Jean Renoir remains a cinematic mystery. He is a man of great achievements and odd side notes. He's often cited for creating more than one major motion picture masterpiece (Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, La Bete Humaine) and yet was barely able to translate that brilliance to the Hollywood studio system. Arriving in California to avoid the Nazi incursion into his home country of France, Renoir would go on to struggle in Tinseltown, finding minimal success (and a single Academy Award nomination, for 1945's The Southerner). Before returning to Europe - and triumphs like The River and French Can-Can - he made the bleak avant-garde noir The Woman on the Beach. Starring Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett, it became one of those infamous examples of the clash between corporate interference and artistic ambition. Renoir wanted to be daring. The suits wanted to make money. The result was a heavily reedited and reshot "thriller" that was neither evocative nor engaging. What remains today - available as part of the Warner's On-Demand Archive Collection - is 70 surreal minutes, a patchy potboiler with glimpses of Renoir's genius sprinkled throughout.
Lieutenant Scott Burnett (Ryan) is a member of the Coast Guard. Suffering from lingering nightmares (he obviously survived the deadly torpedoing of his ship during the war), he returns to the small town where his fiancé Eve Geddes (Nan Leslie) waits for him. Hoping to get married, he is initially rebuffed. He then runs across the mysterious Peggy Butler (Bennett) walking along the beach. She is the dissatisfied wife of blind painter Tod Butler (Charles Bickford). Eventually, Scott and Peggy begin a tumultuous, on again/off again affair. Convinced that Tod is merely playing the part of handicapped to keep his wife close to his side, our hero plans to uncover the truth. When the plot backfires, he is forced to face the realities regarding the new love in his life. Peggy may not be what she appears, and Tod's motives are equally unclear. Pushed to the edge, Scott must decide what to do...before it's too late.
Watching The Woman on the Beach is like experiencing shards of genius wrapped inside a weird, indecipherable narrative. Renior's visual flair, combined with his love of character, should make this manipulative noir work - and he definitely does try. The opening sequence where Robert Ryan is reliving his wartime attack is merciless in its optical invention. In between the dream like walk along the ocean floor, the skeletal remains, and the shadowy sections of destroyed ship, we witness a bravura turn by a man known for his cinematic artistry. And then the storyline kicks in and things start to fall apart. For all his dashing darkness, Ryan can't make Scott sympathetic. Maybe in the post-War world of 1945 his humorless hurt puppy dog expressions meant something, but today he comes across as weak-willed and whiny. Similarly, Bennett's lonely lady is laughable, her motives unclear and her desires even foggier. When they first meet (alongside a decaying beached boat that begins a major narrative set-piece), there is no chemistry, so the instant attraction feels forced. Later, when he is sacrificing his sanity for she, the lack of any carnal connection renders their already unrealistic romance moot.
Only Charles Bickford manages to salvage his singular, dimensionless character, and it makes sense considering where Renoir comes from. His father, the world renowned painter, was known for his moods and complicated temperament and the filmmaker manages to reference some of that here. Similarly, the whole subplot involving the unsold paintings and Peggy's previous liaisons are more interesting than anything that happens within the love triangle itself. In fact, ancillary players like Irene Ryan (future Granny of Beverly Hillbillies) and Nan Leslie are far more intriguing than the standard Double Indemnity nonsense going on. By the end, when irrationality and destruction comes into play, we still want answers. We want to know why Peggy attacked her husband so, why he's so cold and distant to strangers...and friends. Why is Scott still tormented by his past and why does Eve give up on him so quickly? There seems to be an entire movie missing from The Woman on the Beach. What we have instead is 70 scattered minutes of muddle.
Naturally, this makes the production history all the more relevant. Like other famous examples of tinkering, some settled (we will NEVER see Orson Welles real version of The Magnificent Ambersons) and reversed (Leone's Once Upon a Time... films were eventually restored) what the true Woman on the Beach could be is hard to decipher. Clearly, the main storyline is a maritime The Postman Always Rings Twice: conniving kept woman convinces unlucky shmoe to bump off hubby - but Renoir should have easily synced up with such material. Similarly, the whole war torn issue plays right into his main themes going all the way back to Grand Illusion. Finally, the brief running time reveals a scope shrunk by a desire to make money, not art. Renoir wasn't always a sure bet - especially once he crossed the ocean - but clearly, his version of The Woman on the Beach would have been better, if only aesthetically speaking. Of course, we will never know. The efforts of this amazing moviemaker have long since disappeared. All we have left is this truncated take. While curious, it's far...Far...FAR from a classic.
Offered as part of Warners Archive Collection, The Woman on the Beach looks very good. There are definitely defects, like age spots and scratches, but the contrasts are sharp and the black and white cinematography within the 1.33:1 transfer avoids the lamentable "gray scaling" of time. Sure, a remaster would have brought everything into a clearer focus, but what we have here is polished and very pleasing.
Nothing can save old Mono made "new" via a speaker doubling mix - aka Dolby Digital 2.0. While the dialogue is easy to understand, the score is often overmodulated, crowding out the rest of the soundscape.
Nothing. Not even a trailer.
Renoir can be a tricky director to wholly support and embrace. His earlier work was clearly his best, while his late in life comeback argued for a relevancy Hollywood robbed him of. Yet a film like The Woman on the Beach suggests that he could have been successful in America had he been able to find the right projects while protecting his vision in the process. Earning a borderline Recommended, it's an oddity within an oeuvre filled with celebrated gems. Of course, without his final cut to judge things by, it's hard to argue that this movie would ever work. What's on the screen is surely interesting. Beyond that, it's hard to get a handle on.
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