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The Woman on the Beach

The Woman on the Beach(1947)

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teaser The Woman on the Beach (1947)

When Nazi Germany's encroaching grip on Europe sent many of the continent's finest directors fleeing to Hollywood, Jean Renoir - who had already earned his reputation with films like The Rules of the Game (1939) and The Grand Illusion (1937) - behaved on the surface like most of his compatriots, dabbling in genres like westerns and the burgeoning new cinematic strain later termed film noir. While others like Fritz Lang excelled with dark, socially conscious thrillers, Renoir only made one bona fide contribution, 1947's Woman on the Beach for RKO. Lang's frequent noir muse, Joan Bennett (from The Woman in the Window, 1945, Scarlet Street, 1945, and the underrated Man Hunt, 1941), assumed the female lead as Peggy Butler, a married woman whose beachside idyll captivates traumatized WWII Coast Guard vet Scott Burnett (Clash by Night's [1952] Robert Ryan) - who's engaged to another woman. Peggy's blind husband, Tod Butler (Charles Bickford), a respected painter, is unaware of their attraction and enjoys the former soldier's presence; however, the married couple's relationship seems quite perverse considering Peggy was responsible for his blindness - which Scott believes may not be quite as incapacitating as appearances indicate.

Originally slated as a tantalizing project for famous horror producer Val Lewton under the title Desirable Woman (and loosely based on the Mitchell Wilson potboiler None So Blind), Woman on the Beach became Renoir's fifth and final American film when he was brought on at the request of Bennett. The cast went through several changes, with George Brent originally slated as the lead before Ryan came on board. As the prestige value escalated both behind and in front of the camera, the film evolved from a quickie programmer to an A-list project.

Bennett (who was fluent in French) and Renoir got along famously on the set; Renoir was particularly amused by the contrast between her vamp image and far homier off screen persona. As he wrote to his friend Paul Cezanne, "She spends the whole day knitting, and I find it really funny to think that this homey person is considered by the American moral groups to be the most dangerous sexpot on the screen today." In another letter to Marie Lestringuez he wrote, "She knows how to make fun of her screen personality and doesn't waste a single ironic allusion to her false eyelashes or any other artifices of make-up. The other actors, camera crew, technicians also form an excellent company, the sort that has me returning home from this adventure almost regretting that it's going to end."

Unfortunately RKO brass and preview audiences at a disastrous Santa Barbara screening were left cold by the film's refusal to play by the traditional murder-mystery rulebook. A frustrated and despairing Renoir returned to the editing room and then reshot numerous scenes at RKO's insistence for a drastic overhaul, which probably accounts for several noticeable inconsistencies in the dialogue. As he wrote in a letter to Alain Renoir, "There was a lot of bad blood and I worked like a galley slave editing and re-editing. Now I've decided to stick with the current structure, which will still take me another two weeks to complete." After working on salvaging the film for a full year, his opinion of the work had dwindled considerably: "It was this miserable plot which RKO decided to give me to direct. I accepted, I don't know why, no doubt in order to pay my taxes, and it added a few miles of film to our good city's annual output." Later admitting "I'm afraid I was too far ahead of the public's mentality" in his autobiography, My Life and My Films, Renoir fortunately managed to preserve the essence of a challenging, complex, and very adult drama bound to surprise anyone expecting the usual duped hero and deadly dame formula. When the film received its expected lukewarm reception, Renoirs contract with RKO was terminated and he had to abandon a proposed adaptation of Madame Bovary. Meanwhile Bennett rejoined Lang the following year for another widely misunderstood thriller, Secret Beyond the Door, and soon teamed with another legendary French director, Max Ophuls, for 1949's The Reckless Moment.

Though he possessed American naturalization papers, Renoir found the studio experience so disheartening he opted out of becoming an American citizen and attempted an independent distribution company, the Film Group, which was stymied by an inability to secure loans. By the close of the decade, with his studio career officially over, Renoir turned instead to an independent source for his 1951 masterpiece, The River, commencing a decade-long fling with wildly colorful impressionist films that reinstated his critical standing with the international community once again.

Producer: Jack J. Gross, Will Price
Director: Jean Renoir
Screenplay: Frank Davis, J.R. Michael Hogan, Jean Renoir, Mitchell Wilson (novel)
Cinematography: Leo Tover, Harry J. Wild
Film Editing: Lyle Boyer, Roland Gross
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Hanns Eisler
Cast: Joan Bennett (Peggy Butler), Robert Ryan (Lieutenant Scott Burnett), Charles Bickford (Tod Butler), Nan Leslie (Eve Geddes), Walter Sande (CPO Otto Wernecke), Irene Ryan (Mrs. Mary Wernecke).
BW-71m. Closed captioning.

by Bret Wood

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