on 1 September 2010
I want to make one thing clear: this would have been a 5 star review, were it not for one thing... Last Salute To The Commodore. But we'll get to that later on. Let's focus on the positives first - they are, after all in the majority.
I am watching Columbo in order and have just finished season 5. By far, this season has the most diversity and the greatest variance in quality.
It starts out solid - Janet Leigh gives a stunning performance as a veteran actor of the MGM musical milieu. The episode is typical vintage Columbo, with higher than average acting and an ending that, while it deviates a little from the usual formula, is all the better for it and is certainly satisfying. Also the inclusion of footage of a young Janet Leigh in a lesser known musical is a fantastic touch.
Next up, A Case of Immunity. Often, when a T.V. show attempts an episode that rests heavily on characters and iconography of a different culture, it can seem a little disjointed from the rest of the series. As a viewer, if you like the show, you probably like it best when it has all the trappings you are used to (in the case of Columbo, Nouveau Riche mansion houses, men in suits and urban location footage). Familiarity breeds comfort. So, although this story was merely at an embassy, rather than another continent, it would have been easy for this episode to feel like a sort of 'Columbo goes on vacation' type story (see A Matter Of Honour). It doesn't. This is one of the best written, expertly paced and perfectly acted episodes, with just enough exotic imagery and cultural intrigue to give it a spice of variety. The political issues are also dealt with very well, which is nice to see in an older show.
I was amazed when I first saw the next episode, Identity Crisis, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the directing. In all the reviews I've read of this episode none have noted the fact that the directorial style is, at moments anyway, leagues ahead of most episodes. The studio-shot stuff looks pretty much the same, but a lot of the location footage seems a whole decade ahead of its time. It first becomes apparent at the eponymous Lieutenant's debut - the examination of the body. A night-time scene, ostensibly lit by the headlights of three police cars, this would not look out of place in the late 80s/early 90s work of James Cameron or Michael Mann. All throughout there are little visuals that catch you off-guard: intimately and unusually staged dialogue scenes; sophisticated yet subtle camera angles. The scene where Columbo enjoys a drink and cigar with the killer is a masterpiece of pacing and retains superb tension in a curiously hypnotic way. This is not to say that Columbo isn't usually well directed - after all, Spielberg once sat in the chair and most episodes are textbook examples of great visual storytelling - but this is truly exceptional. There's nothing wrong with shooting proscenium, but an artful departure now and then can be fantastic. My biggest surprise came at the end of the episode when I noticed who the director was - none other than McGoohan himself.
In story terms, the episode is typically well written, but with a few weak points such as the killer's 'old man' act and the easily explained away clinching clue, but it's nice to see Patrick McGoohan and Leslie Nielson sharing some great screen time as guest stars. Columbo's personality is a little different here, more menacing and arrogant. I assumed this was because he knew he was dealing with an unshakable and dangerous man, rather than the usual society types or professors, but it's a trait that runs throughout the whole episode, even down to his uncharacteristically lecherous attitude in the bar just after viewing the body and is resurfaced in the horrendous last episode of the season.
The next episode, A Matter Of Honour, is a little weak. Ricardo Montalban is excellent as always, but the plot is thin and the episode suffers from the viewer alienation deftly avoided by A Case of Immunity. I won't spoil the ending, but the motive given is a bit hard to believe. It's below-par Columbo - eminently watchable, but not too engaging.
The fifth episode is back to Columbo basics: familiar guest-star; tricky killer; flashes of homour; deferential and faux naïve Columbo - priceless. There's even a reappearance of an old minor character into the bargain. Nice little story, well executed. A crowd pleaser.
Now, the big problem. It is hard to express just how bad Last Salute To The Commodore is without showing it from start to finish, but there are some very basic flaws. Firstly, much of the dialogue is far too quiet. A lot of the script for this episode was improvised (which is one of the reasons it feels so odd), but this brings with it a complication - the nuances can't be captured again so there's no ADR. When you shoot half the episode by the sea, you're gonna get a lot of noise and when you can't dub over the dialogue you get a horrible slurry of sound quality. Columbo acts like an annoying and overly familiar drunk from beginning to end and the pacing is dreadful. The whole thing feels like a horrible acid trip, the clinching clue is awful and no-one seems to know what they're doing or what the point is. It seems that it was meant as the last ever episode, which would have been a disaster, but, luckily we are saved from oblivion as Columbo declares he's not quitting 'yet'. Strangely, it's also a McGoohan effort, but couldn't be further in quality from Identity Crisis.
This is an excellent series overall, but for one terrible, terrible mistake.