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THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH

(1946)

Starring Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford; dir: Jean Renoir

 

Like the waking dream that it is, you have to go with The Woman On The Beach.

Jean Renoir’s last American film is a brief but densely layered psychological study. As in The Southerner (to which the director’s sensitivity for landscape lent a unique lyricism), Renoir’s rhythm here is at odds with the expectations of a Hollywood film. With virtually no establishing sequences, soon after meeting, Ryan’s Lt.Scott Burnett and Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett) are engaged in a Deep And Meaningful in front of the fireplace of her beachfront home: "In a way we’re alike", the two strangers quickly conclude.

Dreams can work like that and if you accept, it’s easier to enter into the intertwined depths of these linked characterizations. Burnett is a vet suffering from shellshock and knows it, and is looking for understanding, not sympathy, while Peggy’s guilt over (apparently) ‘blinding’ her painter husband Ted (Bickford), ties her to him and their gloomy beachhouse.

Peggy’s fireplace speech explicitly talks to Scott of ‘ghosts’ and the need to stop fighting them head-on as you never win that way, but rather need to accept, and move on. Fittingly The Woman On The Beach reflects Renoir’s sense of disorientation at this time, and despite its lack of thriller elements is often described as film noir. (The sublimely moody cinematography by Greg Tover [The Day The Earth Stood Still] doesn’t hurt either.) Returning in 1945 to his beloved Paris after wartime exile in Hollywood, Renoir felt "disturbed by a sense of not belonging any more", according to John Russell Taylor (whose book Strangers In Paradise is an excellent account of Hollywood’s wartime emigrés). To Renoir, post-occupation Parisians exhibited an understandable mixture of defiance, wariness, shame and hostility. Going back to Hollywood for this American swansong, he distilled all of his confused reactions into this film.

As in a dream, the subconscious is externalised into the narrative’s reality and the washed up hulk where Scott and Peggy’s illicit love occurs is the lieutenant’s ghost made incarnate. But Ted and Peggy Butler’s relationship has ghosts too, even of happiness, as seen when they wistfully remember their time of ‘New York champagne’. Bickford has a craggy masculinity a la late Widmark and is effectively enigmatic, as we never know exactly where to fit his character. Neither does the young lieutenant, and the brinkmanship of Burnett’s ‘testing’ Ted’s blindness by imperiling the older man in a series of increasingly hazardous bluffs (pun intended!) is an amazing sequence, both in conception and execution.

As in Double Indemnity, we learn late in the piece that Peggy has been here before and is something of a serial seductress. Burnett’s goody two-shoes fiancée Eve (Nan Leslie) never stands a chance.

Ironically, given the vision/blindness ambiguity, paintings are the anchor holding Ted Butler back. When his final impulsive act destroys the self that had been, it becomes the concomitant break in the emotional logjam that’s been likewise holding all three of this triangle in thrall.

One has to hope that this obviously therapeutic exercise ended up working for Renoir too. The tantalising reality is that, after a disastrous preview in Santa Barbara, he (not the studio suits) recut and re-shot huge chunks of his original vision, approximately one third of which is now lost. Subsequently he reflected that "I was too far ahead of the public’s mentality". Years later, a different public prepared to trust this conductor can find much of enduring relevance and power in The Woman On The Beach.

- Roger Westcombe