Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 3

Episode review: Columbo Swan Song

Swan 22

Following on from the underwhelming future shock of Mind Over Mayhem, Columbo returned to safer territory on 4 March 1974 in the musical form of Swan Song.

Casting legendary country singer Johnny Cash in the role of legendary country singer Tommy Brown was a revelation. But does the episode live up to its star billing? Let’s tune up our guitars, get our tabernacle donations ready and put a pot of squirrel chili on to cook as we find out…

Columbo Swan Song cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Tommy Brown: Johnny Cash
Edna Brown: Ida Lupino
Maryann Cobb: Bonnie Van Dyke
Luke Basket: Bill McKinney
Roland Pangborn: John Dehner
Mr Grindell: Vito Scotti
JJ Stringer: Sorrell Booke
Tina: Janit Baldwin
The Colonel: John Randolph
Directed by: Nicholas Colasanto
Written by: David Rayfiel (from a story by Stanley Ralph Ross)
Score by: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis: Columbo Swan Song

Biblical crooners Tommy Brown & The Lost Soul Crusaders are playing to a packed house in Bakersfield, California – just another leg on a mammoth touring circuit designed to raise funds in order to build a $5 million tabernacle to prove how much they love the Lord.

This is not a shared goal, though. Lead singer Tommy (Johnny Cash) wants to have some fun with the money he’s earning. It’s his harpy-ish wife, Edna (Ida Lupino) that has her heart set on the tabernacle – and she’s blackmailing Tommy to ensure she gets her way.

Swan 20

Edna’s kind heart and sunny disposition always came shining through!

Former jailbird Tommy, you see, has been a very naughty boy. He’d been romping with one of his back-up singers, Maryann, since she was 16. Even though she was a willing participant, that’s still statutory rape and if Tommy won’t give his all to the tabernacle cause, Edna will blow the whistle and our mate Tommy will be back behind bars before you can say: ‘You’re a sanctimonious hypocrite of a Bible-spouting blackmailer and I’ve given you your last chance to be fair!’

Tommy cooks up a high-risk plan to rid himself of both Edna and Maryann and puts it into action immediately after the Bakersfield show. Knowingly piloting a light aircraft into heavy weather over the mountains to LA, Tommy drugs the pair with spiked coffee, then bails out of the plane using a home-made parachute that was hidden in his navigation kit box.

As the plane crashes to fiery oblivion, Tommy lands nearby, breaking his ankle while landing before hiding the tell-tale parachute in a hollow log. He then drags himself painfully to the crash site and lies face down near the wreckage to be discovered by the first passers-by on the scene, looking for all the world as if he’s enjoyed a truly miraculous escape.

“Former jailbird Tommy has been romping with one of his back-up singers, Maryann, since she was 16.”

While Tommy is recovering in hospital, one Lieutenant Columbo has driven out to the mountains to investigate the scene of the accident because the LAPD have received word from Edna’s brother, Luke, that Tommy has deliberately staged the crash to free himself from whatever hold she had over him.

Disrupting a TV interview, Columbo bends the ear of specialist aircraft accident investigator Roland Pangborn, who is able to explain to both the Lieutenant and us some of the supposed particulars of the incident.

According to Tommy’s statement, the plane’s electrics shorted out. Exacerbated by the poor weather conditions, Tommy made a simple error of judgement that resulted in the accident. Pangborn admits Tommy was very lucky to be alive, but that such survival stories are not unheard of. He also explains that Tommy’s blood test came up negative for drugs or booze.

Columbo continues to snoop around the site, shrewdly noticing things that his more experienced counterparts have missed. The rear passenger seat belt buckles were still done up, but Tommy’s wasn’t. That must be how he was thrown clear of the plane. Upon finding the navigation kit, he wonders why there are no ashes from the maps and charts that should have been within it. The little things are already starting to bother him.

The detective’s next stop is at the funeral home, where he waits for an interview for the anguished Luke, who is spoiling for a fight with Tommy. Luke convinces Columbo to go and question the singer there and then ‘to see what kind of person he is’. Because despite his wife barely being under the ground, Tommy is cavorting with scantily clad stunners at a pool party at his newly rented luxury pad!

swan-10.jpg

Squirrel chilli, booze and bikini-clad scorchers helped Tommy bounce back from the grievous loss of his dear wife

Despite the Lieutenant’s best efforts to rein him in, a furious Luke is soon getting punchy with Tommy, delivering some southern-style chin music to the bewildered musician, while publicly accusing him of murder. Tommy’s mood is not improved when Columbo waddles over and introduces himself as being from the Homicide Department. Indeed he looks about ready to commit murder again, but the wily Columbo manages to defuse the situation by stoking Tommy’s ego.

Now in control of his emotions, Tommy does what he can to assist with the Lieutenant’s enquiries. He admits that he and Edna regularly quarrelled over money, and that he’s been hankering for a higher standard of living, hence renting out the luxury pad.

Tommy also explains away some of the particulars of the plane crash. He unbuckled his seatbelt to reach a flashlight from the glove box after the plane’s electrics failed. That’s when he lost control of the plane. The maps and charts from the nav kit were sucked out of the plane window, which Tommy was forced to open to prevent the windscreen misting up after the heater packed in.

It’s all sounding measured and plausible, but Tommy drops the ball when he starts cooing over his guitar and claiming how much he loved it. He reveals that he sent the guitar to LA on the bus with Luke in case the changes in air pressure in the plane caused the glue holding it together to come unstuck. It was the very first time he’d sent the guitar off with Luke rather than take it with him personally. And there’s nothing that pricks up Columbo’s ears quite like suspects doing something they don’t normally do.

