Episode review: Columbo The Most Crucial Game


Columbo Most Crucial Game opening titles

Bad Bobby Culp is back and – joy of joys – he’s badder than ever! In the guise of Paul Hanlon – the bad-ass General Manager of the LA Rockets American football team – he’s as impatient, irascible and irate as we ever see him. Plus he’s even sporting an EVIL MOUSTACHE to accentuate his badness. Have I mentioned yet that he’s BAD?

First airing on 5 November 1972, Culp’s Columbo comeback marked the first time an actor had returned in the role of a killer. Following on from his star turn in Death Lends a Hand in Season 1, this episode was, therefore, hotly anticipated.

But is The Most Crucial Game a Superbowl of an episode, or a tepid mid-table tussle? Let’s don our mauve suits, smooth out our handlebar ‘stashes and send out for Ding-a-Ling ice cream as we find out…


Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Paul Hanlon: Robert Culp
Eric Wagner: Dean Stockwell
Walter Cunnell: Dean Jagger
Shirley Wagner: Susan Howard
Eve Babcock: Valerie Harper
Coach Rizzo: James Gregory
Ralph Dobbs: Val Avery
Directed by: Jeremy Kagan
Written by: John T. Dugan
Score: Dick De Benedictis

Episode synopsis – Columbo The Most Crucial Game

Paul Hanlon is General Manager of the LA Rockets American Football team, as well as the powerhouse behind a number of sporting franchises owned by the Wagner family, now headed up by playboy Eric (Dean Stockwell) following the death of his father.

For reasons known only to him, Hanlon has it in for young Wagner. And, quelle surprise, he has a fiendish plan to rid himself of the whelp, ostensibly so he can rule the sporting empire all by himself.

It’s game day and calling a hungover Wagner from his private box at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the abrasive Hanlon orders him into the pool to get ready for a flight to Montreal that evening. Wagner reluctantly agrees, but we can see he’s fed up of Hanlon’s bully-boy tactics.

Springing into action, Hanlon dons one of the most memorable disguises we ever see in Columbo: a Ding-a-Ling ice-cream man costume, comprising white suit, bow tie and charming hat. He slips unnoticed through the stadium crowds and, commandeering a Ding-a-Ling van, heads off into the leafy suburbs, destination: Wagner HQ.

Most Crucial Game dingaling

Who wouldn’t want to buy an ice cream from this friendly-looking chap?

Stopping midway to call Wagner from a phone box, Hanlon does some more bellowing and establishes his alibi through clever use of a portable radio to give his soon-to-be victim the impression he’s still in his box at the stadium. Leaping back into the van, Hanlon leaves a disappointed young girl in his wake, her baleful cries of “Hey Mister!” falling on deaf ears as he tucks gleefully into a fudgsicle.

Wagner, meanwhile, is clearing his dizzy head with laps in the pool as Hanlon arrives. Ding-a-Ling’s finest grabs a hunk of ice from the van’s freezer and sneaks through the bushes before emerging poolside. A surprised Wagner swims over – only to be brained by the lump of ice. Hanlon leaves him floating face-down in the pool, tosses the ice into the water and beats it. His final act is to wash away traces of his footsteps with the hose before he races back to the stadium and his half-time alibi appointment with the Rockets’ beleaguered Coach Rizzo.

“Wagner swims over – only to be brained by the lump of ice. Hanlon leaves him floating face-down in the pool, tosses the ice into the water and beats it.”

Disappointed to be called into action with the big game unfolding, the police force don’t appear to be giving the Wagner death their full attention: all except for Lieutenant Columbo – once his mind is off the game and on the case. Little things bother him right away and he’s instantly leaping, gazelle-like, to conclusions.

Where are the servants? Why is there so much water around the pool? It’s freshwater, too, not chlorinated, so from a hose not the pool itself. Was an assailant trying to wash away some evidence? He also gets a wet shoe for his troubles after blundering into the pool, silly boy…

Columbo wet shoes Most Crucial Game

You really are a bungling one, Lieutenant…

The doughty Lieutenant heads to the Coliseum to break the bad news to Hanlon in his box. His believable reaction wouldn’t appear to give Columbo much grounds for suspicion, and a subsequent interview with Coach Rizzo suggests a close knit relationship between Hanlon and Wagner.

