Columbo made only one TV appearance in 1993, popping up on All Hallow’s Eve to investigate the killing of gambling gigolo Nick Franco in It’s All in the Game – an episode written by Peter Falk himself over a period of 20 years.
In a twist to the norm, the Lieutenant found himself on the receiving end of some lusty female attention from key suspect Lauren Staton, a role that saw Hollywood siren Faye Dunaway become the series’ highest-profile guest star ev-errrr!
As we know, though, a big name doesn’t necessarily amount to a good episode when it comes to ‘new Columbo‘. Can It’s All in the Game deliver a mystery in keeping with the star power of its leading lady? Or is it another tepid effort from a series creaking at the joints? Let’s have a look…
Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Lauren Staton: Faye Dunaway
Lisa Martin: Claudia Christian
Nick Franco: Armando Pucci
Barney: John Finnegan
Mr Ruddick: Bill Macy
Sergeant Riley: Doug Sheehan
Dog: As himself
Directed by: Vince McEveety
Written by: Peter Falk
Score by: Dick De Benedictis
Wealthy MILF Lauren Staton is staging a lavish bash at her galactic Beverly Hills home. Amongst the guests is her current squeeze, debonair young Italian gambler Nick Franco. Word on the street is that the two will soon be wed – but Lauren evidently has other plans.
In league with a mystery woman she speaks to over the phone, Lauren is in the midst of planning a fiendish scheme that kicks into action when Franco leaves the party. He claims to be heading to a poker game, but in actuality is meeting with a younger lady whom he has evidently cut badly on the neck in the recent past. He claims to love her, but menacingly suggests she needs to be careful to make sure he doesn’t have reason to hurt her again.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this wronged female is Lauren’s partner in crime, a hunch swiftly proven when she calls Lauren to let her know she and lover boy are heading back to his apartment for some nookie. After packing a bag with an electric blanket and a pistol, Lauren (who is pretending to have a headache in her room as the party rages downstairs) sneaks out to meet them.
Upon returning to his apartment with the young brunette, Franco drops his keys and finds to his annoyance that the living room light isn’t working. As he scrambles about for the keys, he is alerted to a second woman, who has been lying in wait and who emerges from a doorway down a shadowy corridor. This silhouetted figure is Lauren, who busts a silenced cap in Franco’s treacherous heart and warmly embraces her accomplice.
The corpse is tucked under an electric blanket and Lauren departs, leaving the younger woman at the scene in order to return home and establish an iron-cast alibi. This she manages by muscling in on an energetic sing-song round her piano and proclaiming that the magic of aspirin and rest has cured her headache. None of the tanked-up guests bat an eyelid. Some time later she excuses herself again and returns to Franco’s apartment block.
As part of the deception, Lauren buzzes the building manager, Mr Ruddick, claiming to have forgotten her key. At the same time, the other woman is removing the electric blanket from Franco’s prostrate frame. As Lauren and Ruddick approach the apartment, Woman No. 2 (from now on referred to as Lisa so I don’t have to create dozens of pseudonyms until her name’s identified later in the episode) fires the now-unsilenced gun into the air and escapes through the gardens via patio doors, leaving Lauren to put on her distraught lover act as she stoops tearfully over the dead man.
A shambolic and half-dressed Lieutenant Columbo is amongst the team sent to investigate. His underlings have fallen for the electric blanket trick, hook, line and sinker! Franco’s still-warm corpse and the audible gunshot are enough to convince them that he was indeed slain at the exact time Lauren and Ruddick reached his apartment. Some of the dead man’s jewellery is missing, so it looks like a robber was disturbed and slew Franco before making a panicked flight.
Naturally enough, Columbo is quick to spot inconsistencies at the crime scene. For one thing, why is the ice tray in the booze fridge full of water, not ice? He also notices that the thermostat is turned up. That’s odd, because it was a lovely warm day until the temperature plummeted after 10pm. Franco is said to have been out of the apartment between 2pm and 2am. Who turned up the heat? At this point, Columbo meets Lauren for the first time (being warned “she’s a knockout” by a leering fellow officer) but the only thing of note he picks up on is her clutching a coffee cup to warm her hands rather than drink it.
From such deductive acorns oaks are grown, although there’s some way to go before the Lieutenant has a concrete reason to suspect Lauren’s involvement in the killing. An interview at her home the following day, however, heightens his suspicions when she admits to having circulation issues. She doesn’t rise to his bait, though, when he mentions some guests referred to her having a headache during the party. The inference is clear: her time alone provided opportunity to be away from the premises, but she takes this potential banana skin in her stride.
The Lieutenant later tracks Lauren down again as she shops for shoes, but his interrogation about her conversations with Franco again go nowhere other than establishing the dead man lied to her about his post-party plans. Lauren instead goes on the front foot, flirtatiously taking off the detective’s tie and choosing him another, which he reluctantly accepts. As he departs, Columbo pointedly turns back to tell Lauren he would never lie to her like that ratbag Franco did – the first indication that our man is becoming more than professionally interested in the glamorous blonde.
Lauren is a smart cookie. Columbo may be warming to her, but he’s asking some tricky questions nevertheless. She meets Lisa in person and (in a scene dripping with lesbian undertones) suggests the younger woman returns to Rome until things blow over. Lisa is reluctant to vamoose at this point, so the pair agree to cautiously see how the investigation pans out. They then go their separate ways after giving declarations of love, longing glances and meaningful nestlings of forehead against forehead.
Back at Franco’s apartment, Columbo remains fixated on the thermostat issue. In his mind, it can only have been turned on after 10pm (when the weather turned chilly) and before 2am, when Franco was found dead. In the words of Riley Greenleaf 20 years earlier, Columbo must answer the ‘WHO? WHY?‘ of this crucial matter. Fortunately, he gets distracted by Franco’s pile of bills. There are a dozen or more in the apartment, but no phone bill. Some legwork by Sergeant Riley reveals that the phone number to the apartment was mysteriously disconnected 10 days earlier.
It’s another conundrum for Columbo to solve, so heads to the phone company for answers. A helpful clerk confirms that Franco changed his number 10 days ago and had the bill redirected to a PO Box number instead of his apartment. Why would someone do that, the Lieutenant muses? Still, he finds out that the new number has been called 12 times in 10 days by just one other number – and he gets his hands on the name and address of that mystery caller in his first big break.
The identity of said caller isn’t revealed yet, though, as Columbo again hits the shopping district to grill Lauren once again. He’s seeking her input on why the drip tray in the fridge at Franco’s might have been filled with water on the night of the crime. It looks like the electricity had been off at some point prior to Lauren’s 2am arrival. Why would someone have turned it off at all? At this point, Lauren does what all self-respecting Beverly Hills shoppers would do under such rigorous cross-examination: she tries on hats as a distraction before suggesting that the apartment cleaning maid probably turned the fridge off by mistake. A grinning Columbo accepts her idea.
Things now take a coquettish turn as Lauren calls Columbo over to inspect a dress she has her eye on. While he takes a closer look at a floral pattern on its shoulder, she blows into his ear then plants a smacker on his lips! “Would you be very angry if I did that again?” she asks the startled Lieutenant. “Do it again, I’ll let you know,” he laughs. So the sultry minx does (click below for collective audience response)!
Instead of dissolving into a puddle of embarrassment at this unrequested affection from a woman other than Mrs Columbo, our man is able to keep his mind out of the gutter and on the job. He seeks intel on her movements the night before. Why didn’t she buzz Franco’s apartment when she arrived? Because she saw his car wasn’t there and parked in his space. If Franco knew she was there when he returned due to the presence of her car, why did he trouble to let himself in with his keys? He probably rang the bell and received no answer because I was with the apartment manager, she responds. But that ringing would have alerted the thieves, who would’ve escaped before he entered!
Lauren’s proposals are as full of holes as a bullet-riddled cadaver, but Columbo has no reason to detain her further and lets her go after agreeing to meet her for a dinner date at 8pm. He spends his afternoon in earnest police work, watching Lisa’s apartment until she goes out then entering it through a seemingly unlocked front door. While snooping through her drawers, he finds a photo of Lisa cuddling a puppy, which he pockets as dramatic music signposts a telling new piece of evidence!
