Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 5

Columbo episode review: Last Salute to the Commodore

Last Salute to the Commodore opening titles

May 2nd, 1976 looked for all the world like it would be the end of an era. With Peter Falk out of contract, Last Salute to the Commodore threatened to be Lieutenant Columbo’s farewell voyage.

To give viewers an unforgettable experience, the usual format was ditched in favour of a genuine whodunnit, while Patrick McGoohan was drafted in as director to add some eccentricity to proceedings after excelling at the helm in Identity Crisis just three episodes earlier.

Certainly they succeeded in creating a truly unique and unforgettable Columbo episode. Whether it’s any good or not is subject to fierce debate, with a high percentage of viewers loathing, rather than loving, the high-jinks on display.

So is Last Salute a bon voyage to Columbo‘s fifth season, or is it dredging untold depths? And more importantly, can I avoid having a rage-fuelled aneurysm while watching? Before we find out, I urge you to take a deep breath and grab a life jacket. You’re gonna need ’em…

Last Salute to the Commodore cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Charles Clay: Robert Vaughn
Joanna Clay: Diane Baker
Swanny Swanson: Fred Draper
Commodore Otis Swanson: John Dehner
Kittering: Wilfrid Hyde-White
Wayne Taylor: Joshua Bryant
Lisa King: Susan Foster
Sergeant Kramer: Bruce Kirby
Theodore ‘Mac’ Albinsky: Dennis Dugan
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Directed by: Patrick McGoohan
Score by: Bernardo Segáll

Episode synopsis – Columbo Last Salute to the Commodore

World-renowned naval architect and sailor Commodore Otis Swanson has a face like a wet weekend as he scowls through his birthday shindig at a lavish yacht club.

The miserable mariner is sick of the spongers and ne’er do wells that surround him – including useless nephew Swanny, alcoholic daughter Joanna and meddling son-in-law Charles, who is transforming the Commodore’s beloved, boutique boat-building business into a faceless corporation.

Columbo Commodore Otis Swanson
Yo Otis – are we having fun yet?

The Commodore is planning to sweep the rug out from under them all by selling his business, so after the furious sailor poops the party and storms home early big Charles promises wife Joanna that he’ll make a last-ditch bid to talk some sense into the old boy later on that evening.

When we next see Charlie, though, he ain’t talking. Instead he’s wiping prints of a nautical belaying pin that appears to have been used to cudgel the Commodore to death, off-screen, in his own home. He also finds and pockets a ladies’ brooch – one that he recognises as belonging to Joanna.

Charles is interrupted mid clean-up by a ring at the door. It’s boatyard manager Wayne Taylor, who is delivering an updated self-steering mechanism for the Commodore’s yawl. Cool as you like, Charles pretends that the Commodore is chatting on the phone in the next room and that he’ll see Wayne at the yard the next day. The two men then leave the Commodore’s home together and drive away.

Charles’s toils aren’t over, though. He dons scuba gear and returns to the Commodore’s house from his own yacht – underwater, natch, to avoid being seen. He then slips into Otis’s sailor suit and takes the yawl for a spin – making sure he’s seen by the Coast Guard – before ditching the body in the water and scuba-ing back to safety. What a night’s work!

The Commodore’s boat – sans Commodore – is discovered the next morning, so one Lieutenant Columbo is sent to the Clay homestead seeking information. A hideously hungover Joanna can’t remember even leaving the yacht club, so Charles agrees to assist with enquiries – ‘hilariously’ being squeezed into Columbo’s car with the Lieutenant, Sergeant Kramer and new kid on the LAPD block, Sergeant Theodore ‘Mac’ Albinsky.

Columbo Last Salute to the Commodore
Robert Vaughn’s agent was mysteriously axed from his 1976 Christmas card list

They motley crew stop off at the harbour to view the Commodore’s yawl, Charles helpfully explaining the finer points of boats and sails to the clueless detectives. Young bucks from the Coast Guard also rock up to show logbooks that detail the Commodore being seen to leave port at 3am that morning. He was a great sailor and the boat’s in great shape, so his loss remains a mystery.

Next stop is the boatyard, where (after an endless and shouty conversation with the foreman) Columbo discovers that the Commodore stopped by there the day before to pick up some stencils and black marine paint. What for? We’ll have to wait an age to find out.

A conversation with the Commodore’s ancient nephew ‘Swanny’ (was the Commodore, like, 100 years old?) subsequently reveals details of old Otis’s will. Joanna will inherit almost everything with the odd pittance thrown to others, including Swanny himself.

“It seems like the Commodore was clonked on the noggin by the mizzen boom and pitched into the sea.”

Swanny drops Columbo and co off at Charles’ giant yacht, where the Lieutenant intrudes on young naval architect Lisa King’s transcendental meditation session before hearing from the Coast Guard the supposed particulars of the Commodore’s demise. It seems like the ancient mariner was clonked on the noggin by the mizzen boom and pitched into the sea – a rather ignominious end for such a master sailor, a bit like Boba Fett being sent screaming girlishly into the Sarlacc pit in Return of the Jedi.

There’s still no obvious suspect for the police, but the viewer is starting to doubt whether Charlie is actually guilty. After receiving a call at home that the Commodore’s body has been found, Charlie shows Joanna the brooch he found at the murder scene. She was so drunk she can’t remember where she was. Could Joanna be the killer instead? Sure looks that way!

Charles goes to identify the corpse and Columbo tells him that the police are now pretty certain that Otis was murdered. An autopsy has shown too much (or too little) water in his lungs, so he must have been killed before being dumped in the drink.

Columbo Last Salute to the Commodore
I’d rather be dashed over the swede with a belaying pin than EVER watch this scene again

Columbo suspects Charles, but his alibi is strong enough – for now. Security guards saw Charles leaving the island where the Commodore lives and not returning before the Commodore was seen departing on his yacht. The only way to get back to the house without being seen by the guards would have been to boat or swim back – but he’d have almost certainly been spotted in the busy channel. It’s a tough one to ponder.

With this on their minds, Columbo, Kramer and Mac attempt to solve the mystery of the Commodore’s stencilled letters. They appear to spell the word ‘SAILS’, and the suggestion is that Otis was going to use them to stencil a locker. Sounds plausible, but there’s also a stencil of a dot (a full stop for the Brits, or period to US readers), which doesn’t make much sense. The proverbial plot thickens…

Still, they get a break when an underwater boat maintenance man noisily surfaces nearby. He’s wearing scuba gear, giving Columbo a lightbulb moment. So later that night, the scuba guy assists the detective by taking an underwater trek from Charlie’s yacht to the Commodore’s home. He gets there in good time, proving that Charlie could have made it back unnoticed to the scene of the crime.

The next morning finds the police trio back at the Commodore’s house, where they discover a lipstick and a smashed pocket watch hidden under the sofa. Upon examining the pocket watch, they note that it stopped working at 12.42am, just four minutes before Charles was logged off the island by the security detail.

The eagle-eyed Columbo also notices one of the belaying pins is dust free, while the others all have dust on them. The murder weapon? Could be. He has now established potential weapon and opportunity. Lipstick aside, it looks like Charles is his man.

But wait! The game is about to change – and how! Charlie shows up dead in his own home, and Joanna is nowhere to be found. Columbo tracks her down to the yacht club, where’s she’s in a drunken haze and nodding over the piano being jauntily played by a neckerchiefed Swanny.

Columbo Diane Baker
Joanna took the news of Charlie’s death completely in her stride

She takes the news badly, and when questioned about her whereabouts on the night of the Commodore’s murder, she is vague on the details. She thinks she went to see the Commodore at his house, but can’t be sure. Swanny then chimes in. Yes, he dropped her off there in his boat just before midnight before he returned to the club to ‘sing with the boys’.

Joanna can’t remember anything else about the night, but was later informed by a friend who lives on the island that they found her drunkenly asleep on a chair outside their house at 4am and dutifully delivered her home. It’s a flimsy alibi. Joanna could certainly have murdered her father.

Columbo is having a mental block until a meeting with Mac on a bridge overlooking the docks strikes a chord. He spots a boat going by the name of MOLLY J. This revelation (while baffling both to Mac and the viewer) gives the Lieutenant the impetus he needs to set up a parlour room reveal at the Commodore’s house, with key players Joanna, Swanny, Kittering, Wayne and Lisa all on the guest list.

