From the sublime to the ridiculous, Columbo‘s fifth season can perhaps best be described as a roller coaster ride.
It soars to giddy heights in the joyous Now You See Him, while plunging to devastating depths in the season-ending Last Salute to the Commodore. It ventured into new realms of Middle Eastern politics, bull-fighting and global spy networks, while tearing at the heartstrings with the pathos-packed season opener Forgotten Lady.
The season proved that its writing team had lost none of its capacity to surprise with intriguing story lines and jaw-dropping revelations, but in terms of overall quality Season 5 is, by most fans’ reckoning, the weakest we’ve encountered so far.
Now You See Him aside, I personally rate the season as largely average. Identity Crisis has some great moments and a delightful relationship between Patrick McGoohan and Peter Falk to amuse the viewers, but elsewhere it’s a strangely flat selection.
As referenced above, Last Salute is a horrible piece of television, while A Matter of Honor and A Case of Immunity, although not without merit, are lesser lights of the Columbo opus. Even Forgotten Lady‘s tear-jerking finale is preceded by a rather ponderous 90 minutes of TV that struggles to fully engage – although I do accept that many fans rate it higher than I do.
What is noticeable about Season 5, though, is the character evolution of Lieutenant Columbo. Forgotten Lady and Case of Immunity largely feature the Lieutenant we know and love. He’s still unassuming and meandering, still not overtly razor sharp, so it’s a characterisation we’re familiar with. But when Identity Crisis came along, things started to change – and not for the better.
With episode director Patrick McGoohan keen to help Falk push the Lieutenant’s boundaries, we started to see character developments sneaking in – some of which would have been better left unexplored. I’m thinking particularly of the scene in Sinbad’s adult bar, where Columbo shows scant regard to the vital testimony of the bartender – instead giving most of his attention to the belly dancer.
Columbo here is discourteous and inattentive, while his out-to-lunch facial expressions and mannerisms are pure caricature. These new features were magnified ad infinitum in Last Salute to the Commodore to dreadful affect, and would remain part of the Columbo character – in various shades – for the rest of the 70s’ run.
This is a real shame, because the Columbo we’ve known up to now is all Falk, and is all the more lovable because of it. All the charm and the mannerisms were his, and all seemed entirely natural. From Last Salute onwards his representation veered more towards being an impersonation of Columbo and while there are still some blisteringly good 70s’ episodes to come, whenever I’m watching a season 7 Columbo I so wish it featured the Lieutenant we know from seasons 1-4.
The themes of season 5
Character evolution aside, there are several major and recurring themes in season 5 that are well worth discussing – not least the overarching theme that there is more going on in each episode than initially meets the eye.
In Forgotten Lady, we learn late on that Grace Wheeler is terminally ill and has no recollection of murdering her husband. Hassan Salah’s motives remain shrouded throughout Case of Immunity, while the mystery-within-a-mystery in Matter of Honor centres on Luis Montoya’s secret shame of freezing in the bull-ring – an aspect hidden from viewers until the final scene.
Set against the backdrop of international espionage, Identity Crisis is deliberately confusing. We never really know what’s going on, or what’s driving Nelson Brenner. Similarly, the illusory nature of Now You See Him means that no part of Columbo’s investigation can be taken at face value.
As for Last Salute? We are totally lulled into a false sense of security by Robert Vaughn’s presence, and when he is killed two-thirds of the way through it’s a genuine stunner leaving us with a proper, and well disguised (although dreadfully executed), whodunnit on our hands.
As a result of all this, Columbo has to dig deeper and be more intuitive than ever before, leading to a number of grand, set-piece finales where the Lieutenant forces his quarry into publicly revealing their guilt.
The legend of Luis Montoya dissolves away in front of witnesses as he freezes in fear under the gaze of the mighty Marinaro. Columbo tricks a smug Salah into confessing his guilt as the King of Suari listens in behind a closed door, while Santini’s own tricks are used against him in Now You See Him‘s theatrical denouement.
The wily detective tampers with a reel of film to test Grace Wheeler’s ability to fix it (as he believes she had to do on the night of the death of her husband) and poor old Swanny is tricked into revealing his guilt in a packed parlour by denying that a ticking watch held to his ear was the Commodore’s – something that only the murderer could have known.
Of the six episodes in the series, only Nelson Brenner in Identity Crisis wasn’t forced into revealing his hand, instead simply being outmanouevered by his slippery opponent. Maaaaaah Joooong!
Forcing these outcomes plays into another theme of the series – that of Columbo being a more dominant figure – particularly within the LAPD. In previous series he’s been portrayed as something of a loner who is rarely given the respect he deserves by his colleagues, despite his stellar arrest record.
“In season 5 Columbo is increasingly shown to be the man in charge.”
Think of Candidate for Crime, when the Lieutenant is admonished by his superior officer for being late to the crime scene and for not listening. Remember how his fellow officers were rolling their eyes as he investigated in By Dawn’s Early Light, when they all just wanted to head home for Sunday dinner. Where’s the rezpek?
