Ever since Peter Falk died last Thursday at 83, I’ve been struggling to find the appropriate words to commemorate what his work has meant to me. Considering the fact that I’ve only seen a fraction of the things he’s been in, I was startled at the visceral nature of my reaction. I don’t get emotional when every star or filmmaker I like passes away. As much as I enjoy their work, I accept on some fundamental level that I never knew the “real” them, and that whatever connection I have has been forged through the media that will survive them. Once in a while, though, I get a genuine pain in the chest when I hear that kind of news. A tightness, a realization that however much they enriched the world while they were alive, that enrichment has reached a limit. Their life’s work is now, for better or worse, a legacy.
Jack Lemmon died a few years ago, and among all his celebrated roles, one of my very favorites is his performance(s) in Blake Edwards’s The Great Race. (It’s in my top 100.) Professor Fate has an inept assistant named Max. One of the film’s running gags is that Fate has built a cannon into his car, along with several other completely impractical contraptions. Naturally, Fate himself never activates any of his devices: that’s what Max is for. He orders Max to deploy the cannon. He shouts, “PUSH THE BUTTON, MAX!” with a maniacal howl. Max pushes the button. And then Fate’s mansion is destroyed. A few times. Or the Eiffel Tower. We hear Fate’s tragicomic wail as the debris and smoke waft mockingly through the air: “MAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAX!”
The way Peter Falk plays Max is as a loyal puppy who is always about a stride and a half ahead of his thought process. He leans forward as he walks, peering around corners with his whole torso, blinking with each turn of the mental gear. To this day, I sometimes round corners like that. I can’t help it. The Great Race is not remembered as one of the great American comedies, but for the life of me, I can’t think of too many movies where such a wonderful cast had such chemistry, and for which the epic length and the outrageousness of its Looney Tunes sight gags worked in its favor. Besides Lemmon, the film stars Tony Curtis, Keenan Wynn, Natalie Wood, Arthur O’Connell, and Vivian Vance. They’re all gone, too, of course. Now that I think about it, Falk was the last one left. Oh, they were all so wonderful, but Falk in particular played brilliantly off Lemmon. “Professa! Hey, Professa!” Falk played clueless without peer, and he could work that cluelessness either to comic insanity or psychopathic horror. It’s what made him such a great character actor.
A couple of months ago, my wife and I watched A Woman Under the Influence for the first time. It’s precisely the kind of movie that couples should watch together, because watching it can only serve to make them feel that their relationship is hale and healthy. Peter Falk plays a blue collar worker, a husband, a father. His coworkers love him. His mother dotes on him. His wife is eager to please him. There’s a scene a little more than halfway through the film where he sits in the back of a flatbed truck with his kids, letting them drink a little of his beer. It’s a tender scene, a quiet one. It’s all the more affecting because Falk, in this film, is one of the most terrifying men I’ve ever seen in my life. Tension creeps into his every scene, slipping through the frame like poison through a pore. He’s a man without a clue, prone to fits of rage because he is simply not equipped to handle the more complicated things in this world — like relationships, primarily. He’s dumb. A man of average education and intelligence, but without a grain of genuine human empathy. A person who literally does not understand the ramifications of the world around him.
Obviously, though, only someone of canny and shrewd intellect can play a clueless person so well. That entire gambit formed the core of Falk’s most famous role, Lt. Columbo, a TV role that spanned decades. Steven Spielberg (yes, that Steven Spielberg) gave Columbo the most appropriate introductory scene in “Murder by the Book,” the episode he directed, in which Columbo emerges unexpectedly and unassumedly from a throng of detectives examining a crime scene. That’s Columbo all over: sneaking up on you even when you’re expecting him. One of the games my wife and I love to play as we watch those old episodes is trying to pinpoint the moment the murder figures out that Columbo isn’t just an annoying, rumpled idiot — the moment they know that he knows. It usually takes them a while; some more than others. The one thing they all have in common is that they remain so confident, right up until the final moment, that they’re going to get away with it. Then Columbo shambles in, a brown paper bag in his hands, with that one crucial piece of evidence that they over looked and pinions them to the wall. It’s glorious. And even when they know he’s after them, they never see it coming.
The same unassuming shrewdness shines through in Falk’s role as the grandfather in The Princess Bride, a master of passive-aggressive manipulation — pushing just enough to making sure he has Fred Savage’s attention, then feigning a pullback to snare his young listener (and the viewer) even further. All he does is sit there, read a book, and steal whatever pieces of the film Wallace Shawn has left him.
Even as “Peter Falk” he was an enigma. In Wings of Desire and Faraway, So Close! he plays a Jewish-American character actor, known for his role as “Columbo,” who likes to sketch in his spare time and help circus folk take down arms dealers. (Why not, right?) Oh — he’s also a fallen angel. Not a rebel. Just one of the heavenly host who decided to see what it was like to be human for a while; a conduit for other spiritual observers who are thinking about taking the plunge. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the role of an earth angel more perfectly cast. Falk always had the aura of a person who was let in on a cosmic mystery he was put on this planet to help us solve, sometimes by mirroring our own stupidity, sometimes by evincing a stark, surprising genius. I suppose that’s why a part of me believed he’d be around forever; that he was a person too wily to be bound by the rule of mortal flesh. I knew he’d leave us eventually, of course. But for some reason, it just seemed less likely than with most other people. Now that he’s gone, I will sincerely miss him. I don’t have to grieve. I figure he just went home. And whatever mystery he spent his entire life solving, I’m fairly confident that the answer he’s found is the one he suspected all along. ☕