This meeting opens with a little trick. Columbo has Swanny dress up in the Commodore’s outfit as he arrives by boat. Looking out over the water through a telescope, Joanna is distressed to see ‘Daddy’ riding in to the meeting. Rather than strangling Columbo once Swanny makes his entrance, she instead laughs like a loon. It’s crazy stuff. Columbo has proved his point, though. On the night of the Commodore’s death, anyone could have passed themselves off as him to fool witnesses.

Columbo Last Salute to the Commodore
Fear not viewers, the end is mercifully within sight!

Given how diluted and confusing the plot has been up to now, Mac and Kramer handily summarise the key information for the attendees and viewers. The police have deduced that Charles, believing Joanna had killed the Commodore, disposed of the body to ensure his wife (and he by association) remained chief beneficiary in the will.

They’ve also cracked the ‘SAILS’ stencil mystery. In a revelation that shocks the room, Columbo explains that they were intended to spell the name LISA S. Why? Because the Commodore and young Lisa were to be secretly wed and he was going to name his new yawl after her!

Surely this makes Lisa a key suspect as a money-grabbing young seductress? Not so. Lisa explains that she only agreed to marry old Otis if he promised not to leave her any money in his will. And she also confirms that her deceased fiance planned to sell the boat yard and give all his money to charity, leaving the rest of them high and dry.

With livelihoods and inheritances at stake, everyone in the room except Lisa has a motive for homicide. But how can Columbo smoke out the guilty party? Well, he reverts to suitably eccentric means to do so.

Cupping his hands around an unseen item, the detective holds it up to the ears of each suspect and says: “The Commodore’s watch.” Swanny says “Tisn’t.” Wayne and Kittering don’t give a damn. Swaying Joanna feebly utters “Daddy’s watch.” What is this all supposed to mean?

Columbo finally gets to the point. The watch was deliberately smashed by the Commodore’s killer to establish an alibi. The only person in the room who bothered to reveal their whereabouts at the time of the murder was Swanny, who told Columbo he was singing at the yacht club just after midnight. The broken watch was a blind.

Columbo Swanny Swanson
Chill out, Swanny. There’s not the slightest chance any of this will hold up in court!

Swanny has a motive, too. If he could make police think Joanna was guilty, he would inherit the Commodore’s fortune. When Charlie messed up this plan, he too was dispatched to fuel further suspicions of Joanna.

But how does Columbo really know Swanny did it? Because when the watch was held to his ear only Swanny denied it was the Commodore’s watch, and only the murderer could have known that the watch had been broken. Check mate, Swanny!

Basking in their success, the three police musketeers head outside to the Commodore’s back lawn. Lighting up a cigar, Columbo hops into a small boat and row off into the distance to meet Mrs Columbo at the yacht club, as credits roll…

Last Salute‘s best moment – heading off into the sunset?

Last Salute to the Commodore Patrick McGoohan

Beautifully filmed and scored, Columbo’s farewell in Last Salute would have graced any episode. With word on the street being that this would be the Lieutenant’s last ever outing we are treated to a suitably poignant goodbye scene, which gives me goosebumps every time.

If the whole episode had matched the tone of this scene, Last Salute could have been a belter. Oh for what might have been…

My opinion on Last Salute

WARNING: If you’re a happy-go-lucky type who loves every Columbo episode and can’t stand to see any aspect of the show savaged do not read any further. Instead, visit this safe page of images of Columbo and Dog for a heart-warming boost.

Still here? Good. Now let’s bravely forge on…

Columbo Last Salute to the Commodore
Uber-eccentric Columbo irritates from his first seconds on screen

Columbo as a show so rarely disappoints that when standards do dip the disappointment is all the more keenly felt. Never was this more apparent than in Last Salute to the Commodore.

Previous series have yielded the odd flop. Think of Short Fuse, Mind Over Mayhem and Dagger of the Mind. Yet these are merely lesser lights by Columbo standards – I’d still watch ’em over most other TV ever made (well, maybe not Dagger, but you catch my drift). Last Salute is a different kettle of fish. To put it bluntly, this is a disastrous outing, which isn’t just bad by Columbo standards – it’s simply a bad piece of television.

It’s no coincidence that this is the episode that splits opinion more than any other, with negative feedback usually outweighing positive by a nautical mile. And while there are fans of this episode – including Peter Falk himself and series creator William Link – I am 20,000 leagues from being one of them.

Still, before I embark with Ahab-esque zeal on my quest to ensure unsuspecting viewers know exactly what this episode holds in store for them, it’s highly pertinent to explore the background to Last Salute, which goes some way to explaining why it turned out the way it did.

“To put it bluntly, this is a disastrous outing, which isn’t just bad by Columbo standards – it’s a bad piece of TV.”

The intention was for Last Salute to be the last ever Columbo – or at least the last serialised episode. Peter Falk’s contract for the show was up in 1976 and his big focus was making movies after being buoyed by the critical success of A Woman Under the Influence (which he made alongside BFFs John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands amid his Columbo commitments), as well as his role in comedy Murder By Death alongside silver screen legends David Niven, Maggie Smith, Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers.

He still had love for the good Lieutenant, though, and in this fascinating article in the Ontario Daily Report from July 1976 Falk discusses how he wanted to make one really good episode of Columbo each year amidst his burgeoning movie schedule.

As a result of Last Salute supposedly being the last Columbo, the decision was made to mix up the formula – doubtless in order to ensure a memorable send-off for everyone’s favourite shabby sleuth. So Patrick McGoohan was brought in to direct after impressing Falk with his approach behind the camera in Identity Crisis. The two had had a hoot shooting that episode, and McGoohan was keen to push the Lieutenant’s boundaries in his farewell outing.

Some of the more eccentric mannerisms Falk and McGoohan introduced to the Columbo character in that episode are therefore dialled up to 11 here – and it hurts. Take a look at the short scene below as an example. Note the ponderous delivery, affected facial expressions and exaggerated mannerisms. It’s Columbo, Jim, but not as we know it…

A young sidekick (Dennis Dugan’s ‘Mac’) was also added in last minute as a novelty alongside series regular Sergeant Kramer. But of course, the biggest departure from the norm was the format. Last Salute was the series’ first true whodunnit, which ended with a parlour room reveal aping the grandest traditions of the mystery genre. There’s merit in that concept, and on paper all this doesn’t sound too bad. But in reality, it’s a fiasco.

Knowing that I hate this episode, I was watching the clock with a keen eye as the episode unfolded to record unwelcome landmarks that may be of interest to readers keen to compare notes:-

  • I reach annoyance point after only 20 seconds due to that berk Swanny singing while he pilots ye goode shippe Titanic down the channel.
  • I’m offended before we reach the 15-minute mark when Columbo makes his infuriating, mumbling entrance at the Clays’ front door. Whatever he’s  been smoking, it ain’t cigars…
  • I’m ready to turn off in rage 31 minutes in when the Lieutenant has to scream at the boatyard foreman over the noise of drills and buzz saws to make himself heard.
  • I’M QUITE WILLING TO KILL COLUMBO MYSELF in the 35th minute when he cosies up to young Lisa as she attempts to meditate beside Charlie’s palatial yacht.
  • I’ve lost the will to live by the 51st minute when the police start arsing about with the stencilled letters. Here endeth the clock watching.
Last Salute to the Commodore yoga
Ugh, make it stop!

That’s just the crust, though. The filling of this festering pie is just as  unappetising and is riddled with the unwelcome ingredients of tedium, goofiness and over-indulgence. But its cardinal sin? Between them, Falk and McGoohan make Columbo an annoyance – not just to the suspects, but to the viewer.

Yes readers, the Lieutenant of Last Salute is an irritating nuisance. He shouts all the time and creepily invades people’s personal space. He lacks his usual courtesy and warmth. He’s more whimsical, distracted and aloof than we’ve ever seen him and he seems to continually be in a state of mild amusement – as  if he’s stoned. His mannerisms are overblown and theatrical. In short, he’s an oddball – and McGoohan’s indelible fingerprints are all over it.

Of course it takes two to tango, and Falk must shoulder his share of the blame. After 36 outings in the crumpled mac he was doubtless glad of the chance to mix things up and push Columbo in new directions, but I daresay his friendship with McGoohan clouded his judgment and took his good eye off the ball, because allowing the Lieutenant to evolve into the infuriating weirdo he is in Last Salute is a betrayal of the Columbo we know and love.

The only comparable example I can think of is how Indiana Jones was portrayed as an unfunny, pedantic fool in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. How Harrison Ford stood for it I’ll never know.

