Following on from the underwhelming future shock of Mind Over Mayhem, Columbo returned to safer territory on 4 March 1974 in the musical form of Swan Song.
Casting legendary country singer Johnny Cash in the role of legendary country singer Tommy Brown was a revelation. But does the episode live up to its star billing? Let’s tune up our guitars, get our tabernacle donations ready and put a pot of squirrel chili on to cook as we find out…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Tommy Brown: Johnny Cash
Edna Brown: Ida Lupino
Maryann Cobb: Bonnie Van Dyke
Luke Basket: Bill McKinney
Roland Pangborn: John Dehner
Mr Grindell: Vito Scotti
JJ Stringer: Sorrell Booke
Tina: Janit Baldwin
The Colonel: John Randolph
Directed by: Nicholas Colasanto
Written by: David Rayfiel (from a story by Stanley Ralph Ross)
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Episode synopsis: Columbo Swan Song
Biblical crooners Tommy Brown & The Lost Soul Crusaders are playing to a packed house in Bakersfield, California – just another leg on a mammoth touring circuit designed to raise funds in order to build a $5 million tabernacle to prove how much they love the Lord.
This is not a shared goal, though. Lead singer Tommy (Johnny Cash) wants to have some fun with the money he’s earning. It’s his harpy-ish wife, Edna (Ida Lupino) that has her heart set on the tabernacle – and she’s blackmailing Tommy to ensure she gets her way.
Former jailbird Tommy, you see, has been a very naughty boy. He’d been romping with one of his back-up singers, Maryann, since she was 16. Even though she was a willing participant, that’s still statutory rape and if Tommy won’t give his all to the tabernacle cause, Edna will blow the whistle and our mate Tommy will be back behind bars before you can say: ‘You’re a sanctimonious hypocrite of a Bible-spouting blackmailer and I’ve given you your last chance to be fair!’
Tommy cooks up a high-risk plan to rid himself of both Edna and Maryann and puts it into action immediately after the Bakersfield show. Knowingly piloting a light aircraft into heavy weather over the mountains to LA, Tommy drugs the pair with spiked coffee, then bails out of the plane using a home-made parachute that was hidden in his navigation kit box.
As the plane crashes to fiery oblivion, Tommy lands nearby, breaking his ankle while landing before hiding the tell-tale parachute in a hollow log. He then drags himself painfully to the crash site and lies face down near the wreckage to be discovered by the first passers-by on the scene, looking for all the world as if he’s enjoyed a truly miraculous escape.
“Former jailbird Tommy has been romping with one of his back-up singers, Maryann, since she was 16.”
While Tommy is recovering in hospital, one Lieutenant Columbo has driven out to the mountains to investigate the scene of the accident because the LAPD have received word from Edna’s brother, Luke, that Tommy has deliberately staged the crash to free himself from whatever hold she had over him.
Disrupting a TV interview, Columbo bends the ear of specialist aircraft accident investigator Roland Pangborn, who is able to explain to both the Lieutenant and us some of the supposed particulars of the incident.
According to Tommy’s statement, the plane’s electrics shorted out. Exacerbated by the poor weather conditions, Tommy made a simple error of judgement that resulted in the accident. Pangborn admits Tommy was very lucky to be alive, but that such survival stories are not unheard of. He also explains that Tommy’s blood test came up negative for drugs or booze.
Columbo continues to snoop around the site, shrewdly noticing things that his more experienced counterparts have missed. The rear passenger seat belt buckles were still done up, but Tommy’s wasn’t. That must be how he was thrown clear of the plane. Upon finding the navigation kit, he wonders why there are no ashes from the maps and charts that should have been within it. The little things are already starting to bother him.
The detective’s next stop is at the funeral home, where he waits for an interview for the anguished Luke, who is spoiling for a fight with Tommy. Luke convinces Columbo to go and question the singer there and then ‘to see what kind of person he is’. Because despite his wife barely being under the ground, Tommy is cavorting with scantily clad stunners at a pool party at his newly rented luxury pad!
