Cannes Film Festival ’62 – Chasing Mrs Columbo Driving in Peugeot 403 Cabriolet

By Reinfried Marass, Photographer.


Foto: Reinfried Marass

Foto: Reinfried Marass

From the archives: French Rivera 1962 – Paparazzo Reinfried Marass chasing Mrs. Columbo driving her hubby’s famous Peugeot 403 Cabriolet on ‘Boulevard de la Croisette’ while she was joining the Cannes Film Festival. It was the very first and only time Mrs. Columbo could be captured on film.

Back then I was working as a freelance photographer. Well, at the end, mostly always for myself. I pictured, framed and lensed all and everything that was careless enough to come up in front of my sniper lens. I headed to the world’s most glamorous film festival. Only Cannes is Cannes and of all the world’s great film festivals, only Cannes materializes each spring on the absurdly beautiful French Riviera; only Cannes manages to convey a sense of playful decadence lit by the Mediterranean sun, offsetting Hollywood’s gritty urban landscape.

Camera flashes everywhere. Photographers flushed out starlets, starlets stalked photographers. Of the celebrated tradition of unknown and little-known actresses and models posing for hordes of photographers the hunt for attention becomes so fierce at Cannes that you can’t tell the hunters from the hunted. This description by the LIFE magazine sounded promising and I was on my way, ready to be stalked by starlets & company. I loved the idea and this imagination.

Unfortunately Mrs. Leica was back home at Wetzlar for some polishing (she’s a vain lady) and she didn’t arrive in time of my departure to Cannes. There is no relying on girls! I had to fall back on my trustworthy, but meanwhile very outdated big bold large format Graflex 4×5. Not the best choice for speedy sniper shots. But, as it is written on my studio door: any weather and light condition, any camera, any film, any models, male or female, young or old, any genre. Probably the time was right to prove my big talking statement.

I had no time to pick up film rolls before leaving to Cannes. Big mistake. Try to spot some films during the time of the film festival, when Cannes is flooded with all sorts of picture takers. Where have all the film rolls gone? Photographers have picked them all. At least I managed to catch an half empty Polaroid 55 film pack from another photographer. Just five sheets left in the box! God wasn’t with me. I had to discipline my shooting style. A hard task for me. Discipline usually is not a term outlined in my dictionary.

While most others were luxury lodging in Cannes’ most famous hotel resorts poor me had to sleep in the backseat of my car, a proudly made in France Facel Vega HK500, parked besides the beach’s love lanes. Beaches for bitches. Cannes! Actually it wasn’t my car at all. It was left to me by a friend who got it from another friend who’s friend had stolen it from a Jules Dassin movie set. That’s why in Dassin’s ‘Phaedra’ actor Anthony Perkins alternatively had to drive an Aston Martin DB4 off the cliff into the ocean to make Melina Mercoury cry a river. Just to let you know how I had influenced movie history.

Foto: Reinfried Marass

Foto: Reinfried Marass


Avidly focused on her two outstanding talents photographers pursued Jane Mansfield like jackals. But in 1962 new law and order was coming to town. The troops from Saint Tropez were hired and this year the town posted gendarmes to prevent actresses, models, starlets, celebs as well as any other females from taking off their bikinis. How boring! That weird and fancy rule was taking out all the fun of Cannes’ games.

Swiss made Ursula introduced herself as Honey Rider. Honey Bee – be my honey. A blond hottie; but she was fairly unknown to me and I didn’t waste any of my few Polaroids on her. How should I know that later in the same year the female bombshell, in her bikini, was swept ashore as Bond’s (James Bond!) first pet girl?

And God created Brigitte Bardot, but she only was cruising up and down the beaches showcasing her new mahogany Riva speed boat. The girl was burning fuel for nothing. If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to. The Schneider Xenar optics resting on the Graflex’ front couldn’t zoom her in and I wasn’t able to lens and full frame her.

Italy’s Sophia mostly accompanied Austria’s Romy who was still engaged with France’s Alain. All three together were private partying and playing pool (games) at Carlton’s ‘La Piscine’. For reasons I don’t like to mention, access to most hotels in Cannes, especially to the Carlton, was denied for me. My mug shot hung at all of the receptions labeled ‘Persona Non Grata’. Those bastards. Like anyone else there I just tried to do my job.

Grace already was lassoed and tamed by the last pirate of the Mediterranean Sea who shipped her home to Monte. Out of her he made ‘Grace On The Rocks.’ No more mentionable scandals produced by the now-princess. My lens was bored. Me too. As the tides went by I got really in trouble. I needed to make some money. Some fame would be welcomed too. I liked to see my yet not done shot on the cover of Paris Match.

I was after a prize, after THE face in the celebrated crowd. I was after THAT orchestral shots. Sitting on the dock of the bay I was praying to all Gods I was aware of to send me a celeb gift. Best with a scandal. ANY scandal might have done it. In my prayers I included the Greek Gods, The Roman Gods and even some exotic Pagan Gods. Just to make sure. And if the Gods like to prove you, they listen to your prayers. While I was leaning on a lamppost at the corner of the street Carlton’s young hotel boy reached me with a hand written note by the hotel’s concierge, on whom, at my arrival in Cannes, I spent a fistful of dollars. In fact it were French Francs. Old Francs, of course. Now there seemed to be a pay off.