This find spurs Columbo into action. He revisits Lauren at home, leaving her a gift of flowers but also taking a sneaky snapshot of an existing photo of her (pictured below) that he had admired earlier. Seems like the sly old dog is up to his usual tricks once more…
Anyway, the two go on their date, the now-obligatory questions about the case are raised and sidestepped, kisses are exchanged and before you can say “Mrs Columbo is crying at home“, a guilty-looking Lieutenant is wiping lipstick marks off his face in the bathroom of Barney’s Beanery. What happened in the interim? We don’t want to know. Lauren, meanwhile, makes her millionth call of the episode to update Lisa on her progress in pulling the wool over Columbo’s extremely open eyes.
For the first time, Lauren is concerned. Columbo made it pretty clear on the date he believes she was at Franco’s apartment earlier than claimed, and that she’s the one who turned up the heat. As long as he doesn’t know of Lisa’s existence they’re in the clear, but for safety’s sake Lisa agrees to return to Rome ASAP. Back at Barney’s, Columbo is lamenting that he’ll need a confession to break the case due to the scant evidence. He also admits he thinks Lauren killed Franco but sees an inherent goodness in her inconsistent with committing murder. It’s an emotionally draining case that is taxing him to the limit.
He makes sense of one troublesome aspect the next day, though. With the help of Franco’s apartment cleaner, he learns that the booze fridge was connected to the same circuit breaker that controlled the lights in the lounge room. Someone had deliberately switched that off on the night of the killing – very likely the same person who turned up the thermostat. The info is only useful up to a point, though. Columbo is still in the dark on a number of crucial matters.
He admits as such to Lauren as the duo meet for a second date – this time at Barney’s Beanery. A jolly night ends on a sour note, though, when she takes umbrage at his questions about Franco’s interest in her. He’s heard that Franco was a ‘scum bucket’, who targeted older women for their wealth. She won’t discuss that aspect of the relationship, but it’s clear Columbo has struck a nerve. He’ll strike another, too, as he puts the last stage of his plan into action.
Summoning Lauren downtown, Columbo has her watch in through a two-way mirror as Lisa is aggressively interviewed by short-tempered detectives. They accuse her of lying about not knowing Nick Franco, and produce the phone bill that shows a dozen calls from her apartment to his, reducing the poor lamb to tears. Columbo asks outright if Lauren knows Lisa. When she doesn’t reply, he breaks out some photo blow-ups: one of Lisa cuddling the puppy, the other of Lauren striking a pose while sitting on a chair. The distinctively carved chair appears in both photos. They certainly know each other.
The masquerade dropped, Lauren asks if Columbo can solve the case without a confession. He can’t. Would the detective do anything to hurt her if it meant he could close the case? Again no. “Then let that girl go,” Lauren pleads. At that, Columbo enters the interview room, dismisses his fellow cops and walks Lisa out of the building. He suggests Lisa gets the first available flight back to Europe and lets her go, telling her that “Lauren wants it this way.”
Lauren duly signs a confession admitting to killing Franco. It is only then that she reveals that Lisa is her daughter! Franco had been romancing Lisa in Italy and travelled to LA to secretly seduce Lauren upon hearing of her great wealth. When Lisa learned that Franco was playing both mother and daughter, she flew to LA and confronted him. He beat her, choked her and slashed her neck with a razor, claiming he’d kill her if she let Lauren know his intentions. “But we killed him first,” states Lauren, her face a picture of iron resolve.
Although Lauren is taken into custody, Columbo buries Lisa’s involvement. As he chews the fat with Barney later that night, the detective symbolically gives him Lauren’s tie to pass onto his nephew ahead of his graduation ceremony. He’s severing all links with her. Barney asks how Columbo could lock Lauren up given how he felt about her. “Who said I felt anything about her?” Columbo asks. “You believe everything a cop tells you, you’re a damn fool.” He duly exits in order to take Mrs Columbo on their regular Thursday night bowling date as credits roll…
While discussing his deductive staying powers with Lauren Staton, Columbo mentions that the longest he ever worked on a case was 9 years and 4 months. Interestingly, it took a lot longer than that for Peter Falk to bring It’s All in the Game to the screen having started penning it more than 20 years earlier.
Challenged to come up with a quality mystery by show creators William Link and Dick Levinson during the shooting of Season 1, Falk was inspired by a real-life story of how a detective friend of his had started developing feelings for a suspect during an investigation. However, after struggling to turn it into a workable story Falk side-lined the project and didn’t return to it until Columbo’s comeback was given the greenlight in 1988.
According to David Koenig’s Shooting Columbo (buy it immediately), Falk’s attempts to bring his magnum opus to the screen were rebuffed and the script again returned to the back burner where it would sit until Falk became the series’ sole executive producer in 1991. He then refined his draft to the point where he was happy enough for it to become the only Columbo that would screen in 1993. But who to cast as a woman alluring enough to turn the Lieutenant’s head? That was a seriously big call.
Fortune favours the brave, they say, and when cinema goddess Faye Dunaway sought his advice on how to effectively play a TV franchise character, Falk took the plunge. Would Dunaway be interested in playing the role of Lauren Staton in It’s All in the Game? Well, after being impressed with the script Dunaway said “hell yes” in a move that would make her the most famous actor ever to appear in the series.
Can we concede that the bashful Columbo would allow a suspect to make public advances on him?
The comparative lack of star power in Columbo since 1989 is one reason why the 70s seasons cast such a long shadow over their revival-era counterparts. Involving the Lieutenant in any sort of romantic liaison was a risky move, and casting a lesser leading lady could have doomed the enterprise from the start. Dunaway’s appearance is, therefore, a coup of monumental proportions. As one of the most desirable women in history, perhaps viewers could accept Columbo falling for her charms despite his demonstrable devotion towards Mrs Columbo for more than two decades.
I say ‘perhaps’ because that’s the crux of the matter when it comes to It’s All in the Game. Can we concede that the bashful Columbo would allow a suspect to make public advances on him? Can we embrace the notion he’d encourage such antics and even play along with them simply to break a case? If you’re the kind of viewer who can take all this in your stride, it’s quite possible you’ll highly rate It’s All in the Game. If you can’t, it’s far more likely you’ll have a conflicted relationship with the episode.
How genuine should we believe Columbo’s feelings for Lauren are? After all, he does tell the criminology class in Columbo Goes to College that there’s not much he wouldn’t do in order to close a case. Why couldn’t that include wining, dining and smooching with a stunner? We’ve seen him plant evidence, lie and cheat his way to arrests before now. He’s enjoyed the company of many murderers, too, sharing drinks, insights and personal reflections along the way.
The difference between It’s All in the Game and any previous examples of devious policing is that Columbo’s actions here are fundamentally opposed to the nature of his character. We’ve come to know the Lieutenant pretty well by now. While there are elements of his true personality he keeps concealed, we can feel confident that Columbo really is averse to risqué interactions with the opposite sex. Think of the nude model in Suitable for Framing and, more recently, how he didn’t know where to look as Max Barsini embraced two women in Murder, A Self Portrait.
More significant is his absolute contentment with his lot in life – including his marriage. There’s no way the Columbo we know would even simulate a dalliance with another woman. Yet our man in All in the Game isn’t just putting on an act. He gives every impression of being smitten by Lauren and conflicted by the nature of his feelings. The episode doesn’t just show us this mental angst – it tells us through Columbo’s discussions with Barney, who is essentially playing the role of Columbo’s conscience for the audience. His suggestions that Columbo does like Lauren, and that the thought of uncovering her guilt is placing him in a moral quandary, are explicit.
Barney also conveys the flipside of the argument: Columbo is playing Lauren just as hard as she’s playing him, and the only thing that matters to the detective is breaking the case. However, this aspect is always secondary to the romance, and that imbalance causes Columbo to act in a way intrinsically at odds with his established character. He may be flattered, but he’s too mindful of his feelings towards Mrs Columbo to fall for Lauren’s charms, and too mindful of the feelings of others to allow Lauren to demean herself by throwing herself at him. Her flirtatiousness gives Columbo reason to be suspicious of Lauren, but willingly wooing her is an incomprehensible new ball game for such a shy man.
It should also be noted that Columbo makes an uncannily swift decision to play along with Lauren after she buys him a tie and suggests she’d like to get to know him better (39 minutes in). As he takes his leave, Columbo turns back to tell Lauren that he would never lie to her, as that fiend Franco had. This is an odd moment because it comes far too early in their relationship for Columbo to be sure of Lauren’s intentions. Does her being friendly warrant such a declaration of affection from him? Only if he’s really got the hots for her. But how could he be so drawn to her so soon? It’s an example of the episode tripping itself up in an attempt to keep the viewer guessing.