Despite the Lieutenant’s best efforts to rein him in, a furious Luke is soon getting punchy with Tommy, delivering some southern-style chin music to the bewildered musician, while publicly accusing him of murder. Tommy’s mood is not improved when Columbo waddles over and introduces himself as being from the Homicide Department. Indeed he looks about ready to commit murder again, but the wily Columbo manages to defuse the situation by stoking Tommy’s ego.
Now in control of his emotions, Tommy does what he can to assist with the Lieutenant’s enquiries. He admits that he and Edna regularly quarrelled over money, and that he’s been hankering for a higher standard of living, hence renting out the luxury pad.
Tommy also explains away some of the particulars of the plane crash. He unbuckled his seatbelt to reach a flashlight from the glove box after the plane’s electrics failed. That’s when he lost control of the plane. The maps and charts from the nav kit were sucked out of the plane window, which Tommy was forced to open to prevent the windscreen misting up after the heater packed in.
It’s all sounding measured and plausible, but Tommy drops the ball when he starts cooing over his guitar and claiming how much he loved it. He reveals that he sent the guitar to LA on the bus with Luke in case the changes in air pressure in the plane caused the glue holding it together to come unstuck. It was the very first time he’d sent the guitar off with Luke rather than take it with him personally. And there’s nothing that pricks up Columbo’s ears quite like suspects doing something they don’t normally do.
In fact Columbo’s suspicious enough to catch a flight to Bakersfield himself, where (once he’s recovered from a bout of airsickness) he grills airstrip maintenance man Jeff about Tommy’s ill-fated flight. Jeff had helped stow the luggage on the plane, you see, earning a $5 tip for his troubles. And while he never handled the nav kit, so can’t vouch for whether it was heavier than a standard nav kit, he does provide a nugget of new information: Tommy had a thermos of coffee with him. This may not sound like much, but it opens up a whole new line of enquiry for the Lieutenant.
Dashing back to LA, Columbo crashes the invite-only SLEAZE PARTY that Tommy was hoping to have with teen backing singer Tina in order to question him about the thermos. Having to pick his mind up from the gutter, Tommy is struggling to comprehend why the location of a thermos can matter, but over the course of a brief conversation Columbo cleverly learns that Tommy learnt to fly in the air force, washed out of cadets, and did a stint in the Korean War.
This leads the Lieutenant to Tommy’s buffoonish former military commander, Colonel Mayehoff. The air force veteran is as loopy as a stunt pilot, but he is able to provide some vital intel: after washing out as a cadet, Tommy served as a parachute rigger. Connecting this with the empty nav kit and the missing thermos, Columbo is starting to build a genuine case – so much so that he orders an autopsy on Edna and Maryann.
The autopsy reveals evidence of that classic 70s’ drugs staple barbiturates in the dead women’s systems and Columbo uses this to infer that someone might have been trying to drug Tommy and cause him to crash the plane. Tommy laughs this off, but now the Lieutenant has the scent he’s not letting go and is finding more and more reasons why Tommy is his prime suspect.
The final clincher comes when he interviews a dotty old seamstress from the Lost Soul Crusade’s costume department. She’s certain that she ordered three extra bolts of white nylon – 45 square yards of fabric – but they have strangely gone missing from her secret stash. A visit to Pangborn only hardens Columbo’s suspicions further when he is shown that a properly folded parachute will easily squeeze into a nav kit.
And even if the amount of fabric missing is less than is required to make an optimum-sized chute (60 square yards), Columbo is told that an experienced jumper should still be able to survive a faster landing OK – although they might suffer a broken leg or pelvis as a result. But even if this is the case with Tommy, who could ever hope to find a hidden parachute on a mountain, Pangborn asks. Just one person, Columbo responds: the man who hid it.
