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Episode review – Columbo Prescription: Murder

Columbo Prescription: Murder opening titles

Few dates on the Columbo calendar are as significant as February 20, 1968. Although the doughty Lieutenant had already existed on stage, in print and on screen in various guises for the best part of a decade, this was the day he went mainstream in a global TV movie premiere on NBC.

Pitting a young, neat and smartly dressed Columbo against erudite psychiatrist Dr Ray Flemming, Prescription: Murder gave the world the first taste of just what Peter Falk was capable of delivering in the role that would come to define him. We know how that panned out in the long run, but taken on its own merits, how well does Prescription: Murder still stack up? Let’s investigate…

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.

Prescription Murder Ray Flemming and Joan 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
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.

Prescription Murder 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 Murder Dr Flemming
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.

Read my top 5 Prescription: Murder moments here.

My opinion on Prescription: Murder

Every journey begins with a first step. When it comes to Columbo, Prescription: Murder represents a giant leap – and one that would leave an indelible footprint on televisual history.

As discussed in more detail here, this wasn’t the first telling of Lieutenant Columbo’s classic stand-off against Dr Flemming. Indeed, this was a story that had already been told on live TV and on the theatrical stage years before. Yet it remained a compelling enough mystery for Messrs Levinson and Link to succeed in truly bringing Columbo into the public consciousness at the third time of asking.

Columbo Prescription Murder
A low-key intro to a character that would win hearts and minds for decades

With hindsight, we now know just how big a juggernaut was being unleashed here. But it was never the intention for Prescription: Murder to be a prelude to a series. Levinson and Link were simply happy that their beloved play had been given the big-budget TV movie treatment.

For his part, Peter Falk was more interested in pursuing big screen opportunities than committing to television projects, so none of the main players expected there to be more to Columbo than this. Because of that, Prescription: Murder is very much an episode apart from the later Columbo canon.

Looking at it purely as a stand-alone piece of television, Prescription: Murder makes quite an impression. From the Rorschach test-inspired opening credits and satisfying conclusion inside the iconic Stahl House, to Dave Grusin’s magical score and everything in between, it effortlessly dispenses a magnificent slice of late 1960s opulence.

“Gene Barry set the bar extremely high and remains amongst the quintessential Columbo killers.”

Audiences responded favourably, pushing Prescription: Murder into the top 10 highest rated TV movies ever made at the time, with much praise reserved for the gripping battle of wits that played out on screen between Falk and Gene Barry’s Dr Flemming.

Barry set the bar extremely high and remains amongst the quintessential Columbo killers. He delivers a diabolical assuredness to the role of Dr Flemming that the likes of Jack Cassidy would owe much to in the 70s’ run. 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 is a small cast meaning it really is all about the Falk and Barry face-off. Lucky for us, dazzle in every scene.

Prescription Murder Gene Barry
The battle of wits between Columbo and Flemming remains one of the series’ best

The mental jousting in evidence between the leads was oft-emulated but never bettered across the show’s 35-year life span. 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 and to catch out his prey. He even memorably describes Columbo as a “sly little elf” and “the most persistent creature I ever met” during the pair’s hypothetical debate about the identity of the murderer.

Of course, having identified these traits, Flemming will be far too clever to fall for Columbo’s tricks, won’t he? Because even though he respects the Lieutenant’s talents and has recognised 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 during Prescription: Murder’s epic finale. Flemming’s 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. All in all, it’s a terrific turn from Barry.

For the show to be considered a success, though, audiences had to respond positively to the Lieutenant, too – and Falk’s performance made that a virtual shoo-in. His first Columbo iteration has presence and outward smarts (both mentally and sartorially) but is a quite different character to the one we’ll come to love in the 70s. He’s much more direct, challenging and aggressive – most memorably when tearing shreds off poor Joan Hudson in his bid to force her to confess complicity in the murder.

His ability to zero in on incongruities in people’s behaviour would become a trademark, but it’s all present and correct here from the get-go. Note how Columbo’s first reason to suspect Flemming is that he didn’t call out his wife’s name when returning home after his holiday. Similar to Columbo taking heed of Ken Franklin opening his mail and Barry Mayfield winding his clock at what would normally be considered times of crisis, we are instantly shown how sharp the Lieutenant’s wits are and how every little inconsistency will be noted. Flemming will have to tread carefully.

Prescription Murder Peter Falk
Young Columbo: smart, both figuratively and literally

For those raised on a diet of the meek and mild Columbo of the 70s, Falk’s initial interpretation of the character here can be a little jarring. We see shades of what the character will become – but that’s all. And while he’s a riveting presence who absolutely earns our respect, could we have loved the Columbo we meet in Prescription: Murder? I think not. It’s only years later, when Falk had redefined the character and filled him with charm and idiosyncrasies, that we can truly love him. In fact, 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 Falk was completely at home with the character.

Not that the mystery itself needs much tinkering with. Even when all 69 episodes are factored into the reckoning, Prescription: Murder is a rock-solid entry in the Columbo universe. As mentioned above, the gotcha moment is outstanding and extremely satisfying. Flemming’s murderous scheme was ingenious, his alibi one of the series’ best. If it didn’t, I daresay this episode ought to have had a material impact on airline security protocols of the day. His bungling of the actual kill may seem at odds with Flemming’s perfectionist character, but in terms of the drama it produces, I have few complaints. It’s just a really good piece of television.

“While he’s a riveting presence who earns our respect, could we have loved the Columbo we meet in Prescription: Murder? I think not.”

It’s certainly not perfect, though. Carol Flemming’s early episode mood swing from wronged wife at her husband’s out-of-hours visit to Joan Hudson to doting puppy after he lies about arranging a holiday for the pair doesn’t ring true. She either trusts her husband or she doesn’t. Here, she straddles both camps and it’s not very convincing.

Even less believable is that jobbing actress Joan would be able to afford to live in as swanky a pad as the Stahl House! We never get to know much about Joan’s background, so it could be she inherited the place from a rich relative or has even been installed there by Ray as part of his long-term deception plans. It doesn’t really matter but it always seems unrealistic to me that she’d be living it up this way. On the upside, it does mean we get to swoon at ample interior and exterior shots of the legendary location and that could never be considered a bad thing.

Prescription Murder Katherine Justice
How did Joan afford to live in a place like this?

Elsewhere, Prescription: Murder’s stage-show roots are a strength in some areas but 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 a single take.

I have no proof of it but 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 the production schedules. It makes Columbo come across as a less natural character than later becomes the norm.

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 – all vital ingredients for the success story the show would become. Who can complain about that?

Did you know?

Columbo Thomas Mitchell
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 for a UK tour in 2010.

Read all about the origin of Prescription: Murder and the Columbo character here.

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. If Prescription: Murder is your ultimate favourite, vote for it in the Columbo best episode poll here.

Thanks, as ever, for reading. Look out for a review of Ransom for a Dead Man coming soon! That’s when I’ll start ranking the episodes in order of preference.

Prescription: Murder
Until next time, bottoms up!

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127 thoughts on “Episode review – Columbo Prescription: Murder

  1. Pingback: Episode review: Columbo By Dawn’s Early Light | The Columbophile

  2. I rate every Columbo episode by its quality in terms of the following aspects: 1) Quality of planned crime; 2) Quality of detective work; 3) Acting quality of killer, and whether he’s a good foil for Columbo; 4) Quality of final Gotcha proof; 5) Complex psychological and moral issues regarding killer or victim; 6) Finally, the overall quality of picture, such as music, directing, pacing, and number of funny and memorable scenes. In this episode, the delicious psychological battle between Columbo and the doctor is so superb, the great gotcha at the end is even more satisfying because of who the killer is, the murder plot is extremely well planned, and there is not a dull moment in the film. Yeah, I miss the Columbo humor, but that is not enough to move this out of the elite category for me. Interestingly, the penultimate episode of the early years, To Dial a Murder, comes closest to recreating this structure, with the psychological genius vs. Columbo battle, the killer noting how he makes himself look dumb while planting a minefield, and the great gotcha ending being all the more satisfying because Columbo beats the sadistic premeditated killer by outsmarting him at his own game.

    • Leo, when I wrote my recent response to Columbophile’s review I had not read the responses under “older comments”; not a good move. I now see that we are also in full agreement, except that mine reads like a “Cliff’s Notes” summary compared to your articulate tribute. Great writing!

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  4. One of the best episodes even if this “early” Columbo is just a glimpse of the character.

    I like the idea that it should have been remade – it’s too late now – but if it had been, Gene Barry would have HAD to return as Dr. Fleming. The casting was great in this episode.

    I’ve searched for the show “Enough Rope” and can’t even find a minute of it anywhere. It would be good to see this presentation. Wish it could be found out there somewhere.

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  11. I enjoyed this episode and I found Peter Falk’s Columbo to be really interesting. This early interpretation of the character is a lot darker. Columbo’s unique style seems like an act and of course in the scene where Columbo challenges Joan Hudson (played by Katherine Justice) we see a very different Columbo from that we know from later episodes.

