Post courtesy of regular contributor Rich Weill. Read his other articles here.
I am generally more charitable toward Last Salute to the Commodore than many. It was meant to be a different kettle of fish, so to speak.
I, for one, applaud writer Jackson Gillis for the way he played with the inverted Columbo mystery formula. He not only gave us a true Agatha Christie-style Columbo whodunit (complete with the traditional gathering of the suspects in the library), but brilliantly disguised his whodunit as a run-of-the-mill Columbo ‘howshegonnacatchem’ for most of its length (specifically, the first 60 minutes of a 95-minute episode).
Three key ingredients aided the disguise. First, a veteran Columbo killer, Robert Vaughn (Troubled Waters), was cast as the Commodore’s presumed killer, Charles Clay. Second, Clay engineered an elaborate cover-up, as Columbo villains are prone to do. Third, when confronted by Columbo, Clay acted exactly like a typical Columbo murderer acts: volunteering a bit too much information, offering a few too many theories, and being altogether too helpful. We’ve all seen this routine before.
No, we never actually witness Clay commit the crime, but this wouldn’t be the first time a Columbo murder was suggested, not shown. We never actually see Elliot Markham shoot Bo Williamson in Blueprint for Murder. We presume, but don’t know, that the drugs Emmett Clayton switched in The Most Dangerous Match are what killed Tomlin Dudek. We’ve been acclimated to Columbo’s bloodless, sanitized crimes. For five seasons, we’ve been spared the gruesome details. Gillis makes the calculated gamble that we will assume this is also the case here.
Finding Clay dead in front of his fireplace almost two-thirds through the episode, however, is a surprise that all previous Columbos had reassured us never would happen. When asked “why reverse the storytelling style for that one episode?” Columbo co-creator William Link answered unequivocally: “That was going to be the last show of the series.”
And while Columbo does indeed row off into the sunset at the end, he also makes veiled references to a possible return (“Thought you were gonna quit?” “Not yet. No. Not yet, Sergeant. Not yet.”). Furthermore, Gillis had flirted with this formula break once before, when he revealed in Double Shock that Dexter Paris may not have been Uncle Clifford’s murderer after all. But Double Shock never turned into a full-fledged whodunit in the same way as Last Salute to the Commodore.
Regardless, the formulaic break was refreshing. Mysteries thrive on surprises. What made this particular surprise exceptionally good was that it played on our expectations as regular Columbo viewers. It’s the mystery writer’s form of jiu-jitsu (where you use your opponent’s strength and force of attack as a weapon against him): let the knowledgeable reader or viewer outsmart him/herself.
Less refreshing is the additional stylistic break. According to Mark Dawidziak’s The Columbo Phile, this was director Patrick McGoohan’s doing. “Patrick put his stamp on it,” is how Peter Falk explained the episode’s “different tone.” According to McGoohan, the goal was to take the “fairly well defined” Columbo character “a step farther.”
Fans of The Prisoner also see McGoohan’s handiwork here. According to one comment: “To better understand where this episode is coming from, watch some episodes of Patrick McGoohan’s own series, The Prisoner. What McGoohan has done here is basically shoot a Columbo episode in the style of The Prisoner, which is a pretty weird experiment.”
And yet, on my personal priority list, the soundness of an episode’s story has always topped concerns about style. I’m not especially turned off by the comedic touches. Falk clearly was enjoying himself (as was the case whenever he and McGoohan collaborated). Columbo isn’t realism. Classic whodunits — what Last Salute became — aren’t realistic. Having a little extra fun with an occasional episode doesn’t bother me.
What does bother me, and bothers me a lot, is a bad ending. And while Last Salute‘s final gathering-of-the-suspects-in-the-library scene has its good points (the stencils sequence, for example), the “Commodore’s watch” routine ruins it — and the episode — as far as I am concerned. It’s a wild throw from deep left field. Nothing sets up Columbo’s watch gambit. It isn’t dramatic. And worst of all, Swanny’s single word “T’isn’t” actually proves very little.
Thus, in my view, all the Gillis and McGoohan cleverness went to waste because no one could provide a better gotcha.
So here is what I did. I took the final confrontation scene and rewrote it. I didn’t change the essential story. I didn’t change the murderer. All new clues are mined from the original script. To maintain consistency with earlier scenes, I didn’t even change the lighter style. And while I simplified some of the original dialogue for ease of reading, I retained (even if not in the same order) what I could square with the new material. Rest assured, I did change the gotcha. No more “Commodore’s watch.”