The surest sign that the Lieutenant has genuine affection for Lauren is his agreeing to release Lisa with no questions asked. The only previous time Columbo let a criminal off the hook was when he allowed Ned Diamond to take the rap for Grace Wheeler in Forgotten Lady, 18 years prior. There, though, Columbo had full mastery of the facts of the case and of Grace’s terminal illness. Placing her behind bars served the interests of no one.
Lisa, on the other hand, is an absolutely unknown quantity to Columbo. For all he knows, she might be a serial killer, yet he lets her go at Lauren’s behest, both to protect her from heartache and on the proviso that she confesses to murdering Franco. He has little to guide him in making this decision other than his hunch that Lauren, deep down, has “good stuff in her”. For a detective who prides himself on his professionalism, this lenience in freeing Lisa can only be viewed as an act of love for Lauren.
The surest sign that the Lieutenant has genuine affection for Lauren is his agreeing to release Lisa with no questions asked.
So where does this leave the Lieutenant and his idyllic home life? Lord knows! By episode’s end, Columbo’s denial of any attachment to Lauren as he heads out bowling with Mrs Columbo is presumably meant to assure the viewer that he remains fully dedicated to his wife. The flirtation was all a game, after all. Phew! The problem with this is that we’ve witnessed the attachment between killer and detective flourish over the previous 97 minutes. Attempting to brush this off in the final seconds of the episode is a cop out. Who you tryna to kid, Lieutenant?
A stronger closing scene would’ve been for Columbo discuss the resolution of the case with his wife over the phone from Barney’s. During this conversation, it could’ve been clearly established that Mrs Columbo was in on the game at all times, and was encouraging and standing by her man during a difficult investigation. The lack of of any meaningful references to Mrs C throughout the episode only heightens the suspicion that the Lieutenant is betraying her trust. This could have dispelled those feelings entirely.
All the ambiguity surrounding Columbo’s actions is likely to have been one reason why Falk’s producers were reluctant to let All in the Game progress from paper to screen years before. Had Falk not solely been handling the reins of power at this stage in the series’ life, I suspect he’d again have been persuaded to put it aside. However, it’s hard to begrudge Falk pushing his own agenda when the standard of writing proffered up since 1989 had been such a mixed bag.
His script was good enough to entice Dunaway to commit (she described it as “enchanting”), while the story itself hangs together pretty coherently for the most part. It’s not an especially exciting mystery, and – romance aspect aside – treads pretty safe territory, but that could be considered something of a blessing given the unpredictable nature of some of the series’ recent outings.
The chief gripes I have with the storyline are its pedestrian and repetitive nature (Lauren relays everything we’ve already seen to Lisa too many times), and the fact it borrows so liberally from past Columbo adventures. Keeping a corpse warm under an electric blanket and establishing an alibi via an accomplice firing a gun into the air at pre-arranged time is a straight theft from 1971’s superior Suitable for Framing, but that’s not the only hat-tip to the show’s glory days.
Columbo being buttered up and given a new tie by an alluring woman happened in Requiem for a Falling Star in 1973. The following year, he turned the screw on a killer’s child to elicit a confession in Mind Over Mayhem – a conceptually similar but more hard-nosed version of what we see play out here. And we’ve already mentioned how the freeing of Lisa conjures up memories of Forgotten Lady in 1975. It’s as if Falk was delving into the show’s greatest hits catalogue when refining his script.
Falk also appears to have struggled to adequately balance the strength of the clues Columbo unearths with his ability to use them in cracking the case. The Lieutenant uncovers a “click clue” very early in the investigation when he notices the thermostat turned up in Franco’s apartment. This is the sort of classic crime scene inconsistency he has made hay with for 25 years. Shortly after this, he meets Lauren and notes that she clutches a coffee mug to keep her hands warm. She even confirms her circulation issues during their chat the following morning.
When combined with the information gleaned from guests that Lauren had hidden herself away for a while during the party because of a ‘headache’, she ought to immediately be Columbo’s number one suspect. The ‘real Columbo’ would have left no stone unturned in converting this knowledge into hard evidence. However, here he uncharacteristically sulks about the difficulty of the case to Barney and laments that he’s only going to be able to break it if the killer confesses. Since when has scant evidence ever stopped him before? Just try a little harder to break her story, man!
With his investigative powers diminished and his uncharacteristic lothario powers heightened (two of the fundamental building blocks of the character swept away), It’s All in the Game perhaps ought to be a dog’s dinner of an episode. Somehow, though, it rises above these potentially catastrophic elements to deliver some satisfying and powerful drama – much to Falk’s credit.
The strengths of his story are the loathsomeness of Franco (the depths of which are only exposed bit-by-bit throughout the episode) and the ‘big reveal’ at the end where Lisa is outed as Lauren’s daughter. This was so well disguised that I can imagine it coming as quite a shock to the first-time viewer – as it was to the dishevelled sleuth. For once, a major revelation is handled with aplomb and is well worth the wait.
Throughout, the episode demonstrates pleasing sleight of hand in its presentation of Lauren and Lisa’s interactions. Until Lauren divulges their mother/daughter status, the age difference between the two is really the only hint at their familial ties. Lauren is blonde, Lisa brunette. One is American, the other European. Both are openly affectionate with the other and exchange loving vows. We are meant to believe they are lovers in league against an abusive gigolo, and the charade works well – even if gay storylines in TV shows of the day were as rare as hen’s teeth.
When we learn that Lauren is Lisa’s mother, and they combined to slay Franco after he played them both, slashed Lisa with a razor and threatened to kill her, our understanding of Lauren is turned on its head. She kills to protect her daughter, making her subsequent attempts to use feminine charms to put a detective off the scent therefore much more palatable. In assessing how much sympathy we have for Lauren, it all boils down to viewer appreciation of what you’d be willing to do to protect your own child. I find Lauren’s motive for killing more relatable than any other in the show’s 35-year run. That’s a fine achievement for a part-time writer like Falk.
I dread to think how the episode might have panned out had a bog-standard TV actress of the day been cast instead of Dunaway.
Thank goodness Faye Dunaway took the role of Lauren. Only someone with immense star power and beauty could credibly win the Lieutenant’s heart, while providing sufficient gravitas to wrench our own when turning herself in. Looking radiant at the age of 52, and displaying a kaleidoscope of authentic characterisations from anger and resentment to despair, humour and coquetry, Dunaway is a sensation throughout.
Given that Lauren has more screen-time than any other Columbo killer I can think of, it’s essential for the viewer to take pleasure in her company. Dunaway makes that easy for us. Even if we initially resent Lauren’s girlish solicitations towards the good Lieutenant, Dunaway ensures she is always a compelling figure. Indeed, I dread to think how the episode might have panned out had a bog-standard TV actress of the day been cast instead – even Shera Danese, who I bet was yearning for the part.
An additional bonus of having such a headline act as Dunaway in the cast is the positive effect she had on Falk (apart from his attempts to hide the grey with a DREADFUL pinky-red dye job). There’s simply no room for silliness when paired with a superstar and Falk raised his game considerably when compared to the series’ recent norm. I’ve been critical of Falk’s Columbo portrayal on many occasions since his 1989 comeback, but I believe this is his best turn of the new era. Heck, it might even be his most watchable effort since The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case in 1977.
The Columbo of It’s All in the Game is cut from the same cloth as his 1970s predecessor. He’s shrewd and kind-hearted, stern when needed, occasionally devious, but never puerile. Falk doesn’t even play the extended “ON! OFF!” fridge light scene for laughs as would inevitably have happened in previous episodes. Meanwhile, his use of phone records to discover Lisa’s identity and address is extremely well done, succinct and a fine example of quality, honest policework in a scene that never veers into pastiche.
This might be Falk’s best performance since The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case in 1977.
Falk sometimes looks a little too loved up when canoodling with Lauren, but I cut him some slack here as he was obviously living out a real-life fantasy in sharing screen-time (and kisses) with Dunaway. I get the impression that all his Christmases came at once after she signed on, and he certainly gave himself every opportunity to revel in her company. Fortunately, the chemistry was there to back it up.
