Episode review: Columbo Murder, A Self Portrait

Columbo Murder A Self Portrait opening titles

After a six-month vacation, Lieutenant Columbo swaggered confidently back onto screens on November 25, 1989 in the overtly arty Murder, A Self Portrait.

Starring Belgian Bond villain Patrick Bauchau as artist extraordinaire Max Barsini, as well as a bevvy of beauties that includes Shera Danese in her biggest Columbo role to date, Murder, A Self Portrait has a look and feel entirely of its own. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Our last artistic Columbo outing came in Suitable for Framing way back in 1971. It seems a lot to hope that this outing could match the majesty of that particular outing but hope springs eternal. So, is Murder, A Self Portrait a dark, Goya-esque masterpiece of an episode? Or is it more like one of those paint-by-numbers kits favoured by Mrs Columbo? Let’s see…

Columbo Murder a Self Portrait cast

Dramatis personae

Lieutenant Columbo: Peter Falk
Max Barsini: Patrick Bauchau
Louise Barsini: Fionnula Flanagan
Vanessa Barsini: Shera Danese
Julie: Isabel Lorca
Vito: Vito Scotti
Dr Sydney Hammer: George Coe
Dog: As himself
Written by: Robert Sherman
Directed by: James Frawley
Score by: Patrick Williams

Celebrated artist Max Barsini appears to live a charmed life, residing in a stunning beach-front home where he is waited on hand and foot by three women: current wife Vanessa, first wife Louise, and live-in lover/model/muse Julie.

While Barsini revels in the four-way relationship, things are a lot more fraught for the women in his life. Mature Louise (who lives next door) is outwardly happy enough with her lot in life, while Vanessa is fiendishly (and understandably) jealous and young Julie just wants to be loved by them all.

Columbo Murder A Self Portrait
What reasonable wife could possibly object to this type of living arrangement?

The tension this situation creates seems to help Barsini thrive. He lives to control them and takes pleasure in watching them fight for the scraps of his affections. It is Louise, however, who shatters his perfect existence when she reveals her intentions to MOVE OUT of her home (and Barsini’s life) and MOVE IN with her psychologist/lover, Dr Sydney Hammer.

Barsini can’t let this happen – because Louise is the only person who knows about his shadowy past. Although we don’t initially know what happened, we find out that Louise has been repressing memories from her early life with Barsini that suggest a terrifying, traumatic event. These manifest as a series of nightmares, which she is working to decipher with Dr Hammer.

Fearful of what secrets Louise will spill once she’s out from under his yoke of oppression, Barsini strikes. Pretending to be painting a scene of Vito’s bar in old Los Angeles (from the attic apartment in which he scratched a living with Louise years before), the artist slips out of the fire escape and heads to the secluded beach he knows Louise will be at.

Here, he uses a cleaning rag doused in paint cleaner to put her lights out before lugging her unconscious frame into the ocean and leaving her to drown as if it were a tragic swimming accident. He then hotfoots it back to Vito’s before his absence can be noticed and unveils his finished work to the delighted bar owner. It looks for all the world like Barsini has spent his day at the easel but he actually painted the picture the night before and hid it below a blank canvas. It’ll be a tough alibi to crack.

Barsini is duly called in to identify the corpse of Louise and assist Columbo with his enquiries. There’s one thing puzzling the Lieutenant straight away: Louise was wearing only one contact lens – the other being in a case in her bag. Why would someone go for a swim wearing one contact lens? She was also said to be a very strong swimmer.

Columbo Murder a Self Portrait
This is the very place where the devil meets the deep blue sea

Columbo next meets Dr Hammer at Louise’s home. He dispels any suggestion that she might have had reason to commit suicide but does reference the ‘demented’ situation whereby Barsini still claimed Louise as his own. Hammer was keen to smash that relationship apart (pun intended) and claims he feels nothing but disgust for the artist. Barsini, however, is on a charm offensive towards Columbo. He even masterfully puts the detective off his stride by suggesting he paint his portrait.

Columbo’s mind is only off the case momentarily, though. A visit to see Hammer at his clinic pays dividends when he learns that Louise was going through a phase of recording her nightmare memories on cassette for future analysis. These tapes will have a material impact on the unravelling of the case.

He also heads downtown to visit Vito’s bar where he gets an eyeful of Barsini’s finished alibi painting – and a sleeveful of red paint when carelessly touching the still-wet canvas. He has a snoop about the cramped apartment where Barsini and Louise used to live and takes in the easily accessible fire escape.

