The shady world of Middle Eastern political skulduggery was front and centre for Columbo fans on October 12, 1975, as A Case of Immunity first aired.
Feauring Hector Elizondo as treacherous diplomat Hassan Salah, Sal Mineo in one of his last screen roles, a double murder and some thrilling action sequences (I know, right?), it features, on paper, more intrigue than you can shake a stick at.
But is A Case of Immunity the televisual equivalent of a VIP invite to a Suari Legation garden party, or more of a night at home reading Arabian Nights? Let’s take a closer look…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Hassan Salah: Hector Elizondo
Rachman Habib: Sal Mineo
The King of Suari: Barry Robins
Youseff Alafa: Andre Lawrence
Police Commissioner: Kenneth Tobey
Zena: Xenia Gratsos
KERMIT Morgan: Dick Dinman
Written by: Lou Shaw (from a story by James Menzies)
Directed by: Ted Post
Score by: Bernardo Segall
Notable location: Suari Legation, Harold Lloyd’s Greenacres Estate, 1740 Green Acres Drive, Beverly Hills, California
Episode synopsis: Columbo A Case of Immunity
Two men in Middle Eastern garb are up to no good. One, the leader, removes documents from a safe and burns them on the office floor before fixing an explosive charge to the safe. The second man, younger and nervous, sprays graffiti on the walls and quietly trashes the joint as his senior conspirator places a call to Security Chief Youseff Alafa elsewhere in the building.
Summoned to the Executive Office, Alafa ditches his fresh coffee and jallops upstairs to see what hap’nin’. As he examines the blown safe, he’s savagely wonked on the back of the swede by the lead man, Hassan Salah, First Secretary of the Suari Legation. Yes folks, just four minutes in and we have a corpse on our hands. That’s quite a frantic opening!
Now the plot thickens – fast! Salah heads off to LAPD headquarters to talk security ahead of the King of Suari’s impending visit, while sidekick Rachman Habib – now sporting ‘Western’ attire – delivers phase two of the plan.
He first rings Salah at police HQ a few minutes before 4pm, pretending to be Alafa, to provide the First Secretary with an airtight alibi in front of police witnesses. Then he creates a small commotion to alert a desk jockey to potential trouble before fleeing in a car, smashing through a gate and nearly ploughing through a band of protesting students. As Columbo action sequences go, it’s quite a belter!
Having been accidentally assigned to the Suari Security Task Force due to a clerical blunder, an irritated Columbo is suddenly thrust into a murder investigation on what is effectively foreign soil at the Suari Legation. And despite the unfamiliar surroundings he’s into the groove straight away, picking up clues beyond the scope of the other officers, who have fallen for Salah’s ‘revolutionary-students-did-it’ stunt.
“As Columbo action sequences go, Habib’s getaway from the Legation is quite a belter!”
First he notices plaster dust atop the body of Alafa and the burnt documents, caused by the safe explosion. Looks like the safe was blown after the papers were set alight and Alafa slain. That’s pretty suspicious, and is a clear indication the killer knew the safe combination. Not only that, if Alafa had been in the office to investigate the explosion why hadn’t he pulled his gun, which was still holstered? It looks much more like Alafa was killed by someone he knew.
The third bothersome incident was the mysteriously jammed rifle of the guard at the gate, who was unable to take a pot-shot at the escaping driver. He’d never had a problem with the weapon before, so naturally this piques Columbo’s curiosity. He also finds out that only two people had access to the Legation gun room: Alafa, and Hassan Salah. First Secretary = FIRST SUSPECT!
Columbo treads warily with Salah and plays his investigation by the book, an initial search through the personnel files identifying Habib as a likely candidate for the crime. His whereabouts at the time of the killing cannot be confirmed and as he’s now ‘on vacation’, supposedly in New York (in reality a bogus hotel booking was made in his name by Salah), Columbo is keen to get hold of him for questioning.
Salah makes sure that won’t ever happen. At a secret rendezvous with Habib, Salah slips him a false passport, airline ticket to Switzerland and $10,000 cash for a job well done. He then BRAINS the youth with a heavy torch and shoves him and his car over a cliff – remembering to place a pair of glasses on Habib’s face first, knowing that Habib requires glasses to drive. The sneaky Salah looks set to be Scot free!
