Saturday, 6 February 2016

Columbo 02x03: The Most Crucial Game

The Super Bowl is tomorrow (go Broncos!) and I thought it was a perfect time to celebrate with one of my favourite episodes of one of my favourite shows. So we’re watching a Columbo that’s all about football, murder, and Robert Culp’s crazy moustache.

It’s almost too much fun.

Alright, really quick in case you aren’t familiar with the show: Columbo was a series of TV movies that ran from 1969 to 2003. Columbo was described by Peter Falk, the actor who played him, as such: “What if there was a guy who was just like everybody else in all ways except one – he happened to be the world’s greatest detective?”

The only other thing to know is that you solve these bad boys backwards. It’s not about who the murderer is, it’s about the clue that catches him. Your job is to figure out the mistake that’s going to send him to jail, and you have to pay attention to everything. Champagne corks, pencil types, light switches, scuff marks, the fingerprints of non-murderers, any detail could be the one that sinks the killer.

This episode begins with stock footage of an L.A. stadium, and the murderer himself, Robert Culp arriving at a football game. He’s tall, handsome, and totally going to kill somebody so do not fall in love with him. This is his second of four Columbo appearances, tying him with Patrick McGoohan for most episodes as guest star. (I can’t remember which of them killed the most people in total, but it was probably McGoohan. He could get really kill-happy sometimes.) He’s playing Paul Hanlon, manager of the Los Angeles Rockets.

Hanlon makes his way up through the backstage production of a televised game and to his private box. He’s wearing a burgundy leisure suit, a striped shirt, and a horseshoe moustache that’s just like: “What’s on your face, man?”

When he gets where he’s going, he’s mildly annoyed to notice that a page who looks just like Kylo Ren is in there. He tells the kid that there aren’t going to be any guests, and the kid suggests that maybe Mr. Wagner will be coming with some friends.

“You’re new to the organization,” Hanlon chuckles in a wry but not unfriendly way. “Eric Wagner owns the team, but football isn’t his game.”

He tips the kid an obscene amount of money and tells him to go knock himself out talking to Darth Vader’s helmet or whatever it is he does with his free time. As long as there’s plenty of ice and tomato juice in the fridge, Hanlon can take care of himself.

His actual words are: “You scoot now!”

It’s a little bit freaky, because the air around him is swirling with menace, and has been since he appeared. This is clearly a very dangerous man who tips big, drinks tomato juice and says “scoot” unironically.

Once Kylo has gone to banish the light, Hanlon checks the time on the most 70’s looking clock the decade had to offer. It’s like this enormous fake antique that’s desk-sized, but only if your desk is massive, and it has two golden naked people worshipping something that looks like a coffee urn? It’s a lot of clock, is what I’m saying.

Speaking of tacky 70’s decadence, we’re about to get a heaping spoonful of it thanks to team owner Eric Wagner! Hanlon rings him up, and we’re have a tracking shot of his mansion’s master suite, complete with black silk sheets and a bed made out of golden Buddhas. Eric, I’m guessing, bought that clock in the skybox. There’s a camisole strewn over one of the Buddhas, a single high heel on the floor next to empty cognac glasses, and empty cognac bottles on top of the faux Moroccan dresser. The top drawer of that dresser has the phone in it, muffling the ring.

But the sound is just enough to wake Eric, who reaches out from under a tangle of black silk and answers groggily. And wouldn’t you know? Eric Wagner, playboy owner of the Rockets, is none other than noted hologram Dean Stockwell! Hanlon tells him to dunk himself in some coffee, hit the pool, and wake his rich decadent ass up – they have to be on a plane to Montreal at 6:30 to talk about buying a hockey team.

Suspend disbelief, people from Montreal.

Eric doesn’t really care. He doesn’t want another sports franchise, and hockey is “for penguins.” He wants to put the money into something constructive. Like narcotics, I’m guessing.

Hanlon gets a little angry and demands that Eric get up and get to the pool, he says it’s because he wants Eric alert so that he can sign Canadian legal documents, but it’s for something far more nefarious and murdery. Eric gets angry right back and tells Hanlon that if he doesn’t watch his tone, he’ll find himself in the unemployment line.

“My son, this isn’t for me, I just work here.” Hanlon replies, “This is for your dad. Biggest sports empire in the world, remember? It’s all he ever dreamed of.”

It’s all Hanlon ever dreamed of, too.

Eric agrees to get himself together in time for the flight, then half-heartedly hangs up and throws the sheets back over his head.

Meanwhile, Hanlon has another alibi establishing phone call to make. This time on the fancy red Batman phone that gives him a direct line to the locker room. He demands to speak to Coach Rizzo, played by gravel-voice character actor James Gregory. Apparently, there’s been some tension between him and the coach, and he would like Rizzo to come up at half time to get yelled at. (And confirm a timeline of his whereabouts, but he doesn’t mention that.)

During this conversation, Hanlon puts Rizzo on speaker phone so that he can start taking his clothes off. He’s changing into the uniform of concession worker so that he can leave the stadium incognito. But the important thing is that he’s doing it in front of the audience.

I don’t know if Columbo should catch him, I mean, maybe he should just go free and keep walking around… because of many valid points that I don’t have time to make, excuse you, I am recapping a show right now.

The argument with Rizzo gets pretty heated, and that’s all for the best because it’s not likely to be something that slips Rizzo’s mind should the police ask him about it. A call right before kick-off, full of rancor and network TV approved non-swearing? Yes, the suspect was involved in that, is it important?

Hanlon checks the time on his hideous clock – which turns out to have three rotating golden balls that chime the hour because why not – and looks over his masterful disguise of a white suit, sneakers, sunglasses, and a paper hat. He puts on his popcorn tray with grim determination, and slips on a pair of crisp white gloves.

During the singing of the national anthem, he makes his way out of the vendor’s entrance and steals a Ding-a-Ling Ice Cream truck. (What I like about recapping TV is that you get to write sentences you never ever would elsewhere.) He seriously looks like the shiftiest ice cream man of all time. Nobody would buy ice cream from him, everyone would think he had ones of those trucks that sold drugs and guns and was always “out” of whatever flavour you asked for.