Columbo now needs to force Tommy’s hand, so puts him under 24-hour police guard until a pack of boy scouts finds the missing thermos on the mountain so they can test the contents and run it for prints. The search will begin the next morning at dawn. But Tommy has a surprise in store for the Lieutenant, telling him he’s leaving town that afternoon to begin a new tour which will last for months.
The disbelieving Lieutenant tails Tommy to the airport, certain that he won’t get on a plane. He even chases Tommy all the way to the departure gate, where the jovial singer spots him and bids a cheerful farewell. Yes folks, it looks for all the world like Tommy will get away with murder. That’s until Columbo has a brainwave after noticing that Tommy had taken his rental car keys with him through airport security rather than turning them in.
We cut now to Tommy driving said rental car along a twisting mountain road in the dead of night. Leaving the car parked, he scrambles into the undergrowth and recovers the parachute where he’d left it in the hollow log. He’s hopping back to the car with the parachute in his arms when his car lights are turned on full, illuminating him and catching him with the reddest of red hands.
It’s Lieutenant Columbo, of course, who had been waiting on the mountain pass for hours after banking on the fact that Tommy would show up sooner or later to retrieve the parachute. With no room left to manoeuver, Tommy accepts defeat and slides into the passenger seat of his car to be driven downtown – to accompaniment of one of his own songs on the radio.
After admitting he’s glad it’s all over, Tommy receives some words of comfort from Columbo who states: “Any man who can sing like that can’t be all bad,” as credits roll…
Swan Song‘s best moment: the blazing row
There’s plenty of good scenes to choose from, but my personal favourite is the blazing row between Edna and Tommy right after their Bakersfield show. Full of vitriol, it tells us all we need to know about both characters.
First we see that Tommy is susceptible to sins of the flesh with teenage groupies and backing singers, and begrudges having to live on a shoe-string when his sell-out concerts are netting $30,000 per night.
We learn that Edna is a ruthless, blackmailing old witch. Despite raising Tommy out of the gutter when she assisted in his release from jail, she essentially treats him as slave labour, milking his talent to fund her tabernacle cause. And despite knowing that Tommy committed statutory rape with young Maryann, she keeps the girl close for blackmailing reasons, not to do anything humanitarian, such as helping her, or anything crazy like that.
Yes, Edna is as godless as they come, so we have the scene set for a delightfully wicked tussle between two arch-sinners, knowing only one can come out on top.
My opinion on Swan Song
Whenever I engage with fellow fans on the subject of their favourite episode, Swan Song regularly crops up near the top of the heap. I think that’s for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a strong episode in its own right. But secondly, and more importantly (I suspect), it’s more memorable than most because of the presence of Johnny Cash.
And that’s fair enough. I mean, who doesn’t love Johnny Cash? I do myself. But I believe the average viewer’s positive attitude towards the Man in Black might contribute to them seeing this episode through rose-tinted spectacles. Because while this is certainly cracking entertainment, in my opinion it falls some way short of making the series’ greatest hits list.
Before I risk enraging and alienating a high percentage of readers, please rest assured that this is nothing to do with Johnny Cash’s performance. I think he’s excellent in this, a very pleasant surprise, giving us an earthy antagonist who, for once, isn’t from society’s elite.
Instead we have a working class baddie who’s been raised the hard way and has done his time behind bars before finding redemption (of sorts) on the stage. Cash is entirely believable in that role and it’s a nice novelty to have Lieutenant Columbo face off against an opponent with whom he shares more common ground.
“Cash is excellent in this, giving us an earthy antagonist who, for once, isn’t from society’s elite.”
Cash delivers both the musical bad boy elements required of the role as well as country affability without airs and graces. I can see why so many people find Tommy Brown a likeable rogue, and sympathise with him throughout – up to a point. For while few viewers could begrudge Tommy bumping off that old battleaxe Edna, I find it harder to sympathise with his motivations because Tommy is essentially only after money and sex – the latter, it seems, with girls in their teens.