Columbo Swan Song

Airsick Columbo!

In fact Columbo’s suspicious enough to catch a flight to Bakersfield himself, where (once he’s recovered from a bout of airsickness) he grills airstrip maintenance man Jeff about Tommy’s ill-fated flight. Jeff had helped stow the luggage on the plane, you see, earning a $5 tip for his troubles. And while he never handled the nav kit, so can’t vouch for whether it was heavier than a standard nav kit, he does provide a nugget of new information: Tommy had a thermos of coffee with him. This may not sound like much, but it opens up a whole new line of enquiry for the Lieutenant.

Dashing back to LA, Columbo crashes the invite-only SLEAZE PARTY that Tommy was hoping to have with teen backing singer Tina in order to question him about the thermos. Having to pick his mind up from the gutter, Tommy is struggling to comprehend why the location of a thermos can matter, but over the course of a brief conversation Columbo cleverly learns that Tommy learnt to fly in the air force, washed out of cadets, and did a stint in the Korean War.

This leads the Lieutenant to Tommy’s buffoonish former military commander, Colonel Mayehoff. The air force veteran is as loopy as a stunt pilot, but he is able to provide some vital intel: after washing out as a cadet, Tommy served as a parachute rigger. Connecting this with the empty nav kit and the missing thermos, Columbo is starting to build a genuine case – so much so that he orders an autopsy on Edna and Maryann.

The autopsy reveals evidence of that classic 70s’ drugs staple barbiturates in the dead women’s systems and Columbo uses this to infer that someone might have been trying to drug Tommy and cause him to crash the plane. Tommy laughs this off, but now the Lieutenant has the scent he’s not letting go and is finding more and more reasons why Tommy is his prime suspect.

The final clincher comes when he interviews a dotty old seamstress from the Lost Soul Crusade’s costume department. She’s certain that she ordered three extra bolts of white nylon – 45 square yards of fabric – but they have strangely gone missing from her secret stash. A visit to Pangborn only hardens Columbo’s suspicions further when he is shown that a properly folded parachute will easily squeeze into a nav kit.

And even if the amount of fabric missing is less than is required to make an optimum-sized chute (60 square yards), Columbo is told that an experienced jumper should still be able to survive a faster landing OK – although they might suffer a broken leg or pelvis as a result. But even if this is the case with Tommy, who could ever hope to find a hidden parachute on a mountain, Pangborn asks. Just one person, Columbo responds: the man who hid it.

Columbo now needs to force Tommy’s hand, so puts him under 24-hour police guard until a pack of boy scouts finds the missing thermos on the mountain so they can test the contents and run it for prints. The search will begin the next morning at dawn. But Tommy has a surprise in store for the Lieutenant, telling him he’s leaving town that afternoon to begin a new tour which will last for months.

Swan 11

Columbo knew. Then he didn’t know. Then he knew when Tommy took his rental car keys through the airport security gate

The disbelieving Lieutenant tails Tommy to the airport, certain that he won’t get on a plane. He even chases Tommy all the way to the departure gate, where the jovial singer spots him and bids a cheerful farewell. Yes folks, it looks for all the world like Tommy will get away with murder. That’s until Columbo has a brainwave after noticing that Tommy had taken his rental car keys with him through airport security rather than turning them in.

We cut now to Tommy driving said rental car along a twisting mountain road in the dead of night. Leaving the car parked, he scrambles into the undergrowth and recovers the parachute where he’d left it in the hollow log. He’s hopping back to the car with the parachute in his arms when his car lights are turned on full, illuminating him and catching him with the reddest of red hands.

It’s Lieutenant Columbo, of course, who had been waiting on the mountain pass for hours after banking on the fact that Tommy would show up sooner or later to retrieve the parachute. With no room left to manoeuver, Tommy accepts defeat and slides into the passenger seat of his car to be driven downtown – to accompaniment of one of his own songs on the radio.

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Gotcha!

After admitting he’s glad it’s all over, Tommy receives some words of comfort from Columbo who states: “Any man who can sing like that can’t be all bad,” as credits roll…

Swan Song‘s best moment: the blazing row

There’s plenty of good scenes to choose from, but my personal favourite is the blazing row between Edna and Tommy right after their Bakersfield show. Full of vitriol, it tells us all we need to know about both characters.

TommyBrown

40-something Tommy lusts after teeny boppers – much to wife Edna’s disgust

First we see that Tommy is susceptible to sins of the flesh with teenage groupies and backing singers, and begrudges having to live on a shoe-string when his sell-out concerts are netting $30,000 per night.

We learn that Edna is a ruthless, blackmailing old witch. Despite raising Tommy out of the gutter when she assisted in his release from jail, she essentially treats him as slave labour, milking his talent to fund her tabernacle cause. And despite knowing that Tommy committed statutory rape with young Maryann, she keeps the girl close for blackmailing reasons, not to do anything humanitarian, such as helping her, or anything crazy like that.

Yes, Edna is as godless as they come, so we have the scene set for a delightfully wicked tussle between two arch-sinners, knowing only one can come out on top.

My opinion on Swan Song

Whenever I engage with fellow fans on the subject of their favourite episode, Swan Song regularly crops up near the top of the heap. I think that’s for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a strong episode in its own right. But secondly, and more importantly (I suspect), it’s more memorable than most because of the presence of Johnny Cash.