But the good news – in terms of a morally reprehensible plan to commit murder – is that people in the food service industry wear gloves. Nobody will think it’s weird that the ice cream man has gloves on. It’s kind of brilliant, but also horrible. Murder is bad. It’s important to remember that.

Murder. Is. Bad.

Once he’s on the road in the hot truck full of cold treats, he loses the paper hat because concession workers wear those, but truck drivers don’t. (He’s really thought a lot about this!) He switches on a red portable radio and listens to the game, knowing that he needs to keep abreast of every play and quirk for his alibi to hold water. And to seal the deal on his next phone call.

It’s Sunday and there’s a football game.

The roads are eerily quiet.

Hanlon stops at a street side payphone, in a neighbourhood near to Eric’s house. He gets his portable radio ready and dials the number, but hears a busy signal. Ugh. Other people are the hardest thing to control when you’ve planned a meticulous and horrible crime. Eric, it turns out, is in his pool and on the phone complaining about his juice order being delayed. Whether or not it’s actual juice is anyone’s guess cuz it was the 70’s, man.

Also, Eric is wearing double-stacked aviators and a tiki necklace while a cigarette hangs out of his mouth. Behold:

Nobody can stay on the phone forever, even though in this case it might save a life because Hanlon has a schedule to keep and too long a delay would render his alibi useless. He tries his call again, and this time it goes through. Good news for him, bad news for Eric. Hanlon turns the radio up nice and loud just in case any cars should pass by. The last thing he wants is any ambient noise to give away his location.

Eric is sunning on his water slide when he answers, because he’s an obnoxious man-child. He sarcastically asks if Hanlon was worried he’d gone back to sleep, and don’t act like that wasn’t a possibility Eric because we all saw you climb back under the blankets. Anyway, the ostensible reason for the call is to see if Eric wants to carpool to the airport. Eric scoffs as Hanlon apologies for being snippy earlier, but it’s clear that he’s got a petulance driven attitude that would put even the most loyal employees on edge. He’s the kind of young billionaire who fires people for telling him bad news. One of those Roman Emperor types. And while I wouldn’t recommend being best friends with the guy, murdering him is probably a little bit over the line.

Anyway, Eric notices the volume of the game.

“Where are you now, playing right tackle?”

“Ah, I’m in the box. Guess I’ve got the radio a little loud.”

So turn it down to make it less conspicuous, like a regular person would do? But no, he can’t risk the sound of bird calls or any unexpected cars. And anyway, the important thing is that Eric is in the pool. Eric replies that he’s next to the pool, which is close enough. Hanlon gets pretty edgy all of a sudden and commands him to swim, which is kind of weird for a phone call about travel arrangements. But it’s pretty clear that swimming is part of Eric’s hang-over routine, as is (possibly alcoholic) juice, smoking, and whining. Eric tells Hanlon to get off his case and hangs up on him.

Winning friends and influencing people, Hanlon. Nice work.

He gets back in the ice cream truck, seething with resentment as he drives off while a local child yells at him to stop because she wants ice cream. This is a swanky neighbourhood, so I guess they don’t get a lot of ominous vehicles, but most kids from the block know how to tell the ice cream truck from the “ice cream” truck.

The kid doesn’t actually see Hanlon or his easily described and notable facial hair. Seriously, though. Maybe shave the old soup strainer a week before the murder, tell everyone it’s just for a change, then grow it back once the police sketch phase of the investigation is over? That is a moustache that stands out in a crowd.

Meanwhile, Eric slides into the pool – sunglasses, cigarette and all – to start his swim. The glasses fall off and the cigarette is drowned. He looks kind of annoyed, like he wasn’t expecting the water to have an effect on his accessories.

The ice cream truck winds through the hillside roads, beneath the shadows of tree branches, slow and ominous and accompanied by creepy music. It stops at the end of the long driveway to Eric’s mansion, and Hanlon gets out. He goes to the back of the truck and pulls out an enormous block of ice.

Ice, fans of perfect murder puzzles will know, is a great murder weapon because the evidence melts.

Eric is swimming laps when he pops his head up to see Hanlon, standing on the pool steps, waiting for him to surface.

“Paul? What are you doing here? Why are you dressed like a—“

Hanlon hits him as hard as he can with the ice, knocking him unconscious and leaving him to float face down in the pool. He’ll drown, and that’s all the coroner will be able to prove. Hanlon throws the ice into the water next to the body and starts back towards the truck.

But he notices something he hadn’t thought of. His own wet footprints.

Can’t have those spoiling things. He pulls his shoes off and tosses them aside, so that he can go grab the garden hose without making any more tracks. A few by the pool are easily taken care of, but any more would be a big problem. Except it’s early afternoon on a super sunny day, and the water footprints are fairly faint and the pool side is that baking kind of tile, so they’d probably dry up pretty fast…

Paul Hanlon doesn’t have time for probablies! He blasts the side of the pool around the ladder with the hose. Boom. No more footprints. Nothing at all can prove he was there and not at the game.

He checks the time on his watch and takes one last look at Eric.

The deed is done and cannot be undone. Figurative owls scream and equally figurative crickets cry.

Hanlon heads back to the stadium.

His nerves are finally starting to show as he listens to the game and checks his watch as he drives. He also helps himself to a stolen chocopop, because he’s already committed a major crime, why not celebrate with a petty theft? He’s only human.

It’s ten after three, according to the hideous clock in the manager’s box back at the stadium. And it’s halftime. Coach Rizzo, a disgruntled pile of wrinkles, storms up the stairs and into the box. But Hanlon doesn’t appear to be there.

Odd. He was so insistent Rizzo come up at halftime. Where could he be?

Did he not make it back in time from his murder?

Turns out, he did! He saunters out of the bathroom, looking a little like he maybe shouldn’t have had so much nacho cheese. We know it’s because he just changed out of a disguise and into his manager clothes, but to the less suspicious eye, there’s actually nothing odd about him about needing the bathroom. Especially since he’s known known for chugging tomato juice during the first quarter.