The heart of the episode really begins when Columbo begins his portrait setting for Barsini and the two listen back to Louise’s recollections of her nightmares. In the first, she dreams of her elderly French uncle coming to her door at night and raving about something he’s lost. When Louise cried out to Barsini to help, he raced down to hair and hacked the man to pieces with a cleaver!

Barsini, wisely, takes the dreams as being indecipherable and meaningless. Columbo, however, appears to have instantly succeeded where trained psychologist Dr hammer failed and found meaning amidst the nonsense. Although Louise had no uncle, the French for my uncle is ‘mon oncle’. And, hey, there was a photo of Louise, Barsini and his monocle-wearing agent Harry Chudnow on the wall at Vito’s bar. Could her dreams have something to do with him?

Columbo Murder A Self Portrait
I haven’t seen acting in Columbo this hammy since Dagger of the Mind

The dreams are explored further during the next sitting. Louise’s second nightmare features a furious Barsini returning home and taking packages of meat from their refrigerator and throwing them into the sink. He then sits down and gorges on strawberries and blueberries before Louise notices a living hand amongst the meat packages in the sink and wakes up a-screamin’.

Again, Columbo zeroes in on the hidden meaning. The meat is suggestive of bloody violence. Could the berries that dream Barsini merrily gulps represent something that has been buried? At this suggestion, the artist become peevish, calls time on their painting session and storms out. Left alone, Columbo is just able to resist the temptation of looking at the covered canvas – but notices as he does so that the area beneath the easel is awash with paint splatters, both old and new. This gives him an idea.

Screeching over to Vito’s bar, Columbo jallops up to the upstairs apartment (again). He looks at the spot where Barsini’s easel still rests – and notes that there are no paint splodges anywhere to be seen. It’s a crucial clue. Another follows when the Lieutenant visits the coroner’s and takes a sample of a red stain left around Louise’s lips on the day of her death. It looks like lipstick, but could it be paint?

As Columbo closes in on his man, the artist’s once-perfect life is caving in around him. Vanessa and Julie have established a common ground and realised Barsini will never make them happy. Much to Barsini’s rage and astonishment, both pack their bags and leave – and it’s against the backdrop of this conflict that Columbo arrives for his final portrait sitting.

Columbo Max Barsini

Louise’s third recurring nightmare is the topic of discussion. This time, she finds Barsini dropping a broken pocket watch into a cup of tea. He leads her down to the basement, where a dead body can be seen lying face down in the bare earth. Barsini strikes the body with a pick sending a broken monocle into the air. Cue screaming, waking, gnashing of teeth, etc, etc.

This final dream had pushed Columbo into some off-screen investigating. He’d found an old newspaper clipping about how Barsini’s agent Harry Chudnow had routinely fleeced his artist clients by not passing on the full proceeds from their sales. He later disappeared completely. From this, Columbo has deduced that Barsini killed Chudnow and buried him in Vito’s basement – the event that triggered Louise’s nightmares.

Barsini laughs this off and the Lieutenant admits that dream evidence would never be accepted as a reason to dig up Vito’s basement – but he wipes the smirk off the artist’s face when he suggests that Barsini is guilty of Louise’s murder.

The detective begins to unveil his list of evidence, including the fact that there was no paint on the floor under his easel at Vito’s. Barsini easily explains this away: it was a different, more clinical painting style using more controlled strokes of the brush. Columbo will need to do a lot better than that to get a conviction – and, of course, he can.

Lab tests have revealed the stain around Louise’s mouth was Barsini red – a special colour mixed only by Barsini himself. It got there from the paint stripper-doused cleaning rag that was used by the murderer to subdue her. The rag in question was Barsini’s, and lab tests have revealed traces of Louise’s lipstick on it. That places Barsini at the scene of the crime – and his motive was to ensure Louise never revealed the killing of Harry Chudnow.

Columbo Murder A Self Portrait
Ironically, the painting looks more like Columbo than Columbo himself does here!

Impressed by Columbo’s tenacious pursuit of the truth, Barsini concedes defeat. Before yielding to the Lieutenant’s custodianship, though, he unveils his finished portrait. “Do I really look like that?” asks a pleased and amazed Columbo as credits roll…

My memories of Murder, A Self Portrait

Another ‘new’ Columbo episode I’ve gone years without watching, Murder A Self Portrait is more memorable than some of its contemporaries, largely due to the black-and-white dream sequences. While I remember these and knew they had a bearing on the case, the exact content of the sequences escapes me and, hand on heart, I’d have to say I recall them as being utterly hammy and scenes that were a major impediment to my viewing pleasure.

I never had anything against Patrick Bauchau’s portrayal of Barsini, although found the love-quadrangle a ludicrous premise that was, for the most part, dreadfully acted out. It leaves my fondest memories of the episode centred on the glorious beach scenery – and that fabulous portrait of Columbo that’s unveiled at the end. Pretty slim pickings, then, but perhaps it’ll have grown on me?

Episode analysis

After Columbo’s underwhelming (and, at times, pretty poor) eighth season, one would have expected the show’s creative team to pull out all the stops to ensure the crucial first episode of a vital season of television would be one that could win hearts and minds of new and old fans alike.

It’s therefore something of a surprise to me that Murder, A Self Portrait was the episode entrusted to do that. This is certainly not a bad piece of TV but it’s an acquired taste with a number of highly stylised sequences that were bound to limit its general appeal. Was kicking off the season with this, therefore, a massively confident move or an example of a production team taking a desperate gamble?

Columbo Dog
Geez, Dog’s been stacking on the pounds since we last saw him…

The episode certainly gets off to a disarming start. Instead of being injected into the usual environs of pre-murder machinations, we find ourselves at a basset hound talent show at which the good Lieutenant is shambling around with a massively overweight ‘Dog’, who bags some sort of participation rosette just for having turned up.

How you feel about the season opening this way will probably be coloured by how much you enjoy watching ageing men coo about dogs. For me, it’s not a promising start – especially after I’ve had reason to grumble about the high percentage of silly scenes included in the four episodes of Season 8.

There are several minutes of dog show tripe to wade through before we meet our chief protagonist, Max Barsini, and are given a whistle-stop tour of his life and loves. We first meet his naked young ingenue, Julie, who is being bossed about by the artist as he works on the latest in a series of nude studies of her for a new exhibition.

She seems nice enough and a stark contrast to Vanessa – Barsini’s current wife, who is openly dissatisfied at having to compete for his affections with not only Julie, but Barsini’s first wife Louise, who lives in the house next door and still cooks ruddy dinners for him, which all four eat together like one great big, unhappy family.

It’s a crazy set-up and one that’s very hard to take seriously. We can infer that Barsini is a narcissistic master manipulator with enough charisma to dominate three women, but the scenario never convinces and the women, in particular, boil down to uninteresting stereotypes: the vulnerable older woman, the jealous shrew and the naive youngster.

Columbo Murder A Self Portrait
Wait a minute, isn’t that MY wife…?

Fionnula Flanagan’s Louise is the most credible of the three, although it’s a confused characterisation. Initially she appears quite cheerful and the one most at ease with her lot. However, after we find out she’s set to begin life anew with Dr Hammond, we see a traumatised and subdued woman who has yearned to break free from Barsini for years. Why she bothered to put on a bold front for his other love interests is a mystery never explained.

I’m not entirely satisfied with how her backstory is woven into the plot, either. We see her assure Barsini that she’ll never reveal his dark secret. This means she hasn’t actually repressed the memories of the earlier tragedy at all. She’s just chosen not to speak of them. Her dreams obviously relate to this trauma, so why has she been trying to decipher them with Dr Hammer? By doing so, she’d necessarily give Barsini away. It makes little sense.

Cast as Vanessa and Julie respectively, Shera Danese (AKA Mrs Peter Falk) and Isabel Lorca are weak links. This was the first Columbo episode in which Danese was given a starring role after two perfectly fine small parts in the 70s. I’m loathe to come across as a Shera hater (which I’m not), but she’s terrible in this, with line deliveries, facial expressions and body language as wooden as a mannequin. Her limitations as an actress have never seemed more apparent.

Lorca fares similarly poorly. An argument between her and Vanessa, where the two trade insults, looks and feels like two teens in a school production being asked to ad lib a playground argument. A little later, when urged by Barsini to try to get on with Vanessa, Julie cries out “I won’t, I won’t, I WON’T!” rather like a peevish five-year-old, only not nearly as convincingly.

Worse, when Patrick Bauchau shares screen-time with them he seems to catch the malaise, his standards dropping to amateurish levels of silly shouting and exaggerated actions (see clip below). The scene near the end of the episode, when he melodramatically flings both women’s suitcases out of the front door, comes across as something from a bad comedy.

The dodgy performances highlight the usual problem with these longer ABC episodes: there’s simply not enough story to justify the 90+ minute running time. The sub-plot of Barsini’s feuding loves is only there to bump up the running time. Of the three women, only Louise is required for plot purposes and a 75-minute episode that focused on her trying to break free from Max before he killed her would’ve been a whole lot more compelling.

