Episode Guide / Opinion / Season 2

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!

How did you like this article?

142 thoughts on “Episode review: Columbo The Most Crucial Game

  1. the Wagner HQ is the same villa as Jack Cassidy’s in Murder by the Book
    You’ll recognize the walls with the paintings and the hall, and XL front door

  2. Can someone remind why did he hose the patio down, was it to cover his tracks, but I’m sure he took his shoes off?

    • He got his feet wet when he committed the murder and left wet footprints as he walked away from the pool. He concealed them by wetting the patio. I suppose he could have dried them but it would have taken longer and he only just made it back in time as it was.

    • He did take his shoes off, but that was after he’d walked through the garden and left footprints and after the murder. He took em off then washed the prints away.

  3. Pingback: Season 4: have we reached ‘peak Columbo’? | The Columbophile

  4. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Deadly State of Mind | The Columbophile

  5. I just watched this. While I agree with you that they never definitively lay down the motive and that is irritating I found that a minor annoyance when compared to everything else in the episode.

    The gloriously sinister music, the fantastic performances, the cinematography, the way the shots of Columbo in the empty Colosseum contrast with the shots of the same stadium full of people. I think it might be Robert Culp’s finest performance anywhere. His reaction to the clock chimes in the final scene is just perfect.

    Actually that whole final scene is one of the best scenes from all of Columbo. Columbo is in complete control of the conversation. He even stops to give us that rarest of glimpses into his process. He tells us what made him so suspicious of Hanlon – turning the radio down when Columbo informed him of the death but turning it right off when Columbo told him it was murder. Then Hanlon does it again during the conversation and Columbo points it out. Then Hanlon tries to shake it off and go back to watching the game but he’s pointing the binoculars in the wrong direction and Columbo has to tell him where the teams are. Because even though Columbo is interrogating a murder suspect he’s simultaneously following the match. You almost feel sorry for Hanlon. To have been so very clever and yet to have been so totally outmatched.

    • A very good episode provided we don´t forget that Columbo is, above all, about style, charisma, and fun ingenuous plots, no matter how outlandish. Fortunately, Columbo is no CSI (what a bore!) and it´s utterly enjoyable provided you watch it with a grain of salt and a lot of nostalgic, lovely appreciation. If you get out of that mindset, Columbo becomes sheer rubbish. For example, in this episode: so Hanlon liquidates his victim with A SINGLE, perfectly aimed strike with a lump of ice onto the victim´s head? C´moooonnn!! Who´s gonna believe that tosh? A few years before, the great Alfred Hitchcock had shown in an unfairly maligned film (Torn Curtain) how difficult, dirty, inelegant and exhausting killing a person can be. The scene in the East German kitchen, where a woman slays a Stasi agent, is an excellent approximation to the unsavoury truths of murder. We love Columbo because it´s a happy-go-lucky farewell to that time, the Sixties, when everything seemed possible and love was in the air. Peter Falk flourished in the Seventies, but he´s obviously a product of the Sixties. And we love him because he exudes that charismatic optimism and well-being, like a paradoxically uncouth American version of John Steed, so efficient, so smiling, so humane, and so…. unreal!

  6. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Playback | The Columbophile

  7. Thiss episode is on ITV 3 this Sunday , im going to watch it as I don’t mind watching this episode , not among my favourites or near my top 10 but its a columbo that just typifies how good the 70s run was

  8. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Troubled Waters | The Columbophile

  9. again another good Colombo but would not make my top 10 even if the world depended on it just goes to show how good the 70s run was

  10. The motive is that the son is going to fire him- especially when the lawyer shows him the tapes (also, he doesn’t seem to care that much about the father’s sports empire). Once he finds out he’s being bugged, he decides to kill the son and show the wife the tapes to get her to trust Hanlon, and to move the attorney out of the picture.

    There are many episodes that are two hours that would have been better off had they just been 90 minutes. This is he rare case of a Columbo episode that would’ve benefitted from 30 extra minutes. They could’ve fleshed out the motive a little more and rounded out some of the plot holes.

    For the longest time, the water thing bothered me. Water on a hot pavement dries in minutes. Then I went to a really rich guy’s house. And, all around the pool, he had tiles that didn’t get hot in the sun…they stayed cool. It felt like you were in your bathroom. So, if it was that type of house, it’s possible (I’m stretching, here, and I know it, but it’s possible). And I really wish more time had been spent on this, because this is how they prove that any murder was committed at all.

    But assuming the water, somehow, didn’t dry, what that shows, is that someone else had to have been near the pool around the time of death. And why run the hose? Seriously, who was near the pool and why did he/she run the hose?

