As a genuine fan of Columbo, the original ‘daddy’ of the detective tv series, I have seen every episode. As is widely known, Columbo established a narrative based not on the whodunnit model, but the howdunnit model. Each episode starts with a murder being plotted, or at least the build up to an impulsive killing and the subsequent well thought out cover-up.
As soon as our crumpled, cigar smoking hero appears, squinting in the California sunlight, the game of cat and mouse begins. Which clues will he pick up on, where did the killer get it wrong? It’s a format of repetition, and hence why it was so successful.
However, one episode stands out from all the rest, a curio in the vault, that is such an oddity, it has to be highlighted. Episode 6 of series 5 (1976) titled ‘Last Salute to the Commodore’ is a bizarre addition to the Columbo collection. Directed by long time collaborator on the series, and star of iconic 60s series The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan, it is almost unwatchable. And yet, for Columbo enthusiasts it’s a must, if for no better reason than seeing their favourite detective appear as he doesn’t in any other episode.
From his opening swivel in a porch doorway, to his rowing off on the ocean in a small boat, Falk plays Columbo as a kind of raving madman. He shouts and gesticulates his way through the episode as if possessed by some demonic drunkard, standing in bizarre poses and spewing crazy lines. The narrative flings open a new approach by cutting to a dead body with no sign of murder and flips things on their heads by asking us to revert to the whodunnit formula.
Every role in this episode is a caricature, mostly mumbling incoherent drunken lines to one another or giggling, or yelling. You’re never quite sure what’s happening as minutes are spent talking about inane facts that have nothing to do with the plot. The whole thing, if played straight in traditional Columbo style, would be done in 20 mins. This lasts another 70.
It’s not that the episode has no redeeming features, it does. I’m just not sure what they are. I can only describe it as Columbo as if David Lynch had got involved.
So here’s to ‘Last Salute to the Commodore’ a genuinely glorious, odd and almost unwatchable piece of 70s television.