Yet his suspicions continue to rise. As he visits Wagner HQ, Hanlon is evasive, refusing calls that come in for him, and skedaddling away on a secret errand. Columbo also encounters long-time Wagner family lawyer, Walter Cunnell, and detects a certain frisson between him and Hanlon (i.e. they hate each other’s guts). The wily Lieutenant even notices a distinctive hum coming from the radio. It’s the trigger he needs to conclude the house phones have been bugged. The plot genuinely thickens…

NOTE: This scene also features one of the series’ iconic moments, as WET-SHOED Columbo’s first exchange with Cunnell is to ask him how much he paid for his shoes. An ad lib by Falk, who loved to keep his fellow actors on their toes, this moment never fails to raise a smile.


“What did you pay for those shoes?” A simple line that has achieved LEGENDARY STATUS

Columbo doesn’t just let Hanlon dash off on his secret errand unhindered, though. He tails him to Los Angeles airport, catching Hanlon in a phone booth returning the mystery call he received at the house earlier. Yet more suspicious activity is filed away in the Columbo memory banks.

Swiftly enraged at being tracked, it’s not long before Hanlon looks like getting punchy – especially when Columbo grills him about his alibi. A Ding-a-Ling truck was spotted near the Wagner house, yet they don’t usually service that area. They do operate out of the Rockets stadium, though, so it’s extra important that Hanlon’s alibi be corroborated.

You see, even though Hanlon claims to have called Wagner from his box at the Coliseum, the phone records can’t prove it. Curse the unreliability of phone record-keeping in the early 70s, eh?

Hanlon’s rage level is creeping up towards 11 out of 10. Fortunately his imminent combustion is put on hold by the arrival of Shirley, Eric’s wife who has been in Acapulco at some charity bash. Her grief brings out the softer side in Hanlon, who’s soon cuddling her and cooing as the Lieutenant looks awkwardly on. By now the plot is so thick that it’s resembling a swamp of treacle that has already dragged scores of strong men and luckless ponies to their deaths…

Hanlon Shirley Wagner Columbo Most Crucial Game

Hitman Hanlon becomes Perfect Paul in the presence of the weepy Mrs Wagner

Next up we’re back at the Wagner residence in the dead of night. A shadowy figure breaks and enters and starts monkeying with one of the phones, when Columbo spins around on a chair like a boss and startles the intruder.

It’s Ralph Dobbs, a private investigator who has been hired to remove the phone bugs. Columbo tough-talks the shaken PI and confiscates his licence until he gets the info he needs. He suspects Hanlon was behind it, but it’s Columbo himself who’s surprised when he learns that Walter ‘Cue Ball’ Cunnell was instead responsible.

In a parlour gathering, Columbo, Hanlon, Cunnell and Mrs Wagner listen through the hours of taped phone conversations. A cringing Cunnell tells Shirley that he did it for her sake, suspecting Eric of philandering and of Hanlon egging him on. There’s some evidence of this, but Hanlon manages to talk his way out of it, suggesting that the sister of a “chick” Wagner thanked him for lining up for him was merely a new HOUSE MAID. Sounds plausible…

At any rate, Hanlon is still Shirley’s blue-eyed boy while Cunnell is dead to her. And with his alibi substantiated by the taped recordings, it looks like the wicked general manager is going to get away with murder – until Dobbs comes up with new information for Columbo.

Dobbs reveals that the phone bugs were actually first planted by his operative, Eve Babcock, who worked at Wagner HQ for 3 days before being fired by Hanlon. Turns out she’s actually a high-class call girl, who Columbo drops in on and disrupts her evening plans. In a roundabout way she helps Columbo discern that Hanlon knew the phones were being recorded; and therefore knew he could use them to his advantage in establishing alibi.

Finding this all hard to follow? You’re not alone. By now the plot is SO THICK that it’s akin to charging through the mud of Passchendaele in a pea-souper fog with a 30-tonne elephant on your back. And the evidence that Columbo needs still continues to elude him.

He finds it in the strangest place: the travel agency where he’s trying to trip Hanlon up once again by checking to see if he’d really booked flights to Montreal on the day of the murder. He had. But when a cuckoo clock cheeps in the shop, a light bulb goes on in Columbo’s head.

Columbo Most Crucial Game travel agent

Columbo clears up his headaches with the case at the travel agency of all places

Confronting Hanlon in his box once more, the Lieutenant sets out his stall to the fiery moustachio, whose mood goes from livid to worse in a flash. “Columbo, I’m going to throw you out of here on your ear,” he brays, only to be zapped back brilliantly by the detective. “I wouldn’t so that sir. I mean, you’ll miss the best part,” he retorts. “You see, I’m not finished.”

Instead of trying to find something on the tapes that’s out of place, Columbo took an about turn and started listening for things that weren’t there but should have been. Such as the chiming carriage clock in Hanlon’s box.

