Prescription: Murder has the honor of being the first time Peter Falk donned the grubby raincoat to play Lieutenant Columbo, a role Falk would become synonymous for for the next thirty-five years. While his performance in Prescription: Murder is not fully formed, and, at times, can feel a little different than what the role will eventually become, you can see a lot of the iconic characteristics and mannerisms that Falk would bring to the role. Although it is now commonly referred to as the pilot episode of the series, it would be more appropriate to label Prescription: Murder as a stand-alone movie which, due to its popularity, inspired NBC to turn it into an ongoing series starting in 1971. But Prescription: Murder set the template for the series that every episode (at least, most of them) would follow. It’s a template that would make the show iconic, and it all started with a killer psychiatrist named Dr. Ray Flemming.
Gene Barry plays Dr. Ray Flemming, a wealthy and successful psychiatrist who is cheating on his wife with a young, beautiful actress (played by Katherine Justice). As portrayed by Gene Barry, Dr. Flemming is a cold and calculating figure, incredibly smart and incredibly deadly. At the time, Barry was best known as the titular characters in the TV series Bat Masterson and Burke’s Law, as well as Dr. Clayton Forrester in 1953’s The War of the Worlds. I’m sure Barry’s turn as the cold-blooded villain surprised a few viewers who tuned into Prescription: Murder in 1968.
The film opens with some very trippy and psychedelic images that resembles a Rorschach test before we go to an anniversary party at the Flemmings home. The Flemmings are celebrating 10 years of marriage and while they put on a good face for their friends, their relationship is strained. Ray had had an affair a few months earlier and Carol found out. As far as she knows, the affair is over. But she hasn’t learned to completely trust Ray. After Ray leaves the anniversary party to help a patient suffering from a panic attack (and getting back home at one in the morning), Carol believes that Ray has begun another affair. She’s upset (but she’s “too well bred to throw a tantrum.”) Throughout the first section of the movie, Carol is emotionally exhausted but also, surprisingly, genuinely loves Ray. Her reaction when Ray tells her he is planning on taking her on a vacation to Mexico for a surprise anniversary gift is something like surprised wonderment. For just a few minutes, we see a happy Carol, the Carol that could have been if she had married someone who loved her just a little.
So, what about Ray? Did he ever love Carol? We learn that she came from a very wealthy family and Carol jokes he married her “for my money” to which Ray responds, with a slight smile, “Not yours, darling. Your father’s.” It almost feels like a marriage of convenience for him. He marries into money so he doesn’t have to work as hard to become successful. But now that he is successful, a divorce would be out of the question for him. Carol says she would create as much scandal as she could and ruin Ray’s entire practice. Of course, he can’t have that.
One aspect that would make Columbo such an iconic show is the way its audience finds themselves witnesses to the crime. The audience would know exactly who the killer was from the outset and would usually know how the murder happened and why. Prescription: Murder is no different. We see Ray and Joan (Kathrine Justice) discuss what their roles will be during the murder – after Ray murders Carol in an incredibly brutal fashion, he will ransack their apartment to make it look like a break-in and collect various valuable items to take to Mexico to throw in the ocean. Joan, on the other hand, will impersonate Carol by donning a wig and dressing up in one of Carol’s dresses, which she will then put in a bag that will go the laundromat to get cleaned. Then, at the airport, Mr. and “Mrs.” Flemming will have a very public fight in which “Carol” Flemming will storm off the plane leaving Ray alone as he goes to Mexico. Everything seems to work. When Ray gets back home, Carol’s body has already been found. But there is one thing he didn’t count on: a curious, little man waiting in the bedroom who calls himself Lieutenant Columbo.
From here on out, it is a cat and mouse game between Columbo and Ray. The best part of any given episode of Columbo is watching Columbo as he starts to suspect who the killer is. When does he figure it out? In Prescription: Murder, Columbo seems like he starts to suspect Ray by the time the hospital scene ends.