Columbo, however, has other ideas. Down at the morgue, he notices small pieces of glass amongst Habib’s personal effects. They turn out to be contact lenses that Habib had only just started using. Wearing the lenses and eyeglasses at the same time would have rendered him virtually blind, so the detective concludes Habib was murdered and the killer, unaware of the contacts, placed the glasses on him.
Although rattled a fraction, Salah sticks to the ‘radical-students-did-it’ line, suggesting they bumped off the traitor Habib to protect their identities. This could be plausible were it not for the stack of circumstantial evidence Columbo is amassing against the First Secretary.
“Salah is so unhappy with the insinuations that he complains to Columbo’s superiors.”
Salah’s attention is now split as the Suari King arrives on US soil. Columbo manages to muscle in at his welcome reception to introduce himself to the pint-sized Royal. While Salah’s irritation grows, Columbo makes an instant friend in the King who promises to do anything in his power to help with the investigation before being whisked away to hob-nob with visiting dignitaries.
Columbo sticks around, grilling Legation lovely Zena about Habib. He finds out that Habib was definitely in the Legation code room at the time he supposedly booked a hotel in New York, and that there is no outside line in the room. This means someone booked the room for Habib without his knowledge. The plot is now so thick you can stand a ladle upright in it!
Salah shows up and invites Columbo to a private interview. There the detective reveals his new-found knowledge and growing suspicions that a Legation insider (i.e. Salah) was looking to frame Habib. Salah is so unhappy with the insinuations that he complains to Columbo’s superiors (that old chestnut). The State Department subsequently insists that the investigation is dropped and that Columbo pen an apology.
Keen to continue his harassment of the increasingly beleaguered Salah, Columbo does indeed write the letter and delivers it himself – to a VIP-only ambassadorial garden party at the Suari Legation. And that means a second consecutive run-out for the tuxedo after it debuted in Forgotten Lady. Tell you what, eh, you wait 32 episodes for Columbo to wear a tux, then two come along at once…
Salah, now livid, calls Columbo’s presence ‘a diplomatic affront’ and vows to see him bust off the force. The cool detective, however, presents his full case against Salah – even rubbishing his ‘perfect’ alibi.
“At 3:15, you called [Alafa] into the Executive Office and you murdered him. He was dead before you left the Legation.” says Columbo. “At 3:55, you staged a phony telephone conversation with this Habib guy and that provided you with an alibi.” Salah still appears to hold all the cards, though. “You haven’t a single shred of evidence against me,” he hisses, before having armed guards escort Columbo off the premises.
It’s a calmer Salah the following morning as he sees the Suari-bound King on to his jet before returning to the Legation. He even takes a magnanimous approach when Columbo is waiting for him at the front gates, ostensibly to make a real apology to save his job. Unable to resist basking in his superiority, Salah takes the bait.
Once in Salah’s inner sanctum, Columbo congratulates the First Secretary on his ingenuity. “More than anything else, sir, I wanna shake your hand. You’re the best. You beat me,” the Lieutenant concedes.
Puffed up like a pouter pigeon, Salah is happy to commiserate with the luckless Columbo. “This is one murder that must remain one of your failures, but do not despair, Lieutenant,” he coos, swigging herbal tea like a boss. “You have unraveled the puzzle. Accept it, and let it be.”
“I got the feeling that you wouldn’t be so quick to admit all this if you didn’t have diplomatic immunity,” Columbo laments. “Perhaps so, Lieutenant, but the fact is, I do have diplomatic immunity,” beams the smug Salah.
It’s at this time the King stuns Salah by emerging from an adjoining room! He didn’t fly off to Suari at all. At Columbo’s suggestion he pulled a fast one on Salah, leaping off the plane (not literally) and getting a chopper back to the Legation. He’s overheard everything, and vows that Salah will face justice back in Suari.
Fearing for his life, Salah renounces his diplomatic immunity, turns himself over to the Lieutenant and signs a confession to ensure he can’t wriggle out of it later. Conceding defeat with a respectful nod to Columbo, Salah is led away to an uncertain future as credits roll…
Immunity‘s best moment: the garden party showdown
After being ordered to drop his investigation by the State Department, Columbo is given a lifeline after being told to write a letter of apology to Salah. He not only agrees, but says he’ll deliver the letter personally to show how truly sorry he is. Naturally the wily Lieutenant uses this as an opportunity to further harass his suspect, showing up to an invite-only garden party at the Legation.
