Given my love of inverted mysteries it was inevitable I would eventually get around to writing about Columbo. It is, after all, easily the most recognized instance of the form and it is my go-to example whenever I am asked to explain what I mean by the term ‘inverted mystery’ or ‘howcatchem’.
For those unfamiliar with the term it refers to a story in which the reader is told the killer’s identity and the questions relate to another aspect of the case such as the motive or identity of the victim. Episodes of Columbo follow that basic format, opening with a short depiction of the murder before switching to homicide detective Columbo’s perspective.
The show provided popular and long-lasting, retaining a strong following to this day. This is my first time watching the series properly (although I am ahead of the episode I am posting about and saw a few isolated episodes for the Star Trek connection as a teen).
Over the next few weekends I plan on writing about the first nine Columbo stories. This will cover the two pilot stories take us to the end of the first season. The next four posts are already written and scheduled so I might even have a good chance of sticking to that schedule!
First broadcast February 20 1968.
Followed by Ransom for a Dead Man.
Written by Richard Levinson and William Link.
Directed by Richard Irving.
Prescription Murder was a television movie based on a hit stage play that was itself based on an earlier television movie (from 1960). It was not intended as a pilot for a series although that would follow several years later.
Key Guest Cast
Gene Barry had become famous through his television work, playing the leads in shows like the western Bat Masterson and the crime drama Burke’s Law. Here he plays the killer, Dr. Fleming.
A pretty gripping piece of television. Columbo is still developing as a character but Falk is absolutely terrific, as is Gene Barry as the killer.
Dr. Fleming, a psychiatrist married to a rich woman, decides to kill her and stage an alibi with the help of his mistress, an actress who will impersonate her for a short time.
The first twenty five minutes of the episode introduce us to the victim, her killer and his accomplice and follow the action as the plan is conceived and executed. The murder sequence itself is superb and quite unsettling as Dr. Fleming strangles his wife during an embrace, her hand crashing down on the keys of a piano as she falls to the ground.
The sequence also builds tension superbly, giving us lots of moments where the viewer may wonder if the killer has given himself away. It appears however that Dr. Fleming has thought of everything and there are no loose ends at all but Lt. Columbo manages to spot a few loose ends which he doggedly pursues.
Though this pilot was filmed in 1968 it reworks a story that had been a television movie in 1960 and later a stage play. As a result of this long gestation process the story feels really quite polished and tight. This production makes the most of the scale of the production, giving us a lavish penthouse, psychiatrist’s office and the set of a Roman historical movie, but the core of the piece are the confrontations between Gene Barry (as Fleming) and Peter Falk (Columbo), both of whom are superb.
What this story does more than anything is help define Columbo as a man in a brilliant sequence in which Dr. Fleming provides his professional evaluation of him, summing up the character superby. While Columbo is a little more ruffled and seemingly absent-minded in later stories, that statement really gets at the core of who he is and will become in later episodes. Who knows, perhaps Fleming inspires the character to play up those attributes more?
I enjoyed this story a lot, particularly for Barry’s performance as the overly confident killer. If there is a weak point I think it is that the trap aspect of the ending strikes me as a little bit of a lazy way out of having designed an apparently perfect murder but that is hardly unique to this story. I also think you can argue that Columbo does at least work out how the crime was done and assesses where the weakness is in Fleming’s plan so the trap serves to provide evidence for the thing he already is certain of.
One thing is for sure – it is clear from watching this episode that Falk was inspired casting as Columbo. He is always captivating to watch, even when he is not speaking. No wonder the character would return the following year for what would be a pilot for an ongoing television series.