As reminiscences for Peter Falk pour in, the actor leaves no legacy greater than “Columbo,” the detective series that featured a typically calculated Falk throughout the 1970s and occasional made-for-TV movies thereafter. However, focusing on “Columbo” masks Falk’s much broader range. Here, indieWIRE offers a few of Falk’s most memorable performances that tapped into his phenomenal ability to appear at once impenetrably tough and uniquely fragile; in a word, human.
“Murder Inc.” (1960)
“What’s a little squabble between two friends?” Falk launched his career by landing an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in this early effort from “Cool Hand Luke” director Stuart Rosenberg. As menacing hitman Abe Reles, Falk exerted his authority over helpless singer Joey Collins (Stuart Whitman). He threatened the singer’s life if he didn’t help the killer carry out a murder, but Falk only needed the slightest movements to do it — a focused stare and his soon-to-be-familiar monotone. It was a much more frightening delivery than if he had chosen to raise his voice.
John Cassavetes’ sprawling ensemble about a trio of aging men coming to grips with mortality after their best friend’s death showcased the extraordinary improvisational skills that Falk would display throughout his movie roles, even as “Columbo” suppressed them. Eternally annoyed and deeply sad, Falk manages to hold his own alongside Cassavetes, particularly in a famously prolonged bit where they compete in a singing competition to amusing results. The collaboration between Falk and Cassavetes set the stage for several more successful outings together.
“Woman Under the Influence” (1974)
While Gena Rowlands is generally considered the star in this wrenching portrait of a family torn apart by alcoholism, Falk’s extraordinary turn as her frustrated husband gives the movie its sober centerpiece to offset Rowland’s chaotic display. Desperately attempting to remain cool-headed and put on a happy face for his innocent children, Falk’s character, Nick, takes on the lead role after committing his wife to therapy. The cinema knows few portraits of troubled fatherhood more powerful than this one.
“The In-Laws” (1979)
Falk riffed on his own tough-guy image by playing a goofy spy in this seminal tale of family bonding. Alan Arkin’s lowly dentist gets swept up in a comic misadventure when Falk — whose daughter is set to marry Arkin’s son — yanks him along for an action-packed business trip to Guatemala. The 2003 remake gave the Falk role to Michael Douglas in one of his weakest performances. Only Falk could walk the line between satire and sincerity with such ease.
“Mikey and Nicky” (1976)
One of the best showcases of American male actors at their primes, this Elaine May-directed gangster comedy never received its due. Allowing Falk and Cassavetes to improvise while the camera captured their lively deviations, “Mikey and Nicky” follows two old friends on the run from a killer and in denial of their larger problems. The plot is less relevant than the sizzling exchanges between the two bumbling anti-heroes, one of which takes place during a late-night visit to the grave of the Cassavetes character’s mom. “You’re gonna die some day,” Cassavetes tells his finicky pal. Falk is both hilarious and profound in his direct reply: “I’m not gonna stand here at 1 o’clock in the morning and discuss what’s going to happen to me when I die. I mean, that meshugas I leave to the Catholics.”