While we’re considering questionable aspects of the episode, we may as well focus on Louise’s nightmares, which are far and away Murder, A Self Portrait’s signature sequences. Some viewers love them, seeing them as stylistically beautiful and in keeping with the artistic theme of the episode. While I can understand that viewpoint, I don’t share it.

To me, the nightmare scenes take me out of the episode at a point in the story when I should be most interested. There may be a beauty in the framing of the scenes, but I find them overly theatrical and really a little bit lame – like I’m watching a student film, or hokey amateur dramatics rather than a high-quality TV drama.

For many, the sequences are a little bit weird for their taste. I’d argue they’re probably not weird enough – certainly not when compared to Emmett Clayton’s psychedelic chess nightmare that opened up 1973’s The Most Dangerous Match. There was also an effectively presented shimmery daydream sequence in Lady in Waiting in which Beth Chadwick’s plan for murdering her brother was revealed.

The black-and-white dreams in Self Portrait are a bit too safe and cliched for me. I’d rather the production team had either pushed the boat right out and done something truly zany, or not included them at all. Personally, I think it would have been entirely feasible to massage the script to have allowed the dreams to simply be discussed by Columbo and Barsini without using them to provide visual clues to the convoluted backstory of the fate of the man with the monocle.

Dr Hammer quit psychology instantly when he learned how easily Columbo solved the mystery of Louise’s nightmares that had flummoxed him for years

Staying with those pesky dreams, does it irk other viewers how quickly Columbo is able to unravel them? We’re told by professional psychologist Dr Hammer that “dreams are tough enough to analyse” without the added trouble of repressed memories – yet Columbo waltzes to the heart of them like he’s reading a kiddies’ ABC book! The leap he makes from French uncle (mon oncle) to monocle is particularly preposterous.

Thank goodness, then, that the episode doesn’t fall into the trap of having the decoding of Louise’s dreams entirely crack the case. While they provide the dramatic spine of the episode, the Lieutenant actually relies on plausible deductions and honest police work to secure the evidence he needs to place Barsini at the scene of the crime.

It’s probably the strongest case he’s made against a killer since the classic era – and none of the evidence felt like it was given to him too easily. It makes for a satisfying conclusion – even if Barsini accepts defeat a tad too easily for my liking. As an emotional European, one might have expected a bit more of a blowout from the artist when cornered at the end. Instead, he meekly accepts his fate, which seems at odds with his combustible nature.

It may be that writer Robert Sherman was attempting to show that Barsini’s docile submission to Columbo marked the definite end of his domineering way of life following the loss of his three women. If so, I think he missed the mark because Barsini’s acceptance of his fate was too benign when I feel an egomaniac like him ought to have been brooding and defiant after seeing his world come crashing down in a single afternoon.

That aside, Barsini makes for an engaging villain. Although he’s a manipulative and dictatorial little sh*t towards the three women, he’s a lot of fun to watch and I do feel like Bauchau and Falk had a good level of rapport – certainly by the standards of the comeback episodes. Bauchau does both charm and irritability capably, so is well cast as an enigmatic and flamboyant artist. Plus, Bauchau’s lovely Belgian accent is music to the ears. I could listen to him say ‘Leftenant‘ all day…

Falk picks up where he left off in Grand Deceptions, playing things straight to deliver a strong and believable performance. I think this is his best turn since Make Me a Perfect Murder in 1978, with his no-nonsense approach to stating his case against Barsini and his earnest excitement at the prospect of having his portrait painted both coming right out of his 70s’ playbook. I’m impressed by his restraint, which augurs well for the rest of Season 9 – although his early fawning at Dog and the unfunny role-reversal scene with Dr Hammer do rankle.

Columbo Murder A Self Portrait Vito Scotti
Vito Scotti: delivering Columbo goodies like ’twere 1973!

Giving a boost to both Bauchau and Falk is Vito Scotti, the much-loved bit-part player in five 70s’ episodes who makes his series’ farewell in typically amiable style. Scotti had that rare gift of turning what could have been disposable parts into three-dimensional characters of great humour and warmth, and he does more of the same here as bar owner Vito.

Aged almost 72 at the time this episode aired, Scotti’s presence was a welcome hark back to the show’s golden era and remains a lovely Easter Egg for fans today. He would grace TV productions only seven more times before his death in 1996 after a career spanning six decades and nearly 250 credits. I don’t think there’s a Columbo fan alive who doesn’t share a deep appreciation for everything Scotti brought to the show.

