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…