The Most Crucial Game

The script by John T. Dugan is one of those masterpieces of ellipsis, suggestion and prestidigitation that are more fascinating and breathtaking the more closely they are looked at. The most prominent features of the style are a consistent understatement throughout to provide a negative outlining of the characters and situations, the opposite of a silhouette (this figures in the unstated punchline—the murderer’s alibi is broken when Lt. Columbo discovers the ding-a-ling wasn’t in his office at the time), and an artificial polarity only partly masking a unity of effect. The essential opposition is between Eric Wagner, heir to a sports franchise, and his football team’s general manager, Paul Hanlon, a former PR man who wants to build “the biggest sports empire in the world”. Hanlon is nominally countered by Wagner’s attorney, Walter Cunnell, a Washington lawyer. Cunnell hires a private investigator, who hires a high-end hooker to work in Hanlon’s office and bug his phones (an errand takes her to Wagner’s home to bug the phones there). The idea is to curb a malign influence, but Hanlon spots the operation, fires the girl and keeps the bugs in place to establish his alibi. The point of this is to brutally clarify a simple hypocrisy by dissecting it along two separate lines. Hanlon claims to represent the founder of the franchise, Eric’s late father, and so does Cunnell, the family lawyer.

Coach Rizzo is blasted from the skybox before the game to prevent any interruption, and summoned at halftime for a pep talk. He defends the boy from slander, but at the same time is easily led by the nose.

Where every note counts, a score is more useful than any commentary. The many details of all this are the substance of the work, such as for example Wagner’s wife the charity maven who flies up from Acapulco on Azteca Airlines after his carousal and death (Hanlon meets her at the airport), or the stockbroker from Cincinnati who flees the hooker’s apartment in Lt. Columbo’s presence because she is an hireling, the new shoes bought by the lieutenant after stepping into the pool by accident at the murder scene (he asks Cunnell where to buy shoes like his at a discount, he asks a basketball player about to be signed by Hanlon where he got his), which are painful until they’re broken in, or Hanlon saying Wagner “was like a baby brother to me”, or the cuckoo clock in the travel agency that clues Columbo in and rings a fairly distant bell from The Third Man, they go on and on.

Eve Babcock’s office name is Rakoczy, which is mispronounced by Lt. Columbo (it’s an occasional foible with him) as Ragosi or Rugosi.

Kagan is extraordinarily able, so there’s a good deal of activity in the tessitura of the direction. Probably no Columbo is more brilliant in this respect, largely thanks to his discovery of the zoom lens as a means of cultivating long shots that can then move in close, but also to a generous sense of television as a stream of pictures.


Scott Joplin

The composer in the toils of his biographic existence (the script is by the author of such works as Emperor of the North Pole and Peter and Paul), it vamps for ten minutes and then tears into the “piano-cutting” scene, which delineates Joplin among his contemporaries as a genius of intricate design, with a modest diffidence.


The Big Fix

The Big Fix is a large-scale analysis of the radical movements of the Sixties as essentially a deflection of political capital from the Left to the Right. It does this in the form of a Raymond Chandler detective story, set in the present day.

Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss) is the Marlowe gumshoe (his name entails a joke, the solution of the case escapes him, though he gets a Pisgah view of it). A girl from his Berkeley days is murdered, a Chicano protest leader is missing, a wealthy industrialist (Fritz Weaver) wants Moses to find his son, who was last seen in Kashmir years before.

There is a campaign on for Governor of California. The two candidates are evenly-matched, both spouting gibberish in a televised debate moderated by a journalist weary of them. A radical of the past transmits a communiqué pledging to support the Democratic candidate by blowing up three Los Angeles freeways. The campaign recognizes this as fatal to its chances, Moses is briefed.

He learns that the radical is now an ad man (F. Murray Abraham) living in the Hollywood Hills, and not involved. Nevertheless, Moses foils the bomb plot. The missing son reveals himself as a campaign consultant working for the Democratic campaign (John Lithgow), and identifies his father (who wanted to send Moses to Kashmir after him) as the instigator of the plot in revenge for his son’s previous financing of radicals such as the ad man of today.

Notwithstanding the quarrels of critics such as Leslie Halliwell, the plot is pellucidly clear, thanks to the great skill of the screenwriter and the sheer mastery of Kagan. The details are of the utmost interest, political structures and alliances are developed in brief scenes or a bit of dialogue, the devices of the style are tellingly used, as when Moses goes for information to his source on the force, a young Assistant District Attorney with a radical past he threatens to expose. Moses’ ex-wife (Bonnie Bedelia) is in consciousness training (compare Ritchie’s Semi-Tough), identifying with vegetables. The bombing is handled with a remote-control sound truck (belonging to the Democrats, proclaiming the missing boycotter’s allegiance) filled with explosives. And these are merely a few of the surface details (note the meeting of Lithgow and Dreyfuss by night, with the Triforium behind them).

The realism is that of All the President’s Men and The Candidate, the underlying structure is akin to Wrong Is Right, and the immediate precedent for the style is Chinatown, but the great homage is to The Big Sleep. Chandler may be said to have refined the detective story into precisely this sort of dramatic representation (but see also Wyler’s Detective Story, from a play by Sidney Kingsley, for the theme of the Prodigal Son).


The Chosen

The script and production adopt the middle ground as best suited to circumstances. In Reb Saunders’ dining room by afternoon light you suddenly see the flexibility afforded by this course. The oaken furnishings and brass chandelier give the flavor of the synagogue, then Mrs. Saunders in her scarf and apron completes the Vermeer. From this same ground of period reflection (New York being familiar to us photographically and cinematically for a hundred years), Robert Mulligan keyed up Summer of ’42 along lines suggested by Andrew Wyeth. As Perry Mason would say, art direction alone is not best evidence.

There is a secure foundation of the script on David and Jonathan (Louis Malle borrowed an early scene for Au Revoir les Enfants), but this is merely allowed to permeate the structure. The script sets up a drama of real intensity with a quotation from Hamlet. Maximilian Schell and Rod Steiger are called upon to bear the weight of this individually, there is no scene in which they appear together. Reuven and Shaindel on the sofa achieve a note also struck in George Schaefer’s F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Last of the Belles’. The Hasidic wedding, in which Steiger as a whitebearded rabbi dances memorably, actually hits a note not far from Fellini. At the university (the entire film was shot on location), Kagan finds another scene self-expressive, the cafeteria with its brick walls and tall windows.

The drama intensely reveals a plain contradiction in the plainest terms. This might be called the Zionist and the Messianic world-views in the postwar era. The rules call for excommunication and direct action at the two extremes. The haggard intellectual in his oxygen tent conveys the stress of these proceedings. The rabbi explaining his life’s work to the camera shows what is at stake.

Another stylistic point is attained in a scene directly modeled on Goodbye, Mr. Chips (Val Avery as the college dean), and specifically the greatly undervalued Herbert Ross/Terence Rattigan/Leslie Bricusse musical version. Still another shows the passage of time as Reuven and Danny meet again at the university, Reuven with his slightly jazzy open collar and Danny with his beard. The effect is subtly conceived and realized in its own terms, like the exterior of the main building from a student’s point of view, or the marble buttocks of a Venus in the university art gallery seen after a dolly-round to get a fresh perspective. Things seen within the terms of contingent relationships.


The Sting II

For anyone’s money, and despite a wonderful script and performances, location shooting (on The Cyclone, notably), etc., this all walks away with the take when Jackie Gleason as Henry Gondorf just out of prison spruces himself up, looks in the mirror at one spiffy grifter, and gives the well-known signal.