And Hanlon gets right to the conversation. Rizzo hasn’t been answering the field phone. Rizzo admits he gave orders to leave it off the hook. Thanks for having reliable bad habits, Rizzo. Really helps tighten the web of lies. The team is only down by three points, which isn’t a dire situation at all, so Hanlon decides to tell Rizzo that he’ll stop trying to backseat coach. Everyone has their own jobs to do, he’s sorry about being such a jerk before. Thanks for your participation in the alibi, go away now bye.

Rizzo is content to have a freer hand for the second half and leaves the conversation satisfied.

Hanlon is satisfied, too. More than satisfied, actually; he finds himself invigorated by his success. He smiles a half-crazed smile. This whole flawless murder thing has been quite the rush.

And that’s the crime! Somewhere in there, and included in the recap, was a clue that will undo Paul Hanlon. Can you guess what it was? Don’t worry if you can’t, Columbo will tell you all about it at the end.

Speaking of the Lieutenant, it’s time for him to make his grand entrance.

It’s pretty easy to side with a charismatic murderer when they’re the only character in the story. But it’s pretty tough to stay on their side once Columbo shows up.

Like Hanlon, Columbo has been listening to the football game on the radio. He’s caught up in a dramatic play, sitting in his car at the crime scene, when a sergeant comes over and tells him the coroner needs his permission to move the body. The sergeant is apologetic as Columbo grumbles about how inconsiderate it is for suspicious deaths to happen on Sunday afternoons.

In fact, everyone on the scene is kind of bummed that the weekend is over early. Between the sergeant and the coroner, we learn that the body was found by the delivery boy from the liquor store. So… not actual juice. The delivery boy went to the nearest neighbor for help, and the neighbor called the police in a panic because there was blood in the water. From the blow to the head, which the coroner assumes is because Wagner hit his head on the side of the pool after he slipped or something. Then, obviously, he fell unconscious and drowned.

That’s a fair early assessment. Nobody would look at this thing and think the victim was probably bludgeoned by a piece of ice as part of a staged crime.

Still, Columbo is not totally satisfied with writing it off as an accidental death just so everybody can get back to their hammocks and lemonade. (Even though he keeps sneaking listens to the game on a portable radio belonging to one of his assisting detectives.)

The coroner is adamant that it was a diving accident, especially given the water on the decking around the board. Columbo wants to know how the coroner can tell the accident happened on the diving board, since there’s water by the steps too. You remember, the water from the garden hose to hide the footprints.

With one ear on the game, the Lieutenant asks if an autopsy will be done, and the coroner tells him that it’s routine for these kinds of accidents. The coroner is not happy with Columbo further wrecking up this Sunday by not letting anybody declare an accidental death. He takes the body and heads out.

Columbo asks for more details, and he learns that there were no servants in the house, which is kind of weird for a mansion of that size. While he takes a closer look at the pool area, he sends the sergeant to go fetch the assisting detective.

If you’ve never seen Peter Falk before, he’s got a glass eye. This is incorporated into Columbo’s character by giving him a little trouble with depth perception, though it mostly comes up whenever he’s trying to parallel park behind a murderer’s car. Today, it means that he takes one step too many on the pool stairs and sticks his right shoe straight in the water.

He lifts his foot and uses the wall to steady himself, and remembers that the area around the steps is wet. Something clicks in his brain. He takes a quick sniff of the water on the tiles, and then drinks a small scoop of pool water. It apparently does not gross him out to drink water that just had a dead guy in it, because he’s a professional. It might make squeamish audience members go: “Oh, ew! Don’t drink corpse water!” But it helps the Lieutenant discover that the water on the tile was not chlorinated, while the water in the pool was.

The detective makes his way over, and Columbo calls out if he knows if there was a gardener working at the house or not. The detective, Clemens (he’s not in other episodes, but they were always trying on the sly to give Columbo a partner even though the audience never reacted well to the idea), says that Eric let all the servants go for a few days while his wife would be out of town. Eric had a big party last night, and it looked like a clear case of the mice playing in the absence of a cat. Surely Columbo has read about wild Eric Wagner.

“You mean that Eric – ? The one whose father used to own the football – ? That’s who this was?!”

Columbo is the best at learning surprising facts. He didn’t even finish complete thoughts, because we as an audience have already learned the basic rundown of Eric’s life, so there’s no need for any exposition about it. It’s a great, really natural feeling moment.

Clemens, on the other hand, tells us what we already know: Eric still owned the football team, even though it’s being managed by Paul Hanlon. Every football fan in Los Angeles knows the name of Paul Hanlon. Anyway, can we let everybody go and call this thing an accident?

No, Clemens, it was obviously a murder. Do you see nothing suspicious about the owner of a football team dying on a Sunday afternoon during a game where his team was playing? What kind of terrible instincts do you have? How did you even make detective?

He’s told that he can release the delivery boy and neighbor as soon as he takes full statements from them, and then Columbo wants the whole team out here. Prints, pictures, everything. This ain’t no accident. Clemens is in charge of crime scene documentation.

“Yes, sir. But where are you going, sir?” Clemens asks, flustered.

“To the football game.”

The stadium elevator opens to show us Columbo’s wet shoe and rolled up pant leg. He squishes his way up to the skybox and knocks a few times.

Inside, Hanlon knocks back a strong drink.He’s looking like his adrenaline has crashed. When Columbo lets himself in, he snaps at him that this is a private box.

Columbo apologizes for the intrusion, introduces himself, and explains that his department is unable to locate Mrs. Wagner, so he’s here to inform Hanlon of Eric’s death.

“According to what I’ve read, sir, you were practically one of the family.”

Hanlon tries to look grief-stricken and surprised, but he accepts the news of an accidental death way too quickly. Usually, people are like: “No, Eric’s fine, I just spoke to him on the phone.” There is a need for confirmation, not just sad acceptance of a fatal accident. Columbo usually sets his sights on who the murderer is when their reaction to death is off. He has great guilt radar.

