When an episode of Columbo features as beloved a figure as Johnny Cash, you better believe it’s going to live long in the memory – and so it proves with Swan Song, the penultimate episode of season 3.
Featuring the Man in Black as country singer Tommy Brown, Swan Song is boosted by a magnificent, audacious killing via deliberate plane crash and one of the series’ least-loved victims in Edna Brown.
Although not quite on my personal A-List, Swan Song is an episode treasured by countless fans and it certainly features more than its fair share of memorable moments. Which scenes are the standouts? Here’s my two-penneth worth…
5. Who’s busting whom?
It looks for all the world like Tommy is turning a blind eye to Columbo’s efforts to force him into revealing the missing parachute by sending a group of boy scouts to search the mountainside where the plane crash occurred.
The detective is therefore a little surprised to see that Tommy is planning to leave LA and jet off to San Francisco to embark on a four-month tour. As a result, Columbo attempts to follow Tommy to make sure he actually is going to board the plane and set off into the blue yonder.
His attempts at being inconspicuous fail, though, as Tommy notices and loudly exposes Columbo’s sneaking – much to the Lieutenant’s embarrassment. The scene is such a winner because Falk so perfectly portrays that sense of abashment at being so thoroughly caught out.
It has a pay-off, too, as Columbo notices Tommy taking his rental car keys through the airport security gate, ultimately triggering the realisation that the killer will get a return flight and drive back to the scene of the crime. Clever boy…
4. The rabbit in the headlights
Was ever a killer caught as red-handed as Tommy Brown? Only Investigator Brimmer (Death Lends a Hand) and Elliott Markham (Blueprint for Murder) give the biblical crooner a run for his money after he’s quite literally caught in the headlights with his arms full of incriminating parachute silk.
Columbo’s mental dexterity has figured out that Tommy will indeed be compelled to return to the mountainside to retrieve the hidden parachute that the detective wouldn’t otherwise have a cat-in-hell’s chance of uncovering. Although admittedly reminiscent of past adventures, this is still an effective and dramatic way to round out the mystery.
3. The Sunday morning come-down
How does a music megastar bounce back from the tragic loss of his dear wife and a young backing singer? If you’re Tommy Brown, you party hard with bikini-clad scorchers to help sweeten the bitter pill – directly after the dual funeral!
Yes folks, this scene has everything: a bevvy of young hotties, booze galore, Johnny singing one of his best-loved songs in Sunday Morning Coming Down, a dust-up between Tommy and hated half-brother Luke, and Columbo’s stomach-turning introduction to squirrel chilli.
Best of all, it’s a clear indication that Tommy’s ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rock star hedonism is to become his new norm, while giving the Lieutenant ample reason to suspect the apathetic singer of murder.
2. Have you seen the light? He has…
Certainly the most enduringly memorable aspect of the episode is the endless repetition of Tommy’s smash hit I Saw the Light. It may start to grate after a while (especially when it sticks in the brain for an eon after viewing), but the rousing rendition that opens the episode is very well done.
Footage of an actual Johnny Cash concert is nicely spliced into the studio footage of Tommy Brown and the Lost Soul Crusaders’ Bakersfield show, providing viewers with an authentic-feeling musical experience that goes a long way to convincing us that our mate Tommy really is a musical superstar for whom lapping up audience adulation is second nature.
1. Bagging out the lustful sinner
Full of vitriol, the blazing row between Edna and Tommy right after their Bakersfield show tells us all we need to know about both characters.
First we see that Tommy is susceptible to sins of the flesh with teenage groupies and that he begrudges having to live on a shoe-string when his sell-out concerts are netting $30,000 per night. He wants a decent cut of the cash to have fun with instead of seeing all the profit of his toils going towards funding the tabernacle of Edna’s dreams.
We then find out (via Edna) that Tommy has been romping with one of his back-up singers, Maryann, since she was 16. Even though Maryann was a willing participant, that’s still statutory rape and if Tommy won’t give his all to the tabernacle cause, Edna will blow the whistle and former jailbird Tommy will be back behind bars before you can say: ‘You’re a sanctimonious hypocrite of a Bible-spouting blackmailer and I’ve given you your last chance to be fair!’
From all this we can see that Edna is a ruthless, blackmailing old witch. Despite raising Tommy out of the gutter when she assisted in his release from prison, she treats him as slave labour, milking his talent to fund her cause. And despite knowing that Tommy committed statutory rape with young Maryann, she keeps the girl close for blackmailing reasons, not to do anything humanitarian such as helping her, or anything crazy like that…
For all her wittering about her love of the Lord, Edna is as godless as they come, so we have the scene set for a delightfully wicked tussle between two arch-sinners, knowing only one can come out on top.
“Edna treats Tommy as slave labour, milking his talent to fund her tabernacle cause.”
There we have it, gang. Do let me know if your own personal highlight missed out here, or what else you could have included. It was certainly difficult to leave out Vito Scotti’s cameo as the funeral director, but that’s life, baby!
If you’re now desperate to consider the episode in more detail you can visit my full episode review here. And if you’re keen to actually see the light you can view Swan Song in full HD glory right here! That’s well worth a celebratory shake of anyone’s tambourine, no?