The Most Crucial Game

Episode 10 – The Most Crucial Game

The tenth episode of Columbo was titled The Most Crucial Game and was the third episode of the show’s second season. The owner of a professional football franchise is killed by a frustrated employee and Columbo once more has to prove that a seeming accident was murder. In this podcast Gerry and Iain look at the motivations and machinations of the episode.

 

 

There were echoes of Season One’s Lady in WaitingShort FuseBlueprint for Murder and the Season Two opener Ètude in Black in this episode, as a significant portion of Columbo’s task was to establish that there had been a murder committed at all. The lieutenant only has one suspect in mind and it is the returning Robert Culp who faces that suspicion, in his role as Paul Hanlon – a trusted aide of Dean Stockwell‘s victim, Eric Wagner.

 

Supporting roles in The Most Crucial Game were played by Dean Jagger as Private Investigator Walter Cunnell, James Gregory as LA Rockets Head Coach Rizzo, Valerie Harper as the mysterious Eve Babcock (or Miss Ricoji!) and Susan Howard in a brief appearance as the widowed Shirley Wagner.

 

Cameos by members of the 1972 LA Lakers (including Pat Riley but, sadly, not Wilt Chamberlain) and the crowd attending Super Bowl I (though the game footage was not from the Super Bowl) added to the episode’s authenticity and charm.

 

During this episode we asked listeners if they could identify the actor playing Miss Babcock’s client. If you have thoughts on that issue or any other aspect of The Most Crucial Game then please feel free to comment below, or find us on Twitter at @columbopodcast.

 

The Columbo Podcast is widely available – on iTunes, Stitcher, tunein, Pocket Casts, Spreaker or pretty much wherever you choose to receive and manage your podcasts. If you enjoy the show it would be greatly appreciated if you consider leaving ratings and reviews on these sites – particularly iTunes – as that can make a big difference to growing the podcast’s audience.

 

The Most Crucial Game was released in 1972. It is 74 minutes long and originally aired on the NBC network. It can be viewed on Netflix in the United States and is available on DVD in other countries, including a comprehensive box set of all eleven seasons released by Universal.

 

The Columbo Podcast Team

The Columbo Podcast Team

The Columbo Podcast team develops, produces and promotes The Columbo Podcast.

  • Largo

    Aye caramba! “The Most Crucial Game” is the third mediocre Columbo mystery movie we’ve had in a row now. Despite the fact that this episode stars the most excellent Robert Culp, it is still a big let down. To make matters even worse, “The Most Crucial Game” suddenly becomes a fantasy world within one crucial sequence in which physical laws are suddenly suspended because the sloppy and half-baked script demands it for some unnecessary plot contrivances.

    Did you know that a very thin layer of water on swimming pool decking and its surrounding cement area takes well over an hour to evaporate …. in the bright, hot California sun!??! It really does, kids — but only in Columbo Mystery Fantasyland! I mean REALLY, Columbo show-runners — give me a frickin’ break. And matters go from the totally ridiculous to the outright lunatic fringe when Columbo does his water taste test comparison. Uhmmm, Lieutenant …. the (apparent) chlorine would have dissipated by the time you arrived on the scene to check that water on the pool decking (a moot point, since this water would have evaporated by then).

    In other words, don’t blame the gardener or the pool boy, Columbo! If the Columbo producers expected all of us viewers to swallow these whoppers, why didn’t they just continue this ludicrous scenario and have one of the supporting investigators say to Columbo: “Hey, Lieutenant — we found this chunk of ice floating over in that corner of the pool.” Well, if that thin layer of water didn’t completely evaporate after an hour, a lot of that piece of ice should still be in the pool, right?