And that’s fair enough. I mean, who doesn’t love Johnny Cash? I do myself. But I believe the average viewer’s positive attitude towards the Man in Black might contribute to them seeing this episode through rose-tinted spectacles. Because while this is certainly cracking entertainment, in my opinion it falls some way short of making the series’ greatest hits list.

Swan 4

Falk and Cash were right at home in each other’s company

Before I risk enraging and alienating a high percentage of readers, please rest assured that this is nothing to do with Johnny Cash’s performance. I think he’s excellent in this, a very pleasant surprise, giving us an earthy antagonist who, for once, isn’t from society’s elite.

Instead we have a working class baddie who’s been raised the hard way and has done his time behind bars before finding redemption (of sorts) on the stage. Cash is entirely believable in that role and it’s a nice novelty to have Lieutenant Columbo face off against an opponent with whom he shares more common ground.

“Cash is excellent in this, giving us an earthy antagonist who, for once, isn’t from society’s elite.”

Cash delivers both the musical bad boy elements required of the role as well as country affability without airs and graces. I can see why so many people find Tommy Brown a likeable rogue, and sympathise with him throughout – up to a point. For while few viewers could begrudge Tommy bumping off that old battleaxe Edna, I find it harder to sympathise with his motivations because Tommy is essentially only after money and sex – the latter, it seems, with girls in their teens.

As Edna herself puts it, “you’re a lustful sinner, Tommy!” He certainly is. Regardless of whether or not Maryann was a willing partner, 40-something Tommy was only too happy to leap into bed with a 16-year-old after signing into motels with her as father and daughter. That’s pretty creepy.

And there’s nothing to indicate that Tommy has learnt his lessons from that. He’s on the cusp of ‘pashing’ with the teen groupie outside his dressing room after the Bakersfield show, and is clearly grooming Tina, another teen singer from his backing group, later in the episode, inviting her to “make a big, long list of things you’d like me to do for being so nice to Tommy Brown.” Run, Tina! RUN!

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Tommy creeping on young Tina makes for uncomfortable viewing

This is pretty unsettling stuff (especially to a modern audience with the #metoo campaign fresh in memory), and probably ought to make the viewer consider afresh whether he’s worthy of our sympathies. Personally, I think the writers erred by not making Tommy seem further along the path to redemption earlier in the episode. It’s as if the writers were unclear on who Tommy Brown was meant to be. Saint or sinner? A guy who’s truly seen the light? It’s a confusing portrayal.

Perhaps during his fiery altercation with Edna at the start of proceedings he could have been give a throwaway line such as: “She told me she was 20 years old, and in any case I’ve never looked at another woman since, etc etc.” He could even have suggested that Edna induced Maryann to seduce Tommy. Although other aspects of the episode would have needed to change slightly, this way Edna could still have had a claim over Tommy but we could genuinely side with a guy trying to put his past behind him. Instead Tommy is portrayed as a predator throughout. He’s not a good guy, no matter how much we might like Johnny Cash.

Swan 12

Elvis lives!

All this, to me at least, takes the edge off what could have been another moving closing scene. Columbo clearly likes what he’s seen of Tommy from their interactions and is happy to vouch for his character, suggesting that  a man who sings like Tommy “can’t be all bad.” I can’t believe he’d have said that if he’d known more about Tommy’s lusting after girls young enough to be his daughter, though.

Tommy says the crime has been eating him up and that he’s ‘glad it’s over’. To that I say phooey! There has been zero evidence of remorse in any of his actions throughout the episode. Why should we believe it’s surfacing now?

The ending itself also loses marks due its derivative nature. We’ve seen it done before, and better. The ending is highly reminiscent of the exchange between Adrian Carsini and Columbo at the conclusion of Any Old Port in a Storm, but less affecting. Plus we’ve seen the old ‘caught-in-the-headlights’ trick twice before now in Death Lends a Hand and Blueprint for Murder, so the power of Swan Song‘s ‘gotcha’ moment is diluted.

Squirrel chili

Mmmmm… squirrel chilli… *NYOM*

That notwithstanding, there’s loads here to enjoy and a rich vein of humour. Columbo’s encounter with the chilli at Tommy’s pool party is a great example. The detective is initially delighted with his find – until he’s told it was made with squirrel meat. Falk’s expression is an absolute picture!

Tommy’s earthy language throws up some delights, too. Notably around  him threatening to ‘bust’ things (his enemy Luke’s neck amongst them) and his enraged, disbelieving shout of “HARMICIIIDE?” when first being introduced to Columbo.

The Lieutenant has a few gems in the script, too, during his conversations with Tommy. The singer wants to know why someone might want to kill him. Columbo’s response is GOLD. “Mr Brown, I don’t know,” he says. “But you are a celebrity and there are a lot of crackpots in the world and there’s just no accounting for people’s reactions. I mean, sometimes I even wonder about my wife. Not that she’s a crackpot…” This exchange leaves a broad grin on Tommy’s face, and, I suspect, a large portion of the audience.

