A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Woman on the Beach (Jean Renoir, 1947)

Imagine The Woman on the Beach if Jean Renoir had made it in France with, say, Simone Signoret, Gérard Philipe, and Jean Gabin, and perhaps you can see what I mean when I say it's the best example of the kind of pressures Renoir felt during his war-imposed exile in Hollywood. Although the war was over, Renoir was under contract to RKO for two more pictures, but after the failure of The Woman on the Beach, the studio canceled the contract, so it was his last American film. If he had made the film in France, he wouldn't have been subjected to the heavy-handedness of Production Code censorship, which almost killed the film from the outset when the Code administrator, Joseph I. Breen,* declared the story, adapted from a novel by Mitchell Wilson, "unacceptable ... in that it is a story of adultery without any compensating moral values." Somehow Breen was persuaded to give in. But Renoir also had to put up with the studio star system, which required performers to look glamorous and handsome even in the most adverse situations. Even though Joan Bennett's character, Peggy Butler, spends a lot of time on the beach doing things like gathering firewood, her hair and makeup are always perfect. After an unfavorable preview of the film, the studio forced reshoots and made some drastic cuts -- the existing version is only 71 minutes long -- that displeased Renoir. What we have now is a sometimes fascinating, sometimes incoherent film. There's an on-again, off-again relationship between a Coast Guard officer, Scott Burnett, played by Robert Ryan, and a young woman named Eve, played by the starlet Nan Leslie, that serves no essential function in the story. Scott's nightmares about being on a sinking ship during wartime and an encounter on the beach with a ghostly woman who looks something like Eve loom large in the early part of the film but then mysteriously vanish along with any other symptoms of the PTSD Scott supposedly suffers from. The focus of the story is on Scott's affair with Peggy -- they apparently have sex in a shipwreck that has washed up on the beach -- and his suspicions about Peggy's husband, Tod (Charles Bickford), a famous painter who is now blind, the result of a fight in which Peggy threw something that severed his optic nerve. But Scott thinks Tod is faking his blindness and puts him to the test, which Tod passes by falling off a cliff without doing himself serious harm. There's a good deal of overheated dialogue: "Peg, you're so beautiful ... so beautiful outside, so rotten inside." In the end, there's a conclusion in which nothing is concluded: Scott seemingly tries but fails to drown both himself and Tod; Tod sets fire to the cabin that contains his cherished surviving paintings; he and Peggy set off for New York; and Scott retires from his commission in the Coast Guard. Some of this might have made emotional sense in a better-crafted film, one not subject to the tinkering and scrubbing that the studio and the censors enforced. Still, Bennett, Ryan, and Bickford perform with conviction, and there are those who find even the film's chaotic presentation of erotic entanglements compelling.

*Renoir doesn't seem to have nursed any hard feelings against Breen: He cast his son, Thomas E. Breen, in a key role in The River (1951).

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