Hunting for an alternative, I shifted my attention from the Commodore’s murder to the murder of Charles Clay. Clay’s murder serves the twist-on-formula plot device — but little else. It’s never even established that both the Commodore’s and Clay’s murders likely were committed by the same person (by, for example, making clear that both victims were killed in an identical manner). A possible motive for killing Clay is mentioned in passing (“your husband began to realize who really did kill your father … that’s why he had to be killed … because he started asking somebody questions”), but this reference is both too vague and too fleeting to be persuasive.
“What McGoohan has done with Last Salute is basically shoot a Columbo episode in the style of The Prisoner.”
So — why was Clay killed? It’s a key question no one looks at closely. I tried to, and suddenly it hit me! Of course! Clay was murdered because Columbo believed he’d killed the Commodore. After all, Swanny’s plan (to inherit the Commodore’s entire fortune) required that Joanna be convicted of killing her father, not Charles.
If Charles were convicted, Joanna would inherit, not Swanny. And Columbo suspected Charles, not Joanna. Swanny had to do something to change that. He had to eliminate Charles as Columbo’s most likely suspect and turn the focus of suspicion back on Joanna. Killing Charles, and leaving a few more “feminine things” behind, was designed to accomplished this.
Why wasn’t this featured prominently in the story? It would have provided something unique in the Columbo canon, as far as I know: someone killed because Columbo wrongly suspected him of murder. Does Columbo take any responsibility for this? Does he even acknowledge that his mistake had fatal consequences? It’s a quandary with real dramatic potential.
It also creates a trail leading directly to Swanny. But it still doesn’t clinch things. It isn’t a gotcha. For that, I looked once again at something not fully utilized in the original script: the “rough draft of a letter [the Commodore] was writing to a big fiberglass factory” that was found in the fireplace grate next to Charles Clay’s body. Would fingerprints on such a document survive? If so, what could they show?
This led me to employ a variation on fingerprint evidence that I don’t believe ever was used in any Columbo episode. It’s also a simple, non-technical, common sense solution everyone can understand. No intricate demonstration of, say, how people tie their shoes (Exercise in Fatality) will be necessary here.
So let’s set the stage. We’re in the Commodore’s library. Doughnuts have been served. With Swanny’s assistance, Columbo has shown Joanna Clay how easily one could impersonate her father. And Columbo gives Sgt. “Mac” Albinsky the word to start the proceedings.
“Mac” Albinsky: Ladies and gentlemen, I felt that — actually, the Lieutenant felt that we’d save time if we all got together here. I’m sure you’re all as anxious as we are to know what happened the night the Commodore was killed.
Sgt. Kramer: And, of course, find the murderer of your husband, Mrs. Clay.
“Mac”: All right. Now, Mr. Clay took the Commodore’s body from the house to the boat. He sailed the boat out passed the Coast Guard station into the ocean, and then somehow he fixed up the boat to make it look like an accident.
Kramer: And then swam home.
Wayne Taylor: Charles killed the Commodore?
Columbo: Did anyone say that?
Kittering: Really, Mr. Columbo. Charlie certainly went to a lot of trouble if he didn’t murder the Commodore.
Columbo: Yes, he did. A lot of trouble. But then someone murders him. Why? And murders him with a blow from a blunt object, the same as the Commodore. (pause) No, I don’t think Charles Clay, I don’t think he murdered anybody.
Kramer: Unless Mr. Clay realized who really did kill the Commodore. Maybe that’s why he had to be killed, because he started asking somebody questions.
Taylor: Somebody? Who you talking about?
Kramer: Are you kidding? A lot of people would’ve been very upset if they’d suddenly found out what the Commodore was up to.
Kittering: And what’s that supposed to mean?
“Mac”: Everybody knows that the Commodore had been acting a little funny lately.
Kramer: Like, maybe the way he’d built that little yawl to suddenly sail away on for good.
“Mac”: But the Commodore had a lot of unfinished business.
Kramer: Yeah, like painting.
“Mac”: And the will.
Kramer: The boatyards.
“Mac”: And a whole lot of other things.