Sorrell Booke has a bonkers cameo as Tommy’s manager, JJ Stringer, at the music studio and there’s another scene to cherish starring Vito Scotti (making his third rib-tickling appearance in four episodes) as funeral parlour director Mr Grindell, who tries to sell Columbo a funeral plan. The abashed detective rebuffs all advances, saying this is the sort of subject he could never raise with Mrs Columbo because “she cries easily. She even cries when she loses at bowling!” Maybe she is a crackpot after all…

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Sorrell Booke’s cameo defies conventional description

Some of the gags miss the mark, though. The scene where Columbo questions the hard-of-hearing Colonel is tediously drawn out, as is the one where the Lieutenant interviews the loopy seamstress. Both are examples of the malaise that often creeps into episodes with a longer running time (of which Swan Song is another), where scenes are stretched far beyond their welcome to produce some clue or other that could have been reached much less laboriously.

Still, as this is a continual criticism I have of the ‘longer’ episodes, I’ll leave it at that before regular readers roll their eyes and chirp: “Change the record, mate.”

Instead let’s shift focus to the murder itself, which must rank as one the series’ most far-fetched and high-risk crimes. I’ll give Tommy the props he deserves, because deliberately crashing a plane after drugging his passengers and parachuting to ankle-breaking freedom is one hell of a creative way to rid himself of his problems. Some viewers have issues with crimes as audacious as this (and the subliminal cuts from Double Exposure), but I say just sit back and applaud!

“Ida Lupino gives us a victim we can really despise in Edna Brown.”

The strength of the ensemble cast is also to be cherished. As is the case with most of the best episodes, everyone here is on sparkling form whether in a large or small role, all the way up from gum-chewing Jeff, the happy-go-lucky airport technician, to the top billed actors.

Special praise must be reserved for Ida Lupino. She’s great in pretty much everything, but really gives us a victim to despise in Edna Brown. Lupino previously guest starred in season 1’s Short Fuse in a nothing role. She might only have a few minutes’ screen time here, but it’s high impact all the way and she’s such a hag that we can really cheer at her demise.

Columbo Edna Brown

How to curdle milk in 10 easy lessons. Part 1: the withering stare

Several other recurring actors pop up. Sorrell Booke and Vito Scottti were mentioned above, but John Dehner (Pangborn here) returned two seasons later as the sour-faced titular mariner in Last Salute to the Commodore. Mike Lally even gets his customary bit-part, so there’s plenty here for the purists to look out for.

Swan Song is highly memorable for its music, as well it should be when it stars such a legend as Cash. The musical interludes definitely live long in the memory. Hear I Saw the Light in this episode and it’ll be stuck in your head for the rest of the decade, whether you like it or not. It’s also a giddy thrill to hear Tommy doing a rendition of Sunday Morning Coming Down – one of Cash’s most-loved tunes. No wonder Mrs Columbo is a fan!

Both hits are effectively played out on screen, too. Footage of a real Cash concert was intercut into Tommy’s Bakersfield show, while his serenading of a bevvy of beauties round the poolside on the same day as Edna and Maryann’s funeral shows Tommy’s ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rock star hedonism is to become his new norm.

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Footage from an actual Cash concert is nicely worked in to the show’s opening number

To conclude, Swan Song is an episode high on memorable moments, and boosted by a fine performance from Johnny Cash but the indecision on the big issue of Tommy’s morality leaves a hole at its heart. As it is, the lackadaisical attempt to show that Tommy really has seen the light at episode’s end rings a hollow note.

Did you know?

Nick ColasantoThis episode was directed by Nicholas Colasanto (pictured), better known to most viewers as Coach from Cheers.

Read about many more surprise Columbo contributors here.

How I rate ’em

Although full of fun and good performances, Swan Song doesn’t quite live up to the hype when under the microscope. It’s perfectly enjoyable, but only tucks into a mid-table position a third of the way through the episode run.

Read any of my past episode reviews via the links below.

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Publish or Perish
  3. Double Shock
  4. Murder by the Book
  5. Death Lends a Hand
  6. A Stitch in Crime
  7. Double Exposure
  8. Lady in Waiting
  9. Any Old Port in a Storm
  10. Prescription: Murder
  11. Swan Song
  12. The Most Crucial Game
  13. Etude in Black
  14. Candidate for Crime
  15. Greenhouse Jungle
  16. Requiem for a Falling Star
  17. Blueprint for Murder
  18. Ransom for a Dead Man
  19. Dead Weight
  20. The Most Dangerous Match
  21. Lovely but Lethal
  22. Short Fuse
  23. Mind Over Mayhem
  24. Dagger of the Mind

Where does Swan Song rank in your personal list of favourites? I’d love to know, so do leave a comment below.

Thanks, as always, for reading and check back in soon when we round out season 3 with the dark, brooding tale of cop-turned-bad corruption and murder, A Friend In Deed.


And in case the above has made you hanker for Tommy Brown’s number one hit, let’s sing along with the below. Altogether now: Praise the looo-ooo-oooord, I saw the light…

71 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo Swan Song

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  4. Wonderfull episode, very good all way long. Wordplays in Columbo-murder chat are notable, first time I see them so very subtle! Also important questions are given, and asnwers too. (E.g. “aren’t you afraid”). I’m happy to predict one or two steps&meanings in the case, more-or-less important. Wonderfull sense of humour and all dialogues make it I think it’s just a perfect episode, maybe be my favourite as soon as I’ll see them all. Yet Columbo tossing around pieces of crashed airplane brings, in a way, sad sad memories. He shouldn’t be that messy, right? I guess the Airforce guys have secured all before. I’ve also seen (well, just heard of) practically getting a crushed plane in one from pieces like a puzzles to see what’s been missing and what how got apart.
    It’s good he finally solved the case. As he always does!

