Patrick McGoohan may hold a special place in the hearts of millions of Columbo fans, but under his madcap direction, Season 5 finale Last Salute to the Commodore is a blue whale-sized dud of an outing.
With word on the street being that this would be the last ever Columbo episode, McGoohan found Peter Falk to be a willing accomplice in the creation of a bonkers 90 minutes of television that saw a seemingly stoned Lieutenant and his imbecilic sidekicks toil through one of the most tepid whodunnits in history.
It’s no secret that I HATE Last Salute to the Commodore, but there’s no such thing as a Columbo episode with no merit at all (even horror shows No Time to Die, Undercover and Murder in Malibu have some redeeming features). There are some delightful moments in Last Salute, but the viewer has to wade through an awful lot of bilge to find them.
It was a tough task, but after plumbing the depths I’ve come up with these five moments that are worthy of revisiting. And before any of you ask if the gotcha scene is included, I’ll confirm now: TISN’T!
5. The dirty stop out
Commodore Swanson’s long-time lawyer Kittering seems about as trustworthy as most TV lawyers, which of course makes him worthy of suspicion by Columbo. The wily old stoat does have an alibi for the night of the Commodore’s killing, but it’s as solid as a jelly.
When quizzed about his whereabouts at the time of Otis being brained with a belaying pin, Kittering reveals he was shacked up in a seedy motel with a woman of ill repute who he didn’t even know the name of, explaining it away (with a wry smile) by saying “Shall we say we weren’t formally introduced?” It leaves the Lieutenant with at another dead end in his investigation.
It’s not what I’d call a hugely memorable moment by Columbo standards, but there’s pleasure enough to be gained by Wilfrid Hyde-White’s wicked delivery and it’s welcome screen time for the British thespian in an episode awash with fiendishly annoying characters. As an aside, I’ve also retconned the mystery lady in Kittering’s motel room as being Valerie Harper’s Eve Babcock from The Most Crucial Game. Prove me wrong, gang…
4. Charlie’s joy ride
Much of the humour in Last Salute misses the mark by a nautical mile – especially regarding how touchy feely and invasive Columbo is with the personal space of others.
Poor Charles Clay receives the brunt of this attention – at one point even being intertwined in a phone cord with the shabby detective, who has a mately arm around his shoulder. Perhaps the least offensive (and most fun) of these interactions comes shortly after Columbo and Clay first meet.
Requesting his help at the crime scene, Columbo and his sidekicks Mac and Sergeant Kramer bundle the bemused Clay into the Lieutenant’s Peugeot and turn circuits around the driveway as Columbo literally cuddles his disgusted-looking passenger to ensure his comfort.
Quite whether Clay’s facial expressions were scripted or were Robert Vaughn’s actual reactions to the crazy situation he found himself in have yet to be revealed.
3. Having fun, Otis?
Was there ever a more dour and miserable Columbo victim than Commodore Otis Swanson? Not likely. From his introductory moments we are clearly shown a man who despises those around and whose unsmiling visage has looks to have been firmly set against many a howling sou-westerly over his decades at sea.
A party to celebrate Otis’s 30th year in boat building kickstarts the episode, during which time we see the depth of feeling he has against the hangers-on in his life. His daughter, Joanna, is an alcoholic wreck. Son-in-law Charles has irreparably changed the family business model, while his aged nephew ‘Swanny’ is an all-singing, all-dancing berk.
Otis’s involvement is all over within the opening 7 minutes, but the scene has effectively been set for the subsequent mystery in which there is no shortage of contenders for who’d be first in line to bump off the morose mariner.
Incidentally, the Commodore’s first words in this episode are “Alright, let’s get this damn thing over with,” which are, coincidentally, the exact words that run through my own head every time I sit down to view this…
2. The Act II Switcheroo
Although we didn’t actually see Charles Clay strike down the Commodore, surely no first-time viewer ever doubts he’s the killer. Why else would Robert Vaughn even be in this episode? Columbo and his sidekicks Kramer and Mac believe so, too, but no sooner have they congratulated themselves on getting to the bottom of the mystery than their chief suspect shows up dead.
