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A famous artist, Max Barsini, lives with his wife Vanessa and a beautiful live-in
model named Julie at his beach house/studio. Max's ex-wife Louise lives in the
beach house next door. Together, these three women comprise Max's own little harem. He loves them all in different ways, but, more importantly, likes to control them. In fact, Max derives a great deal of satisfaction from the fact that they all
fight for his attention and are reliant upon him financially and emotionally.  The competitive jealousy between the women reaches a head at the dinner table
one night when Max asks each of them what they think of the other. Their answers   prove the intense rivalry between the women.

Later that night, Max sees psychologist Dr. Sydney Hammer leaving Louise's beach house -- it seems that Louise and the good doctor are having an affair. Max confronts Louise who not only admits that she loves Dr. Hammer, but also tells Max she's planning on moving in with him. This just won't do. Nobody leaves Max Barsini -- particularly Louise. This is because Louise is the only other person who knows the secret about Max murdering his former art dealer Harry Chudnow. Max can't take the chance that Louise will somehow spill the beans to Dr. Hammer.

The next day, Max visit's Vito's Bar, an old tavern where Max and Louise lived
while Max was still a struggling artist. Vito, the owner, says that business is
bad these days. Max has an idea to help bring in customers. He'll paint an
original Barsini portrait of the-tavern for Vito to hang on the wall. It's the
least he can do to repay all of Vito's kindness in the past. Vito agrees to
close down the tavern the following day to give Max the privacy he needs to
complete his painting.

That night, Max paints the portrait of the tavern at his own studio. The next
day, he brings what looks like a blank canvas with him to Vito's place. He sets
up his easel in the upstairs studio that he and Louise shared all those years
ago. He tells Vito not to disturb him until he's done, even for lunch. Vito
agrees. Barsisni quickly exits the studio from a rear window fire escape and
drives to the secluded beach area where Louise takes her morning swim. She's
surprised to see him. He tells her he simply wanted to say a proper goodbye.

As he holds and caresses her in his arms, he proceeds to smother her with a
paint cloth that has been doused in paint thinner. Once she's unconscious,
Max takes Louise into the ocean for her final swim. Max then returns to the
studio just as Vito has barged his way in with some dinner. Max then proudly
shows Vito the completed painting.

The next day, Louise's body is found on the shore. Max goes to identify the
body. Columbo is at the scene. He can't believe a woman who was such a good
swimmer could drown like that. He's also puzzled by the fact that Louise was
only wearing one contact lens when she was found. Her other lens was in her
contact case in her bag. Max is at a loss as to why she would only be wearing
one lens. He does make sure, however, to tell Columbo that he was painting at
Vito's Place during the time of the murder.

Later, Columbo visits Max at his home and meets Julie and Vanessa. He can't
believe Max's lifestyle. Max says Columbo has an interesting face and offers
to paint his portrait. Columbo is honored. Max tells him to come back later to
sit and pose for him.

Columbo then pays a visit to Dr. Hammer. He learns about Louise's psychological history -- particularly her recurring nightmares. Hammer feels that she was suppressing a traumatic experience in her life through these dreams --
specifically something that happened while she and Max were living at Vito's
Bar. He tells Columbo that he tape recorded these dream sessions and gives
Columbo the tapes.

Columbo pays a visit to Vito, who shows the Lieutenant the painting that Max
made. Columbo impresses Vito by analyzing the painting and pointing out that
Max uses a special "Barsini Red" in his paintings -- a color that he mixes
himself. Max shows up at Vito's and interrupts Columbo's poking around. Columbo asks about Louise's dreams and tells Max about the tapes. Max says he's interested in those tapes. Why doesn't Columbo come by tomorrow to sit for his portrait and bring the tapes? Columbo agrees, then asks about an old photograph of Max and Louise with a monocled stranger. That's Max's old art dealer Harry Chudnow. Max leaves and Columbo goes upstairs to look at the studio. He finds the window with the fire escape. Then he turns the tap from the kitchen sink on. It sputters and nothing but sludge comes out of it.

Next day, Columbo visits Max and sits for his portrait. Columbo plays one of the
dream tapes. He deciphers the tape as referring to Harry Chudnow. Max says the Lieutenant's dream analysis is quite far-fetched. Louise hardly knew Harry.

Columbo returns the following day and poses again. He brings another tape. Max is starting to get agitated at Columbo's prodding about the meaning of the
dreams. He storms out of the studio. Columbo goes to take a peek at his portrait
and notices how much paint has splattered on the floor as a result of Max's
technique. He quickly goes to Vito's and notices that there is no paint on the
floor where Max supposedly painted his scene of the bar.

Columbo then goes to the morgue to take a look at Louise's cadaver. She has a
strange red marking next to her lip. Columbo takes a sample of it to have
tested at the lab. Meanwhile, Julie and Vanessa have conspired with each other
to leave Max. It just isn't working out anymore. When Max returns home, he finds
the two ladies already with their bags packed. He kicks them out of the house
before noticing that Columbo is there for his final sitting. He plays the final
tape of Louise's dreams. This time, her dream imagery more clearly connects Max with Harry's murder. Columbo says he knows about Harry's reputation for ripping off the artists he represented. He still can't prove that murder however. But he can prove that Max murdered his wife. He points out that Max's paint brushes are all fluffy and clean. How did they get that way? Paint cleaner alone would leave them stiff Max explains that he used paint cleaner to clean the brushes then rinsed the paint thinner in water from the sink at Vito's. Columbo says that the sink hadn't been used in years. Max says he must have washed them later when he got home. Columbo then points out the paint on the studio floor. Strangely, there was no paint on the floor at Vito's. Max says he used shorter, more controlled brushstrokes. Columbo says that he knows Max was with Louise the day she was killed because she had red paint on her face -- "Barsisni Red" in fact. The same paint along with Louise's lipstick and a strong amount of paint thinner all were found on Max's wipe cloth in his tote bag from Vito's. Columbo then reveals how Max duped Vito with the painting. Re simply covered the completed painting of the bar with a piece of blank canvas, then tore it off before Vito entered the room. Max has no choice but to admit his guilt and
show Columbo his newly completed portrait.

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