Friday, 9 June 2017


Columbo: Meurtre sous prescription is a 2016 French theatrical play starring Martin Lamotte as the famous detective in a raincoat, portrayed on television by Peter Falk over a period of 35 years. France 4 aired it this week, after pay TV channel Paris Première.

Lieutenant Columbo first appeared in Enough Rope, an episode of a NBC anthology called The Chevy Mystery Show (1960), written by Richard Levinson & William Link. He was a secondary character, played by Bert Freed (1).  The duo then adapted their script as a stage play titled Prescription: Murder, produced in 1962 with Joseph Cotten as Dr. Roy Flemming, Agnes Moorehead as his wife Claire, Patricia Medina (Susan Hudson, his mistress) and Thomas Mitchell as Columbo. Later, Levinson & Link turned their play into the scenario of a film for television directed by Richard Irving. Produced by Universal and aired on NBC in February 1968, Prescription: Murder starred Peter Falk as the lieutenant, opposite Gene Barry as Dr. Ray Flemming and Katherine Justice (Joanne Hudson).

Irving directed again Falk as Columbo in Ransom for a Dead Man (1971), a pilot movie penned by Dean Hargrove, Richard Levinson & William Link. Following its success, the actor played the character from 1971 to 1978, achieving worldwide fame. Columbo also popularized the inverted detective story (2). Peter Falk returned to his signature role from 1989 to 2003. In all, 69 TV movies were made. In 2004, French impersonator and TV host Pascal Brunner became the detective on stage in Une femme de trop, adapted from the 1962 play by Pierre Sauvil. In the UK, Dirk Benedict (The A-Team, Battlestar Galactica) toured in a 2010 production of Prescription:Murder. John Guerrasio succeeded him the next year. Alexandre Brasseur wore the raincoat in Crime sans ordonnance (2013), another gaullic adaptation, directed by Didier Caron with Delphine Piard and written by Pierre Sauvil.

Created at the Théâtre Michel in September 2016, Columbo: Meurtre sous prescription is a new adaptation set in 1971's Los Angeles. It is written by Didier Caron (who directs with Delphine Piard) and Laurence de Villeneuve. Renowned psychatrist Roy Flemming thinks he has committed the perfect crime with the complicity of his patient and mistress Joanne Hudson: the murder of his wife. Unfortunately for him, Lieutenant Columbo investigates. Flemming doesn't pay attention to this disheveled, faux naïf homicide detective who smokes cigars and wears a creased raincoat. Same for Deputy DA Dave Gordon, Roy's good friend. Except that Columbo rapidly notices some inconsistencies in Flemming's story. Columbo: Meurtre sous prescription brings back the legendary lieutenant in a bona fide murder mystery play (with a fine humour) but the elements so appreciated by the fans are there.

Columbo never has a pen. He always talks about his wife and family. The dog and the Peugeot are mentioned. Many lines sound familiar to those who know well the 1968 Prescription: Murder. The play even opens with a title sequence modeled on the one from the TV movie, including the jazzy theme composed by Dave Grusin. Martin Lamotte marvelously captures the spirit of the lieutenant without trying to imitate Peter Falk or Falk's French dubbing voice Serge Sauvion (3). The talented Pierre Azéma plays the quintessential Columbo murderer. Karine Belly is excellent as Joanne. Stéphane Boutet is a pleasant surprise as the pious Gordon, quite different from the Burt Gordon played by William Windom in 1968. Dr. Flemming's wife Carol, played by Nina Foch in the TV movie, isn't seen in this version.

Recording of the play for television directed by Antoine Galey and produced by Le Théâtre Michel and La Compagnie des Indes, with Paris Première and France Télévisions.  Sets designed by Sophie Jacob. Costumes by Virginie Houdinière. Stage lighting by Sebastien Lanoue. Titles by Stéphane Pinot. Play produced by Le Théâtre Michel.

(1) The script took some of its elements from their short story Dear Corpus Delicti, published the same year in The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
(2) Where the crime is described and the criminal (usually) shown right from the start.
(3) Serge Sauvion definitely contributed to the popularity of Columbo in France. 

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