‘Offbeat’ is probably the best way of describing this episode and the Columbo characterisation in one word and I would argue that McGoohan and Falk were being hugely overindulgent here. When he helmed Identity Crisis, McGoohan had such an insane story line to work with that he was able to satisfy his penchant for the offbeat without sacrificing everything else. Here, the audience isn’t in on the joke as its central star and director serve up a madcap imitation of what Columbo should be.

On your feet, idiot!

At this stage I ought to reiterate that it’s not the premise itself that hampers Last Salute. I have no issue with the series throwing us a whodunnit after 30+ stupendous ‘how-will-he-catch-ems’. The writers and producers have earned the right to surprise us.

Story writer Jackson Gillis was one of Columbo‘s most important contributors over many years, having been involved in classics such as Suitable for  Framing, Double Shock, Troubled Waters and Requiem for a Falling Star. The basic premise of  his story – man is slain, we think we know who did it until they too show up dead, then Columbo reveals all in a thrilling denouement – is sound. It could have been a solid entry to the series, but under McGoohan’s guidance the telling of the tale is an absolute shipwreck.

To start with, Last Salute is excruciatingly drawn out – far, far more than can be justified. Watching it is an absolute chore. I often crow about longer Columbo episodes being filled with padding, and the subsequent damage caused to the story, but this is on a whole different stratosphere. Minutes at a time are wasted with people saying nothing, or repeating the words of others, or talking about frigging boats, or even lying down on the job.

“The mystery culminates in what can only be described as the least satisfying parlour room reveal of all time.”

The camera lingers on this non-action for what seems like eons. A good example is the throat-slitting tedium of the police crew trying to rearrange the Commodore’s stencilled letters to spell something other than the word ‘SAILS’ – including toying with the word ‘ASSLI’. As a single scene it’s an embarrassment, but in reality every single thing that could be drawn out in this episode is drawn out. Enduring it is agony.

It also makes it hard to follow what’s going on, akin, if  you like, to trying to navigate a ship by starlight in a dense fog. If this was the first Columbo episode you ever watched I imagine you’d abandon this proverbial ship long before the episode’s denouement – and that would be no bad thing because the gotcha scene is one of the entire series’ biggest missteps.

A sparkling gotcha goes a long way to papering over the cracks of even lesser Columbo outings. Short Fuse is a very silly episode but has a cracking gotcha. Playback is an average adventure boosted by an emotionally charged conclusion. For the whodunnit experiment to work, Last Salute had to wow us with a riveting finale. Instead it ends with what can only be described as the least satisfying parlour room reveal of all time. Agatha Christie died only two months before this aired. She must have actually been spinning in her grave.

Columbo Last Salute Fred Draper
Say ’tisn’t’ again! SAY ‘TISN’T’ AGAIN! I dare you, I double dare you…”

Rather than gripping intrigue, we have 20 minutes of meandering chat from Columbo and his bungling sidekicks, and a medley of couldn’t-care-less-about characters reacting to the Lieutenant holding cupped hands to their ears and stating: “The Commodore’s watch.” The guilty party – our mate Swanny – identifies himself by saying ‘Tisn’t.’

And that’s it.

I’m sure this absurdity tickled McGoohan immensely but after wading through 90 minutes of bilge up to this point, for most viewers it’s a bewildering anticlimax – made more so by the fact the scene promptly cuts to Columbo and his fellow officers outside in the sunshine.

There’s no arrest shown, no reaction from the other suspects, and no further reference to the bonkers solving of the case. Mac and Kramer ought to be screaming: “What the hell just happened in there?” Instead we get silly smiles, and small talk about Mac’s new raincoat and Columbo being back on the cigars. On more than one occasion it has left this correspondent completely baffled, wondering if I’ve missed something.

Certainly Swanny needn’t worry about being locked up, so flimsy is the evidence. If anything, the case would more likely result in Columbo being bust back down to Sergeant for sullying the LAPD’s good name.

Last Salute fails on many levels besides this, too. Columbo’s stupid assistants add nothing and succeed only in making the LAPD look like cretins. I’m guessing they were supposed to add comic relief, but by gum they’re tedious. The running joke about whether ‘Mac’ has any Scotch or Irish heritage is staggeringly unfunny. I have to ask: who was this for? The viewers at home, or the back-slapping cronies Falk and McGoohan?

In fact the humour misses the mark throughout. I love a Columbo to be laced with some really good chuckles. That’s why Double Shock, Negative Reaction and Publish or Perish rank so highly with me. Last Salute thinks it’s funny, but the ‘gags’ on display here are, without exception, painful.

Report him to his superiors, Charlie! That’s harassment!

Columbo cuddling up to Charlie in the front seat of the Peugeot may have been vaguely entertaining, but to then have the detective massage Charlie’s thigh as he wraps him up in a phone cord aboard the yacht is really overdoing it. The Lieutenant’s yoga ineptitude similarly fails to raise a smile, as does his awful screaming match with foreman Fred at the boatyard.

If you enjoy these scenes, good luck to you. As I watch them unfold, I can assure you that my face is every bit as irate as the titular Commodore’s was at his birthday bash in the episode’s opening minutes.

Another pet peeve is the sheer number of characters in this episode – far more than it needs. Many are largely irrelevant, including some of the supposed key suspects. Lawyer Kittering and boatyard manager Wayne Taylor are really surplus to requirements. We never sense they’re involved in the crime and they’re so underdeveloped that in the gotcha scene they’re simply there to make up the numbers. Likewise the Commodore’s wife-to-be, Lisa King. She’s just a girl in the background throughout rather than the pivotal figure to the investigation she really ought to have been.

Exacerbating this is the fact that here’s no one to care about in this episode. As well as loving Columbo, we can usually sympathise with the villain, the victim or some of the support characters. Not here. Everyone is miserable and hateful. They also act weirdly around each other. Remember the scene when Swanny comforts a drunken Joanna after the death of Charles is revealed by creepily placing his hand on the side of her face? Even Columbo seems disturbed by it. I had to run and have a wash after viewing…

“Just one more question, sir. What the HELL are you doing?”

Because of all this it’s impossible to give a damn about the personal battles of any of our chief antagonists. Lisa describes the Commodore as ‘the most beautiful man who ever lived’. If so, why didn’t we see some of that so we could care a fig about the miserable codger’s fate? It’s terribly frustrating.

And how about having Fred Draper as the murderer? He’s been a bit-part player in so many Columbo episodes that I’m sure McGoohan and co thought it would be a delicious and unexpected curve-ball to have him cast as the killer. Who’d suspect old Fred, eh? Again, there’s merit in the idea, but again they botched it. Swanny is too much of a nothing character to draw any sort of emotional reaction when his guilt is finally (and nominally) revealed.

A further beef with Last Salute is the reminiscent nature of several key aspects. The young yoga-loving stunner marrying the elderly soulmate is a riff of Double Shock‘s (a Gillis-penned story) relationship between Lisa Chambers and victim Clifford – both of whom were far more effectively sketched out. A would-be will beneficiary stitching another to secure an inheritance is straight out of Gillis’s Suitable for Framing.

“Frankly the episode would’ve been more entertaining if they’d all gone on a boat trip together and it had sunk with the loss of all hands.”

Then there’s the broken watch clue that was prominently used in Candidate for Crime. And there’s also a hark back to Requiem for a Falling Star (another Gillis story), which referenced Nora Chandler disguising herself as her husband and heading out to sea to fool witnesses. Trying to disguise these familiar beats may have been another reason why Last Salute was so slathered in nonsense.

So does anyone come out of this mess with credit? Well, Diane Baker puts in a believably desperate turn as sad alcoholic Joanna (the latest in a long line of boozy Columbo housewives), but that doesn’t make her character likable or enjoyable to watch. Most viewers will  find her turn highly annoying, but I actually know people who are like that when drunk and can tell you it’s no bad acting performance.

Robert Vaughn is blameless as Charles Clay but looks bemused throughout – and no wonder. He was magnificent in Troubled Waters and warranted a second outing as a killer. He’s wasted in this swill.

Baker and Vaughn somehow emerged from this debacle with their heads above water

Finally, Last Salute irks because of the shadow it cast over the rest of the 70s’ episodes. Shades of the rage-inducing Columbo characterisation we see here remain – albeit mercifully toned down – until the curtain fell on the Lieutenant’s first run in 1978. I’ll be paying close attention to this in future reviews.