Columbo: All right, fellas. Give me a minute here, would you? Sergeant, get me those stencils. Give me that brown paper bag. We’ll use that. Mac, help him with the stencils. Hold them up. One, two, three, four, five, six. This is what we found in the boatyard. Stencils, marine black paint. S-A-I-L-S. That’s what it spells. We thought he was putting “sails” on his locker. Get me that other thing. The one with the hole in it. That’s right. All right. Now, we’re standing on a bridge, this fella here and me, and we seen some ducks there and a boat. And then we remembered something. The Commodore, he never painted the name on his boat, did he? No. And that circle there, that became a period. So we had to rearrange things, didn’t we, fellas, huh? So we got a hold of duplicate stencils and some black paint, and we rearranged those letters. This is what we came up with. (displays sign reading “LISA” with a paper bag hiding the end) And that’s what we came up with.
Swanny: He was going to name the boat after her?
Columbo: Well, the only trouble with that, sir, is that her last name is King.
Taylor: And you’ve got an “S” left over. Try again, Lieutenant.
(Columbo drops paper bag to reveal that the full sign reads “LISA S.”)
Kittering: The old boy was gonna marry the kid. Look at that. Lisa Swanson. The old boy was gonna marry the kid. Look at her. She’s young enough to be his granddaughter. (Swanny laughs)
Columbo: Just hold it everybody. Go ahead. Tell them.
Lisa King: They don’t know. Love isn’t just one age or another. Mr. Swanson was the most beautiful man who ever lived.
Joanna: And one of the richest, my dear.
Lisa: But I didn’t want anything from him. (Swanny laughs)
Lisa: Sail the seas with him. I just wanted to make him happy for the rest of his life.
Columbo: Tell them what he told you about his will.
Lisa: I told him I wouldn’t marry him unless he promised not to leave me any money. But he didn’t want anybody else to have it, either. He was sick of parasites. So he was gonna sell the boatyards. And, except for a small trust fund for you, Mrs. Clay, he was gonna give it all to charity.
Kittering: A sad story. Enough to make you weep. (Swanny laughs)
Taylor: Columbo, I —
Columbo: Mr. Taylor, would you kindly sit down? Swanny, be seated please. As a matter of fact, that girl is the only one in this room that doesn’t have a single motive for killing the Commodore or Mr. Clay. Everyone in this room, except Miss King, risked losing their income or their inheritance if the Commodore sold his company and changed his will. Everyone had a reason to want the Commodore dead before he could do any of that. (pause) But what possible motive did anyone have for killing Mr. Clay?
Kittering: Like the Sergeant said, he was threatening whomever killed Otis.
Columbo: Does that sound right to you, Mac?
“Mac”: No, sir.
Columbo: And why not, Mac?
“Mac”: Because Mr. Clay thought Mrs. Clay killed the Commodore. He was doing everything he could to cover up for her. He would never threaten to expose her. Just the opposite.
Swanny Swanson: Maybe he loved you more than you thought, baby.
Columbo: I wasn’t actually thinking about that kind of love. Was I, Mac?
“Mac”: Well, I believe the Lieutenant was thinking about love of money.
Columbo: Exactly. I don’t think Charles Clay was any risk to Mrs. Clay, because he had nothing to gain if his wife murdered the Commodore.
Taylor: Wait a minute, Columbo. Back off.
Joanna Clay: I didn’t kill Daddy.
Columbo: But your husband might have thought you did.
Joanna: The brooch. He gave it back to me the next day, but he didn’t tell me where it came from.
Columbo: Oh. I’ll bet it was right here (points).
Joanna: He asked me such strange questions.
Kramer: Mr. Kittering.
Kramer: According to California law, if Mrs. Clay were convicted of killing her father, could she still inherit from him?
Kittering: Oh, of course not. No way. And what’s more, poor old Charlie wouldn’t have been able to get his hands on any of the stuff.
Columbo: In that case, who would benefit the most by the Commodore’s death?
Kittering: Oh, Mr. Swanson, of course. I mean, he’s what we call the secondary heir. In fact, he’s the only other member of the family, isn’t he?
Kittering: Swanny, that’s right. Swanny.
Columbo: And if Mr. Clay killed the Commodore, would Swanny still benefit the most?
Kittering: No. Joanna’s not responsible for Charlie’s crime. She’s still the primary heir.