Of course, Hanlon does mention the phone call, since it’s part of his amazing alibi system. What’s he supposed to do? Not gloat? Be real, this murder is unsolvable, he has to gloat. In fact, he’s going to throw in that he made not one but two phone calls to Eric, from this very skybox, and that he had scheduled them for a 6:30 flight to Montreal. Would a murderer pay for a plane ticket nobody was going to use? That’s just throwing money away! You know, during that second phone call, Eric said he was alone and by the pool, and he was a demon of a swimmer… it just doesn’t make sense…

“Well, there was a bump on his head and the coroner said something about a diving board,” Columbo rattles off, “anyway, we’re trying to find his wife. There were no servants in the house.”

“There weren’t?!” Hanlon balks theatrically. (Dude, come on, try to act more innocent.)

Also, Hanlon suddenly remembers, Shirley Wagner is in Acapulco for a charity thing. Columbo thanks him, and promises he won’t bother Shirley with any questions just yet – nor will he bother Hanlon with them. Of course, this prompts Hanlon to ask what sorts of questions need to be asked.

During this convo, Hanlon is putting his jacket on in front of a double mirror in the washroom. The director of this episode, Jeremy Kagan, has been very keen to show us Hanlon with mirrors. There’s a shot where he’s driving the ice cream truck, there’s a shot of him reflected in windows when he arrives at Eric’s house, and now this. It immediately hints at a couple of things. One is that Hanlon is a bit of a narcissist, another is that he’s got at least two-faces – the somewhat demanding and rough general manger who barks at coaches, and the cold reptilian murderer. Now, we’re introduced to a third reflection and the notion of Hanlon as a surrogate father to Eric, a wealthy and aimless boy left alone with a massive fortune and a sports legacy to maintain.

Columbo says that he’ll have to contact the pool service, and wonders if Hanlon happens to know if they were scheduled to work at Eric’s house that day. To Hanlon’s knowledge, no pool services work on Sundays, what does that have to do with anything? Columbo mentions the hose water and sinks the first battleship of the episode. When Hanlon hears that the police have discovered the excess water to be unchlorinated, he switches off the game and freezes, just for a second.

“So, Eric’s death was an accident. There must be some simple explanation.”

Hey, quick question, if your like-a-son business partner died suddenly and something didn’t add up about the accident, would you tell the police to let it go? Or would you want the closure of a full investigation? Because, you know, most people pick the second one, Paul! Act innocent, you’re blowing this!

Columbo has a new direction for his investigation, thanks for being such a big help, Mr. Hanlon!

Satisfied that he’s got all he can for now, he heads down to the locker room to find Coach Rizzo.

Rizzo is concerned and surprised when he sees the Lieutenant’s badge, and even more concerned and surprised when he learns that Eric Wagner is dead.

“Eric – Huh?” He shakes his head.

“Yeah. In the pool by his house.” Columbo nods gravely.

“Oh… what? Oh, no. Oh, the poor boy.” Rizzo wanders away from the conversation and sits on a nearby bench. It kind of makes you want to send Hanlon down there to see what getting unexpected bad news looks like.

It’s the “huh” that does it, in case you’re going to murder somebody on an episode of Columbo one day. Surprise always has a lot of confusion in it.

Columbo says he wanted to tell Rizzo before he saw it in the papers because he’d heard that the coach had been good friends with Eric’s father. Rizzo says that he was, and that Eric was kind of a tragic figure in his eyes. The old man had wanted him to be a quarterback, and Eric just wasn’t built for it. So the poor kid ended up as what Rizzo calls “a half-baked, would-be swinger type.”

Was there anything to all that? Rizzo says not really. It was mostly the kind of sowing of wild oats you see in most young men, a lot of it was exaggerated both by Eric himself and the papers. Hey, Columbo, why are you asking about that? The coach thought that this was an accident?

Columbo explains that he’s from homicide and all unexpected deaths of a person outside of a doctor’s care have to go through his department. It’s routine. (Sure. It’s the thing he routinely tells people so that they don’t get upset about it being a murder.) Rizzo accepts this, and Columbo adds that he would’ve asked Paul Hanlon these questions, but Mr. Hanlon is busy and kind of excitable.
Rizzo says Hanlon has been acting weird all day. First he calls him on the field phone to give him a hard time about the plays he’s been picking, makes a big deal out of Rizzo going up at halftime; so Rizzo goes up and what happens? Nothing. Hanlon says everything has been going great the first half, carry on.

“Gee, I didn’t think we did so well the first half,” Columbo shakes his head.

Rizzo gives him a look like: “Thanks for your support.”

The Lieutenant takes this opportunity to get a little bit of an overview on Hanlon from a relatively neutral party. We learn that Hanlon hasn’t been general manager too long, but he started with the Rockets as their PR man. A couple of years ago, when Eric inherited the team, he didn’t know what the hell he was doing, so he asked Hanlon to help. Columbo asks if it was just a matter of using the boy king to step into the corridors of power (except he’s Columbo so he doesn’t phrase it anything like that), and Rizzo says it didn’t look that way to him. Hanlon, according to the coach that kind of hates him, is one of the sharpest and shrewdest general managers in all of football.

He was also Eric’s best friend. In fact, Rizzo can’t think of anybody who would want to see Eric dead, so Columbo is probably wasting his time. I mean, was Eric Wagner the best person ever? No. But murder isn’t ever a real solution that people really pick, not really.

Now it’s time for Columbo to flash a look, and his says: “I really wish that were true.”

Next up, we meet Walter Cunnell, played by Dean Jagger. Walter was Eric’s attorney, and before that he was Eric’s father’s attorney and best friend for forty years. Walter has come to Eric’s house to find it filling up with tacky floral tributes as a young woman at a desk tries to coral various outpourings of sympathy on the telephone. The young woman apologies for the chaos and explains that she’s “new in the office.” You see Miss Babcock left and all of this other stuff and blah blah blah.

Walter stops her. What office? What the hell is she talking about?

Behind them, a rather large wreath is brought in by a delivery boy with some help from a rumpled plainclothes officer of the LAPD.

The girl at the desk explains that she works for Paul Hanlon, then notices Columbo hanging around. She tells him he can go, and he explains that he was just helping carry stuff to be nice. He’s not a delivery man, he’s with the police. The phone starts ringing again, distracting the girl and giving Walter and Columbo time to have a nice chat.