Still, as a long-term lover of this show there are positives to take, even from this baloney – chiefly the episode’s great twist, when prime suspect Charlie turns up dead an hour in. Although we didn’t see Charlie strike down the Commodore, surely every first-time viewer never doubts he’s the killer. It’s Robert Vaughn, after all! His death is a genuine stunner. All credit to the writers – now this really is a mystery.

Elsewhere Bernardo Segall’s jaunty score (his 9th of 10 Columbo outings) is excellent, and the cinematography can’t be faulted. The location shooting, showcasing deep blue water and light blue skies, really shows off the majesty of LA living. And keen fans are treated to cameos by series regulars John Finnegan and Mike Lally.

The best, though, is saved till last. As referenced above, the final scene of Columbo hopping into a boat and rowing off across the sparkling blue water to meet Mrs Columbo at the distant yacht club is a beautiful thing.

Columbo Bruce Kirby
Last Salute‘s magnificent locations offer a crumb of comfort to desperate viewers

The on-running gag throughout the episode is that Columbo is giving up the cigars. In real life the rumour was that Falk was leaving the show. So the ‘I thought you were quitting’ question put to Columbo by Kramer, and the Lieutenant’s response of ‘not yet… not yet…’ had a delicious double meaning, leaving the door ajar for a sixth season.

Had it all ended there it would have marked a fitting and poignant closure for the series. As such the scene ranks as one of the show’s very finest moments. But is it worth sitting through the rest of this rubbish to get there?


Did you know?

Last Salute to the Commodore is sufficiently infamous to have secured a place in the UK Guardian newspaper’s ‘When good TV goes bad‘ series back in 2017.

The tongue-in-cheek series chronicles those ‘jump the shark’ moments when outstanding TV shows slip from their peak, with Last Salute described as ‘a truly berserk episode‘. A fun read, clearly written by someone with affection for and knowledge of the show’s proud heritage, you can read it here!

How I rate ’em

As I’m sure you can tell, I’m not much enamoured with Last Salute to the Commodore. Frankly the episode would’ve been more entertaining if the key players had all gone on a boat trip together and it had sunk with loss of all hands within the first 10 minutes.

As a result, it plummets to the foot of the current standings where it will doubtless remain for many moons until some of the worst pap from the 80s/90s challenge its stranglehold on the wooden spoon.

Feel the need to revisit previous, more positive, episode reviews? Then click on any link below with confidence!

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Publish or Perish
  3. Double Shock
  4. Murder by the Book
  5. Negative Reaction
  6. A Friend in Deed
  7. Death Lends a Hand
  8. A Stitch in Crime
  9. Now You See Him
  10. Double Exposure
  11. Lady in Waiting
  12. Troubled Waters
  13. Any Old Port in a Storm
  14. Prescription: Murder 
  15. A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
  16. An Exercise in Fatality
  17. Identity Crisis
  18. Swan Song
  19. The Most Crucial Game
  20. Etude in Black
  21. By Dawn’s Early Light
  22. Candidate for Crime
  23. Greenhouse Jungle
  24. Playback
  25. Forgotten Lady
  26. Requiem for a Falling Star
  27. Blueprint for Murder
  28. Ransom for a Dead Man 
  29. A Case of Immunity
  30. Dead Weight —–C-List starts here——
  31. The Most Dangerous Match
  32. Lovely but Lethal 
  33. Short Fuse ———-D-List starts here—-
  34. A Matter of Honor
  35. Mind Over Mayhem
  36. Dagger of the Mind
  37. Last Salute to the CommodoreE-List starts here

Thanks for sticking with me through this treacherous voyage. Do let me know your own opinion on Last Salute below. If (horror of horrors) this episode ticks the boxes for you, PLEASE explain why because, try as I might, it gets worse for me with every viewing.

Still, I shall recover and will be back in the hot-seat to revisit Season 6 opener Fade in to Murder in the coming weeks. How will William Shatner’s particular brand of madcap compare to Mr McGoohan’s? Only time, that sweet, sweet healer, will tell…

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Columbo Last Salute to the Commodore
Let’s drink to forget all of this ever happened, shall we?
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236 thoughts on “Columbo episode review: Last Salute to the Commodore

  1. This episode leaves me feeling just like it does the Columbo fandom — torn in a love it or hate it kind of relationship.

    On one hand, I can not stand how Columbo is super odd in this episode with the touchy-feely creepiness, the invasions of personal space he seems to disregard, as well as being sort of flippant and just weird. I also agree the plot is sort of chaotic and really manic at times. With some scenes coming off as being sort of confusing as to what is going on at times, too. And there is a bit too much comedy in this episode as well. I have no idea what McGoohan and Falk were thinking while making this. Maybe since it was supposedly going to be the last episode originally, they wanted to change things up and see if a new formula worked for the show? I guess we are lucky the show did come back for 2 more seasons and in my opinion, ends up recovering quite well by outputting one of the better seasons for the ’70s show — Season 7.

    On the other hand, I love the performance of the drunk wife played by Diane Baker and also enjoy a lot of the scenes in this episode. I also found the Mac character to be super likeable and wish he had returned for another episode. I always liked Dugan in The Rockford Files and Can’t Buy Me Love. The score was also well done in this episode, which as a music lover always gives an episode bonus points.

    This episode definitely has Columbo breaking out of character a little too much. But, it offers up some good entertainment. And of course as you mentioned, it has one of the most poignant and amazing endings in the entire show’s run.

    As much as it sounds crazy, this episode grew on me a little after repeated viewings. Much like Dagger of the Mind and Murder by Mayhem also did, which lifted them from “actively disliked” status to “I sort of actually like now” status for me personally. I would rather watch this or those 2 episodes over what I feel are the 2 absolute worst episodes in the original entire ’70s run — Old Fashioned Murder and A Case of Immunity. Both of which I have watched at least 10 times now and both never improve or ever manage to be able to grow on me no matter how many times I watch them.

    But I digress, I ultimately agree that Last Salute is in the bottom 5 of episodes from the series’ ’70s run and probably would be a horrible mistake for a 1st time Columbo viewer to pick as their first entree to watch in the series.

    I dislike this episode, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think I hate it or have the disdain for it like you have.

    • YES!! My thoughts exactly. I think I’m experiencing a bit of backlash against all the criticism. Yet the Columbo character, whom you can always depend on, just isn’t that likeable here.

  2. My least liked Columbo. I quibble about plotting in other episodes, but they are always entertaining anyway. This one? On top of everything else, I really didn’t like the direction they took the Columbo character. It is like they tried to satirize his quirks and it flopped. Anyway, thanks for another fine review.

  3. Pingback: Summing up Columbo’s fifth season | The Columbophile

  4. Yes, there is quite a lot to dislike about “Last Salute to the Commodore.” But, if I may, let me point out two things that neither CP’s review nor any of the comments contend:

    First, neither disputes, for the first 60 minutes or this episode’s 91-minute running time, accepting as firmly established (in the true Columbo tradition) that Charles Clay murdered Otis Swanson.

    Second, neither disputes that Clay’s murder was a perception-altering surprise (unprecedented in the Columbo canon).

    So it’s not just, as CP puts it, that “the usual format was ditched in favour of a genuine whodunnit” — but that the usual format was ditched in favor of a genuine whodunnit seamlessly disguised (for two-thirds of its length) as the usual format. That’s no small feat, and deserves no small measure of recognition.

    This fact, and this fact alone, is sufficiently redeeming to elevate LSTTC above the “worst ever” ranks. I hope this fact will become even more clear when CP’s review of “Old Fashioned Murder” rolls around — an episode, in my judgment, with nothing redeeming about it whatsoever.

    • Old Fashioned Murder is a dreadful episode, but i have to admit i do find the bit where Columbo has to interview Darryl the hairdresser, and gets a horrible haircut for it, hilarious.

      • I’m a fan of the Daryl scene, too. Not just the highlight of the episode, but one of the series’ funniest moments. Overall it’s certainly one of the most forgettable 70s episodes, though.

        • yes old fashioned murder is definetley in the bottom 10 of the 70s run , ruth lyttons character is so dull , janie is annoying and its so tedious however the murder plot was quite clever but id still choose it over last salute but poor on the whole

    • I like to think I did give the twist and the genuinely surprising nature of Charlie’s death due credit in the piece: ‘Although we didn’t see Charlie strike down the Commodore, surely every first-time viewer never doubts he’s the killer. It’s Robert Vaughn, after all! His death is a genuine stunner. All credit to the writers – now this really is a mystery.’