For both the viewer and Columbo, this is a stunning revelation which gives us the series’ first true whodunnit. Last Salute is an episode that deservedly takes a lot of flak, but writer Jackson Gillis’s sleight of hand here hits home with the force of a belaying pin to the skull. It’s surely the greatest surprise of the Columbo classic era.
1. Off into the bright blue yonder
Beautifully filmed and scored, Columbo’s farewell in Last Salute would have graced any episode. That it rounds out one of the least-loved of the Lieutenant’s 70s’ adventures makes it all the more exceptional.
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 Sergeant 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, Columbo rowing off into the bright blue yonder would have marked a fitting and poignant closure for the series. If the whole episode had matched the tone of this scene, Last Salute could have been a belter. Oh, for what might have been…
Beautifully filmed and scored, Columbo’s farewell in Last Salute would have graced any episode.
That’s the best I could put forward in defence of this maligned misstep in Columbo history and, as always, I’d be most interested to hear reader feedback. I’m aware there are fans of the yelling-at-the-boat-yard scene and of Columbo’s laboured efforts to slip into basic yoga poses, so if those moments (or others) float your boat, do sing out.
If this article has made you yearn for a more detailed breakdown of everything wrong with Last Salute, you can read my detailed episode review here. You can also check out how many ‘awards’ Last Salute collected in my Columbo Razzies article about the lowest lows of the 70s series here.
I’ll see you all again very soon – and I promise I’ll be doing my level best to have the much-delayed review of Strange Bedfellows completed and published before the end of September. Can it be as bad as Last Salute to the Commodore? Check back soon to find out…
At the very end scene when Columbo is rowing away from the shore he is heard to be whistling but he has a cigar in his mouth. Can you whistle with a cigar in your mouth? Or is the whistling meant to be part of the closing credits soundtrack ?
After reading so much about this infamous blunder of an episode here on this website I was excited to watch it and see just how bad it was. Last week I finally did and wow, what an experience. While I didn’t dislike it per se, it was definitely the most bizarre and sloppily made episode of Columbo ever.
That said, I found a lot of the weirdness incredibly funny and will actually watch it again for some of those moments. It sometimes comes off as more of a parody of Columbo than the show itself, though unfortunately the awkward comedy is very much an acquired taste and isn’t prevalent enough to make this a “so-bad-it’s-good” type watch. Definitely drags on way too long in several moments.
Columbo! There’s an orange life vest right behind your seat in the boat! Put it on, doofus! Otherwise, they’ll just say you drowned!
I am a huge fan of Columbo. This is my least favorite episode. I can’t even watch it when it’s on! Don’t know what the writers , Peter Falk and other actors were thinking!
I always thought Last Salute had so much more potential, but somehow missed it’s mark. Anyway it had a very nice ending, albeit a slightly misguided and sometimes silly episode.
I actually like this episode. Colombo did the same thing to Robert Vaughn in another episode that they were in …clinging all over him. I understand that they were good friends in real life. I think this is just something he did with Robert Vaughn and it is funny.
I would say the moment you picked as 2nd, the stunning revelation about charles clay dead, would be the top moment for me, I’m also a fan of the yelling scene, and I also like the gotcha scene, the long discussion to explain who did it, for example having taylor ask if it was charles who killed the commodore, as they were trying to determine who killed 2 people.
Fred Draper revealed as the surprise killer, after all his appearances, was neat.
Otis is so sour yet Marine Architect Lisa finds him irresistible. Why? He’s no Uncle Clifford!…I do love John Dehner. He’s been in everything. Check out his episode of Gunsmoke ‘Caleb’.
What cracks me up about Fred Draper is that he goes from the murderer in this episode to the horrible appearance as “it will be a treasure to pill you…” in ‘Fade Into Murder’ in the next episode. Quite a drop off.
The mid-episode twist is quite promising but, ultimately, doesn’t change the dreariness of the whole affair.
I’ve only watched this once since it aired. One of the things that bothered me most was the sloppy drunk Joanna. Regrettably, at this time obviously inebriated characters were portrayed as either disgusting or comical. Very often, it seems, the stay-at-home rich wife had nothing else to do with her day. As I remember here, Joanna is a non-character: just an unsympathetic, one-dimensional public drunk. That made it difficult to watch.
