• Craig Hunter

PT - Columbo - 030 - The Most Crucial Game

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Welcome everybody to "The Predictably Treacherous Podcast".  Today's episode is "The Most Crucial Game" starring Robert Culp in his second Columbo appearance, and Dean Stockwell. This is episode three of season two.  This episode was directed by Jeremy Kagan and written by John T. Dugan.  The original air date was November 5th, 1972 and the runtime was 73 minutes.

Let's get right to the episode summary.

Paul Hanlon is the general manager of a Los Angeles professional football franchise.  The new franchise owner is layabout Eric Wagner, son of the deceased former owner.  In an attempt to carry out the wishes of his previous boss to create a sports empire, Hanlan murders the younger Wagner who stands in his way.   

The Murder

LA Coliseum.  Football Sunday.  

Paul Hanlon arrives at the owners box.  He's there alone except for the young attendant.  Paul tells the attendant that he won't need him today and suggests that he find an empty seat.  After the attendant leaves, Paul calls Eric Wagner at home. 

Eric's still in bed.  He's hungover.  Hanlon tells him to sober up because they will be flying to Canada to look at acquiring a hockey franchise.  Eric's not interested.  Hanlon reminds Eric that it was his father's wish to have the biggest sports empire in the world.  He tells Eric to go down to the pool and swim some laps and he'll pick him up on the way to the airport.  They hang up.

Hanlon calls coach Rizzo in the locker room.  He says a bunch of things that irritate Rizzo--put these players in, run a particular type of offence.  Then he tells Rizzo to come and see him at half time.  They hang up.

Hanlan gets dressed in a ding-a-ling ice cream outfit and exits the stadium while the national anthem is being played so as not to be noticed.  He leaves the stadium in a ding-a-ling truck.  While driving he turns on the radio.  The game has just started but it's not going well.  Hanlon stops the truck and calls Eric from a phone booth at the side of the street but the line is busy because Eric is ordering liquour. Hanlon waits and calls back.  Eric picks up and Hanlan says that he will pick him up (again) on the way to the airport to save Eric having to drive.  He asks Eric if he' s in the pool yet.  He needs Eric to be in the pool when he arrives. Eric tells Hanlon to pick him up at 5:30 and they hang up.

Hanlon is about to get in the truck and drive away when a little girl approaches the truck and asks for an ice cream. 11:58 to 12:09 "Mister, hey Mister." Hanlon ignores her and drives off.  He arrives at Eric's home.  He grabs a brick size chunk of ice from the cooler in the truck and walks over to the pool where Eric is swimming.  Eric starts to get out of the pool to ask Hanlon what he is doing there in the silly outfit and Hanlon clobbers him with the ice.  Eric falls into the pool face down.

Hanlon notices that he left some shoe prints beside the pool so he uses the hose to literally cover his tracks before he leaves.

Now there is a great shot of Hanlon driving the ice cream truck back to the stadium.  He's looking care-free, eating an ice-cream while he drives.

At halftime, Rizzo enters the box.  Hanlan has just gotten back and changed.  I guess no one saw him walking back to the box in a ding-a-ling ice cream uniform, even without the benefit of the national anthem.  

Hanlan tells Rizzo that no one is answering the field phone and that he's been trying to reach him.  Rizzo says i know then gets into an explanation of what he is going to do in the second half.  Hanlan tells him to forget what he said this morning and just go with what they agreed on last night.  Rizzo runs the team.  Hanlon says that he has bigger fish to fry and he realizes that he can't do everyone's job.  Rizzo leaves and then Hanlon makes a scowl and grits his teeth for some reason.  

You know, I'm not really sure what his motivation is.  Does he share Eric's father's dream of the largest sports empire in the world? Does he just want to honour Eric's father's dream? He says he has bigger fish to fry.  What does that mean? Didn't he just fry the big fish by killing Eric? Are the fish, sports franchises? Why is he so angry that he has to gnash his teeth? Why isn't gnash pronounced g-nash?

The Columbo Intro

The next scene shows Columbo sitting in his car listening to the football game.  He's parked at the crime scene.  A uniformed cop tells him that the coroner is waiting for him to OK the removal of the body.  The uniformed cop tells Columbo that a liquor store delivery boy found Eric face down in the pool.  He yelled for help from a neighbor and they attempted to revive him but couldn't.  They called the police.  