The same can be said of the reassuring presence of John Finnegan as Barney. Finnegan was part of the cast of regulars back in the 70s and makes his 9th series appearance here. This is his largest role by some distance as he shares several scenes with Columbo, acting as an insight into the troubled mind of the detective along the way. Barney gives the impression of being someone who really knows what makes the Lieutenant tick. Casting such a stalwart as Finnegan in the role, therefore, seems like an inspired move.
With so much of the episode focussed the tryst between Lauren and the Lieutenant, this really is the Dunaway and Falk Show. Even Lisa’s role is an undercooked one, much of it spent passively listening to her mother’s updates over the phone. Claudia Christian doesn’t put a foot wrong, but the role hardly taxes her and it would have been nice if she’d been given a little screen-time with Falk before he granted her freedom. As things stand, we know almost nothing about Lisa, despite her importance to the plot.
Cast as Franco, Armando Pucci immediately comes across as the sort of slick wastrel demanded of the role, and he’s definitely amongst the series’ most deserving villains. Like Falk, Pucci must have been cock-a-hoop at being cast as a love interest to Dunaway – especially considering his unexceptional screen career before then. All in the Game was just his third acting credit and it was literally downhill all the way from there, the last of his sparse TV appearances coming in 2012. Presumably he’s still dining out on tales of pashing with Faye and Claudia – and who could blame him?
Elsewhere, Shelley Morrison makes a notable appearance as the “ON/OFF” latina housemaid six years before her role as the sharp-tongued Rosario in Will and Grace, while Maude veteran Bill Macy gives good value as Franco’s apartment block manager and there’s an uncredited cameo for Gilligan’s Island star Dawn Wells as a party guest. Dog crops up in a couple of scenes, and Dick De Benedictus provides the score once again after returning to Columbo colours following a 17-year hiatus for the previous episode, A Bird in the Hand. Sadly, though, his effort this time round is awash with the tiresome This Old Man theme that I so wish would be axed.
Overall, It’s All in the Game is a tricky episode to assess. I enjoy it more than this review perhaps suggests, but the implausibility of Columbo’s fling is hard to overcome. For every fan I’ve encountered that really digs this episode there’s another who can’t bear it; for every viewer who sympathises with Lauren’s plight another considers her a shameless Jezebel. I suspect it’s a more subjective experience than most other episodes of the revival era, being neither an obvious clunker like Murder in Malibu, nor a by-the-book classic like Agenda for Murder.
What All in the Game has going for it is heart where it counts, a rare example of justifiable homicide, terrific performances from the leads and a strong climax that delivers both a surprise and an emotional sucker punch. Peter Falk mightn’t have been the most naturally gifted mystery writer of his time, but he does a serviceable job here that puts the efforts of many of the series’ recent and more celebrated writers to shame.
It’s certainly not as great a tale as Faye Dunaway seemed to believe, but her mere presence provides a layer of chocolate sauce to what is a rather vanilla mystery and ensures that It’s All in the Game is an episode hard to forget – even if the same can’t be said for poor Mrs Columbo, left home alone as her husband locks lips with luscious Lauren time and again.
Did you know?
Faye Dunaway’s magnetic turn as Lauren Staton was recognised in her winning the Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series category at the 46th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards on September 11, 1994.
Peter Falk was also in the running for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series but was denied his sixth Emmy by an altogether grittier TV detective: Dennis Franz’s Andy Sipowicz from NYPD Blue.
How I rate ’em
Although I will never be able to accept the idea of the Lieutenant so much as looking twice at a woman other than Mrs Columbo, It’s All in the Game is watchable fare and still manages to sneak into the upper echelons of my leader board – largely on the strength of Dunaway and Falk’s performances. However, it’s relatively high ranking is more of an indication of the mediocre standards of Columbo’s ABC years rather than it being great TV in its own right.
To read reviews of any of the ‘new Columbo‘ episodes reviewed up to this point, simply click the links in the list below. You can see how I rank all the ‘classic era’ episodes here.
- Columbo Goes to College
- Agenda for Murder
- Death Hits the Jackpot
- Columbo Cries Wolf
- It’s All in the Game
- Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
- Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
- Sex & The Married Detective
- Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
- A Bird in the Hand…
- Murder, A Self Portrait
- Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star
- Murder, Smoke & Shadows
- Uneasy Lies the Crown
- No Time to Die
- Grand Deceptions
- Murder in Malibu
As always, here’s where I turn the floor over to you, dear readers. How do you rate It’s All in the Game overall? If you’re a big fan, do you have objections to Columbo’s dalliance with Lauren, or do you buy into the idea that he was simply playing her all along? You can see how fellow Columbo stans rate the episode in the Fans’ top 10 ‘new Columbo‘ episodes list here.
With only seven more Columbo episodes left to review, our next stop will see us in the company of William Shatner and his ever-changing pencil moustache in 1994 outing Butterfly in Shades of Grey. It promises to be an interesting outing…
I’m surely not an expert columbophile. From a beginner’s point of view, I need to stress how much this whole story wouldn’t have worked had it not been for Faye Dunaway.
From the beginning, her guests speak openly on how beautiful she is. When she gets into the bar, all the men gawk at her. She is clearly portrayed as a specially beautiful and seductive woman. If Columbo had to fall for a suspect, then it could only be her and nobody else.
If at first, Columbo seems smitten by her while she plays with him, as the story progresses, the roles are inversed. She very honestly tells her daughter on the phone what a charming man he is.
Throughout the episode, one does not suspect the mother daughter relationship and the show very aptly plays with the lesbian undertones. The reveal is quite a shock.
That said, the motive doesn’t make sense. Lauren simply had to tell Franco that she knew everything and cast him away. Without any chance on getting any money from her, he was no more a threat to her and her daughter.
The daughter was purposefully kept away from Columbo as any talk with him could have given away the relationship with her daughter. However, the daughter’s role is very passive and isn’t convincing at all.
For all this, the episode deserves a 7.5 on 10. Great performance by a guest star but lackluster secondary actors and a flawed storyline
I didn’t know that the maid was the same one in Will & Grace ! What a nice surprise ! She was a nice addition in this episode
I liked this episode. Both ladies were especially beautiful. I got the sense, from her conversations with her daughter, that even though she was trying to play Columbo, she genuinely liked him, unlike some other villains. In the end, my heart broke a little when she sent her daughter away and accepted her guilt, and I am sure that Columbo wasn’t completely honest when he said he had only ever been doing his job. After all, he left Adrian Carsini and Tommy Brown on friendly terms.
I finally realized recently why so many of the ‘80s to ‘90s episodes – so far – have left me sometimes almost queasy.
It’s because none of the characters – besides Colombo – are likable!
That was what I liked about this one (I previously also liked Lindsey Krauss). As well as its heart.
There have just been way too few likable characters for my taste in most of the later episodes.
Thanks, CP, for another great review, and priceless captions.
Never a fan of this episode. I simply don’t care about Dunaway’s character getting her comeuppance. She’s not despicable enough to want to see her go down at the hands of the Lt.
In fact, like Lindsay Crouse, you kind of sympathize with her.
Why was it so difficult for the Columbo writers to create a female antagonist that was truly a creep? (like Culp, Cassidy, Kiley…etc)
Peter Falk himself wrote this episode.
I really enjoy your reviews! Great fun but sometimes a bit overthought. Regarding “It’s All in the Game” you really cannot appreciate ALL that’s going on here without having seen “Chinatown” (1974). It came out right around the time Falk was cooking up this story. This has more than a wink and a nod to that flawless movie which anyone dissecting fictional detectives should use as a benchmark. Its detective starting falling for Dunaway as well. Her relationship with a young woman in the story was … well … watch it pronto. You might rethink some of this review.
You can tell Columbo is only playing along with the seduction because whenever he’s not meeting with Faye he’s wearing his ugly old tie again.
‘Dunaway’ is the perfect name for someone playing a murderer.
Fun fact: the ex-husband of Claudia Christian, Gary DeVore, was murdered in a still-unsolved case. I think we need Lt. Columbo on that one!
I enjoyed this episode! Excellent acting, writing, and story by Falk, although unbelievable in its closing act. I’d rank this one above second-tier Columbo episodes from the classic era, like “Greenhouse Jungle” and “Fade in to Murder.” I’d argue this episode had some of the best acting of the entire new Columbo series, despite being among the most unusual of them all.