“Sir, you don’t mind if I ask you a personal question do you?” Columbo asks.


“What’d you pay for those shoes?”

Columbo trashed his best pair when he stepped in the pool, and he is now on the lookout for replacements. This becomes one of the show’s most enduring running gags, with the budget-minded Columbo always on the make for a good quality this-or-that at a reasonable price. It’s TV history, starting here and now before our very eyes!

Walter says his shoes cost sixty dollars, and Columbo asks him if he knows where somebody might get a similar pair for, oh, seventeen bucks? (Just for fun, adjusting for inflation, a pair of shoes costing seventeen dollars in 1972 would cost around ninety dollars today. So what Columbo is saying is that he’d like to keep things under the hundred dollar mark.)

Hanlon appears, abuzz with planning how to spend his murder inheritance. I would suggest a not-burgundy not-leisure suit. But his excitement at Eric’s mysterious death is toned down when he notices Walter in the room.

Okay, so a couple of important things happen at the same time here. In the background, the new secretary gets another phone call and picks up. When she picks up, Columbo hears a weird buzzing noise, kind of between a dial tone and static, coming from the nearby sound-system. In the foreground, Walter is demanding to know what the deal with Shirley is – her husband is dead, she should be at home. On top of that, he heard about this accident on the news because Hanlon didn’t call him to inform him of Eric’s death.

It’s pretty obvious that Hanlon hates Walter, and Walter hates him back.

On the phone is a Miss Rokocyz, who would like to talk to Hanlon. The secretary tells him, and he flips out that he told her he wasn’t taking any calls, there’s no time today, he’s far too busy. He’ll talk to Miss Rokocyz tomorrow. Huh. It’s almost like he didn’t want to speak to this woman on this particular phone and in front of the homicide detective. Weird.

The secretary hangs up the phone, and right away another one comes through. As it rings, the stereo makes the weird noise again. Columbo very much notices this.

The call is for him, this time. He says he hopes that’s alright, he left the number with the station in case anything came up. This is a frequent tactic of his. He arranges to be called with important news in front of the murderer as part of his campaign to psychologically exhaust them and force them to confess. He also tries to make them feel super paranoid so that they’ll make mistakes that give him extra evidence.

Columbo, on the phone:

“Didn’t find anything, huh? And the autopsy? Alright. Thank you very much.”

Hanlon smiles, very briefly, filling in a form for the secretary as he overhears this part. Ice cream man gloves, block of ice, there’s not a shred of evidence. Perfect. He tells Columbo that he’s got to do some stuff at the funeral parlor, and if the police need him for anything else, he’ll be back at his apartment in a couple of hours. He goes breezing towards the door with the bouncing step of a man who just got away with murder, when Columbo calls after him:

“Sir? You don’t mind if I get a second crew in here tomorrow morning? Kind of recheck everything?”

Hanlon knows there’s no evidence, though. His paranoia levels are much lower than those of the Lieutenant’s usual foes.

“Do whatever you want!” Hanlon calls out, opening the double doors and strolling into the California sunshine.

Damn. That was less productive than it normally is. But! Walter hasn’t heard about this investigation into Eric’s death! He only heard it was an accidental drowning, and now he’s deeply concerned. Like a normal person is when they hear something might have been a murder, Paul.

Walter asks what it’s all about, and Columbo tells him it’s all just part of a routine murder investigation.

“Murder?” Walter mumbles to himself, as Columbo heads out the same doors Hanlon did.

Time for some stock footage of a plane landing! That means something is happening at the airport!

In the 1970’s, airport parking fees and regulations were not like they are today, because the Lieutenant just pulls up to the curb outside arrivals, parks his beat-up silver Peugeot, and heads in. Maybe it’s because of his LAPD sticker, you ask? He parks right behind a limousine we’re led to believe is Hanlon’s car, so it’s like everybody could just park in available parking spots back then. Crazy.

There’s a cute little moment where Columbo tries to go in the out door, but he quickly corrects himself and soon enough is hanging around the airport phone booths, looking in the airport phone book, like ya do.

Naturally, Hanlon is inside one of the phone booths, and naturally he’s a little surprised to see the Lieutenant there. He hangs up in a hurry and sticks his head out of the booth.

“Columbo! What are you doing? Did you follow me?!”

“Well, sir, it just seemed like a funny place to make a funeral arrangement.”

Next we see, Hanlon is storming down the hallway of the airport – they also used to let people just, like, walk around in the airport – while Columbo keeps up with him and mentions that it was surprising Hanlon should make a phone call right after he made that big deal back at the house about not having time for phone calls. He says he was calling off the meeting in Montreal. He’d forgotten to do that earlier, he doesn’t know why.

This time, Columbo takes my job away from me and tries to coach the murderer into being more convincingly innocent. He suggests that maybe Hanlon is upset about Eric dying, and that’s why he’s forgetting to do stuff. Hanlon is all: “I never forget to do stuff, I’m always one hundred percent on the ball, I’m shrewd and sharp.”

In fact, he’s so on the ball he chartered a private plane to bring Shirley Wagner home, and that’s who he’s at the airport to meet. But he wanted it to be a secret, out of consideration for Shirley; he didn’t want her being coddled by Walter’s “bleeding-heart sympathy” and he certainly didn’t want the newspaper people coming after her.

There’s more fun with mirrors as the three faces of Paul Hanlon are revisited thanks to a particularly shiny escalator. But this time, Columbo has a reflection of his own. Is there a chance that there are two versions of our hero? A scruffy bumbler who lucks his way into success, and a calculating investigator who serves justice?

As they head for the tarmac, Hanlon tells Columbo that though Eric was “like a kid brother” to him, he couldn’t straighten him out. The Wagner marriage was, and he’s not clear here since he communicates it using hand gestures, either an open marriage or totally on the skids. Shirley has known about Eric’s wild parties and side action for about a year, and even though – according to Hanlon – she was way out of his league, she couldn’t bring herself to file for divorce.

Columbo asks if Shirley is Eric’s sole heir.

“What the hell is this?” Hanlon demands, “Why follow me?”