The best scene of the movie comes near the end after Columbo, having been “taken off the case,” visits Ray at his office and the two of them have a conversation about murder and killers. It’s a great scene. Here are two very smart men circling each other, really sizing each other up for the first time in the film. It is a classic scenario of “I did it and you know I did it and I know you know I did it and you know I know you know I did it.” And the dialogue, if not particularly subtle, sounds great coming out of these actors.
“Columbo, you really are magnificent. You really are.”
“Well, what makes you say that, doc?”
“You are the most persistent creature I’ve ever met, but likable. The astonishing thing is you’re likable. Has anyone ever told you you’re droll?
“Oh, come on, doc. Come on. Come on.”
“Oh, but you are. You’re a sly little elf, and you should be sitting under your own private little toadstool.”
The quote above strikes at the heart of why Columbo is such an enduring character. It’s not just Columbo’s character that gets analyzed in this scene (there’s also a conversation about how Columbo takes people by surprise by hiding his intelligence), but Ray as well. Columbo asks Ray’s professional opinion about “the kind of man that figures everything out in advance, who takes everything step by step.” Ray says,
“We are talking about a man who commits a crime, not the garden variety of barroom brawl, but an elaborate, intellectual project. What do we know about this man? Obviously, he’s not impulsive. He plans. He calculates. He minimizes risks. He’s oriented by his mind, not by his emotions. And he’s probably well-educated too, an orderly man, with an eye for detail and courage. Certainly, to go through a thing this like this, whatever it may be, it takes a strong nervous system.”
“Tell me doctor, how do you catch a man like that?” Columbo asks.
Ray replies, “You don’t.”
But one thing Columbo says in this conversation is that this murderer is an amateur. He’s got “one time to learn. Just one.” Amateurs make mistakes, and Ray’s mistake is Joan Hudson.
In the next scene, Columbo visits Joan. If the tension of the previous scene comes from two highly-intelligent people who “on the same wavelength,” then the tension of the scene with Columbo and Joan Hudson comes from the fact that Columbo is an intelligent professional who has a simple goal – to catch the killer – and Joan is outmatched, weak, and maybe even a little lost, and Columbo suspects that.
Columbo is very aggressive in this scene (it’s been a while since I’ve seen another episode of the show, but I can’t remember any time when Columbo becomes this aggressive). He is also very methodical. He parcels out information that he suspects and we know. He tells her exactly how the murder happened and he details exactly what her part of it was.
“I think you probably changed into her dress while she was lying there, and then you and the doctor went to the airport and had that fake argument on the plane, didn’t you?”
“Didn’t you? Didn’t you help plan it with him? Didn’t you help carry it out with him? Now, didn’t you?”
“Now, stop it!”
“Without you, that woman would still be alive! Without you, she wouldn’t be lying in a morgue! It couldn’t have happened without you!”
“Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”
Surprisingly, Joan doesn’t break here. She’s stronger than Columbo, and the audience, gives her credit for. Joan is a sympathetic character. She is not a criminal, and she doesn’t have a criminal’s mind. In just that scene with Columbo she trips herself up a few times, giving away more information than she intended. Plus, she has been manipulated by Ray into being a part of his plan to kill his wife. Going back to whether Ray felt anything for Carol, it feels easier to say that Ray never loved Joan, a “dime-a-dozen little actress.” Ray needed an alibi and Joan was available so he used her. “It was as simple as that.” And afterwards, when Joan outlived her usefulness, something could be arranged. “Like an accident, maybe.” This is what takes Ray down and allows Columbo to catch the murderer. Joan is hiding in the other room (Columbo set it up to make Ray think Joan committed suicide) and after she overhears Ray state his true feelings, she agrees to give Columbo a statement.
This is how Columbo catches his first murderer of the series. Columbo would go on to catch many more criminals but it would be three years before he would officially come back to TV. But every character has a beginning and Prescription: Murder was the world’s first look at Lieutenant Columbo.