As Edna herself puts it, “you’re a lustful sinner, Tommy!” He certainly is. Regardless of whether or not Maryann was a willing partner, 40-something Tommy was only too happy to leap into bed with a 16-year-old after signing into motels with her as father and daughter. That’s pretty creepy.
And there’s nothing to indicate that Tommy has learnt his lessons from that. He’s on the cusp of ‘pashing’ with the teen groupie outside his dressing room after the Bakersfield show, and is clearly grooming Tina, another teen singer from his backing group, later in the episode, inviting her to “make a big, long list of things you’d like me to do for being so nice to Tommy Brown.” Run, Tina! RUN!
This is pretty unsettling stuff (especially to a modern audience with the #metoo campaign fresh in memory), and probably ought to make the viewer consider afresh whether he’s worthy of our sympathies. Personally, I think the writers erred by not making Tommy seem further along the path to redemption earlier in the episode. It’s as if the writers were unclear on who Tommy Brown was meant to be. Saint or sinner? A guy who’s truly seen the light? It’s a confusing portrayal.
Perhaps during his fiery altercation with Edna at the start of proceedings he could have been give a throwaway line such as: “She told me she was 20 years old, and in any case I’ve never looked at another woman since, etc etc.” He could even have suggested that Edna induced Maryann to seduce Tommy. Although other aspects of the episode would have needed to change slightly, this way Edna could still have had a claim over Tommy but we could genuinely side with a guy trying to put his past behind him.
Better yet, what about having Tommy overtly rejecting young Tina’s advances? That would send a clear message that he’s learned the error of his ways. Instead Tommy is portrayed as a predator throughout. He’s not a good guy, no matter how much we might like Johnny Cash.
All this, to me at least, takes the edge off what could have been another moving closing scene. Columbo clearly likes what he’s seen of Tommy from their interactions and is happy to vouch for his character, suggesting that a man who sings like Tommy “can’t be all bad.” I can’t believe he’d have said that if he’d known more about Tommy’s lusting after girls young enough to be his daughter, though.
Tommy says the crime has been eating him up and that he’s ‘glad it’s over’. What rot! There has been zero evidence of remorse in any of his actions throughout the episode. Why should we believe it’s surfacing now?
The ending itself also loses marks due its derivative nature. We’ve seen it done before, and better. The ending is highly reminiscent of the exchange between Adrian Carsini and Columbo at the conclusion of Any Old Port in a Storm, but less affecting. Plus we’ve seen the old ‘caught-in-the-headlights’ trick twice before now in Death Lends a Hand and Blueprint for Murder, so the power of Swan Song‘s ‘gotcha’ moment is diluted.
That notwithstanding, there’s loads here to enjoy and a rich vein of humour. Columbo’s encounter with the chilli at Tommy’s pool party is a great example. The detective is initially delighted with his find – until he’s told it was made with squirrel meat. Falk’s expression is an absolute picture!
Tommy’s earthy language throws up some delights, too. Notably around him threatening to ‘bust’ things (his enemy Luke’s neck amongst them) and his enraged, disbelieving shout of “HARMICIIIDE?” when first being introduced to Columbo.
The Lieutenant has a few gems in the script, too, during his conversations with Tommy. The singer wants to know why someone might want to kill him. Columbo’s response is GOLD. “Mr Brown, I don’t know,” he says. “But you are a celebrity and there are a lot of crackpots in the world and there’s just no accounting for people’s reactions. I mean, sometimes I even wonder about my wife. Not that she’s a crackpot…” This exchange leaves a broad grin on Tommy’s face, and, I suspect, a large portion of the audience.
Sorrell Booke has a bonkers cameo as Tommy’s manager, JJ Stringer, at the music studio and there’s another scene to cherish starring Vito Scotti (making his third rib-tickling appearance in four episodes) as funeral parlour director Mr Grindell, who tries to sell Columbo a funeral plan.
