series have said Columbo is based on the Crime and Punishment character Porfiry Petrovich and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.
And there is quite a serendipitous tale to be told here. The novel upon which Les Diaboliques was based was picked up by Clouzot about 30 minutes before Alfred Hitchcock telephoned with his interest in buying the rights to the book. The novelists, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, were so determined to write something else for Hitchcock that they subsequently wrote the novel D’entre les Morts, which Hitch made into Vertigo. Vertigo became a classic and a film many consider (this writer included) to be one of the best films ever made. Vertigo has gone on to have resonance in countless other films and TV series, including the work of other great directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. In fact, a reference to Vertigo also appears in the very first Columbo film, Prescription: Murder, which was broadcast in early 1968. In that first Columbo series creators Richard Levinson and William Link featured a similar plot device with the killer enlisting his mistress pose as his wife in order to help him murder the latter. (Monk, a series about San Francisco sleuth Adrian Monk mourning his lost love just like Scottie does in Vertigo, also featured an episode, in obvious homage to that first Columbo, where a man boards a plane with his mistress posing as his wife whom he has just murdered. Believe me, six degrees of Vertigo never ends.)
The genius of the series was in the combination of its elements, what Hollywood would refer rotely to as the formula. It was the strength and uniqueness of the lead character up against a flamboyant or likeable killer and done in an inversion of the detective genre. Instead of being a whodunit, it was a ‘howcatchem’. The series would begin with extensive scenes showing the killer plotting, committing and covering up the crime. Columbo usually only appeared some 15 minutes or more into the film and the mystery became entirely about how Columbo would figure it out and how he would be able to prove it. The dynamic that held the viewer’s attention was always the game of cat and mouse played between the killer and Columbo. Each episode featured guest appearances by well-know actors as the villain, villains which were either sympathetic or fiendishly charming, and there were no supporting or recurring roles except that of Columbo. The Lieutenant always worked alone.
The first Columbo TV movie aired in February 1968 and featured Gene Barry as the ice-suave, murderous psychiatrist, Dr. Ray Fleming. But the show did not get picked up again until 1971 when it became a regular staple of NBC’s Mystery Movie series. There was another pilot film in April of 1971, featuring Lee Grant as the killer, which was so popular that the series began its regular run in September of that year. That so-called first episode, Murder by the Book, featured Jack Cassidy as the murderous ‘special guest star’ (remember that phrase?!) and was directed by a young Steven Spielberg. You can spot the influence of Psycho both in the score and in Spielberg’s camera work but the highlight has to be Cassidy. Jack Cassidy, father of 70s TV heartthrobs David and Shaun Cassidy, is simply delectable malice. Cassidy would go on to play a Columbo killer twice more before his untimely death in 1976 (falling asleep with a lit cigarette). Tragic and sad but the actor could do more with a cigarette in his hand on the small screen in 1971 than most 20-million dollar payday movie stars with 50 million in special effects behind them can do on the big screen today.
For me, there are two Columbo’s that I will always watch (along with the Cassidy ones) no matter how often they come on here in Switzerland (the French and Italian language Swiss channels seem to adore him) and both are from the 3rd season which aired in 1973-74. One is what I consider to be the best Columbo and the other is my utter sentimental favorite.
The former is entitled A Friend in Deed with Richard Kiley as our ingenious murderer. Kiley happens to be the Deputy Commissioner of the LAPD who takes the opportunity to pull a little Strangers on a Train bit with his neighbor to rid himself of his wife (‘Husband kills wife’ is a common Columbo plot but, in all fairness, the most common type of murder. A fact Hitchcock himself always loved to point out.) Kiley is one of those actors who could recite the phone book and still hold a spell on me. He had a commanding presence few actors are ever able to attain. You can tell he’s from a generation that had proper training and that worked as much theatrically as in the movies or TV. He was a song and dance man too and won two Tony Awards for Best Actor in a musical. Watching this episode recently, he reminded me so much of Frank Langella that you can consider Langella the contemporary version of Kiley. Langella is another great actor you’ve probably never heard of who can steal a whole movie with two brief scenes (see Good Night and Good Luck). You can also see him excell in the recent Starting Out in the Evening.
It’s pure delight watching Kiley go up against Columbo, a man he, at first, looks upon as a threat-less, disheveled underling but who gradually starts getting under his skin with his inquiry until Kiley realizes how much he’s underestimated the man in a shocking final moment. The duel taking place on screen seems to be as much between the actors themselves as the characters they are playing which only makes it doubly entertaining to watch; like the celestial confrontation in the coffee shop scene in Heat with Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. The way Columbo tricks Kiley into incriminating himself is a classic of detective story endings. Kiley plants stolen jewels in a thief’s run-down, skid-row apartment to frame him as the killer and then gets a warrant to search the place where a team of police find them. Then Kiley stares down Columbo with a glacial look and informs him,”You just lost your badge, my friend,” whereupon Columbo retorts, “This isn’t his [the thief’s] apartment. This is my apartment. I just signed the lease this morning. These are my clothes. That’s a picture of my brother-in-law.” Columbo had changed the address in the thief’s file on a copy only the Deputy Commissioner had seen. It was a set-up dressed with a bow-tie.
But my ever favorite Columbo episode has to be the one with Johnny Cash, also from 1974. Cash is a surprisingly good actor and we even get to hear him sing a few tunes too. We see him perform what is, to me, the absolute saddest song in the universe – Sunday Morning Coming Down. It’s one of those songs that gave country music it’s reputation for morbid sentiment. When Cash sings about his downtrodden, lonely, hungover self walking past a playground on his way to church wearing his ‘cleanest, dirty shirt’, it’s corny and moving at the same time. The song also includes the line, “And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad so I had one more for desert,” which brings to mind a similar line from the Doors’ Roadhouse Blues (“I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer”) and I could never work out who poached it from whom. It was actually Chris Kristofferson who wrote Sunday Morning for Cash and both it and Roadhouse Blues came out in 1970. (Care for six degrees of beer-in-the-morning references?)
Anyway, Cash plays an ex-con and gospel singer more interesting in touching souls (the young, female kind) than saving them and he tosses himself out of his own airplane leaving his wife and his latest teenage love disciple to crash and die. Columbo really plays up the doofus detective angle in this one and Cash falls for it readily – his Southern pedigree never knowing what to make of this shabby, ethnic man from the big city. It’s worth watching just to hear Cash, with his Arkansas drawl, pronounce ‘Colum-beau’. Fun stuff.
Have I digressed? Yes, about that car.
The Peugeot 403 that Columbo drives is a 1959/1960 Grande Luxe Cabriolet (convertible). The car is quite a rarity and Peugeot only build about 500 of the two-door convertible version. In one episode Columbo actually states that there are only 3 in US and he was right, as there were only 2 in the country at the time. When the show was revived in 1989 for a second run producers actually had to borrow the original car which had been bought by collectors since there were no others around.
The 403 cabriolet was designed by Italian coach builder Pininfarina and had a 1.5 liter engine with 58 horsepower. The car featured such options as dual tone horns, an electric clock, padded dashboards and windshield washers (hey, those can be handy). But it did not come with a radio. Peugeot said at the time, “We don’t make radios.” And you could just imagine how that, with a French accent, sounds to an American.
There’s a web site dedicated to Columbo which even features a whole page on the 403. If you want to know more about the car you can follow that link and let me go to sleep! I really just wanted to write about Columbo.
And one more thing…I’m not nuts.
Alex Ricciuti is a freelance writer and automotive journalist based in Zurich, Switzerland. He writes frequently for Automotive News Europe. He also blogs on all things automotive at eurocarguy.blogspot.com.
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