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?
Actors are faking, or playing pretend. Johnny Cash is authentic. Anyone who cannot appreciate the real deal is needs there head examined. That guy was the $h!t
This is the one episode out of them all that I refuse to watch ever again. Written right on the dvd. Johnny Cash isn’t an actor. Period. I could do as well. Plus, I saw the light is such a brain worm. Hope it does stick just from this comment.
Anybody know who the actress is that played the “extra” girl in the pink bikini by Tommy in the pool scene? (She appears in the pic below “3. The Sunday morning come-down”)
This is a very good episode that I can watch repeatedly. I’m disappointed when I remember that Ida Lupino is gone after a relatively few minutes. She could have done more if she had had more to work with. This is also a good string of comments above. Johnny Cash’s acting is sufficient to get through this. And he IS Johnny Cash.
This is a very good episode and a very good exchange of ideas above. Love the comment “They’e ALL alive when they’re killed” or similar words. Also can watch repeatedly, but always have to get over disappointment at Ida Lupino’s lack of performance time or good lines. Maybe she would have done more with more. Great fun though. I think Johnny Cash is good enough to make it work. And he IS Johnny Cash.
My favourite moment of this episode is when Johnny Cash is singing “I Saw the Liiiiiiiiight” and Columbo gets out his harmonica and starts playing along to the tune, dancing to it and randomly doing Groucho Marx impressions with his cigar, whilst laughing. Unfortunately, or perhaps fotunately depending on how serious you like your Columbo episodes, this scene only exists in my head when i’ve had one too many Tequila Sunsets.
I’ll never know whether Johnny Cash is a bad actor, or if he is a (very) good actor playing a man (Tommy Brown) who is incapable to express his feelings and his ideas. That is: who cannot find the words, neither the convenable gestures. The scene with Edna Brown (which for CP is the episode’s best moment, and I agree) is a very good example of it. But others scenes, with Columbo, are good examples too. For the socially handicapped man Tommy Brown, the solutions are music, young girls and murder. He neither can distinguish what is good from what is bad, and thinks that what is good for him is also good for others (or at least legitimate). Often it is (the music, the party), somestimes it isn’t at all (the murder, or his attitude towards young girls). It’s an interesting character, and very different from the murderers the Columbo-series normally shows. The attitude of Columbo towards him is also different: it’s not a war (Dr Bart Keppel, Dr Barry Mayfield…) but closeness and sympathy (the final scene in the car reminds us the final scene with Adrian Carsini.)
“Swan Song” is one of the episodes I liked (and still like) to see several times. It’s also one of the episodes that bring us to understand the murderer (as are “Any Old Port in a Storm” and “Sex and the Married Detective”).
There’s a strange experience for me. I didn’it like C&W music, and I didn’t like Johnny Cash at all. I preferred rock, jazz and classic music. But this episode learned me to like it.
Thank you, Columbophile, for all your reviews, that help us to look better and more attentively, with greater eyes (and ears) – even if sometimes I don’t agree.
I too caught the closeness and sympathy. I took note of Columbo’s great hesitation to make the fake phone call, having turned his back to KC while he gently strummed. It communicated to me Columbo really wished he didn’t have to set in motion the ruse that would result in ” Tommy” being caught. I thought that was a moment of fine, subtle acting on Peter Faulk’s part.
Try and catch me is 4 times better than the bye bye sky highi iq murder and so is negative reaction
Sorrel booke is in both of those too
I rate swann song very highly, topquality episode throughout, featuring legend johhny cash , and a musical and aviation theme which iam a fan of both , swan song comfortably makes my top 10 overall
It also has the funny sguirell meat chli moment which i find ffunnier than the
Vito scotti funeral scene .
Luke is played by Bill McKinney, who terrified us all as the hill country hunter (with teeth) in Deliverance. Tommy should have been plenty scared of him. Have to follow up on Honor’s death – her episode is evaluated with nearly vitriolic contempt by many on this site, but I enjoy it and her.
Thanks for the post. Honor Blackman has died. 🙁
My fave fave episode! “4. The rabbit in the headlights”: great great moment!
My favorite scene is with Vito Scotti as the funeral director. I love Vito’s small mannerisms like when he goes to grab the ashtray and then his resignation that Columbo is a hard sell.
I really enjoy this episode but I’ve never really understood why the girl had to die. I thought Tommy would want to continue romping with her ? I never really get why so little is made of her death, a little like poor forgotten Fernando in Bird In The Hand.