    I’ve watched a number of the first series before this one and it strikes me that while this pilot episode is extremely competently directed it is a bit conservative compared to some of the first series episodes. Cool things like the opening of Murder by The Book or the glasses crime clean up scene in Death Lends a Hand are not to be found here. Also although this pilot is made in 1968 and the first series is made just a couple of years later, this first episode looks quite a lot older than the first series episodes than it actually is.

    I did really like the story in this pilot, it was very satisfying. They really do nail the murderer at the end. Gene Barry’s Dr Ray Flemming is a great adversary for Columbo. He isn’t as dismissive of Columbo as many of the later adversaries but he does think he can outsmart Columbo and of course this is always an error.

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  13. from a columbo character perspective this pilot is like all tv pilots-weak compared to later episodes because the character is not fleshed out. But to me the real star in this episode is Gene Barry. he really steals the limelight here because his acting is superb. He is the most naturally elegant and sophisticated villain i’ve ever seen in any Tv show or movie. he wears the most expensive threads like he was born in them. His elegance is more effortless than james bond.

    None of the later columbo villains comes close in class to Ray Flemming. I think Barry’s performance here is one for the ages.

    only a guy from brooklyn can pull this off. (ha ha)

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  18. Something always bugs me about this episode whenever I see it on TV – is it ever explained why the blunt force trauma from being hit with an ashtray isn’t immediately obvious to the police?

    • Did you confuse this with “Etude in Black”? There the murder happens by hitting an ashtray on the head.

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  23. I’ve been enjoying your reviews as I catch Columbo episodes on tv. You put it exactly right, I think, when you said Falk wasn’t at home in the character yet. I didn’t like the way he spoke in this one–drawing out vowels way too long. It sounded like a Brando impression. I wanted my rumpled, easygoing Columbo back! Thanks so much for the wonderful reviews. Also thanks to the other readers for their opinions and information.

    • Im a huge fan of prescription murder its one of the best episodes , the background music the faked argument on the plane, the acting especially the interrogation scene between Colombo and mrs Hudson, also the hypothetical conversation ray has with columbo in his surgery make this a top columbo

  24. I just now voted for my favorite episode, called “Mind over Mayhem”
    Lee Robertson plays a child prodigy named Steven,But he tells Colombo that he prefers Steve. This single line shows the superb level of character development the show became famous for.The personnel in charge of casting were on the ball this time, presumably wading through hundreds of applicants before luckily finding this boy and his post-modern hairstyle.This young man is so smart, he invented voice recognition technology, and was able to program a robot to interact with Colombo, which startled the seasoned police detective.
    “I built it myself”he tells Colombo.
    “This is my lab”. The investigator is so discomfited, he forgets to ask for details about the electrical schematic, plexiglas forming oven, location of the aluminum foundry, or even the reason the antennas inside the humanoid’s head have to spin continuously. I won’t give away the ending, but the robot is never indicted as a co-conspirator, which would have put the finishing touch on this dramatically written episode. With his fine understanding of the Hollywood craft being proven here, The young Mr Robertson went on to co-star, the very next year in the “Willard”sequel called:”Ben”. A haunting moral drama about rats that attack and tear into shreds gentle and kind-hearted souls.
    But very tastefully done.
    Title theme music sung by Michael Jackson

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  26. All points well taken! I love your reviews, as they make me see some of my beloved Columbo episodes through the lens of an astute fan. I cherish this maiden outing as well for bringing an evolving Columbo to us (over time). & for its tartness & great dated ’60s vibe. Thanks for your wonderful insights!

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  29. One of the things about this episode I haven’t seen mentioned before is the idea of breaking the glass sliding door in order to suggest that the murderer/thief broke in that way.

    This would make sense if it were a ground-level house, but this is a penthouse level apartment! How would they have made it to the balcony in the first place?

    Of course I love the episode, but this has always stood out to me.

    • That was my thought exactly! 🙂 In addition, Ray broke the glass after his wife was already on the floor…wouldn’t there have been broken glass on top of her, raising suspicion? Columbo never mentioned this or the fact that Ray covered the telephone with a cloth for Joan to make a phone call. When the two left for the airport, the cloth was still on the phone. I guess that was a blooper?

      • I watched this the other day – Flemming did leave the cloth (I shouted at him as he went out the door), but then he returned a moment later to retrieve it – it must have occurred to him as he left.