    WRONG! I don’t know about the rest of you folks, but all of the wacky warping of physical laws contained within this scene just takes me completely out of the story (and if you don’t agree with me, no Ding-A-Ling ice cream bars for you!). It also doesn’t help when the narrative fails to fully implement the ‘cat and mouse’ interplay between Columbo and the murderer and to fully explore the perpetrator’s motives. Actually this episode might have benefitted from being expanded to a 98 minute mystery movie length. The extra time would have allowed for a less murky story. To wit:

    Columbo is puzzled by a possible motive when confronting Paul Hanlon in one scene and then the matter is never mentioned again. Hanlon does have motives, but they are a bit too subtle in their presentation. Eric Wagner was not only an impediment to Hanlon’s sports franchise expansion plans, he was a possible threat to Hanlon’s very career. Paul Hanlon is also seen as being very close to Shirley Wagner (Eric’s wife) — and it is no stretch of the imagination to suggest that he has designs on her with plans on eventually marrying her so as to gain total control of the Wagner sports empire.

    But all of this could have been brought out in a much richer fashion had there been more time to tell the story; hence my mentioning earlier that “The Most Crucial Game” should have been expanded into a two-hour Columbo Mystery Movie production. Alas, it was not to be and the very next installment of Columbo would receive this honor, albeit in a ham-fisted (and ham-acted) embarrassment entitled “Dagger of the Mind.” However, on the plus side “The Most Crucial Game” does give us that hilarious scene between Eve Babcock and Columbo, which is a true comedy highlight in my book. Be seeing you!

    P. S. — I’m looking forward to your podcast on this episode, so I’ll be back here on the website forum later tonight.

    • digger01

      Great analysis, Largo! You bring up some great points.

      The “gotcha” at the conclusion of this one is pretty weak. Hanlon could have simply said “Oh, that clock wasn’t working last Sunday. It needed a new battery.”

      • Largo

        Thank you very much, digger01!

        Yeah, that’s the problem with these various murderers that are presented on Columbo: they just aren’t very quick on their feet in so many of those more tenuous “Gotcha” moments. Ya know — I keep watching and re-watching these Columbo episodes and I still would like to see a murderer only answer Columbo with, “I don’t know” and “Hey, you’re the detective, not me.” But most important of all: they should never ever call Columbo’s bluffs or fall for his fake-outs. : )

        • Ian Baxter

          George Hamilton answers the accusations well in the closing scene of ‘A Deadly State of Mind’… but like so many others he inevitably falls foul and can’t resist saying too much.

          I’ve always thought that part of the attraction of Columbo was that we as the viewer related to and sided with the underestimated man-of-the-people cop… but I wonder if there is not also a bit of us that watches thinking ‘I could have committed that crime and got away with it’!

          (Not that I’m plotting anything sinister)

          • Largo

            Yes, indeed — I hear you on this one, Ian. I’ll even admit to rooting (momentarily) for the killer in the episode, “Swan Song.” But later on, the murderer starts up with his ‘I only have eyes for jailbait-type women’ routine and I’m repulsed and I start cheering for Columbo to catch this creep. However, things get complicated again when the murderer turns out to actually have a conscience! I think that Columbo’s last words go right to the heart of the matter. Or maybe all of this stems from the fact that Ida Lupino scares me a little bit.

          • Peter

            Swan Song in my opinion is one of the few episodes where I sympathized with the killer, and one of few where I think killer was sincerely remorseful. I will hold further comment until we get to this episode. Once again, don’t want to spoil things for Iaian

          • Ian Baxter

            Oops… Keep forgetting about spoilers for Iain… sorry. But safe t say I an also looking forward to Swan Song! A favourite.

  • Richard Hinton

    Firstly – Regarding ‘Cincinnati Smitty’, I ain’t going down that road again! Spent many fruitless hours searching nude model ‘Chris’ from Suitable For Framing … Ok, I may have had a quick search, but I can see it’s another tricky identification, kudos to anyone who I.D.’s this chap.

    Yes, this is a mediocre episode but I love the little things that bug Columbo and the journey he takes resolving them. There’s a few gooduns in this episode, especially the clock chimes. I don’t watch this as a water tight legal gotcha, but as a series of “explain this!” leading to a “nailed ya!” … Glad we don’t see the court case afterwards!

