THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)
Faded director Harry Dawes gets a new lease on his career when wealthy Kirk Edwards hires him to write and direct a film. ..
Films that start at the end and employ a circular narrative present a fundamental problem, especially when the opening scene is the funeral of a central character and the ensuing story’s told in flashback. Apart from setting a sombre tone, it makes the outcome rather predictable.
The inimitable voice of Humphrey Bogart provides an opening narration which tells us that, three years after we get to meet Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), she’ll be dead. All we have to look forward to is watching those years play out. It’s obviously going to be a ‘Cinderella story’, as the Spanish ‘peasant’ rises from her humble roots to become a star of the silver screen, but we already know there’ll be no happy ever after.
Passionate dancer Maria enjoys the adulation of the flamenco crowd in Madrid, but hardly earns enough to keep her parents and brother, let alone escape her humble roots. She’s known hardship since her childhood during the Spanish Civil War and, after meeting writer-director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), believes that becoming an actress in the US could be her way out. Harry is instantly likeable, straight-talking, sincere, and respectful; a complete contrast to his two associates, the millionaire producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) and his publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien).
The scene that introduces Maria at the Spanish bar is clever and very well handled, especially as we don’t get the merest glimpse of her performance at all. The camera stays on the audience and their varied reactions: rapt appreciation, barely concealed lust, feelings of inferiority, jealousy, smiles, leers, and tears. So, the idea of her star-power is established even before we get to meet her. But don’t worry, you’ll get to see her moves later.
Harry’s obviously attracted to Maria, and she to him, but he’s already taken. Their growing, platonic friendship becomes the central thread that holds the narrative together as Maria flits from one relationship to another, eventually marries into minor royalty, takes a lover and generally messes her life up looking for what Harry and his wife Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars) have found together.
I came to Barefoot Contessa with great expectations of a classic melodrama, but it really isn’t dramatic enough to deliver on that promise. When stood alongside the genre defining films that Douglas Sirk was making in the same era, like Shockproof (1949) and Magnificent Obsession (1954), it just lacks emotional punch.
Perhaps writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz intended for the film to be a shallow experience, to reflect the essence of Hollywood? Maybe he wanted us to see through the technique and be reminded that we were watching film actors on a screen? If so, then this would make it a groundbreaking piece of Modern cinema, a precursor to the New Wave brewing in Europe. But, somehow, I doubt that.
I’m not saying the acting is substandard. The leads all play their parts with fine style. Bogart is nonchalant and naturalistic in his mannerisms, and certainly makes the most of the contrived, affected dialogue. No-one can deny Ava Gardner has star-power and her sensuality swamps the screen whenever she’s in shot. She handles her monologues with great aplomb, but it’s clearly a challenge to make the words sound remotely spontaneous.
Famously, Gardner cost the production more than $1 million. She was under contract with MGM studios at the time and they wouldn’t release her without a big pay-off and a percentage. They insisted on a release fee of $200,000 (already twice Bogart’s fee) but paid her just a third of that. Appreciating what Mankiewicz had done to land her, she was reportedly very dedicated. She rehearsed solidly for three weeks, just for the famous dance scene. Really, the film ended up being a showcase for her talents.
Initially Mankiewicz had hoped to cast an unknown, or relative newcomer for the starring role—he wanted reality to echo the film’s fiction. Joan Collins and Rosanna Podesta both tested for the part, but he was drawn to Ava Gardner because he sensed a resonance with his central character. Not only did she have those fiery ‘gypsy’ looks, she had the humble beginnings. Her parents had been share-croppers on cotton and tobacco plantations and she had been discovered whilst training to be a secretary. Her affair with billionaire Howard Hughes echoed, so closely, a plot strand involving Kirk Edwards, that Hughes threatened to sue and was only appeased by some extensive re-dubbing to alter several references.
Notably, Edmund O’Brien was the only cast member to win any accolades, taking home a Golden Globe for his portrayal of the sweaty, insincere publicist Oscar Muldoon. Appropriately, he also won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He and Mankiewicz had been friends as they worked together on Julius Caesar (1953) and the part had been written with him in mind. By the time it came to casting though, O’Brien was reluctant to take a supporting role as he was getting used to being the lead. Apparently, after reading the script, he decided there was no shame in taking a second billing to stars of such stature as Bogart and Gardner.
Barefoot Contessa has not aged as well as, say, the two films Alfred Hitchcock made the same year—Dial M for Murder and Rear Window—which took the No.1 box office position. But Barefoot Contessa performed well on its release and was a Top 10 hit at the US box office. It received some positive reviews and an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. For its time, it may well have been fresh and risqué, but what was original once seems cliché now, and what pushed boundaries back then is today rather tame. Ultimately, it’s impossible for a modern audience to see the film as intended. Of course, fans of Bogart and Gardner are sure to love it, and it’s a little ironic that as a scathing indictment of the star-system, its main lasting appeal is as a star vehicle.
It does dwell on some hard truths—the list of Hollywood stars who rose from adversity and died tragically as victims of murder, suicide or simply in ‘mysterious circumstances’ is a long one… but for Hollywood films about Hollywood, you could do worse than to go to A Star is Born (1937), which was re-made in 1954 as the Judy Garland musical, or the superb Sunset Boulevard (1950). To appreciate Ava Gardner at the height of her powers, seek out The Killers (1946) or Mogambo (1953). It was a late career production for Bogart and it all seems a bit easy for him. His long filmography has plenty of superior and more demanding performances.
The 1080p high-definition Blu-ray for Eureka’s Master of Cinema series, has been taken from the best surviving print and brings out every detail down to the film grain. Colour saturation’s a little unstable and slips out of sync, resulting in the occasional lurid green aura around some of the actors, and the highlights glinting off their foreheads often white-out. I’m thinking that it was a problem with the original stock rather than the transfer. Nor is it likely to be the fault of the cinematography, which was in the hands of Jack Cardiff, recognised as one of the greatest masters of the art—better known for his gorgeous work with Powell and Pressburger, such as A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948). His sensitive pastel colour palette is evident throughout. Bogart and Gardner both do their best to underact some of their more intensely emotional moments, and it is Cardiff’s expertly placed key-lights that allow their eyes to convey the deep feelings that are otherwise kept painfully in check.
This new edition also has some enticing extras: there’s the theatrical trailer of course, which repeatedly refers to Ava Gardner as a beautiful ‘animal’ or a ‘creature’; an archival interview with director Joseph L Mankiewicz; and an audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo and Del Valle. There’s also a special collector’s booklet featuring archival material and a new critical essay by Farren Smith Nehme, who has done some good work on previous Eureka releases. Unfortunately, none of these were accessible at time of review.
writer & director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz.
starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Marius Goring, Valentina Cortese, Rossano Brazzi, Elizabeth Sellars, Warren Stevens & Franco Interlenghi.