It’s just because of the way little things are adding up and happening so fast, Columbo shrugs. Like that autopsy report. The one he just got on the phone, the one Hanlon weirdly forgot to ask him about.

“It must’ve slipped your mind.” Columbo suggests, once again subtly hinting how to better fake grief.

“No, it didn’t slip my mind,” Hanlon grumbles, “There was nothing to ask about. Because there was nothing new. Was there?”

“No sir.”

“Lieutenant, you’re going to find that this was an accidental death. And god forbid if it was anything else, then it was one of those crazy hippie girls he was mixed up with.” Hanlon says this like he’s giving instructions. Not a good strategy.

Let’s sink another battleship!

Columbo reports that he looked in to those “crazy hippie girls” from the party, and none of them stayed the night or were there the next day. The police have been looking into other possibilities, and one of them is a Ding-a-Ling ice cream truck that was seen in the neighbourhood around the time of the murder.

Time for a little help from Mrs. Columbo.

Mrs. Columbo, for infrequent viewers or newcomers, is never seen on screen. She and Columbo have been married since forever, and there’s a lot of theories about her that we’re not going to go into today. But, Peter Falk always said that he thought a lot of the times the stuff Columbo was attributing to her had nothing to do with her, he was just using the idea of her to seem less connected to his thought process. To try and put the killers at ease and catch them off guard.

This time around, Mrs. Columbo has been pissed off at the ice cream trucks in their neighbourhood. “Why does the ice cream man have to come just before lunch, just before dinner, ruin the child’s appetite?” Columbo muses on her behalf. And she’s right. But 2:30 isn’t 11:45, so he called the Ding-a-Ling ice cream people, and it turns out they don’t even have a route near Eric’s house.

Hanlon looks a little uneasy for some reason.

“So that’s a – what I call a loose end, so I gotta tie it up.” Columbo shrugs cheerfully.

I’d say that one was a direct hit.

The Lieutant also mentions that he’s going to have to find some way to verify that Hanlon was in his box during the murder. Columbo was hoping that Coach Rizzo might be able to confirm this alibi, but it turns out he didn’t speak to Hanlon on the field phone for that whole “awful first half.” And then Hanlon wasn’t even angry that his team was sucking up the field.

Well, Columbo, there were two, count ‘em two, phone calls to Eric legitimately made from that box. Why, you could even hear the game in the background if they’d been recorded somehow. Hanlon’s fine. There is no way to tie him to any kind of suspicious ice cream truck or mysterious unchlorinated water! Go ahead and try!

According to Columbo, the telephone company can’t confirm that. Cell towers weren’t a thing yet, call history was a few years off, there was a very brief window of time where this alibi was possible.

Shirley Wagner shows up, very upset, wearing one black leather glove like she’s Michael Jackson, and a heavy autumn coat even though she just flew from Acapulco to Los Angeles in September. (I mean, I understand she just lost her husband, but she seems weird.) She cries all over Hanlon’s leisure suit and pulls on his lapels, and then apologizes for being upset.

Columbo decides that it’s a fine time to take a break from cat-and-mouse.

Later that night, under cover of darkness, a black-clad figure in a bandit hat sneaks around the perimeter of the murder pool at Eric’s house. He’s got a flashlight and everything. He breaks in the backdoor using a credit card, crashes through some classic early 70’s what-the-hell-is-that-supposed-to-be decor, and heads straight for the telephones on the desk.

He’s here to remove the bugs he put on the phones. Also here, however, is a police officer and Lt. Columbo. The officer apprehends the shadowy figure, who we learn is licensed private investigator Ralph Dobbs. And he shouldn’t feel bad about getting nabbed like this, Columbo tells him, because it was the kind of thing that can happen to anybody.

You see, all of this has to do with that crazy dial tone static Columbo noticed on the stereo whenever the phone was picked up at the Wagner house. Dobbs, some time ago, installed listening devices on all the phones in the house, and they were causing something called frequency leakage that was interfering with other nearby electrical systems. The same kind of idea as when you turn on the microwave and lose your wifi.

Dobbs doesn’t want to say who hired him, but Columbo has a pretty good idea of who knew a lab crew was coming in the next day, and who might want Eric Wagner spied on: Paul Hanlon.

(But wait, Columbo! Hanlon wasn’t the only person in the room when you announced your next search!)

At first, Dobbs is reluctant to reveal his client’s identity, so Columbo reminds him that he can be charged with illegal wiretapping and lose his license, and things get a little tenser. It looks like Dobbs is about to acquiesce and tell us what we want to know, when…

Scene change! Who likes basketball?

Not me! But that’s probably just because I don’t know the rules or understand what’s happening. Paul Hanlon, on the other hand, seems to know a good deal about the game and is planning to expand his basketball-related involvement starting with a press conference.

On the court, a friendly game is happening between some professional players, who lose control of the ball and send it rolling right to Columbo. Columbo picks it up like it’s from an alien world and returns it to the players, then heads over to where Hanlon is talking to a new player and a bunch of reporters.

Columbo asks one of the guys on the bleachers where he got his shoes, and Hanlon is called aside for a phone call without noticing the Lieutenant is there.

This whole “being investigated for a flawless murder” deal is really getting to him, because he explodes like a volcano when he learns that the police arrived at his office that morning with a search warrant. He demands to have his lawyers meet him at the – he spots Columbo and says to never mind about the lawyers. Dude, you should have had lawyers all over this yesterday, don’t be so hubristic. Call them back and get some lawyers.

Columbo, for his part, begins with an apology. “I made a mistake last night.”

“I think you made a few!” Hanlon snaps.

Hanlon! Shut up! Your personality is wrecking all that hard work your brain did!

Dobbs, it turns out, was not working for Hanlon at all. (Gasp!) After finding the bugs last night, Columbo had Hanlon’s office searched because he thought he had something to do with it, and they found that his office had been bugged as well and by the same man. Was the skybox bugged? Funnily enough, no!

Anyway, Columbo thought that Hanlon might like to meet the man who was recording his conversations for the past two weeks. Hanlon says of course he would, and I think we all have a pretty fair suspicion of who this man is going to turn out to be.


