Columbo: The Most Crucial Game (TV)

Episode Details

First broadcast November 5, 1972

Season Two, Episode Three
Preceded by The Greenhouse Jungle
Followed by Dagger of the Mind

Written by John T. Dugan
Directed by Jeremy Kagan

Key Guest Cast

Our victim is played by Dean Stockwell who had been a child star in the late 40s. At the time he may have been best known to crime fans for his performance as Judd Steiner (based on Leopold) in Compulsion. He went on to have a long career and modern viewers may remember him best from Quantum Leap or the revival of Battlestar Galactica.

Valerie Harper makes a small but memorable appearance here and would have been familiar to viewers as Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

The Verdict

Often very entertaining, sadly issues with the plotting meant I found it disappointing as a mystery.


My Thoughts

It is game day for the Los Angeles Rockets football team and general manager Paul Hanlon appears in a feisty mood. Shortly before the game he calls the coach, chewing him out, and then he calls the team’s playboy owner to remind him that they will be flying to Canada that night to meet with the owners of a hockey franchise he thinks they should acquire.

As the game kicks off, Hanlon dismisses the attendant in his box and dons a disguise, heading out to commit murder. His plan is to make it appear he was in the stadium the whole time, using a radio to keep track of developments in the game. Hanlon stages the murder to appear to be an accidental drowning but unfortunately Columbo is assigned to the case and he is soon on the killer’s trail.

Today’s episode is a bit of a landmark for the series as it was the first episode to feature an actor reappearing on the show to play a killer for a second time. This was one of the aspects of the series that always puzzled me before I started to watch – why did the show reuse killers when there was such a wealth of acting talent to choose from? Was it a level of comfort with the actor or an issue of availability? How I wish that there were DVD extras with these to explain how those decisions were made…

Robert Culp makes his return having previously been the murderer in Death Lends A Hand – a story that I felt fell somewhere in the middle of the pack. Would I like his second outing more?

Well, that’s actually quite hard to answer. Let’s start with Culp’s own performance. While Brimmer was quite aloof, Hanlon is fiery and combative. That worked well here, leading to several memorable exchanges with Columbo as his frustrations grow and some “tells” start to show in his behavior.

Culp sports a rather bushy moustache that makes him look almost comical at points, particularly during a sequence in which he dons a disguise. Fortunately Culp plays the whole thing straight, managing to retain his dignity while looking pretty silly and obviously is highly competent, making him a pretty interesting adversary for Columbo. In short, while I may not understand the practice of bringing back killers on principle, this particular piece of casting is really good and Culp delivers an even better performance this second time around.

I think the actual mechanism used to commit the murder is really clever (and so I have no wish to spoil it). It is about as tidy a method as it is possible to imagine and the plan is really impressively worked, being shot to appear quick and brutal. Sometimes with these stories you wonder if a person could really be killed so easily – here it makes perfect sense.

Columbo will be presented with a crime scene that is pretty much perfect. To all appearances this was an accidental death and there is very little evidence to disagree with that reading.

Being Columbo however he does find something – a patch of regular water – but honestly, I just don’t buy that being enough to have him thinking murder. For starters I don’t think that puddle should still be there by the time Columbo arrives in the type of weather we see but even if it is, this is a really weak thing to hook the case on.

Though I think that Columbo’s reasons for suspecting murder are weak, the investigation itself is very enjoyable. The central problem of the episode is the idea that Hanlon has an unbreakable alibi. As an example of that type of problem, the story largely delivers. While Hanlon’s plan is very cleverly worked, there are a couple of things that give Columbo enough room to imagine how he could have done it.

The problem though is that at no point are we ever asked why Hanlon commits this murder. Now I will be the first to say that the viewer doesn’t always need to know every aspect of a case for it to be satisfying. In fact I think it can sometimes be interesting for the viewer to infer a motive but here that is rather messy. There are a number of possible explanations but none fully convince.

Is it because the owner doesn’t care about the fate of the sports empire? Well, why would he want to run the risk that a new owner might dismiss him? Was he in danger of being exposed for manipulating the owner? Possibly, but it seems clear that the person keenest to do that has little standing with the family any more. Is he in love with Wagner’s wife and killing him in the hopes of winning her? Maybe, but she doesn’t seem particularly interested in him.

I don’t know if this is a case of a motive having been written and then cut for time (or some other reason) or if there was never any motive specified at all but I found its absence really distracting. Columbo is almost always looking for the motive first as his hook into a character – just think back to Étude in Black for a good example of this where he is floundering until he gets that information. It bothers me that when he makes his accusation he doesn’t even make a suggestion as to why he killed Wagner.

Without having a motive, Columbo’s treatment of Hanlon – a man who seems to have a cast iron alibi – starts to feel like unwarranted harassment. He has absolutely no reason to focus in on him at the point at which he does and, make no mistake, Columbo is clearly looking at him as a suspect from the moment he arrives at the stadium. We typically give him some latitude for this because we know he will be right and because of the type of person he is interested in but Hanlon appears and acts for most of the story as someone acting in the interests of Wagner’s widow.

This was not the only aspect of Columbo’s behavior I found questionable. I was also baffled by the choice to have him appear utterly distracted at the crime scene, listening to the game rather than looking at the body. I get that this helps establish him as a fan but it also makes his inattention feel more a genuine part of his character than an affectation, designed to throw the killer off. I don’t know that I love that interpretation of the character.

Still, Falk’s performance throughout the episode as a whole is really quite wonderful. Take for instance the wonderful way he fixates on wanting a replacement pair of shoes for instance which he apparently ad-libbed when he first meets Walter Cannell. It’s a really funny moment that speaks to his character and methods while it also really disconcerts the person he is talking with.

I also have to really praise the look of the episode. Jeremy Kagan’s direction is striking. It’s not particularly flashy but it tells the story very effectively, giving a strong sense of movement which suits this story well. It is not just the big moments but the little ones, using sound as effectively as the visuals – an example of that would be the child’s voice calling after the ice cream truck Hanlon is driving when he doesn’t stop in the neighborhood.

These aspects of the production, along with Culp’s performance, make it an often very entertaining episode to watch. The interactions between Falk and Culp are quite intense and I think the professional sports setting is used well. There are a lot of elements here that could well have led to this story being a classic.

Unfortunately what holds it back are some basic problems with the setup. Columbo’s decision to think Hanlon a murderer feels incredibly arbitrary, without a foundation of any clear (or even suggestive) evidence. Knowledge that Hanlon is guilty may allow viewers to overlook Columbo’s behavior here but I never really felt comfortable with it and it soured the episode for me as a result.

10 thoughts on “Columbo: The Most Crucial Game (TV)

  1. This was my first Poirot, age 11, and so it’s always been a favourite. I re read it years ago and found it held up, though the trick is obvious now! But it has all the elements that make Christie fun, to a high degree. I do think it’s a good first Poirot for newcomers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are right to suggest that Peril at End House is a great Poirot to start with. Everything we love about Christie is on display here making it feel very typical of the series.

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  2. The issue of series re-using guest stars is an interesting one. I think there’s a real gulf between the eras before and after the availability of entire series on home video. Before, an episode was shown and then it was only a memory. (Yes, there were occasional reruns scheduled for summer, or later syndication — though Columbo was an unlikely candidate for that — but it was still impossible to order up a particular episode you recalled from an earlier season.) So nobody bothered about it; if you recognized that the killer on Columbo was Jack Cassidy again, that was just part of the fun. There’s an interview online with Shirley Knight in which she recalls being a Universal contract player; she says that the rule was that you could reappear on a given series once per season, and that’s largely what happened. One can see the same people reappear on Rockford, or Barnaby Jones, or others like them, once a year. That stopped in, I think, the 1980s, when primetime TV became more serialized (starting with Dallas, but also Hill Street Blues) and “continuity” became something that mattered to people. I hope someone writes about all this someday.

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    1. Thanks for adding some background about the Universal rules. I grew up in the home video era where, as you point out, this simply wasn’t done (or when it was there were usually layers of latex and prosthetics involved). I can imagine it was fun to work on the show and that some actors would be happy to come back. I would be really curious to learn whether this part was written for Culp to return or whether he was cast afterwards. This feels totally tailored to him and I do think it shows him much better than in his first appearance.
      And yes, I would love to read more about this!

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      1. Check out the Timothy Hutton Nero Wolfe series. They used an ensemble cast, like a summer stock company. So the same actors pop up over and over in different roles in different episodes. Two actors played Lon Cohen, and both played other parts, between the pilot and the series. One actress, Kari Matchett, played two roles in one episode!

        As for Columbo, Jack Cassidy > Robert Culp > Patrick McGoohan were all great villains. But PM and RC played the villain the most often.

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      2. I really enjoyed JC and was surprised that he wasn’t the first one back, particularly given I didn’t love RC’s first try at it. I am really curious to get to PMcG – I adore the Prisoner but I know that some of his turns, particularly Commodore, are unpopular!

        Thanks for the recommendation. I actually have yet to read or watch Nero Wolfe so I should probably get around to that at some point…

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  3. Just catching up with these Season Two reviews!

    My personal “head canon” is that Paul plans on marrying Eric’s widow and thus gaining control of the Wagner sports empire. It’s true she does not show any romantic interest in him, but she does clearly trust him, and he is arrogant enough to expect he can make things blossom into love (on her part, his interest in her is purely financial) after a suitable mourning period.

    “Dead Weight” and this were the only Columbos written by John T. Dugan. For my money, both have endings that borrow from famous 19th-century detective stories. I will rot-13 the next paragraph for people who haven’t watched both episodes, as I will get into specifics:

    Qrnq Jrvtug unf gur n fvzvyne tvzzvpx gb Gur Cheybvarq Yrggre, uvqvat fbzrguvat (gur zheqre tha) va gur zbfg boivbhf cynpr (n qvfcynl pnfr shyy bs thaf gung vf ba choyvp qvfcynl). Urer, gur vafcvengvba nccrnef gb or Fvyire Oynmr (n fbhaq gung fubhyq unir orra urneq ohg jnf abg).

    The private-eye and call-girl elements of “Crucial Game” make it seem a bit more grounded in gritty reality than the usual Columbo – maybe giving a hint of the kind of things he gets stuck with when he’s not up against a brilliant murderer who’s staged a perfect crime?

    Finally, I’m going to say a few things about the acting that allude to later episodes, but not spoiling any plots.

    I actually rate Robert Culp higher among the repeat murderers than Jack Cassidy, because Culp was a more versatile actor – Brimmer, Paul Hanlon, and Bart Kepple from “Double Exposure” are all very different characters, while Cassidy’s three are the same character he always seemed to play on TV, just with different jobs. You know what other repeater showed a good deal of versatility? William Shatner! A lot of people consider him nothing but a big ham, but his two characters are also very different from each other, and both contain a lot more subtlety than, say, Jarvis Goodland from “The Greenhouse Jungle”.

    Also, Patrick McGoohan directed “Last Salute to the Commodore” but he does not act in it, so don’t be disappointed by his non-appearance when you watch it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I did think that marriage was the likely motive – I just don’t know why the episode didn’t show that more clearly. It certainly makes the most sense of his motives though.
      I think you make a superb point in the ROT13 passage – now I look at the plots from that perspective I can certainly see the influence of those stories.
      I did like Culp a lot more here than in his first outing so I am certainly happy he was brought back. This character is certainly different from his first. I look forward to seeing his next appearance.
      As I think I have said before, Shatner and Nimoy are the only stories I have seen prior to beginning blogging about the series here. I had pretty positive memories of each of those performances but it has been several decades since I saw them. Shatner was certainly capable of more delicate performances that people would assume based only on Trek (I thought there was a surprising amount of complexity to Denny Crane on Boston Legal too but that was much, much later).
      And thanks for the information on Salute. It is still a long way ahead of me in my viewing!

      Liked by 1 person

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