Directed by: Richard Irving
Written by: Richard Levinson and William Link
Air Date: February 20, 1968
Next: Ransom for a Dead Man
Guest Starring: Gene Barry, Katherine Justice, Nina Foch
Originally it was a one-off TV Movie, and it was a Recursive Adaptation. The character originated with a 1960 episode of The Chevy Mystery Show entitled "Enough Rope", in which Bert Freed played Columbo. Creators Richard Levinson & William Link then adapted that story into a stage play, Prescription: Murder which originally starred Thomas Mitchell before Mitchell died of cancer. The play was then adapted into this TV movie, which starred Peter Falk as Lt. Columbo and ran on NBC in 1968. The next Columbo movie wouldn't air until 1971.
Brilliant, well-respected psychiatrist Dr. Ray Fleming (Gene Barry) is celebrating his tenth anniversary to his overbearing wife Carol (Nina Foch) when he gets a call from his mistress/patient, a neurotic aspiring actress named Joan (Katherine Justice). Over his wife's protests, Ray leaves the party (to "visit a patient") and spends several hours with Joan. When he returns, Carol makes it quite clear she knows what's going on, and reminds him of an ultimatum she made last time she caught him philandering: her divorce would be a nasty affair that would both deprive him of much of his money and also severely damage his reputation. Fleming is able to win Carol back by revealing that he had planned a surprise vacation for both of them to Acapulco, and finalizing the reservations was the reason he had to leave the party when he did.
As it turns out, Fleming has planned a trip to Acapulco, but his wife isn't going with him. He, with Joan's help, has devised what appears to be the perfect murder. Fleming strangles Carol and stages a burglary, breaking a window and stashing her jewelry and some silver in his suitcases. Then, with Joan disguised in Carol's dress, hat, and sunglasses, the two of them drive to the airport and stage a fight on the plane, with Joan, as "Mrs. Fleming", storming off just before takeoff. She then returns the dress to a laundry bundle left outside Fleming's door for the dry cleaners. After landing in Acapulco, Fleming proceeds to dump all of the silver and jewelry in the ocean.
When Fleming returns home, he sees the window boarded up and a tape outline of a body on the floor. Columbo then comes in from the bedroom and introduces himself, telling Fleming that somebody tried to kill his wife and she is currently lying in a coma in the hospital. Fleming plays the upset husband role well, but is also clearly worried that Carol might regain consciousness, and rushes to the hospital with Columbo in tow. Soon after he arrives, he is told Carol passed away. The doctor offers consolation, saying "The last thing she said was your name".
Columbo is immediately suspicious of Ray Fleming. First of all, he wonders why Ray never called out to his wife when he first arrived home... in fact, he showed little signs of panic or confusion at all. Investigating further, Columbo discovers a discrepancy in the weight of Fleming's luggage on the flights to and from Acapulco... his bags were nine pounds lighter coming back than they were going out (Fleming claims the missing weight came from "medical journals" he had brought along to read and then left behind). Ray takes all of this in stride, confident that his manufactured alibi is airtight, until Joan (who crosses paths with Columbo after the latter visited Dr. Fleming's office) realizes she never placed Carol's gloves in the laundry bundle along with the dress. She and Fleming return to Fleming's apartment to plant the gloves before Columbo comes by again. As Columbo continues to find loose ends in the story, Ray's amusement turns to disdain, and he calls in a favor with his friends in the DA's office to take Columbo off the case. Columbo visits Fleming's office again to tell him he's been removed, and the two of them have a drink together while discussing the type of person who would commit a murder. Fleming states that the murderer will never be caught, he's too smart and meticulous in his planning.
When Columbo realizes he'll never get Fleming to crack, he instead goes after Joan, who he correctly assumes has been having an affair with the Doctor. Columbo presents her with the incriminating sunglasses and shouts at her, threatening to have her followed and questioned and harassed until she breaks, calling her the one weak link in Fleming's plan. She returns home a nervous wreck and tries to call Fleming, who refuses to talk to her over the phone (in case the police are listening).
The next day, Ray comes to Joan's home and sees a body being pulled out of the pool. Columbo is there, too, saying that Joan killed herself by swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. Columbo expresses remorse at pushing her as hard as he did, but also reminds Fleming that he had a part in her death, too, and that his love for Joan was the clear motive for Carol's murder. Fleming simply laughs him off. He killed Carol for her money. And if Joan became too much of a problem, then he would have had little trouble doing away with her, too. Then Joan reveals that she is still alive.... the whole staged suicide was a setup devised by Columbo to reveal Fleming's true nature. Joan is now perfectly willing to make a statement against Fleming, who now knows he can't save himself.
Tropes present in this episode include:
- Adaptational Villainy: In the play, Flemming is considerably more sympathetic, being genuinely in love with Susan and offering his confession out of a sense of guilt over his part in her (fake) suicide.
- Adaptation Name Change:
- "Roy Flemming" in the play becomes "Ray Fleming"
- "Susan Hudson" becomes "Joan Hudson"
- "Claire Flemming" becomes "Carol Fleming"
- And Another Thing...: Lt. Columbo became the Trope Codifier for this, of course. While much about the character in this pilot is different from how Columbo was written when the series proper started in 1971, this aspect of the series was established from the beginning, as seen with the detective's needling of both Ray and Joan.
- Animated Credits Opening: Weird abstract Rorschach-style animation.
- Batman Gambit: Seek "Faking the Dead" below.
- Call-Back: When Joan starts stressing that she doens't resemble Carol enough to pull the impersonation off, Ray tells her that it doesn't matter, as people won't pay that much attention and will just see what they expect to see. This is exactly how Columbo gets him in the end, staging a suicide with a different woman wearing a wig just how Ray had Joan wear a wig to look like Carol.
- Early Installment Weirdness:
- The movie features a Rorschach-style animated credit sequence, never seen again.
- Columbo is much more clean-cut than in the series proper. He has a much shorter, neater haircut and is usually carrying his raincoat rather than wearing it.
- Columbo's needling is much more straightforward. He lacks the deferential manner and self-deprecation seen in later episodes, and we don't get the constant references to his wife. The anger he displays when interrogating Susan could be a little jarring for fans more used to the genial Columbo of later episodes.
- Columbo doesn't show up until 33 minutes into the movie. Later Columbo episodes would be much more efficient about setting up the murder and getting Columbo into the story.
- Engineered Public Confession: How Columbo cracks the case. He has no evidence, so he fakes Joan's suicide ad then goads Fleming into saying that he never loved Joan and probably would have killed her later. Joan, who not only is still alive but is listening, then steps out and agrees to give her statement to Columbo.
- Faking the Dead: Columbo's gambit to convince Susan that Ray never cared for her.
- Heroic BSoD: Susan after Columbo's interrogation. Ray Fleming also seems on the verge of once after he's found out.
- The Mistress: Joan Hudson is this for Dr. Flemming. His wife isn't happy about it.
- Pilot Movie: The first of two; the second didn't air until three years later.
- The Sociopath: Ray Fleming is a particularly smug and nasty example.
- Spotlight-Stealing Squad: The play was originally intended as a star vehicle for the actor playing Fleming (Joseph Cotten in its original run), but Thomas Mitchell began stealing the shows as Columbo, so eventually the show was reworked around the character.