Due to a mix up of names, Columbo ends up assigned to a security task force at the Suari Embassy, during the visit of the King of Suari, and it’s lucky that he happens to be there because a murder has just been committed. The problem is that even if Columbo can solve this one, he has no jurisdiction within a foreign embassy and diplomatic immunity will protect the murderer, but Columbo isn’t going to let a little problem like that stop him…
I’ll be honest and say I’m not sure. This is a complicated episode and it’s never made clear exactly why the First Secretary Hassan Salah acts in the way that he does, apart from the fact that he has no respect for the young king and has turned traitor.
With the help of his accomplice Rachman Habib, Salah kills security guard Youseff Alafa and makes it look like an intruder has broken into a safe and burned important documents, making off with a huge amount of money at the same time. Despite the unusual setting for the crime, this is yet another faked burglary, and we all know how well those turn out in the world of Columbo.
Columbo spots all manner of problems almost immediately. The remains of the burnt papers are covered with plaster from the roof, indicating that they had to have been burnt before the safe was exploded, and therefore cannot have come from there. Rachman staged the getaway and was prevented from being shot because another guard’s gun jammed. Only Hassan and the murder victim had access to the gun room, so by a process of elimination Hassan had to be the one who tampered with the weapon. Youseff’s coffee break was at 3pm, and his coffee was untouched, despite the murder supposedly not occurring until 4pm, so that places the time of the crime in doubt, and if he heard the explosion and then ran in, why was his gun holstered? If he instead went in and surprised the criminal, why were there no signs of a struggle and how was he hit on the back of the head? At this point, Hassan is praising Columbo on an “excellent observation”, and decides to cover his tracks by removing the accomplice from the picture, which brings us to…
The Second Murder
Hassan knocks Rachman out, and sends him over a cliff in a car. Two murders inside the first half an hour of the episode! As is often the case with a second murder in Columbo, this one is less meticulously planned and even more sloppy. Hassan spotted that Rachman’s driving licence required him to wear glasses, so he put them on his face before pushing the car over the cliff, unaware that the victim was wearing contact lenses already. Rachman was supposedly carrying money he was paid from the safe robbery, but Columbo establishes that the money was withdrawn from the bank after the first crime. The most telling piece of evidence is the extra 34 miles on Hassan’s car, which equates to the distance between the murder scene and back again. This would normally be enough evidence for a gotcha moment, but Columbo has a problem…
This is a very rare example of Columbo not having the full support of his boss, and the waters are thoroughly muddied by diplomacy:
“We don’t care if Salah is guilty or innocent. We do care about our country’s relations.”
Columbo’s actions from here on in are remarkably brave. He is not only genuinely at risk of losing his job, for the first time ever he is actually up against an enemy who could probably kill him and get away with it. After basically being told his job is on the line if he doesn’t write an apology, Columbo turns up at a garden party at the embassy and says this to Hassan: “I think you’re lying.” He gets marched out of the embassy and for all we know his job is gone, surely representing Columbo’s bravest ever moment, and a measure of how he will place principles above everything.
Just One More Thing
Look carefully at the protestors outside the embassy, for a glimpse of Jeff Goldblum just before the 1 hour mark. I suppose any career has to start somewhere, but that’s just a bit of trivia. A point I want to address here is the moment Columbo is allowed back into the embassy by Hassan, so he can stage his gotcha moment. Why on Earth does Hassan allow him entry? At this point Hassan has clearly won, and Columbo is about to lose his job, but he gains entry with the following words:
“You see, sir, I could get fired.”
And you know what? I don’t think what happens is out of character, whatsoever. Hassan at this point thinks he has nothing to fear from Columbo, and more importantly, I think he likes Columbo and genuinely respects him and would take no pleasure from ending his respected and supposedly vanquished opponent’s career.
We are going to have to talk about the representation of race here. Suari is a fictional country of generic shifty Arabs, played by actors who are anything but Arabic. Hector Elizondo actually does a good job as Hassan, managing to make him look dangerous just by the way he looks at Columbo, despite nearly everything he says being very reasonable and measured responses. But there’s no getting away from the fact that this episode includes a guy named Barry playing the King of Suari, and he’s the least convincing Arab I’ve ever seen. He’s a Barry, he looks like a Barry, and he acts like a Barry. In normal circumstances there’s nothing wrong with that. Barry can’t help being Barry, but his casting as the King of the Nation of Shifty Generic Arabs is ludicrous. The problem extends beyond the casting, because the villain is the Arab who dresses and acts in a more traditional manner, while we’re supposed to like the King because he admires the USA and wants to be more Western. So I say yuck to that. And it’s a great shame that the episode has such a fundamental problem of 70s xenophobia, because as Columbo storylines go this one is brilliant. It’s not so much the details of the murder, most of which we have seen before, it’s the way Columbo is so hugely out of his comfort zone and seems to be solving a case only for his own satisfaction, at risk to his career and possibly his life, that sets this apart from anything we’ve ever seen before. So far this season is making one thing abundantly clear: Columbo is a man who will always put his moral principles first. That’s the measure of a true hero, in my book. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… Columbo: Identity Crisis (Review)