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.
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.
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.
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.
I forget which article and who suggested it a while back, but comedian Tim Vine has several newer Columbo skits on Youtube to include Prescription Murder. This one is quite well done and i like how he exaggerates Dr. Fleming spilling some of his drink out of his glass as he speaks with Columbo. I always remembered that little part for some reason. Anyway whomever suggested these back then, thanks again, and to anyone who hasn’t seen these check them out they are quite good.
Why did he kill his wife? It didn’t make sense … He didn’t want to marry his mistress, and he even intended to kill her too … he could continue to live a quiet life with his wife and be rich … why did he kill her?
After all, he had never loved her … married her for her father’s money. Entering this marriage, he knew about the lack of his feelings. He did it to be rich. He never loved Joan. Why did he kill Carol? To be rich yourself? How did his wife disturb him? For which things she did not give money? … we hear nothing about it …
In an early scene, Carol mentions the “choice” she gave Ray six months earlier: cease his “extracurricular activity” or she would divorce him, “create as much scandal as I possible could and ruin your practice entirely,” and take his every penny. Obviously, Ray wasn’t happy with either option Carol left him, Joan or no Joan.
I have to disagree with you about the best scene in the episode. It has to be the only where Columbo mercilessly, mentally beats down Joan to get her to spill the beans on Dr. Flemming. With all the screaming Joan does to get Columbo to stop, you would think it would work. Yet shockingly, she regains her composure and stands up to him!
This is the angriest we ever get to see Columbo, and a lot of that was of course due to the character being new and still to be really defined. But it’s the rareness that makes it outstanding.
I agree with you, but this in my opinion is for sure not the angriest we’ve seen Columbo.
This would be a good episode for ABC to save for a future special presentation; highligting its stage origin. I think its excellent and extremely entertaining. I was a little thrown by how quickly Mrs. Fleming changed when she was told about the trip to Acapulco. But I was happy that she was happy, sooooooo…….in other words, I was totally into this story, and that’s what counts. A great ride from beginning to end.
For me, there are 4 key ingredients to a good Columbo episode:
1) The murder is well planned and makes us believe the killer can’t possibly lose.
2) Columbo steps in and sees details that suggest the killer’s guilt.
3) Columbo and the killer have a very entertaining battle of wits throughout.
4) Columbo nails the killer with that undeniable piece of evidence.
Prescription Murder succeeds pretty darn well on #1 and thrives on #3.
On #2 it is a little weak because by the point where the dress shows up from the cleaners, it feels like Flemming is batting 1.000. But by the next scene, the false confession, Columbo seems too suspicious of Flemming. The overweight luggage and Flemming not calling his wife’s name fall far short of creating suspicion to the viewer.
#4 is also weak compared to later episodes because instead of being evidence, Columbo merely persuades the actress (through Flemming’s actions) to confess.
But on the whole, I find it to be a strong episode with much better production values than the series. Falk is a little rough to the role, but he is far more convincing as a police officer here, and his sharper look is refreshing. It was better when Falk was still being restrained in his performance (like in Prescription Murder) as opposed to later episodes, especially by season 4, where it became Columbo as Falk, instead of Falk as Columbo.
But from the other side the conversation in the office is one of the best moments of all Columbo episodes.
Great episode up to the finale, which I did not find as convincing as some other viewers did. The problem is, there is no reason for Joan her to confess at all. Sure, she must have been upset by what Dr. Fleming says about her, but being a jilted lover is better than serving I don’t how long for being accessory to murder. The police do not have any proof. We know she’s rather a volatile, but she’s certainly not stupid. I think also that someone like Dr. Fleming (getting desperate) would warn her of incriminating herself no matter the reason, and I’m sure she would listen.
She’ll make a deal. The D.A. needs her trial testimony. After all, she didn’t aid the act of murder itself; she helped give Flemming a phony alibi. False alibi witnesses are rarely charged with murder. Her unwillingness to cooperate in exchange for a light sentence was undoubtedly due to her misguided belief in Flemming’s reciprocal love and loyalty. That illusion is now gone.
She knew about it in advance, and was part of the plan by playing the wife in the airport, which seems more like aiding and abetting. In the end, I guess it depends on the technical differences between “alibi witness”, “aiding and abetting, “accessory”, etc. It’s not my area, so I would defer to people with more knowledge. Still, I’m not sure that Joan would be familiar with these distinctions, and, more importantly, I don’t see why anyone would go through this mess: a trial, a scandal, and a light sentence, just for revenge.