      • As I said, no one disputes this. My point goes one step farther. Disguising LSTTC as a typical open-mystery Columbo for its first 60 minutes was no simple job. If you ask yourself WHY “every first-time viewer never doubts [Charlie’s] the killer,” there are multiple reasons beyond the casting of Vaughn and what we first see after the Commodore’s death. Clay acts like a typical Columbo murderer in numerous ways. Making his actions credible, both as they happen and in retrospect, was a sophisticated juggling act. “All credit to the writers—” absolutely! My point is that this “credit” is sufficient enough, as I see it, to elevate LSTTC from the Columbo cellar, even if everything else you say is 100% true.

        • Right on, Rich! I see where you’re coming from. Sadly I find so much of this so awful that it’s still not nearly enough to lift it off the bottom rung.

            • I think CP is referring to the 70’s run. There were 2 or 3 of the later episodes, including NTTD, that could compete for the overall title.

              • I’d probably rate 5 or 6 (maybe more) ‘new’ episodes below Last Salute. I deliberately haven’t watched any of the ABC years for ages so I can view them with fresh (hopefully not horrified) eyes when I come to review.

    • I disagree that no one disputes that Clay murdered the Commodore. The fact that we don’t see him do it–as we’ve seen every other murder in every other episode–is enough to raise suspicion that he’s covering for someone else.

  5. I have watched Columbo episodes from each season (13) a zillion times, but Salute to the Commodore is the worst, once was enough. I never got the plot and Columbo acted weird. It is not on the E list, but the Z 👎🏼 list!!! I would rather watch Dagger of the Mind or Mind over Mayhem than the Commodore, even Lionel Richie would pass on the “Commodore” 😏

    • As bad as Last Salute is it may still hold better than at least 5 New episodes maybe 6 these being Undercover, No time to Die , Murder with too many Notes , Murder in Malibu , Columbo goes under the guillotine , Its all in the game and maybe Murder a self portrait which also turns into a Mess , as for Strange Bedfellows is not a good new one but it has some Exciting scenes being chased by the mafia, a half decent plot and Geroge Wendt and rod Steiger put in good performances so it would be more preferable. but Yes last salute is still a Very poor episode.

  6. Apropos of nothing, Dennis Dugan, who played Mac, later was the director of many Adam Sandler movies.l

    • That’s interesting. Also, apropos of nothing, Diane Baker, who played Joanna Clay, played the senator in Silence of the Lambs. I loved her suit.

  7. Is “Last Salute to the Commodore” on my list of favorite Columbo episodes, or even episodes that I’ll watch when desperate for a Columbo fix…..

    (In the words of Swanny Swanson):


  8. yes were all in agreement that Last salute to the commodore is the worst of the 70s run
    so lets not dwell on it and look to better episodes to be reviewed on the horizon , Next up Fade in to Murder , this is one I find satisfactory but not near one of the best columbos of the 70s . William shatners role in this puts me off and at times its a bit silly but in comparison with last salute its a Blockbuster however I wont say too, much we will wait for columbophiles full review, here is how I Rate season 5

    1) Identity Crisis
    2) Now you see Him
    3) A Case of Immunity
    4) Forgotten Lady
    5) Matter of Honor
    6) Last Salute to the commodore

    Identity crisis is my favorite of the season and one of my overall favorites , Close behind Now you see him and a Case of immunity in 3rd which might surprise some but Ive never
    Truly enjoyed forgotten lady despite it being a classic episode , i just find it a bit boring matter of honor one of the worst of the 70s neck saved here by the dreadful last salute to the commodore.

  9. Congratulations on making a silk purse (your review) out of a true sow’s ear (the episode). I laughed aloud on several occasions while reading this over lunch at work, earning many bemused looks from colleagues. I actually want to do the unthinkable now and WATCH this episode to see if it’s really as bad as I remember and as you clearly believe it to be. Thanks for such a fun filled article, which ought to be mandatory reading for all Columbo fans.

  10. This episode is definitely the worst of ther 70’s run, but what a master piece is your review. How you can write such a funny, enjoyable piece about such a terrible piece of television is nothing but admirable. The only thing I didn’t like was the your sneer at Dagger of the Mind (an episode which for the life of me I still can’t understand why you detest it so much), but other than that, it’s marvelous. So thank you, it made my day!

  11. Something important about this episode is the abstract references to Orson Welles “Touch of Evil” (1958). The scenes in the movie where it is shot in a desolate industrial area, and Joesph Cotton does a cameo as a gruff coroner. Everyone is talking and conversing across each other. Orson is wondering around mumbling , then gruffly shouting orders. It is all disorganized and serpentine. Then in the motel room of Charlton Heston , Orson is again wondering how he can work without coffee or sweetrolls. It is abstract. This is very much like the chaos of this episode. It is very European not linear. If you are concrete and dull you will have trouble with this episode. Live and let live.
    Alex B.A. honours Film Studies York University, Toronto

      • It’s not talking down. It’s just everybody piles on about how horrible this episode is. Surely people are allowed to like it. It’s still my favourite Columbo and I think people are entitled to like which ever episode they like. I’m sure I will just get nasty comments.

        • I doubt you’ll get nasty comments, Anne. I’m always pleased to hear that people find pleasure in the episodes I consider to be lesser lights (or terrible), and I’m sure most other fans do too.

        • Calling people “dull” is talking down. (Not that you did that; that was Urbane Owl, above.) You’re absolutely allowed to like episodes everyone else doesn’t like. I like “Murder Under Glass” and most of the 1989–2003 episodes. 🙂

  12. Have to admit that this is one of my lest watched episodes of the 1970’s era and one i am never in much of a hurry to watch again.

    Great review as always and a pleasure to read, i look forward to the next one now. You are getting closer and closer to reviewing my favourite episode Make Me a Perfect Murder!

    • Yes I like make me a perfect Murder as well Kay Freestones charachter was one of the best but Try and catch me is My overall favorite , This is the review I am exceptionally looking forward to mind we have a couple of more average episodes coming first though in Fade in to murder and one of my least favorites the Dull Old fashioned murder

  13. Although Last Salute to the Commodore (aka Last Salute to the Lieutenant?) is undoubtedly the poorest episode of the original run, I think this can be put down solely to the quirky direction of Patrick McGoohan, rather than to the script or the casting.

    If this was intended to be the last episode of Columbo (at least as a regular part of Sunday Mystery Movie) then a lot of things start to make sense, first of all the inclusion of Dennis Dugan as “Mac”. Is it possible that Universal was lining him up as a potential replacement for the Columbo slot in the next season if Peter Falk had hung up the raincoat?

    It also makes sense for the Dugan character to be called “Mac”, as it seems that this episode is intended to be a homage to much of what had come before: “Anybody ever call you Mac?” (A Stitch in Crime). The “reminiscent nature of several key aspects” are deliberate homages to earlier episodes that the long time viewer is meant to notice, just as Columbo himself will remember them as the kind of clues that helped him solve some of his earlier cases.

    And it’s surely no coincidence that so many members of the large cast had appeared in previous episodes? Not just main guest star Robert Vaughn (and it’s a nice twist that we only think that he’s the murderer) but also Wilfred Hyde-White, John Dehner, Joshua Bryant and Fred Draper. All familiar faces appearing in different roles, much like the final episode of Quantum Leap. Bruce Kirby as Sgt Kramer is the only cast member to play a recurring role, and even he had played a different character in Lovely But Lethal.

    And as such, it’s a very nice touch to have bit player Fred Draper (no offence Fred) play the actual murderer, as we are so used to seeing him play either an innocent bystander, or someone who helps Columbo solve a case, as he appears to do at first during the conclusion of this episode.

    The scene where Swanny comforts Joanna after the death of Charles is supposed to be creepy, in light of that fact that he had actually just murdered her husband and father and was framing her for it. It’s intended to be a clue that arouses Columbo’s suspicions.

    Finally, I’m very glad that this was not the last of the original run, as some of the best episodes (Murder Under Glass, Try And Catch Me) where still to come . . .

  14. Fun review of a controversial episode. Rather than reiterating the general negativity, I’ll just offer a few points:

    Something about the dreamy pacing and the sun-washed cinematography makes me think everyone involved in this episode was on acid. The whole outing has a druggy feel.

