Columbo: Prescription Murder (TV)

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!

Episode Details

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.

The Verdict

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.

My Thoughts

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.

6 thoughts on “Columbo: Prescription Murder (TV)

  1. To me, Falk was Columbo. And he added so much to the character. I very much liked the inverted stories in this series, too, and that’s odd, because usually inverted stories aren’t my first choice. Some of them, as you’ve shown several times here, are excellent, though, and this series did do a great job of telling inverted stories. Thanks for reminding me of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You can definitely see his contribution over the first few stories as he takes this character and adds to it. It is odd to think that he was far from the first choice (Bing Cosby and Lee J Cobb were preferred) and how different the show would have been.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A classic of course. The first few seasons are by far the best. I just rewatched one of the best of the later ones, with Ruth Gordon.

    Falk was little known when he was cast as Columbo. Not for long though!

    There were several different detectives as part of the weekly mystery movie. MacMillan & Wife does not hold up at all, not surprising, and from the one I rewatched neither does McLeod. But the other starred Richard Boone , Hec Ramsey. It’s a western detective cross, set about 1895. It’s almost impossible to find, but was the best after Columbo. You can find at least one videotaped episode on YouTube.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are some fabulous actors involved in these – I really look forward to seeing the Ruth Gordon one but that is of course quite a few seasons away for me right now!

      Thanks for sharing your experience of the other shows that were in the rotation. I was curious about the western one so I would be interested to see it.


  3. Now these are my kind of inverted mysteries! Low on the whole psychology of the criminal thing, high on the cat and mouse conflict. Switching between culprit and detective to raise tension. Know any books fitting this particular version of the inverted mystery?
    I read a short story by Anthony Gilbert that showed the perspective of the culprit trying to cover up their crime, then switched to the detective and revealed the culprit’s identity. The rest of the story was the poor unsuspecting culprit falling right into the detective’s trap. It was very satisfying. Don’t know if she wrote any others like that one though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting. These sorts of howcatchem mysteries are a favorite of mine too and I can make a couple of suggestions though few alternate between cat and mouse quite so frequently.

      I recently wrote about The Devotion of Suspect X which is a cat and mouse game between a detective and a mathematician who is attempting to cover up a murder committed by a woman he loves. The same author’s Malice also has cat and mouse elements and is also very good.

      Hillary Waugh’s The Eighth Mrs Bluebeard is out of print but is a fun cat and mouse thriller told from the perspective of a group of characters who are trying to trap a man who has repeatedly insured wives and killed them.

      I would also suggest Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon. In both the detective doesn’t show up until later in the novel and in Croydon the detective remains largely in the background. There are still some of those elements though.

      And I will always advocate for Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying which isn’t exactly a detective novel but definitely has some cat and mouse elements, particularly in its second and third sections.

      Hope some of these help!


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