The Barefoot Contessa
1954 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 130 min. / Street Date December 13, 2016 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store 29.95
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Marius Goring, Rossano Brazzi, Valentina Cortese, Elizabeth Sellars, Warren Stevens, Enzo Staiola, Mari Aldon, Bessie Love.
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Original Music: Mario Nascimbene
Written, Produced and Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
As a teenager, many of my first and strongest movie impressions came not from the movies, but from certain critics. I memorized Robin Wood’s analysis before getting a look at Hitchcock’s Psycho. Raymond Durgnat introduced me to Georges Franju and Luis Buñuel, and I first learned to appreciate a number of great movies including The Barefoot Contessa from Richard Corliss, a terrific critic who championed writers over director-auteurs.
The Barefoot Contessa is a classically structured story, in that it could work as a novel; it’s told from several points of view. Released in 1954, it’s a throwback to the 1940s, with a glamorous screen goddess and an iconic / laconic screen star hero. And it’s a ‘Hollywood on Hollywood’ movie, like Sunset Blvd.. Although it roams from Spain to Hollywood to the Riviera, it’s also a studio picture with lavish sets, impressive costumes and camerawork by a master. Jack Cardiff made leading ladies look so good that his skill was in high demand whether on a London sound stage or in darkest Africa. His task here is to make the already gorgeous Ava Gardner look like the ultimate screen fantasy. More often than not, he does. Finally, because of the Gardner-Cardiff connection and an overall sheen of high art, The Barefoot Contessa seems a return to Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. Both movies take place in the milieu of the Jet Set, albeit a few years before commercial jet travel; the baton for romantic stories of the idle rich would be picked up soon enough by Federico Fellini and somewhat fumbled by Vincente Minnelli.
The story flashes back from a dismal Italian funeral, where four men have come to pay tribute to a fallen movie goddess, the once-humble Spaniard María Vargas (Ava Gardner). Movie director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) and crude movie publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) first met María in a Spanish club, trying to secure her services for millionaire producer Kirk Edwards, who thinks his money can buy him anything he wants. Struck by María’s intelligence and beauty, Harry gives her a screen test and saves her from a possessory contract with Edwards. Her first movie makes her a sensation, under her new name ‘María D’amata.’ In Hollywood María socializes only as an aloof host and keeps her private life secret. She becomes nobody’s woman. When her first movie is a monster hit, she breaks free of Kirk Edwards by accepting an invitation from another millionaire, international playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring). She yachts with him on the Mediterranean, but he can’t buy her either. She joins Bravano’s rich and idle social group in a regal casino on the Riviera. There María transfers her affections to an Italian with a pedigree, Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), who lives with his sister Eleanora (Valentina Cortese) in a fairy tale villa on an Italian beach. María’s only constant friend remains Harry Dawes. His good advice has kept her free but he can’t save her from her desires. María falls in love with Vincenzo and prepares to marry him — but the Italian has a secret he hasn’t divulged.
As a major screenwriter, director and producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz earned his standing as his own kind of Hollywood royalty, and his movie takes place in the lofty realm of big-time producers and other wealthy vermin whose money keeps the fantasy movie machine in operation. Mankiewicz had written successfully about the rich and the poor, the famous and the wannabes. A writer’s writer, he held other scribes in awe at his perfectly turned phrases. Mankiewicz dialogue was never functional filler, but the caviar of the script, the mark of a great man of letters adapting himself to the movies. The Barefoot Contessa is stylized in that, as a movie about gilded people making polished works of modern art, it attempts to be a work of modern art as well. Mankiewicz doesn’t crowd the frame with statues and paintings, as did Albert Lewin, but he clearly treats Ava Gardner and to a lesser extent Humphrey Bogart as superhuman characters. These incredible people are living real lives… the rest of us are casual bystanders warming ourselves in their glow.
Bogart’s Harry Dawes is a Mankiewicz stand-in, an unflappable man of taste, judgment and humanity in an industry that uses and abuses people as a standard practice. Dawes’ honesty is what lures María out of her Madrid tenement, and his advice keeps her safe from the studio barbarians. Naturally, Dawes/Mankiewicz is only in it for the art; he’s happily married to a good woman who shares his benevolent cynicism to their chosen profession. That might be a description of the social slant of the Hollywood couple Bogart and Bacall.