    You have an ice cream truck that was way off of its route, and Hanlon with an opportunity to commandeer it. Not only that, but you have a witness ID-ing the truck near a phone booth (which was in a peculiarly convenient spot, but, whatever). Why was the truck so far off its route? What was it doing near a phone booth?

    The show talks about how they can use local radio to pinpoint the exact time. Assuming it’s 2:30, the clock should’ve gone off. But there’s more. You have Hanlon telling the guy to get into the pool. And you have Hanlon knowing his phone is bugged (And the testimony of Babcock to back it up) and not removing the bugs. Why would he want himself recorded?

    I agree a conviction might be difficult. But there is a lot of evidence against the guy.

    • You make good points. I agree that this could have been a two-hour show (and I’m one who likes the two-hour episodes). And the way Hanlon practically orders Eric to get into the pool sounds suspicious. Why should he insist on that? He knew Eric was still in bed; wouldn’t it be more logical to tell him to take a shower? Along with the bug information. But I have to disagree about the phone booth–maybe the driver just needed to make a call. It seems more suspicious that he drove off when a little girl wanted to buy ice cream.

  11. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo By Dawn’s Early Light | The Columbophile

  12. My thoughts on the final twist, the revelation of the missing clock chimes in the recorded phone call. The final call between Hamlon and Wagner lasted 45 seconds (I timed it). Even if Columbo were able (and I don’t know that he would be) to place the time of Hanlon’s call to the exact second by checking the radio station’s records (as it’s mentioned at one point), how could he possibly prove that Hanlon’s clock wasn’t just seconds off compared to the radio station’s time? Who’s to say that the clock chime didn’t go off right after the phone call ended?

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

  14. My enjoyment of any Columbo episode stems from two levels: the mental give-and-take between Columbo and the perp; and an analysis of how any murder charge would play in court. As a former prosecutor and then a defense counsel, I think that many of Columbo’s cases would lose in court. I cringe whenever the perp confesses against an otherwise weak case. With this Culp episode, all Columbo could prove was that maybe Culp lied about his location during the phone call. Maybe. That is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt of murder. A defense counsel would have shredded Columbo’s case.

  15. Pingback: 5 best moments from Columbo The Most Crucial Game | The columbophile

  16. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo An Exercise in Fatality | The columbophile

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

  18. As always, an excellent review for a very good episode. However…

    “It’s inconceivable that water from the hose would still be around the pool while the ice in the pool has melted.”

    While indeed the water from the hose could’ve evaporated if it was indeed a hot day, the ice in the pool would’ve melted anyway, regardless of the temperature outside, since the water in the pool was very likely heated.

    • Why would the water be heated in summer, though? Even at a temp in low 20s a big lump of ice would hang around a while. A spray of water would’ve dried up in minutes.

      • The coefficient of thermal transfer between water and ice is quite high. At a, say, 25 degrees temperature differential the ice block would not take too long to melt.

        I agree, though, about the water on the tiles.

  19. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Swan Song | The columbophile

  20. One thing I’m not clear on about this episode: obviously the phone at the house was bugged, which is why they have that recording where the killer pretends that he was calling from the office. But they also mention, repeatedly, that Paul Hanlon’s office phone was *also* bugged, complete with recorded calls.

    So, never mind the missing clock chimes on that first recording; shouldn’t there be an entire missing second recording?

    • I guess that depends on “office”. Does it mean the private box he is in or a “different” office? Assuming the private box then yes. However what is interesting is that shouldn’t there be a log of calls placed from the private box. Columbia has done this many times in an episode where he checks with phone companies about a made call. It should have been something Columbia checked and didn’t need the chimes.

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

  22. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Publish or Perish | The columbophile

  23. Pingback: Columbo: a year in review | The columbophile

  24. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Double Exposure | The columbophile

  25. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Candidate for Crime | The columbophile

  26. i agree another great columbo r,robert culp brilliant ,good ending ,but not one of my all time favourites

  27. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Any Old Port in a Storm | The columbophile

  28. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Lovely but Lethal | The columbophile

  29. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Double Shock | The columbophile

  30. Actually, the unclear things in this episode (no explicit motif, disproving the alibi instead of proving the guilt etc.) can be valuable: after I had watched it with my husband, we stayed up discussing our guesses. It always happens after watching a Columbo episode of course, but this time it was much longer. We enjoyed this opportunity to think more by ourselves. As to the results, we came up with ENOCH SNEED’s theory as well (i.e. the already pending or future relationship with the wife to gain control over the money). Concerning the ending, I ABSOLUTELY LOVED the chemistry and tension – the facial expressions and Columbo’s unsaid thought visible in his eyes: “if your rage doesn’t betray you in a moment, you know we’ll prove you guilty anyway. You know it’s over”. At that moment, his face shows his real power (just like during interviewing the private investigator) – and that’s why such a plot and ending were by no means a negative experience to me. It’s so thrilling to watch Columbo: the pattern is roughly the same, but every episode is somehow different, with its own atmosphere. That said, I really enjoy your reviews. You do a great job. Greetings from Poland.

  31. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo The Most Dangerous Match | The columbophile

  32. Also, I love ENOCH SNEED’s theory. i hade never thought of that but it just fits perfectly. and it suits the character.

  33. imho this is one of those episodes where the indictment would stand up in court. sure, the manager could claim that the clock just didn’t work that day or could make up some other excuse, but who would believe that? this one seems to be to me one of those cases where Columbo definitely and positively nailed the murdered, there’s no doubt in my mind about it.

  34. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo A Stitch in Crime | The columbophile

  35. I’ve always assumed Hanlon was playing a long game: Eric’s wife would inherit, Hanlon would be her only trusted adviser (with Walter out of the way) and in time they would marry and he would own the franchises instead of being an employee. It’s never made clear, though.

    • Interesting choice of words Enoch. Early in the ep, the coach talks about playing the long game with an injured player while Culp demands short-term gain (a win that day). Post murder, he agrees with the coach, demonstrating that he too (as most good GMs would be) is more keen on playing the long game and that his earlier rant was blatant subterfuge.

      It’s subtle, but adds credence to the viewer’s assumption that Culp feels he can eventually win over the wife.

      Great catch on your part.

  36. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Requiem for a Falling Star | The columbophile

  37. Great review!

    I personally haven’t given much thought to the ultimate lack of evidence come the end of the show. I think this is because I am so captivated by Culp’s acting at that exact time. The loosening of the tie, the drink from the glass – all these little things that we take for granted are acted superbly by Culp – giving the impression of a man who knows he is finished (even with the supposed lack of evidence and seemingly no real motive), as well as a man who is still on the very edge of self-combustion.

    I love any episode involving Culp (even his cameo in Columbo Goes to College) and I could not separate this one from the other two in which he is the murderer.

    I guess my only problem with this is that Dean Stockwell is woefully underused. We can see in Troubled Waters (where to be honest, he is probably also underused, only slightly less so) what a fine actor he is.

  38. Pingback: Columbo Dagger of the Mind: a second opinion | The columbophile

  39. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Dagger of the Mind | The columbophile

  40. Pingback: The best laid plans: Columbo’s most fiendishly clever murders | The columbophile

  41. a not very clear motive is usually considered a weak point for this episode, but i partially disagree. it’s true that the investigative methods of Columbo tend to privilege the research for a motive, but it’s realistic that in a few occasions they can be not very clear and will always remain in the mind of the murderer.

  42. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo Greenhouse Jungle | The columbophile

  43. EXCELLENT review and you touched on the two things that I was going to write about before I read your piece. Namely, the lack of motive and that the water Paul Hanlon sprayed to literally cover his tracks would have evaporated. Your observation about Columbo and Dobbs is also spot on. Columbo does not default to his pretend I’m not that smart persona. He takes what people give him. If you underestimate him, he’ll run with it. He’s totally different around other policemen and professionals.

    • Oh, there is just one more thing 🙂 Once Columbo formally arrests a person with the evidence he has, that doesn’t mean the investigation ends there. For all we know, he or the prosecutors can be gathering much more evidence through subpoena’s and depositions. Just because a case looks flimsy at the time of the arrest, that does mean it stays flimsy after the arrest.

  44. Thanks for another entertaining and thought-provoking review. I have always thought of this episode as mid-range. Your review concurs! I feel over all it is the weakest of the 3 Robert Culp episodes. Like you I’ve never been happy with the weak gotcha at the end. There are several other episodes where either audio or video evidence shows something which convincingly destroys an alibi (Playback and Identity Crisis are the ones which spring to mind) but the lack of clock chimes here, while raising strong suspicions, does not provide proof of guilt.
    Also, being British and therefore having no understanding of, or interest in American football does slightly lower my ranking of this episode.
    I have to admit I had never noticed the lack of motive. That must be an oversight of the writer, unless something got removed during editing to ensure it kept to the allotted time?
    I agree too about the plot being rather over-egged and complex. It’s interesting to note the writer of Most Crucial Game (John T. Dugan) also wrote Dead Weight for Series 1, which in my opinion was too simplistic. Maybe the writer took on board criticisms of his first effort and went to the other extreme for this one?
    I am really looking forward to your next review of Dagger of the Mind. I am sure you’ll have a lot to say about that one. I await with interest how low you rank it, as I know it is generally considered a flawed episode and not one of the best.

  45. I’ve seen this episode at least twice and only now from your review noticed the lack of motive – either that’s great writing or a lack of concentration on my part – perhaps a bit of both.

    • There’s so much going on in the episode that it’s easy to miss! I think the writers over-egged the pudding somewhat. Maybe they were trying to hide the lack of motive?

      • Always have loved this episode, possibly because I am a sports fan but also due to Culp’s character.

        I thought the motive/s were obvious and cumulative.

        1) Culp, being a no nonsense hard worker, had no respect for the spoiled brat.

        2) Culp wanted him out of the way so he could run the franchises as he saw fit while also growing the family ownership interests. The kid could easily have just decided to sell it all, which would have left Culp out of the loop. He also felt the kid was incompetent and just holding him back.

        3) The possible love interest Culp had for the wife could have been legit or he may have just pretended he cared for her in order to get controlling interest if married — or both. Her character was attractive and seemed level headed, I think the feelings could have been mutual and Culp planned it perfectly to fully gain her trust.

        Hopefully, that helps explain the motive that I feel was implied.

        As a sports fan, one annoying aspect of the show was the treatment of the coach and the stupid scene (for plots sake) of calling the coach up to the box to berate him. This does not happen in pro football ever, and it was even implied that this practice was somewhat normal.

  46. Just one more thing. [Hey, if you can’t say that here, where can you say it?]

    I love negative clues. There were a smattering of mid-story negative clues in the ’70’s shows (I don’t know the ’90’s shows as well): the absence of rain spots on Rick Carsini’s car in “Any Old Port in a Storm”; no water stains on the matador’s cape in “Matter of Honor”; no keys in the police photograph in “Try and Catch Me.” Maybe some others. But this is the only ’70’s show, I think, in which the final clue (what Falk called the “pop” clue) was a negative clue.

  47. You are correct that disproving an alibi is not the same as proving guilt. Although, as a practical matter, disproving an alibi asserted over and over again (including in the final scene) — in other words, proving that the defendant has lied repeatedly about such a critical issue — will give tremendous power to the other circumstantial evidence.

    Where I differ with your review is on the question of whether Columbo disproved Hanson’s alibi. Your analysis omits two critical facts: First, when Columbo visited Hanson’s box the first time, while the original game was still in progress, he heard the clock chime. So the clock was chiming, and chiming on time, an hour or so after the murder. [It was Columbo’s memory of the clock chiming that made his hearing the cuckoo clock so thought-provoking.] Second, was Hanson’s prolonged silence following the final revelation. If, at trial, he were to try to claim that he fixed the clock during the game, after 2:30 but before Columbo’s initial visit (the only theory of innocence that a jury might find plausible), Hanson would be confronted and impeached with the fact that he had every chance to say this at the time, but never did. [Hanson was not under arrest or in police custody, so his silence would be admissible to impeach a story concocted later.]

    One minor correction: it was Montreal, not Vancouver.

    • Thank you, I have amended the Montreal gaffe. If you ever want to write a ‘second opinion’ review of one of the episodes let me know. Might be fun to introduce an alternate viewpoint.

    • Well, he may always say that he was so surprised and taken aback by Columbo´s outlandish accusation that he did not know what to say. Furthermore, we and Columbo know Hanlon felt a defeated man as he saw his alibi crumble away, but nobody else. Columbo has no witnesses of Hanlon´s despair. A few weeks later in trial, Hanlon has presumably pulled himself together and can deny having been so completely destroyed, yet at the same time argue he was extremely shocked and surprised, so much so that he forgot to tell on the spot he had noticed the clock´s malfunction and repaired it.

      Terrific page, looking forward to “Now You See Him”, another lovely yet (in my opinion) flawed episode!

    • I’m very late for this but I’d like to give my thoughts on the final twist, the revelation of the missing clock chimes in the recorded phone call and hear how your opinion. The final call between Hamlon and Wagner lasted 45 seconds (I timed it). Even if Columbo were able (and I don’t know that he would be) to place the time of Hanlon’s call to the exact second by checking the radio station’s records (as it’s mentioned at one point), how could he possibly prove that Hanlon’s clock wasn’t seconds off compared to the radio station’s time? Who’s to say that the clock chime didn’t go off right after the phone call ended?

  48. Certainly one of my favourite episodes from the first series. Had a clever twist too, the block of ice which killed his business partner having long melted within the murder scene itself – the pool. This film also had an air of cinema quality to it, which made a big difference. Obviously Culp being the main agent of deceit almost stole the show from Columbo. However the final scene was very clever and as usual it’s not what IS there, it’s more about what ISN’T there – being the chimes of the clock piece.

    • Accurate review, but I dislike this episode more than you. There could have been a plethora of reasons why the chimes weren’t heard, and in the end nothing is proved. Wouldn’t stand a chance in court. Also, while I agree the supporting cast was strong, I thought Culp was unconvincing and actually far better in Double Exposure. Thanks for the article.


Leave a Reply