Series 2 Episode 3
The Most Crucial Game

Episode Overview

Series 2

Episode 3

First broadcast: 1972

2 cigars

“It's like the writers came up with a hugely over-complicated plot but never had the time to actually put it together in a coherent way - instead they just rammed it in and hoped no one would notice.“

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Eric Wagner's dad dreamed of having the biggest sporting empire in the world. Unfortunately though he died, and playboy Eric doesn't really care however the dream is being continued by Paul Hanlon who manages the concern on Eric's behalf. And it's Saturday, day where the beloved Los Angeles Rockets are playing American Football.

Naturally Paul's in the box getting ready to watch the action but before the game starts he calls the coach and demands team changes in the second half. The coach is not keen and the two argue before the coach tries to get his players on the pitch.

With the coach gone, Paul quickly changes into an ice-cream vendors costume and sneaks out of the stadium, driving off in an ice cream truck to Eric's house where Eric is swimming. Once there he removes a large piece of ice from the back of truck and whacks Eric over the head with it, leaving the body to float in the swimming pool as he rushes back to the stadium just in time for his arranged meeting with the coach at half time. There he concedes to the coach's demands and apologises for their argument.

Meanwhile at Eric's house the body has been found by a boy from the local liquor store who was making a delivery. From everything that can be seen, it looks like Eric slipped on the diving hoard, was knocked unconscious and subsequently drowned.

Columbo however is not convinced. He notices a patch of wet tiles which Paul had earlier hosed down after leaving footprints, and notes that the water wasn't pool water due to it not smelling of chlorine. He thinks this looks suspicious and heads off to the stadium to break the news to Paul.

During the course of his investigations he learns from the Coach that Eric was a much loved kid who no one would want to kill, and that there was some bad blood between Paul and the family lawyer, Walter Cannell.

During the course of investigations he also finds out that the phones in Eric's house had been bugged by a private investigator. The PI refuses to reveal who by, with Paul naturally being in the frame. However then it turns out Paul's phone has been bugged as well at the behest of the family lawyer who eventually reveals two weeks worth of tapes. He wanted to prove that Paul was using Eric for his own means, and that he was trying to cause a rift with Eric's wife.

Columbo repeatedly listens to the tapes. Paul has no alibi but Columbo can't prove Paul wasn't at the game even with the help of the tapes. After much wandering around and tackling various leads, he comes to believe Paul knew he was being bugged and used that to ensure his supposed location was recorded. He tries to recreate the event and finds the answer. He was listening to the tape trying to find something that shouldn't have been there when actually he should have been trying to find something that should have been, but wasn't.

On the next Saturday during the game, Columbo confronts Paul Hanlon with what he's found. If Paul was truly in the box that week before the sound of the carriage clock chiming at half past two would have been heard. It wasn't. Hanlon had no alibi. He certainly wasn't where he said he was.

Cleverness of the way Columbo catches out the murderer

Okay, we're torn on this one. Ultimately the way Columbo gets his man is reasonably clever. It's what you might call "thinking outside the box". Or thinking outside the tape recording as it might be.

But he doesn't really seem to get there in an overly intelligent way. It's almost like some stuff has just happened and Columbo goes "Hmm. Maybe there's something in it." It's still not particularly conclusive - the rest of the evidence (including various factors like a high class Hungarian escort and a kid trying to get an ice cream from the van) are all a bit flimsy and you're left wondering really whether there's anywhere near enough evidence there to secure a conviction.

The ice is a good touch as a murder weapon, so extra points there to Mr Hanlon for the murder weapon that just disappears. Sadly no more is made out of that. How much smarter our dishevelled detective would have looked if he'd worked that one out - even as a hypothesis.

Convolutedness of the murder

For an early episode (and this is series 2) the murder is reasonably convoluted. Some thought and planning has gone into it, even to the extent of Paul having a replica ice cream vendor uniform and sales tray in his cupboard. How on earth he got this in the first place is never particularly well explained. But then even Columbo doesn't know about the outfit so couldn't make it a line of enquiry.

How annoyed does the murderer get with Columbo?

Paul Hanlon is without doubt a very angry and vocal man which means the viewer spends much of the episode listening to him shout and complain noisily at almost every opportunity. Indeed he can be barely seen as being nice and calm with any character in the whole series.

This raises a question therefore of whether he ever gets particularly annoyed with Columbo, or whether his behaviour to the Lieutenant is just consistent with his behaviour.

The smug-richness factor

Was Paul Hanlon? No, not really. Was he smug? No, not really.

Quality of sub-plot

As ever with an early episode, the sub plot is rather non-existent. The most we get is Columbo wanting to listen to the game and never being particularly able to due to the necessity of doing detective work!