On one level the film is a string of killer dialogue lines. Mankiewicz scored with these in all of his pictures; they were the evidence of his elite status as a Hollywood scribe. I remember an audaciously ribald line that snuck through in the old MGM soaper I Live My Life. Joan Craword’s ‘free woman’ is given a mouthful of words to blast out, and she must have appreciated the sex inference:
“It’s my life! And I’ll live it the way I want! Upside down, catty-corner or slidin’ down a pole!”
In Contessa, Mankiewicz gives the best line of all not to one of the stars, but to supporting actress Elizabeth Sellars as Dawes’ wife, Jerry. It’s a choice insult line, a put-down. Harry and Jerry are playing backgammon at a ritzy Hollywood party, and a drunken actress is miffed that María Vargas doesn’t respond to her. When María walks away, the actress speaks up, and Jerry shuts her down with a verbal stiletto to the throat:
Actress: “She hasn’t even got what I’ve got.”
Jerry: “What she’s got you couldn’t spell. And what you’ve got, you used to have.”
Screenwriter William Goldman made an important point about great film writers: only in a film where the writer had power could the relatively minor character Elizabeth Sellars be given that line, instead of Humphrey Bogart. Mankiewicz clearly did to establish Jerry as a smart cookie, a woman Harry could respect and cherish. She’s the perfect mate, and therefore ‘excuses’ Harry’s not chasing off after María Vargas like the rest of the film’s hound dog men. I can see Bogart reading the script, and thinking, ‘Why don’t I get to say that? It’s the best line in the movie.’
Most old-school pictures were star driven, and stories are legion of instances where the star shut down a scene because ‘something was wrong with the script.’ After enough time, the producer comes in to get things rolling again. More likely than not, they examine the scene in question and figure out what the mysterious problem is, the one the star just can’t verbalize. The director notices that, in the scene in question, a good line or several good lines go not to the star, but to someone else. Aha. The director must diplomatically sneak up on the problem: “Gee, Kirk (or Lana or Burt), I think the scene is a little rough. I think it would be better if we turned it around and YOU read that line.” The star then gets to pretend that the dialogue steal was not his idea: “Okay, if you really think it makes the scene better.”
This insight has stuck with me always. The same psychology shows up in ordinary relationships, too, when a manipulative person wants things to go their way, but for someone else to take the responsibility.
Mankiewicz scores a perfect ten for scripting, direction and most of the casting. He actually gives Dawes another joke line when he describes a bad movie as one where everything fits too well, “the beginning, the middle, the end.” Since Mankiewicz’s own story also wraps up a bit too tidily, the writer-director compensates with mystery. We learn little of María’s life except that she hates her mother and is devoted to her father; she sleeps with nobody in the movies but allows a (gypsy?) lothario to follow and possess her. The ‘barefoot’ business adds to the legend; when she leaves home with Harry, never to return, she doesn’t even think to take a pair of shoes with her. María won’t do anything that allows even the illusion of a man telling her what to do — this is her strength — but when she gives herself over to love she’s completely foolhardy.
The story is less about a femme fatale than it is about male power, or more accurately, male impotence in the face of a truly liberated woman. María doesn’t hurt anyone, she just refuses to give into male demands. That allows us to see how Edwards, Bravano and Torlato-Favrini fail to cope with a woman none of them can possess. The final pairing is doubly tragic, as María wants to be possessed yet a normal life is still impossible.
The movie has a weakness, and for viewers expecting a certain kind of verisimilitude, it is not a minor point. María Vargas is supposed to be an earthy, impoverished dancing girl; her character arc generally follows that of the great star Rita Hayworth. Ava Gardner has a perfect handle on the pride and the hauteur: “I don’t give a damn what they think about me.’ The problem is that she not for a moment seems the least bit Spanish, or a peasant. In All About Eve Mankiewicz never showed any of his supposedly superlative Broadway actors actually acting — and instead relied on the praise of other characters, to convince us that they were big stars.
