Thursday Editor’s Pick: Joans on the Beach

by on November 10, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

FEMALE ON THE BEACH playing Thurs Nov 17 at 6:45 & Mon Nov 21 at 8:45 [Program & Tix]
WOMAN ON THE BEACH playing Thurs Nov 17 at 9:00 & Mon Nov 21 at 7:00 [Program & Tix]

*Reception after 11/17 screenings w/ free Joan-themed bourbon cocktails from 8:30 to 11:30**
Joan Bennett: (bitter/sweet) old-fashioned
Joan Blondell: bourbon & ginger
Joan Crawford: bourbon on the rocks


Local film writer & programmer Miriam Bale launches her feminist film quarterly “Joan’s Digest” with a double bill (separate admission) of femme fatales in the sand.


Says Bale, “Which Joan do you prefer, Crawford or Bennett? We’ll happily spend a lifetime trying to decide between these two complicated ladies. This new journal steps away from the hubris and voyeurism of reviews to focus instead on long and personal relationships with the cinema, how we live with film over time and how it forms our sense of self. At its inception, all of the contributors to the journal are women (though this may later expand to a looser definition of femaleness), and we look forward to following in the tradition of the great 70s and 80s feminist film journals such as CAMERA OBSCURA, WOMEN IN FILM, and JUMP CUT, to shake the film criticism community from a staid and male-dominated path.”


For the most essential analysis of Renoir’s film, and the studio politics and cuts that whittled it down to 71 minutes, one must read scholar Janet Bergstorm’s remarkable piece of scholarship “Oneiric Cinema: The Woman on the Beach,” which originally appeared in Film History (vol 11, 1999). It is not available online except through scholarly databases, but is highly worth tracking down. Bergstrom actually argues in favor of the re-edited version, and many of the critics featured below reference her essay.


Jonathan Rosenbaum argues that Woman on the Beachis one the great overlooked noirs, for DVDBeaver:

Renoir’s Hollywood swan song is a haunted, perverse nightmare that practically begins with a surrealist dream. A shell-shocked Coast Guard veteran (Robert Ryan) becomes drawn towards a slutty femme fatale (Joan Bennett again) who blinded her painter husband during a drunken brawl and now feels chained to him; the blind husband (Charles Bickford), no sweetie-pie either, insists on befriending the vet. The abrupt, splintered narrative runs so contrary to the simple-minded humanism that many critics expect of Renoir that this film’s often passed over in embarrassed silence, or else written off as an erotic melodrama eviscerated by the censors and then largely re-shot after a bad preview. But Renoir scholar Janet Bergstrom suggestively argues that the imposed changes may have actually improved the film by reordering and condensing its obsessions into a kind of dreamlike abstraction. (If a film can be said to have an unconscious, this one certainly speaks its mind.)


Glenn Kenny for MUBI:

You get the weirdness of this picture right off the bat. After the opening credits, white type above images of surf colliding with rock, there are three establishing shots, like so: we’re at a Coast Guard base, check; here are the quarters of one Lieutenant Scott (Robert Ryan); and here is Scott, sleeping. Then, boom, we are inside of his nightmare, which, we ought to presume, is based on a war trauma, the sinking of a ship that he managed to survive. And here’s Scott, now at the bottom of the sea, treading on bones as he advances toward a beautiful gowned woman.


I can’t think of any other film in which we are introduced to the dream life of a character prior to seeing his waking life, and perhaps it’s a touch such as this that moved director Jean Renoir to remark in his memoirs that this, the last film he made in Hollywood, “was the sort of avant-garde film which would have found its niche a quarter of a century earlier, between Nosferatu the Vampire and Caligari.” In any event, this is the kind of film maudit that will ever exert a strange fascination, for what it omits as much as for what it contains.


Thus, we have one of the great enigmas of cinema.


Tom Milne for Time Out (London):

The last film from Renoir’s wartime exile in America, considered too obscure, too erotic, and cut by nearly a third of its running time by RKO after a preview. What might have been is anybody’s guess (not least because it freely rewrites the emphases of its source novel, Mitchell Wilson’s None So Blind), but what’s left is great Renoir: a tormented triangle involving a blind painter (Bickford), his passionate wife (Bennett), and a shell-shocked sailor (Ryan), all three of them outcasts in different ways. A film noir in mood, with terrific performances, wonderful use made of the dead-end settings (the lonely clifftop house, the beach strewn with dead hulks), and darkly elemental overtones to the emotional battle (Ryan’s recurring nightmare of drowning; Bickford’s cleansing by fire of his past). Fragments, maybe, but remarkable all the same.



Joan’s Digest (and Alt Screen) contributor Imogen Sara Smith in her new book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City:

Surf smashes against rocks under the credits of The Woman on the Beach. The violent conflict between ocean shore, so unlike the gentle continuity of rivers, is appropriate for a story about people whose emotions are destructive and disconnected, who lack the bonds that usually connect Renoir’s characters to their environments. The director said of the film, “I was embarked on a study of persons whose sole idea was to close the door on the absolutely concrete phenomena which we call life.”


This strange, messy, moody drama about three sick people was uneasily stranded amid the conventions of Hollywood romance. The Woman on the Beach is mesmerizing, despite lines and moments that are clumsy, over-the-top, or simply bizarre. It opens with a dream sequence, and the oneiric mood is carried on by images on the edge of the surreal: a horseback rider, gliding quietly through the fog, bare footprints making a patch in the sand; a lopsided shipwreck half-buried on a beach; marshy dunes at night lit by a house on fire. […]When Bickford tries to show Ryan a nude portrait of his wife he gets some kind if weird charge out of the situation, telling Peggy, “I can smell your hate – it’s not so different from your love.” Nothing in the film really looks – or smells – like love. An energetic unpleasantness dominates.

Without the censors’ objections, the film might have been a more standard love triangle: the fact that Peggy is never clearly defined as either a villainess or an abused wife gives the story its obscure open-endedness. Renoir himself was on the whole, happy with the film since, since he wanted it to proceed more by suggestion than demonstration, as a film of “failed actions.” He deliberately set the characters in “empty landscapes,” “stripped of colorful detail,” and without ties to the environment. The Woman on the Beach, he declared, was “a perfect theme for treating the drama of isolation.”


Jacques Rivette (translated and re-printed by DVD Beaver):

However mutilated it is in comparison with the original, it can still be as fairly judged as, say, von Stroheim’s Greed. And if there was ever a director, who, irrespective of the importance he attaches to composition, perceives each part as a microcosm of the whole, it is Renoir.

The Woman on the Beach, more than any other of Renoir’s works, looks like a film made by Fritz Lang, but it is close to Lang only in appearance. The tragedy of The Woman on the Beach does not stem from the inexorable movement of some force of destiny, as in Lang’s films, but on the contrary, from fixation and immobility: each of the three characters is frozen in a false image of himself and his desire. Enclosed in a setting bound on one side by the rhythmic movements of the waves, the blind painter has lost himself in his canvasses, just as Ryan and Joan Bennett have lost themselves in a purely sexual obsession. The fire shatters the spell and brings them back to reality.


The Woman on the Beach represents the culmination of what might be called Renoir’s second technical apprenticeship. Technical extravagance has been completely suppressed. Camera movements, few and brief, neglect the top of the frame in favor of eye-level shots edited for horizontal continuity and classical angle-reverse angle dialogues. Henceforth Renoir puts forth facts, one after another, and the beauty stems from the inexorability with which they follow each other. There is nothing but a raw succession of actions; each shot is an event. Although they seem more richly adorned, Renoir’s subsequent films use this simple structure as a framework, and in their more intense moments they put aside their elegant ornamentation and allow it to show through. If there is such a thing as pure cinema it is to be found in The Woman on the Beach.


A thoughtful analysis from Jesse Ataide at the blog Memories of the Future:

I was intrigued by The Woman on the Beach. I didn’t think it was necessarily a great film, or even a very good one, truth be told. It’s an exceedingly odd film—cumbersome despite its brief running time, and, all-in-all, quite unsympathetic and unlovable, even by noir standards. But almost immediately I could tell it was one of those films. There’s just no other way to describe it: I was immediately beguiled by this awkward bête noire of a film. Those gaps, those absences caused by an obviously truncated narrative, those silences caused by motivations, backstories and emotions systematically denied to the viewer—they haunted me. And one couldn’t help but wonder: were the answers to the questions I had among what was lost in the ribbons of films Renoir frantically severed from his film?


Much like that hulking shipwreck that serves as such a bizarre setpiece for the film, the plot of The Woman on the Beach feels like a number of damaged fragments of narrative that have inexplicably washed up from the uneasily churning waves of the titular beach, some sparsely populated, nightmarish crystallization of post-War realities perched that seems perched on the remotest edges of the word. For this reason, it is a bit uncomfortable attaching the “film noir” label to Renoir’s film, with its complete disavowal of the urban spaces and comforting shadows typically associated with noir. I’m certainly not the first to utilize the adjective “abstracted” to describe the film, which doesn’t just apply to the oblique plot, but in the rendering of empty spaces that after a while begin to feel practically post-apocalyptic. Few and far between are the familiar shadows and darkness of noir and their usual significations menace and dread. But sometimes too those same shadows provide shelter, obscurity, even comfort, and The Woman on the Beach‘s soft gradient of grays offer no such Expressionistic obfuscation or chance of shadowy escape, instead stranding its characters in an uninterrupted twilight state. There are rainstorms, banks of fogs, and crashing waves, but with the exception of the final climactic scene, remarkably little of the film—not even the romantic rendezvouses—occur at night, and in the few nocturnal scenes there are, the camera cloisters itself in brightly lit interior spaces. Not even in sleep does the night provide solace, for as Robert Ryan finds out in the film’s remarkably surrealistic opening sequence, the night merely casts one into a dusky, oceanic dreamstate.



Wheeler Winston Dixon for Noir of the Week:

Jean Renoir’s American masterpiece is easily the best Hollywood film by the resolutely humanist director. Summing up his Hollywood period, Renoir commented that “Although I don’t regret my American films, I know for a fact they don’t even come close to any ideal I have for my work . . . they represent seven years of unrealized works and unrealized hopes. And seven years of deceptions too . . .”


But even if this is so, Woman on the Beach is still a remarkable film, the only true noir that Renoir ever made, and one of the most economical and relentless examinations of a marriage in collapse ever filmed, along with Jean-Luc Godard’s 1963 masterpiece Le Mépris. As Tod Butler, Bickford gives the most nuanced performance of his career, at once tender and yet dangerous, while Robert Ryan brings an intensity to the role of Scott Burnett that is both haunting and achingly realistic. Joan Bennett’s foredoomed femme fatale is essentially a reprise of her role in Scarlet Street, but in Woman on the Beach, she seems more tragic and human than in Lang’s much colder moral universe. At 71 minutes, the film has little time to waste, and is harrowingly compact. Woman on the Beach is Renoir’s one true American masterpiece, unto which he distilled all his disdain for the Hollywood studio system and American culture.



Predictably, scholarship has been far more attentive to Renoir but Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode proclaim Female on the Beach “Perhaps the most perverse film of Crawford’s 1950s diva phase; certainly one of the best!”

David Del Valle for, fittingly, the magazine Scarlet Street:

What makes the film so special is the calculated abandon with which it was put together. No one seemed to care that the storyline involves a male hustler being pimped by an older couple with the unlikely names of Osbert and Queenie (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer). Few films of this era have such built-in gay camp awareness—and starring Joan Crawford, no less! The dialogue is pure Mart (THE BOYS IN THE BAND) Crowley with a dash of John (The Sexual Outlaw) Rechy. When Drummond Hall (Chandler) really falls for our Female on the Beach, Osbert and Queenie pick up the studly, well-named Roddy (Ed Fury) as a replacement and show him off to their former protégé and his bride, like a new car—convertible, of course!

The opening shot shows a silhouetted Crawford walking in the sand to the lazy melody of a harmonica. It is quintessential fifties soap—and yet the She Creature could turn up at any moment with Chester Morris in tow! Crawford’s films of this period have an offbeat horror film flavor to them. It’s no accident that both she and Bette Davis would end up making genuine fright films at the twilight of their careers.


Michael Carroll Green recounts some notable quotes from a screening of the film at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Fest:

“FEMALE ON THE BEACH was a sort of gift to Crawford.” said Alan K. Rode, Director of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Film Festival. “She was offered the role of Lynn Markham by the President of Universal Studios (who she was dating at the time).” Crawford also got to choose her own leading man, and selected actor Jeff Chandler – a heartthrob leading man during the 1950s (and who actress Esther Williams later said was secretly a cross dresser!).


Crawford’s lines, as well as Chandler’s, are absolutely over-the-top bitchy, biting and campy, especially when you consider that FEMALE ON THE BEACH was shot over fifty years ago. Some of the best include:


Chandler (Drummond Hall): “How do you like your coffee?”
Crawford (Lynn Markham): “Alone!”


Crawford (Lynn Markham): “I’d like to ask you to stay and have a drink, but I’m afraid you might accept.”


Crawford (Lynn Markham): “I have a nasty imagination, and I’d like to be left alone with it.”


Crawford (Lynn Markham): “You must go with the house – like plumbing.”


Chandler (Drummond Hall): “Whenever I wake up a beautiful girl, I always make her breakfast.”


Crawford (Lynn Markham): “You’re about as friendly as a suction pump.”


Or heed Guy Maddin‘s fascinating admonition:

Watch as much Carl Dreyer as possible. Until you’ve seen Ordet, you can’t really understand The Female on the Beach.


– Compiled by Brynn White

No comments yet.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →