Strange as it may sound today, chess was BIG NEWS back in March 1973 when The Most Dangerous Match first aired.
Less than a year earlier, the legendary ‘Match of the Century’ between American Bobby Fischer and Russia’s Boris Spassky had gripped the globe, with Fischer’s victory regarded as a crushing defeat for the entire Soviet way of life.
Heavily influenced by this clash, The Most Dangerous Match went a step further, having Laurence Harvey’s Emmett Clayton slay his Russian opponent on the eve of their world title confrontation – almost certainly triggering a nuclear stand-off.
But is the 7th episode of Columbo‘s second season another contender for ‘Match of the Century’, or a damp squib more akin to Garry Kasparov vs Nigel Short? Let’s see…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Emmett Clayton: Laurence Harvey
Tomlin Dudek: Jack Kruschen
Mazoor Beroski: Lloyd Bochner
Linda Robinson: Heidi Bruhl
Dr Benson: Michael Fox
Dog: As himself
Written by: Jackson Gillis
Directed by: Edward M Abroms
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Episode synopsis: Columbo The Most Dangerous Match
Chess Grandmaster Emmett Clayton is not in a good place right now. Waking from a psychedelic chess nightmare in a sheen of sweat, he’s either high on LSD or is having some serious anxiety about an impending chess encounter with Russian legend Tomlin Dudek. We’ll assume it’s the latter…
Clayton, you see, has been lording it over the global chess fraternity for 5 years since ill health forced Dudek into early retirement. However, now his diabetes is under control Dudek has Clayton’s crown firmly in his sights and their impending televised clash is set to be like Fischer vs Spassky all over again.
While Clayton is outwardly cool, calm and collected, he’s in inner turmoil. He fears defeat and when an opportunity arises to get a measure of his opponent, mano a mano, Clayton takes it. He trails Dudek to a French restaurant where the Russian heads to sate his desire for garlic snails – food most definitely not on the menu approved by his domineering coach, Mazoor Beroski.
Dudek greets Clayton warmly. He’s actually a very lovely old chap, full of fun and mischief but with a heart of gold. The two even appear to be getting along well until an impromptu chess match kicks off on the chequered table cloth of their booth. Dudek gains the upper hand, causing the irascible Clayton to storm off in a rage.
They sneak back to the hotel via the basement (to avoid Dudek being collared by his coach) and have a further game up in Clayton’s room. The result is the same: a crushing defeat for the American. When Dudek departs, Clayton goes berserk, dashing his hearing aid against the hotel room wall as the prospect of a shameful defeat the next day becomes increasingly likely.
But you don’t get to become a chess Grandmaster without a scheming brain and willingness to take risks. Clayton quickly combines those two traits and comes up with a plan to do away with Dudek for good.
“Clayton goes berserk as the prospect of a shameful defeat the next day becomes increasingly likely.”
Early the next morn, he puts his plans into action. First, he makes an airline reservation and cab booking in Dudek’s name, using a convincing Russian accent, and then rings Dudek and begs for a private meeting. Dudek agrees, and dashes off to the rendezvous – only for the wily Clayton to sneak into Dudek’s hotel room and pack his belongings into a travel bag.
Meeting Dudek downstairs, Clayton tells a sob story about how an affair with a Russian love interest has gotten out of control. He begs Dudek to write a few lines in Russian so that he can ‘copy them out’ in his own hand later. Dudek obliges, penning “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I’m very ashamed” in Russian. He even kindly offers to postpone the match until Clayton is feeling better. By way of thanks, Clayton shoves the lovable Russkie through the basement doors – and straight into the hotel’s trash compactor!
When we next encounter Clayton, he’s sitting patiently in front of a live studio audience, eagerly awaiting the chess Clash of the Titans to commence. He’s soon called away by the police, though, as one Lieutenant Columbo seeks assistance with his investigations. The police deduce that Dudek has had cold feet, panicked and tried to flee back to Russia before tragically blundering into the trash compactor.
Dudek’s coach Beroski cannot conceive that his charge would split just prior to confirming his superiority over the American pretender. But when Clayton produces a note in Dudek’s own handwriting, claiming it was pushed under his hotel room door, things look black for the Russian. And what does the note say? “I’m sorry. I was wrong. I’m very ashamed.”
Clayton makes some empty utterances over what a loss Dudek will be to the world of chess when Columbo checks him. “You’re speaking as if he’s already dead,” says the Lieutenant. In fact the tubby Soviet is clinging on to life in hospital despite massive injuries, giving Clayton one hell of a shock and a major problem still on his hands.
Columbo being Columbo is already noting suspicious activity. Dudek’s shirt smells of garlic – yet there was no garlic on his approved menu. Where did he dine? More pertinently, in packing his bag the denture-wearing Dudek managed to take his valet’s toothbrush instead of his own. Ergo, someone else packed the bag. Ergo, foul play is at hand!
“The tubby Soviet is clinging on to life in hospital despite massive injuries, giving Clayton one hell of a shock.”
Clayton, meanwhile, is snooping around the hospital. He runs into his former fiancee, Linda Robinson, who is now firmly part of Team Dudek, and who arranged the match between the two. He tells her of his meeting with Dudek at the French restaurant; and of how he, Emmett Clayton, won the impromptu match played out on the tablecloth – rocking the Russian’s confidence. He also manages to get a glimpse of Dudek’s prescribed medication list, which Linda has on her. His photographic memory ticks into overdrive.
As he transcribes the medication list in a quiet corner he’s interrupted by Columbo, who offers to treat him to an ice-cream. Clayton’s not keen to play games so departs, but Columbo gallops after him to return the pen he’d left behind. The detective then inveigles Clayton into his car to take him back to the hotel – only to actually stop at the French restaurant the chess aces visited the night before.
The proprietor of course recognises Clayton, but he can’t recall who won the chess match they played – only dimly remembering that Dudek made the first move. Clayton calmly claims victory again but is given a massive scare moments later as Columbo receives a medical phonecall, repeating the message received so Clayton can hear it.
“He’ll make a full recovery!” the relieved Lieutenant says, turning to head out. Clayton’s blood freezes in his veins before Columbo reveals he’s talking not about Dudek, but his dog, who’s recovering from an operation. Clayton lives to fight another day.
That day arrives with more suspicions pointed at him by Columbo. He’s found Dudek’s chess diary, which faithfully records every match he plays. The match at the restaurant states that black resigned. But the restaurant proprietor said that Dudek started, which means he was playing as white. Clayton must have lost? The angry chess ace refutes the allegation. It’s stalemate for now.
But Clayton now makes a strong play to save his own skin. Having memorised Dudek’s medicinal needs, he slips into the Russian’s hotel room (again), and fools with the bottles in his medical cabinet. Linda comes into pick up the meds for Dudek’s next round of injections – and before you can say ‘Knight to King’s Bishop 3‘, Dudek is finally a dead man.
Columbo has a mountain of circumstancial evidence against Clayton. An interview with Linda reveals that Clayton did get a look at the meds list at the hospital. The ink from Clayton’s pen is the same type of ink that wrote the note in Dudek’s handwriting. But Columbo needs hard proof, which remains elusive – until Dog gives him a helping paw.
The rascally pooch is on the scene as Columbo inspects the trash compactor again, and causes a scene as he gallops up the steps towards the mouth of the compactor where Dudek met his demise.
A workman grabs Dog before his suicidal urges cause a calamity, but a fellow worker tells Columbo he needn’t have worried anyway. If anything goes into the machine while it’s operating, there’s an automatic cut-off! It goes back on at the touch of a button, but the cut-off is the reason Dudek wasn’t instantly slain – and it’s the clue Columbo needs to round out his case.
Confronting Clayton at a round-robin live chess clash against a dozen or more plucky contenders, Columbo rocks the Grandmaster’s concentration as he outlines his case in a very public setting. Clayton takes the bait. “Do you think that the finest chess player in the world would make even half the mistakes you ascribe to me?” he seethes at Columbo – precisely as a Lego-haired amateur opponent symbolically check-mates him!
As Clayton bawls for proof, Columbo ushers him down to the basement. The whirring trash compactor is giving Clayton’s hearing aid trouble, so he switches it off, but the two men continue to shout to make each other out over the din of the machine.
That’s until Columbo gives the signal, and a fellow officer switches it off entirely. Maintaining the masquerade in a now eerie silence, Columbo continues to shout at the top of his lungs to get his message across. “It would be easier if I did not have to shout, but this damn machine…” he bellows.
“Well then turn the damn thing off!” screams Clayton – and Columbo finally has him. Showing Clayton the machine workings, the detective explains: “I’m sorry, Mr Clayton, but along with all the other trivial evidence that we’ve talked about, the murderer in this case just had to be a deaf man.” Clayton can only sink his head in the defeat he’d done so much to avoid, as credits roll…
Most Dangerous Match‘s best moment
In an episode low on stand-out scenes, the screaming psychedelia of the opening sequence really stands out. It’s bonkers and brilliant in equal measure, and for a modern audience might seem ridiculous, but take it for what it is (a slice of kitsch 70s’ TV par excellence) and it’s one hell of a viewing experience. Just don’t watch it while under the influence of narcotics…
My opinion on The Most Dangerous Match
Set against the Cold War backdrop, and pitting a half-mad fiend against a chap even more lovable than your Grandpa, The Most Dangerous Match ought to be pure fun from start to finish. Yet this is an episode where the on-screen action doesn’t match the premise. In fact I’ll put it right out there: I don’t enjoy this episode on any great level.
There are several reasons, but first and foremost is the character of Emmett Clayton. Cool and cerebral, he should have been a brilliant foe and a real test for Columbo. Instead he’s a mentally unstable shambles. And that, for me at least, takes away a lot of the enjoyment.
Clayton is just too troubled to be a classic Columbo killer. The guy appears to be completely isolated from his fellow man and have a raft of serious anxiety issues. He needs help – not to be put on a stage in front of millions of viewers on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
And it’s a shame, because with more subtle treatment Clayton could have been a sensational baddie. I like the premise that he’s a fallible man masquerading behind a masterful countenance. That would humanise him and make his clash with Columbo – a masterful mind hiding behind a fallible countenance – all the more engaging. But having Clayton treading the tightrope of mania throughout denies us what could have been an encounter for the ages.
It raises serious questions as to why Clayton would agree to the match against Dudek in the first place. Dudek’s reputation precedes him. Clayton couldn’t just assume he’d win against so mighty an opponent, and his chess nightmare over the opening credits gives a reasonable insight into his state of mind in the build-up. He’s a nervous wreck!
I feel like we need to know more about this man to understand him. As it is, he has little charm or charisma, just a brooding intensity. If only the relationship between Linda Robinson and Emmett had been fleshed out a bit. As his former fiancee, she should have some decent insights to deliver to the viewer. Yet all we get is a throwaway line early on about how despicable she finds him. But why? We just don’t know.
“Cool and cerebral, Clayton should have been a brilliant foe and a real test for Columbo. Instead he’s a mentally unstable shambles.”
There was certainly time to give us a little character background and development, too, because despite this being a ‘shorter episode’ at 75 mins, at times it struggles to pace itself. Scenes at the hospital seem drawn out; likewise Columbo’s interview of Clayton at the French restaurant. It felt more like a padded 90-minute episode at times – highly unusual for the series.
Sadly, dear reader, my beefs don’t end there. For this episode also features a crime and a central clue that fail to convince. Let’s talk about that, shall we? Firstly the physical act of Clayton shoving Dudek into the trash compactor.
Eagle-eyed viewers can’t fail to notice there is a country mile between the basement doors and the mouth of the trash compactor. Dudek is also rather a heavy chap. Clayton might be able to count on a bit of an adrenaline boost as he delivered the fatal push, but for Dudek to end up in the jaws of the machine represents a formidable effort for a string-bean like Clayton. The only explanation? Dudek ‘did a Nordberg’ once he passed through the swinging doors…
On a more serious note, how about that denouement, with Columbo trapping his man with the old ‘switch-off-the-machine-to-trick-the-deaf-man’ gag? Certainly, it’s clever on paper. But it doesn’t hold up to closer scrutiny. Why? Because it’s a nonsense that a deaf man would fail to notice the lack of vibrations once the machine had been turned off. He was right beside it, after all. And that, in my opinion, is such a fatal flaw that I’m never quite able to get past it.