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  7. I like the fragment of the version of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” interpreted by Cash in Swan Song. Is anyone aware of the possible existence of a “Columbo” recording of that song? If such a recording exists and contains the full song, is it mono or stereo?

  8. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Negative Reaction | The Columbophile

  9. This is one of my favorite episodes, perhaps the most memorable. What I don’t underestand is why The Man in Black was wearing black clothes if he was portraying a character. He should have used other kind of outfit.

    • I always get the feeling that Cash is playing himself in “Swan Song”, because in reality, too, he was a Country legend with religious background, and the friendly way he treats Columbo resembles his love for humanity at Cash’s prison concerts, so why wouldn’t he “wear the black for the poor and beaten down” also in the episode? It makes the movie a classic. It’s the only Columbo case where I feel that Peter Falk is outplayed by his counterpart.

    • Rumor has it that the show’s producers debated whether Johnny Cash should wear a crushed velvet dinner-jacket and a huge bow tie or if he should wear something that would seem a little more comfortable to him. I think they made the right choice.

  10. “Ida Lupino gives us a victim we can really despise in Edna Brown.”

    For the duration Edna was on screen, my first thoughts were that she’d be great as the culprit, it would be so good to see her get caught…then, I thought she deserved her own entire episode. A pity there wasn’t one for her in the series.

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  12. I think it’s all about the casting that makes you feel for Tommy Brown. You can hate what he did as a murderer and find him sleazy for the underage statutory but because it’s Cash who brings such heart and a grounded, earthy charm I you can’t hate him. I also think anybody who has a problem with the absurd high crimes must not understand the show at all lol the creators always said that Columbo is a fantasy, I mean in real life would a cop get away with dressing like Columbo and driving a car like that? lol

  13. It seems that the reviewer’s main objection to this episode is that the murderer is…a bad person.

    Well, yes. He’s a murderer.

    Pretty strong episode. Love Ida Lupino, always happy to see a star from the Hollywood studio era pop up on the show.

    • No, the main point I am trying to make is that Brown is portrayed sympathetically to viewers through Columbo’s sympathetic treatment of him, which (based on what we see of him) he doesn’t deserve any more than most other killers on the show.

  14. Hi. Have recently discovered your site & I love it. Thanks so much. When are you going to finish all the reviews? X

  15. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Friend in Deed | The columbophile

  16. swan song is one of the best columbos and i just dont know how u can rate lady in waiting and that any old port in a storm higher is beyond me because i think they are 2 very mid tier columbos this episode has a bit of everything in it although as good asit is i like negative reaction , identity crisis try and catch me , by dawns early light and troubled waters better although you havent reviewed these episodes yet but lets face it they were all good.

  17. As a Johnny Cash fan (he is my favorite singer ever), I can see what you mean regarding Tommy Brown not being a good guy. While Cash definitely overcame a share of struggles, Brown chasing after teenagers in this episode is tough to stomach.

    Someone else mentioned the use of “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” I love this song and the use of it surprised me but made me smile :).

    My favorite scene of this episode is when Columbo is at the crash site and Pangborn asks him if he wants to be an investigator. Columbo inquires about having to fly. After Pangborn says they would teach him, he talks about not liking heights (as the show definitely shows quite a bit) and then saying I don’t even like being this tall. I love that line 🙂

  18. I watched one of the Johnny Cash biographies, and Kris Kristofferson (a good actor and great songwriter) talked about when Johnny had his variety show from 1969-1970. Johnny was to play “Sunday Morning’ Comin’ Down”, and the network censors said to not use the lyric “I’m wishing Lord that I was stoned”. Kris said that Johnny agreed, but when the show was live, Johnny proudly sang the lyrics as Kristofferson wrote it, and enunciated it loud and proud while he turned and smiled at Kris in the audience. Great story about 2-outlaws bonding. In addition to playing the song at the Edna ‘wake’, Johnny was humming it throughout, including when he was at the airport.

    There are only a handful of music videos that make the my hair stand up all over, and the main one is Johnny’s version of the 9 Inch Nails song “Hurt”. The video is amazing. If you haven’t seen it, please do. You won’t regret it. Toward the end of his career, after the big record labels tossed him aside, Johnny worked with Rick Rubin (rap & heavy metal producer), and some of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers and released several acoustic albums. Just him playing and singing. Very powerful, indeed.

    One more music reference that ties to this episode: “Swan Song” was the label that Led Zeppelin and Bad Company recorded on in the ’70’s.

  19. There is just one more thing, we all agree Ida Lupino was her great talented self as Edna. Since this review was posted I can’t get her saying, “Maruh….Ann” out of my head. You want an authentic Southern lady? Hire a Londoner 🙂

  20. Not my favourite episode, but still entertaining nonetheless. Has anybody else laid in bed with insomnia, tossing and turning with the “I saw the light” chorus running rampant thru their head? My ranking has it somewhere in the low 20s but opinions are subjective, as is mine. However, this is one of the few where the homicide seems justifiable, as Ida Lupino’s character’s death warrants. (No, I don’t condone underage relations) Her greed and blackmailing become unbearable for our hero and he does the right thing. No musician’s creativity should have to succumb to anyone else’s deranged idea of success!!! (or in this case, building a giant mega-church)

    Sorry, I went way off-track there. I guess being a musician myself allows me to easily justify Tommy Brown’s actions, as he really had no choice. Maybe I’ll consider letting “Swan Song” into the high teens on my future rankings…. Cheers!

