Columbo | The Most Crucial Game (Season 2, Ep. 3)

A football team manager concocts an ice-cold cover story to bump off the club’s playboy owner. Unfortunately, he’s forgotten a killer detail …

Ambitious manager Paul Hanlon (Robert Culp) phones football team owner Eric Wagner (Dean Stockwell) from the stadium’s private box before the Sunday game. “The kid” is still in bed after yet another night of debauchery, so Hanlon orders him into the pool to freshen up before their business trip.

As the game kicks-off, however, Hanlon sneaks out of the stadium disguised as a food vendor and jumps into an ice-cream truck. He drives to Wagner’s place, stopping on route to phone the kid from a call box.

When he arrives, Wagner’s exactly where he told him to be – in the pool. Hanlon fetches a block of ice from the truck and kills Wagner with it. He then ditches the ice in the pool and races back to his private box to make a half-time meeting with the team’s coach.

With a rock-steady alibi – and no murder weapon to speak of – Hanlon has this in the bag. Or does he?

The Most Crucial Game: the spoiler

While it looks certain Eric Wagner slipped on wet ground, hit his head and drowned, the first thing Columbo does is taste the water on the decking and in the pool. Who wouldn’t?

The pool-side water is fresh, not chlorinated. So who hosed the decking? It wasn’t the servants; Wagner sent them away before the party. In fact, Hanlon turned on the hose to hide his shoe prints.

Back at the stadium, Coach Rizzo is adamant Hanlon has no motive for murder. However, he remarks how stressed he was before the game but somehow relaxed at half-time. Even Columbo comments this is odd because:

“we didn’t do that well in the first half.”

When Columbo returns to Wagner’s house, he notices a radio cuts out when the phone rings. It turns out family lawyer Walter Cunnell has been bugging Wagner and Hanlon’s phones to show Mrs Wagner that Eric is a cheat, and Hanlon his influencer.

Hanlon already knows about the bugging, though. When he phones Wagner from a payphone, it’s to establish an alibi. He even plays a live radio broadcast of the game to make it sound like he’s still at the box.

However, Columbo has already noticed Hanlon refuses calls from a “Miss Rokoczy”, only to furtively phone her back from the airport.

When Columbo learns she’s Hanlon’s former employee – and actually an escort – it implies Hanlon knows the phones are dirty and can’t be caught talking to her. Actually, he found her bugging the phones, and has been paying her to keep quiet about it.

Unfortunately, Hanlon has missed a detail that derails his entire alibi: the clock in the private box chimes every half hour. While the bugged recording does indeed prove Halon phoned Eric at 2.29pm, the clock’s chime isn’t on it – proving he wasn’t at the stadium.

Just one more thing…

You’ve probably noticed Columbo often has a strategic phobia that only lasts for one episode (very often not even for the whole episode). Sometimes it’s heights, sometimes hospitals – whichever best conflicts with the murderer’s expertise.

The lieutenant’s hobbies and interests similarly flip between episodes too. In The Most Crucial Game, Columbo is fascinated by football. He even reads the sports pages – and the gossip columns – so knows all about the Wagner family sporting empire. Handy, huh?

Like the phobias, this is all about moving the plot forward. Columbo can’t drag himself away from radio broadcast of that afternoon’s game. Later, when Rizzo tells him Hanlon’s mood changed at half-time (i.e., after the murder), Columbo knows it doesn’t tally with how the game played out.

All that said, this is one of those episodes that feels less than conclusive.

Columbo doesn’t actually prove Hanlon killed Wagner, or why. He doesn’t prove who was driving the ice cream truck, either. All he can prove is that Hanlon has a phoney alibi and an opportunity to bump off his boss.

As an aside, this is also one of those episodes where the killer doesn’t rely on a specialist skill to pull off the murder (e.g., as a surgeon or an electronics whizz). Hanlon’s scheme is a pretty standard disguise-and-alibi plot.

Also of note

  • When Wagner asks how his team is doing, Hanlon replies: “they’re getting murdered”
  • The Most Crucial Game hints at Columbo’s kids. Mrs Columbo is supposedly annoyed because “why does the ice cream truck have to come just before lunch or dinner, ruin the child’s appetite?”
  • The Ding-A-Ling ice cream company doesn’t run near Wagner’s house, but does have a concession at the stadium.
  • The phone bugs aren’t fitted correctly, causing radios to squeal when that handset receives a call. It doesn’t affect Hanlon’s portable radio because that’s not near a bugged phone …
  • … presumably the phone in the stadium box isn’t bugged either, because there’s no problem listening to the game in there. There’s also no mention of a recording of Hanlon’s 2.29pm outgoing call.
  • Eve Babcock’s Hungarian accent surfaces when she gets upset. Tenuous, yes, but that’s how Columbo realises she’s Miss Rokoczy.
  • In the final reveal Columbo says he kept listening for a sound that shouldn’t be there, like an ambulance siren. It’s only when he hears a cuckoo clock that he realises what’s missing is more important: there’s no clock chime.
  • Columbo ruins his shoes in the pool at the start of the case. By the end of the episode, he gets his new shoes. They’re too tight.
  • This episode has a number of notably stylish shots. There’s Wagner’s slo-mo, backward’s dive into the pool when he dies, plus sumptuous, wide shots of Columbo alone in the stadium.
  • The episode ends without an explanation about the clock. Instead, the camera rapidly cuts between Columbo’s and Hanlon’s faces and then to the tape recorder. The tape has come undone – just like Hanlon’s alibi.

The Most Crucial Game (1972), directed by Jeremy Kagan

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