Columbo is trying to listen to the game.  

Columbo and the cop walk over to the scene.  The coroner wants to split.  He tries to get columbo to release the body so that he can leave and he tells Columbo that he has guests waiting at home. Columbo says not so fast he wants to know some details but he is barely listening to the coroner because some random guy is sitting in a deck chair listening to the game.  

Never seen Columbo show any interest in football previously.  He solves murders every Sunday afternoon. Never heard him mention football before. Can't tear himself away from the game.

Of course, the coroner thinks it's an accident...slipped on the diving board, hit his head, drowned. Columbo confirms that the coroner is going to perform an autopsy and lets him leave with the body. 

Columbo has a walk around.  He tastes the water on the deck and steps into the pool to taste the water.  He gets a soaker that will become a running joke in the episode.  Another cop tells Columbo that the body was Eric Wagner.  Son of the former owner of the football team.  This brightens his day and he gets very excited.  He tells the cop to make sure that they get pictures all around the pool and inside the house.  Then he heads over to the football game.    

He Knows

Columbo emerges from the elevator outside the pressbox at the stadium with a soaker and a rolled up pantleg.  He walks up the stairs to the owner's box and enters it.  Hanlan doesn't ask who he is right away but tells him its a private box and then turns around as if expecting the stranger to mill about and leave at his own leisure after a few moments.  Columbo breaks the news about Eric's death.  Hanlon seems shocked but then volunteers that he just spoke with Eric, and then spoke with him again...and they were supposed to go to Montreal that night...and Eric was by the pool, alone...oh boy, Hanlon just shut it.  let's listen to the clip 23:24 to 24:08 fade out

After Hanlon says he'll contact Eric's wife Shirley, Columbo starts in on the questions, the way that he always questions his main suspect.  clip 24:42 to 25:50 He tells Hanlon about the fresh water (water without Chlorine) around the pool, and asks if he knows of any pool services that work on Sunday.  Then Hanlon turns the radio completely off.  Columbo notices this, he gives a look, and the episode music confirms that he knows. Columbo bolts after this.

The next scene Columbo is in the players locker room looking for coach Rizzo.  He tells coach Rizzo that Eric drowned.  Columbo tells Rizzo that he has seen Eric's name appear in tabloids in the past.  He asks if there was any truth to the stories.  Rizzo tells him that Eric liked to party and was a "swinger" type but it was harmless. They begin talking about Paul Hanlon.  Rizzo tells Columbo that Hanlon is a jerk and that he chewed out Rizzo before the game but when Rizzo went to see him at half time, he was laissez fair. Columbo is puzzled since they didn't perform that well in the first half of the game and easing up at halftime doesn't seem consistent with his earlier behavior. 

If you look closely, you can see the same couple of extras walk by 2 or 3 times in the background while Rizzo and Columbo are having a conversation...brilliant!

The next scene is at the Eric's home.  There is a secretary answering phones and a lot of commotion and she seems flustered.  An attorney named walter canal shows up and says he was Eric's father's attorney and friend for 40 years and he was Eric's attorney.  Columbo is there in the background.  Hanlon enters and Walter is upset that he had to learn about Eric's death on the news.  Hanlon tells him its not the time for airing his grievances.  A woman named mrs burghosie is calling for Hanlon and she has called before but Hanlon says angrily that he has no time for calls today.  The radio begins making a tone sound when one of the phones is answered.

Columbo asks Hanlon if he can bring in a forensic team to go over the house tomorrow and Hanlon OKs it as he is walking out the door.  Columbo follows him.  

Now at LAX, Columbo is wandering around looking for Hanlon.  Hanlon is in a phone booth talking and spots Columbo.  He hangs up the phone and yells at Columbo and asks why he is being followed.  Columbo tells him its confusing that back in the house he said that he didn't have time to talk on the phone but he is making a call at the airport.  Hanlon says he was cancelling his meeting in Montreal and that he is there to meet Mrs Wagner. 

Columbo asks Hanlon if there may have been issues in the marriage.  Hanlan plays along and tells Columbo that Eric was like a baby and Shirley understood that.  

Columbo tells Hanlon that the autopsy came back negative (negative...not dead???).  Hanlon maintains that the death was accidental but if it wasn't, it was probably some hippy girl.  

