An Appreciation of Peter Falk

Peter Falk, beloved actor and integral participant in the birth of American Independent film has died today. He was 83.

To the general public, Peter Falk was the face of Columbo, the delightful detective whose seeming annoyance concealed a razor sharp investigative mind. This isn’t a horrible tragedy, as Falk was excellent in the role, and several episodes of Columbo still stand out as exceptional pieces of television. As in the rest of his endeavors, Columbo was at its best when John Cassavetes was involved. This clip from the episode “Etude in Black” shows Falk near the height of his powers, and even in such ostensible garbage as Machine Gun McCain, watching the two play off each other as either two actors or actor and director is a thrilling and unpredictable roller coaster of acting feints, asides, and misdirections.

Both Falk and Cassavetes have multiple levels to their performance in this scene-each is talking to avoid showing what they think, staring out or down to indicate they are thinking. They act and react without reaching some sort of perfect synchronicity-they move at the speed of life, no slower, no faster.

And this scene isn’t even close to the heights the two achieved. Falk and Cassavetes costarred in one of the best acting exercises ever committed to film: Mikey and Nicky. The 1976 Elaine May film is a testament to what can happen when a director allows two actors who truly understand their craft to contribute as much to the development of a character as they can. This scene is a marvel of tonal shifts-again the shaking free and dodging and feinting of conventions allows the scene to come alive. Each character comes to represent many different slightly altered stances to god, death, and friendship. How does one properly mourn the dead? Though hired to lead Cassavetes to his death, the dynamics of their prior relationship don’t change that much, they’re simply given another direction and sped up slightly.

Despite the dementia that clouded his later years, these clips give good evidence that in life Falk was blessed with many privileged visions, dug deep and garnered the fruits of his profession. He’ll be missed.

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