Presumably he was afraid she would reveal information about their ‘affair’ to the police investigating Edna’s death – or even guess that it was a murder and pass on her suspicions to someone.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this episode but IIRC she was also part of the blackmailing, and did not seem sorry about it. (Not that that makes it OK to kill her! But that’s why.)
Because Edna was such an unsympathetic victim, probably most of the audience would have been rooting for the murderer. Adding the underage girl carrying Tommy’s baby underscored this as a crime and a tragedy.
My favorite moment from this episode was when Cash (Brown) was strumming the guitar while Columbo was on hold on the phone. You can see that Columbo (and by extension Peter Falk) was moved by what was being played. It was the kind of subtlety which was missing from the ABC version of Columbo.
I really enjoy this scene too. The quality of the playing is amazing.
You’ve got it spot on, the highlight is the mention of the squirrel chilli. Musical tip, try Todd Rundgren’s totally different “I Saw the Light” to get Johnny C’s out of mind.
I’m partial to the Hank Williams version myself!
Good post! Not an A-list episode for me either, but there’s much to enjoy, as you point out here. About time for a rewatch of this one.
It’s a terrific episode, all told… and Johnny Cash nails it, God bless ‘im!
One thing though, CP; you seem to be quite sensitive to scenes that seemingly exist only to pad out the broadcast running time… don’t you think the scene with the guy from the funeral parlor trying to sell the good Lieutenant a policy goes on a bit long?
Not a complaint though… great episode overall.
I do think the undertaker scene is a bit long. In fact it’s my least favourite out of all Vito Scotti’s cameos, although it’s by no means terrible. Vito’s highlight came as the drunk bum in Negative Reaction in my opinion.
I too loved him as the wino in Negative Reaction. 🙂
I would give at least an honorable mention to the scene with John Randolph as the Air Force colonel. It’s a very funny scene (but, unlike the seamstress scene, not too over-the-top), and includes a major turning point in the plot — when Columbo learns that Brown was a USAF parachute rigger (“A man folds his own!”). After all, this is what prompts Columbo to order an autopsy.
yes, it’s a brilliant scene. very good. a gem.
I totally agree with you, RichardWeill, about the John Randolph scene! 😀
I’m really not a fan of either the Randolph scene, nor the old seamstress. Both have reasonable pay-offs, but both are overdrawn and I don’t find them funny at all (sorry).
The seamstress scene to be sure. Her line about the vice squad (“I don’t remember having any fun”) always makes me cringe. And I do admit that I find it less than credible that the Colonel would remember one obscure cadet from 20 years earlier. But something about Randolph’s performance is delightful. To me, at least.
Tommy sang of seeing the light, but his actions sang a very different and darker tune
Those are all very good moments, but my favorite is the specific one at the end where Tommy shows remorse for what he did, something unusual for a Columbo murderer. It’s a very touching scene.
Columbo’s final line to him (“any man that can sing like that can’t be all bad”) is meant to be more symbolic than literal. When Columbo turns on the radio, what do we hear? What we’ve heard all throughout the episode: Tommy singing “I saw the light”. And that’s exactly what happens to him at the end. His remorse (which certainly appears to go beyond his being caught by Columbo) is him seeing the light. He can’t be all bad, indeed.
Thematically the episode should feature more hints at Tommy’s remorse to warrant that final scene. He claims to be feel guilty when caught, but he’d done nothing throughout the episode to suggest he was on the path to redemption – notably still trying to prey on teenage girls. That’s why the final scene feels a little hollow to me.
The ending probably would’ve been better with a couple of moments of overt remorse peppered throughout the story, but even without them, I still think it works, and very well at that. That’s mainly because of Johnny Cash. Throughout the episode, I find there is a persistent hint of sadness and anguish to his Tommy Brown. If you look at his eyes and facial expressions, you can see him carrying a psychological weight on his shoulders. It’s Cash who makes it all believable.
Combine that with the fact that at one point, Columbo suggests the plane incident might’ve been a murder attempt on Brown (the ultimate irony), and that moment can also be seen as contributing to a growing feeling of remorse in him.
Also, the kitchen conversation between Brown and Columbo has the singer openly explaining how he felt about Edna and the crusade. One could argue it was only logical for him to be candid about that, since someone like Luke Basket would’ve verified Brown had a poor relationship with Edna and felt exploited by her. But Brown is so earnest about the whole thing, that it almost feels like he needs to intellectually justify to himself the crime he committed.
But once again, it’s Cash’s performance that goes a long way toward making the most of these moments, in terms of displaying a sense of conflict within Brown. I do accept some more blatant hints at the character’s remorse would’ve reinforced this aspect of the story, but I definitely feel it works well as it is.
He literally sees the light! As in “rabbit in the…” 🙂
Super fun episode and #5 all time for me. My wife and i laughed out loud at the pool party scene, with the women in bikinis and the men in leisure suits…..typical 70’s chauvinism but still funny. My favorite scene was with my favorite repeat actor Vito Scotti trying to sell our beloved Lt. a funeral plot, classic. You could tell Falk really enjoyed doing this scene and it is probably my favorite Scotti appearance. Stay safe all!
My top 5 special moments of this wonderful episode. My obvious overwhelmingly special moment is for the Man in Black for every moment he’s on the screen. But as for other faves:
1. Edna crashing in the plane
2. See #1
3. See #1
4. See #1
5. Vito Scotty’s creepy/snarky funeral director role
Honorable Mention……See #1
If anyone has not yet seen Cash’s video covering (and owning) Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt”, you must. I guarantee your hair will stand up on end. I dare you to only watch it once.
The HURT video…in my estimation….is the greatest music vid of all time…one that never fails to get to me..
it has such a tone of “reality”…not cheesy at all which it could have easily been
We all owe Rick Rubin…for having brought this musical master back to the public on his label.
It’s great, Verbose — really great.
Ric Rubin did some great work producing everyone from Cash to Beastie Boys, Slayer, Weezer, many rap acts, Tom Petty (who I think would have made a great Columbo murderer), RHCP, Smashing Pumpkins, and on and on…..
When it comes to bucket list musicians playing roles on Columbo, I could see Bob Dylan as a great mumbling killer, Celene Dion as a victim (multiple times), even Dave Grohl as a grungy killer as well. Maybe he could murder Lady Gaga and get away with it.
Speaking of Grohl, there is only one other video that also makes my hair stand on end like Cash’s Hurt. It’s 1000 Rockin’ Italians from Cesena. One of the magical moments back when people didn’t have to social distance themselves. This was a magical event, with all those talented, lovely Italians rocking a Foo Fighters tune to convince the Foos to play their small, Northern Italian town. It worked. If I was Dave Grohl and saw this, I could have retired happy. He said it brought him to tears when first saw it. I watch this video whenever I’m depressed, and a smile always emerges. It affirms my faith in mankind, as well as a classic Columbo episode.
Sorry to deviate from Columbo for a spell, but priceless moments are priceless.
If we’re discussing to the greatness of Johnny Cash… I offer the following as proof;
The man in Black is now the Man in White… and reunited with June…
I agree that Edna had it coming !
I adore Ida Lupino. She was a visionary as an actress, writer and Director, but the Edna character was purely demonic. She did such a great job in that role.
I got to see the man in black live once, in March of ’94 during SXSW at Emo’s in Austin, when it was still on 6th Street. Just him and an acoustic guitar. 21 songs total. He seemed under the weather but really shined as the night went on. There were as many punk rockers there as classic country fans (I’m a rabid fan of both genres). He didn’t play I Saw the Light, but did play Folsom, Kris K’s Sunday Morning’ Comin’ Down, Ring of Fire (written by Merle Kilgore and June Carter), Boy Named Sue, and several covers from Lefty Frizzel, Danzig, Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe and Tom Waits. The punk rockers seemed to know every lyric to every song, even more than the traditional country fans. It was a magic evening.
One irregularity I noticed while watching Swan Song, was the first time he sings “I Saw the Light” live, he sings a verse that I have never heard before or since, that Hank didn’t write, as far as I know.
“I walked in darkness, the clouds covered me,
I had no idea or the way I ought to be,
Then came the sunshine that rolled back the night,
Praise the Lord, I saw the light”
I researched Hank’s lyrics and that verse isn’t anywhere. I wonder if Johnny just added it? It always bugged me.
I just rewatched this. These are indeed good scenes. My two big problems with the episode are:
1) Johnny Cash can’t (or couldn’t) act. Sorry, fans. His voice is magnificent, his acting amateurish.
2) Ida Lupino can (could) act. And very well, indeed. I’m a huge fan. Unfortunately, her performance here is one-note and obvious. Yes, it’s all the part called for, but I still wish they had cast someone else, not because that someone would have done the job better but because it wouldn’t have been Ida Lupino. (I feel much the same about Myrna Loy in Etude.)
I would have been VERY interested in seeing Ida as the director of a Columbo episode. Many don’t know that, in the sound era, she was first woman to direct Hollywood films on a regular basis.. By the time of Swan Song, her directorial efforts were mostly confined to TV. (What’s good enough for Gilligan’s Island…).
BTW: Edna’s hold on Tommy is tenuous. Maryann was said to be 16 when the two were cavorting in various motels. The unrestricted age of consent in the overwhelming majority of US states is, in fact, 16. While some of those motels might have been in more restrictive states (including California), prosecution would have been difficult if it could have been established that this was an ongoing affair, legal on some occasions but not on others.. Part of Tommy’s appeal is his image as a reformed(?) “bad boy”. It is unlikely that his fans would hold a technical age violation against him. In fact, it would probably have enhanced his image, much as it did for Errol Flynn, 30-odd years earlier (“In like Flynn”). Tommy might have been liable for a revocation of his parole, but since he was confined in Arkansas where the age of consent is 16 now –and might have been even younger in 1970’s–this is unlikely.
An even closer parallel than Errol Flynn might be Jerry Lee Lewis, rockabilly singer who in 1957 married his cousin- he was 22, she was 13. That did hurt his career for a while, but then the public would see a big difference between a 13 year old relative and a 16 year old whom he’d met on the road. Lewis’ marriage may have hurt him chiefly because it showed just how different his home state of Louisiana was from the most of the USA, where such a marriage would not have been legally possible at the time.
Your point is well taken. I didn’t want to get into the difference between age of consent and age of marriage. In some US states, one can unilaterally consent to sexual intercourse before one can consent to marriage. In such cases, one can legally marry before one can consent to intercourse, usually with permission of parents and/or the courts. In some states, the lowest “possible” age for marriage is–get this–zero. This does have an implication for Tommy. Had he married Maryann instead of Edna (which he surely could have), there would have been no issue concerning statutory rape.
Oops. I said that backwards: “In such cases, one can consent to intercourse before one can legally marry”.
Legally possible – or thinkable.
Swan Song is my vote for most cold blooded and cowardly murder. The two women are alive when the plane crashes. Columbo’s interactions with the killer is terrific, but I wonder why he seems so sympathetic to such a coward.
Um, everyone is alive until they die, he made sure they were asleep.
Most Cold Blooded?
I’ll have to ponder that one.
Dr Mayfield is a lot more cold-blooded. The murder of Harry Alexander was ice cold!
I forgot a girl died with her. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen it. That’s too bad but I think Tomy brown was fooling around with her she didn’t deserve to die?
Well Tommy’s wife was a real nasty b___h. I’m not saying she deserved to be murdered but you didn’t feel so sorry for her. She was terrible!!
Not my favourite episode, but I do like ‘I Saw the Light’. I have a bit of a weakness for gospel music, despite not being the slightest bit religious.
The main problem I have with ‘Swan Song’ is the character of Tommy Brown. Everyone goes on about JOHNNY CASH but when I first saw the episode, I had no idea who the actor was and all I saw was a sleazy guy who murdered a teenage girl (I believe she may be the youngest victim in the entire series). Columbo’s last line really gets to me because it’s one of the few times I thoroughly, profoundly disagree with him. So what if the guy is a good singer? I know lots of people who are good singers, and their personalities vary as much as any other random group of people. If anything, Tommy’s holy-Joe act on stage makes it *worse* that he’s actually a cold-blooded murderer.
Tommy Brown is a great singer but a despicable person, in that order.
You’re right, Columbo’s last like to Tommy does seem out of place to a dual murderer who hasn’t shown the least sign of remorse throughout the episode – and who was still attempting to coerce a teen backing singer into his bed! He’s a bad man.
I concur with all that Tommy did not earn Columbo’s sympathy, which I believe stemmed as much from Mrs. C’s love of his music than any remorse showed by jailbait-chasing Brown. Assuming the Lt. was playing it straight, the Columbos even attended the Bakersfield show. Mrs. C must’ve been a legitimately huge fan and Columbo knows how Brown’s music moved her.
Doesn’t justify the ending IMO, but I think that’s what they were going for. Also, “tolerance for redemption” was a big part of Cash’s brand by the mid-70s. They may have just tacked on the prodigal son bit to fulfill the episode’s religious angle.