It’s all different in season 5. Here he’s increasingly shown to be the man in charge, whether that’s bossing the crime scene in Identity Crisis, commanding sidekicks Wilson, Mac and Kramer in Now You See Him and Last Salute, or playing mentor to Comandante Sanchez in Matter of Honor.
Columbo’s colleagues defer to his better judgment throughout the season. Given all that we’ve seen of his amazing deductive abilities, this new-found respect seems entirely warranted – one might even say it’s long overdue.
Ranking the seasons
So how does season 5 compare to all that’s come before it? Well, regular readers may remember a previous article discussing whether season 4 marked ‘peak Columbo’ in terms of overall episode quality, and comparing the strength of seasons against one another. It’s time to repeat that experiment.
To run a fair comparison, I use a simple formula. I’ve ranked all 37 episodes reviewed so far (see end of article for full list) and have allocated a points rating for each episode based on their position in the list. That means Suitable for Framing (my current fave) has 1 point and Last Salute (adrift at the bottom) has 37 points.
I’ve then totted up a cumulative score for all the episodes in a particular season and divided that total by the number of episodes in the season to get an average points score per episode. The lowest overall points score denotes the strongest season on an episode-by-episode basis. And here are the findings:-
- 2 episodes (Prescription: Murder and Ransom for a Dead Man) in 14th and 28th positions in my list
- Points total = 14 + 28 = 42
- Average score per episode = 21
- 7 episodes (Suitable for Framing, Murder by the Book, Death Lends a Hand, Lady in Waiting, Blueprint for Murder, Dead Weight, Short Fuse, ) in 1st, 4th, 7th, 11th, 27th, 30th and 33rd in my list
- Points total = 113
- Average score per episode = 16.14
- 8 episodes (Double Shock, A Stitch in Crime, Most Crucial Game, Etude in Black, Greenhouse Jungle, Requiem for a Falling Star, The Most Dangerous Match, Dagger of the Mind) in 3rd, 8th, 19th, 20th, 23rd, 28th, 31st and 36th on my list
- Points total = 168
- Average score per episode = 21
- 8 episodes (Publish or Perish, A Friend in Deed, Double Exposure, Any Old Port in a Storm, Swan Song, Candidate for Crime, Lovely but Lethal, Mind Over Mayhem) in 2nd, 6th, 10th, 13th, 18th, 22nd, 32nd and 35th in my list
- Points total = 138
- Average score per episode = 17.25
- 6 episodes (Negative Reaction, Troubled Waters, A Deadly State of Mind, An Exercise in Fatality, By Dawn’s Early Light, Playback) in 5th, 12th, 15th, 16th, 21st and 24th positions in my list
- Points total = 93
- Average score per episode = 15.5
- 6 episodes (Now You See Him, Identity Crisis, Forgotten Lady, Case of Immunity, Matter of Honor, Last Salute) in 9th, 17th, 25th, 29th, 34th and 37th positions in my list
- Points total = 151
- Average score per episode = 25.17
Overall season standings
- Season 4 – average episode score = 15.5
- Season 1 – average episode score = 16.14
- Season 3 – average episode score = 17.25
- Season 2 & Pilots – average episode score = 21
- Season 5 – average episode score = 25.17
As can be seen above, there’s a gulf in class between season 5 and the rest in terms of consistent quality. There’s one awesome episode, three that are decent, one that’s pretty poor and one that’s DISMAL. Factoring in these six episodes hasn’t changed the previous outcome that shows, in my opinion at least, season 4 to be the strongest overall – even ahead of the mighty first season.
Whether the show is in terminal decline or not remains to be seen when I analyse the remaining eight 70s outings in the coming months. It’d be nice to think that, boosted by a morale-raising $300,000-per-episode pay check from season 6 onwards, Falk was less inclined to tinker with a winning formula and stick closer to the more charming and earthy Columbo viewers had come to love.
However, the shadow of Last Salute threatens to loom long over the series. By all accounts, Falk loved the experiment of seeing the Lieutenant pushed in interesting new directions. More of the same would suit him fine, which means Columbo, as we know it, may never be the same again.
Full episode rankings
- 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
- Now You See Him
- Double Exposure
- Lady in Waiting
- Troubled Waters
- Any Old Port in a Storm
- Prescription: Murder
- A Deadly State of Mind —B-List starts here—
- An Exercise in Fatality
- Identity Crisis
- 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
- Dead Weight —–C-List starts here——
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Lovely but Lethal
- Short Fuse ———-D-List starts here—-
- A Matter of Honor
- Mind Over Mayhem
- Dagger of the Mind
- Last Salute to the Commodore —E-List starts here—
How do you rate Columbo‘s fifth season compared to those that have come before? Bust a comment below to share your opinion.
Until next time, keep on truckin’!