Noir City at SIFF – The Woman on the Beach
Legendary French director Jean Renoir (The Lower Depths, Grand Illusion, and Rules of the Game) turns in this near-masterpiece of an atmospheric noir film, centering on a love triangle between a Coast Guard officer, a blind artist, and the wife who blinded him. Rare for a film in general, but more common with the noir genre, is the film’s surreal opening. At a Coast Guard Mounted Patrol station on a beach, in his cabin, Lt. Scott Burnett has a nightmare: a Guard ship sinks, upon hitting a mine. On its way to the bottom of the ocean, Scott sinks along with it, until he comes to rest at the bottom, where he sees a woman in a dress waiting for him. He walks over a skeleton and through the debris of the wreckage to embrace her, where, once they reach each other, they explode in a fiery cataclysm.
When Scott wakes from his nightmare, he is wrought with torment, and cryptically remarks on how the doctors who told him he was better were obviously wrong. This, coupled with Scott’s dream, are the only clues we are given to his past. Perhaps this is due to the studio’s drastic editing that was done to the film, against Renoir’s desires, at the last moment before its release? But, perhaps this was something Renoir intended? Either way, this is a common trait for a leading character in a noir film; that is, to have a handicap, whether mental or physical, that not only makes the person sympathetic, but vulnerable—enough that they would compromise on a bad idea because of it, when before they never would have.
On mounted patrol along the beach, Scott encounters the mysterious woman from his nightmare. She is sitting in front of a wrecked ship on the beach, smoking a cigarette, and pays little attention to him as he rides the horse by. Slightly bewildered by the knowledge of her existence, Scott, feeling antsy, goes to the woman he is engaged to, Eve Geddes, the daughter of a ship builder. There, he insists they elope that evening, but she has designs of their romance as a perfect series of planned moments and convinces him it would be wise to hold off for now. Instead, that evening, Scott, who is still supposed to be meeting Eve, runs into the woman on the beach, Peggy (played by Joan Bennett). They begin to talk, and soon Scott is invited to her home where he meets her husband, Tod (played by Charles Bickford). Tod is a once famous painter who, in a tragic accident, has gone blind.
As also mentioned in my previous review of Crack-Up, The Woman on the Beach concerns itself, in part, with a reoccurring theme in crime/noir stories, that of the art world. Almost a sub-genre inside of the world of Noir, these stories in some way incorporate art into its context. Be it commentary, capitalization, or exploitation, the central crux of whatever misdeed or crime at the center is a similar relation to modern day crime or neo-noir stories involving Hollywood or the music industry. Here, in the story of Tod the artist who can no longer see, art is a means of tragedy. Like mentioned above, a staple of the noir story is the handicapped, or damaged, soul.
Tod is lonely, and while Scott is brewing lustful designs for Peggy, the two men become friends. A strange situation for a friendship, but it is one that with Peggy in the center, forming not only a love triangle, but also a convergence of three individuals, each with their own handicap to conquer or overcome. This is, in my opinion, what makes this movie great. No one specific main character is exactly likeable, or a good person. The peripheral people are the causalities—minor, but important in their way. As the movie continues to play out, so does the tryst that this trio has set off.
The acting is solid here, unlike many film noirs that succumbed to the B-movie syndrome. Robert Ryan gives a subtle, reserved performance for the most part, and knows just when to make a wrong decision almost as painful for the audience as it is for the character. Charles Bickford’s almost hammy characterization of the lost and bitter Tod is just the right amount of flamboyance the character needs. Most important is Joan Bennett as the woman in the center of two men’s friendship and rivalry. Her performance is even more reserved than Ryan’s, and shows the slow build of quiet screaming that wants to rage from within. Peggy is tortured, but her secret is one left best for the viewing pleasure of the film. It is a secret that ties the question of a misdeed to tragedy, and is the delicate center of the characters’ path to redemption together.
Truly, it is the end of The Woman on the Beach that solidifies it as great film lost in the rubble of lesser fare. It is, without spoiling, a truly unique ending for a film noir. The conclusion is one not common to the genre and leaves the viewer with something of a rarity to ponder over. Jean Renoir is a director of finesse and emotional complexity, and while this movie came later in his career, it has not received the full restoration and wide release that it deserves. What a great thing it would be to see this film in its entirety as it was intended by Renoir. But, in the meantime, catching this film in whatever form you can would be a true film noir treat.
The Woman on the Beach (1947) plays at SIFF Cinema as part of its “Noir City” series on Wednesday, February 16th, 2011 at 7:00 PM. It will be the first of a double feature with Beware, My Lovely (1952). Please visit www.siff.net for more details.