Not for revenge. For not wanting to be hounded for life to keep protecting someone likely to “arrange” your “accident.”
Exactly. It’s when Joan hears that Fleming never loved her (calling her “a two bit little actress) and that “something would have been arranged” that she realises Fleming had been planning to kill her all along. She owes Fleming no loyalty whatsoever, and would risk jail or execution herself if it meant wiping the smug grin off his face. That sounds like a pretty good reason to me, Tarek.
Carol says to Ray at the end “They said there was something I should hear” or something similar to that. My guess is that Columbo knew Ray didn’t love Carol and told her so, but she needed to hear it from Ray before she could be convinced to turn against him.
I meant “Joan”, not “Carol”.
This riveting mystery movie
seems hardly dated from the
first time I saw it. However, it has been surpassed
by some later episodes in the series proper.
Entertainment: 5/5 – 0.5 deduction = 4.5
No problem here. Although feeling a bit stagy with few
locations, it’s mainly an absorbing battle of wits between
Columbo and Dr. Fleming, the murderer. Viewer suspense
comes also from wondering how and why the Hudson-
Fleming pact will crumble, and they are not disappointed.
However, as a Columbo episode, this is somewhat amiss.
Falk is a little creepy here, perhaps too remniscient of Abe
Reles, when he browbeats Ms. Hudson. His raspy voice is
no help either. It would take another pilot for him to mellow.
Clues Leading Columbo to the Murderer: 2.5/2.5 = 2.5
Columbo latches onto every clue, and every sloppy mistake.
He even anticipates when Hudson visits the Fleming home
and is caught peeping/listening through the keyhole.
Final Gotcha: 2.5/2.5 + 0.5 bonus = 3.0
This perhaps works better before viewers came to expect a
gotcha at the end. It’s good twist, hoisting Dr. Fleming with
his own petard. Columbo has every right to expect Fleming
will continue his earlier discussion about the ‘hypothetical
murderer’, when he virtually dangled his guilt in the lieutenant’s
face. It also sets the recurring pattern of Columbo tripping up
his adversary with psychology.
Final Rating: 10/10
I recently saw the first “Inner Sanctum” movie, “Calling Dr Death” (1943) starring Lon Chaney.
It might be of interest to Columbo fans who enjoy Prescription: Murder, A Deadly State Of Mind, and Murder, a Self Portrait . . .
I have to nitpick the gotcha as well. Why was the whole charade necessary? If Joan called Columbo and confessed, then he already has what he needs and it was all pointless. Getting Flemming to say he didn’t care if she lived or died wouldn’t change anything. If she didn’t confess, then how was this set up? She called Columbo and…said she might want to confess? So he hired a redhead to impersonate her to try to goad Flemming into blowing her off so that she’d hate him? That wouldn’t change her statement, or the fact that she was an accessory to murder.
And also, Flemming talked to the coroner when he called her house, but when he arrives they’re somehow only just pulling the body out of the pool. Just a strange way to end what was a great episode.
Hi Ramenbot. I don’t think that Joan called Columbo, or made any sort of confession to Columbo, as she was totally loyal to Fleming.
I think what happens is that Columbo turns up at Joan’s house with several other officers (including a redheaded police woman, who borrows Joan’s bikini) and tells Joan that there is “something she ought to hear”.
It is only after she learns that Fleming never loved her and would probably have done away with her that she makes a statement.
Good point about the “body” only just being removed from the pool when Fleming arrives, but I think that’s just theater on Columbo’s part. Fleming was probably so relieved that the loose end had taken care of itself that he didn’t notice the timing.
Just watched this movie again…..the genesis of one of the greatest TV series of all time.
Fans of this episode might also enjoy a season 3 episode of The Mentalist called
“Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” . . .
What was most striking to me when watching this was how different it is visually. There’s only three years separating this film from the series proper, yet you can take one look at Prescription: Murder and tell it’s from the 60’s (proscenium staging, a very clean look to everything, colors that just *pop*), while the series is a clear product of the 70’s (free-moving camera, a grittier, grimier feel to everything).
Agree! But proscenium? Had to look it up :).
As I was watching this I thought the LA skyline background as seen from the apartment looked pretty fake. And then sure enough when Fleming is out on the deck with the candlestick his shadow is visible on the “background”.
I first saw this when it was shown by Granada Television, sometime in the mid to late 70s. At that time, I was already familiar with the character as established in the series. This was like a breath of very invigorating air. I could tell straight away that this was earlier, nearer the mid 60s than the 70s; a much more pleasing—to me—aesthetic. The clothes, the motors, the haircuts (bugger long hair!), and Mr. Falk’s appearance and characterisation; refreshingly sharper. The ideal depiction might lie somewhere in between this and the character as we see him in Try and Catch Me, and How to Dial a Murder. The history of this first Columbo yarn makes fascinating reading in itself. Originally, Columbo was supposed to be a New York homicide detective, the raincoat probably being more apposite there than in Los Angeles(!) Don’t know if Bert Freed wore a raincoat in the original TV version of this, But Thomas Mitchell certainly did in the stage production. It’s reported that Levinson and Link, when casting this film, thought Peter Falk too young (he was forty) for the character as they envisaged him. Now, wouldn’t it be fascinating to be able to see Thomas Mitchell essay the part. If you’re unfamiliar with Mr. Mitchell, try to catch him in any one of the many Hollywood films he appeared in during his long career; he was a truly great character actor.
The stage production of Prescription: Murder toured from January 1962, and ceased in May of that year when Thomas Mitchell became ill (he died of cancer that December). Joseph Cotten played Dr. Flemming in the play and recalled later: “Tommy’s understudy was able and professional, but the play seemed to lose its spine without Tommy and we abandoned all plans to make it into New York.”
Now there’s a thought. I knew about Bert Freed and Thomas Mitchell preceding Peter Falk (and about Dirk Benedict in a recent UK production of Prescription Murder) but it never occurred to me that Mitchell had an understudy. As such, Peter Falk was the FOURTH actor to play Columbo! Does anybody know who this gentleman is?
The guy who “confessed” to the murder. What was his deal? Was he really crazy, or was he plant put there by Columbo to test the Doctor’s response?
I think he was genuine, but Columbo was not above taking advantage of the situation to see how Fleming would react.
To expand on my earlier assertion: With any other suspect, Columbo might have tried using a plant, but in Fleming’s case he would probably be able to tell the difference between a plant and a person with a genuine guilt complex, so I think the guy is genuine.
To think of it that would be probably one of the most disgusting things Columbo ever does in the entire run of the series. To use a mentally disturbed man as a decoy is not as low as imitating arrest of a suspects son in “Mind over mayhem” but comes pretty close in my view. Especially because Columbo as a good judge of character should have realized this trick was never going to work with a cool bastard like dr. Flemming.
Whoa there! Columbo is not taking advantage of the mentally disturbed man. If somebody walks into the police station and confesses to a murder, the police would have to question him. And since Fleming’s wife is the victim, and he is a psychiatrist, it makes sense to get Fleming’s opinion as to whether the man is the real killer. We know that Fleming is guilty, and Columbo suspects him, but for all Columbo knows at this stage, Fleming might actually be innocent.
Mr Chris Adams; you are making a very good point. We – the viewers must assume that this man comes to the police station and wants to confess to the murder. In his disturbed mind ,he himself is convinced that he committed this murder. This situation leads Columbo to hear and to test out Dr Flemmings reaction – although I think that Columbo knew what Flemming would say. But NO way that Columbo is taking advantage of the mentally disturbed man !!
Thank you, Jan. Yes, at this point in the story the only “evidence” that Columbo has against Fleming is that he didn’t call out to his wife when he returned home. For all Columbo knows, the man confessing to the murder might actually be the murderer.
There is also the possibility, that Fleming mentions, of the man having been “put up to it” by the police. Or that he might be a cop himself. helping Columbo to test Fleming’s story.
I’ve always wondered if the hotelier at the end of “Mind Over Mayhem” is genuine, or a cop helping Columbo with his plan.
If I’m not mistaken,
this was the same
actor who turned out to be the actual killer
in the Sidney Portier film, In the Heat of the
Night. Lee Grant, the murderess of the
second Columbo pilot, was also in that one.
As the widow of the man who was murdered.
That ‘crazy guy’ was an early role for Anthony James, best remembered as the grinning chauffer haunting Oliver Reed in BURNT OFFERINGS, also opposite Clint Eastwood in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER and UNFORGIVEN (his final film).
I bought the DVD set a few years ago and constantly re-watch the episodes. Great review of the first Columbo and I agree that his character is very different from almost every other episode. The scene in the doctor’s office was one of the best dialogs in the entire series IMHO. I also wondered about her awesome place but figured the doc set her up nicely.
I think Joan Hudson is already fairly well off, otherwise how could she afford to go to Dr Fleming in the first place? True, he might have set her up in a love nest, or she could be house sitting. The crucial thing is that she needs to live somewhere with a private swimming pool.
I realize that they needed a pool for the storyline but it could have been done in an apartment pool which would have been more challenging for Columbo but maybe more realistic as far as what an aspiring actress could afford.
I take your point, but an apartment pool would have been too public for a secret affair involving a midnight rendezvous And there could have been other people using the pool when the police removed “Joan’s lifeless body”. We need to know that Joan has a swimming pool well before the final scene, and it means that there is a valid excuse to show a pretty young woman in a bikini.
It’s true that Joan is an aspiring actress, but she might also have a well paid day job, or wealthy parents, or she might be house sitting for a friend for several months.I agree though that this should have been covered in the story.
I recall an episode of Friends where it is finally explained how come Monica can afford to live in such a big apartment, even with a room mate. it’s because she is illegally sub letting it from her aunt. Viewers like to see attractive characters living in nice big homes, but it needs to be explained if it contradicts other aspects of the story.
Also, a realistically small studio apartment would be a pain to film in, especially when you’ve got two characters having a private chat, while in another part of the home coroners are taking “the body” away, all while Joan’s secretly listening from another room.
Anyone know the name of the BEAUTIFUL girl that flirts with Dr. Fleming in the opening scene party? That camera pans back and forth showing the anger of Mrs Fleming seeing the obvious flirt hanging on her husband. Help. Thanks!
The stewardess has never seen Joan Hudson or Mrs Flemming before. All she sees is a blonde in sunglasses and a photo of the real Mrs Flemming. As Dr Flemming says, people see what they are expecting to see. That’s why even he is fooled when he sees a redheaded policewoman wearing Joan’s bikini floating in Joan’s swimming pool.
Reading this wonderful blog on Columbo has made me want to re-watch the entire series and see if any of my opinions have changed over time. Starting with Prescription Murder, which I think is a really great episode to start the Columbo series with a bang (or a strangle). Gene Barry plays Dr Ray Flemming so well that he sets the bar high for all killers in future episodes. The plot is tight and well constructed and the acting is very good. My only reservation is that I find it hard to believe that the air stewardess didn’t spot it was Joan Hudson playing the part of the Doctor’s wife, especially with her making such a scene on the plane. Any scene with Falk and Barry is television gold, especially the conversation in the doctor’s office. The gotcha is also really well done Although Falk hadn’t fully realised the character of Columbo at this early stage it doesn’t stop this from being 90 minutes of brilliant telly.
One question. Who called the police to the apartment and why? The victim was unconscious, so it wasn’t her!
The maid calls the police. Dr Flemming has his wife call her to make sure that she will be coming in the next day as “sometimes she forgets”. This is a crucial part of his plan.
Mrs Fleming makes a big song and dance about finding the address book to call her, and reminds her to water the plants. The maid is never actually seen on screen, probably because this was originally a stage play and we don’t actually need to see her find Mrs Flemming.
The stewardess has never seen Joan Hudson or Mrs Flemming before. All she sees is a blonde in sunglasses and a photo of the real Mrs Flemming. As Dr Flemming says, people see what they are expecting to see. If Joan had consented to Columbo’s request for her to wear a blonde wig and sunglasses, the stewardess probably would have recognised her as “Mrs Flemming”, but she wouldn’t recognise her as Joan Hudson.
Still seeing new things in this episode. Columbo’s appearance in the cracked mirror, and the entire luxurious exposition that follows, made possible by Flemming’s goof-up. I never saw it til now.
It’s obvious that he deliberately followed Flemming to the park. But the subsequent _rendezvous_ with Miss Hudson on her way in: I finally understood it was from Flemming, stupidly setting up her appointment while the Lt stood right there. He made the mental note– be at Flemming’s before 2, and meet this person. But not a hint from him the whole time.
He would have interviewed Flemming anyway. They cover a lot in their little chat. But the visit was perhaps most valuable for his introduction to the weak link in this chain.
Also, if you have the DVD, check out what the Director does later, during the “Bourbon Man” scene. He’s got Columbo literally standing within Flemming’s well-defined shadow, for a few minutes. While they discuss being “in the mind” of the killer. I never noticed that, either. At first, it only looked like sloppy directing.
