March 21, 2016


It's the TV movie that launched twenty years of mysteries...originally a stage play, Prescription: Murder was the story that introduced the world to Lieutenant Columbo. As a complete done-in-one, it works....

....and as a pilot, it not only works, but it's easy to see what was later taken out.

Gene Barry stars as a psychiatrist who....well, this is a man who thinks that a relatively obscure Freud reference is appropriate for a party game. He's also dating one of his patients while maintaining a facade of a marriage. After being confronted, Barry's character decides to hatch a clever plan (although to be fair, he mentions to his girlfriend that they have had "months" to plan out this action) and murder his wife.

The interesting thing about Prescription: Murder is that Richard Levinson & William Link (the writers of the play) almost seem to be giving some preference to the murderer, rather than Columbo. This easily could have been a portrayal of a murderer who thought himself too clever, whose hubris defeated him in the end...

...but ends up being the introduction of a now-beloved character, and Falk works with this. Although a slightly more cleaned-up version of Columbo (let's face it - this was the late 1960s), Falk brings many of the touches that make the character unique: his seeming humility, his consistent references to his wife, and a real determination to see the investigation through. It helps that Barry gives Falk a great back-and-forth, setting the tone for many guest stars during the classic run of Columbo.

And the other interesting thing about Prescription: Murder is in the resolution. Without revealing the exact ending, it is set up in a way that is atypical of Columbo.

Falk's Columbo confronts the girlfriend directly, almost in a threatening manner.

It's a scene that would not necessarily work in later Columbo episodes - in fact, only twice can I remember Falk's Columbo losing his temper in an episode. (Which is not to say that he hasn't done it elsewhere - just that I only remember it happening twice). It's understandable why this scene - and a few other elements - were cut: in a done-in-one movie, it would make sense. For a pilot, other elements were more easily workable.

In a culture where arc-driven storytelling dominates media, watching a pilot can seem jarring. Prescription: Murder provides a great insight into the series' well as what might have happened had things not moved forward.

Definitely worth watching.

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