My Columbo articles normally follow a set format, where I begin by discussing the murderer, his or her motive and the details of the murder and mistakes made. After all, this simply echoes the order in which the information is usually imparted to the viewers in a Columbo episode. That isn’t going to work for Last Salute to the Commodore, because the episode functions instead as a traditional whodunit. This is not Columbo as we know it.
Apparently, what seems to have happened here is that it looked for a while as if this was going to be the final Columbo episode, barring the possibility of some occasional specials, so everyone involved tried to make something fun and different as a fitting swansong. That’s where the logic appears to break down, because I don’t see why you would end a show by doing something entirely different to normal. How is that celebratory of what has gone before? You could perhaps argue that it’s about the character, and in a finale episode the story is perhaps of lesser importance because it’s all about giving us an entertaining 90 minutes with our favourite Lieutenant. The problem with that theory is he never shows up either.
Columbo acts woefully out of character here. I’m not sure what everyone was thinking, Peter Falk included. They were probably trying hard to make a comedy, with moments like the shouted conversation at the boatyard, and Columbo unable to get his legs in the right position to meditate, but these scenes are so protracted that they lose the humour, and the worst thing about this is that every attempt to make a scene with Columbo funny has the unintended consequence of having him behave in a way he never has before. Basically, he’s a buffoon, but it’s worse than that, because he’s a creepy buffoon. Physically he’s all over his chief suspect, but he ends up invading almost everyone’s personal space, virtually burying his face in their hair to talk to some of them. He is also incompetent, with a sort of scattergun approach to his investigation. We are used to Columbo spotting important details and asking questions that trip up his opponent, but instead he just asks questions about anything and everything, most of which lead to boring exposition scenes that are not particularly relevant to anything, least of all the gotcha moment at the end. And oh, what a dreadful moment that is. With nearly a third of the episode to go, Columbo assembles all the main suspects as if he’s pretending to be Hercule Poirot, behaves weirdly while his two useless sidekicks look confused, and then closes the case based on the murderer mumbling “t’isn’t” in reply to Columbo’s claim that he is holding the first victim’s ticking watch. Is that it? Sadly, it is. Nothing else matters, other than a lucky break during his Poirot moment, and a slip of the tongue from the murderer that was always going to be highly unlikely. Is that what he was banking on? What, no concrete evidence at all, after all those endless scenes of asking questions and learning nothing much of any use?
It’s tempting to say it’s brave for a long-running series to break the format and do something different, but there has to be a point to the different thing, and it needs to be done well. If those boxes are not ticked, then it’s not brave. It’s foolish. You strip away the reason people watch the show, and replace it with… what? A really bad example of a whodunit? To then drastically alter the way the main character behaves, well, that leaves the regular viewers with nothing to enjoy, except for some comedy moments that aren’t actually funny. Just one plot development saves this from being a complete waste of time, and that’s the twist in the tale with the main suspect turning up as a corpse himself. The episode hinges on that moment and it works well as a subversion of the usual rule of television whodunits (look for the most famous name in the cast and you’ve found your murderer). It makes an impact like nothing else in the episode, but it also leaves the problem of a choice between too many uninteresting characters to identify the murderer, and all of them are unlikeable so we can’t care much either. As Columbo rows away to meet his wife, it looks for all the world like we’ve just gone out on the lowest of possible lows for a popular show, but mercifully there’s a big hint that it’s not all over yet:
“I thought you were gonna quit?”
“Not yet. No, not yet, Sergeant. Not yet!”
My worry is that ripples from this shipwreck of an episode will be felt when Columbo returns. Who is going to show up for the next season? The shabby detective with a brilliant mind who we love to watch, or the weird creep from Last Salute to the Commodore? For one episode only, we sailed to a place nobody wants to be, jettisoning every single reason why we watch this show. Let’s hope everyone had the sense to change course immediately. RP