Even with all the terrific, stylish, contemporary dramas out there, sometimes you just need to pick up an old favorite (there’s a metaphor for a comfy pair of beat up jeans somewhere in there). To wit, I’ve recently revived my Columbo viewing.
Peter Falk as Columbo (1971 – 78; 1989 – 2003) is always deliberately disheveled, which he may be because he’s genuinely unconcerned with his appearance, or to disarm criminals who usually mistake his rumpled trench, stained pants, and dopey wall-eyed looks for bumbling incompetence. With few exceptions, there is at least one explicit reference per episode to Columbo’s semi-homeless appearance; he is not infrequently mistaken for a bystander, hired help, etc. by suspects and cops alike. Always good humored about it, Columbo dutifully shows them his detective Lieutenant badge — after he combs through his equally unruly wallet. I love when he needs to interrogate a nun in a soup kitchen and she mistakes him for a homeless patron (never saw that coming!) and provides him with a whole new outfit of donated clothes that are nonetheless in better condition than what Columbo had walked in with. Columbo’s working class Italian-American roots surface as pervasive but subtle class tension, as the killers are generally affluent and patrician in demeanor. There is no outward resentment when Columbo marvels at suspects’ wealth, but the socio-economic disparity is merely treated as a curiosity: in “Etude in Black,” Columbo calculates that on a LAPD Lieutenant’s salary of $11,000 he would need to work for 90 years to afford the suspect’s home and furniture.
The crisply, conservatively dressed Sgt. Joe Friday and Officer Frank Smith of Dragnet (1951 – 59) were always impeccable in appearance, perhaps closer to what detectives in the real world attempt to be. According to a fun NY Times article “Dressed for a Meeting, Ready for Mayhem,” real-life detectives generally wear custom suits with certain elements designed specifically for their job: the jackets have extra material around the waist to better conceal the bulky accessories underneath like handcuffs, pistol, radio. Though “custom suit” conjures images of flashy Italian numbers, one detective specified “I try to wear my less expensive suits if I am going out to track a bad guy.” Though it may seem more practical to wear more sporty gear, another quoted detective says the suit and tie “uniform” is essential in taking command of a situation, and allowing the wearer to go from stakeout to interrogation room to living rooms seamlessly. Side vents and roomy shoulders further ensure that the suits will not impede the movement of the wearer while holding a gun or crawling around on the ground.
Gumshoes have a bit more leeway, I think, as they’re generally trying to integrate themselves into shady scenes rather than command authority. One of my all-time favorite private dicks is Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe in the 1946 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled novel The Big Sleep (1939). Marlowe wears the now-traditional topcoat (double-breasted trench) and gumshoe fedora, and while it’s not exactly crisp, it’s presentable. His face, like Columbo’s, is weather-worn, and while he wears a decent two-piece suit (gloriously high-waisted, as was the style), he’s almost always in a state of dishabile — unbuttoned, or his jacket is off, or his tie is loosened and cuffs rolled up. Unlike Columbo who is perpetually sloppy, we are always given a reason for Marlowe’s casual state of dress: he’s in a hot greenhouse, or has just been jumped by hoods, he’s been at a stakeout in the rain, etc. If his clothes are out of place, it’s because he has an active, rough job. You get the impression that he’s crisp in the morning…
…but not for long!
Marlowe sweating in the greenhouse
James Garner as down-and-out private dick in The Rockford Files (1974 – 80). An ex-con who is constantly having to explain to disbelieving law officials that he was exonerated for his false imprisonment, seems closer to his sketchy criminal targets. A thoroughly likeable, honorable guy to the audience, he is nonetheless harassed by police, beaten up by cops and perps alike, and is almost always stiffed on his bill by his case-by-case employer. Much as I love the classic suit and jacket of previously mentioned coppers and gumshoes, I am equally drawn to Rockford’s flashy patterned sports coats and unbuttoned shirts (it was the ’70s, after all!) Like Columbo, Rockford has a distinctly casual look, but it’s business casual, not sloppy-casual.
Call me crazy, but there’s something incredibly satisfying about the lack of edge-of-the-future crime technology in Columbo, The Big Sleep, and The Rockford Files, as there is in Bones and CSI today. Criminals are caught as a result of the elbow sweat of somewhat hapless, ill-paid men who get little respect, and who can’t put their cigarettes / cigars down for a moment. Unlike the superstar detectives of many less sophisticated films and TV series, these men are fallible and sometimes sloppy, but it’s this humanness that gets them their ladies, fools their suspects into revealing themselves, and endears them to the viewers.