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…
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.
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.”
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.
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‘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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.