Everyone remembers Peter Falk's indelible work on TV as Lt. Columbo; the 35 years he spent (off and on) playing the disheveled, dogged sleuth pretty much define his career. But fans of Falk, who died on June 23 at age 83, also remember he had a 50-year film career, one that included pioneering work with indie filmmaker John Cassavetes, such beloved roles as the storybook-reading grandfather in 'The Princess Bride,' and one of the funniest movies ever made, 1979's 'The In-Laws' (pictured above).
Falk's career started off with a bang, in the form of an Oscar nomination for playing a cold-blooded hitman in 1960's 'Murder, Inc.' The movie today is all but forgotten, but Falk's chilling performance made him a star.
Falk followed that up with another Oscar nod for playing another gangster, a wisecracking goon, in Frank Capra's 'Pocketful of Miracles.' The movie, Capra's last, hasn't aged well, though Falk is a bright spot in it. Those two poles -- streetwise guys who were either menacing or funny -- set the stage for the New York-bred actor's career for the next half-century. Yet he found enormous subtleties in the variations. His improvisational skills, put to the test in his work with Cassavetes, meant he always seemed to be especially alive and present in the moment, reacting to even the most absurd situations with his trademark cockeyed gaze (the result of having lost an eye to illness at age three) and unflappable aplomb.
Following is a list of Falk's 10 best movies, along with some clips that show his gifts, his range, and his attitude.
'Robin and the Seven Hoods' (1964) Falk played a lot of villains and gangsters in his career, though not like the one in this weird yet delightful Rat Pack musical, which transports the Robin Hood legend to 1920s Chicago. Falk is surprisingly scary in this one, though he seems to be having just as much fun as the good guys played by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Bing Crosby, and the rest of the Pack.
'Husbands' (1970) and 'A Woman Under the Influence' (1974). Falk made several semi-improvisational movies with Cassavetes that are now seen as landmarks of early independent cinema (and they even made one, Elaine May's 'Mikey and Nicky,' in which Falk and Cassavetes parodied their own films together). The best of the lot are 'Husbands' and 'A Woman Under the Influence.' In the former, Falk, Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara are middle-aged pals who go on a menopausal bender after another pal's death. The latter is largely a showcase for Gena Rowlands as a mentally unraveling woman, but Falk is similarly intense as her husband, trying desperately to hold his family together as she falls apart.
'Murder by Death' (1976) and 'The Cheap Detective' (1978). In 'Murder by Death,' Neil Simon's thoroughly absurd spoof of classic murder mysteries, a group of famous literary detectives gather for a dinner party at a gloomy mansion, where they're called upon to solve a slaying. Falk, channeling both his own Columbo and Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade leads an all-star cast and holds his own opposite such colorful scene-stealers as Peter Sellers, David Niven, Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Elsa Lanchester, and Truman Capote (yes, Truman Capote). Simon's follow-up, 'The Cheap Detective,' stars Falk as an even more obviously Bogie-esque sleuth, in a parody of both 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'Casablanca.' Again, Falk bounces marvelously off of such comic all-stars as Madeline Kahn, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, and Dom DeLuise.
'The In-Laws' (1979). One of the most hilarious movies of all time was born out of Falk and Alan Arkin's desire to work together. The result sees Falk employing his famous deadpan as a rogue CIA agent who may be thoroughly bonkers, opposite Arkin as the hapless dentist swept along by Falk's charismatic lunacy into an international adventure. (Forget the shrill, overstuffed, superfluous remake with Michael Douglas in the Falk role. The original holds up brilliantly.) It's also one of the most quotable movies, whether it's the dinner party scene where Falk spins an outrageous tall tale about giant, baby-snatching tsetse flies, or the airport tarmac scene, where he wrings maximum comic mileage out of the word, "Serpentine!"
'Wings of Desire' (1987). Wim Wenders wonderful meditation on division -- between life and death, angels and mortals, love and isolation, observation and participation, movies and reality, and East and West Berlin -- features Falk as himself, a movie actor who's attuned enough to the ethereal that he can sense the presence of the angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz), who watches over the torn city. Turns out Falk was once an angel himself, who renounced immortality to experience the sensations and emotions that define human experience. His example inspires Damiel -- who pines for a beautiful acrobat who's unaware of his existence -- to follow suit and become human, accepting death in order to experience love. It's a strange, thoughtful, gorgeous, poignant film (nothing like the Nicolas Cage remake 'City of Angels,' where another TV cop, Dennis Franz, plays the Falk role). Falk turns up again in Wenders' sequel, 'Faraway, So Close, ' made after the reunification of Berlin.
'The Princess Bride' (1987). Viewers too young to remember Columbo probably know Falk best from this much-loved storybook send-up, in which Falk reads the title fairytale to skeptical grandson Fred Savage and gradually wins him over. Falk manages to match the boy in feisty attitude while remaining the gentlest of readers, and he gets to utter the movie's apt closing line.
'Tune In Tomorrow...' (1990). Falk is again on his own flamboyant, eccentric wavelength as Pedro Carmichael, a radio soap opera screenwriter in 1950s New Orleans who enchants listeners and charms protégé Keanu Reeves, until Reeves realizes that his own taboo romance with Barbara Hershey (his aunt, though not by blood) is providing fodder for Carmichael's scripts. Based on a Mario Vargas Llosa novel, the movie is a fun meditiation on the importance of storytelling in our lives, made all the more comical by Falk's outsized performance and his outrageously arbitrary slurs against Albanians.
'Roommates' (1995). This tearjerker is shamelessly sentimental and manipulative, though no less effective for that. Falk, unrecognizable in old-age make up that takes him far beyond his 68 years, plays a curmudgeonly, old-world grandpa named Rocky who takes in his orphaned 6-year-old grandson. Rocky lives with the six-decades-younger Michael for 30 years, seeing him through adolescence, college, medical school, marriage, fatherhood, and beyond. He does so as much out of stubbornness as out of love, hanging on well into his 100s just to make sure the kid follows the right path and finds the strength to endure some horrible tragedies. It's another wily, cagey, scrappy performance from Falk, the sort that made viewers recognize him for the treasure he was while lulling them into the assumption that he would be around forever.
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