6 reasons why ''Negative Reaction'' is the most delightful Columbo episode

Columbo makes the case that he is comedy gold.

Columbo may be filed under "Mystery," but this crime series could serve up more laughs than most sitcoms. In particular, the 1974 episode "Negative Reaction," stands out as a work of expert humor.

Surprisingly, that is not due to the fact that Dick Van Dyke plays the killer. Sure, the comedy legend is wonderful — and sports a beard — but he plays against type. His character is, appropriately, wicked. 

No, it is Peter Falk who serves up a masterclass in subtle comic acting. Early in his career, because of his looks, Falk was the one typically cast as a killer, a tough. His breakout role was portraying a killer in Murder, Inc. (1960), remember. Later in his career, he worked more in comedy, in films like The Princess Bride, Vibe, All the Marbles and The Cheap Detective

But those roles were largely thanks to his comedic work on Columbo. Speaking of the "cheap detective," much of the humor in "Negative Reaction" is mined from the quirky character traits of Lt. Columbo. 

Here are six things that truly tickle us about this gem.

1. Columbo is mistaken for a bum.


The disheveled appearance of the detective leads to one of the most memorable scenes in the series. The lieutenant follows a lead to the St Mathew's Mission, where a kind nun, a Sister of Mercy (Joyce Van Patten), assumes Columbo is a homeless man in need. "You're hungry and tired, I can see that," she says with pity. After taking one look at his iconic rumpled raincoat, she shakes her head and says, "Oh, that coat… that coat, that coat, that coat." When Columbo explains that he is, in fact, a cop, the nun then assumes he is undercover and in disguise. Columbo shrugs and sits down for a meal in the shelter.

2. His car is mistaken for junk.


The raincoat was hardly the only well-worn possession of Columbo. He also drove a real beater, a 1959 Peugeot. When we first see the detective in this episode, he is pulling into a junk lot. "We Buy Junk Cars," a sign declares above the scrap heap. Naturally, the officer policing the scene assumes that Columbo is bringing his lemon of a car to the lot to be scrapped. He stops Columbo and says tells him the junk lot is closed. "I'm sorry, sir," the beat cop says. "Out of business." Columbo gets no respect throughout this episode!

3. Larry Storch plays a driving instructor in a hilarious scene.


Speaking of the Peugeot, the heap comes back late in the episode for a killer scene (in the comedic sense) with Larry Storch (F Troop) playing a nebbish driving instructor. The instructor is horrified to learn that the Peugeot has no seat belts. Columbo asks if that's a requirement. Yes. Yes, it is, detective. The instructor reminds Columbo to "look behind you" after he pulls out of the parking space. Columbo, of course, starts driving forward while looking backward. The scene has little to do with the overall plot, but it is delightful.

4. It had an ironic "Negative" type of product placement.


In this episode, Dick Van Dyke portrayed an acclaimed photographer. Today, that might not seem notable, but at the time, in the 1970s, Van Dyke was the spokesman for Kodak. He appeared in loads of print ads and TV commercials for the cameras and film. The Kodak brand and logo pops up throughout the episode. That might seem like helpful product placement… but the brand's spokesman was playing a murderous killer! They might have been aware of this reversal. When Columbo nabs the killer, he tells Van Dyke, "You didn't accidentally reverse the film." Behind Columbo is a Kodak logo — reversed! Maybe, just maybe, they were aware of how they were inverting Van Dyke's typical role.

5. Columbo uses dog photography to unsettle the killer.


Another piece of Columbo's lovable character is his role as a dog owner. You know, his dog named "Dog." The detective uses his Bassett hound to disarm his suspect. He concocts a cockamamie story about his dog falling in love with a Cocker Spaniel, who has died. This tragic end to the canine romance has put Dog into a funk. So Columbo asks the Pulitzer-winning photographer if he happens to have a "picture of a Cocker Spaniel" lying around, in one of those classic "Just one more thing…" moments. The bizarre request befuddles Van Dyke. Columbo's brilliant method of getting under a killer's skin works again.

6. There's a future superhero in disguise.


Look for a young JoAnna Cameron in this episode. Recognize her, Seventies kids? A year later, she would become a DC Comics hero in the series The Secret of Isis. See for yourself!

Image: The Everett Collection

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JHP 27 months ago
#6 - another true goddess - the back shot of her in that print dress walking in the cemetery,,,YUMMO
LtVanBuren 38 months ago
Peter Falk was a fabulous comedian and I am so glad to find this article acknowledging that. Don’t forget his role in The Great Race- He and Jack Lemmon are a perfect team in one of the funniest movies ever made. My sister and I both still have big crushes on Columbo and I always pictured Peter Falk as Jane Eyre’s Mr Rochester.
jaelinsmith40652 40 months ago
That is how I'm gonna keep enjoying watching columbo to me that I thought his name was like peter columbus, also the fact that I do like about peter Falk explaining that he is well likely an filthy rugged walking stranger with a rugged and welted coat and sounds like he beginning to love everybody, solving clues and mysteries, remarkable and intrieving Adventures, if I ever met Peter Falk I would like to take a picture with me and also I like ask him all about the questions about his first role of being lt. Columbo.
jaelinsmith40652 41 months ago
Cool Episode! I would like to watch that episode again on Sundance TV or on YouTube.
kt4ever jaelinsmith40652 41 months ago
All Columbo episodes are on Peacock. Free!!
lynngdance 41 months ago
Quiz time! (Yes I know I’m posting this rather late but it’s for whenever you decide to look at it)
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lynngdance lynngdance 41 months ago
Like I said, Stephanie got it right, it’s “The Little Prince” (1974)