The only good thing about this episode is the victim deserved his
demise as a nasty gigolo who used and abused women. I could sympathize with Lauren,s daughter especially and wished the women could have got away with it. But that apart I found it particularly nauseous that Lauren ( Dunaway ) should try and seduce Columbo. It made no sense and would only make Columbo more suspicious that she was up to something , whether he liked her or not. As Peter Falk had written this, it stands to reason that he clearly liked the idea of a beautiful woman lusting for him as he was totally different to the fictitious
Columbo, in real life.
This would have have been better without the seduction scenes,
I don’t agree with it’s high ranking, it’s no better than Death In Malibu, complete rubbish.
The victim deserved to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned — not murdered. Why didn’t mother and daughter go to the police? Fear of further violence? According to Lauren: He “said he’d kill her if she told me. Well, she told me.” So they were willing to ignore that direct threat. By executing an elaborate plan to “kill him first,” they committed murder. A sympathetic murder, perhaps, but a murder nonetheless. I have no problem with Columbo treating a murder as a murder.
Odd to mention the other roles, past or future, of so many of the actors, but say nothing about Claudia Christian’s most famous role as Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5.
In many of your reviews you comment on the running time of the episodes, and on the whole rate the shorter ones more highly. This one was 95+ minutes, and while it had some strong scenes it also dragged quite a bit at times as they struggled to fill out the episode without very many plot developments.
This is the best episode of the revival series and it holds up just fine with any of the ’70s episodes.
I never felt like Lt. Columbo was actually thinking about cheating on his wife with Faye Dunaway. And I have no problem with him letting the daughter go, since, as is stated explicitly, he doesn’t have hard evidence–this actually is a rare “Columbo” nod to what is actually required to get a conviction. Most “Columbo” episodes are more like “Oh, these shoelaces were tied backwards, you’re guilty.”
My only nitpick is the colossal stupidity that our killers display, in having the daughter hang around Los Angeles for no reason at all. She should have headed straight for LAX and left the country after firing that shot.
I totally agree with you, Vidor. I really enjoyed this episode. I think it is clear that Columbo is playing the game with Lauren and at the same time, enjoying the flirtatious attention.
However, Columbo is ambivalent about this attention at the same time. We see that when he wipes the lipstick off his face and looks distressed. We see that when he says that the case is tough. It’s tough because there is an element of deception in the game he is playing. He likes Lauren and enjoys her play for him, but as the same time he is playing along in order to ultimately arrest her. He has no interest in having an affair only on closing the case. His mixed feelings make this a tough case for him.
I enjoyed seeing his sympathy for Lauren and compassion for her situation when he arrested her at the end.
I agree that the daughter should have immediately flown to Europe. I guess it’s realistic to think that she wanted to stay to make sure things worked out ok for her and her mother. But Lauren should have insisted that her daughter leave in order to protect her since that was clearly one of her main objectives.
Thank you, once again, CP for this review and all of the others that are thoughtful and often very, very funny. And thank you to everyone who contributes.
Thank you, CP
But did you notice this review is very different of most of the reviews you’ve already written? It’s as interesting, clever, humorous… as it is for other episodes. But there’s an extra dose of warmth and a sympathy in it for the episode and for the people who made it. I guess you like the episode (much) more than you admit.
First of all, thank you CP fo once again providing such a great review for this episode.
And second, before I’ll go and putting some thoughts out here, I’d like to quote Columbo from this very episode and say ‘This is a tough case’.
Trying to write about It’s all in the game as objectively and nonbiased as possible, which is virtually impossible, I’d say it certainly has lots of positives going for it. I won’t name them all, or very elaborately, since CP did that already and better than I could ever do. However Peter Falk is good form here and Faye Dunaway is a formidable actress; there’s very little wrong with the plot and like some who commented earlier I never believed for one second that Columbo was falling for his prime suspect (obviously Peter Falk did fall for Faye Dunaway but who can blame him).
So why don’t I like this episode?
This review especially, CP, made me wonder what it is that makes me enjoy the one episode better than the other. Because, when ranking episodes in the end it all comes to down to ‘how much do I enjoy this one’, rather than ‘which one has the most highlights / had the best plot / featured the less padding etc. I mean, Sex and the married detective is my second favourite episode ever because I enjoy watching it like almost no other Columbo – and as you well know that’s the one featuring the tuba scene.
I think I have watched It’s all in the game 4 or 5 times in my life, while I must have seen Grand Deceptions (not a favourite in many a Columbo fan’s book) at least 30 times – because I enjoy it so much more. Hell, I like Murder in Malibu much better too. But why?
Maybe there can be a moment to write some more about the subject of ‘what do we enjoy in Columbo’ in general, but in this case my “dislike” for It’s all in the game probably has to do with a form of purism that says ‘I don’t want Columbo to be this way’. It’s very much comparable to Columbo in Strange Bedfellows, where he is a cop who devices a plan with a mobb boss to frighten his suspects into confessing – another example of this phenomenon. I don’t want Columbo to pretend to be taken in by an attractive suspect. He’d never do that, not the Columbo that I know and love. He’d laugh, shyly, averting his gaze, and tell her he’s a married man, like he does with dr Joan Allenby in Sex and the married detective, when she asks him about his sex life.
And even though the acting is very well done, I dislike the Lauren Straton character immensily. The “good” killers bring out the best out of the Columbo character; Lauren brings out the worst.
And because of this I hardly ever select it from dvd set – which is a shame really, because I like John Finnegan as Barney very much.
So I guess that’s it, but part of me is still guessing because usually I’d still watch the episode for the aspects of Columbo that I do like.
Well, maybe to be continued.
Great episode. Columbo was playing her, as she was playing him. Hence the title “It’s All in the Game.”
Great analysis and review of this episode. Thank you. One of my favorite episodes. Two things I didn’t like particularly was the amount of times Columbo and Lauren met in 24 hours and Columbo lamenting the fact that the case was too difficult when he was over at Barney’s. I enjoyed the “on/off” scene with the housemaid—that made me chuckle. The surprise at the end that Lauren and Lisa were mother & daughter was terrific.
I saw each episode of Colombo once during the pandemic so I couldn’t really dissect them much. Having said that, this was my favorite episode. Glad it made your top five. And I agree with you about Faye Dunaway’s beauty. I enjoyed her on-screen chemistry with Peter Falk. Nice review.
I don’t mind Columbo letting the daughter deport, as I think that action emphasizes how strongly he knew all along that Lauren was the mastermind and essentially used her parental authority to force her daughter’s complicity. He’s not just “doing Lauren a favor,” he’s ensuring the one most responsible for the murder goes to prison for it.
We can split hairs about how illegal or unethical that approach may be, but dramatically the trade-off works for me.
I dont agree lm no lawyer columbo back in 1968 prescription murder wich was a far better outing than this columbo used joan
Hudson as a tool also tocrackthe case against doctorfleming but never he suggested she was left off the hook its left to the viewer to beleive imagine she done afew years for the acomplishment but much less than doctor fleming wich works for me in PS but its all in the game just dosent convince me on any
Id also have to add a case of of immunity wich was far from the top f the seventies wich used a confession as a gotcha but difference for me being the arab quy had been well squeezed by an advacing helicopter and columbo had a pile of evidence piled up throughout the episode before it even got to that stage wich satisfys me but its all inthe game has none of this for me
I agree with you that Immunity has the superior gotcha. To clarify my opinion, I’m not a huge fan of All in the Game or its confession-inducing gotcha, Was just explaining why Columbo letting the daughter skate doesn’t bother me like it does several commenters.
Overall, Game has a few delectable scenes and avoids the embarrassing awfulness plaguing so many revival episodes, but I think CP has it correctly ranked as second-tier at best. Would fall just outside my personal top 5.
