Episode Guide / Opinion / Pilot

Episode review – Columbo Prescription: Murder

Prescription: Murder opening titles

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

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

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

Prescription Murder main cast

Dramatis personae

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

Episode synopsis – Columbo Prescription: Murder

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

Fleming and Hudson

Scorching red-head alert!

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

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

Prescription: Murder airplane scene

Airport security has come a long way since 1968…

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

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

Columbo vs Joan Hudson

Columbo 1 – 0 Joan Hudson

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

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, Dr Flemming’s future is looking a lot less rosy as credits roll.

Prescription End

Time to feel the burn, Raymundo…

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.

Prescription Murder conversation

Columbo vs Dr Ray Flemming: there can be only one winner – and it ain’t going to be Ray

My opinion on Prescription: Murder

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

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

Prescription

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

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

Don’t get me wrong – I do love this episode and value what it represents. But this isn’t the Columbo we know and love. Indeed he’s a very different character here, being less self-deprecating, more openly knowing and shrewd from the start, as well as more direct and confrontational. There are shades of what the character will become – but that’s all. And that’s understandable, for this wasn’t even really a pilot. It was a one-off mystery, based on an earlier stage show version, with no expectation that it would ever be turned into a serial, and no reason to believe that Falk would later make the character one of the most enduring and popular in TV history.

Peter Falk 1968

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

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

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

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

Did you know?

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 one of his final roles, as Mitchell died in December 1962. Dirk Benedict (aka ‘Face’ in the A-Team) would play the role of Columbo when the stage show was resurrected in 2010.

Do let me know what you make of my review – and what your own thoughts are on the episode. I’d love to hear from you, as I know this remains a real fans’ favourite. And thanks as ever for reading. Look out for a review of Ransom for a Dead Man coming soon!

What’s your favourite Columbo episode? Have your say in the Columbo best episode poll here.

Prescription: Murder

Until next time, bottoms up!

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43 thoughts on “Episode review – Columbo Prescription: Murder

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  3. 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?

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  8. 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.

  9. 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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  11. 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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  14. 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.

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  20. 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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  24. 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.

  25. 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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  28. 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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  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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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