Columbo: The Most Dangerous Match
First broadcast March 4, 1973
Season Two, Episode Seven
Preceded by A Stitch in Crime
Followed by Double Shock
Written by Jackson Gillis from a story by Jackson Gillis, Richard Levinson and William Link
Directed by Edward M. Abroms
Laurence Harvey plays Emmett Clayton, our murderous chess master, in one of his last roles as he would die of cancer later that same year. Among his more famous roles are his appearance in the thriller The Manchurian Candidate.
The chess tournament setting is memorable while the dream sequence that opens this episode is vidid and imaginative. Very good indeed!
For the past few years Emmett Clayton has been regarded as the top chess player in the world. Some argue however that his status is only possible because he never faced Tomlin Dudek, a Russian player who had retired from the game some years previously. A match between the pair would seem to offer an opportunity for Clayton to confirm his rank but we see he is having nightmares at the thought that he will be embarrassed by Dudek.
When the pair secretly meet on the eve of the game and play together, Clayton’s worst fears are confirmed. Realizing that he will almost certainly lose if they go ahead with their match, Clayton decides he will stage an accident and kill Dudek.
This episode opens with a splendid nightmare sequence in which we see a chess board come to life and torment Emmett Clayton. It is a really dramatic and startling opening, beautifully filmed and quite unlike anything we have seen from the series up until this point. It is not just a striking image however, it also gives us a strong indication of Clayton’s mental state and his specific fears that he would never want to voice out loud given his otherwise proud character.
Having established the idea that he is worried about the encounter with Dudek, the episode quickly works to bring them together and reinforce some of the key points. Clayton is intidated by Dudek and recognizes that he is outclassed. While it is not spoken or spelled out in the episode’s dialogue, I think it probably also upsets Clayton that Dudek hardly seems concerned about the game at all or by the idea that Clayton could pose a serious challenge as shown by the casual way he dismantles him during their games in the restaurant and, later, Clayton’s hotel room.
Dudek, played by Jack Kruschen, is a cheery, hearty and avuncular sort of character. He certainly feels like a strong fit for the part, giving him a warmth and a sense of friendly concern that not only makes him likeable but also will be used in an important way to snare him in the killer’s trap.
Clayton is portrayed brilliantly by Laurence Harvey, who projects a sense of pride and also of fear. He exudes intelligence and cool, calm nerve – two essential traits for the Columbo killer. I certainly had no difficulty believing that he would be capable of planning the sorts of activities we see him doing here, nor did I have much problem with the idea that he would be frightened of the game. Both the situation and the performance make it clear how much pride he takes in his ranking and how humiliating it would be for him to find that status diminished in the eyes of others.
If I do have a problem with Clayton as a murderer, it is simply that I do think the episode is less good at spelling out why murder is the answer he comes up with. It certainly seemed a little odd to me that it would be the first thing he would try rather seeing if there was some other way he could secure a postponement of the match. Still, once that decision is made I feel the rest of the story hangs together very well.
So, let’s talk a little bit about the plan. As in several other stories, the order of the day is to create a death that appears to be accidental rather than planned or contrived. In that respect I think the episode does that well and the plan that the killer devises is solid, even if a few things inevitably do not go according to plan.
One of the things that does not go according to plan is that Lt. Columbo is assigned to the case. I find that I often have enjoyed the stories that put Columbo in an unfamiliar setting and while there is nothing inherently glamorous in the casino interior, I feel this is one of those cases that shows how he is able to take something that is unknown to him and yet find a way to understand it through comparing aspects of that world with other ones that he is more familiar with. I certainly had no difficulty at all believing that he might be able to catch the killer out by the end of this story.
The cat and mouse game between Columbo and Clayton is masterful although his questioning style here feels softer than it had in many of the previous stories. I don’t think it is that he thinks Clayton innocent – indeed, I think he picks up on that unusually quickly – but his questions seem designed to expose Clayton’s character or push him into action.
There is also one very good trick that this episode has up its sleeve that makes this a slightly more complicated case, particularly for Clayton. That complication is hardly unique to this episode – indeed, I am pretty sure that we have seen it used in at least one previous episode of Columbo – but it also serves to push events along and encourage the development of that resentment.
So, where are the problems? Well, keeping in mind that I did really love this story and consider it a favorite so far, it may not surprise you to learn that I don’t have many problems with it. I think that the lead performers are generally very good and I had no big issues with any of the supporting cast. There are perhaps a couple of breaks Columbo gets that are not necessarily fair but they are not impossible either.
Reflecting back on the Columbo stories I have watched so far, this has to be in contention as one of the best ones in the first two series. Perhaps it does suffer a little from being very studio-bound rather than doing location filming, The core idea and setting are fabulous however and serve to make this a particularly memorable adventure.