    As a director, McGoohan has an annoying penchant for sudden zoom shots. It worked occasionally in The Prisoner, since that show was very much about a sense of disorientation. It doesn’t work here.

    My favorite line in the episode comes from Mac during the reveal scene. Something like, “everyone noticed the commodore had been acting funny lately.” Huh? Nothing in John Dehner’s performance suggests a man in love. As far as we can tell, he was the same angry, antisocial misanthrope he’d always been.

    As Columbo rows away, I can’t help but wonder, how is it possible for someone to whistle “This Old Man” with a cigar in his mouth?

  15. A really silly and sub par episode. They tried something different which is OK, but it just didn’t work. Still more entertaining than a couple of other 70’s episodes but definitely one of the worst of that decade. Once again though Robert Vaughn did a really good job, but it just seems like this episode had more potential.

  16. This being the only early episode I have failed to re-view from time to time, I decided to wait on reading your review until I saw the episode first. Well, I certainly did not change my opinion. It was as excruciatingly nauseating and painful to watch as it was in the past. Then I read your review. I’m lucky I was locked in my office when I read it, because my wife and daughters might have thought I was crazy if they saw me rolling in laughter with tears rolling down my cheeks as I read it. I mean it literally. This was as perfect a review from start to finish as the episode was atrocious from start to finish. Every single one of your photo captions was hilarious, and my stomach was killing me by the time I finished your time-keeping countdown to murder and suicide. I actually timed the stencil scene – THREE ENTIRE MINUTES!!! You also somehow forgot another “funny scene” that was infantile and painful to see – the Kirby-hold-the-lamp-upside-down scene. As if he really thought Columbo had some reason for him not to put the lamp down. Indeed, that whole scene is almost as painful as the stencil scene, with about 3 minutes wasted on trying to read the time on the watch.

    The only real disagreement I have is about Vaughn, whom you loved in his other role. I hated him in that role, and in every role. How can an actor who always looks like he is in a funeral home make a picture successful? The man had an utterly monotonous speaking style, and he could not raise his voice or change moods at any point. In fact, his lifeless, emotionless, expressionless, funless (I know it’s not a word) manner of acting was a perfect pick for this drag-and-drawl your way to death episode.

    How could the combination of Link, Falk and McGoohan sign off on such a disaster? My only possible explanation is that sometimes for a big sign-off you try so hard to make something different and special, that you don’t end up realizing how bad it actually is, just as when you look at the work of some of the greatest architects and see 15 gorgeous designs and one that is so sick and ugly that you wonder HOW?

    PS In the scene above, what in the world does Columbo say at the end before pointing to the yacht – “marsh chair”? I’ve re-listened 15 times and still cannot figure it out.

    • Your comments here delighted me so much that I made my family read them so they could enjoy the POWER of a good Columbo critique! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the review! And thanks for the intel on the length of the stencils scene. If you’d told me it last three hours I’d have had no problem believing you!

      • You deserved it. I meant every word. I am a writer/editor and a synagogue rabbi by profession, and a comedian and mimic by hobby within my greater family, so I enjoyed both the writing quality and the humor aspect greatly. I was about to write that it was almost worth having them make this crappy Columbo just to get your critique, but then I reconsidered and said, “Hold on now, let’s not go THAT far.”

    • My screen jumped and I mistakenly posted a reply to your question in another comment chain. Oops! I believe Falk says “Molly J” as he points at the boat.

    • And speaking of the numerous annoyances in this episode, even Dennis Dugan completing Columbo’s sentence with the false-note dramatic emphasis of “…the time!” is just one more to add to the heap.

    • “You also somehow forgot another “funny scene” that was infantile and painful to see – the Kirby-hold-the-lamp-upside-down scene. As if he really thought Columbo had some reason for him not to put the lamp down. Indeed, that whole scene is almost as painful as the stencil scene, with about 3 minutes wasted on trying to read the time on the watch.”–Absolutely agree! So silly that Columbo, the eagle-eyed detective, couldn’t read the watch. And for Kirby to just stand there holding that lamp–I kept waiting for the camera to pan back and show the lamp back on the table, hoping he wouldn’t still be holding it–no such luck.

    • Leosmart, have you watched The Man from UNCLE? Vaughn had much more range in that show, and was a perfect Napoleon Solo.

    • Regarding RV, IMO some actors are hired for what they can do, others for who they are (recurring personality types) meaning as a starting point for what’s required in the story. The balance of the work (or the success of a character as you would call it) depends upon (obviously) the writer (plot & dialogue) and direction. In this case, an actor doesn’t change (make suggestions) on the script provided. At least if he’s looking forward to his next job. And RV was very much an experienced “working actor” knowing that contentious (or difficult personalities) aren’t popular in the business. He didn’t rank high enough in the production anyway because PF ran the show.

      No doubt the role given to him was framed as being “cold, calculating, poker-faced, confident and arrogant.” In that situation the dialogue (and nuance) was minimal. Which didn’t leave (or call for) a lot of unrestrained emotion to be expressed. He’s been cast in many roles like that (such as Troubled Water). Unfortunately (in the viewer’s mind) this Commodore episode did require a lot more energy (right) otherwise it turning out mundane.

      Movie work is a different vehicle, so another way to compare RV’s talent (range) in an hour long series (not including MFU) would be in the A-Team’s episode “The Say UNCLE Affair.” Sure, he plays a dour CIA Intelligence officer (one of his trademark roles) but also playing against his former MFU sidekick/partner, now turned nemesis. The pairing nicely displayed RV’s performance range. Here’s the link: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0504219/plotsummary?ref_=tt_ov_pl

      The real deal is this, that many talented actors admired Mr. Falk so much they jumped at the opportunity to work with him. While PF made his character seem effortless, his was known for challenging his guest stars with unexpected twists. Because this episode didn’t seem to take advantage of that kind of interplay among the character/actors, then I’d definitely fault the writing & direction.

  17. After all these opinions and comments, the question is WHY?
    (Sorry for my English. It’s technical language, and maybe I don’t use the correct English or American terms.)

    Looking at the episode, it seems as if there was no script. As if the script was written while the movie was made. As if they invented the end, the clue, only when half of the episode was already shot.

    They gathered Peter Falk, Patrick McGoohan, Jackson Gillis, Robert Vaughn, … they gathered the location of Dead Weight, the ideas of “the man asking what time it is” (while he has a perfect watch), of the drunken wife, of the Mercedes, of the broken watch (and other things you mention), and they made… a mess.
    (However: they did not use a lot of columbo-gimmicks.)

    I see two possibilities:
    1) After having made 36 episodes, with great success, they had too much SELF-CONFIDENCE. They started shooting the movie without knowing how to end it. (But the spontaneity they reckoned on didn’t come.)
    2/ After having made 36 episodes, they were sick of it. Fed up with Columbo. ENNUI. And wanted to make a bad, disappointing episode to end it all.

    In both cases, I imagine the budget was almost finished when they still had some 25 minutes to shoot. So they went to the Clay’s house and made the scene with the car turning in the garden. And they assembled all the characters in the Commodore’s house without having written the dialogues.

    Or maybe they discovered suddenly that Robert Vaughn was too expensive, or had to leave for another movie or theater. So they decided to “kill” Charles, without knowing why, and needed a new murderer, whom they found in a character who seems to weak to kill even a fish.

    So: WHY?

  18. Usually after reading your review, I’m motivated to watch the episode right then and there…not so with this one. I have no need to raise my blood pressure for all the reasons you outline in the second half of your post. I enjoyed your take on it thoroughly and the criticism section is SPOT ON!

    What this episode needs is an additional video clip just before it starts and one at the end—where, in the beginning the show opens up to see Columbo working on a case at his desk at the precinct and he gets tired and falls asleep on a couch and DREAMS this entire episode…and wakes up at the end, relieved that it wasn’t an actual episode.

  19. The review was certainly more entertaining than the episode. Thanks for pointing out the tired old tropes that went into it (the boozy housewife, the lovely young woman falling for the older gent, etc., and add the hapless cops who give Columbo no help at all). Two atomically small partial redemptions: Charles explaining ‘lowering the boom’; the usage of “Tisn’t” – which my family took as a running gag, using it whenever possible ever since.