Columbo: And that’s why Mr. Clay was killed.
Taylor: Because of Joanna?
Columbo: (to Joanna) No, not because of you, Mrs. Clay. Don’t ever think that.
Taylor: Then why?
Columbo: Because of me, Mr. Taylor. Because of me.
Kittering: Because of you?
Columbo: Yes. Because I made a mistake. I was convinced Mr. Clay killed the Commodore. I wasn’t supposed to suspect Mr. Clay. I was supposed to suspect Mrs. Clay. But I didn’t, and still don’t.
Taylor: I still don’t understand.
Columbo: Because of me, the killer had to eliminate Mr. Clay as a suspect and turn suspicion back on Mrs. Clay. That’s why Mr. Clay was killed exactly like the Commodore had been killed. And the scene arranged to again implicate Mrs. Clay. How did you describe the stuff they found next to Mr. Clay’s body, Mac?
“Mac”: Feminine things. A handkerchief and a piece of comb.
Columbo: Right, feminine things. What do you think, Swanny?
Columbo: You had everything to gain if Mrs. Clay killed her father, but almost nothing if Mr. Clay did it.
Swanny: I didn’t want anyone killed.
Columbo: You’re the only one who knew exactly where Mrs. Clay went that night. Who could have known how upset she was? Who could have followed them and heard the fight between her and her father? Saw the fight. Who could’ve gone in there and killed him when she left the room? Who else could’ve gotten something out of her purse when she was riding in a boat coming back here?
Swanny: Wait a minute, wait a minute.
Columbo: When she was drunk and in a stupor. Who else could have done that?
Swanny: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Wait a minute.
Joanna: Maybe that’s when I lost the brooch.
Swanny: Listen to you. You lost that brooch fighting with your father when you killed him. That’s it! It had to be you, Joanna.
Kittering: Mr. Columbo, excuse me. But we’re going around in circles.
Columbo: Yes, sir. I guess that’s true. Except for one thing. It wasn’t just feminine things, as Mac called them, that we found in Mr. Clay’s fire grate. We also found this. (displays a document, charred around the edges, in a plastic evidence sleeve) You remember this, Mr. Kittering, don’t you?
Kittering: Yes, Otis’ letter to the fiberglass people who were trying the buy the boatyard. You showed it to me yesterday.
Columbo: Right. And here’s a photograph of the same letter just as we found it — next to Mr. Clay’s body, face down in the ashes. Notice Mr. Clay’s hands. No gloves.
Taylor: Go on.
Columbo: Did you know that heating up a document in a fire, at least for the parts you don’t burn, doesn’t destroy the fingerprints? That’s what the boys in the lab tell me. Heat makes the fingerprints — what a minute (takes out his note pad and flips through the pages) — fluorescent. That’s the word they used. You can read them under ultraviolet light. And we found lots of fingerprints on this piece of paper. But none of Mr. Clay’s, even though in this picture he wasn’t wearing any gloves. Only the Commodore’s fingerprints, and yours, Swanny.
Swanny: So what? Otis let me read that letter weeks ago.
Columbo: But when you read a letter (demonstrating), your thumbprint is on the front of the page and your fingerprints are on the back. The Commodore’s thumbprints were on the front and his fingerprints on the back. Your thumbprint was on the front and your fingerprints on the back. But both of your thumbprints were also on the back. Only yours. With only your fingerprints on the front. How did those get there? That’s not from reading the letter. Only one thing explains those fingerprints. (turning the page over in his hands) They got there when you were laying the Commodore’s letter face down in the fireplace. Just like in the picture. Next to Mr. Clay’s body. After you killed Mr. Clay the same way you killed the Commodore.
There you have it — my attempt to salvage Last Salute to the Commodore. Whether you think these changes save the episode, I’m sure I’ll read in your comments. At the very least, I hope you consider it an improvement. Then again, you might think — “T’isn’t!”
Richard Weill is a U.S. lawyer and former prosecutor, and a life long Columbo devotee who has contributed several articles to this blog.
Richard also is a playwright whose legal thriller Framed premiered in 2016 to critical acclaim, standing-room-only audiences, a run extended by popular demand — and is the subject of the 2018 book We Open in Oxnard Saturday Afternoon. His first novel, Last Train to Gidleigh (set in World War II-era London), is due to be released later this year.