“It’s a nonsense that a deaf man would fail to notice the lack of vibrations once the machine had been turned off.”
It raises the question of the writing: was the plan all along simply to concoct a clever way of catching a deaf murderer? Sure looks that way, and as a result the whole premise of The Most Dangerous Match feels contrived and unsatisfying.
And yet for all the above critique, this is by no means a dreadful piece of television. For one thing, Jack Kruschen gives us a hugely likable victim in Tomlin Dudek. Indeed I rate him in the top 3 most sympathetic Columbo victims of all. Kruschen’s Dudek is warm, funny, confident, charming and caring. He’s everything Clayton isn’t, which makes his downfall all the more gut-wrenching.
We also get another heart-warming cameo, this time from ‘Dog’ who’s back where we first encountered him in Etude in Black – at the vet’s. I’m pretty hard-boiled when it comes to cuddly TV canines, but even I can’t resist how genuine the relationship between Columbo and his slovenly basset hound has quickly become. The two have actual on-screen chemistry. No wonder Dog’s such a crowd-pleaser!
But, as I alluded to earlier, there are comparatively few really memorable moments in this episode. Columbo rattling Clayton in the very public live chess arena features some decent exchanges, but if anything it just underlines how fragile the Grandmaster’s state of mind really is. He lets the Lieutenant check-mate him far too easily and by episode’s end he’s long been a spent force.
The same, sadly, can be said for Laurence Harvey in real life. After enjoying international movie stardom in the late 1950s and ’60s (including a Best Actor Academy Award nomination in 1960) , his career by this stage was winding down. He would die from stomach cancer only nine months after The Most Dangerous Match aired, aged just 45.
Like his chess-playing on-screen alias here, Harvey was something of an enigma in real life. Said to be reviled by many and loved by few, we can only hope that the tragic figure we saw in Emmett Clayton didn’t too closely mirror the actor himself as the curtain fell on his stellar career.
Did you know?
When Peter Falk was up for his first Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1961 for his turn as Abe Reles in Murder Inc. he was up against none other than Tomlin Dudek (aka Jack Kruschen), who was nominated for his role as Dr Dreyfuss in The Apartment. Both the future Columbo stars would go home empty-handed though, as Peter Ustinov scooped the statuette for his sensational work on Spartacus.
Laurence Harvey, meanwhile, earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination in 1960 for his role as social climber Joe Lampton in Room at the Top. To round it off, Heidi Bruhl represented Germany in the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest. What a diversely talented quartet!
How I rate ’em
As you’ll have gathered from the above, I don’t rate The Most Dangerous Match too highly in the Columbo pantheons of greatness. However, while it’s lurking down with the likes of Short Fuse and Dagger of the Mind right now, it is considerably better than those two feeble episodes.
I think of it as a lower mid-tier episode – the sort I’d be perfectly happy to watch if I encountered it on TV, but wouldn’t often actively choose it from my DVD collection. Kapisch? It won’t always be languishing near the bottom of the list, that’s for sure.
Read my other reviews by clicking on the links below.
- Suitable for Framing
- Murder by the Book
- Death Lends a Hand
- A Stitch in Crime
- Lady in Waiting
- Prescription: Murder
- The Most Crucial Game
- Etude in Black
- Greenhouse Jungle
- Requiem for a Falling Star
- Blueprint for Murder
- Ransom for a Dead Man
- Dead Weight
- The Most Dangerous Match
- Short Fuse
- Dagger of the Mind
Disagree with my views? Then by all means let me know your thoughts below. I know several knowledgeable Columbo fans who really love this episode, so I’m prepared to believe I’ll be jeered and booed for my opinions.
And what’s next? Season 2’s thrilling finale Double Shock, featuring Martin Landau x 2 and Columbo’s most fearsome ever opponent: Mrs Peck! See you then. And thanks, as ever, for taking the time to visit the site.