Volare! Oh Oh! Cantare! Oh Oh Oh Oh! Columbo’s wife has won a trip to Mexico on a cruise ship, and the singer on board only seems to know one song, which she sings interminably. Luckily for Columbo, this is going to be a busman’s holiday, because he has a murder to investigate. Luckily for the passengers, the victim is the singer.
She can’t stop singing Volare. No, actually that would be justifiable homicide, but instead the singer has a sideline in blackmail, and as any crime fiction fan will know, that’s always the world’s shortest career. The target of her blackmail is a rich car sales executive, Hayden Danziger (Robert Vaughn), with whom she had an affair on their previous cruise.
Another complicated one this week, with a clever alibi and a scapegoat to frame once again. Danziger fakes a heart attack, sneaks out of sickbay in the evening, shoots Rosanna Wells (Poupée Bocar) the singer, and frames her ex-boyfriend Lloyd Harrington (Dean Stockwell) who has been hassling her, placing a receipt for the murder weapon in his cabin, and scrawling a letter L on Rosanna’s mirror in lipstick.
This all looks like the perfect crime, but just about every detail makes no sense to an experienced detective. The victim’s death would have been instantaneous, so she wouldn’t have had time to write the letter L on the mirror. Lloyd wouldn’t have had long enough to get from the international lounge to Rosanna’s dressing room and back again without being missed (the writer doesn’t make quite enough of this, despite showing Columbo running down corridors and stairs). The receipt for a gun is just the kind of clumsy and hugely convenient evidence that never drops into the lap of a detective, but more importantly he had no reason to keep it. Not only would he be implicating himself, but he only kept receipts for purchases that were tax deductible. Meanwhile, Danziger’s alibi isn’t looking great, considering his heart rate shot up just after the time of the murder, as if he had been engaging in strenuous exercise, and the clincher is when Columbo finds the capsules he used to fake his heart attack in the pool filter.
The gotcha moment revolves around a pair of gloves. Columbo makes it clear to Danziger that the case against scapegoat Lloyd will fall apart without a pair of hidden gloves, because if he had tossed them out to sea he would have done the same with the gun, instead of hiding it. Danziger takes the bait, puts some disposable gloves on, fires a magician’s gun to leave evidence of powder burns, and hides the gloves somewhere they will be found. His knowledge of the running of the cruise ship might be impeccable, but he doesn’t know enough about forensic science; the inside of the gloves retains his fingerprints.
Apart from one thing, which I will get to, the odds have never been stacked more against Columbo. He suffers with seasickness, and I felt so sorry for him when he was trying not to be sick while investigating the murder scene. He also has no actual authority on the ship, relying on the co-operation of the captain (hooray for our Steed, Patrick Macnee as Captain Gibbon), which has its limits if the happiness of his passengers is threatened. Columbo has a race against time on his hands, because if he doesn’t get the case sewn up before they get to Mexico, the authorities there will simply arrest the obvious (and innocent) scapegoat. But the most interesting problem is the lack of modern forensics available to him, so he has to go right back to basics, using pencil shavings to dust for fingerprints, looking through a magnifying glass a lot, and firing a gun into a mattress to get a match for the bullet. It’s old fashioned detecting, and he’s more than capable of being Sherlock Holmes for a couple of days.
Just One More Thing
…but it all comes down to a feather, and this is where Columbo has it easy in the end. A central problem with the Columbo format is how do you set the Lieutenant on the right course? If he isn’t going to figure out the motive until late in the game (as per this episode), then either the writer has to be very clever, ignore the problem and just have Columbo happen to hassle the right person through some kind of gut feeling, or do what Jackson Gillis and William Driskill do here: give him a lucky break. He spots a feather from the pillow used to muffle the gunshot in the sickbay, and right from the start he knows exactly who the murderer is. He just needs to prove it. That’s a bit too convenient.
It’s easy to forgive the bit of lazy writing that the feather represents, because this is all so much fun. It was filmed on location on a real cruise ship to Mexico, and everyone seems to be having a whale of a time. Just look at the reaction of the real tourists around the pool when Columbo finds the capsules, and Peter Falk plays off his audience. The gotcha moment sums up the enjoyment of both the actor and the character, with Columbo humming his favourite tune while he triumphantly slides a piece of paper towards Danziger to take his fingerprints and close the case. Somewhere in the background, never seen by the viewers, Columbo’s wife is enjoying her cruise, but Columbo is obviously delighted to spend his entire holiday well away from a drunken wife (she enjoys herself a bit too much, apparently) and some awful music. Instead, he’s doing what he does best, and having the time of his life… when he finally gets some medication for his seasickness. Mind you, Volare sang ad infinitum would make anyone nauseous. When the singer gets murdered and he has a case to investigate, it’s no wonder his happy heart sings. All together now…
VOL… nah, let’s go with this instead…
This old man, he plays one, he plays a blinder in the sun. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Playback