Just in case you were wondering, Gene Wilder’s character’s name in it is “Fox”

Here is Victor Spinetti as “Historian”

(I didn’t add the fish eye effect, it’s actually in the movie)
And this is what the Netflix version poster looks like
lynngdance lynngdance 41 months ago
Whoops, put 2 of each picture, sorry bout that 😆
MrsPhilHarris lynngdance 41 months ago
Well I’m late to the party and see that Stephanie has already guessed correctly. Thanks for the quiz any ways! 😀
lynngdance MrsPhilHarris 41 months ago
Your welcome! And thank you for looking at it! 😄
Sway 41 months ago
Love the playoff between Larry Storch character and Columbo. Larry Storch was excellent. In the car, it looked as though Peter Falk was holding back from laughing.
Anonymous 41 months ago
There was never a better comedic Role for Falk, than that of Jan Lemon's (Professor Fate) sidekick Max...in the fantastic Movie, "The Great Race". With Tony Curtis & Natalie Wood.
BrewsWhitaker 41 months ago
Spoiler - There were a lot of priceless moments in this Columbo episode, right up until the huge unforgivable mistake in the script at the very end. Dick Van Dyke's character gets tricked into grabbing the camera that took the incriminating photo off the shelf, opens the back, and says, "You don't need the original print, you can just look at the negative." Why would anyone ever put developed film back into a camera? Even most non-professional photographers back then would have known that makes absolutely no sense. Seemed like the creators ran out of time to wrap this one up. (For folks to young to remember film, it was a single-use form of visual data storage. Once film was chemically processed you would print from it and put it in a protective sleeve somewhere safe.)
AUdubon5425 BrewsWhitaker 41 months ago
Every Polaroid camera up to that time had the last negative in the back of the camera until the next shot was taken and the film was pulled through the rollers to develop in the back. I'm sorry you went through all that trouble to point out a "mistake" that was simply the way millions of Polaroids worked for twenty years.
LtVanBuren AUdubon5425 38 months ago
As he stated, if the film has been developed, it will not then be placed back in the camera (unless you want double exposed film, the bane of many a disappointed vacationer!).
ericdumptee89 41 months ago
Wilfrid Hyde White, a versatile actor, he has a good part as 'Mr. Crabbin",a slightly addled 'cultural education/entertainment' director in post WW2 Vienna..in 'The Third Man', Orson Welles classic.,1948
Dan_Magoo 41 months ago
This is a great episode, sometimes under-appreciated, both for its humor and the multitude of actual clues and deductions -- and of course the "classic Columbo" trap ending, where Columbo catches the killer by exploiting of his pride and arrogance. I would especially recommend it to "new" Columbo viewers, who for some insane reason have never seen or understood the show, as a suitable intro to the character and the formula.
Mike 41 months ago
Just took a long look at that "reversed" photo in the evidence room.
The Kodak logo is NOT reversed.
It's UPSIDE-DOWN (or rather, the box is).
There is a difference, you know ...
Mac2Nite 41 months ago
I truly love the silly side of Columbo in the earlier seasons. I felt that in the later episodes, most notably in season 10, the comedic side of Columbo felt forced, contrived and over the top. I guess even he was tired of playing the role, even though the seasons averaged only 3 to 8 episodes a year.
DBcooper 41 months ago
My favourite Columbo episodes are both with George Hamilton. Firstly the one where he comes across a blind man with his guide dog just after killing a man. But when he gets caught at the end by the blind man's twin brother who is blind. And second episode again with Hamilton where he gets caught out by a discrepancy with the hedge outside his office that he didn't take into consideration when editing CCTV footage.
Lacey 41 months ago
She is a "young" JoAnna Cameron here but a YEAR later she is the mature actress we all came to know and love? Time passes fast in TV.
daDoctah Lacey 41 months ago
And before this appearance, she had also been in a couple of pretty "adult" movies, "Pretty Maids All In A Row" and "B.S. I Love You".
FrankCollins 41 months ago

Peter Falk attributed much of his knowledge of comedic acting to Frank Capra, who won three Oscars for directing, and directed such classics as It's A Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, It Happened One Night, etc. etc. etc. Capra directed Peter Falk and others in Pocketful Of Miracles. His low key comedy is a staple in all of the Columbo shows.
Granny FrankCollins 41 months ago
His "Joyboy" character in "Pocketful of Miracles" was priceless. He & Glenn Ford played off of each other beautifully. That was one of my favorite movie.
Katch 41 months ago
Peter Falk and comedy - My absolute favorite is his "mob" character in Pocketful of Miracles with Bette Davis, Glen Ford, Hope Lange and introducing Ann Margaret. He and the butler steal the show. Watch that movie a dozen times a year.....especially before Christmas. Makes you want to be a better person.
MarkSpeck 41 months ago
Dick Van Dyke took a lot of flak from his fans for playing this character. He was starting to branch out into dramatic roles and did this and the TV-movie The Morning After, a very frank look at alcoholism that hit close to home for the actor (Van Dyke had an alcohol problem for a while) and also won him an Emmy.

His audience didn't care to see him in such negative roles, and he agreed with them that he wouldn't do those types of roles...until he wound up playing the killer again, this time in the very first episode of Matlock. The letters arrived again, but Dick mollified the fans by saying that he only took the role as a favor to long-time friend Andy Griffith.
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