  20. In viewing this entry prior to reading your review (I’m happy to read your summary before watching) I found that it was a little easier to sit through than before, mainly because of my familiarity with it. This was one episode where subtitles were a necessity listening to all the nautical nonsense, plus the shouting match at the yard, I can’t imagine how much tougher it would have been on a UHF station with dicey sound in 1976. This smarmy Columbo was a shock, and how he routinely got so physically intimate with the suspects, male and female, surely would have earned him a write up from the department! It’s bad and not even in a good way, and to pair it with “Dagger of the Mind” at the bottom seems poetic justice

  21. This is both your finest and funniest review yet! Concur with your sentiments – the episode really feels like a drugged-out extravaganza, almost saved by the sincerely beautiful final scene.

  22. I hate to put a dampener on pretty much the only thing you liked about this episode – the ending – but I can’t reconcile that scene with what we know about Columbo’s fear of water. If he couldn’t cope with a trip on General Hollister’s fancy yacht in “Dead Weight”; if he gets so seasick on a fancy ocean liner that he has to visit the ship’s doctor in “Troubled Waters” – then there’s no way he could happily row himself from one side of the bay to the other in this episode.
    I understand why the writers put this in, given the situation regarding the future of Columbo – I just can’t believe it!

  23. We have all seven series of the 1970’s Columbo on DVD and this is the episode we *never* watch. It’s as though Patrick McGoohan had cranked up his ‘Prisoner’ side to full power, weirdness for the sake of weirdness and the sense he was just trying to see how much he could get away with before his bluff was called.
    There are some good episodes to come but, sadly, I don’t think Columbo was ever quite the same after this. Occasionally Peter Falk’s performance seemed too knowing, and his acting became ponderous, on the lines of: “I’m being humble here, but you [the viewer] know and I know this is only an act.”
    There’s just one more thing… I emailed the website recently to say that in Portuguese the word a ‘colombófilo’ is someone who keeps racing pigeons. (Well, I think it’s interesting… just one of those ‘loose ends’ that bother me, y’know? Like when you can’t think of the name of a movie…)

  24. I sat down to watch this episode tonight, having no idea about the infamy of the episode. As I watched I became more confused, bothered and finally, stunned. After it was over I didn’t quite know what to think. This was obviously my beloved Columbo show, but parts of the show didn’t seem to make any sense. And as you mention in the review, I felt I was watching many scenes that were improvised (and not improvised well). And I didn’t understand why Columbo seemed to be acting so strangely.

    I was compelled to search the internet to see what others thought of the episode. So I’m happy I found your wonderful review. I thought maybe I was ill or something :). Nope, it was just a bad episode.

    In general I don’t like “whodunnit” mystery shows, which is one reason the Columbo series is so precious. I’m happy they later reverted to the standard format.

  25. Maybe you have to be a fan of the Marx bros. to enjoy this episode. As I have said before I really love this episode. It has comedy and pathos. The character of Joanna is sympathetic, used by her husband and Swany, etc. Lisa is sympathetic, too. The direction has an Orson Welles feel to it,like the scene with the demented laughter. Patrick Mcgoohan also worked with Orson Welles. I also think it was a fitting ending to the series. I know Peter falk liked Columbo but wanted to do more roles as most actors do. He did some really good films with John Cassavetes. Of course the next fav. episode is the Conspirators another one you hate. Still I am glad reviewed the Last Salute and at least one other fan liked it. Hopefully you liked the next one.

  26. As usual your assessment was spot on. I’ll revert to the adage that if you don’t have something good to day, don’t say anything.

    The turns Falk takes with the character at this point in the series on are not for the better. “Old Fashioned Murder” is coming up soon on your list of episodes and Falk ruins what could have been a good plot by mumbling and whispering his way through it bringing the energy level of the whole episode down to that of a dead car battery.

    But that’s a couple of episodes down the line. I’ll leave my thoughts on “Last Salute” at what I wrote above.

  27. Yup, this episode was just a huge misfire. The physical comedy–Columbo invading Vaughn’s personal space–was just all wrong. Columbo’s odd, stoned, goofy manner was all wrong, although I don’t agree that the latter episodes of the original run show it.

    But a lot of the episode just did not make sense. Why did Swanny kill Robert Vaughn? I don’t know. “SAILS” being an anagram for “LISA S.”–wouldn’t anyone just use a single S stencil two times, rather than getting two different stencils of the same letter for no reason? The goofiness of the “tisn’t” gotcha–beyond how silly it is that Columbo has to translate “tisn’t” as “it isn’t”, it’s hard not to think that his whole gotcha collapses if Swanny says “who cares?” like the other two men do.

    I don’t agree with some of The Columbophile’s criticisms: a 2-hour Columbo is not by definition bad, and many of the latter-day episodes are just as good as classic Columbo. But this one is just a failure and it’s a pity.

    BTW, Jackson Gillis also wrote the one truly terrible episode of the Columbos I’ve watched in Seasons 8 and 9, “Murder in Malibu”. I shiver to think what The Columbophile will write about that one.

    • Really bad acting can make a good story look terrible. I think that’s what Murder in Malibu does, with a much different cast I’m positive it would have been a great case. Of course, to each his own and it still may not have been palatable after all.

      • It would still have a lot of other problems, like once again an extremely weak gotcha, and way, way too many times where Peter Falk has to say the word “panties”. But I agree that the acting is atrocious. Andrew Stevens was just the worst.

        • The twist with Andrew Stevens being the culprit, then not the culprit, than back to the culprit was an interesting change from the norm. The episode needed alot of tidying up, I agree.

        • I have the opposite problem with “Malibu”: I enjoy Andrew Stevens (he was great in “Red Blooded American Girl” (1990)) but I found the plot of that episode depressing! 🙂

          • I agree that in “Murder in Malibu”, Andrew Stevens is a good actor, playing a man who coms up with a clever scheme to get away with murder, but who is not a good enough actor to pull it off. The scene where he “confesses” to the murder and faints is supposed to be over the top and unconvincing.

        • You have a problem with change, and don’t like surprises. You take things at face value, and literally. You are more of an Agatha Christie type of crime fan. You want Columbo to present within a familiar ,and established palette. He should be predictable , with a constant style. In short you are a year 1-4 Columbo fan. You are not firstly a Peter Falk fan. He loved those season 5 episodes with Patrick McGoohan. You aren’t sold on all of them. He was an actor that like doing different characters, and different challenges. You are very conservative and get your back up because to you imaginative minority opinions ” Rock you Boat”. So you become borderline cruel, and see all these annoying outside the box opinions as direct challenges against you and your orthodox Columbo fans authoritarian certainty. You can’t just be so rudely dismissive of contrasting thoughts. You shut down and move on. It is like hands up yay! ,hands up nay! Well my side carries it, end of episode debate. We win now keep quiet. It makes you seem like a right of centre art censor. Too bad!!! You are correct because it is The Columbophile however he wouldn’t think much of your narrow judgements. His favourite part as a TV actor was as O’Brien in Trials of O’Brien. He said he had more range. Don’t bother you wouldn’t like it too different. Another part he really enjoy was as tin-pot dictator in Genet’s, ” The Balcony”. That was with Leonard Nimoy and Shelly Winters.

          • It was quite easy to imagine you peering over a deck of Tarot cards or scowling into a crystal ball as I read your screed. Thanks for the chuckle.

    • Love your observation about not needing two “S” stencils. That’s how I would have done it, anyway. Gold Star!!

    • I noticed, too, that there was no need to buy a second S stencil. In real life, there would also be no need to actually paint LISA S. Mac and Kramer could just rearrange the stencils in the proper order, and Columbo could stand at the end holding up the S and the period. But not to worry, they didn’t really use the stencils anyway. There was no paint on them.

    • Great point about the stencils. I also wondered what his motive was for killing Charles. Given that he wanted to get his hands on the money, wouldn’t it have made more sense for him to kill Joanna and pin it on Charles?

  28. I tried to like this episode…..really I did. It had so much potential and many reasons to be a good one: great cast (Diane Baker was one of the loveliest ladies to ever appear on a Columbo), Vaughn, Dehner, Hyde-White, Lally, Kirby, etc., and McGoohan directing. But Columbo’s strange physical scenes with Vaughn, the nonsensical “Naval Architect/Marine Engineer” hippy chick, Mac’s droll persona, the episode’s overall length, the excruciating stencil discovery and “Commodor’s Watch” segments, Columbo rowing off into the sunset, laying down on the deck for no reason like a drunk…….this episode just didn’t get the job done, for me at least. The storyline though, is interesting in a made for tv mystery way.

