“You liked me once.”
“Sure…for ten minutes…one ginny evening.”
– actual dialogue from Female on the Beach
Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach – his last assignment for Hollywood, a film that preceded a four-year gap ending with The River – is the only film I can recall that dissolves, after a non-verbal opening, into a sleeping man’s dream, effectively rendering the rest of the film (even though he soon wakes) somewhat distant and phantasmal. Renoir was hardly the only filmmaker to use the beach, the shore, and the breakers to act upon the film (and us) as a surrogate subconscious, the kind that takes and devours, in its undertow, rather than gives or reveals. Jean Epstein’s 1948 masterpiece, Le tempestaire, uses a Griffithian, rolling sea as a monolithic agent of fate, visibly impassive; even something supposedly light, like Blake Edwards’ 10 shows its protagonist (Dudley Moore) mesmerized into catatonia by the crashing waves, while recent American favorites such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception promote subtext to text, using the land-ocean border to represent the disintegration of memory and sanity.
Eight years after Renoir’s film, there appeared another movie whose title bore an unmistakable similarity: Female on the Beach. There’s no earthly reason to think the two are related in any way, unless you invent one, but if you start inventing, there’s plenty. Besides the rhyming titles, each film stars one of Hollywood’s legendary Joans: Renoir’s has Joan Bennett, and Female (directed by Joseph Pevney) stars Joan Crawford. Both are high-camp melodramas set – you know where they’re set. While there’s a pronounced separation in terms of class (the affluent in Female, underpopulated squalor outside a military base in Woman), there’s more than enough jealousy and lust to transcend social grouping of any kind.
The opening sequence of Female is not exactly un-dreamlike, either. Rather than a literal dream, we seem to descend into a kind of waking nightmare of panicked, off-screen voices, as shadowy figures flutter onstage, refill highballs, and hurry away just as quickly. The Renoir film this opening most resembles is not The Woman the Beach but La nuit du carrefour, with its impenetrable fog of obfuscation and signs of wrongdoing and debauchery.
Thereafter, the mist settles onto a more straightforward, if unremittingly glittery, melodrama, the kind where even the real estate lady dresses in the latest fashions, and the main cast spends almost all of its time in classy evening attire, and no dialogue is exchanged that isn’t meant to seduce, or destroy, or both. The underrated Pevney, whose claim to fame these days consists mostly of his work directing various episodes of Star Trek, but who warrants re-examination for such films as The Midnight Story and Twilight of the Gods, proves quite adept at assembling the film’s camp components, which are almost overwhelming in number: score, scenery, jewelry, drinks, you name it. The premise actually comes to resemble a prototype of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant – a newcomer in a community attempts to piece together the fate of their predecessor, even as the community hopes to draw the noose around his or her neck.
As with many Crawford vehicles, her flamboyance (and that which surrounds her) and androgyny have made her the ultimate gay icon, and it’s no trick to read Female on the Beach as a magnificent gay opera: Drummond Hall (Jeff Chandler, about 15 years too old for the part, but it hardly matters) plays a male hustler in all particulars except the words, freelancing his salt-and-pepper boy-toy status from a manipulative, elderly couple (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer) to the newly arrived Lynn Markham (Crawford), while the hotel detective – I mean, the homicide detective – looks into the possible murder of the woman who lived in the beach house before she arrived. Meanwhile, the swindling duo’s niece (newly Oscar-nominated Jan Sterling), jealous psychosis in tow, prowls the periphery in a speedboat and bottle-blonde hair, her memory of a long-ago drunken assignation with Hall just what she needs to carry the torch for him forevermore. All in all, a garish shop window of proto-Fassbinderian tumult and turmoil, transfixing in every way.
Joan Bennett, 19 when she was cast as the 2nd lead in the Oscar-winning Disraeli (1929), is among the foremost of Hollywood’s forgotten stars – her career was long and distinguished, consisting of a robust pre-Code period, a successful transition to auteur-powered movies of the ’40s and ’50s (she worked on films with Max Ophüls, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli, and on four pictures with Fritz Lang), and then a career in television, capped off by her part as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, which she played for the entire 1966-1971 run of Dark Shadows. Her final film was Dario Argento’s Suspiria, and while she doesn’t seem to have acquired the household-name status of the other Joan, or Bette, or Kate, or Marilyn, her place in the firmament is assured by cinema aficionados everywhere, not only for her choice in collaborators, but her powerfully sensual screen presence, her shrewd intelligence, and her magnificent eyebrows.
Renoir favors an emphasis on places and their inhabitants -where they walk and hang their hat first, what they see, hear, and feel in relation to the unfolding drama second. Character and spatial relations seem to arise from a void, cutting away early assumptions we may have made, such as the idea that Joan Bennett’s Peggy is a mysterious phantom, or that Charles Bickford’s Tod can see, or that Robert Ryan’s Coast Guard Lieutenant’s mind is the most disturbed. Unsurprisingly, too, there’s no taking the theater out of Renoir, whose personality seems more immediate and viable in two-shots, wide shots, and walk-throughs, as opposed to shot/reverse-shot and the like. The Woman on the Beach is Renoir’s most Langian film – the very air seems malformed by static and ill intent. Although, like the Pevney film, Woman‘s fatalistic melodrama is structured in part by prophecies and repetitions, the script (adapted by Renoir and two co-writers, from a novel by Mitchell Wilson) circles around and under a template of classic melodrama, rather than through one.
Female on the Beach and The Woman on the Beach will be shown together at Anthology Film Archives twice tonight, as well as two shows each on Monday, November 21, and Tuesday, November 22, as part of Miriam Bale’s program Joans on the Beach, to celebrate the launch of “Joan’s Digest: A Film Quarterly”. There will also be a reception tonight: free Joan-themed bourbon cocktails from 8:30 to 11:30.