Episode review: Columbo It’s All in the Game

Columbo It's All in the Game opening titles

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…

Columbo It's All in the Game cast montage

Dramatis personae

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

Episode synopsis

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game Nick Franco
I can tell this guy is a Grade A douche just by looking at him

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game
This room decor would’ve been brown in the 70s

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game
PS – I love you

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game kiss
Know that Shera is going ballistic at home watching this!

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…

Columbo Lauren Staton
Yassss, Queen!

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.

Caught out by a chair! Can you Adam & Eve it?

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game closing credits

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…

Episode analysis

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game
Faye Dunaway in Columbo? MIND. BLOWN.

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.

Columbo Faye Dunaway
“Mrs Columbo? No, never heard of her…”

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game
Peter Falk’s audition outfit for the gritty Joker reboot movie didn’t quite cut it

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game Claudia Christian
Columbo refused to let lovely Abi Mitchell go free in 1977, but lets loose a potential serial killer here with nary a second thought

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game
“Another new tie? Gee whizz, I got given one only 20 years ago…”

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game Lauren Staton
“Just kiss already!” (crowed the uninitiated first-time viewer)

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game
Remember: Shera still seething at home about this love-in

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game John Finnegan
Always good to see ya, Johnny!

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.

Columbo It's All in the Game
You’ll be grinning on the other side of your face when Mrs Columbo catches up with you…

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?

Columbo It's All in the Game Faye Dunaway Emmy
Her Columbo Emmy undoubtedly meant more to Faye than all her Oscars, BAFTAs and Golden Globes combined

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.

  1. Columbo Goes to College
  2. Agenda for Murder
  3. Death Hits the Jackpot
  4. Columbo Cries Wolf
  5. It’s All in the Game
  6. Rest in Peace, Mrs Columbo
  7. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  8. Sex & The Married Detective
  9. Caution: Murder Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
  10. A Bird in the Hand…
  11. Murder, A Self Portrait
  12. Columbo and the Murder of a Rock Star
  13. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  14. Uneasy Lies the Crown
  15. No Time to Die
  16. Grand Deceptions
  17. Murder in Malibu
Columbo It's All in the Game Dog
By recent series standards, ‘All in the Game’ is like a long cold drink on a roasting day

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…

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Columbo It's All in the Game Faye Dunaway
Dunaway’s greatest triumph is retaining her nobility in such uninspiring surroundings
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