When Columbo’s metaphorical chess match became literal

When Columbo’s metaphorical chess match became literal

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for the current round of installments is “competition.”

“The Most Dangerous Match” (Columbo, season two, episode seven; originally aired 3/4/1973)

In which the detective puts a chess master in check….

Noel Murray: Of all the interviews I’ve conducted over the years, my favorite might’ve been the one with the late Peter Falk, whom I spoke to just a year or two before he reportedly began losing his faculties. He talked to me about his early days in New York theater, about his groundbreaking work with director John Cassavetes, and, of course, about Columbo—my favorite TV detective series of all time. I was practically giddy for the entire 45 minutes that we were on the phone.

I was a latecomer to Columbo. I didn’t watch the show when it originally aired, and didn’t start watching it in reruns until the mid-’90s, when I was out of work for several months and spent my afternoons absorbed by the block of old mystery shows that aired on A&E. The appeal of Columbo, to me, was manifold. In the early seasons in particular, the series had a lot of style, mixing naturalistic moments with the occasional jazzy bit of editing and/or cinematography. It’s also a fascinating tour through the Los Angeles of the era, as our chili-eating, slobby detective corners socialites, Hollywood players, artists, and tycoons alike, bringing a bit of earthy reality to L.A.’s more rarified spaces. And I love the structure of Columbo—not just the “see the murder and then see how the hero cracks the case” gimmick, but also the way most episodes withhold Falk for as long as possible, giving us a good sense of the world Columbo’s about to enter before putting the protagonist in play.

“The Most Dangerous Match” is far from my favorite Columbo episode. It’s a good one, I think—though I can do without the weird, chess-themed nightmare sequences—but I picked it mainly because it fits our theme of “competition.” Lt. Columbo gets called in (16 minutes into the 74-minute episode, for those keeping score at home) because the near-lifeless body of Tomlin Dudek has been found in a giant trash compactor at an international hotel, on the same day that the jovial Russian chess master is scheduled to play a much-anticipated match against his flighty American rival Emmett Clayton. But we’ve already seen that Clayton (played by Laurence Harvey, a distinctively edgy Lithuanian-born, U.K.-educated actor best known for his starring role in The Manchurian Candidate) tried to kill Dudek the night after the two men met casually and played a game of chess on their own, with Dudek beating Clayton and shaking the current grandmaster’s confidence.

So yes, competition is clearly at the core of “The Most Dangerous Match,” which is about a man so terrified of losing—in a televised match, no less—that he attempts to kill his opponent before the game even begins. But really, I could’ve chosen just about any Columbo episode, because they’re all ostensibly chess matches, between the salt-of-the-Earth lieutenant and the arrogant folks who think they’ve committed the perfect crime. “The Most Dangerous Match” just makes that theme more manifest by pitting Columbo against the cocky Clayton, who’s sure he’s made all the right moves.

Clayton books a plane ticket in Dudek’s name, packs the Russian’s bag, and even tricks Dudek into writing a goodbye note before pushing him into the compactor. But Columbo, as always, finds nagging details that don’t fit. Why would Dudek pack an ordinary toothbrush and not the special brush he needs to clean his dentures? Why did he write his goodbye note on ordinary paper and not the same special stationery he used for the envelope? Clayton counters: Maybe a bellboy packed the bag; and maybe Dudek wasn’t thinking clearly. Meanwhile, director Edward M. Abroms comes up with some subtle ways to reinforce the chess theme as Columbo and Clayton spar, sometimes framing the men so that they’re in little boxes.

Two things trip up Clayton. Firstly, his ego. It’s not enough for him to attempt to murder Dudek; he has to humiliate the old man. So when he tells the story about their chess match the night before—which began in a restaurant, played out with condiments on a checkered tablecloth—Clayton says he beat Dudek, which turns out to be something that Columbo can easily debunk, using eyewitness testimony and Dudek’s chess diary. It’s not the key to the crime; but it does mark Clayton as a liar. The bigger problem for Clayton is that Dudek doesn’t die right away. Clayton has to tinker with Dudek’s medication later to finish his opponent off.  The reason? Clayton is mostly deaf, and couldn’t hear the trash compactor turn off once Dudek’s body hit the grinder.

