February 8, 2016

Mondays With Columbo: SWAN SONG

You might think, "Oh, this is the Columbo episode with Johnny Cash, so it's got to be a bit terrible."

Actually, this entry from Columbo's third season is quite remarkable in how it both reveals the crime and the resulting investigation....

...but first, the not-so-good parts.

First, the concert footage at the beginning - there's a quite obvious visual difference between actual Cash concert footage and studio-filmed Cash footage. (Admittedly, it was the 1970s, but the feel as like bouncing from the Captain America: Civil War trailer and the Batman V Superman trailer). It also doesn't help that Sorrell Booke - playing the victim's brother and the man who kick starts the investigation - plays his role a little too over-the-top.

But Johnny Cash? His performance is pretty rock solid. Oh, sure, there are some...interesting dialogue and pronunciation choices (as the Just One More Thing podcast points out), but Cash never plays Tommy Brown as an overt villain. It's very reminiscent, in fact, of Andy Griffith's turn in A Face In the Crowd - behind the aw-shucks demeanor is a carefully calculating individual. A man who sees himself as slightly ahead of the curve....which is what Columbo's counting in.

But there's another nice aspect to the episode....and that's Columbo's interactions with Pangborn, an FAA investigator played by veteran character actor John Dehner. Normally, Columbo's interactions with investigators of various kinds tends to be....well, Peter Falk portrays Columbo as a slight annoyance to others. With Dehner - I'm willing to bet it's the script - there's a nice, polite respect between the two men. Gone are the obvious overt Columbo-isms - there's a great deal to joy in watching these two men work together. It's only a few scenes, but it's sheer delight.

Finally, this is one of those scripts that - with only a minor tweaking - could be a 21st century episode. A religious country music singer who murders his wife and background singer in order to gain money....and hide a dark secret? Had this been produced two or three years ago, the conservative set would have been up in arms about this. But in the 1970s, it was....a bit more polite, but still has something of a contemporary edge.

One of the better Columbo episodes.

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