  21. Good review. It’s a top ten Columbp for me.

    Very interested to read your thoughts on S03E08 “A Friend In Need” That’s in my top 5.
    Thanks for what you do here.

    • Thanks for being such a regular visitor and commenter! I’m looking forward to Friend In Deed, too. I am a big fan and will be great to revisit as I don’t think I’ve seen it for the last couple of years.

      • Completely agree. Overall Season 3 is the strongest I’d say, though in reality, is any season really bad. Sure some episodes may not be as good, but are still a bad Columbo is easily better than most other shows best episodes.

      • Totally agree – S3 to S5 are excellent (perhaps S4 the absolute peak?) – isn’t it funny how so many tv series seem to reach their best at about the 3rd or 4th season!

  22. Johnny Cash’s portrayal of Tommy Brown was perfectly suited for The Man in Black, who often publicly bounced between sin & salvation in real life. Cash was as equally loved by evangelists and hard-core conservatives as he was by convicts, punk rockers and unkempt hippies. He was the quintessential ‘real deal’, the consummate hero who would vehemently defend to the death your right to burn the stars and stripes, but unequivocally kick your a$$ if he actually saw you doing it.

    Obviously I’m biased toward most everything JC did. Even his initials hint at deity (JC… along with Jack Cassidy), so this episode and the Tommy Brown character are definitely in my top 5, along with my muderers’ row of Columbo guest stars, who I respectfully refer to as the “Fearsome Foursome”….Cassidy, Culp, McGoohan, and Hamilton (IV)….my personal Mount Rushmore of Columbo’s legendary homicidal heroes.

    Not only did I condone Tommy B’s offing of the dreadful dame Edna (not so much the lecherous Maryann), I actually hoped, wished, and yearned incessantly for it, which is a total compliment to Ms Lupino’s brilliant acting as such a vicious and vile beast(ess).

    Another reason that I wished for her Edna’s swift demise was the way she flailed her arm about off-beat, while caterwauling hideously out of tune during the classic Hank William’s song “I Saw the Light”. The arrangement and mix on the backup vocals of that song were atrocious….bordering on blasphemous. But it makes sense, knowing that “Boss Hog” was involved with manning the sound board in the recording studio as engineer/producer, all the while sporting those totally hip, round, red shades.

    In fact, the most glaring discrepancy in this episode is the use of the song “I Saw the Light”. There is positively no way that a gospel song would have been broadcast in California, even back in the swinging ’70’s….and even in quasi-redneck Bakersfield…..and that was before the People’s Republic of Cali became the modern-day fetid and doomed Babylon that it is now.

    There was something else about this episode that didn’t seem quite right. I never understood Tommy’s taste in the young lasses, both Maryanne and Tina. Though young and nubile, neither of these tarts were anything to write home about. I don’t blame Tommy Brown for that, as it was probably just bad casting, or maybe the way that the demonic Edna controlled Tommy’s inner circle with a vengeance. The wenches at his backyard BBQ/squirrel chili contest, and the seemingly endless bevy of lovelies rushing him post concert, come to mind when I think of his naughty boy antics (when we first witnessed the horror that was Edna).

    The man, the myth, the legend…..Mr. John R. Cash can do no wrong in my book, and the Swan Song episode deserves my high accolades. I hear the train a-comin’, time to depart….Ta-dah.

    • Great review. Johnny Cash was born for this role, no doubt about it. He was a man who freely admitted his trials, successes, and failures in life. And you’re right, he was a man loved by convicts and Christians equally. Agree with you also about Ida Lupino; whoever did the casting, it was a stroke of genius. It’s refreshing to watch classic actors ply their trade.

      • I didn’t mean to come down so hard on Edna, but her character truly deserved everything she got, and more. However, Ida Lupino was a true trailblazer in Hollywood, as one of the first female Directors, Writers, and Producers in Hollywood in addition to her great body of acting roles. She deserves more accolades and even more stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Most of Hollywood’s current ‘stars’ deserve stars on the Walk of Shame on Marx Boulevard (That’s Karl Marx, not Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo).

        If you get a chance, check out her direction of the 1953 movie “The Hitch-Hiker”. Truly a great, creepy movie with an all-male cast with a female Director in the early ’50’s, during the boy’s club era in society. You can find it on Youtube. In addition to movies, she also Directed episodes of two of my favorite television series; 1) The Boris Karloff-Series Thriller episode “The Last of the Summervilles”, and 2) The Twilight Zone’s “The Mask”. She was also quite a looker in her day….indeed.

  23. “Swan Song” is one of my favorites. The combination of a blue-collar killer, the desperation that motivates his crime, the highly unusual murder method, and the clever double “pop” at the end produced a top-flight Columbo.

    By “double pop,” I mean Columbo’s gambit arranging a search party for the thermos coupled with the clue about the rental car keys. The actual “pop” was Columbo tricking Brown into retrieving his parachute by convincing him that a search party would soon be scouring the mountainside. But the bit about the rental car keys was a clever extra touch, a nice little sweetener.

    I also enjoyed the various clues along the way: the seatbelt, the empty navigation kit, the guitar left behind, the new recording of “I Saw the Light.” Brown had an answer for everything — until he didn’t. That’s classic Columbo.

    To those who find the murder method here a bit far-fetched, I find it entirely consistent with Tommy Brown’s character. You know the phrase: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”? It means: if all you know is one thing, that’s the thing you’re going to use. Brown was a parachute rigger. That’s what he knew. So that’s the method he chose.

    As for Brown’s morality, much of the contemporary culture we enjoyed 44 years ago bothers us today, and rightly so. But more than that, Brown is a murderer; I don’t expect much morality from murderers. And I wouldn’t take Columbo’s soft-soap too seriously. When you’re alone in the woods with a killer, you find nice things to say.

    Finally, about 15 years ago, I started listening to a lot of bluegrass music. Occasionally, I would hear a song I already knew. One was “I Saw the Light” — because of “Swan Song.”

  24. Thank you for another great review, they are always a treat 🙂
    However I would disagree that the “indecision on Tommy’s morality” as you describe it has a negative impact on the episode. I personally somehow compare the character of Johnny Cash to Dostoevskij’s Raskolnikov from “Crime and Punishment”, even though this comparison is pretty far-fetched and requires some imagination and guessing from the viewer. But if you do that, then everything slips into place nicely, including the final “can’t be that bad” from Columbo.
    Once again thank you for your time and efforts, I have become a regular reader of your project and find what you do very important, interesting and entertaining!

  25. In ranking your Top 11 the only ones not on my list would be Publish or Perish and Double Shock. The bottom two are the same, most impressive.

  26. It was a good episode, but not the best. In my view, the “gotcha” is a bit weak. As you noted, we’ve seen it before. Definitely creepy to see Cash hitting on 16 year old girls, but I guess it was a different area. That was still frowned upon, but not quite the way it is scene in contemporary society.

    Thanks, as always for a great review. I am slowing down my consumption of Columbo in order to not get too far ahead of your reviews. The next 3 episodes all seem superior to this one.

  27. I remember one time in the nineties when Johnny Cash was on Jay Leno’s Tinight Show. Jay remarked “You were one of my favorite Columbo villians”. Johnny, there plugging something else was humbly proud.

  28. I still think that “Swan Song” is one of the most entertaining of the Columbo episodes, certainly in contrast to “Mind Over Mayhem.” One unscientific means of determining this is based on how children respond to the episodes. If their interest in engaged, the show is entertaining, and the converse seems to be true as well. And I’ve also personally experienced this concept, having grown up as a child watching the Columbo episodes as originally aired and as reruns. In those days, reruns were the the only show in town if you wanted to watch Columbo at certain times. When “Swan Song” came on, I inevitably stayed to watch the rest of the episode again, relishing newly discovered details. This was not always the case with “Mind Over Mayhem,” where, in my youth, I’d pass from time to time.

    One of the things that made “Swan Song” interesting and novel, apart from featuring Johnny Cash in the role of a murderer, a part that I always thought he was terrific in, as I’d never seen him acting in a drama before, was the specific plan the character came up with to “get rid of” those who controlled his life by deliberately crashing the plane with his victims aboard, and then parachuting to safety nearby the crash site.

    Many people who did not grow up at this time may not know that Tommy Brown’s plan was likely inspired by the daring hijacking of a Boeing aircraft in late 1971 (a little over two years before “Swan Song” first aired). This was a hot case of the day and widely discussed. The bold perpetrator went by the name of “Dan Cooper” but soon became better known as the mysterious “D.B. Cooper.” Cooper’s plan didn’t involve murder, but his plan did call for stealing cash and then parachuting somewhere between Oregon and Washington states. A manhunt turned up nothing, as did an FBI investigation. The case remained the only unsolved air piracy in commercial aviation history.

    • I’ve never heard of the DB Cooper case! What a tale! And that certainly sounds like it could have influenced the telling of Swan Song. I will look it up – thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  29. I am glad that this review puts Tommy Brown in proper perspective. I love the episode and the plane scene. But it is often the secondary murders that grate the most. Paul Galesko killing Alvin Deschler, and Dr, Mark Collier killing Nadia Donner particularly bug me. But sexually exploiting a teen then drugging her and killing her in a plane crash. Uggh. Big credit to Johnny Cash for taking on such a reprehensible character; it took some guts for a guy loved as much as he was to play someone so close to him in some ways, and yet so evil at the same time. You suspect that he had strong feelings about music stars that exploit young fans. The fact that you have moments where you confuse Cash and Brown is one more compliment to his acting ability.

  30. I remember when Peter Falk and Johnny Cash appeared on the Phil Donahue show to promote this episode. And they talked about the fact that Tommy Brown was going to be a murderer who was hard to root against. But they guaranteed it with that ending, I never believed for a moment that he was truly repentant about the crime. David Levin was right in pointing out the time discrepancy with the funeral being so soon after the plane crash. Especially since the bodies were flown back to Nashville for burial. Being a fan of names, I also liked how “Tommy Brown”fit in with his character’s humble beginnings. A name like Jarvis Goodland or Hayden Danziger would never work for this murder.

  31. A thought on why Tommy might genuinely have been remorseful, at least to some degree. Not about Edna, who most definitely had “her last chance to be reasonable” but about MaryAnn.

    She’s a vulnerable young woman who has been appallingly treated by both Edna and Tommy. He obviously killed her too because she was the only other person who could tell the authorities about the statutory rape, but I think it’s this that is eating him up inside. He could live with killing Edna. But he couldn’t live with the guilt of not only abusing MaryAnn, but then killing her as well.

    For me, this is where the episode falls down (and it’s in my personal Top 10). MaryAnn’s character and story gets very little attention, and yet in what little we see of her, Bonnie Van Dyke plays her as a deeply unhappy person (even in the concert clip, she looks so miserable compared with Tina). Is it because she’s been tossed aside by Tommy? Is there a deep desire that she’ll find her way back into his favour? Does she resent being used by Edna as a pawn in Edna’s own little game? We don’t get a chance to find out, and yet she really deserves better. It kind of feels like the script writers have tossed her aside just as Tommy did.

  32. Another well-done and enjoyable review! Edna curdling milk by virtue of her demeanor was inspired!
    On a side note regarding how current socio-political climates can affect our sentiments surrounding “Columbo” episodes, I was reminded of something that has always made me a little uneasy when viewing “Identity Crisis,” as I did last night. The opening at Travel Town when Columbo tells the little girls that they’re pretty and know they’re pretty, followed by the query about them owning a dog. Yes, it’s Columbo, who is beyond reproach, and yes, the girls’ mother is present, but it still comes across as creepy in the same way as Columbo’s joke about Audrey having a desirable body as well as mind in “Etude in Black”.

    • That’s funny because I was watching “Identity Crisis” the other day and I had exactly the same thought. The only defense I could think of was that Columbo knew those CIA goons were following him around so he was trying to attract attention to himself by being as obnoxious as possible. If the goons had clubbed him and tossed him into a van, then at least the mother would have been able to talk to the authorities about when she saw the creepy man. “He looked just like a flasher with that dirty raincoat of his!”.

    • In the 1970s it was not considered an insult to be told you’re pretty.
      Columbo had no sinister motive in doing so; and I don’t think he was
      creepy.
      Also, there were many teen marriages in the 1970s in which the couple consisted of a teen girl and the man in his 20s. Most were not religious cults, etc. It was a different world. Many women had their first child before 18.
      The age of consent was probably a lot lower also. I wonder if Tommy was doing anything at all against the law. He was cheating on his horrible wife.

      • No, I definitely wasn’t assessing it as Columbo being sinister. Rather, as I wrote above, it was the optics from today’s perspective lending itself to creepiness. Mary Ann in “Swan Song” was 16, which is the current legal age of consent in some states. Edna keeping Mary Ann around to facilitate her blackmail was infinitely worse, in my estimation, than Tommy having sex with a teen.

  33. I’ve read much of this blog,I share your love of Columbo, and I really enjoy your writing. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

  34. For twenty years “Swan Song” ranked as number one in my list, and it only dropped one place since then. It made me become a Johnny Cash fan when I was a teen. There are no flaws in the script, the murder scene has cinematic class, the wild love life of the 70’s is represented, and the unusual friendly tone with which Tommy treats Columbo is a heart warming delight.

  35. I agree with your comment that there’s no way Tommy would have confessed. I always thought that part of the ending was thought of or insisted on by Johnny Cash to give Tommy some sort of redemption.

  36. Swan Song ranks highly, but I believe my personal best is ” Try and Catch Me”. This episode has a remarkable set of clues and the way Columbo catches her…WOW!

  37. Another excellent and accurate review. There is one detail that bothers me, just a small thing, per the script Edna’s funeral and the party at the rented house take place the day after the crash. For reasons that should be self evident there’s no way that could be possible. But it doesn’t ruin the episode.

    I think you missed another great moment, the reaction from Columbo when he was told Brown was a parachute rigger. It’s as if he’s saying, “Oh crap, this really was a homicide.” I think Brown is one of those killers Columbo likes (not for what he did, certainly not that) as a person and he doesn’t seem that happy that he has to go after him. Columbo also doesn’t appear any more pleased when he nails Brown at the end than Brown does getting caught.

    Just one last thing, I don’t condone double homicide. But if Edna isn’t at the top of most fans’ list of most hated victims she’s near it. As Tommy put it, “You couldn’t go a day without quarreling with Edna.” I’d bet you couldn’t go a day without wanting to kill her. She’s as awful a person who was ever murdered in an episode. All kudos to Ida Lupino. When you hire someone with her talent that’s the performance you get.

      • Let me add a third victim that I don’t shed a tear about: Also the greedy cheater Vincent Pauley who was loading his gun to shoot Joe Devlin deserved to be killed.

      • Imagine Edna and Francis Galesko in the same room at the same time.

        Even if Vincent Pauly isn’t worth shedding a tear over, I was still happy to see that SOB Devlin get nailed. I hope he was convicted of both the murder and the gun trafficking and never saw the free light of day again.

        If there was one character who wasn’t a victim but I wish was, it’s Darryl the hairdresser from “Old Fashioned Murder.” Geez, what a jerk.

        • I agree! What a jerk. And yet he cut Columbo’s hair and later someone tells the detective “I like you hair. Darryl?” That was a great touch!

      • It’s funny, I never think of Vincent Pauley when recalling the victims. I imagine because he is one of the very few victims who’s also a true villain, so he simply doesn’t register. But you’re correct.

        • I included old Vincent in an article about the least sympathetic victims simply because the audience just can’t care about his loss. He’s a very forgettable victim.

    • @David Levin Be happy that you don’t have to listen to Darryl the hairdresser in the German dubbing version, because where I come from, Darryl is even more grotesque: the German actor caricatures him to be a homosexual in an exaggerated tone.

      The only victim over whom I did indeed shed a tear was Tomlin Dudek in “The Most Dangerous Match”. He was such a charming nice person and likeable not only for his intelligence. He was willing to help his opponent out on his personal trouble, and whenever the scene in which his life fades out comes again, I feel sad.

  38. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Mind Over Mayhem | The columbophile

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