Another Columbo regular making his final contribution was director James Frawley, who had helmed five previous episodes starting with Try & Catch Me in 1977. Frawley was able to make stunning use of Malibu’s Paradise Cove beach and Barsini’s awesome beach-front property to deliver the best-looking 80s’ episode to date. The extensive use of locations rather than studio sets also helps Murder, A Self Portrait feel like a big-budget extravaganza once more – magic that was missing during Season 8.

“I don’t think there’s a Columbo fan alive who doesn’t share a deep appreciation for everything Vito Scotti brought to the show.”

Patrick Williams’ score, meanwhile, is as good as we’ve come to expect from one of the series’ finest composers, although there are a few strains of This Old Man throughout – a tune I’m now getting heartily sick of hearing. While I’m not a huge fan of the dream sequences as a whole, Williams’ ominous underlying score plays a key role in creating an eerie atmosphere.

No critique of this episode is complete without examining the artworks that appear throughout – especially the sensational portrait of Columbo we see during the final reveal. This, along with the prominent paintings of Julie, was created by Czech-born artist Jaroslav Gebr, who headed up Universal’s scenic art department for 30 years until the mid-2000s.

The iconic Columbo portrait is currently in the safe hands of his estate, although a limited edition run of 20 prints was made available in 2018 – selling out in a flash, including one nabbed by yours truly! Incidentally, if you have a few thousand dollars going spare, two of the original portraits of Julie from Murder, A Self Portrait are currently up for grabs on the Gebr Art website. Now that’s what I’d call a Columbo conversation starter!

Columbo Murder A Self Portrait
Get Julie for your wall for the low, low price of $4000

To wrap things up, I’m in two minds about Murder, A Self Portrait. In terms of the central villain and the rock-solid deductive work put in by Columbo, this is a strong entry that also manages to avoid off-setting the balance by the inclusion of any truly stupid scenes of the sort that so damaged Sex & The Married Detective and Murder, Smoke & Shadows.

On the downside, some sub-par performances and the divisive nature of the artsy dream sequences take the edge off the drama. I feel like there was a much more cohesive overall episode here that was largely obscured by the decision to insert the hammy dream reenactments into an episode that was interesting enough without them. And what this sadly means is that the wait for a truly great ‘new’ Columbo episode goes on…

Did you know?

Patrick Bauchau Mr Scarpine
I’d tackle Scarpine before Grace Jones any day of the century!

Patrick Bauchau cut a rather stylish Bond bad guy as Scarpine in 1985’s A View to a Kill, where he was one of uber-villain Max Zorin’s chief lieutenants.

Bauchau joins eight other Columbo alumni in also appearing in a Bond film, the others being: Donald Pleasence (Any Old Port in a Storm / You Only Live Twice); Honor Blackman (Dagger of the Mind / Goldfinger); Louis Jourdan (Murder Under Glass / Octopussy); Anthony Zerbe (Columbo Goes to the Guillotine / Licence to Kill); Patrick Macnee (Troubled Waters / A View to a Kill); Pedro Armendariz Jr (Matter of Honor / Licence to Kill); Priscilla Barnes (Deadly State of Mind / Licence to Kill) and Frank McRae (A Bird in the Hand / Licence to Kill).

How I rate ’em

Murder, A Self Portrait is a tricky episode to assess. Its heart is in the right place but a more clinical, less flashy approach to telling the story would have been to its benefit. This could have been the best of the new episodes had it tread a more conventional line. As it is, it’s something of a novelty that lives in the memory mainly for the wrong reasons.

Missed any of my earlier new Columbo episode reviews? Then simply click the links below.

  1. Columbo Goes to the Guillotine
  2. Sex & The Married Detective
  3. Murder, A Self Portrait
  4. Murder, Smoke & Shadows
  5. Grand Deceptions

If you want to check out any of my ‘classic era’ episode reviews, or see how I rank them in order, they can all be accessed here. And if you can’t get enough of Mr Barsini and his harem, you can vote for Murder, A Self Portrait in the fans’ favourite episode poll here.

Columbo Murder A Self Portrait
Who the what now?

Time to join the debate. How does Self Portrait fare in your estimations? I’m particularly interested in your assessment of the dream sequences, how you rate Barsini as a villain and what you make of the performances of his cadre of concubines.

We’re now well overdue a world-beating Columbo adventure. Will we find it in the next outing, the sleaze-filled ogle at the world of top-shelf magazines that is Columbo Cries Wolf? Check back in soon to find out.

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