After a pleasant exchange with the King, Columbo has a chat with Salah in which he accuses the First Secretary of murder. Salah hits back by having the detective forcibly ejected, but not before Columbo has the last laugh. Breaking free of his armed escort, Columbo delivers the ‘apology’ letter to Salah in what is a clear taunt and shows the level of disdain he really holds the killer in. BURN!
My opinion on A Case of Immunity
Like a guilty Suari murderer, I’m quick to confess under pressure – so I must admit that, historically, A Case of Immunity has been an episode I’ve steered clear of. There’s always a better episode on DVD to select, and it’s comparatively rare to see it televised so it’s been some years since I last watched this before digging it out to review.
My chief bugbears have been the relatively simple portrayal of Middle Eastern stereotypes, plus Salah being a lesser light amongst the baddie luminaries of the 1970s. And while those two points remain valid, there’s more to enjoy about Immunity than I remembered – including a rock-solid investigative performance by the good Lieutenant and a cracking turn from Peter Falk.
Kudos, also, to the writers for trying something different by injecting Columbo into the shadowy world of international politics. Although not entirely successful, it’s something new for the series and makes for a unique episode backdrop. And before we fully dissect Immunity, it’s probably worth a quick recap of US / Middle Eastern relations of the mid-70s, which were, to put it succinctly, pretty poor.
The oil crisis of 1973 was a direct result of Syria, Egypt and Jordan retaliating against the US for supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War of that same year. Their refusal to supply oil to the US (and other Western nations) saw global prices skyrocket, and contributed to a US recession. US and Soviet tensions also escalated over their contrasting relationships with Syria (sounds familiar?), leaving nuclear war briefly looking like a distinct possibility.
It’s understandable, then, that Columbo writers would be drawn to showcasing a moderate, progressive Middle Eastern leader in the King of Suari as a good guy. Conversely, the arch-villain must be someone with a contrasting viewpoint, and far less open to harmonious relations with the US. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you First Secretary Hassan Salah!
The casting of Hispanic actor Hector Elizondo as an Arab is a sticking point for some viewers. It’s never bothered me in the least – perhaps because I’m not overly familiar with his other roles. Elizondo portrays Salah as believably aloof and cool towards his US counterparts. An intelligent man, calm under pressure but with steely resolve, Salah feels like a dangerous guy to get on the wrong side of. Heck, he kills two people who weren’t on his wrong side, so Allah help those he really has a vendetta against.
I could easily believe that Salah has a string of similar indiscretions and double dealings in his past such is the poise he demonstrates when dispatching his victims here. His freedom to commit unspeakable acts under diplomatic immunity makes him a dangerous foe for Columbo, too.
For starters, the Lieutenant’s job is in real jeopardy. Salah threatens to submit a formal protest to the US government about the detective’s antics, which is certainly upping the ante when it comes to reporting him to his superiors! But more than that, if push came to shove might Columbo’s very life have been in danger at Salah’s hands? I wonder…
“Salah’s freedom to commit unspeakable acts under diplomatic immunity makes him a dangerous foe for Columbo.”
Case in point: when Salah invites Columbo to his office after the detective insinuates he has reason to suspect the First Secretary of murder, Columbo seems to be in two minds. Does he think he’ll be bumped off himself? Maybe. With Salah you can’t rule it out, setting him apart from many killers who have come before him.
On the flip-side, the calm and softly spoken Salah is much harder to dig than flamboyant types like Riley Greenleaf, Dale Kingston and Dexter Paris. As a result, the two leads don’t sizzle on screen the way they do in the very best Columbo episodes, making the confrontation less fun to watch – and less memorable in the long run.
Joining Elizondo as a non-Arab playing an Arab is Sal Mineo, the Italian-American who achieved super-stardom in the 1950s alongside James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Although only 36 years old when this episode was filmed, Mineo’s career was in serious decline so it was good to see him doing a decent job in the role of accessory-to-murder-turned-victim, Rachman Habib.
Mineo ably portrays a nervous young man waaaaaay out of his depth, and our hearts go out to him when he is ruthlessly – but predictably – slain. It’s all the more tragic when we consider that Mineo was himself murdered just months later. He had only three subsequent acting credits to his name after this.
Tragedy also took another cast member at an early age – this time Barry Robins, the Brooklyn-born actor cast as The King. Just 30 at the time of filming, Robins died of AIDS-related illness in 1986. Diminutive and charming, he makes for a likable leadership figure here – although he fails to convince as a man of Middle Eastern descent.
With a less-memorable-than-usual supporting cast, it’s left to Peter Falk to really carry the episode – and he does so in fine style. This is a terrific performance, and one that gives no hint of an actor jaded by the role (as Falk was reported to be). Indeed, Falk’s turn is comparable to anything we’ve seen from him before now, with his direct approach and straight talking something of a throwback to the opening of Season 1.
Similar to Murder by the Book, Death Lends a Hand and Suitable for Framing, Columbo is on to his man in a flash, seeing through the smokescreen of false clues and disinformation, and letting the facts guide his thoughts and actions – however likely they may be to cause a stir and rattle diplomatic skeletons.
He’s as astute as ever, racking up a series of crucial observations and deductions that naturally point his suspicions at Salah. All credit to the writers, the clues come thick and fast and paint a damning case against the First Secretary. Consider: –
- Alafa’s regular 3.15pm coffee not drunk, ergo he was summoned from his office and killed when Salah was still at the Legation
- Alafa brained from behind and hadn’t pulled his gun, so knew his assailant
- Plaster dust on top of Alafa’s body and the pile of burnt paper ashes shows that safe was blown after papers burned and Alafa slain
- Guard’s rifle mysteriously jammed just when it was most needed
- Salah had key to the gun room and knew the safe combination
- Habib was wearing contact lenses and glasses when found dead – ergo someone killed him, then put the glasses on him not realising he wore contacts
- Salah’s car was off-compound on the night of Habib’s killing. The car had clocked up the exact number of miles it took to go from garage to crash site and back
- Habib could not have made his own hotel reservation as he was incommunicado in the Legation code room at the time it was made
It’s a very complete case and it’s perfectly obvious Salah is guilty, so no wonder Columbo didn’t take kindly to State Department ‘ace’ KERMIT Morgan (the last non-frog to ever hold that name on TV) telling him to drop his investigations.
Indeed, rumour* has it that a deleted scene was filmed featuring a livid Columbo telling Morgan to back off in no uncertain terms, snarling: “You worry about Miss Piggy, Kermy, and leave me to catch a killer.” The scene was cut to avoid Columbo appearing uncharacteristically aggressive, and to spare Muppet fans’ feelings.**
Actually that scene when our mate Kermit tells Columbo to drop his investigation is pretty interesting. When Columbo states “that’s all very well and good, except for one thing. He’s the murderer,” Kermit zaps back with: “It may go against your grain, but we don’t care if Salah is guilty or innocent.” That’s pretty cold, but I suspect not far off what actually happens behind closed doors in diplomatic circles.
There was evidently some behind-the-scenes action taking place between Columbo and the King, too, given how the pocket Royal reappears in the final scene to stun Salah into waiving his diplomatic immunity.
I do have a slight problem with this scene, though. Sure, the surprise makes for good viewing but it’s hardly plausible. How could Columbo have secured a private audience with his Excellency to even suggest the sting when every second of his itinerary would have been micro-managed by Salah!? Phooey!
“Because the King is a personable progressive, it necessarily makes icy traditionalist Salah the baddie.”
The King’s pro-Western sympathies are also a little trite for my liking and oversimplify the complexities of managing international relations. He eschews traditional Suari attire for a military uniform. He favours French cuisine over native dishes and watches US TV shows. He dismisses Salah’s traditionalist stance as insular and obsolete – which is probably what started the plotting against him in the first place.
Mark Dawidziak sums up these shortcomings perfectly in his episode review in The Columbo Phile book, stating: “There’s a painfully offensive message that emerges from this contrast of stereotyped characters: Arabs aren’t such bad guys as long as they’re willing to act more American.” It’s a criticism that’s as relevant now as the day it was written.
Because the King is a personable progressive, it necessarily makes icy traditionalist Salah the baddie. But how bad is he? It’s hard to know. We only ever get hints at a motive for Salah’s double homicide. Normally a lack of clear motive harms a Columbo episode. Here, given the high-stakes political game we find ourselves in the midst of, a little ambiguity seems OK.
Salah seems to be wanting to frame the radical student protesters as a means of discrediting their reformist political stance and hatred of him personally, while safeguarding the traditional Suari way of life that he holds dear. His ultimate goal seems to be to take the throne for himself (“The throne makes the man, not the blood,” he says), although this is very much left open to interpretation.
Of course killing to achieve those ends is wrong, but much must be risked in war and pitching Salah as a noble freedom fighter trying to save his country from a corrupt King would have been a hugely interesting – and brave – take on proceedings, but one I guess the TV audiences of the day weren’t ready for.
