Beach Movies and Women: The Woman on the Beach
There’s more to the beach movie than Beach Blanket Bingo. It’s also the site of noir, as our current Grand Old Movies post demonstrates: The Woman on the Beach, directed by Jean Renoir during his Hollywood exile and released in 1947, looks at a noirish attempt at murder. Coast Guard lieutenant Scott Burkett (Robert Ryan) tries to bump off Peg Butler’s (Joan Bennett) husband Tod (Charles Bickford), who’s determined to keep her for himself. However, the murder is really of secondary interest in the film. The story focuses more on the miserable marriage between Tod and Peg, who live in their own kind of exile, isolated in a small beach house where they snarl and lash out at each other like caged cats. What exacerbates their animosity is that Tod is blind and Peg is the cause. She turns to Scott for surcease from her misery, but, this being noir, relief is not an option.
The Woman on the Beach was not a success on its release. Re-cut and partially re-shot by RKO execs after a disastrous preview (and also censorship problems), it feels somewhat disjointed, with the murder attempt (usually the core of a noir film) almost half-hearted in its doing. Yet you can sense Renoir’s signature here, especially in the outdoor scenes on the beach, in which the flow of water and the motions of animal life (birds in flight, a horse galloping on the sand) engage you in the ebb and flow of nature. Renoir sets up a contrast between the constant rhythm of the sea and the small, fragmented lives of the unhappy humans who live near its edge and who cannot find peace. This is particularly so for Bickford’s character, a former painter who, now sightless, can only thrash in thwarted rage, like an animal in a trap. The desperation of the frustrated, crippled artist is the film’s one great theme; that it didn’t fully develop or comprehend it was, for us, a major disappointment about the film.
However, there is much to recommend in The Woman on the Beach, including its gorgeous cinematography by Leo Tover and Harry Wild, an eerily filmed nightmare sequence that weaves together images of sex and death, and excellent performances by three noir regulars: Robert Ryan, Joan Bennett, and Charles Bickford. Click here to read our full post. This article is part one in what’s to be a two-part series on women and beach movies (our next post will look at Joan Crawford’s 1955 noir of lust in the surf, Female on the Beach).