    Robert Culp is terrific, such a good actor (I always think of Robert Redford when I watch him).

    • CarlosMu

      If he’s a good actor, why do you think of Robert Redford? 😉

      • Richard Hinton
        • CarlosMu

          yes, they do have very similar teeth, and also their tans. There is another actor named Frank Converse who also appeared on Columbo who could be their third brother.

          • Richard Hinton

            Ah yes, Requiem for a Falling Star. You’re right, they all have similar looks – well spotted.

          • dandilion

            well, from a female point of view, that boggles my mind. robert redford is perfect-looking, & i don’t see any similarities between the two. frank converse, however, does remind me of robert redford [very much]. i could be persuaded into seeing him as the linchpin between culp & redford {y’know how people joke: if robert redford & robert culp had a baby, he’d look just like frank converse. x^D}.

    • Yeah, we’d love to know who he is!

      Agreed on Culp.

  • CarlosMu

    questions I hope will be answered when I hear the podcast:
    1.what was the motive for this murder?
    2.what kind of shoes did Columbo wear that were ruined by stepping in water?

    • Carlos, we definitely talk about the first point, but the second not so much!

  • Ian Baxter

    Okay… it’s been a very long day at work and I’m willing to turn a blind eye on some of the plot holes in this one. Sometimes you just need to sit back to enjoy the ride…

    The playboy at the poolside… Hanlon cruising the streets in a Ding-a-ling truck… Coach Rizzo chewing the cud in the changing rooms… Miss Babcock’s bluster with the boys… and Columbo’s lovely final scene oozing with charm and confidence.

    This one was great fun.

    Thanks again for the podcast, well done.

    • Largo

      Hey — was that “turn a blind eye” comment of yours some kind of wisecrack that was aimed at the fact that I wear an eyepatch? Needless to say, no ice cream for you, Ian! ; )

      • Ian Baxter

        You’ll be wanting two eye patches for the next episode 🙂

        • Largo

          Heh — good one, eh! But it’s too late, I’m afraid: I’ve already seen this one and — GULP! — I’ve even viewed it a few more times after suffering through it when it first premiered. Both me and my parents were suckered into watching this episode due to its Shakespeare theme.

  • CarlosMu

    I found Smitty in an episode of the Brady Bunch. In the episode where the kids record a song, he is one of the studio technicians. His one line is “The Brady 6 is a great group!” and he nails it. Unfortunately he seems to be uncredited there as well.

    • dandilion

      hi, folks! i’m john wheeler; nice to meet ya! x^D

    • dandilion

      well, i deleted me comment, because it was a photo of john wheeler, which didn’t paste. i did copy & paste, but it didn’t work for me. i wonder how ‘largo’ got his photo o’culp to print. < :^/

      • Photos need moderator approval. I need to be less sloppy at approving things!

  • Peter

    A strong connection with stars from another movie/series and Columbo is The Planet of Apes>Star Trek. Stars in both Columbo and Ape series include Roddie McDowell, Gregory, Kim Hunter, Maurive Evans just off top of my head.

    • Largo

      And there’s also Ricardo Montalban …. from both Trek and Apes! Ricardo is really THAT awesome!

  • Largo

    Thank you for another great podcast! I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I had completely forgotten about Susan Howard portraying Mara in the Star Trek episode, “Day of the Dove” — good catch, eh! To answer one of your brief questions from this part of the podcast: Star Trek aired on the NBC network and was originally a Desilu Studios production until Paramount bought it out sometime in 1968.

    I was very pleased and amused when Gerry called Shirley Wagner “Mrs. Hanlon” and Iain had to correct this — but I say that you’re both right: Shirley Wagner is the future Mrs. Hanlon, provided that Paul Hanlon beats this murder rap. I think that Hanlon will get away with this crime and that he will have no problem bamboozling Shirley once again — just like he so ‘easily’ did when explaining away that “chick” comment (if I were Walter Cunnell I would’ve have confronted Shirley at this point with, “And you’re buying this total bull-crap from this manipulative jerk!”).

