Directed by Jean Renoir; screenplay by Frank Davis, J.R. Michael Hogan, and Jean Renoir; adapted from the Mitchell Wilson novel, None So Blind; cinematography by Leo Tover and Harry J. Wild; edited by Lyle Boyer, Roland Gross; art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller; music by Hanns Eisler; starring Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford, and Nan Leslie. DVD, B&W, 71 min., 1947. A Warner Bros. Archive release, www.warnerarchive.com.
The great French director Jean Renoir fled to Hollywood after Germany invaded France in May 1940. When he arrived it took time for him to find appropriate film projects, but in 1943 he coproduced and directed an anti-Nazi film set in France, This Land Is Mine, and followed it with four other films. Arguably the best of these, The Southerner (1945)—a film about the economic difficulties of Texas sharecroppers that beautifully evokes the land on which they work—garnered him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Direction. His final Hollywood film was the noirishTheWoman on the Beach (1947), which basically ended Renoir’s ties with an American movie industry that tried to fit into a conventional mold a director who thrived on freedom.
The film focuses onthree damaged human beings who are part of a painful, murderous, romantic triangle. Lieutenant Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan) is a traumatized Coast Guard officer, whose boat had been torpedoed in WWII. The incident has left him haunted by recurring nightmares of drowning, and Ryan’s gift throughout his career for playing solitary, brooding, volatile men of few words is one of the film’s strengths. Burnett is also engaged to a sweet, bland blonde who offers him an uncomplicated emotional commitment that doesn’t satisfy him. Consequently, when riding a horse on a deserted beach, he is open to meeting and becoming possessed by Peggy (Joan Bennett), a seductive brunette married to an older painter, Tod Butler (Charles Bickford), who had once been extremely successful. Butler’s career abruptly ended when he was accidentally blinded in a drunken fight with Peggy. It’s a perverse, love/hate relationship that defies easy understanding. It’s not until the film’s conclusion that Burnett perceives how badly he has misunderstood the nature of their embattled relationship, and how deeply linked these two sophisticated, destructive personalities are.
Joan Bennett, whose strongest performances were in femme fatale roles in fine film noir productions such as Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944)and Scarlet Street (1945), provides a less calculating and controlled variation on that character. She is duplicitous here as well, and is able to arouse and then play with Burnett and her husband’s passionate feelings for her. In Renoir’s film, however, her line readings seem artificial, and the shifts in her behavior awkward—in one scene she turns suddenly from an empathetic temptress into a harsh, tough broad.
Much of the film’s choppy quality—scenes are abruptly cut and dialog is inconsistent—was the result of a disastrous prerelease screening in Santa Barbara at which preview audiences and the studio bosses were turned off by the film’s unwillingness to follow traditional genre rules. A frustrated Renoir was thus forced to return to the editing room and he also had to reshoot numerous scenes, which turned the final product into the messy seventy-one-minute cut that exists today.
Renoir had set out to depict a love story that in his words was “based purely on physical attraction.” In most of his previous films, his characters were linked to a social background, but here they are isolated beings, and society barely exists. Even the sexual attraction between the three main characters isn’t clear, since Peggy turns from Tod to Burnett, and back, without any explanation.
Despite the film’s obvious limitations, which include an absurd, violent confrontation in turbulent ocean waters between Tod and Burnett, TheWoman on the Beach is not devoid of interest. Besides Ryan’s strong performance as the lust-driven, unstable Burnett, Charles Bickford, who in his long career in Hollywood often played rugged, taciturn, uncomplicated characters, is convincing as Tod—a troubled painter with an insidious manner, and a dark side that goes back further and is deeper than the trauma of suddenly becoming blind. There is also something a bit hallucinatory about the film, which concludes with Tod burning down his house and his extremely valuable paintings. He declaims that he had to free himself from his obsessions—the paintings and Peggy—so he could start anew. The paintings may be gone, but Peggy is staying with Tod.
It’s hard to evaluate a film as eviscerated as The Woman on the Beach. Renoir tried to save it, but it feels so compressed that it’s not always coherent. Renoir had no illusions about his Hollywood sojourn: “Although I don’t regret my American films, I know for a fact they don’t even come close to any ideal I have for my work…they represent seven years of unrealized works and unrealized hopes.” TheWoman on the Beach is a perfect example of how difficult it was for Renoir to adjust to Hollywood.
Leonard Quart is the author or coauthor of several books, including the just-published, fourth edition of American Film and Society since 1945 (Praeger).