The Woman On The Beach

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THE WOMAN ON THE BEACH —-Renoir noir, as director Jean Renoir finishes up his WW2 exile in America with the last of the five features he made in Hollywood before returning to France. An unusual picture that’s slippery to classify, it benefits from an unsettling mood and strong leads, but it’s the least successful of the director’s US quintet, a casualty of studio interference in the cutting and a less-certain grip on the material than the director showed with gems Swamp Water, This Land Is Mine and The Southerner. *

Things kick off to a nifty start with a cool scene depicting Robert Ryan in the throes of a wild nightmare, a fevered partly-animated montage of a mine-stricken ship going down in a whirlpool, sinking into the depths, with Ryan float-striding across the ocean floor, over skeletons and debris, toward a hot dame in a flowing gown. A kiss turns into an explosion, and… away we go.

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Coast Guard officer ‘Scott Burnett’ (Ryan), plagued by PTSD (“shell-shock” in the old days) is supposed to marry local girl ‘Eve’ (Nan Leslie), but after he comes across provocative dame ‘Peggy Butler’ (Joan Bennett) during one of his horseback canters on the beach, he gets drawn into the twisted relationship she has with husband ‘Tod’ (Charles Bickford), a renowned artist who has lost his sight. That’s because Peggy blinded him, discovered in due course by the quickly & easily seduced Scott who tries to figure out exactly how f’d- up the Butler’s are. The answer is ‘quite a bit’: be careful of blithely insinuating brunettes lounging around beached shipwrecks. Ditto their passive-aggressive husbands.

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Tod comforts his, um..yearning…younger wife: “Peggy, did it ever occur to you that to me you’ll always be young and beautiful? No matter how old you grow – I’ll always remember you as you were the last day I saw you – young, beautiful, bright, exciting. No one who can see can say that to you. – – Peg, you’re so beautiful… so beautiful outside, so rotten inside.”  She takes it like a bad kitty and comes back with simple shrug, “You’re no angel.”

Later, when Scott tasks her, she lets the big ox in that “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Scott, what of it? You’re not my husband.”  Taken aback, he can only give out Peggy, you’re nothing but a…”, to which she bakes his sap-potato with Go on. Say it – I’m a tramp. You’re just finding that out?”  Q: how come this doesn’t happen at the grocery store? Or am I just going to the wrong one? Probably…

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The cat & mouse interplay between the three leads is really good (Bickford especially impressive), and for the most part the overheated melodrama holds. Cutting into acceptance are poorly done rear-projection shots on a rowboat in the ocean (the wave action doesn’t match up, for one thing), and the climax has a tinkertoy look to the sets; the fire stuff is pretty weak, like a B-picture. Hanns Eisler’s overbearing score is more suited to an opera. The abrupt finale is a letdown.

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The take of $2,500,000 (figure from Cogerson) had it lagging way down at the 127th spot among the year’s releases, which saw a bumper crop of intense thrillers populated by tormented characters. According to Richard B. Jewell’s book Slow Fade to Black: The Decline of RKO Radio Pictures the film registered a loss of $610,000.

Also in the cast are Walter Sande and Irene Ryan (15 years away from ‘Granny’ on The Beverly Hillbillies). 71 minutes.

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* The original title picked was “Desirable Woman” and it was developed by Val Lewton (who bailed) and Renoir. Their script was inspired by a 1945 steamer novel called “None So Blind”, by former chemist Mitchell Wilson, who’d been an assistant to Enrico Fermi, and later married famed acting coach Stella Adler. Coming in on the revised screenplay later was Frank Davis (A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, The Train).  Renoir was intrigued by the theme of isolation present in the story, both the edge-of-society setting and the emotionally dislocated principals, remarking that “Solitude is the richer for the fact that it does not exist…The void is peopled with ghosts, and they are ghosts from our past. They are very strong, strong enough to shape the present in their image.”

A test screening drew jeering laughter from the audience. According to Robert Ryan biographer J.R.Jones, Renoir lost confidence in his ideas about the project, and received conflicting advice from fellow directors John Huston and Mark Robson about how to adjust what was lacking. Frustrated, he fenced with it for nearly a year. It seems that then the producer set to work with the editors.

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Renoir on Ryan: “Bob Ryan is a marvelous person…Professionally he’s absolutely honest in everything he does.”  Ryan on Renoir: “One of the most remarkable men I’ve ever met.”

Renoir on Bennett: “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.”

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At 37, Joan Bennett was about done with her ‘temptress period’ which included great parts in The Woman In The Window, Scarlet Street, The Macomber Affair and Hollow Triumph. On femme fatales she offered that “Few people remember good women. They don’t forget bad girls.”  No. Kidding.

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