Hats off to Johnny Cash. Not only did he take on an acting role, and do an amazing job of it, the character he played here was a distorted version of himself. Tommy Brown is a big star in the world of country music, but he is also a murderer with a propensity for going after underage girls. It must have taken some courage for a successful singer to take on an acting role like this.
Tommy Brown’s wife Edna is devoted to her faith, and like many religious zealots that means she talks a lot about God and lives her life in an entirely hypocritical manner. This doer of good found out that her husband had an affair with a 16 year old, and instead of bringing him to justice or at least trying to help the girl involved, she keeps the girl close by to use her as a tool for blackmailing her husband. She does that ruthlessly and uncompromisingly, allowing him no enjoyment in return for his successful singing career. Every penny must go towards building a temple. Tommy is a big star, and he wants the money and girls (young girls) that he thinks should come with that territory. Instead he’s not even allowed to buy his own car.
Tommy takes his wife and former statutory rape victim on a flight in a small plane. Handily, he has wartime experience of flying and is a parachute expert. He turns down the temperature and lies about the heater being busted. Luckily he has some hot coffee, laced with a strong dose of sleeping pills. Edna complains to her last breath (“Tom, this is the most horrible coffee I’ve ever tasted”), while the composer of the incidental music thinks this is the ideal time to bring out his didgeridoo. I suppose it makes a change from scraping that comb all the time. With Edna and Maryann out for the count, Tommy throws out the thermos flask and parachutes out, while the plane crashes. He hides the parachute in a tree trunk and drags himself to the crash site. This man can do anything, now a miraculous survivor of a crash that toasted his wife.
We go through the usual motions of Columbo finding inconsistencies and the murderer explaining them. Why wasn’t his seatbelt fastened? He was reaching over to the glove compartment for a flashlight. Where are his maps and papers? They got sucked out of the window. Where is the flask? It must have been thrown clear in the crash. Why does the autopsy show evidence of sleeping pills? They work like air sickness pills. This is the one that won’t wash, because the dose was near-lethal, but it was always going to come down to that parachute. Finding it would give Columbo the evidence he needs to convict, but it could be anywhere on the mountainside.
The route to the gotcha moment this week is fabulous. Columbo needs to find that parachute, but it’s going to be a near-impossible task, except…
“Who could find it?”
“The guy that hid it.”
The performances of the two leads from this point onwards are stunningly good. Columbo makes a fake call giving an order for the mountain to be searched, in earshot of Tommy, but just before he does that, keep an eye on the way Peter Falk plays the scene. Tommy is playing his guitar, and Columbo gives him a wistful look before he makes the call, as if he regrets what he is going to have to do. The interesting thing is that there is clearly no doubt in his mind that his ruse will work – this man intimately understands the psychology of criminals. That leads to a very strong moment which we don’t always get in Columbo episodes, where everything seems to be going wrong. Tommy doesn’t seem to be taking the bait, and if he doesn’t he will be in the clear…
Just One More Thing
The way Columbo spots the rental car keys is very clever, but what a great gotcha moment it leads to. It might not be the best in terms of cleverness, but it packs more of an emotional punch than any I have watched so far. To the tune of Tommy’s hit “I saw the light”, Tommy reveals that he had seen the light. It’s a brief conversation to end the episode, which sends a shiver down the spine.
“I had the feeling that sooner or later you would have confessed even if I hadn’t caught you.”
“Yeah, you’re right Lieutenant, I would have, cos it was getting to me and I’m glad it’s over.”
“Listen, any man that can sing like that can’t be all bad.”
That sums up Columbo’s character so beautifully: he is an absolute genius, who defeats his enemies by never losing respect for them…
…and yet that must surely leave a nagging doubt in the mind of the viewers. It’s hard to ignore the simple fact that Tommy is motivated by money and the opportunity to sleep with teenage girls. In a very uncomfortable scene to watch, he’s already hitting on his next victim (again, such a brave performance from Cash). One of his victims might have been a monster, but the other was blameless, presumably groomed by Tommy and then manipulated instead of helped by his evil wife. And the writer brings us to a place where we somehow share Columbo’s sentiment towards him. The whole thing challenges the nature of good and evil. That’s clever writing. Tommy did see the light in the end… the light of Columbo’s car headlights. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: A Friend in Deed
Johnny Cash playing the distorted image of himself is probably the best reminder of how exciting it was for so many actors to similarly play adversaries for Columbo. The conclusion where Peter Falk most humanely delivers Columbo’s line: “Any man who can sing like that can’t be all bad.” is one of the best affirmations of how inspirational Columbo’s humanism could be for law enforcement. It’s also most interesting that the guest stars include Sorrell Booke (The Dukes Of Hazzard’s Boss Hogg) and Bill McKinney (who was one of the two evil mountain men in Deliverance). Thank you, RP, for your review.
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It’s good to challenge the nature of good and evil because, quite frankly, so many elements of our TV and films really need that. Certainly from spiritual perspectives, as I easily learned from Dead Man Walking and The Chamber. So if Columbo easily understands that challenge enough to never carry a gun, coupled with how his headlights symbolize the significance for Tommy Brown finally seeing the light, very clever writing indeed, one might almost view Columbo as somewhat angelic. With a man guilty of murder and statutory rape, who quite openly in the end is actually relieved to finally face his punishment, the spiritual sense that Johnny Cash’s performance brings to this role earns a very special recognition that may be matched by very few actors and actresses playing adversaries in the history of Columbo.
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Swan Song is my favorite Columbo episode. I never get tired watching it. I love Johnny Cash and Columbo!
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It’s a great episode! Thanks for your comment, and welcome to the Junkyard 🙂
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