    Another good point that you both discussed was the fact that Hanlon fired Eve Babcock after just three days. Items like this are the series’ weakness: the murderer only appears to play it smart for a very short time and then commits silly mistakes that only makes it easier for Columbo to solve the case. But I guess these are script contrivances that we fans have to learn to live with and continue to tolerate. However, water that doesn’t evaporate and chlorine that doesn’t dissipate in the bright, hot sunlight — that is, until after Columbo leaves the crime scene — aren’t among the type of script contrivances that I’ll ever accept. Now, who wants a Ding-A-Ling ice cream bar? : )

    • Thanks Largo. Not sure I can imagine what a Ding-a-Ling treat would taste like.

      • Largo

        Trust me, they’re delicious. Plus, they come with Columbo’s highest recommendation! : )

  • digger01

    I believe the actor who played Eve Babcock’s client was a man by the name of John Wheeler. He has an IMDB page that has no pictures, but if you do a google image search for “actor John Wheeler” you will find a few.

    My apologies for not providing links, but I think when I included a link in a comment for “Etude In Black”, the comment didn’t show up.

    Looking forward to listening to this episode!

    • Good work digger!!! Very impressed. Hope you enjoy the episode.

      • Richard Hinton

        Not quite as recognisable in Star Trek though! (See pic)

        • Largo

          And the Star Trek Connection continues at warp 7! This is such an awesome find since “Journey To Babel” is one of my absolute favorite Trek episodes.

    • Richard Hinton

      Excellent work, I’ve looked at his appearances in The Brady Bunch (brill spot by CarlosMu) and am convinced it’s him.

  • I think this is the moment I refer to as “evil face” during the podcast!

    • Largo

      It looks like my image is stuck back to ‘pending approval’ again. Could you please look into this for me? Thank you.

    • Largo

      [EDIT: Due to Photobucket no longer allowing free accounts to utilize third party hosting of images, I was forced to delete my original comment from above. But here it is in full with the original image file now hosted on DISQUS]

      Speaking of how Robert Culp looks, this expression of his as Paul Hanlon from this particular episode is absolutely priceless. It says quite loudly in big block letters, “I AM EEEEVIL!!!”

      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8a11bd7d8610c4f6ed8909146ff619569525143fe362ffd905342ebef9984485.jpg

  • CarlosMu

    I enjoyed the podcast very much. I started laughing right away at the idea of Columbo not recognizing Mr. Brimmer because of the moustache disguise. I’ve always been amused at the idea of Columbo not noticing the resemblances between murderers he’s dealt with.

    I’m glad you pointed out Val Avery, he’s one my favorite regulars. I read somewhere that he was drinking buddies with Falk and Cassavetes.

    • Thanks Carlos. You could well be right on that last point.

    • Peter

      Val Avery is also one of my favorites character actors in this series. Of course we haven’t gotten to the Kirby,s yet!

    • resedaman

      True. A friend here in LA knew Val, but never met Peter

  • Emrys

    Funny isn’t it, that I’ve always loved this episode, yet I’ve never questioned why he was actually committing the murder. Just kind of assumed that it’s an ’employee’ murdering ‘owner’ situation for some kind of gain. But I have obviously just gone with the flow. Cause now I try and think of the motive I can’t quite grasp it. Maybe Largo’s right… the whole ‘kill the guy to get the wife’ thing. How the hell did I not ever really pick up on that?!?

    I suppose I too have many problems with the details in this one. Columbo tasting the water always makes me smile. It’s not even just that the water would have evaporated like Largo says. Let’s just say Largo’s wrong, and that the water survived its time on that boiling concrete (perhaps it was in some kind of super-shade). It’s more the whole contrivance that Columbo even tastes the water. No taste of the water… no murder. And I am pretty certain that if you gave me a dip of my left finger in swimming pool water and a dip of my right finger in tap water I couldn’t tell you the difference. Give me a glass of each… different story.