The abashed detective rebuffs all advances, saying this is the sort of subject he could never raise with Mrs Columbo because “she cries easily. She even cries when she loses at bowling!” Maybe she is a crackpot after all…
Some of the gags miss the mark, though. The scene where Columbo questions the hard-of-hearing Colonel is tediously drawn out, as is the one where the Lieutenant interviews the loopy seamstress. Both are examples of the malaise that often creeps into episodes with a longer running time (of which Swan Song is another), where scenes are stretched far beyond their welcome to produce some clue or other that could have been reached much less laboriously.
Still, as this is a continual criticism I have of the ‘longer’ episodes, I’ll leave it at that before regular readers roll their eyes and chirp: “Change the (best-selling) record, mate.”
Instead let’s shift focus to the murder itself, which must rank as one the series’ most far-fetched and high-risk crimes. I’ll give Tommy the props he deserves, because deliberately crashing a plane after drugging his passengers and parachuting to ankle-breaking freedom is one hell of a creative way to rid himself of his problems. Some viewers have issues with crimes as audacious as this (and the subliminal cuts from Double Exposure), but I say just sit back and applaud!
“Ida Lupino gives us a victim we can really despise in Edna Brown.”
The strength of the ensemble cast is also to be cherished. As is the case with most of the best episodes, everyone here is on sparkling form whether in a large or small role, all the way up from gum-chewing Jeff, the happy-go-lucky airport technician, to the top billed actors.
Special praise must be reserved for Ida Lupino. She’s great in pretty much everything, but really gives us a victim to despise in Edna Brown. Lupino previously guest starred in season 1’s Short Fuse in a nothing role. She might only have a few minutes’ screen time here, but it’s high impact all the way and she’s such a hag that we can really cheer at her demise.
Several other recurring actors pop up. Sorrell Booke and Vito Scottti were mentioned above, but John Dehner (Pangborn here) returned two seasons later as the sour-faced titular mariner in Last Salute to the Commodore. Mike Lally even gets his customary bit-part, so there’s plenty here for the purists to look out for.
Swan Song is highly memorable for its music, as well it should be when it stars such a legend as Cash. The musical interludes definitely live long in the memory. Hear I Saw the Light in this episode and it’ll be stuck in your head for the rest of the decade, whether you like it or not. It’s also a giddy thrill to hear Tommy doing a rendition of Sunday Morning Coming Down – one of Cash’s most-loved tunes. No wonder Mrs Columbo is a fan!
Both hits are effectively played out on screen, too. Footage of a real Cash concert was intercut into Tommy’s Bakersfield show, while his serenading of a bevvy of beauties round the poolside on the same day as Edna and Maryann’s funeral shows Tommy’s ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rock star hedonism is to become his new norm.
To conclude, Swan Song is an episode high on memorable moments, and boosted by a fine performance from Johnny Cash but the indecision on the big issue of Tommy’s morality leaves a hole at its heart. As it is, the lackadaisical attempt to show that Tommy really has seen the light at episode’s end rings a hollow note.
Did you know?
This episode was directed by Nicholas Colasanto (pictured), better known to most viewers as Coach from Cheers.
The popular actor was also at the helm for Season 2 opener Etude in Black – although it is quietly rumoured that Falk and Cassavetes did the majority of direction on that episode themselves (something I’m dubious about).
How I rate ’em
Although full of fun and good performances, Swan Song doesn’t quite live up to the hype when under the microscope. It’s perfectly enjoyable, but only tucks into a mid-table position a third of the way through the episode run.
Read any of my past episode reviews via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
Where does Swan Song rank in your personal list of favourites? I’d love to know, so do leave a comment below.
Thanks, as always, for reading and check back in soon when we round out season 3 with the dark, brooding tale of cop-turned-bad corruption and murder, A Friend In Deed.
And in case the above has made you hanker for Tommy Brown’s number one hit, let’s sing along with the below. Altogether now: Praise the looo-ooo-oooord, I saw the light…