Good to see a fresh episode review about
And i knew CP would rate it highly but
I just never liked this one and consider it in my least favorite bunch and without going into great detail ill state my case
A _ i strongly dislike the romantic scenes false or not between lauren and columbo there very soppy and they really goes against everything before wich had so much grace to it with columbos wife and how much they were in toe for so many episode’s series at such longevity
B It never surprised me they were mother and daughter or at leat step related this twist never worked for me as they were so close and comfortable and the right age gap to begin with
C IT has one of the worst scenes in the series with the on off circuit breaker scene with the cleaner i find it dreadful
D IT has a very weak gotcha where she simply writes out a confession to columbo because columbo says he cant solve the crime i mean how is that a classic gotcha
E And why does columbo let the younger girl go cant remember her name as i m
not a fan’ as you may have gathered
She was very much an accomplice and also had been vigrously interragated
then columbo lets her out a back gate of the precinct scott free on a round trip to europe makes no sense to me
Yes i know a lot of people like this one it dosent air that much on 5 usa but i never like it enjoy it and i dont agree that because it has a star profile lead ie faye dunaway that it has to be a decent episode
In a comment near the start of this thread, I maintained that Columbo was not falling into a romance with Lauren, and that he was simply using a new (to the viewer) tactic to get her to underestimate him. Usually, he creates the impression of diminished competence with elements such as his shambolic appearance, so the villains believe themselves to be in the dominant position, and they let their guard down. This is the standard Columbo formula for success.
It’s different this time. As the case progresses, Lauren catches on that she shouldn’t underestimate Columbo’s detecting abilities. However, she also feels that this will be easy to overcome, that she is in the dominant position, and can influence the case: “If I play my cards right, which I will, there’ll come a time when he’ll be more interested in me than the investigation.” She sounds just as confident that she can control Columbo as Ken Franklin did tossing out red-herring mobster names in “Murder By the Book”.
While a different path to get there than the usual cases, once again Columbo has the killer feeling overconfident – by design. So when CP bold-fonts in his review, “Columbo’s actions here are fundamentally opposed to the nature of his character,” I would disagree. Columbo’s actions are totally aligned with his character – letting the killer think he/she has the upper hand.
I recognize that that’s not how CP means that phrase, which assumes that Columbo is falling for Lauren, echoed by other commenters who argue that in the episode Columbo “confirms” the “evidence” of this. I don’t see it. Of course, the episode is played for ambiguity, to allow for viewers to read into Columbo’s actions and dialogue as the episode progresses, to think that perhaps (gasp!) Columbo is tempted. (I’m convinced that’s why we never get any mentions of how this is all playing out with Mrs. C, as that would give away the ambiguity. But that’s a real-life scripting decision by Peter Falk, not a fictional Columboverse decision by Columbo that he doesn’t want to talk about it with his wife).
I rewatched several scenes to see if I missed something. Discount those times where Columbo is with Staton, as his “smitten” reactions in those contexts are for her benefit. In those scenes, I disagree with CP, who bold-fonts that Columbo is “willingly wooing her”. No, I would posit that Staton is the woo-er, and Columbo the woo-ee, as befits a woman who believes she is in the dominant position.
The scenes at Barney’s are key. They show that Columbo likes her, sees the good in her, and is torn about bringing her to justice. But that doesn’t mean he’s falling in love with her! It just means that he feels the same way toward her (OK, perhaps a touch more) as he did to Abigail Mitchell, Tommy Brown, and Adrian Carsini. Barney says, “You like her”, which is undeniable. But Barney also says, “You’re leading her down the garden path”, and that’s why Columbo appears so anguished – not because he feels like cheating on his wife. Nothing in those scenes contradicts my view that Columbo is playing her, albeit reluctantly, to allow her to think that she has the advantage and may slip up.
If you want an example of a tryst by the protagonist that was totally and frustratingly out of character, have a look at “Archie’s Brief Encounter” from “All in the Family”, in which Archie unconvincingly has an affair with a waitress – played by Janis Paige, Goldie of “Blueprint for Murder”.
Okay, I’m going to do this backwards. I usually read CP’s entire episode write-up, make my comments on the episode, then read everybody’s else’s comments.
But, for this one, I’m going to do it differently. I’m going to make my comments before I read CP’s analysis.
By FAR, my favorite of the “new” Columbo episodes and I can’t wait to see what CP and others here have to say about it.
Good timing, as I re-watched “Game” last week and jotted down a few notes and observations.
Since I already said I loved the episode, I guess I’ll get a few “cons” out of the way first:
There are EIGHT (8!) phone conversations between the two female leads in the first 64 minutes of the episode! I think a few could have been cut. (No phone conservations in the final half-hour)
Nearly ALL of the episode takes place the day AFTER the murder was committed. Is that a problem? Not really. But the problem is HOW MANY TIMES COLUMBO SEES LAUREN THAT DAY!
(The answer is a whopping SIX. 6!) TOO MUCH!
It’s like the day lasted FOREVER.
This was by FAR my biggest issue with this episode. There was hardly any “real-time” spacing between encounters.
Here are the SIX, in case you were curious:
1- Morning with Dog at her home, where Columbo learns of circulation problems and aspirin.
2- He’s waiting for her in the women’s clothing store. (Poker game? Tie purchase)
3- Columbo goes to a different department store, and even Lauren comments that it’s only been 3.5 hours since they last saw each other. She buys a hat. The flirt-game in now in high-gear. Kiss. Kiss.
4- As she is leaving Umberto’s in her Jaguar, Columbo asks her how she knew Nick wouldn’t be at home. She reminds Columbo of their 8 p.m. date later that evening.
(You can make the case that this is a continuation of #3, but I don’t, since it is AFTER a break (commercial or no commercials)
5- (And this one bugs me the most, because Columbo now seems like a stalker)…..He arrives at her home AGAIN in the middle of a women’s cocktail hour. (yes ,I’m aware he’s there to take a picture of her picture in the foyer…but it’s just creepy to do that a mere hours before their date.)
Yes, I realize that Columbo is stringing her along as much as she is stringing him along, and he is married, but if a “suitor” did that to me, I would have major red flags.
He even makes it worse by saying telling her if she has any questions (about the flowers) she can call him at headquarters. Headquarters??!! When does Columbo have time for any if that in this day?! Longest day ever!
6- The date at the French restaurant. (Who turned on the heat?) Still in minute 60, mind you! That’s a whole lot of cramming!
Keep in mind that Columbo STILL has time to go back to Barney’s later that night. What a jammed-packed 24 hours!
Moving on, the viewer can clearly see the victim blink his eyes in the 18th minute. C’mon, production!
Other stray observations…..
I don’t blame Lauren for not wanting to drink after Columbo (hot coffee) when she first meets him. I find it strange that Columbo finds that strange!
I can’t help but think Falk dyed his hair to make him look younger/more attractive to Dunaway’s character.
This is the second STRAIGHT episode that the victim had exactly $5,000 on him.
The next day opens with the cleaning lady laughing HYSTERICALLY through her lines with Falk. (He was cracking up, too)
She’s a good sport about the “on, off, on, off, on….but it goes on a bit too long)
I can’t imagine a woman of Lauren’s stature having steak in the kitchen of Barney’s dive. I know it’s to help beat a rap, but…
“Stand by Your Man” was playing too loudly in the background at Barney’s. C’mon production!
I think they did us viewers a slight disservice by NOT showing Lauren turn up the thermostat.
One of the old ladies with short hair at the party was SO HAMMY singing “Bye Bye Blackbird. (As was the guy dancing to the Mexican music)
Okay, back to what I LOVED:
The chemistry between Dunnaway and Falk was outstanding. He was charming. She was charming and fetching. I could go on and on about this, but you get the idea.
I absolutely loved the jokes about the peanut butter sandwiches and raisins (with or without jam)
The manager of the apartments:
“You already got raisins on that peanut butter. You’re gonna put jam on?”
“You never had it ‘dat way?”
And then the cleaning lady, after Columbo maker her the sandwich:
“In El Salvador, we put jam.”
I loved Columbo’s line after Lauren bought Dog a little doggie bed:
“If you went around the world three times, you couldn’t find me a better gift.”
Just so sweet and sincere.
Columbo to Barney:
“I can’t believe gum cost this much.”
That reminds me of something Larry David would say.
One of the drunk patrons in the back at Barney’s. Barney calls him “Commissioner” twice. Ha!
While I thought the acting of the victim was poor, I do think casting did a good job of finding an age-appropriate (looks-wise) actor who would appeal to BOTH female leads. And vice-versa.
I didn’t care too much for the daughter’s acting either, but Dunnaway more than make up for it.
I can only speak for me, but I was SHOCKED when it was revealed (in the 89th minute!) that the two female leads were mother/daughter. The first time I watched it I was completely blown away! What a plot twist!
At first, I thought their only connection was that they were just scorned/conned by the same jerk.