As I mentioned, this episode isn’t a top-tier Columbo, largely because the criminal’s too easily undone, and the action is largely confined to a hotel and a nearby restaurant, which robs the episode of some of the show’s usual “let’s tour Los Angeles” appeal. And again: those dream sequences… yeesh. But I love the way Clayton and Dudek play chess with makeshift pieces, so familiar with the contours of the game that they don’t even need the usual supplies. (It’s like that old story about the prisoners who’ve heard the same jokes so many times that they can tell them by number.) And I love the way that Columbo keeps flattering Clayton, raving about the chess champion’s memory, and saying things like, “I got a cousin up there in Albany, he wears big thick glasses and he thinks you’re the greatest thing in the world,” even while Clayton is dismissing the lieutenant’s inquiries and questioning the integrity of the Los Angeles Police Department. (Clayton tells Columbo that he kept quiet about his chess match with Dudek because if he’d told a cop then “for 20 bucks, any reporter could buy that story.”) 

Best of all, I love the way the two men reveal what they know about the case in small chunks, like chess players giving up materiel while playing a long game. “The Most Dangerous Match” climaxes with Clayton getting grilled by Columbo while trying to play multiple matches at once—including the one with the lieutenant—and as soon as Columbo catches Clayton on the “too deaf to know if he’d finished off his prey” mistake, the episode just ends, abruptly, like a defeated foe tipping over his king and conceding a match.

And why does Columbo win? The answer lies in a comment that Clayton makes at the start of the episode, when he says he has “no curiosity” about Dudek’s private life, because curiosity leads to sympathy, which leads to weakness. Contrast that with Columbo, who’s always curious… always learning his opponents’ weaknesses by raising his hand to ask “just one more thing.”

Phil Dyess-Nugent: The ’70s was a decade full of cop shows in which the “personality” of the detective was supposed to be the main draw, what kept viewers coming back, week after week. Columbo is probably the most enjoyable of them, because Falk made the character such great company. (This is apparently a universal sentiment: Witness the scene in Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire—a movie partly founded on the idea that it would not be implausible for Falk to be a retired angel—where Falk stumbles around Germany followed by kids yelling “Columbo! Columbo!”) The show made no pretense at realism, and I think this helps it hold up better than some of the other shows from that era that tried for a cartoonishly gritty urban feel. (I remember a Mad parody in which Columbo gets fired from the police department because he builds his cases on such flimsy conjectural evidence, and always uses it to arrest “some millionaire” who then turns around and sues the city: “You never suspect the butler!”) What with their unreal qualities and the short-feature running lengths, the best of Columbo episodes now feel less like products of the same assembly line that produced Kojak, Baretta, and Starsky And Hutch than like late companions to the film series that were built around such characters as Charlie Chan and Philo Vance. 

I have a personal affinity for those episodes in which Columbo and the murderer become rather fond of each other. (The most unlikely of these pairings is the episode with Donald Pleasance, who usually played the kind of people one might expect would get right up Columbo’s nose, as a wine expert pushed too far.) But the typical Columbo episode is one in which the murderer is practically the anti-Falk: some huffy jerk with an inflated sense of his own importance, whose instinct to underestimate this babbling commoner is built into his DNA. Every actor who was especially good at coming across as an egomaniacal asshole, whether by virtue of talent and training or some other more, ahem, personal quality (coughRobertConradcough), got an engraved invitation to guest on Columbo. (Patrick MacGoohan practically had his own series within the series.) It’s nice that Laurence Harvey, who played one of the great tragic assholes of the American cinema in one of my four or five favorite movies of all time, was able to make it onto the show. (He died eight months after this episode was broadcast.) What with the dream sequences and the fixation on a game, parts of this episode feels to me like a homage to The Manchurian Candidate, though that’s probably just projection on my part. It’s hardly the only time in Harvey’s career when he glowered all the way through a role.

Ryan McGee: I love that we’re talking about this episode so soon after Ken Levine (one of the writers on Cheers, which started this little TV Roundtable in the first place) wrote a blog post bemoaning the complexity of most modern television mysteries. “There’s enough gunfire in these shows without having to shoot yourself in the foot,” he notes near the end of the piece, which suggests that in a desperate attempt to outwit the audience, many shows create narratives so opaque that the audience doesn’t have a prayer of solving the case before the heroes.   

I’m on board with Levine’s thinking, though mileage will vary on what is actually “too complex.” A good mystery should leave audiences feeling like they should have guessed the outcome, even if they didn’t. A modern retelling of this story would involve Columbo’s dog in some third-act craziness that defies logic. (I’m looking at you, Luther.) “The Most Dangerous Match” is never for a moment a whodunit, but it does hide the central mystery of its execution (pun intended) in plain sight through Clayton’s hearing aid. It’s certainly possible that I’m the only one on this roundtable who didn’t put two and two together. I’m bad at solving mysteries, and I totally suck at chess. 

Then again, I wasn’t particularly looking for any external mystery to solve. The pleasure of Columbo comes from watching the frumpy detective completely undo his opponents via tiny paper cuts of evidence. Since we’re not focused on trying to solve the crime, we can simply admire Columbo’s casual tenacity as he pursues the truth one almost-forgotten question at a time. And while this episode felt dated beyond belief at the outset, I was totally into the proceedings by episode’s end. After all, it’s not just the criminals that get caught up in Columbo’s net. It’s the audience as well. Watching Columbo play checkers in his first scene is a cheeky contrast to his antagonist and a way to visually explain how that antagonist views the lieutenant. Underestimating Columbo always undoes his opponents, just as underestimating the pleasures of Columbo undoes those who favor today’s byzantine plots over this show’s modest but powerful storytelling.

My question to you all: Is Levine correct? Have modern-day mysteries gone too far in trying to outwit the audience? What shows now balance complex mysteries and accessibility well, in your estimation?

Todd VanDerWerff: I love Columbo. That’s likely because my mother always loved Columbo and exposed me to the detective’s ’80s and ’90s comeback movies at an early age, but it also has a lot to do with Falk, whose easily amused nature worked well in the world the series set up. There’s always a hue and cry against TV formula, but Columbo is formula that works well. Seeing the detective march through the steps of solving the case is comforting, and almost ritualistic. I’d agree this isn’t one of the series’ best hours, but the comfort of the formula settles in like a warm bath.

What’s interesting here is that I like this formula, while the formula of Law & Order (which we watched last week) leaves me cold. I’m not sure why this is. It’s probably that the formula for Columbo offers more in the way of character development and fleshing out the world the characters inhabit. Or maybe it’s entirely attributable to Falk, who’s just the sort of presence TV was made to highlight. On guest casting, the two series fight almost to a draw.

Ultimately, I think it’s the plotting, that thing Ryan was talking about where it’s not always easy to figure out where this is going. Sure, Columbo’s case is ultimately built on a lot of conjecture, but the evidence doesn’t fall into his lap. He has to go and work for it, and puzzle things out in his head. That’s much harder to write 22 episodes of than the same number of stories where a crime-lab team magically discovers a certain fiber on someone’s clothing. (To be fair, Columbo never did more than 10 episodes in any of its seasons, since they were always pitched as TV movies.) One of my favorite pilots of the fall is Elementary, which does a solid job at a puzzlebox mystery in its first episode. But I question how long the show can keep that up before it turns into a CSI clone—or, worse, an Encyclopedia Brown adventure, where the show’s Sherlock Holmes is always catching people in minor misspeaks that betray their true guiltiness. Columbo succeeds because it lays out the case, sure, but also because it’s fun to watch this rumpled little man unravel it. He’s like a weird knight errant or something, always charging in at the last moment to put a ding in the bad guy’s plan. Could you get Columbo on the air today? Sure. But it requires a kind of writing muscle TV seems to have mostly passed by. Still, I’d like to see USA or some other network try.

Donna Bowman: If you don’t love Columbo himself, as played by Falk with a bumbling, obsequious, and socially tone-deaf veneer, I’m not sure we can be friends. “Whaddya say you and I get out of here, go get some ice cream, take our minds off things?” the lieutenant suggests to the patrician chess champion after they find his opponent’s dead body. It’s so ludicrous that you can’t help but sympathize with the murderer, whose anxiety over getting away with his crime is gradually replaced over the course of the TV movie’s running time with annoyance over having to put up with this oafish horsefly of a detective.

And that’s what makes Columbo such a satisfying formula—the burgeoning hubris of Falk’s targets. As they try to swat him away, they inevitably play right into his hands. But who wouldn’t keep making moves to hasten the arrival of the endgame under those circumstances, foolish as this strategy patently is from the viewer’s perspective? The man is a serious pest, and the murderers he chases always start with the premise that they are cleverer than anyone else in the room. In that light, the best scene is when Columbo distracts Clayton in the middle of his virtuoso multiple-games performance and causes him to lose one; I love the way the opponent apologizes for the checkmate.

Columbo’s thesis statement is distinct from those of Sherlock Holmes or Encyclopedia Brown. It posits that these one-percenters can’t stop themselves from overplaying their hands. “Does he mean… the match?” Clayton intones melodramatically upon reading Dudek’s supposed farewell note, containing the carefully staged rationale for his flight on the eve of the big game. He can’t help but underline what he’s set up, like my son gleefully pointing out the fork or pin he’s executed when we play chess together. It’s pride that gets them, but not the evil pride that makes them monsters. Just the kind that makes it unbearable to deal with buzzing, needling functionaries of a society they think they rule rather than inhabit. They’re platinum-level business travelers getting pulled aside for a pat-down by the TSA. And when the agent pulls out the gun or knife or bottle of Scotch they forgot was still in their carry-on, the rest of us peons in line get a moment of deep satisfaction.

Erik Adams: What impresses me—and this sank in deeper and deeper as I read everyone else’s reactions—is how well Columbo exhibits its defining characteristics without making Falk come forward to deliver a monologue about how Columbo is just a simple, salt-of-the-earth guy committed to stopping people who think they’re above the law. Before watching “The Most Dangerous Match,” my only experience with the series involved ignoring it during visits with my grandparents; fully engaging with the show for the first time for this feature, I was hooked by the way Falk’s performance and the episode’s script told me everything I need to know about Columbo (and Columbo) without, you know, telling me. The character’s nature is implicit even in those scenes with the dog, where Columbo proves to be a thorn in the side of even the family veterinarian, continuously extending his hound’s stay with the vet and showing no concern about carrying his stogie into the sterile environment of an examination room.

And in that regard, “The Most Dangerous Match” is an adequate reflection of its protagonist. The “complicated” plotting Ryan mentioned by way of Ken Levine takes the Clayton approach to building a TV mystery building, asserting superior wit to the person on the opposite side of the table (or in this case, screen) by staying several moves ahead by any means necessary. Columbo, meanwhile, takes its time, grounds the viewer in the essence of Lt. Columbo and his latest case, and applies a proven method at a steady pace. To put it in terms from “The Most Dangerous Match”: You don’t need to memorize a long and confusing list of medications and their dosages to win the chess match—sometimes noticing a small detail like the trash compactor’s automatic shutoff is enough for a victory.

Stray observations:

NM: Y’know, by today’s standard, Lt. Columbo doesn’t look so rumpled. Under that raincoat, he’s nicely dressed, and fairly neat.

NM: Sign of the ’70s: Chess is a big deal, in the Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky era.

NM: Whoever plays the cabbie really milks his one scene, delivering his lines extra-slow to soak up more camera-time.

NM: Is garlic really a no-no for diabetics, as everyone seems to presume about Dudek’s diet in this episode? A cursory Google search seems to reveal the opposite.

NM: Telling character detail: When the woman who set up Clayton’s match with Dudek laments what happened to the Russian, Clayton comforts her by saying, “You can’t take all the blame for this mess.” Uh… dude? She can’t take any of the blame, because you killed him!

PDN: It always cheers me up seeing character actor Jack Kruschen, who plays the murder victim. I’m not sure how much this has to do with his talent and how much it has to do with the fact that, the first few times I saw him on TV when I was a kid, I thought he was Captain Kangaroo.

PDN: One line that stands out in a weird way: Clayton telling reporters that he likes to unwind with “a good horror movie, if one is nearby.” He doesn’t come across as a likely George Romero fan. Considering that Harvey must then have been in preparation for his last film—Welcome To Arrow Beach, a horror picture that he directed and starred in as a psycho photographer with a taste for human flesh—this might be an in-joke.

PDN: I think that, in terms of its medical sophistication about diabetes, this episode might be the equivalent of the early Law & Order episode where Michael Moriarty basically considers throwing a murder case because the murderer is HIV-positive, so it’s not as if he’s going to live more than another 15 minutes or so anyway.

PDN: Are we going to talk about Laurence Harvey’s hair at all? There are shots where it looks like a comb-over, but if it is, it’s more intricately constructed than some NASA operations, and in one of the few outdoor scenes, the wind catches it and it practically takes flight. Then again, maybe we can just blame 1973.

RM: I’ll go on record as saying I actually liked the dream sequences, only because I thought I had wandered into an episode of Columbo by way of late-era Monkees.

TV: I’m not sure that I disagree with Noel on the awfulness of the dream sequences, but I still perversely enjoyed them. The one that opens the episode (with all of the flashing) is ridiculously of-the-period.

RM: Columbo’s low-tech approach to solving mysteries is awesome. It’s almost like the difference between Star Wars rather than The Phantom Menace: Yes, the space fights in the latter are more technically impressive, but the former gets more credit for the ingenuity that went into the initial attack on the Death Star.

EA: A question for those with more Columbo experience: If this isn’t your favorite episode, what is? What episodes would you recommend to someone who loved “The Most Dangerous Match” and wants to get deeper into the series?

NM: Here’s some good ones to start with, Erik: “Murder By The Book,” directed by then-novice filmmaker Steven Spielberg, and featuring my favorite ’70s TV personality Jack Cassidy (father of David and Shaun) as a mystery novelist who kills his partner; “Short Fuse,” “Etude In Black,” with Falk’s pal John Cassavetes (and directed by Nicolas Colasanto, a.k.a. “Coach” from Cheers); “The Most Crucial Game” (which I almost picked), featuring Robert Culp, Dean Stockwell, and pro football; “Double Exposure,” which features Culp again as a different villain who’s an expert on subliminal messages; “By Dawn’s Early Light,” which is about a murder at a military academy, and features a young Bruno Kirby; and maybe my favorite episode, “Make Me A Perfect Murder,” which is one of those cases where Columbo begins to sympathize with the person he’s trying to trap.

EA: I might be a Columbo novice, but I’m well acquainted with the NBC Mystery Movie [Mild, but memorable shock.] wheel’s spectacularly kitschy opening sequence thanks to secondary sources like Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Simpsons. I even downloaded the galloping Henry Mancini theme to listen to while editing this installment of the Roundtable.

Next week: How I Met Your Mother's “Slap Bet,” our Readers' Choice winner.