Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford, Nan Leslie, Walter Sande, Irene Ryan, Glen Vernon, Frank Darien, Jay Norris
Written by: Jean Renoir, Frank Davis, J.R. Michael Hogan, based on a novel by Mitchell Wilson
Directed by: Jean Renoir
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 71
Date: 02/06/1947
IMDB

The Woman on the Beach (1947)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Blind Fate

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This was the fifth and final film Jean Renoir made in English during his Hollywood sojourn, after Swamp Water (1941), This Land Is Mine (1943), The Southerner (1945), and Diary of a Chambermaid (1946); unfortunately, it was also the film that hastened his departure. According to some reports, Renoir screened a cut for an audience in Santa Barbara, which snickered all the way through. He then frantically and recklessly re-shot and re-edited, and wound up with the 71-minute cut that exists today (the excised footage is apparently no longer around).

Subsequently, the movie flopped and several critics labeled it a disaster. The disgraced Renoir was unable to work again for four years, when he lucked into some Indian financing for The River (1951). Yet, many critics including James Agee, Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Jacques Rivette, among others, came to the film's defense, finding hints of Renoir's grace and humanity in the work. It has remained difficult to see in the video age, but finally Warner Archive has released it on one of their MOD DVDs, and it's very much worth seeking out.

Robert Ryan stars in arguably his first important role as Scott Burnett, a coast guard lieutenant who is haunted by visions of a costly, wartime attack at sea. The gorgeous Joan Bennett -- who attracted many of the great directors -- co-stars as the "woman on the beach," Peggy. Scott runs into Peggy and they bond over a moody, ghostly shipwreck nearby. Though engaged to another woman, Scott is drawn to Peggy (she understands him), but is thrown when he realizes that she is married. Her husband is Tod Butler (Charles Bickford), a famous painter who reluctantly retired after going blind.

Tod and Peggy have a volatile relationship, and Scott becomes obsessed with freeing Peggy; he's convinced that Tod is only faking his blindness to emphasize his dependence on Peggy. The movie turns into something of a film noir, not unlike Renoir's earlier La Bête Humaine (1938), or, perhaps less so, La Chienne (1931). For a while, Renoir's expert framing and intuitive direction bring out the vivid emotions of this setup. For such a thin film, the result packs a potent punch.

The main drawback is the overcooked score by Hanns Eisler, which rises up and blares too loudly, too often, over Renoir's intimate moments. The other big drawback is the abrupt ending, which Renoir clearly made out of desperation in an attempt to please American audiences. Yet, in a way, it is somewhat satisfying. The film throws together the most damaged souls, stuck in each other's company forever. Be careful what you wish for, the film seems to say.