Mentions of Mrs Columbo

It's Mrs Columbo that perhaps spurs on things a little here. After discovering that an ice cream van failed to sell something to a child, she talks (off screen obviously) about how ice cream vans always come at bad times like, just before lunch or just before evening means, thus spoiling their appetites. Although that said, in reality it's likely that Columbo would have phoned the ice cream company anyway and found out that they didn't have a route at that time or in the area that the van was seen. Still it seems she plays a small part in his detecting process.

At the same time we also learn that Mrs C does like to talk to her husband when he's trying to concentrate on the game. Which is very naughty, Mrs C.

What new-fangled thing does Columbo learn about this episode?

Columbo notices some hiss when a phone call was put on loud speaker. This is then explained as a possible side effect of phone-tapping technology however as a new piece of high-tech kit, it doesn't really get much of a role in the episode.

Was anyone given sedatives?

Well a bang on the head with a lump of ice will knock you out... Oh you mean drugs? Oh well, in that case, no.

Deviations from the norm and inconsistencies with other Columbo episodes

Hmm. No. Not really.

Appearances by the Regular Cast

Val Avery appeared in small roles in a number of early Columbo episodes and this was one of them when he appeared as the private investigator.

Robert Culp was also a serial murder, somehow managing to bump people off in series 1, series 2 and series 3 as well as appearing in a small part in the series 10 classic, Columbo Goes to College.


Everything that's written above can't really convey exactly how this episode is to watch because we've missed a lot out of the description. And we've done that because there's a lot that goes on in this episode. Lots of little tiny things that just seem to happen one after another after another, and often for no apparent reason.

And it feels deeply unsatisfying. Columbo never seems to be building up a stack of evidence, just finding out stuff. It's like the writers came up with a hugely over-complicated plot but never had the time to actually put it together in a coherent way - instead they just rammed it all in and hoped no one would notice.

There are huge gaping holes in it all. It's never really explained why Paul Hanlon wants Eric dead. We suspect he's having an affair with Eric's wife but we're never particularly sure - certainly Paul wouldn't inherit anything from Eric's death. But just a simple quick snog would have confirmed it all.

Then there's the way that evidence seems to keep finding Columbo rather than the other way round. The detective just seems to wander around finding things and going "well look at that".

Maybe had it had the longer format that the later episodes had, this episode would have worked better. You can certainly see the hallmarks here for some which show the direction Columbo headed in, however the execution is lacking.

It's by no means a bad episode if you're prepared to overlook its failings, but in no means is it a classic at all.

Your View

Grace O Malley

Posted on 26 April 2013 at 11:59 PM

I just love the settings for this episode the weather especially those outside location the blue skies the pool and dean Stockwell swimming the colourful tiles by the pool and the real sense of a Sunday afternoon


Posted on 28 April 2013 at 9:05 AM

I just finished watching this episode and the ending really had me not liking this one. The whole alibi rests on this mechanical clock chiming the time on the taped phone conversation. Now, isn't it reasonable to assume that the clock was simply not functional at the time he made the call? I don't think this would hold up at all as it's a perfectly reasonable explanation for not hearing the clock. Hanlon pretty much gives up at this point but there is definitely not enough evidence to convict. Thoughts?


Posted on 15 May 2013 at 7:32 AM

I definitely agree that the "evidence" is quite pathetic, and the overall structure of the episode is lacking. However, there are several points that I feel redeem the episode...

Robert Culp - Culp, to me, is the best of the recurring killers. One only needs to contrast the Hanlon character with the previous season's Brimmer to see that Culp is capable of very diversified acting. While Brimmer is dignified and mostly quite personable, Hanlon is loud and relatively uncouth. Jack Cassidy, on the other hand, is the arrogant, egotistical, condescending snake in all three murderer roles. So the range of Culp's characters is wonderful.

Stylish directing - Several scenes stand out, particularly the murder itself, but also the shot of Columbo and Hanlon ascending the escalator at the airport and also toward the end where Columbo is sitting in the empty stadium while we hear commotion as if a game is actually in progress. Perhaps it's a reflection of Columbo's inner thoughts, him imagining what the game was like the day of the murder?

Humor - I love how Columbo gets under Hanlon's skin in this episode, especially at the end: "This Ding-a-Ling ice cream concession? It's the best in town; don't ever change that." "Alright, Columbo! Now, what do you want?" "Oh, these shoes feel better. Oy..." "Columbo, I'm tryin' t' watch this game!! What is it?!!" Absolutely hilarious.


Posted on 17 September 2013 at 1:47 PM

"especially those outside location the blue skies the pool and dean Stockwell swimming the colourful tiles by the pool"

I like the settings, too. Imdb says the filming location is the Stahl house @1635 Woods Drive, however I have noticed that the pool is different from that one, also the entry and the motorcourt seems to be different. Is it maybe possible the interiors were shot in the Stahl house, but the exteriors somewhere else...? Anybody has a clue where it was?

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