In “Columbo Goes to College” Columbo tells the criminology students that a detective needs to be lucky. But I think a detective also needs to make their own luck,. He knows Fleming must have had a female accomplice and when he hears the name “Joan Hudson”, it means that the “chance encounter” with her at Fleming’s office is nothing of the sort. All he has to do is see that her height and build are similar to Mrs Fleming, and check her name to make sure, and the case is half solved.
I do like Prescription Murder, but having watched it a number of times, more and more flaws crop up. For example, a girl who admits being a struggling actress just happens to live (without a roommate) in a stylish LA house with swimming pool. Even if her rent were subsidized, there’s no way he could explain the hemorrhaging of cash to his already suspicious wife. Then, when he comes home after his late night tryst, his wife is all but ready for a divorce. She turns on a dime however, as soon as her husband mentions a vacation. This ‘about face’ is unbelievable. Why, after doubting everything her husband has just told her, would she suddenly believe that he wasn’t home until 3 in the morning because he had been chatting it up with a doctor friend from Mexico about their trip. That had to be the lamest excuse of all! Perhaps the most glaring error, however, was the eyewitness! The stewardess was shown a fuzzy picture and confirmed, tentatively, that it looked like the woman on the plane who said she was Mrs. Fleming. Why didn’t they just bring the stewardess to the mistress? She could easily have confirmed that it was the mistress on the plane and not the wife. Case solved!
You make some good points. Perhaps the mistress had another sugar daddy, or wealthy parents who indulged her ambitions to be an actress and kept her in the style to which she had been accustomed? (It’s important to the story that she has a private swimming pool, for the fake suicide and to have an excuse to see her and the police woman in bikinis).
Dr Fleming is a master of manipulation and knows that the vacation story is exactly what his wife wanted to hear. The stewardess might have been able to identify the mistress, but only if Columbo could get Joan to wear a wig, sunglasses and a blue woollen dress with white gloves, which might have happened after the closing credits.
The real mystery is how Ray Fleming’s telephone is able to move from the counter to the table while he’s on vacation, and why he doesn’t even notice.
They shouldn’t have, but it’s possible that someone from the team investigating the assault, may have moved the phone.
Thanks for your comment David. Yes, within the context of the story, that does seem to be the only rational explanation.
To me the most interesting and sad thing about this 1968 pilot is the seats on the plane. Only two seats, normal size and legroom.
I gave up flying domestically in 2007 due to lack of legroom and when I had a rude customer decline his seat in my lap for two hours.
They were flying in First Class
I must digress. Even though I love this episode, I was slightly disappointed at the very end when the doctor knowing its over and he’s caught, just seems to non nonchalantly light up a cigarette and act like its nothing. I would have rather seen him finally lose just a little of that arrogance and seem crushed. But it’s a great show anyway.
I think this is way ahead the best of Columbo. There is a palpable air of menace and tension and a real battle between good and evil, emplifed by Columbo references to the tragedy of a body lying in the morgue. All of this was gradually erroded as the series wore on to become gentle comedy, with a bit of a puzzle thrown in.
One problem I have with the plot is how the police managed to set up the charade that comprised the final scene. It would have needed Joan’s co-operation, and, by giving it, she would have to all but admit that the police were on the right lines. What she would have done of course, is followed through her earlier idea and got a firm of lawyers on the case. They would have kept Columbo at bay and undermined his empty threat to persecute her into confession.
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.
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.
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.
Just want to correct you here. Desdemona, too, was strangled not suffocated with a pillow. The suffocation with a pillow was wrong understanding by some writers. (with the word suffocated)
Iago specifically told Othello to strangle Desdemona in her bed.
I am quite happy to accept Demodan’s medical explanation for just how Mrs Fleming died. What’s odd is that Ray Fleming is a medical doctor and should have checked to make sure she was dead. I guess that he is a strong, arrogant man, and therefore overconfident.
I was wondering about the police tape outline of the body. Once the maid discovered her, she probably called for paramedics to assist her. They would have then tried to resuscitate her and failing at that take her immediately to the hospital. Who put the tape on the floor? I thought they only did that for dead bodies.
Wow! That’s a great and really crucial observation! Unless it was a set-up by Columbo.
The place where a strangled
person was found, whether
dead or not, would still be treated as a crime
The purpose of the chalk or tape outline, was
to give a context to later crime scene photos
without the body.
While once used occasionally, they’re almost
never used anymore because of contamination
of evidence. They survive now only as tropes of
mystery fiction and films.
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.
