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…