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While painting on a New England beach, young artist Richard Barrie is arrested by four policemen. While Richard is led away, a psychiatrist narrates the events leading up to his arrest: Richard, who works in a New York book store, rents his beach cottage to Florence Hackett and her two grown daughters, whom he has "adopted." Florence had met Richard only three weeks earlier in a grocery store, but has permitted him to become part of their family. The daughters, Luisa and Eleanor, have serious reservations about the arrangement, but agree to spend a weekend at the cottage. There Eleanor flirts with Richard as he paints, but he does not respond. Later, in his room, Richard rereads a letter from the psychiatrist at the Willestown State Hospital, stating that the rules of that institution do not permit him to treat Richard and that he is trying to find him private treatment, despite Richard's financial condition. When Luisa, for whom Richard is developing an obsession, complains about him being in the guest room in the cottage, which she expects to use when her boyfriend Chuck visits, Richard moves into a nearby shed. Over several weekends, Richard makes improvements to the cottage, paints Florence's portrait and comes to regard Eleanor as a sister. However, Richard becomes upset over an imagined slight by Luisa and secretly watches her undress. Luisa taunts Richard by asking him to apply suntan lotion to her body. One night, when Richard and Eleanor are alone on the beach, he confides that he was in the war. They see Luisa and Chuck kissing, but when Eleanor attempts to kiss Richard, he reacts violently and pushes her away. When Eleanor returns to the cottage, Luisa realizes that she has been crying and, while noting that there might be something wrong with Richard, offers to help Eleanor win him and suggests bringing her a date for the next weekend to make him jealous. Jennie, the older woman who runs the bookstore where Richard works, knows his past history and, feeling that he has become obsessed with the Hacketts, intends to talk with them. She arranges for him to take a vacation at a sanitarium, but he goes instead to the cottage. Meanwhile, Luisa, who performs in television commercials for Chuck, invites his friend Freddie to the cottage to meet Eleanor. Richard is upset when both men arrive, but hopes to upstage everyone with a party he has arranged. The party is quite successful, but when it goes on too long, Florence leaves to visit a neighbor and the two couples drift away. Richard sees Eleanor and Freddie kissing and, concluding that they are "evil," proceeds to wreck some of the cottage. Later, after Freddie leaves for New York, Eleanor finds Richard on the beach, tells him she does not like Freddie and teases him. However, Richard violently attacks her and she returns to the house, traumatized. When Luisa finds Eleanor's torn clothing, she accuses Richard of assaulting her, but Richard responds by calling Luisa a tramp. Eleanor and Florence overhear the accusation and Florence asks him to leave. While Richard goes to have breakfast at a diner, Luisa leaves for New York. Richard returns to talk with Florence, and after refusing to apologize, reminds her that he owns the cottage. Richard later packs up and pretends to leave, then distorts the portrait he has painted of Florence and follows Eleanor and Florence as they walk on the beach. Alarmed, Florence phones Luisa in New York, and she and Chuck decide to drive back to the cottage. Florence also arranges for a neighbor boy to stay with them overnight. However, before the boy arrives, Richard breaks into the cottage and rages at Florence, who tries to calm him. When the boy arrives, Richard attacks him and stabs him to death. Richard then kills Florence. When Luisa and Chuck arrive, they find Eleanor wandering in a daze outside. A short time later, policemen find Richard painting on the beach and lead him away while the letter from the psychiatrist, offering hope of professional help, blows away into the tide.