Yes, when we did the show locally, I lent the director of the play the DVD of the episode to see if she wanted to follow the filmed route, but she preferred the stage ending.
God that was a blast. I think my favorite scene to perform was the scene where I try to break down Susan Hudson (Not sure why the name was changed for the T.V. film) Not only because the actress playing Susan gave back just as strongly as I gave as Columbo when the dialogue reaches a fever-pitch, but also because I know the majority of the audience came to it expecting the Columbo of the full-on series, and that scene, while extremely powerful, comes as a complete surprise, because Columbo in the series almost never comes on that strong on a suspect, so his forceful interrogation in that once instance came off as a complete surprise.
Hi Nick. Do stage productions have the option to use the TV movie plot changes, or do they have to stick to the original script? For example, I was surprised to learn that “Joan” is called “Susan” in the original play. (I understand that the clue about Fleming’s excess baggage is much more important in the play).
And I’m glad to hear that Columbo’s interrogation of Susan/Joan was not toned down in your production (any more than it was in the TV movie) to match his gentler style in the later TV episodes.
As to the name change, perhaps a real “Susan Hudson” had become prominent between the time the play was written and the TV movie was made?
Sorry for the late reply. We weren’t required to do anything, but in our production we stuck to the script. Ray was called Roy in the stage show as well.
We did consider one change during the production however.
In the stage play, Roy is absolutely shattered when he thinks Susan/Joan is dead, so much so that he decides to confess to the crime because he decides that if she’s not alive to spend the rest of his life with, then his freedom doesn’t matter. Columbo even tells him that wiith her dead, Flemming is scot-free. But all of the gamesmanship leaves Flemming and he gives up. After he and Columbo leave, Joan/Susan comes in looking for him, doesn’t listen to the receptionist very closely when she says Flemming is out indefinitely, and merely sits in the office to wait for him as the curtain closes for the end.
In all honesty, I liked the TV ending better, where we find out he entirely used her. The director asked to see the episode, I lent the DVD, but at rehearsal the next night, she said she preferred the tragic love story angle, so that’s what we followed.
We were also, sadly, in a non smoking venue. Now, Columbo’s cigar is iconic, so what to do? Every time I showed up with the cigar, I spent a minute searching my pockets for a lighter and never finding it, so I just chomped it for the whole play. 😀
Each iteration of “Prescription: Murder” improved the ending. The stage play’s ending is better than the original 1960 live TV broadcast, “Enough Rope.” And the 1968 made-for-TV movie’s ending is better than the stage play. Then again, the stage has its limitations. Swimming pools are hard to put on stage, let alone fill up between scenes.
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”.
you are right.. its like he is searching for the best character to play
Columbo is an consumate actor, a facet that stays with him throughout all 69 episodes. Very rarely to you see him when he is not playing a part. Occassionally perhaps when he is talking to another policeman, one who he respects. Not otherwise.
I think the problem that grows as the years pass is that instead of seeing Columbo playing a role within the context of the episode, we sometimes get Falk playing a role to amuse the audience at home.
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.
The secretary was played by Virginia Gregg
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.
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.
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.
Thanks Duane, I’d heard about that and will be running a short post about it over the weekend.
It’s via the IMDB TV Channel on Amazon Prime Video… I found it in scrolling through their options.
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.
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.
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?
The first Columbo goof would have to be Flemming hugging Joan at the beginning of the movie, yet his clothes are dry a minute later as he’s drying her leg.
Great movie, by the way.
Hugging her as she leaves the pool, that is.
It would be a major faux pas, but someone from the police investigating the break-in / assault could have used and moved the phone. Nobody had cellphones back then.
Hi David. As we have discussed elsewhere on this thread, that is the only explanation within the story that could make sense, but why does Dr Fleming not remark upon it? I suppose that he has a lot on his mind, and he is surprised by Columbo being there, but it should not be that great a surprise, given that he already knows that his wife was attacked and left for dead. And Columbo never says anything like “Gee, I’m sorry we had to move your phone”. Little things like that bother me.
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?
To quote Sergeant Vernon in Candidate for Crime: “He must have been a human fly!”
Better get down to the Suarian embassy and arrest Jeff Goldblum! 🙂
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!
This is one of my favourites
Do you consider this an actual episode or a made for TV movie that’s included in the box set?
It’s very much a made-for-TV movie at this stage. That’s all they were looking for at the time.
Cool, thanks, awesome site.
I got to play Columbo in the stage version of this episode. To say it was a dream role is an understatement.
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!
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.
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.
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.