Series 9 Episode 1
Murder: A Self Portrait

Episode Overview

Series 9

Episode 1

First broadcast: 1989

5 cigars

“You can't help but shout 'Gotcha!' when he finally proclaims he has enough to lock up Barsini“

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Renowned artist Max Barsini lives on the beach with Vanesa, his wife, and a young live-in model, Julie, who is the subject of Max's "Vixen Paintings". Next door is his first wife, Louise, and all three combine to in essence create Max's own personal harem. He loves having all three around, and indeed controlling them and playing them off against each other.

However when he spies psychologist Sydney Hammer leaving Louise's house late one evening, Max finds out that Louise is in love with Sydney and about to move in with him. But this leaves a problem. Louise is the only person that knows that Max murdered his former art dealer and friend, Harry Chudnow.

Max concocts a plan to murder Louise, and sets himself up an alibi pretending to be painting a picture for Vito, owner of Vito's Bar where Max once lived with Louise. Max escapes through a window and makes his way to a quiet beach where Louise is swimming. He smoothers her with a rag soaked in paint filler, and then places her unconscious body in the sea, before returning to Vito's to unveil his new art work.

When Louise's body is discovered the next day, Columbo arrives on the scene when Max is brought there to identify the body, which Max believes has been set up in such a way that it looks like a simple case of drowning.

However Columbo is immediately suspicious of the fact Louise is only wearing one contact lens - the other having been taken out and put in its case.

Cleverness of the way Columbo catches out the murderer

Barsini doesn't so himself any favours on this front, by proclaiming that Columbo has an interesting face and that he'd like to paint it.

This instantly gives Columbo the chance to see how Barsini paints - noticing that a lot of paint gets splashed on the floor. It also gives Columbo the chance to play to Barsini recordings in which Louise details her recurring dreams - recorded for her sessions with psychologist Sydney Hammer, which appear - to Columbo - to give hints about the murder of Harry Chudnow.

But whilst looking round in the upstairs room at Vito's, Columbo spots that there's no fresh paint marks on the floor where Barsini is supposed to have painted. Then at the morgue he finds a speck of red paint on Louise's lip - identified as the specially made Barsini Red - which is presumed to come off the rag Barsini smothered her with. This means Columbo can place him at the murder scene.

It's not quite enough to break the alibi though. How could Barsini have walked in with a blank canvas, and left with a fully done painting? Columbo reveals all - the simple matter of covering the painting with a blank canvas.

Is there enough in there to go for gold and get him for the murder of Harry Chudnow? That, we of course, will never know. But somehow we must all doubt that Columbo would ever let that one lie too.

Convolutedness of the murder

As Columbo murders go, this is pretty convoluted. Not only has Max Barsini had to set himself up an alibi, he also has to paint a painting in advance to make it look like he's actually been spending all his time in an upstairs room at Vito's, when, of course, he has been out murdering. And he's got to do all this in advance, as well as knowing exactly where Louise will be.

How annoyed does the murderer get with Columbo?

Barsini's desire to paint Columbo gives Columbo carte-blanche to turn up for sittings, and to talk extensively with Barsini. This is, of course, just asking for trouble. When will these murderers ever learn? And of course someone with an artistic temperament and who is a control freak, is going to get seriously annoyed with Columbo's hunting and investigating. No surprise then that Barsini blows up with Columbo in style very early on, and this is compounded when Vanessa and Julie both finally put their rivalry aside and as one, move out of the house.

For Columbo fans looking for some serious examples of Columbo winding up a murderer, here is a prime one.

The smug-richness factor

If there was a rating up to ten for the smugness of a Columbo murderer, Barsini would be way off the scale. Here's a character who is not happy unless he's controlling everyone, and clearly isn't happy with the attentions of just one woman. If you can find a more annoying, less likeable murderer in any other Columbo episode, you're a better man than me.

This man just oozes hatred in the audience - by the end you want to put him in a pair of stocks and pelt him with rotten eggs and tomatoes. No moment could be happier than the moment that Columbo finally nails him.

Not only that but both Vanessa and Julie spend most of the episode being entirely unlikeable people - thanks mostly to the rivalry between the two of them when it comes to Max's affections. The only two consistently likeable characters are Sydney and Louise.

Quality of sub-plot

No Columbo related sub-plot here, but the disappearance (and murder) of Harry Chudnow, and the hints about it in Louise's dream recordings give some interesting diversions away from just how annoying and arrogant Barsini is.

Mentions of Mrs Columbo

Not a huge amount although Columbo seems rightly chuffed when Barsini declares he wants to paint Columbo's portrait, and proclaims "Wait until my wife hears about this" with a big grin on his face!

By this we presume that she is, of course, a big fan. But then the whole world seems to love Max Barsini, so the chances were that Mrs Columbo wasn't going to be any different. Although we don't really know because it's never specifically mentioned. But we'll assume she is.

What new-fangled thing does Columbo learn about this episode?

Not much actually. He gets a bit of an introduction into painting techniques but no more than he has in previous episodes.

Was anyone given sedatives?

No, not unless paint thinner has now been classed as a sedative. Whilst it does have the affects of making your ex-wife go to sleep for a bit, it's not exactly available on prescription.

Deviations from the norm and inconsistencies with other Columbo episodes

Nothing really.

Appearances by the Regular Cast

A tavern named "Vito's Bar" needs someone to tend to its customers and preferably someone called Vito! So who else than everyone's favourite Columbo regular, Vito Scotti? It's all so obvious.

Sherea Danese, Peter Falk's real life wife, appears in Columbo for the third time to play the rather unlikeable Vanessa - and indeed manages to play it with such aplomb that she later appeared in similar roles in two more Columbo episodes.

And we should, of course, all delight, for the ever wonderful Dog is in the episode too - although Barsini refuses to paint him alongside Columbo.


It's got to be said that this is one of the more outrageous plot-lines for a Columbo episode. To call it a bit far fetched seems to be an understatement. I mean, an artist who essentially has his own harem? Even in the rich, egotistical worlds which most Columbo villains live in, this seems just a little over the top.

But there's something very likeable about this episode, especially thanks to the quality of the cast (you can't imagine anyone playing Barsini better than Patrick Bauchau plays him) and the direction. There's some fabulous touches, with a prime example being the flashback sequences when Louise's dream recordings are being played.

Naturally shown in black and white, there's a brilliant touch in that each of them features Columbo sitting for his portrait with Barsini painting him - both their poses held completely static. One minute they're both in an alcove in Vito's Bar as Louise runs through, the next they're upstairs in the same pose as Barsini eats some fruit.

And it has a fantastic reveal. Columbo chips away at Barsini, revealing his cards slowly but surely as he goes along. You can't help but shout "Gotcha!" when he finally proclaims he has enough to lock up the rather nasty piece of work that is Barsini. Thank goodness for that.

Your View


Posted on 28 March 2012 at 3:46 PM

My husband and I still love to watch Columbo urnres whenever we can. Just about everyone we knew could relate to Columbo. Although Peter Falk was Jewish, I thought he was at least part Italian since he looked and played the part so well. He was a much beloved American actor. Rest in peace Peter Falk.


Posted on 23 November 2012 at 9:39 PM

I think the reviewer has a bias for the ninties series. This may be one of the better of the ABC series Columbo's but it still doesn't hit the heights of the seventies series. I mean how does thos get 5 cigars, and the classic 'etude in black' get 3 cigars?

Andrew Bowden

Posted on 26 November 2012 at 8:48 AM

I can't deny it - I do have a preference for the later ones. They just seem a bit more bonkers and that generally appeals to me!

Leigh Beadon

Posted on 15 December 2012 at 7:57 PM

Does anyone know where the portrait of Columbo from this episode ended up? Someone out there must own it!

I wish it were available as a poster or canvas transfer, the way the famous portrait of Kramer from Seinfeld is.

susan thornton

Posted on 8 September 2013 at 1:39 PM

I never tire of watching the same Columbo films time and time again, I even have the boxset. I love Peter Falk no-one could have played Columbo so accurately, he developed the character over the years. I would love the portrait from Murder-a self portrait

R I P Peter x

Elaine Leeke

Posted on 9 September 2013 at 10:52 AM

No one has mentioned the wonderful and clever scene in which Columbo interviews the psychologist and subtly ends up as the psychologist himself! Sheer brilliance.

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