Notable for Robert Culp sporting an incredible moustache while committing murder in a Ding-A-Ling ice cream man’s outfit, The Most Crucial Game from Columbo‘s second season has some standout moments.
But there’s much more to it than just ‘The Culpinator’ and his fear-inducing snarls, with a stellar cast and some sharp scripting making for an episode packed with intrigue and high-jinks. But just what are the episode’s most memorable moments? Here’s my hot take…
“A stellar cast and some sharp scripting makes The Most Crucial Game an episode packed with intrigue and high-jinks.”
5. Tough talking Dobbs
Columbo’s usual act of obsequious, forgetful bumbling is so well established that it’s easy to forget he’s a razor-sharp straight talker underneath the veneer. The Lieutenant’s interactions with private investigator Ralph Dobbs are a fine reminder.
When busting Dobbs in the act of breaking into Hanlon’s home, and during subsequent scenes at the docks when he refuses to release Dobbs’ surveillance equipment unless he plays ball, we are given a fascinating insight into the real Lieutenant Columbo. Here we witness the man of action, the man in control, the man who bosses situations to get the information he needs. It’s a delicious contrast to his usual modus operandi, and such moments are to be treasured because they’re so rarely encountered.
4. Alone with his thoughts
Columbo has much to think about as he attempts to unravel the case, and his depiction of a man lost in thought is wonderfully played out against the backdrop of a deserted LA Coliseum.
The long shots of the Lieutenant sitting or standing alone in an ocean of empty seats are both cinematographically beautiful and thematically significant: Columbo is a man apart in many ways.
3. Don’t be so Cincinnati…
When the bashful Lieutenant pays a visit to the apartment of high-class call girl Eve Babcock (Valerie Harper in fine form) you better believe there are going to be a few smiles, and so it proves throughout a rib-tickling few minutes of screen time.
Columbo drops by just as Ms Babcock is expecting a’gentleman caller’. She welcomes him with well-rehearsed lines, noting his immediate discomfort and telling him not to be ‘so Cincinnati ‘. As she attempts to bustle him out to a dinner appointment and Columbo indicates he hadn’t planned on dinner, her face is a picture!
Before he gets round to questioning her, Ms Babcock’s actual date arrives – a stockbroker called ‘Smitty’, who’s looking for some real action. As soon as Columbo introduces himself as being from the LAPD, Smitty’s out of there in a heartbeat! It’s a great fun scene, and a reminder of how well Falk plays comedy.
2. What did you pay for those shoes?
It’s one of the series’ most iconic lines, giving us both an insight into the mind of Lieutenant Columbo – and Peter Falk himself.
“Columbo throws this curve ball in order to allow the lawyer to underestimate his mental prowess.”
Viewed from the perspective of Columbo himelf, we have a typical example of the detective wishing to both disarm and unsettle his quarry – in this case Wagner family lawyer Walter Cunnell (Dean Jagger). After expressing his desire to ask Cunnell a ‘personal question’, Columbo ignores the case at hand to ask: “What did you pay for those shoes?” A stuttering Cunnell has no idea what to make of this and is completely thrown. But reading between the lines you know Columbo has thrown him this curve ball in order to allow the lawyer to underestimate his mental prowess: a classic Columbo move.
From Falk’s point of view this was another classic gambit – that of throwing in an unexpected ad lib to see how his fellow actors dealt with it. It all adds up to being an ostensibly throwaway line that has earned its place in the pantheons of TV greatness.
The iceman cometh…
The “What did you pay for those shoes?” line may be the definitive dialogue from the episode, but the beautifully constructed murder scene manages to eclipse it.
As the Ding-A-Ling ice cream man-uniformed Paul Hanlon slinks menacingly towards his quarry, we’re treated to Jaws-esque underwater shots of the unsuspecting victim awaiting his grisly fate. The editing of the scene is perfect. Music and picture work in magnificent harmony to ramp up the tension ahead of the fatal blow. And it’s all the more ‘chilling’ (pun 1 jillion per cent intended) because of Culp’s ridiculous costume and the absolute silence of his stalking. It’s so well done that it always warrants revisiting, so take a look below.
Need a more in-depth reminder of the episode plot and resolution? Then check out my full review here.