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  35. Nice blog and review. And it’s good to see someone realize that Prescription: Murder was a one-off piece that wasn’t originally intended to become the Columbo of the 1970s. It was the character’s first (and to be presumably the only) appearance, so of course it wasn’t quite the same as the one in the series we all later came to know and love.

    Prescription: Murder was an interesting TV movie in its own right and it’s a great way to compare against how Peter Falk would later really make Columbo his own. Just like Dr. No wasn’t quite as polished as the other James Bond movies, it’s a good first step out by a future iconic character. But it’s not the end-all, be-all, and so many people lose sight of that because it’s not the same as a 1975 episode. And that’s their loss. I love to see the beginnings of a character, when everything is not quite so fleshed out.

    Characters, like people, grow and evolve over time. That’s what makes them interesting. You obviously get this, Columbophile, unlike a LOT of other reviewers. So bravo and I look forward to reading other posts in your blog.

    • Thanks Mark, I really appreciate such a comprehensive comment. We’re clearly cut from the same cloth when it comes to Prescription: Murder. Do let me know what you make of the other reviews.

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  39. In the stage version, Dr Flemming’s alibi was that he spent the weekend in Canada, at a hunting lodge “ten miles outside Toronto”, a line which got a huge laugh from Torontonians.

  40. It should be noted how vastly superior the ending of the teleplay of “Prescription: Murder” is to the stage play. In the stage play, Dr. Flemming is in his office waiting for Susan Hudson (yes, she’s “Susan” in the play),to appear for her appointment when he learns of Susan’s “suicide.” Columbo appears to admit his share of the blame for her death. Flemming breaks down, mourns the loss of his one true love, and tells Columbo that he is now willing to make a statement, i.e., a confession. After he leaves with Columbo, Susan appears, late for her appointment. She reveals that a police officer picked her up at her home and drove her around for a while. [She knows nothing of the suicide gambit.]

    The teleplay’s ending is much more consistent with Dr. Flemming’s character. [Note, too, that Columbo reused a similar ploy as he used in the television version of “Prescription: Murder” to nab the murderer in “A Case of Immunity.”]

    • Hello there, thanks for the comment. I wasn’t aware there was such a big difference in the endings, and I’m glad you’ve pointed it out to me. You’re right, it certainly does seem to be much more in keeping with Dr Flemming’s character for him to react as he did in the teleplay.

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  43. Damn, it’s going to be so hard to remake Columbo and it’s like they’re already doomed before they try. Falk himself is very intelligent and that’s the hardest part; you can’t fake intelligence.

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  45. I just went back and watched this episode after watching the whole 12 season set. It was interesting to see Peter Falk so young and also to see the foundation of the character being set. It is actually a very good movie and I enjoyed seeing the more aggressive Columbo.

    • Same here – it was a refreshing experience, so to say, to see Columbo younger, more aggressive and energetic before all those later cases shaped his more peaceful, kind attitude. It’s much like in life, when the passing time changes our ways and makes us more experienced. I really loved this episode.

  46. I too saw this Columbo as more aggressive and self assured than the later Columbo that we all know and love now. It’s an interesting example of the evolvement of the character over time.

  47. Great review. I’m definitely going back and re-watching again (which of course I’ve done many times before as we all have) and this time focusing on the things you mentioned about line delivery and he’s not the Columbia we all know and love now. Gene Barry was great as the lead. There’s something about a suave and debonair know-it-all killer who gets nailed in the end. Lol Hope this is okay to ask since it’s slightly off-topic. Have you ever watched Gene Barry’s own mystery show, Burke’s Law? I wasn’t even born yet when the original aired. But I used to watch the 1994 series with my grandmother. I really liked it.

  48. I enjoyed your reveiw, this episode was one of my least favourite episodes but as a fan i learnt to appreciate the different style, i agree that there was a glimmer of character he was to become and the idea of a remake when he was more settled in role was spot on.

    • Thanks Mel, I’m really pleased you enjoyed the review. If they ever do a reboot (and I don’t think they should) I’d be interested to see them remake this episode to kick it all off.

  49. On the point about what sort of detective he is, the best critique depends on hindsight: he’s not Columbo. From a writerly perspective, then, it’s deficient — that’s not the guy. But only in retrospect. Overall though, I don’t mind the elements you mention. They’re not Columbo though.

  50. Great synopsis. Enjoyed being reminded of pertinent details and looking forward to more.. Intriguing idea of a remake with Columbo in full form. Thank you for sharing your time, effort and expertise.


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