He plays back the recording of Hanlon’s final call to Wagner – starting it at the exact same time the call was made a week earlier. Right on cue, the clock in the box starts to chime to mark the half-hour. But it’s not on the tape. For once lost for words, the caught-out Hanlon is stunned into silence as credits roll…

Most Crucial Game‘s best moment

The “What did you pay for those shoes?” line is a timeless moment, but the beautifully constructed murder scene manages to eclipse it.

As Hanlon slinks menacingly towards his quarry, we’re treated to Jaws-esque underwater shots of the unsuspecting victim awaiting his grisly fate. Music and picture work in perfect harmony to ramp up the tension ahead of the fatal blow. It’s so well done. Don’t take my word for it, though. View it yourself below.

My thoughts on The Most Crucial Game

I’m in two minds about Most Crucial Game. It has one of the best ensemble casts of the entire series, Robert Culp at his very best, and some gorgeous location shooting at the Wagner residence and at the LA Coliseum.

Watch it as a piece of escapism and it’s a hoot. But my goal is to give a (reasonably) serious critique. Looking at it from that perspective, there are plot holes that take the edge off some terrific entertainment.

It’s a much easier episode to watch than to review. There are so many twists and turns, many of which are seemingly dead ends, that watching it can be a breathless experience. It’s easy to miss supposedly crucial plot points, and so much is packed in that an initial draft of this review ran to more than 5000 words in trying to cover it all!

“Watch it as a piece of escapism and it’s a hoot. But there are plot holes that take the edge off some terrific entertainment.”

However, on to the good stuff: and there’s plenty of it. Central to that is Culp’s antagonistic performance as Paul Hanlon. He’s brilliant! And he seems to be having a ball playing a truly nasty baddie. It’s a different role than Brimmer in Death Lends a Hand – a role in which the character was cool and calm on the surface, but the rage was always just under the surface, ready to rush forth.

In Most Crucial Game, the rage is there all the time. Hanlon’s a brash bully who doesn’t pull any punches. But that’s what’s got him ahead in the ultra-competitive sporting franchise world, so it’s a believable portrayal of a man who’s as cut-throat and ruthless in business as he is in other aspects of his life.

EVIL Paul Hanlon Columbo Most Crucial Game

Evil much, Robert?

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this could be Culp’s single best Columbo performance – a high accolade given how good his other outings are. I might revise that opinion when I get round to Double Exposure, but my enduring take-out from this episode is how much I enjoy watching Culp sneer.

“I’m going to go out on a limb and say this could be Culp’s single best Columbo performance – a high accolade given how good his other outings are.”

It’s just a great cast from top to bottom. Oscar winner Dean Jagger pops up as Walter Cunnell. Dean Stockwell, Susan Howard, James Gregory, Valerie Harper and Columbo regular Val Avery all add value to the episode.

There are plenty of other memorable scenes, too. Chief among them is the legendary ‘what did you pay for those shoes?’ exchange between Columbo and Cunnell,  but the Lieutenant’s confrontation with Eve Babcock is also rib-tickling viewing. Seeing Columbo being embarrassed by female co-stars is always rewarding!

Eve Babcock Columbo Most Crucial Game

Don’t be so Cincinnati…

Under the radar, but no less enjoyable, are the scenes where Columbo is interacting mano a mano with private investigator Ralph Dobbs. Such scenes are fascinating as they give us insight into the real Columbo. Set against his usual veneer of confusion, obsequiousness and forgetfulness when confronting the killers, it’s a delicious contrast. Here we witness the man of action, the man in control, the man who bosses situations to get the information he needs. We rarely see this, but it’s always to be treasured.

In terms of cinematography, this episode ranks up with the best. The long-shots of Columbo seeking inspiration at the Coliseum are a joy to behold, and the stunning Wagner residence has the capacity to drop jaws. Like Etude in Black, this wealth of location shooting adds a sense of perspective to the episode. It feels like TV on a grand scale.

Yet despite this, Crucial Game is let down where it matters most: namely the plot holes surrounding the crime itself, and a total lack of Columbo proving anything tangible against Hanlon at episode’s end.

“Columbo, by his own admission, is big on motive. He never gets close to establishing motive for Hanlon.”

Let’s start with the murder. As described above, it’s beautifully shot and a fiendishly clever concept, but it’s nevertheless bungled by the writers. Why? It’s inconceivable that water from the hose would still be around the pool while the ice in the pool has melted.