There are other weak aspects to the episode, too. For one thing, there’s a lack of interesting female characters – a shame when Columbo has had a tonne of them before now. One could argue it mirrors the male-dominated Middle Eastern world of the day, but why not take a risk and do something different? Zena – the lone female we meet at the Legation – is purely functional, which feels like a missed opportunity.
“What A Case of Immunity does have going for it is a terrific pace and a hugely engaging opening sequence.”
Something else I really noticed on this watch was a sense of familiarity around key plot points. Salah taking his car from the mechanic’s and driving the exact distance to and from the scene of the Habib killing apes Alex Benedict in Etude in Black. Columbo offering his enemy a handshake for supposedly getting the better of him is a straight lift from A Stitch in Crime, while we’ve already had contact lenses as a vital clue in Death Lends a Hand.
The ‘gotcha’, meanwhile, is simply a rehash of Prescription: Murder, with Salah happy to gloat until the King steps out from the next room (a la Joan Hudson) after ear-wigging in. Salah’s lightning-fast decision to renounce his diplomatic immunity and submit to Columbo is all a bit rushed and diminishes the impact of the scene – a pity when the pacing of the episode up to now has been spot-on.
Following on from the straight-faced weightiness of Forgotten Lady, Immunity is another episode that lacks much genuine humour. The gags are largely restricted to Columbo under-appreciating some priceless Suari antique, or ‘hilariously’ treading on Salah’s robes. Sophisticated it ain’t, although the Lieutenant likening one of Mrs Columbo’s farmers’ market finds to a 3rd century Suari urn always raises a chuckle.
What Immunity does have going for it is a terrific pace and a hugely engaging opening sequence, which draws the audience right in. The first murder is in the bank after only four minutes, and Columbo is on screen within another three. The whole episode moves at a clip, never lags, and shows yet again why the shorter 75-minute running time is so right for Columbo. If this had been stretched out for another 15-20 minutes, it would have been ruined completely.
We also see further glimpses of the real Columbo. Note how he swiftly endears himself to the King, to Zena and to the Chinese Ambassadors with his everyman charm. Notice, too, the little flash of anger at the start of the episode after he finds himself attached to the Suari Security Task Force. It’s a very brief scene, but we can see that Columbo is super-pissed off by both his assignment and a broken vending machine. As I’ve said before, scenes like this are GOLD because they help humanise an often unknowable character.
To conclude, Immunity is far from being the best of Columbo, but it’s by no means a bad piece of television. It has its faults, but with writers still finding interesting new angles and characters to introduce, and Falk still as watchable as ever, it’s been an awfully long time since the series delivered a genuine dud.
If only the episode creators had taken a leaf from Hassan Salah’s book and been willing to take a few more risks, A Case of Immunity could have been really special. As it is, it stands out as more of a curio of the 70s’ run and an episode that is respected by many, but revered by few.
Did you know?
World’s most popular actor Jeff Goldblum has an uncredited appearance as one of the Suarian student protestors. He’s easy to miss, and can only be spotted in one scene approx 56 minutes in where he’s in the throng of protesters being JOSTLED by police officers. See for yourself!
It’s hardly his most iconic screen outing, but I for one find it massively reassuring to know that gorgeous Jeff really was in an episode of the greatest detective show of all.
How I rate ’em
Not vintage Columbo, perhaps, but A Case of Immunity actually has a decent mystery at its core and enough good points to warrant a revisit any time it comes on TV. It could have been a whole lot better, though, so slips into the lower echelons of my mid-tier episodes.
Missed any of my other episode reviews? Then catch ’em via the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Publish or Perish
- Double Shock
- Murder by the Book
- Negative Reaction
- A Friend in Deed
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder ——– A-List ends here—
- A Deadly State of Mind
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Swan Song
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- By Dawn’s Early Light
- Candidate for Crime
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Forgotten Lady
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- A Case of Immunity —– B-List ends here——
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal ———— C-List ends here—-
- Short Fuse
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
Please share your own views on this episode in the comments section below. If you’re a bigger fan of it than I am, please outline why. Rather like the late Youseff Alafa, the floor is yours!
As always, I thank you for visiting the site and look forward to seeing you again when the review bandwagon rolls on in the mystifying form of Identity Crisis, featuring guest star extraordinaire Patrick McGoohan. Be seeing you…