He’s waiting, along with some uniformed officers, when Columbo and Hanlon arrive at the Wagner house. The exteriors in this episode are so great. In fact, all of the location filming has been wonderful at giving off that sense of a warm, sunny weekend right at the end of summer. There have been bright blue skies, healthy green trees, sun-baked tiles, evening light at the airport. It’s surprisingly evocative.

So, out in this beautiful weather, Walter apologizes for hiring Dobbs and tells Columbo that he’s going to provide the police with total disclosure of everything Dobbs was asked to do and all of the information received from the investigation. Walter’s a good person, ultimately. Hanlon, we know, is not. He declares that he is going to sue the pants off that old man for invasion of privacy.

Columbo tells them they might want to cool the argument, since Shirley is waiting inside for them and they’re all going to listen to the tapes. Hanlon is irate, because gentle delicate Shirley is supposed to be left out of all of this – is she his motive? He has said some awfully nice things about her, despite her general strangeness…

Oh! Just one more thing! Before they go in, Columbo pulls Hanlon aside and reminds him about the thing they were discussing yesterday, about the Ding-a-Ling ice cream truck. When he called them the other day, they told him all of the areas they serviced: Westwood, Hollywood, Downton L.A., and so on. At the time, of course, what stood out was that they weren’t in Eric’s neighbourhood. But, then Columbo got to thinking, and Downtown L.A. would include the concession at the stadium, wouldn’t it? And that makes it even more important to establish that Hanlon was inside the stadium at the time of the crime.

Hanlon laughs. Yeah, that’s important. Let’s go inside and listen to those taped phone calls! Maybe they’ll help do just that, who knows?

As the tape of Hanlon’s first call plays, Shirley watches the machine with a numb expression. There’s a part where Eric mentions that Hanlon introduced him to “a chick” who had been at the party, and Walter demands that the tape be stopped. “This was the very thing I was trying to prove! Paul was egging Eric on! He was just trying to make trouble between the two of you!”

Shirley says that they’ve been listening to the tape for three hours, and that reference was the first suggestion of anything improper. Walter desperately explains that the reason he hired Dobbs was to show her and Eric how Hanlon had been manipulating them.

Hanlon, of course, is ready for this. He claims that the “chick” was a new maid from an employment agency, and if Eric went and did crazy things with her, then that was hardly anybody’s fault but Eric’s. Shirley buys it. Literally nobody else in the room does, but there’re more tapes to listen to, so we don’t spend any more time on it.

Next up is the last phone call of Eric Wagner’s life. The one where Hanlon screams at him to get in the damn pool so he can be ready for Montreal. Everybody listens to that one, and at the end, instead of saying something like: “Oh my, god. I was the one who told him to swim, if I hadn’t wanted him to be refreshed… maybe he wouldn’t have…” Hanlon choses to be more like: “And does everyone have a log of when that call was made? Maybe it was at 2:29, making it impossible for me to have killed Eric at around 2:30 since I was still in the stadium a literal minute before his death?”

Dobbs has that log. Columbo is annoyed. He knows that Hanlon did it, he almost knows how. He’s just missing a concrete motive, and he has to break this alibi. But how?

Meanwhile, Shirley calls Walter contemptable for being jealous of Hanlon’s influence and hiring a detective. Walter, looking every bit a hurt old guard dog, tries again to explain that he had the tapes made because he was worried about Hanlon wrecking up everybody’s lives. Hanlon sucks, can’t Shirley see that?

Walter is unaware that a handsome man can distort reality just as effectively as any film noir black widow. Poor Walter. He’s a good guy.

Shirley banishes everyone from the house, except for Hanlon, whose hand she grabs like it’s a security blanket. Columbo stops on the way out, and gently tells her that there’s still a lot of investigating the department is obligated to do, and she tells him to GTFO.

The investigation has hit a wall.

But Columbo is so close. So close.

Three days go by, and when next we see the Lieutenant, he’s holed up in his favourite seaside restaurant, the one with the most affordable chili in Los Angeles. Columbo loves chili like he loves justice and cigars. In fact, in some parts of Asia, spirits of justice are known for their love of spicy food and fragrant incense. They also appear shorter than the average human when appearing in mortal form, and drive murderers insane by never letting them relax. Probably a coincidence.

Hey, Dobbs is here! What’s up, Dobbs?

Oh. It turns out that Columbo is still low-key blackmailing him by refusing to give him his P.I. license back. And also that Columbo has been listening to Eric Wagner’s final phone call literally hundreds of times, trying to find some kind of crack. What kind of a general manager, Columbo wonders aloud, makes a telephone call right when they call pass interference against his own team on the two yard line?

“Maybe he made the phone call from someplace else, you ever think of that?” Dobbs says, “Someplace where there was a radio broadcasting.”

Dobbs, you genius cockroach! That’s it!

But Columbo can’t do anything with that information right now, and he needs to ask Dobbs how he managed to get the bugging equipment in Hanlon’s office. Dobbs hedges, since hedging on giving the cops his sources is the crux of his character, but not only has his license not yet been returned, neither has his listening equipment. And that stuff is worth six hundred bucks. It would be a shame if the police department held onto to it for a really, really, really long time.

“Alright. I put a girl in Hanlon’s office.”

The girl was one Eve Babcock, who worked as a secretary for about three days before Hanlon fired her. Of course, three days was long enough to plant the bugs. Dobbs uses her for little things every now and then, since she likes the change from her usual line of work.

And it turns out that Eve Babcock is being played by Valerie “Rhoda Morgenstern” Harper!

That evening, Eve is getting ready for her next date, in a rather elegant apartment, when Columbo rings her doorbell. There is some confusion, as Eve thinks that Columbo is her next client and tells him she’s “been expecting him.” And Columbo doesn’t, at first, realize the mix up.

Valerie Harper reminds me of Madeline Khan in Blazing Saddles a bit here, and it’s interesting to note that this predates that film by a couple of years. (But since it’s all making fun of Marlene Dietrich anyway, it doesn’t really mean much.)

She decides that they’ll go to the Luau for drinks, and then to Chasen’s for dinner, and Columbo is like: “I hadn’t planned on dinner…”

Homicide detectives, apparently, don’t see a lot of the Holly Golightly types.