As always, I’d love to hear your own episode highlights. Robert Culp was in such good, snarling form here that there’s plenty to enjoy just observing him! Shoot me a comment below if you get the chance. And thanks, as ever, for reading…
While Bad Bart Keppel will always be my favorite killer/Culp portrayal of the lot, I also really liked Pernicious Paul Hanlon, and I’m such a fan of Culp that it does the heart good thinking that one of his baddies might have gotten away with it.
Hey, Columbo got the takedown, it’s in the court’s hands now. And with Hanlon defending himself, he isn’t going to spend a day in jail.
Paul Hanlon calmly eating an ice cream bar in the truck was one of my favorite moments of this episode. Right after committing murder.
I love Columbo. But this may have been the most unbelievable episode I’ve ever seen. Why didn’t the water dry on the pool deck? It was a warm sunny day. That’s not how water works. And why would Colombo even think there would be a disparity between the water in the pool and the water on the deck? I know it’s a show. I know it’s fantasy. But something that outlandish is just a little too far.
Great blog by the way. Thanks.
That same point has always bothered me too for the exact same reasons.
Aargh! You know, as baddie Paul was spraying hose on the deck all that i could think was “why’s he doing that?The blazing sun will dry the deck in minutes!?!” lol i haven’t even finished episode. i had seen your comment earlier but didn’t comment & it was bugging me! WOW i adore Columbo & usually enjoy the plots but c’moooon! The very part i deemed dumb & useless is gonna help solve the case?!? Aww C’MOOOON!! Ok, feeling better – thanks for listening & being so smart!
Well the liquor store delivery guy was due to arrive at anytime, as Wagner (Dean Stockwell) was on the phone just before Hanlon (Robert Culp) got there about why it has been 20 minutes and his delivery hadn’t arrived, and the delivery guy discovered his body. So could be probable that police and Colombo got there before the water dried, and could of been a low point in the cement that allowed the water to be a little deeper.
I can’t see Hanlon doing time for this one though. The case against him is based on illegal wire tap and the testimony of a hooker which is hardly credible.
not one of my top 10 favourite episodes but id watch it whenever i can , also double exposure was good im not crazy about death lends a hand , but poor william shatner got the role in 2 poorer episodes fade in to murder and that dross butterfly in shades of grey
One of my favorite moments from this episode is Columbo listening to the game while a the murder scene, and his team makes a good play and Columbo gives a quick little clap and fist pump.
One of my faves. Thanks again …
They just don’t make shows like Columbo anymore. From untalented writers, directors, actors, scripts, an overall lack of creativity, and the public’s desire for sex, vulgarity and car chases, we are stuck with moronic, predictable shows that last less than one season .
The industry needs some creative, intelligent baby boomers at the helm to make more shows comparable to Columbo.
I felt bad for the kid chasing after the ice cream truck. Been there, done that.
An honorable mention would be the scene with the pro basketball players including future L.A. Lakers head coach Pat Riley.
Yeah, cool scene. Also Columbo’s second chance to use the ‘what did you pay for those shoes’ line.
The script nicely exploits a couple of classic Columbo turns. The ending where all the dialog stops, and we get to admire the takedown. (Suitable for Framing probably the best example of this). He’s made his point and there’s nothing left to say.
And the way Hanlon’s plot is gradually revealed. We don’t know at first he’s also after the victim’s wife, or his idea about using the phone bug for an alibi. It gives the sense that Columbo is stopping something that’s well advanced, in this one.
That’s also like “Suitable”.
Re the scene with Dobbs, it just hammers home the point that Columbo puts on The Act when he has to in order to nail murderers. Otherwise he’s a straight talking, no nonsense professional who does not mince words and expects everyone else to be as competent at their job as he is. I like seeing that side of him, it makes me appreciate The Act all the more and emphasis just how big of a BS artist he can be when wants to be.
In that scene with Dean Jagger, I like to think that music playing on the tampered radio was a recording of Alex Benedict conducting the symphony orchestra. (Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmuzik was used in both episodes.)
My best moment comes right before the ‘get’, with Hanlon pretending to peer through the binoculars at the football game. Says Columbo, pointing the other way: “They’re on the ten, sir”.