Without preamble…Directed by Jeremy Kagan, from 1972…
The Most Crucial Game is yet another nifty episode of Columbo. Let me start by mentioning its stellar cast. In support of Peter Falk who plays the greatest detective who ever lived (I’ll gush more about him later) we have Robert Culp as the culpable (see what I did there?) Paul Hanlon, Dean Jagger as Walter Cunnell, James Gregory as Coach Rizzo (love his voice!), Valerie Harper as Eve Babcock, plus Susan Howard and Dean Stockwell.
Paul Hanlon, the manager of a football team, murders Eric Wagner, the rather unlikeable fellow who owns the team. As most Columbo murderers do Hanlon sets up an air-tight alibi before he does the deed, which turns out to be quite ingenious. Dressed as a Ding-A-Ling ice cream truck driver Hanlon uses a block of ice to murder Wagner by his swimming pool and makes it look like an accident. A block of ice by a swimming pool? CLEVER! It’s one of my all-time favorite Columbo weapons. I mean, the weapon will melt away and wash clean all of the evidence, right? Well, seems reasonable…BUT…it’s our tenacious, rumpled Lt. Columbo on the case. Naturally it takes him no time at all to reach the conclusion that the death of Eric Wagner was no accident. Gosh, that guy is brilliant!!
The scene of the murder…
One of my favorite Columbo moments in The Most Crucial Game is when the Lieutenant gets to the scene of the crime. As usual Columbo seems distracted, this time by a football game playing on the radio. He’s fumbling about as he goes to take a look into the pool, where the deceased “bought it” and in doing so he puts his foot right into it, shoe and all.
The Lieutenant’s shoe has seen better days so he inquires about replacing the pair…
Columbo’s shoe situation becomes a recurring gag in the episode. These little scenes, quips and moments that can be so easily lost in the shuffle are such a huge part of what makes Columbo so great for so many of us. On the one hand they are a reminder that Peter Falk himself didn’t quite take it all too seriously. Although, it must be said, he was always true to the character of Columbo who dealt in murder and therefore needed comic relief to survive. Or to entertain us. These funny moments also add to the “ruse” of the detective himself whose power over the murderers is so often entwined with his seeming cluelessness. Of course we know that distracted Lieutenant never takes his sight off the mark.
Moving along… right after arriving at the murder scene Columbo tastes the floor poolside and immediately notices the surrounding floor has been cleaned of pool water. In other words instead of chlorinated water there is fresh water. C’mon! Who else would have noticed that? So, the small detail “bothers” the Lt. – and the first murder mistake is brought to light.
The murderer doesn’t stand a chance.
The handsome and talented Robert Culp is a great adversary for Columbo. While I don’t count The Most Crucial Game in the top echalance of favorite episodes it has many of the elements that make Columbo, Columbo. For instance, the fabulous, leading, suspenseful music and the Lieutenant’s gift for recognizing suspicious human behavior so insignificant to regular people. The best example in this of the latter is illustrated when the murderer here turns off the radio and Columbo zeroes in on it. I don’t want to spoil the entire thing here, but I’ll give you a piece of advice – if you’re the type to lower the radio when spoken to but turn it off suddenly when disturbed just give it up. Columbo caught you, you murdering low life!
And now to the ending of The Most Crucial Game, which features a terrific repartee between Columbo and Hanlon leading up to a DING DONG of a “gotcha” moment. This is classic and simply too much fun for words.