The penny drops for Columbo when Eve says that she wishes Harry would’ve told her she didn’t have to plan a whole evening. He blushes like a fiend. Columbo is very easily embarrassed when matters of the bedroom come up – there’s a much later episode, from the late 80’s I think, where the murderer is a sex therapist and he spends half the time clearing his throat and averting his gaze. It’s really endearing.

So, Eve’s actual client turns up, and Columbo chooses this moment to introduce himself as a lieutenant with the police department.

With the client gone, Eve sits right down at the phone and announces she’s calling her attorney.

“Instead of calling your attorney, why don’t you put this appointment book someplace where I can’t see it? Because I’m not here to hurt you.”

He’s just here to ask a few questions about Paul Hanlon, because he’s investigating the death of Eric Wagner. He doesn’t care about the phone tapping thing, that’s not what’s bothering him. What’s bothering him is why Miss Babcock was fired after only three days. She’s beautiful (he actually says: “You’d be an ornament in any office” which seriously used to be a compliment) and she seems smart. Also, Paul Hanlon seems like the kind of guy who would keep a bad typist around for at least a week if she was as good looking as Rhoda, come on. Is it possible that Hanlon caught her planting the bugs and, for some reason, bought her off? Maybe so she wouldn’t tell everybody that Hanlon knew about the bugs and was using them to set up his alibi?

Eve doesn’t like where this is going, and starts to protest Columbo’s gall. As she gets more emotional, her slight European accent thickens, and our illustrious investigator figures out that Eve Babcock is Hungarian. He tells her to calm down, he’s leaving. And then he remembers to ask her just one more thing: Is there any chance she also goes by the name Rokocyz? And that she phoned the Wagner house yesterday and then got a return phone call from an airport payphone? Aha! Got you, Rhoda! Bam!

Anyway, that’s all. An officer will be by tomorrow to get your statement and everything. Have a nice dinner.

For most of the next day, Columbo spends his time thinking.

 He hangs out at the stadium, checks out where the ice cream trucks parks, does his best to retrace every stray thought Hanlon must’ve had while he was planning this thing.

It’s obvious that Hanlon killed Eric, but there’s not enough to charge him. He starts rummaging around in the little details.

He goes to the travel agent to see if Hanlon actually booked a flight to Montreal.

The snobbish travel agent, who for some reason is dressed like Captain Von Trapp, says it’ll take a moment for him to go through his files. Meanwhile, Columbo hangs around the desk of one of the younger employees, cuz the kid has switched on the radio to listen to the football game.

Columbo lets out his woes a little bit about how this case has pretty much ruined football forever for him, and how frustrated he is. The kid half listens, nodding along and throwing out a few platitudes.

“It’s like I got hold of one half of a thing, and I can’t grab the other half.”

By the way, this whole travel agency is decorated like the board of Austrian tourism held it at gunpoint at told it to be more jolly. There are beer steins and the Von Trapp costumes, and a big giant cuckoo clock on the wall. And when that cuckoo pops out to chirp, it sings right into the Lieutenant’s brain.

That’s it.

He’s got it.

With the game going, he knows exactly where Hanlon will be. He lets himself into the skybox with a large leather bag of equipment and a smile on his face. The radio is on nice and loud, and Hanlon is enjoying a cigarette and a glass of beer. I guess he switched from tomato juice because vegetables can’t really burn foul deeds off of your conscience like day drinking can.

Hanlon is bored and done and kind of hates Columbo now. He gets agitated at all the little distractions thrown out during the conversation, and that’s exactly what Columbo wants, because it means he turns the radio down, but not quite off.

Down, but not quite off.

Just like he did last Sunday when he was first informed about Eric’s death. In fact, Columbo kind of does that same thing whenever Mrs. Columbo tries to talk to him when he’s got the game on; he turns it down just enough to pretend he’s listening, but loud enough that he can still keep track if something crazy happens. It’s normal. What was surprising was when Hanlon heard about the hose water on the decking and switched the radio right off.

Hanlon angrily picks up a pair of binoculars and tries to ignore his impending downfall.

You can’t hide behind binoculars. Justice is here.

As for Miss Rokocyz, or Miss Babcock? Columbo explains that he met her last night and knows that she was who Hanlon phoned from the airport. And he did that so their conversation wouldn’t be recorded by the bugs he knew were in the Wagner house. Of course, there’s no way Eve won’t spill every bean she’s got once she knows murder charges are on the table.

At the notion of murder charges, Hanlon switches the radio right off.

“Oh! Look! You did it again!” Columbo throws his hands up, “I guess you just can’t help that.”

Hanlon tries to keep cool and, god help him, he holds up those binoculars like they’re going to save him from what’s coming. But no. They just magnify objects in the distance, Paul. Put them down.

Columbo asks if it’s okay if they listen to part of yesterday’s game. Because, just “by coincidence” it’s around the same time it was last week when Hanlon made that second call to Eric.

He puts the tape on, and explains that he’s been listening and listening to it trying to hear any ambient noises to give away that Hanlon had been in a different location. Maybe a fire truck or some birds or something.

“But you didn’t hear anything,” Hanlon says, “because I made the call right here, from that phone.”

But maybe, Columbo suggests, everyone has been thinking about this ambient noise thing backwards. What if there was a sound that was supposed to be in the room with Hanlon, something that was definitely in the skybox, that couldn’t be heard on the tape?

“Like what?” Hanlon asks.

The final back and forth between Eric and Hanlon plays, second for second, at exactly the same time it had the Sunday before.

And part way through the recorded conversation, a there is a sound inside the skybox that is nowhere to be found on the tape.

You remember that hideous golden naked people clock? It chimes on the hour and on the half-hour. And at 2:30, it goes bong, bong, bong.

Chiming away Paul Hanlon’s undoing.

Ambient noise. Its presence is as vital as its absence.

Hanlon is stunned as Columbo shuts off the recorder and rewinds the tape.

And that’s the end of the episode! I’m not positive that there’s enough here to secure a conviction, but you never know!

Good job, Columbo!

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