Prescription: Murder (1968 TVM)

US / 99 minutes / color / Universal, MCA–TV, NBC Dir & Pr: Richard Irving Scr: Richard Levinson, William Link Story: Enough Rope (1960 teleplay) and Prescription: Murder (1962 play), both by Richard Levinson and William Link Cine: Ray Rennahan Cast: Peter Falk, Gene Barry, Katherine Justice, William Windom, Nina Foch, Virginia Gregg, Andrea King, Susanne Benton, Ena Hartman, Sherry Boucher, Anthony James.

The very first appearance of the iconic Lt. Columbo was in a 1960 TV movie called Enough Rope, an episode of the Chevy Mystery Show; the character was played by Bert Freed. The writers of that episode, Richard Levinson and William Link, then took their teleplay and made a stage play out of it. And, in due course they adapted their stage play back into the teleplay for the TV movie, Prescription: Murder, that would become the pilot for the phenomenally successful series. (It wasn’t the only intelligent crime series birthed by the Levinson/Link team, who sometimes wrote jointly as Ted Leighton: others included Murder, She Wrote and Mannix.)

Peter Falk as Columbo.

This third incarnation of the story retains a lot of the staginess of the second, consisting largely of discrete, quite lengthy scenes/set-pieces that are often dominated by dialogue between two characters. This theatrical quality may detract from Prescription: Murder’s virtues as a movie, but it lends itself well to the cerebrality of the piece’s plot, which is less a murder or detection story than the playing out of a battle of wits, complete with verbal duels.

Gene Barry as Ray.

Nina Foch as Carol.

Psychiatrist Ray Flemming (Barry) strangles the wife whom he married for her father’s money, Carol (Foch), a crime he has premeditated with his actress mistress, Joan Hudson (Justice); Joan plays an important role in establishing his alibi—that he was on a fishing weekend in Acapulco at the time of Carol’s death. Lt. Columbo (Falk) of the LAPD is assigned the case, and soon notices odd little discrepancies that persuade him Ray must be the killer. Before long we have a situation where Columbo knows Ray did it, Ray knows Columbo knows he did it, but Ray’s so supremely confident in his own intelligence that he believes Columbo will never be able to prove a thing.

Katherine Justice as Joan (above) and as the false Carol Flemming (below).

Which is, of course, the mistake murderers would make about Columbo all through the lieutenant’s remaining 67 outings.

Prescription: Murder is essentially a three-hander, with the great Nina Foch splendid in her supporting role as the inconvenient wife. Other supporting roles go to William Windom as Ray’s pal in the DA’s office, Burt Gordon, and the venerable character actress Virginia Gregg as Ray’s secretary/receptionist, Miss Petrie. There’s a pleasing cameo from Anthony James as Tommy, one of these people who habitually confess to crimes they haven’t committed.

Virginia Gregg as Miss Petrie.

Anthony James as Tommy.

An odd blip in the plot is that Carol was, according to Ray’s carefully planned scenario, supposedly murdered by a burglar who broke into the Flemmings’ apartment via the balcony window. Trouble is, it’s a penthouse apartment.

The Columbo we see here isn’t yet quite the finished article. Although he’s not exactly dapper, he’s fairly presentable, and his near-omnipresent raincoat doesn’t look like a rummage-sale reject. That said, he seems to get gradually scruffier as the movie progresses, and many of the tics and mannerisms are already in place—the lethal-looking stogie that persistently fails to light, the frequent references to the homespun wisdom of his (unnamed) wife, and the pause at the door followed by the inevitable “Oh, just one more thing . . .”

9 thoughts on “Prescription: Murder (1968 TVM)

  1. Pingback: Prescription: Murder (1968 TVM) – Ed;s Site.

  2. Great review, and it makes me want to dust off the DVD and watch the pilot again. You’re right about the nearly-there alignment of iconic Columbo elements; I’m so glad that the staginess went away and the episode directors and writers really thought visually — the opening shots/sequences of each episode are among my favorite moments, as we orient on where we are, who we are following, and what’s about to happen. And those image stills above: not one but two bewigged ladies on trendy 1960s telephones!

    • I’m in a sense lucky that I’ve seen relatively few Columbo episodes — most of them will be brand-new to me when I get round to watching them! (I wasn’t much into TV when they were first aired in the UK.)

      I’ll try to remember your penchant for bewigged ladies on the telephone when picking my screen grabs in future . . .

    • As I mentioned to Jason above, I’m not much of a one for television either, yet I did enjoy these on the rare occasions I saw them back then and on reruns since. I have it on my To Do list to make a more concerted effort to catch up on them.

  3. One of my favourite American detective shows – in many way, my absolute favourite. I think, in fairness, that one always sees this one as a bit apart from the series proper as it was a stand-alone TV-Movie when the format was still a comparative scheduling novelty, without any thought of it becoming a series when it was made. On the other hand, the follow-up film, RANSOM FOR A DEAD MAN, made nearly 4 years later, feels much more like the real thing and was expressly designed as a pilot to see if the concept could be extended as a series, albeit one that was never going to be broadcast weekly. This and INSPECTOR MORSE in the UK remain the pinnacle of character-based TV detective drama from the 70s and 80s.

    • I clearly should get round to watching Ransom for a Dead Man sometime soon!

      As I say, I didn’t watch much TV at the time (and still don’t), though I probably saw Morse more often than Columbo back in the day — the fact that I lived a couple of years in Oxford gave an extra incentive. My wife is a Morse devotee, however, so I’ve been treated to the entirety of Lewis and Endeavour . . . and doubtless the same will be true of Morse should PBS ever get round to doing reruns!

      • ENDEAVOUR has a very strong cast and on the whole is really good but does its own thing and tonally is pretty different. LEWIS plays like MORSE lite so am less keen on it myself, though the pilot was terrific.

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