Sunday, December 28, 2008

Target #42: The Woman on the Beach (1947, Jean Renoir)

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Mitchell Wilson (novel), J.R. Michael Hogan (adaptation), Frank Davis, Jean Renoir (screenplay)
Starring: Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford, Nan Leslie, Walter Sande, Irene Ryan, Glen Vernon

By 1947, Jean Renoir, at least indirectly, wasn't new to the American film noir style. Two years earlier, Fritz Lang had released the first of his two Renoir remakes, Scarlet Street (1945), which was based upon La Chienne / The Bitch (1931) {the second film, Human Desire (1954), was inspired by La Bête humaine / The Human Beast (1938)}. Scarlet Street notably starred Joan Bennett in a prominent role, which makes it interesting that, despite allegedly disliking that film, Renoir himself used her in his own Hollywood film noir, The Woman on the Beach (1947). It's a visually-magnificent film, with photography from Leo Tover and Harry Wild (the latter of whom shot Murder, My Sweet (1944) and Macao (1952)) that perfectly captures the mystery and eerie calm of the beach-side setting, frequently swathed in gentle clouds of mist that foreshadow the ambiguity and uncertainty of the story that follows. When we first glimpse Joan Bennett on the fog-swathed coast, collecting driftwood at the wreck of a grounded ship, she really does look ghostly and ethereal, a premonition that may or may not be real.

Robert Ryan plays Scott, a coastguard who suffers from regular night terrors concerning memories of a war-time naval tragedy, when his ship was presumably torpedoed. His dream sequences are gripping and otherwordly, recalling the excellently surreal work achieved by Renoir in his silent short film, The Little Match Girl (1928). During his nightmares, Scott imagines an underwater romantic liaison, which, before he can get intimate, unexpectedly blows up in his face; this is an apt indication of the events that unfold later in the film. Scott is engaged to marry the pretty Eve (Nan Leslie), but his attention is soon distracted by Peggy (Joan Bennett), the titular "woman on the beach." Peggy is married to Tod (Charles Bickford), a famous blind artist who is still coming to terms with his relatively recent affliction. At just 71 minutes in length, Woman on the Beach feels far too short, the apparent victim of studio interference. Scott is obviously enamoured, and later obsessed, with femme fatale Peggy, in a manner than suggests Walter Neff's fixation with Phyllis Dietrichson, but the motivations behind his actions are inadequately explored and explained.

Perhaps as a result of the studio's trimming of scenes, many plot-twists in the film seem somewhat contrived. Scott's extreme determination in proving that Tod is faking blindness feels so incredibly illogical – why, indeed, would Tod even consider such a con? Many wonderful scenes are severely hampered by the story's lack of exposition. In the film's most dramatic scene, amid the choppy waters of the Atlantic, Robert Ryan displays a frighteningly convincing rage that borders on pure psychosis, a quality that Nicholas Ray exploited five years later in On Dangerous Ground (1952). However, because Scott's obsession and emotional transformation had previously been explored so sparsely, the sequence feels, above all else, out of context. The performances are neverthless solid across the board, with Bickford probably the most impressive. Bennett's character is tantalisingly ambiguous: throughout the film, she slowly reveals herself to be nothing but a greedy tramp, though Scott insists on treating her as a tormented victim of abuse. The ending offers little in the way of resolution, reaffirming the sentiment that perhaps this film isn't all there.

Currently my #9 film of 1947:
1) Odd Man Out (Carol Reed) *
2) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
3) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
4) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur) *
5) Dark Passage (Delmer Daves) *
6) The Lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles) *
7) They Won’t Believe Me (Irving Pichel) *
8) The Fugitive (John Ford, Emilio Fernández)
9) The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir) *
10) Lady in the Lake (Robert Montgomery) *

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi - I'm a Renoir and Lang fan and I have Scarlet Street (which was quite dark) and The Secret Beyond the Door and Woman at the Window. I enjoyed your review and your project sounds interesting!