Foto: Reinfried Marass

Foto: Reinfried Marass


He had heard it through the grapevine, probably forwarded by the befriended concierges of the Martinez and Majestic Barriere hotel, all the concierges down there are a real rat pack, that Mrs. Columbo should be in town. For a few dollars more, my very last money, but again I was playing the ‘old’ Francs game, he coughed out that SHE lodged at the Martinez and just a few minutes later I spotted her hubby’s all-famous Peugeot (Edit.: More about the car below) locked in the hotel’s park-like backyard, out of view for the public crowd. There I hid myself like a black alley cat. The car was all I had to start, none knew how she was like. A few hours and two packs of French Gitanes later, it was already late in the afternoon, she came down by elevator, she looked scared, jumped in the driver seat and the car chase started. Down the ‘Boulevard de la Croisette’ street it went.

Being the wife of the all-famous Lieutenant she didn’t care very much about traffic rules, forcing me to do the same. For her traffic lights seemed to be there only to lit the streets in the nights. She pushed the poor lil’ Peugeot to the limits. My powerful Facel Vega (again, it was not really mine – see above) hardly could team up. Thanks God, The French had equipped it with an automatic transmission, so I could guide the car by my knees (kids, don’t try this at home) while sticking the bold Graflex out of the Facel’s driver window, trying to frame her via the sports finder, always reminding myself on the fact that there were only five bullets in the Polaroid magazine to shoot her.

Unfamiliar with the local streets, just as me, she did run up some closed gates. When finally she tried to escape by foot one of her French heels broke off. Still exhausted by the car chase, the Facel less two wheel caps but with some new dents, oh man, I can tell you she really knows how to drive fast, I asked her: “You are Mrs. Columbo?” She looked up at me, surprisingly in a friendly manner, and replied: “Y’know, in all the years we had this car, this is the first time I took the top down. But, oh my little boy, don’t get fooled, Mrs. Columbo has never been seen, and probably never existed.” She was pointing to her headscarf, “I am, hm, can’t you see, I am just Madame De Papillon.” Once more I lifted the Graflex to frame her, btw, very attractive face. But, as one could already guess – no more film sheets left. She noted my mess and a cheeky little smile surrounded her red lips when she walked away (with the shoes in her hands).

Foto: Reinfried Marass

Foto: Reinfried Marass


Neither Paris Match nor LIFE or any of the lesser known gossip magazines did like my shots. The editors just laughed on the phone and told me (again): “Oh my little boy, don’t get fooled, Mrs. Columbo has never been seen, and probably never existed.” Well, I knew better. I archived and stocked the five sheets down in my dark & dusty dungeon. Before the Polaroids are eaten up by fungus – here they are again. I’m photographer – You can trust me. It really is HER.

Where Is Your Wife, Lieutenant?

The magic of Mrs. Columbo is that although she is never seen or heard, she makes her presence felt throughout the ‘Columbo’ series. Without ever showing her face, she remains a major character in the show, capturing our imagination and affection. All we know about her is what we can gather from her husband’s remarks over the years. The picture that thus evolves is a vivacious woman of endless energy and wide-ranging interests, who keeps her husband going and is never far from his mind.

Everything we are told about Mrs. Columbo must be viewed against this background. The real truth about Mrs. Columbo is something each viewer must judge personally. Mrs. Columbo has proved so elusive over the years, never showing up even when her appearance has been foretold. Once asked in an interview what Mrs. Columbo was like actor Peter Falk answered, “Well, I knew right from the get-go that we would never see her, so I didn’t waste a lot of time thinking about what she was like”.

Lovely thing, isn’t it? … Needs a wash now…

Columbo’s car is a major “character” in the series, a supporting player almost as familiar and beloved as the Lieutenant himself. Columbo’s car, somewhat like his dog, is both a co-star and a sort of alter ego: battered and unbeautiful, eccentric and woeful looking, but still a classic. Like its human owner, the little Peugeot is a veteran — it goes the distance and shows no signs of being ready to retire. Man and machine, both a little wrinkled, a little wheezy and out-of-shape, but still on the job and getting it done. Appearances can be misleading, and no one should underestimate this plucky pair, the cop or his car — they seem a little quirky, but they will persist and prevail.

Columbo’s car is a Peugeot model 403 Grande Luxe Cabriolet, manufactured in Sochaux, France, by “SA Des Automobiles Peugeot”. Different sources identify it as a 1959 or a 1960. Probably there is one of each, including the original and the stand-in cars. Nicknamed ‘The Indestructible’, the Peugeot 403, pronounced “POOH-jo”, was introduced in 1955 and was an immediate best seller. Most of the 403s were 4-door sedans. The 2-door convertible was far more rare and as once stated by Columbo in an episode, “There are only three like it in the country”, this might not be far from the truth: Only 504 were produced in France. And Peter Falk’s production company owned two of them.

Foto: Reinfried Marass

Foto: Reinfried Marass


But the lovely Peugeot wasn’t a co-star from the beginning of the show. One day the producers decided that Columbo should have a dilapidated car to fit his personality. Peter Falk resisted this idea. Columbo already had the wife, the cigar and the raincoat. That was enough. No more gimmicks were needed. Peter Falk looked at all cars on the Universal backlot, there was every make and model imaginable, and he did not like any of them. It was the day before they were to start shooting the next episode, “I just saw the nose of a car sticking out”, it didn’t even run, it did not have an engine but Peter Falk said “This is the one”.

After Columbo ended its NBC run, Peter Falk remained convinced that the car was safely stored on the Universal backlot where he first recognized the automobile that must belong to Lieutenant Columbo. When ABC announced plans to revive Columbo in 1988, it was discovered that Universal had sold the car. Fortunately it was found again in Ohio.


More about Reinfried Marass, his photos and stories:

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Editors Note:

Historical facts and gossips were carefully researched before this story was written. Only Mrs de Papillon alias Mrs Columbo remains – maybe a myths. 😉




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