In the 42nd minute, when they secretly meet in the public bathroom, I thought they were lesbian lovers. Was that production’s intent?
My “lesbian lover” convictions were further advanced when Columbo sneaks into the daughter’s apartment (how did he get in?!) and sees pictures of the daughter with a few other women with short hair.
Finally, I loved the ending….how he let the daughter go to Europe. Columbo showed his big heart.
I would rank this in my top 10 of ALL Columbo’s, based on the chemistry and “shock factor.”
Did I mention that Dunnaway was both STUNNING and CHARMING??!
Certainly not without flaws, but it was so darn clever and cute.
A cut above “Jackpot” and “College” for me, as far as new Columbo episodes.
I’m of the opinion that both Lauren and Columbo knew they were playing each other, but that Lauren also knew that she could truly win Columbo’s love. Columbo of course knew how it would end, but still got pulled into it, which I think was a surprise to him.
The overly dramatic scenes where Columbo sighs about what a mess this is confirm this. Columbo doesn’t want to leave Mrs. Columbo, but he’s found out that he would.
I agree with the implausibility of Columbo genuinely threatening to betray Mrs. Columbo. But to me, the great part of this episode — and I’m surprised it has not come up — is the homage to Faye Dunaway’s great role in Chinatown. There, as here, there’s the mystery of Dunaway’s relationship with a younger woman, seemingly a love rival, who turns out to be her daughter. But this time, as in the original screenplay for Chinatown, Dunaway’s character is able to save her daughter.
Alas, I’ve never seen Chinatown, but thanks for raising that similarity! Perhaps the script was adapted to enhance this link once Faye had signed up.
highly recommend it Columbophile, it features a different type of LA detective with virtues all his own. Keep up the great work and liked the recent picture of your daughter.
Thanks, Stendhal, for mentioning this. The first (and only) time I saw Chinatown was when I’d already seen It’s all in the game and only then I realised this episode to reference to the movie.
I love your references to Shera in this! I bet she was desperate to play the role and furious not to get it! Peter probably slept on the couch for a month!
One aspect I like about this episode is the ‘ambiguity surrounding Columbo’s actions’ as you put it. It’s left open to the viewer to interpret for themselves whether he was just playing along with Lauren’s games or he really was attracted to her. I choose to believe it was all an act on his part although there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary.
Just as I choose to believe Edmund is innocent in Try & Catch Me! *virtual high-five*
Fantastic review CP! I enjoy this episode but only because I don’t let myself think too much about Columbo’s betrayal of Mrs Columbo! This would be a good episode of a standard police drama but the romance angle is a poor fit for Columbo.
I too was taken aback by our lieutenant falling for the suspect. But if you want to sell this plot line to me, I don’t know if I could think of a better person to use than Faye Dunaway to get me to buy it. I was totally with Barney on this one to the very end. Our lieutenant’s dismissal of his love interest as just his means of getting a confession threw me for a loop. How could he be so crass and manipulative? That’s not the lieutenant I knew, the lieutenant who expressed true admiration and respect for so many of his suspects, sentiments so often offered after the gotcha had gone down, after the arrest had been made. But I have to say, this does explain the title of the episode, “All in the Game” as suspect and cop play each other for their own purposes. Somehow it had escaped me that he knew she was playing him (because I wanted it to escape me?) and in typical play-along-with-the-suspect’s-ploys Columbo fashion, he plays the game with his prime suspect, Staton. But, as in the past, Columbo arrests the perpetrator regardless of whether he likes or dislikes them. And in this case, I do think he likes Ms. Staton. I think he understands and sympathizes with the pain, anger and hurt that she and her daughter suffered at the hands of one of the scuzziest, most deserving-of-death murder victims in the Columbo series ever. And letting the accomplice go demonstrates this both to us and to his suspect. But Columbo does not let his sympathy and affection for the murderer keep him from doing his job. And as he explained in some other episode, his job is not to judge them, but just to catch and arrest them. It is part of the magic of so much of the Columbo series that a murder mystery does not have to be good guy vs. bad guy, which is always difficult to pull off because in order to pull the trigger in an elaborate pre-meditated murder, you have to have a bad guy side and you have to give into it. But I think this one does as good a job, if not better, than any other Columbo episode of pulling it off successfully. The niggling, technical details that are lacking in it are not enough to distract me from being thoroughly entertained by it. This is one of my favorites and I can watch it over and over again (and will as long as the reruns are still on).
“All love scenes started on the set are continued in the dressing room.” — Alfred Hitchcock. My God, does this seem true about this episode. I can practically smell the hanky panky.
I agree that Shera would be livid. Great review, one of your best.
Here’s what I think went wrong with this episode:
> Falk learned early on that he was very good at rewriting the dialogue other writers came up with for Lt. Columbo. He always made the cop sound more like the way he himself talked, and it always worked.
> Falk also knew that much of what people liked about Columbo were qualities he shared with the character: The ratty clothes, the cheap cigar, the absent-mindedness, the sheer slobbery.
Knowing all this, Falk ventured a bridge too far. He put too MUCH of his real self into the character here. Falk, as is well known, was a relentless philanderer. Strange as it may seem to fans, he thus probably didn’t even UNDERSTAND how important Columbo’s devotion to his wife and monogamy were to the character. He betrayed his signature character – and us – with this episode.
Falk was fantastic at dialogue, and magnificent at memorizing incredibly complicated lines in which he had to explicate the minutiae of countless complex crimes. He STILL remembered that minutiae years later, recycling several key clues from earlier episodes. But he didn’t know what to DO with those clues. This time, they’re just red herrings. Aside from the surprise twist that Dunaway is the killer’s mother, the MYSTERY is no good.
I agree, it was the character of Peter Falk who was dominate in this episode not the Columbo that I know and love. Even if he was ‘playing’ Dunaway he came over as callous in the final scene. I love many things about the character of Columbo but prodominately for me it is his love for his wife Mrs Columbo which I treasure the most and this episode felt unfaithful to his character. Even the fact that we have never met Mrs Columbo for me is clever, that way the viewer can imagine the ‘perfect’ partner and it felt that ‘my’ Mrs Columbo was not being treated with the respect that has always been due to her. Columbo has always been such a shy character and I think he might normally have been overwhelmed with the attention, his reaction did not quite ring true for me.
Not a fan of this episode (as with most of the 90s era) but I do appreciate CP’s wonderful analysis. Incredibly witty and funny as usual. Cheers!
I liked this one. Lots going on. Lots to digest and chew over.
However. 2 things that grind my gears:
1. He visits dunaway something like 4 maybe 5 times in varying locations. Her house. The shops. Somewhere else I’m sure and then back to her house again. Then it transpires that it’s all in the same day!!! The day after the murder. This timeline is just madness and so far fetched. All before they then go on their “date” in the evening. What is Columbo doing in between times !? He hasn’t got any other suspects. Meh
2. The light switch scene – I can’t believe CP just glossed over this excruciating and overly drawn out scene. Make the maid do it twice, maybe 3 times. That’s it. You’re done. Why oh why does he draw this out. Can’t stand the repetition and usually CP calls out such unnecessary overkill.
And I have to disagree and say that my take on this scene and general interaction with the foreign hired help IS played for laughs. But I’m not smiling. Cheesy and corny
The scene is played for laughs, but Columbo isn’t playing the fool – he’s got his game face on. Compare this to him wriggling under the car and waving to the crowd in ‘Bird in the Hand’ and it’s positively reserved.
As 90s episodes go, “Its All In the Game” is – much to my great surprise – quite watchable, overwhelmingly thanks to the chemistry between Peter Falk and Faye Dunaway. Without it, I’d quibble more with Lauren Staton’s increasingly obvious attempts to charm her way out of suspicion – a ploy that any rookie detective would (hopefully) be able to see through. This is a different cat-and-mouse game between Columbo and killer. The lieutenant always has plenty of tools in his proverbial bag of tricks to get the villain to misjudge him, but being on the receiving end of an attempted seduction is a fresh approach. That’s why I’m not at all convinced that Columbo is actually falling for Lauren. Yes, he likes her and sees the good in her, but he felt that way about Abigail Mitchell, too. I see this as simply a tactic by the lieutenant to get Staton to underestimate him and have her think that she’s controlling the relationship and therefore the investigation.