Columbo mentions that a ding-a-ling ice cream truck was spotted in the area around 2:30pm but they don't have a route in that neighbourhood and that's a loose end that he has to tie up.  

He also mentions that he will have to verify where Hanlon was during the game and that the phone records won't do it.  Hanlon says that's not his problem.

At night, a burglar enters the Wagner home.  He's actually there to remove the bug that was put on the wagner phone.  The phone that made the radio give off the tone sound earlier.  Columbo and a uniformed officer are there waiting for him.  Columbo asks him who his employer is but we don't get the answer.  Columbo thinks that his employer is Hanlan but its not.

The next scene Columbo shows up at a basketball practice.  Hanlan is there talking with some players that he intends to sign.  Columbo tells hanlan that it was Walter who had the hanlan home bugged and he also bugged hanlan's office.  

The next scene we are entering the wagner home and hanlan is yelling at walter and threatening to report him to the bar for spying on his own client and to personally sue him for invasion of privacy.  Walter has agreed to disclose all of the information collected over the last 2 weeks while the phones were bugged.  Before they go inside to listen to the calls, Columbo pulls hanlan aside and tells him that he called the ding-a-ling ice cream company and confirmed that they have a concession stand at the stadium and that this means that its more important than ever that they find a way to substantiate hanlan's alibi.  

Inside they listen to the tapes. THey have been listening to the tapes for 3 hours.  Mrs wagner seems to be just about done.  They get to a phone call that hanlan made from the box during thefirst half of the game and it sounds like hanlan put Eric in touch with some girls.  Walter points out as much.  Hanlan claims that little chick referred to a maid that Eric got through an agency that hanlan referred him to.  

Mrs wagner believes him.  She tells walter she thinks he's contemptible.  The next call is hanlan in the truck claiming to be in the box.  This would seem to be the evidence required to substantiate hanlan's alibi.  Columbo looks a little confounded.  He still knows that hanlan did it but can't immediately explain this phone call.  

Now the burglar meets columbo at a cafe by the harbour.  Columbo has been listening to the phone call that would seem to substantiate hanlan's alibi.  He's listening for a noise that doesn't belong...something.  He asks Dobbs how the bugs got planted and Dobbs says that an operative Eve Babcock was the secretary for 3 days before hanlan fired her.  she bugged the phones.   

Columbo visits eve in her apartment.  She mistakes him for a "customer"...looks like she's an escort.  She and Columbo are just about to sort out the mixup when her real date shows up Columbo casually introduces himself.  The date splits and eve says she's going to call her lawyer.  Columbo tells her its not necessary.  He says he already knows that she planted the bugs and he doesn't care.  He just wants to know why she was fired after three days.  Eve pretends she doesn't know.  Columbo suggests that hanlan saw her plant the bugs and offered her more money to keep quiet about it.

Eve gets upset and denies that that is the reason and when she speaks quickly you can hear an accent.  Columbo asks her if her real name is Bujgeshie and if she's Hungarian.  He thinks she is the person who called for hanlan at the wagner's home the other day.  He leaves without an answer.  

Rhoda (Valerie Harper) cameo 59:11 to 1:00:55

Then its off to the empty stadium to sit in the stands and have some 70's detective thinking time.  

Then its off to a travel agent. When Columbo enters the travel agent's office he's spinning a globe pencil holder.  Columbo wants to confirm if hanlan bought tickets for montreal last sunday night.  While the agent is checking his books, Columbo listens to the game on the radio at the desk of another agent.  He is yammering away to the disinterested agent about how something's missing when suddenly a cu-cu clock "cu-cu's" and Columbo realizes what he has been missing.  

The final scene.  Hanlan is in the box watching the game.  Columbo enters. Hanlan is impatient with him.   Columbo asks hanlan about hrs babcock.  he tells hanlan that he thinks that he left for the airport to call mrs babcock back because he know that the phone lines were bugged.  and if he knew that the phones were bugged, he knew that he could use the phones to set up a perfect alibi.  THen Columbo plays the evidence that breaks the alibi.  Let's listen to the clip, (107:40) "you don't mind...end of call (109:00)

Special Thanks

Music for the intro:

Music from https://filmmusic.io

"Sweeter Vermouth" by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)

License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)