    When I watch Commodore, Falk seems to disassociate himself from the Columbo character, and I see the Peter Falk that I’m not necessarily a fan of; rumors of his prima donna real-life attitude, his movies with Cassavetes, their drunken bouts. Whatever he saw in Shera Danese eludes me (like how I never understood Clint Eastwood’s attraction to a rather drab looking/acting Sondra Locke). I never liked Falk in ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’ or even ‘Murder by Death’, though overall they’re both great flicks.

    Despite all the enjoyment I got from his quirky Columbo character, the fact is that I never once believed for a single minute that he was ‘Italian’. I always pictured him more at home on a Kibbutz, or at Katz’s deli in NYC…..that’s not being anti-Semitic, it’s just that he never could pull off Italian/Sicilian to me, and his Eastern European-ness wrapped in New York tough-guy always seemed to radiate his persona. And of course the sad story of how his daughters from his first wife were denied visitation during his final years by Danese, prompting ‘the Peter Falk Bill’ slowly working it’s way through legislation in DC. https://catherinefalkorganization.org.

    The great episodes reaffirm my faith in not only Falk and his Columbo character (Italian or not), but humanity….now to the next episode……..this one’s a dud in my book.

  29. Oh, how I’ve waited for this one! You tackled this episode perfectly, proud of ya.
    I had no idea this was potentially going to be the last Columbo outing though. I remember saying to my friends that the end scene seemed out of place and like something out of a series finale. It all makes sense now…

  30. Best TV Blog on the Net strikes again! What a marvelous and funny review. And yes — this truly is the bottom of the barrel. 🙂

    About ten years back, my wife and I went through the 45-episode cannon (ABC doesn’t count.) and we separately rated each episode from 1 to 10. (The only double-10 was “A Friend in Deed.”)

    This was the only episode rated by both of us below a 4 — and we both rated it a “1” (since ZERO was not available). Nauseatingly bad (but for the always good [and sexy] Diane Baker).

    Thanks again, Best laugh I’ve had in long while. 🙂

  31. This is the first time I’ve run across your review site and I couldn’t agree more the most irritating moment for me is cramming into the front seat of the car why didn’t Robert Vaughn simply say Lieutenant is it okay if I sit in the back seat?

    • Or why didn’t they ride in the much bigger black car that Kramer and Mac had arrived in? Or why wouldn’t Vaughn’s character Clay have just said, “Lt – I’m not riding in that deathtrap. I’ll meet you there.”

      It was weird the way that Falk touches just about every actor in the episode, but especially creepy how he puts his arm around Vaughn and MeToos the meditating Lisa.

      • Because it is funny if they all ride in the same car like clowns. And Columbo makes Robert Vaughn’s character feel uncomfortable. It’s ridiculous and it is supposed to be. This guy was in movies with Buster Keaton, Jack Benny, Rochester, Jack Lemmon,( Ernie Kovacs’ friend), Edie Adams, Carl Reiner and so much more. He liked comedy. Obviously a lot of people don’t share that sense of humour.

  32. Great review as always! I’ve actually got nothing else to add as your thoughts are practically identical to mine.
    The ppt twist is great, but ruined by too many daft scenes that display Columbo in such an irritating way that I know how his suspects must feel. The repetitive nature of the dialogue in several scenes is the laziest writing I’ve ever seen in a Columbo episode. And the shouting at the boat yard really misses the mark.
    I often think that this episode can’t be as bad as I often think. But after sitting through it a few Sundays ago in anticipation of this review, I found it worse than I remember it been.

  33. For what it’s worth, the general public shares your contempt for this episode. It gets a 6.5/10 fan rating on IMDB and stands 45th out of the 45 NBC episodes (including the pilots).

    I must admit that I did fall for the misdirection in the “killing” scene and was briefly re-engaged when the Vaughn character was killed. (Shades of Janet Leigh!) Then the episode fell off the proverbial cliff. I also liked the Mac character, though I would have preferred Bob Dishy’s Fred-John Wilson.

  34. Columbophile-
    Will you be writing a summary article about the court case of this past week, which Universal lost regarding Columbo profits?

  35. Great to see last salute reviewed all be it behind schedule, never the less another good review shame the same can’t be said about the episode itself.
    I would like to show appreciation to columbophiles honesty as regards to his hatred of this episode boy there was no holding back and I also hate this episode , my problem is even if I could tolerate all the wasteful dogs vomit that this episode is made up of ( which I can’t ) I still struggle to follow the plot and the clues and I still can’t truly understand the ending, which at least would have be something to remember, As I have said before hated a matter of Honor 2 episodes earlier, well I have had a complete change of mind A matter of honor is much more credible than this because it at least has some sense to the story and is not jam-packed full of Ronald mc donalds it has some serious characters at least .
    The charachters in this cocktail of Nonsense are either very silly, annoying or even both
    In conclusion I am so relieved to see it bottom below Dagger of the Mind which rotted there ever since it was reviewd, a long time ago.

  36. I one hundred percent agree with your review of this episode. From the first time I watched it, years ago, I hated it. It’s boring and very un-columbo like. Let’s move on…..

  37. Totally agree. This episode was a total waste of time and cringeworthy to say the least. Not one of my favourites!

  38. thank you, Columbophile,

    I agree.
    However, I think you are still too indulgent for this episode.
    Every Columbo-episode gives us, let’s say, 30 minutes of psychological war, Columbo using a large spectrum of psychological weapons, from charming to shouting, against the suspect, sometimes an accomplice, or even a witness. ‘Prescription: Murder’ showed the way, the others followed. Even in a ‘whodunnit’, Columbo could have used that kind of weapons, he even could have used them much more, against several suspects, but he didn’t. That’s why this episode is plenty of time-fulling non-sense. (Your text was too short to mention them all…)

    And: Why was Swanny stupid enough to say ‘Tisn’t’? He could have answered ‘May be’, or ‘Don’t know’. Although he was clever enough for the murder of the Commodore, he made the fatal error.
    And why Charles Clay was murdered (I should look again, to remember, or understand)?

    Notice: You write ‘was the Commodore, like, 100 years old?’. However, it’s easy to have a nephew who’s older than you. For instance a man having a son A when he’s 20, and a son B when he’s 50, the son A having a son AA when he’s 20. The nephew AA is 10 years older than his uncle B.

    You write Joanna is ‘the latest in a long line of boozy Columbo housewives’. Maybe she’s the latest, but not the last. The drunkenness of Yoanne fills about 10% of the episode. Maybe it’s a little bit to much too. The inebriety of a scenario showing the inebriety of one of the chief characters.

    • When growing up, I lived across the street from a huge multi-generational Italian family and frequently played with a boy my age and his younger aunt. They had to explain it to me VERY slowly. Since I didn’t know where babies came from, it all sounded phony to me.

      The family name, btw, was Polumbo.

  39. Bravo, sir. Your review is every bit as enjoyable as I hoped. I watched this episode last night with my good wife in preparation for the review and your verdict on it is infinitely more enjoyable than the episode itself. I’m so pleased you referenced the creepy moment when Swanny places his hand on Diane Baker’s face because it was so awful. My wife and I have read your review with tears of hilarity rolling down our cheeks. Please accept our thanks for providing such exceptional entertainment from such dismal source material.

  40. I couldn’t agree more – this is a slog to watch, and rivaled only by the worst of the late-run Columbos!

  41. I love every second of this episode.
    And mostly for all the reasons you list for hating it. It flips everything Columbo on it’s head and does it well. The gotcha wouldn’t hold up in court, but then again if you look at 90 percent of the gotchas in the series, any defense lawyer worth his paycheck gets the killer off. Very rarely do all of the people in a Columbo seem like they could be the killer, so your lament about Wayne and the lawyer is irrelevant.
    Other would be suspects were knocked off half way through episodes, the only difference being we don;t know they are not anymore than Columbo does.
    Mac wasn’t actually a side kick, as Capt Ritchie in “Greenhouse Jungle” had Det Sgt Wilson work with Columbo, so that is not without precedence in the series. The pieces are all the same, the only difference is the structure of the plot was altered, and this is an underrated, and over hated, episode because of it.

    • I don’t think the lament about Wayne and Kittering is irrelevant. Unlike other episodes they’re present for the reveal, suggesting Columbo believes they’re viable suspects when they haven’t contributed enough to the episode to warrant it. They really are there to make up the numbers.

      • Yes, you certainly took one for the team by having to immerse yourself in it. Akin to a restaurant critic finally trying a place visited more by the health department than by customers.

  42. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Now You See Him | The Columbophile

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