    But, these coincidences and manufactured contrivances are the essence of Columbo. They’re choosing to show you the story of the time when Columbo caught the Football Manager by tasting some water next to a swimming pool. They’ve chosen not to show you the five other murders (all unsolved) that month where Columbo failed to trip over similarly vague evidence. (I think that was the month for ice cube killings. Not all of the murderers stupidly stood in the pool water and had to use a hose pipe to ‘cover’ their tracks though! And I’m pretty sure it was the month where a man accidentally killed a woman by slapping her with the back of his hand… but he wasn’t wearing a distinctive ring.)

    I think this is a great episode because of Robert Culp. He can do no wrong for me in Columbo. One of my favourites.

    And maybe I’m alone in loving the ending. The clock sounds, and Culp gulps. The end. Brilliant. I never really thought ‘why doesn’t he just say… yeah but I had thrown that clock out of the window the morning of the murder… it was doing my head in’. I think you guys have said over and over in the podcasts that episodes of Columbo tend to resolve with the murderer knowing that Columbo ‘knows’. He really knows. The end. Now, whether that means they’ll later be found guilty in court (or even charged) is another matter. I can imagine that at the end of every episode Columbo simply hands the case over to his boss and says “I’ve given you the murderer, see if you can sort out some more evidence”. And the boss hands it to a team of lower rankers. Maybe Columbo just storms round Hollywood mopping up the best of the murders in the first couple of days.

    Anyway, I kind of lost my point there somewhere along the way. Suffice to say, I liked this episode… but I can understand why some of you don’t. God only knows what you’ll say about the ones I hate!

    • Largo

      Ahem! Largo is never wrong, Emrys. You can take that to the bank, bro! 😉
      And by the way, this is my favorite coffee mug:

  • nivipa

    For what it’s worth, I remember thinking exactly as many have mentioned here above me the first time that I saw this episode (I came in towards the Gotcha moment): “Why doesn’t he just say that he had the chimes turned off?” But in later viewings, I realized that the clock did chime while Columbo was there the first time that he met Hanlon. Of course, we are needing to trust that Columbo’s amazing super-sleuth mind noticed it then and wrote it down in his handy little notebook!

  • dandilion

    can anyone identify the orange-yellow car val avery was driving? i cannot for the life of me get a good view of it on me 20-yr-old t.v. >:^/ …. color is like a ’69 or ’70 cougar eliminator i saw in suburb of buffalo ny in 1975. if i could see the grille or taillights i’d know.
    thanx!

  • Anne H

    The motive is Mrs. Wagner. Columbo remarks to Paul at the airport that he needs to find the motive for the murder. The camera then directly cuts to Mrs. Wagner in emotional distress and Paul goes over and embraces her. The camera then cuts to Columbo who reacts with a look of realization. He has his motive. In the conversation leading up to this moment, Paul calls Mr. Wagner a baby, comments that Mrs. Wagner is unhappy in the marriage but can’t bring herself to leave him. In the words of “Double Indemnity”, “Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money and for a woman. I didn’t get the money and I didn’t get the woman. Pretty, isn’t it?”

    • That sounds about right

      • Anne H

        Just discovered your podcasts last week. I’ve been listening to them everyday while I get ready for work and have been enjoying them immensely.

  • The Man With…

    Great podcast, but I noticed you neglected to mention one of my favourite little touches from this episode. On his way back to the stadium, merely minutes after bludgeoning Dean Stockwell, Robert Culp reaches into the back of the Ding-A-Ling van and helps himself to a choc-ice. Very casual, very cold. The mark of a true Columbo killer

    • Ian Baxter

      It’s a good touch isn’t it 🙂

  • resedaman

    My contribution living in LA is the location of the basketball workout. It’s a bit fuzzy but it’s Notre Dame High School, a well known Chatholic high school in the San Fernando Valley, curiously down the street from my favorite pub. Never noticed it before. IMBD backs this up