Diane Baker deserved better.
Absolutely agree, I find her the most annoying character in last salute, even though I’m one who doesn’t mind the episode.
My sentiments exactly. I enjoy the quirkiness McGoohan can bring to a Columbo episode, but only if it is in the service of the Lieutenant’s character. In this episode, it was quirkiness for quirkiness’s sake. One of the least satisfying Columbo outings.
No. No. No. Please. You have most eloquently described my deepest thoughts on the most horrible of Columbo’s, of which, honestly…would be embarrassed to have admitted to have watched. A delight my friend! May iyr enemies never be as happy as we are at this moment! 😆 🤣 😂 😹
I hate-love this episode. Totally off-the-chart bizarre, but it’s still Columbo *sigh*. My trick to getting through the entire 90 minutes is to write down every cringeworthy moment (practically all of it). Robert Vaughan is the only saving grace.
Disliked the yelling at boat scene, I fast forward it all the time.
It’s actually a moment I don’t mind, as it’s unusual.
Unusual the first couple times you see it, after that became annoying
While certainly not a ‘favorite’, this quirky episode has grown on me over the years and I do enjoy certain moments. One of my favorite moments is pictured at the end of the article – when Columbo says the questions are ‘preliminary’ and Charles Clay responds, “I like everything… preliminary”. I’ve always loved Robert Vaughn’s delivery of that line.
Just as CP notes that every Columbo ep has some shining moments, I’ll add that every CP column has some UK expressions that are delightfully foreign to this very American Columbo fan. And not wishing to sully a pleasant Sunday morn rehashing “Last Salute” – and to honor the late Queen – here are the three best UK expressions from today’s CP blog entry:
*”solid as a jelly”: To us stateside readers, this might at first look like a typo, as we would say “solid as jelly” instead of “solid as a jelly”. But no! There’s a UK creation called jelly cubes that I believe CP is referring to. Jelly in a cube – what will those crafty Brits think of next?
*”berk”: Although “stupid person, or fool” is the milder form, this cockney rhyming slang also has a more vulgar connotation (starts with a “c”). Shut my mouth!
And today’s winner – “Dirty stop out”: someone who has been out all night up to no good. My extended research notes that In the Australian English, adding the word “dirty” suggests sex as the activity involved. I’m sure CP does not speak from personal experience about this thoroughly disreputable behavior!
Honorable mention Fun Fact: It’s technically not slang, but CP describes Kittering as a “wily old stoat”. That’s a weasel-type animal native to Eurasia and northernmost North America, apparently displaying brown fur in the summer and white fur in the winter.
See, wasn’t all that more interesting than regurgitating “Last Salute”?
Although not necessarily a UK expression, this CP post was also my introduction to the word “retconned” — which, as I then learned, is a shortened form of the phrase “retroactive continuity”: revealing facts that previously were not part of the narrative and were not intended by earlier writers.
And though I’d seen and heard the word “berk” before, thank you Glenn for allowing me to add it to my Cockney rhyming slang vocabulary (with its literal meaning better left unsaid).
Oh, one more thing, Glenn: “a jelly” is what you and I might call “Jell-O.” I remember distinctly visiting a friend in a British hospital when the nurse entered and asked whether he wanted “an ice cream or a jelly.” The “jelly” wasn’t in cubes, but it was Jell-O.
There is also a general UK-U.S. distinction on how we use articles. We go “to the hospital”; Brits go “to hospital.” We have “coffee”; Brits have “a coffee.” (Same with plurals. We play “sports”; Brits play “sport.” (Even the “Sports” section of the newspaper is titled “Sport.”) We studied “math”; Brits studied “maths.”
Kinda like in the U.S. we have teeth and in the UK they have a “tooth”. JK
This one should maybe have been called ‘The one best moment from Last Salute’ and Off into the bright blue yonder would be’ve been the one. Perhaps because of its symbolism but mainly because after this scene there is no more of this… this… well, you know.