For once in the New Columbo era, Falk underplays things (although the maid-refrigerator scene edges in the opposite direction), as Columbo allows Staton to think her flirtations might be having an impact. It would have been nice to have Barney ask Columbo if he’s filled in Mrs. C on the action, but it appears that all mentions of his wife were studiously and curiously avoided after the “circulation” discussion early on. For a show that places so much prominence on an unseen role, it’s totally incongruous that, as CP alluded to, there’s zero discussion about how Columbo is positioning all this faux hanky-panky to Kate Mulgrew. That would have been an interesting way to open up the character of someone who by this point in the series was just an off-screen box-check by episode writers.
Unfortunately, there’s once more that repeated 90s Columbo bugaboo, the Invisible Gotcha. Leveraging Staton’s daughter for a confession just isn’t all that dramatic by “Columbo” standards. And again, perhaps a closing Columbo mention to Staton about the love for his own wife would have been enlightening. But everything takes a back seat to the stellar interactions between Falk and Dunaway. For a 90s run almost totally devoid of guest star wattage, I’ll take that alone as a welcome change.
Dear Glenn, I concur with your assessment regarding the interaction between Lauren and Columbo. She’s the one that goes after him, a behaviour that paired with the rather convenient comment “she’s a knockout” when they first met, allows him to tie the knots nicely. He’s playing her game.
I agree. I NEVER thought he was falling for her. He was always playing her. If???? I remember correctly, he always took the new tie off when he was out of her sight. He couldn’t solve the case.”conclusively” without a confession so he used her daughter to get what he needed. Did he admire her on some level? Yes. But as he told Abigail Mitchell……never count on his kindness. As soon as the case was over, he is taking Mrs. Columbo out without so much as a thought.
It’s worth noting that Columbo has now had 2 cracks at figuring out the electric blanket gambit, and in neither case did he succeed. He never got to the bottom of that alibi in “Suitable for Framing”, either. If he simply asked Dale Kingston how he did it, I suspect that he wouldn’t have been as forthcoming as Lauren.
I also have very mixed feelings about this episode — but for reasons quite different from the reservations expressed in this review. I have no problem accepting that Columbo would feign a romantic interest in Lauren Staton if doing so would help him solve his case. Yes, he has been painfully shy on occasion before — but he had no such debilitation in “Columbo Cries Wolf,” did he? Maybe Dr. Joan Allenby (“Sex and the Married Detective”) helped open him up. Nor do I interpret his release of Lisa as a sign of his lasting affection for Lauren. Columbo doesn’t release Lisa because he is smitten by Lauren; he releases her because he credits Lauren’s story about how Nick abused and threatened Lisa. It was Nick’s life or hers. Columbo accepts that.
No, my ambivalence comes from another direction entirely. It’s this: As a straight drama, “It’s All in the Game” has a lot going for it. Two women taking their vengeance on a dangerous suitor; the older woman romancing the investigating detective to manipulate the investigation; the detective appearing to reciprocate; the younger woman being arrested, causing the older woman to cut a deal while revealing a sympathetic backstory. All good stuff.
But this isn’t a straight drama, it’s a Columbo. That should mean more than who the lead character is. It also requires certain mystery elements that just aren’t here.
Falk’s script (originally titled “Two Women and a Dead Man”) tries to weave Columbo-quality clues into the story: the melted ice, the thermostat switched from “Cool” to “Heat,” the two photos with the “one of a kind” chair — but only the last of these aided the solution to the case. Lauren’s circulatory issues (revealed a bit too fortuitously for my tastes), together with the thermostat setting, did point Columbo’s nose in her direction, but never ended up proving much. Columbo’s suspicions were triggered far more by Lauren’s seductive conduct.
The only clues that factored in the solution were the phone records (curiously, the only potential Lisa-Nick connection that Lauren never quizzed Lisa about in the restroom) and the two photos with the same chair. [With the phone records, Columbo probably had enough to get a search warrant for Lisa’s apartment. It would have been a nice touch, when the camera cut to Columbo holding the annotated phone bill in his car, that it showed him holding a search warrant, too.] Everything else was ultimately superfluous. The phone records led to Lisa’s arrest. The photos led to Columbo bringing Lauren in to watch. The rest took care of itself. That’s not the way a Columbo generally works.
The most telling indication of the mystery’s weakness is how much of the story Lauren had to explain to Columbo at the end: the electric blanket (which Columbo should have figured out from the Dale Kingston case (“Suitable for Framing”)); why the living room light switch was turned off; who Lisa Fiore is (Columbo obviously never saw “Chinatown”); what motivated the murder. In better episodes, Columbo doesn’t need these things explained to him; he already knows.
Hence, my mixed feelings. A lot to like; a lot missing.
One final note: In Falk’s original script is a scene that didn’t make the final cut. When Columbo is questioning the maid about the refrigerator, two other detectives are waiting in the hall. Ruddick, the building manager (the part Bill Macy played), approaches them and asks why they aren’t inside with Columbo. “‘The Brain’ is talking with the maid,” one detective says. Ruddick replies: “Who’s ‘The Brain’? The one who puts jam and raisins on peanut butter? That’s a brain? You wouldn’t prove it by me.” The detectives respond by calling Columbo a “weirdo” and “Greta Garbo” because: “He likes to work alone. Don’t want anybody in there with him. Says if we’re in there, it’s too many. It will make the maid nervous.”
Has an LAPD subordinate ever before mocked Columbo to a civilian? Here it’s especially notable because it was written by Peter Falk. It’s not clear why the scene was cut. Maybe someone feared a 90’s audience wouldn’t recognize the name “Greta Garbo.”
It’s worth noting that Columbo has now had 2 cracks at figuring out the electric blanket gambit, and in neither case did he succeed. He never got to the bottom of that alibi in “Suitable for Framing”, either. If he simply asked Dale Kingston how he did it, I suspect that he wouldn’t have been as forthcoming as Lauren.
This appearance must have been a consolation prize to Faye Dunaway after a rotten autumn.
Dunaway did her first (and only, to date) TV series in the fall of 1993, a rom-com sitcom called It Had to Be You, as a Hollywood executive who develops a relationship with her gardener (played by Robert Urich). Other cast members said later that Dunaway would only speak to Urich or to David Steinberg (the executive producer and director of the aired episodes) on the set.
The pilot for It Had To Be You aired on September 19, 1993, in Murder, She Wrote’s time slot, considered a sure winner because Murder had drawn a 32 percent share of the viewing audience there over the previous season. It Had To Be You, dissipated that to a 19 share. Regular telecasts were shown on Friday nights on October 1, 8, and 15. The ratings plummeted. CBS suspended the series (with five episodes unaired) and planned to bring it back with Urich and the supporting cast–but no Dunaway. Those plans never materialized.
Columbo only finds out that Lisa had been attacked by Nick, and that he’d threatened to kill her AFTER he releases her. He agreed to let her go knowing nothing about her, purely on Lauren’s say-so.
Okay, then how about this: Columbo’s instincts — his nose — told him that Lauren was Nick’s killer (as in fact she was), but he couldn’t prove it without a confession. And the only way he could get Lauren’s confession was by releasing Lisa. So that’s what he did. In doing so, not only were his instincts about Lauren confirmed but his hesitation about Lisa confirmed as well. Bottom line: he didn’t do Lauren a favor; he proved his case the best way he could. [I guess he also could have reached a cooperation deal with Lisa, giving her immunity in exchange for testimony against Lauren. Lisa still would have walked, and Lauren’s conviction would not have been guaranteed.]
I personally would find it very unrealistic, even unthinkable, that lisa would testify aginst lauren. As for the review, while I get the point that it’s strange columbo is so flirty in this episode, I’ve also learnt there’s nothing columbo wouldn’t do to solve a case, in addition to the ones columbophile listed, he went as far as renting an apartment in “a friend in deed” to trick the commissioner, so I’m sure pretending to fall in love with a woman isn’t outside of his bag of tricks.
If Lisa’s only route to freedom was a cooperation deal, and Lauren wants her freed, then Lauren surely would insist that she make the deal. Lauren could always then alleviate the burden on Lisa of her having to testify against her mother by Lauren pleading guilty. A guilty plea means no trial; no trial means no testimony. Frankly, that outcome is much more realistic than a detective sneaking a murder accomplice out the back door and letting her go, all the while lying to his colleagues. But strict realism has never been a Columbo essential; he lives in a mythical world, solving mythical perfect crimes.