It appears to have been a red-hot day, with the pool in full sunshine. A spray of water around the pool would surely have evaporated. If it’s too cool for the water to have evaporated, then the ice wouldn’t have melted. It was a big block. So the clue that turns Columbo’s mind to murder is poorly executed and pretty contrived. Plus it leaves us with only a policeman’s hunch that a murder has been committed at all.

But that’s not the biggest problem. Columbo, by his own admission, is big on motive. He never gets close to establishing motive for Hanlon. Indeed the viewer never finds out why Wagner was murdered. That’s poor writing.

Sure, we can theorise. Maybe Hanlon wanted the sports empire for himself. Maybe he had the hots for Mrs Wagner. Maybe Eric criticised his ‘stash at a board meeting. Any and all could be a plausible motive. But never knowing, and never proving anything, really harms the episode.

Ultimately all Columbo proves – after a helluva lot of to-ing and fro-ing – is that Hanlon might not have been in the box during his second phone call to Wagner. It casts doubt over his alibi, certainly, but is nowhere near being conclusive. And Hanlon doesn’t seem to be the confessing sort, not on trivia like that. In deed here’s what happened when it went to trial:-

Prosecution lawyer: Mr Hanlon, what possible explanation do you have for the lack of an audibly chiming clock in the background of this conversation with the deceased? (smirks smugly at jury)

Paul Hanlon: (adopts a face like thunder) Well, let me think. I suppose it could have been that the radio was too loud. Or that the clock had stopped. Or that the clock was too far away. Or that police doctored the evidence. Or… (continues listing, ever more impatiently, for approximately 35 minutes)… OR EVEN THAT THE SOUND OF MY BRAYING VOICE DROWNED OUT THE CLOCK? DID YOU EVER STOP TO THINK ABOUT THAT? (gnashes teeth at now-whimpering lawyer)

Prosecution lawyer: (openly crying) No… sob… further questions….blub…your Honour… (is helped back to chair by muscular court attendant).

Judge: Why was my time wasted on this case? Mr Hanlon, you’re free to go. Prosecutor, I’ll see you in my office right away

Anyway, you get the picture. In terms of establishing Hanlon’s guilt, what we’re left with is possible opportunity, but no motive and no weapon. There’s no case to answer here. It’s a hollow ending – especially given how much was shoe-horned in across the whole episode. Arguably they tried to cram too much into this, and that’s a great shame.

Hanlon Columbo Most Crucial Game

Much ado about nothing? Columbo has proved knack-all by the end of the episode

Ultimately, The Most Crucial Game is a more of a half-hearted recommendation than I’d like. Watch this episode purely for entertainment value and it’s a blast, and it’s no surprise to me that it’s highly rated by many. Concentrate too hard on the convoluted plot and the non-existent evidence, though, and it’s easy to find fault.

Still, when Crucial Game hits the heights, they’re very high. And if the key take-out is a Tour de Force performance by Robert Culp, that’s not such a bad thing, is it?

Did you know?

Six legendary members of the LA Lakers basketball team appear in this episode having a practice session watched by Columbo and Hanlon. The Super Six of Jim McMillan, Flynn Robinson, Pat Riley, Harold ‘Happy’ Hairston, LeRoy Ellis and Keith Erickson were members of the Lakers team who won the World Championship for the first time earlier that year. Outstanding!

LA Lakers

Clockwise from top left: Flynn Robinson; LeRoy Ellis; Keith Erickson; Jim McMillan; ‘Happy’ Hairston; Pat Riley

How I rate them so far

Out of all the episodes reviewed so far, Crucial Game is the one I’ve found it most difficult to assess. It will never be among my very favourite episodes, but where it ranks amongst the mid-tier outings is a very tough call.

I enjoy it more than classics including Etude in Black, yet it’s strangely less satisfying at the same time. It’s the thrill of Culp’s performance that sees this take 6th place in the current table, but there’s really little to choose between numbers 6-10 at this stage.

If you’ve missed any previous reviews, check out the links below.

  1. Suitable for Framing
  2. Murder by the Book
  3. Death Lends a Hand
  4. Lady in Waiting
  5. Prescription: Murder
  6. The Most Crucial Game
  7. Etude in Black
  8. Greenhouse Jungle
  9. Blueprint for Murder
  10. Ransom for a Dead Man
  11. Dead Weight
  12. Short Fuse

Thanks, as always, for reading. And I’d love to hear your views on Crucial Game – many of which I’d expect to be very positive. Look out for the next review – the London-based Dagger of the Mind – in a few weeks’ time.

Read my views on the top 5 scenes from Most Crucial Game here.

Contribute to this site’s upkeep from just $3


Don’t dare miss the next review!

%d bloggers like this: