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Episode review – Columbo Prescription: Murder

Prescription: Murder opening titles

A Columbo blog would be a feeble spectacle without some measured analysis and critique of the show’s 69 episodes.

Over the course of the coming months (and years) I’ll be offering my thoughts on every Columbo episode: the brilliant, the good, the average, and the very rare stinkers. I’ll be keeping it simple, providing a brief synopsis, plus my take on the single best moment and the episode as a whole.

I don’t pretend to be a great critic, or an authority on classic TV. I just love Columbo, and hope you’ll enjoy reading my opinions, and sharing your own. I’ll be chronicling the episodes in order, so today we’re rolling back the clocks to February 20, 1968 and that seminal slice of TV history – Prescription: Murder.

Prescription Murder main cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Dr Ray Flemming: Gene Barry
Joan Hudson: Katherine Justice
Carol Flemming: Nina Foch
Burt Gordon: William Windom
Directed by: Richard Irving
Score by: Dave Grusin
Written by: Richard Levinson & William Link

Episode synopsis – Columbo Prescription: Murder

In order to keep hold of his her fortune, the super suave and highly intelligent Dr Ray Flemming brutally strangles his wife, Carol, at their luxury penthouse and stages an elaborate charade with his beautiful young lover, actress Joan Hudson, to establish his alibi.

Fleming and Hudson

Scorching red-head alert!

In a damning indictment of 1960s airport security measures, Joan disguises herself as Carol (despite being young enough to be her daughter), and flounces off a pre-flight airplane after a staged argument with Dr Flemming – leaving the good Doctor to fly off to Acapulco to seal what looks to be an airtight alibi.

Upon his return home some days later, Flemming lets himself in to the apartment and assesses the scene of the crime. In a classic act of unsettling, Lieutenant Columbo emerges from another room and stuns the Doctor by telling him his wife is still alive – although in a coma. They dash to the hospital, but Mrs Flemming dies before being able to make a statement. “If it’s any consolation,” Dr Flemming is told, “the one thing she said was your name.”

Prescription: Murder airplane scene

Airport security has come a long way since 1968…

It isn’t long before little things start bothering Columbo. Why didn’t Dr Flemming call out to his wife when he got home to see where she was? Why was his luggage so overweight when he checked it in at the airport, and much lighter on the way home? What happened to the items supposedly stolen from the Flemmings’ home? What happened to Mrs Flemming’s dress and gloves? And what’s the story with Joan and Dr Flemming? With regard to the latter, he quickly establishes it’s more than a Doctor-patient relationship.

Although Dr Flemming predictably has an answer for everything, in a foreshadowing of the deductive powers he will show in the series proper, Columbo pieces the crime together. He comes to the realisation that the Dr is just too assured and too in control to crack. Joan, on the other hand, is a different matter. She’s the weak link, and he sets out to break her, leading to a memorable showdown at the movie studio where Columbo lays down the law and lets Joan know that he’ll keep hounding her until she confesses her part in the crime.

Columbo vs Joan Hudson

Columbo 1 – 0 Joan Hudson

Although Joan weathers the storm (just), she’s shaken beyond the point of return. She rings Dr Flemming in rising panic, but he tells her to cool it and ride it out. But the next day Columbo calls the Doc to Joan’s house and reveals she’s died from an overdose.

Upon seeing a bikini-clad redhead being dragged from a swimming pool and covered with a blanket, seemingly dead as a post, it looks for all the world as if Dr Flemming is home and dry – his last link to the crime a thing of the past.

You got rid of your wife but you’ve lost the girl you loved, so it was all for nothing, chides Columbo. Not really, scoffs the dastardly Doc, unable to resist one last chance to prove his superior mental capacity. Joan was expendable. He’d have found some way to get rid of her.

Lo-and-behold the real Joan emerges from where she’d been skulking, listening to every back-stabbing word. The other redhead was a decoy – Columbo having used Dr Flemming’s own airplane modus operandi against him to make him see what he wanted to see.

It’s the ultimate table turn, and with a simmering Joan ready to confess there and then, Dr Flemming’s future is looking a lot less rosy as credits roll…

Prescription End

Time to feel the burn, Raymundo…

Prescription: Murder‘s best moment

It has to be the ‘hypothetical’ conversation about the crime between Columbo and Dr Flemming over bourbon in the Doctor’s office. Adopting the ‘You know I did it; I know you know I did it; but you’ll still never catch me’ approach, Flemming oozes arrogant self-assuredness as the two men mentally size each other up.

With such conversational gems as Flemming telling Columbo he’s “a sly little elf”, it’s a scene boasting great writing and fine performances from the contrasting leads. Remind yourself of the brilliance below.

My opinion on Prescription: Murder

As a stand-alone piece of television, Prescription: Murder takes quite some beating. It’s effortlessly stylish from the Rorshach test-inspired opening credits, to the satisfying conclusion set inside the iconic Stahl House, and everything in between. It very ably captures the Flemmings’ wealth and exclusive lifestyle and is a magnificent slice of late 1960s opulence.

Gene Barry remains among the quintessential Columbo killers, bringing a diabolical assurity to the role of Dr Flemming that the likes of Jack Cassidy would owe much to in the 70s’ run. And while the rest of the supporting cast is also first rate, with the beautiful Katherine Justice excellent in bringing to life Joan’s dependence and fragility, this really is all about Falk and Barry, who dazzle in every scene.


Falk and Barry created a winning dynamic, rarely bettered in the show’s long history

The mental jousting in evidence here between the two is oft-emulated but never bettered across the show’s 35-year life span. Dr Flemming thinks he’s absolutely got Columbo’s measure. And on the surface he has. He’s shrewd enough to recognise that the Lieutenant pretends to be less than he is in order to be underestimated to catch out his prey.

Of course Dr Flemming, having identified these traits, will be far too clever to fall for Columbo’s tricks, won’t he? For even though he respects the Lieutenant’s talents, even thought he can see the danger signs, the higher intellectual plane Flemming operates on is sure to see him smugly best his police opponent.

Wrong. Despite his absolute confidence in beating the rap, Flemming still succumbs, deliciously, when Columbo outmanoeuvres him at episode’s end. His downfall will cast a long shadow over the series (think how many future murderers will make the mistake of thinking they’re superior to Columbo, only to be outsmarted), and again will rarely be bettered.

“Gene Barry remains among the quintessential Columbo killers, bringing a diabolical assurity to the role of Dr Flemming.”

Yes, when Prescription: Murder is good it’s very, very good. But a view I’ve long held – to some Columbo fans a controversial one – is that I would love to have seen this episode remade when Peter Falk was completely at home with the character.

Don’t get me wrong – I do love this episode and value what it represents. But this isn’t the Columbo we know and love. Indeed he’s a very different character here, being less self-deprecating, more openly knowing and shrewd from the start, as well as more direct and confrontational. There are shades of what the character will become – but that’s all.

Peter Falk 1968

The 1968 Columbo is a far more neat and tidy version of the shabby detective we’ll grow to love

And that’s understandable, for this wasn’t even really a pilot episode in the normal sense. It was a one-off mystery, based on an earlier stage show version, with no expectation that it would ever be turned into a serial, and no reason to believe that Falk would make the character one of the most enduring and popular in TV history.

While we have to respect his abilities, and nod appreciatively when he out-flanks and out-thinks Dr Flemming, could we have loved the Columbo we see in Prescription: Murder? I think not. It’s only later, when Falk had redefined the character, filling him with charm and idiosyncrasies, that we can truly love him.

Prescription: Murder‘s stage show roots, a strength in some areas, are a weakness in others. Is it  just me, or are some of the lines delivered in a rushed and booming theatrical fashion? At times I feel like scenes were done breathlessly, in one take. I have no proof of it, but I suspect Falk – known for his love of multiple takes, which caused frequent filming over-runs in the 1970s – raced through some of these scenes far more quickly than he would in later outings, when he was in total control of every nuance of the character.

“Could we have loved the Columbo we see in Prescription: Murder? I think not.”

Still, even if all this is merely an exploratory step towards the establishment of an iconic character, it’s still essential viewing. Take Prescription: Murder for what it is and you have a brilliantly crafted mystery, a supremely suave baddie, and a smart lawman who gets inside the head of his quarry and beats him at his own game – vital ingredients for the success story the show would become. And who can complain about that?

Did you know?

TM 1

Columbo 1962-style

Before it reached television screens, a stage show of Prescription: Murder had toured the US for 25 weeks in early-to-mid 1962. Written by Levinson and Link, and based on an earlier TV mystery they’d created called ‘Enough Rope’, Prescription: Murder the play starred Oscar-winning actor Thomas Mitchell as Lieutenant Columbo. It was, alas, one of his final roles, as Mitchell died in December 1962.

Dirk Benedict (aka ‘Face’ in the A-Team) would play the role of Columbo when the stage show was resurrected in 2010.

Do let me know what you make of my review – and what your own thoughts are on the episode. I’d love to hear from you, as I know this remains a real fans’ favourite.

And thanks as ever for reading. Look out for a review of Ransom for a Dead Man coming soon!

Prescription: Murder

Until next time, bottoms up!

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108 thoughts on “Episode review – Columbo Prescription: Murder

  1. This is a great and thorough review. I enjoyed your correct observation that this is not a fully realized Columbo character. He completely re-defines it by the next pilot in 1971 into the lovable aw-shucks Columbo we’ve all come to know and love.

  2. About four years ago, my local theater troupe discovered that Prescription: Murder, actually began as a stage play, starring Joseph Cotten as Dr. Roy Flemming, and Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. We were able to secure the rights, and after auditioning, for two weeks, I got to play Columbo opposite a fine friend as Flemming. It was truly the highlight of anything I’ve done on stage. It was definitely hard work finding the balance. You have to have a bit of Falk, because he’s so identified as the character. After about two weeks, I was able to balance my own performance with a bit of Falk. I gave up smoking, and it was not easy, so I never did light the trademark cigar. Instead, Every time the script called for Columbo to light the cigar, I would search every pocket trying to find a lighter, then give up and just chew on it. The audiences got a kick out of it.

    The play is much like a regular episode. The murder of the wife, and the beginnings of the cover-up, end the first act. The sequence on the plane isn’t in the script. The stage version ends with them leaving in act one, and then act two begins with the Doctor coming back to the apartment, and Columbo’s first appearance. Acts two and three are similar to the episode. Burt Gordon only appears once. Also, the ending is quite different. The set-up is the same, but when Flemming “discovers” Miss Hudson is dead, he decides to confess, as he has nothing left. (I like the episode ending a bit better, with Barry being completely cold, almost happy she’s dead)

    One of my favorite parts was the confrontation between me and the actress playing Miss Hudson. We really went at each other when Columbo seemingly browbeats her into committing suicide.

    Outside of the play, my favorite part was getting the costume. I bought a brown suit on Ebay, then for about a week, balled it up and slept with it under my pillow. To the suit’s credit, it never got that rumpled.

    Then, ironically, the next year, the same director did “Dial M For Murder,” and I played Ray Milland’s Tony Wendice role opposite the actor who played Flemming, who played the police inspector. It was a fun role-reversal.

    While not my favorite episode, this one is near and dear, because it brings back wonderful memories of the opportunity to step into the shoes of Columbo.

  3. My problem with the murder here is the same one I have with the killing in Othello. Like Desdemona, Carol Flemming doesn’t die immediately upon being strangled. She continues to breathe for several days, which means the strangulation has failed. Likewise Desdemona, after being smothered with a pillow, manages to name her killer before she dies, but if she can speak, she can breathe, and if she can breathe, she hasn’t been suffocated. Both these women should have recovered.

    • Completely untrue, I’m afraid. Strangulation can cause a number of severe injuries. Firstly, the windpipe can be constricted, which prevents oxygen getting to the lungs. Secondly, the voice box can be crushed, preventing speech. Thirdly, strangulation causes crush injury to the carotid arteries, which restricts blood flow to the brain and causes hypoxia and brain damage. And, finally, depending on the strength of the attacker, the cervical vertebrae can be snapped, severing the spinal cord and causing paralysis.

      There are numerous accounts of people being strangled who, while continuing to breathe, suffer severe anoxic brain injury and coma. Many remain in comas for years, but a large number will die within days or weeks.

      In Mrs Flemming’s case, her husband’s attempt at strangulation would have rendered her unconscious through constriction of the windpipe and carotid arteries. He clearly assumed she was dead. In reality, however, the crush injury to her windpipe was not complete, enabling some oxygen to continue to get through to her lungs. Also, the brain centre that controls breathing would still have been active. Therefore, Mrs Flemming was still able to ‘breathe’. The main damage Dr Flemming would have done would have been to one or more of the carotid arteries. This would have caused a lack of blood supply to her brain. She could have survived the assault if she’d been rushed for emergency medical treatment, but was she on the floor of the apartment all night until the cleaner found her in the morning. A portion of her brain would have been starved of oxygen for 12 hours or more, leading to irreversible brain damage.

      In short, Mrs Flemming was still ‘breathing’ in the sense that her heart was still pumping oxygen to her lungs, and air was still getting through a partially crushed windpipe, but the brain damage she would have sustained would have been impossible to survive. The functions of the brain centres would have began to shut down over the course of the following hours and days, eventually causing her death.

      Medically, the circumstances of Mrs Flemming’s death in ‘Prescription: Murder’ are exactly as it could have happened in real life, and there are a number of case studies were this occurred exactly as portrayed.

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  6. It’s interesting to compare the TV adaptation with the original stage play, particularly the changes they made to the climax. In the original play, Columbo does indeed fool Dr Flemming into thinking Joan (Susan in the play) has committed suicide. However, the Dr Flemming of the play did indeed love Joan and, feeling guilty over his mistress’s death, confesses to the crime. Joan turns up at his office after he has left with Columbo, oblivious that Dr Flemming has already confessed. The motive in the original play was Mrs Flemming’s refusal to give her husband a divorce, rather than threatening him with a divorce and taking him to the cleaners in the TV movie.

  7. Falk is not yet Columbo in this ep. I noticed he did a lot of Marlon Brando mumbling. He also frequently assumed a sneering attitude and facial expression. Falk seemed to be playing a smartass one minute and a humble, bumbling guy the next minute. A lack of character consistency. So this character is not yet Columbo, but there are many glimpses of the character Falk will eventually play.
    Thank you for writing this blog, i am excited to find it and i look forward to reading it all!

    • I don’t think that Peter Falk’s performance in Prescription: Murder is inconsistent. As Dr Fleming professionally observes, Lt. Columbo is a very clever man who is (sometimes) pretending to be a humble bumbler. Granted, this is not the Columbo we know, because this is the original version of the Levinson & Link character, before Peter Falk made the part his own in “Ransom For A Dead Man”.

  8. I swear every time I see this episode (it just aired again last night) it looks like Nina Foch did double duty as Flemming’s secretary. Was that possible? There was a strong resemblance.

  9. One thing they got right. at the very start, was having Columbo turn around so you could see his jacket riding up over his butt. This is the man Burt Gordon thinks might want Quite The Little Feather In His Cap. But sartorially, he’s not even on the same page.

  10. An excellent review. I appreciate your opinion on the retrospective approach to Columbo’s character. However, mine is that this pilot episode is more than just shades of what the character will become, they’re quite vivid colors that are integral to much of what follows throughout the series.

    Here we have a prototype replete with “just one more things”; the lieutenant consistently popping up (from the beginning of the episode, even); the wheels-turning-in-his-head moments — great music on this one too; maybe the all-time beating the murderer at his own game (the takedown of Bart Keppel is right up there too); Columbo’s tactic of wanting to engage in the profession of the murderer; the repeated lighting of the cigar that never stays lit and the checking for matches in different pockets; lost pencils/ borrowed pens; working his relatives into the discussion; and the little scene with DA Gordon in the hospital: “Exactly what is your point, lieutenant?” “Point? … Oh, I wasn’t making a point…” is classic; Columbo getting removed from the case but keeps on persisting; the ubiquitous little details and the loose ends that bother him, etc.

    Okay, the raincoat is new, he chews on the cigar an awful lot, and the grilling of Joan Hudson type behavior is repeated only sporadically in the series. But it’s precisely this behavior that is one of the key reasons we love him. That is, murder is the most serious business and catching the murderer is of course of utmost importance to Columbo. That he harbors a toolbox of means and tactics to craftily accomplish this – with much of this is on display in this pilot episode – creates a strong sense of fascination that will play itself out in one of the best shows ever on TV.

    In many ways, this episode is the color wheel from which the full spectrum of episodes is born and evolves. This episode is the big push on the swing that is pumped all day long and into the sunset of the Columbo series. First episodes may not be developed as those that follow, but the impact here is seminal.

  11. As an FYI – All the Columbo episodes including the movie “pilot” are available without commercials on Amazon Prime Video. I’ve started watching them in order and it’s a much better experience seeing them chronologically and without commercials. Also, on Prime they are in higher definition and much more clear. Instead of watching them out of order on Cozi or some commercial TV channel.

  12. My favorite part is when Dr. Flemming convinces his wife that leaving their anniversary party was all just part of the plan to surprise her with the trip to Mexico. He starts to walk out of the room to read, when Mrs. Flemming lets him know she’s in the mood for ‘amorous activity’. The look on his face is priceless. Like he just finished a huge mouth-watering prime ribeye, but then has to stuff down a tough, stringy chicken friend steak smothered in gravy, with side dishes like broccoli and eggplant, all while acting as though he’s famished!

    The main thing that jumps out at me about this episode is that a young starlet like Joan Hudson could never afford to own or even rent the Stahl house. I do like this Columbo character better than what he evolved into during the later run in the ’90’s-early 2000’s, which was a comical caricature of himself. I like his occasional combative side, and wish it could have been shown more, like how he dealt with Nimoy’s character in A Stitch in Crime. Not overdone, but one brief sample every episode or so.

    The gotcha on this one was excellent. Columbo appealed to Dr. Flemming’s condescending attitude and bravado, while Joan listened in around the corner, to hear him confirm that “I never loved that girl” and referring to her as a “dime a dozen little actress”, and stating that “something would have been arranged, like an accident, maybe”, basically spilling the beans that he’d knock her off next. The young ingenue hears this and gets ready to rat out Ray, and Flemming sees the red headed decoy. Priceless.

    • Yes, I am re-watching this well produced episode, and agree: the scene where Nina Foch transforms from cold blooded hate to pure joy (and relief?) at finding that her icily devious Dr. husband has actually been planning a romantic getaway is superb.

      • Actually I missed the subsequent look on HIS face–now I will have good reason for the next broadcast, although the show has many good moments.

    • I wholly agree. BTW, I also enjoyed that little bit of brief anger that Columbo displayed toward Robert Conrad’s character in Exercise in Fatality….as he did with Nemoy.

  13. Just completed this episode with the very young looking short haired Peter Falk and am totally in agreement with Columbophile. Every scene, as well as the flow, pacing, performances, and interactions of Falk and Barry are wonderful. My only complaint is how un-Columbolike Falk’s dressing down of Miss Hudson was. He was strident, and even maybe mean. But then he sympathetically puts his arm around the shocked and suffering Hudson, almost in apology. Although this scene is necessary to the plot, it (as well as a few other interactions) so us a Columbo nothing like the more quiet gentle spirit we’ve come to love. Yes, Columbophile, you are right on.

  14. Something that has always puzzled me about Prescription Murder is the “mystery of the moving telephone”. In the first act, great emphasis is placed on the telephone on the bar. It rings during the murder and Fleming then makes out to the caller that his wife is still alive.

    Joan then uses the phone and pretends to be Mrs Fleming when she calls the dry cleaners. As Fleming and Joan leave, we see that the cloth she used to avoid leaving fingerprints has been left on the telephone, but then Fleming retrieves it and puts it in his breast pocket.

    In the second act, when Fleming returns from vacation to “discover” the apparent break-in and murder, the telephone has been moved to the coffee table in the middle of the room! And Fleming doesn’t even notice!

    Neither Ray or Joan could not have moved it and the “burglar” doesn’t exist. I suppose that Columbo and his men could have moved it, but what would be the point? There would not be two telephones so close to each other in the same room, so is this the first Columbo goof?

  15. In this episode Dr. Flemming and his wife lived in a penthouse apartment. That apartment would have been several stories up. How was the supposed killer able to enter the apartment thru the patio door?

  16. Dr Fleming’s Frederick the Great lawn jockey (in his office) is one of the coolest props I’ve ever seen. Wish I had one!

  17. I noticed that the shagpile rug in the bathroom here (so hygienic!) was the same one used in Death Lends A Hand, when the murderer was searching for the ‘lost’ contact lens. Perhaps it was corrugorating!

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  21. love the music at the start and I love the scene where Colombo interrogates Mrs Hudson in the studios very moving great acting , prescription murder is certainly in my top 20 , I always enjoy it.

  22. Just putting the finishing touches on a review of the new UK Blu of season 1. Watching them all with my Missus (a hardcore Columbo fan!) she pointed out, regarding the phony break-in of the apartment: “Who were they robbed by? Spider-man?”

    That the penthouse apartment was robbed by going in through the patio doors really isn’t pointed out by Columbo, let alone the rank n’ file police.

    It’s still a really good story, even if Columbo comes across as somewhat creepy and mildly abusive of his position.

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  24. Love this website. And this review. In demeanor, Falk’s approach here is more closely akin to the policeman he played in “Penelope.” That cop says out loud what Columbo never would: “The guilty suspect’s coolness is what ultimately trips them up.” Columbo in “Ransom” has the inquisitive, faux-confused brow that would play thereafter.


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