In Contessa, María’s first dance is almost entirely off-screen. We see it ‘through’ the adoration of a young Spanish busboy played by little Enzo Staiola, the famous child star of the neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves. At least that seems to have been the plan — little Enzo’s look of adoration isn’t strong enough. When we finally see María Vargas dance, she’s nothing. The gypsy dance Gardner performs looks like a pantomime done to help the cameraman find his focus before the real dancers take position. Even Twilight Time’s critic Julie Kirgo calls it ‘a kind of gypsy flamenco dance, which is shorthand for saying that it’s no dance at all. Every once in a while Gardner gets the accent right, but most of the time it’s what she’s saying, rather than how she says it, that makes her character work. What should be María’s most revealing scene, where she spills her heart out to Dawes, is just dashed off. Gardner is visually twice as effective as she needs to be… but dramatically she remains an absent mystery, animated only by Mankiewicz’s verbal clues.
This is a common problem when a mere movie star is asked to play a Living Dream of Glamorous Desire. In Forever Amber director Otto Preminger seems to have purposely deprived actress Linda Darnell of a scene where she could really prove herself as an actress. In Lola Montès Max Ophüs discovered that his ‘hot’ actress Martine Carol was as inexpressive as she was beautiful. Not that Italian actress Sylvana Mangano was up to the job in all other respects, but whenever she danced freeform in a movie of this period she absolutely convinced — Bitter Rice is a fine example. Perhaps it’s the Spanish angle that throws these Americans and Italians. Actresses trying to fake Flamenco often fare poorly, as seen with Sophia Loren swinging her hips through a gypsy dance in Stanley Kramer’s often risible The Pride and the Passion.
Jack Cardiff’s cinematography and Mario Nascimbene’s music add the gloss that holds María Vargas together as a screen character. The movie’s main romantic theme is a real winner and it surely got him more work internationally.
That line about ‘everything fitting too well’ ends up applying just enough to The Barefoot Contessa to make it just strongly respected, instead of a revered classic. The story overall doesn’t like people very much, and its vision of humanity isn’t warm either, even with positive characters like Bogart and Sellars. Mankiewicz’s attempt to examine the life of a misunderstood, ill-fated screen siren is shaped like Citizen Kane and almost as cold. We just can’t get close enough to the woman we’re supposed to adore.
(Thanks to correspondent Sean French for reference help.)
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Barefoot Contessa is a good encoding of an imperfect film element. Although this is 1954 the movie was filmed in genuine 3-strip Technicolor. But the 2002 restoration is at times a little dodgy for color registration. Shots with dissolves are often, but not always, slightly mis-registered, which makes the image look soft and gives ‘off’ values to some of the colors.
For color, aspect ratio and overall beauty, this is the best-looking copy of The Barefoot Contessa that I’ve seen — and I’d imagine that many viewers won’t spot the problems at all. But the Blu-ray fans that concentrate on details like this will likely rate the transfer only a B or B-plus. Entire scenes go by where the image looks staggeringly good — sharp and properly registered. The movie premiere scene is one. But many shots have a red line where tuxedo coats meet white shirts, and faces look just slightly misprinted. I would have to say that difficulties were encountered in the restoration process.
Like I say, I’m not sure that all viewers will even see that anything is ‘off’ in this disc This isn’t a deal-breaker in the same way that the less famous UA film Return to Paradise is hobbled by Technicolor issues. The Barefoot Contessa is one of many UA pictures from the 1950s that really need expensive digital restorations — that the present holders of the company have no intention of underwriting.
Mario Nascimbene’s wonderful film score plays well on its isolated track — we want to hear more of this composer’s work. The audio commentary with Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle has plenty of reportage of facts about the movie but for my taste dwells too much in old stories culled from tell-all star bios — mainly about Ava Gardner’s tabloid-sensation love life. I guess that’s the nature of the subject. If you really need a commentary to persuade you that Gardner was a glamorous and highly sensual star, you’ve come to the right place. On the other hand, Bogart and Bacall were inseparable in these years. In the excellent still gallery provided by David Del Valle, it’s nice to see their marriage celebrated — his selection of photos from the set is choice.
The cover illustration always throws me — although I assume María is wearing a fur of some kind, it looks like she’s being choked from behind by a fuzzy black monster. The image looks similar to stills of Yvonne Romain in Curse of the Werewolf, and an Italian woman in Atom Age Vampire. Sorry, one cannot control one’s visual associations.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Barefoot Contessa
Video: Good with issues
Supplements: Isolated Score Track, commentary with Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle, Stills Gallery, Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: January 4, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson