Like many an international great before him, French filmmaker Jean Renoir tried his hand at making pictures in Hollywood for a decade or so in the 1940s. Things never quite clicked for him there, with greater studio interference and more bottom-line thinking stifling Renoir’s creative genius, which had resulted in masterpieces Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game in France the previous decade. (Although The Rules of the Game had its own share of release problems.)
His last film from the Hollywood period, The Woman on the Beach, might have gotten the worst of it. Renoir had basically finished a cut of the film with which he was moderately satisfied when a disastrous test screening led RKO Radio studio executives to demand changes. But rather than simply recut the film, production was restarted, with about a third of the scenes being reshot.
What was eventually released theatrically and now exists as the only version available today is a 71-minute cut that’s making its U.S. DVD debut from Warner Archive. It certainly wouldn’t hurt if the film was more rounded out, but what’s left remains a fascinating, surreal portrait of obsession. If this is the cut studio heads deemed commercial, I wish I knew what was in the original version.
Robert Ryan stars as Scott, a war-traumatized sailor doing Coast Guard patrols in a beachfront town. The film opens with his recurring nightmare — his ship is destroyed and he sinks to the bottom of the ocean, where he meets a beautiful woman. Just as they are about to embrace, an explosion jolts him back into consciousness.
Emotionally unstable from the get-go, Scott finds his fiancée, Eve (Nan Leslie), and suggests they get married that very night. Taken aback by his manic behavior, she doesn’t exactly agree. Soon after, Scott falls under the spell of Peggy (Joan Bennett), a woman he meets on the beach. Her husband is Tod Butler (Charles Bickford), a famous painter who she blinded in a fit of rage.
Bickford plays Tod with supreme creepiness as he embarks on a mission to get to know Scott better. Scott, inflamed with lust and enraged at Tod’s treatment of Peggy, insists the man is faking blindness and sets up a life-threatening test to prove it.
While the film doesn’t give us a great sense of what makes Peggy so alluring, and Bennett’s performance oscillates between sinister and naïve, the headlong self-destructiveness of Scott is readily apparent, and Ryan plays the character with a compelling attitude of inevitability.
While it can look at times like a standard jealousy-based melodrama, The Woman on the Beach is colored by surreal touches all over the place, with Scott’s mental instability acting as the motivation for scenes of dreamlike horror and beauty. Renoir may have wanted to go in a different direction entirely, but his visual flair shines here, if a bit atypically.
The Warner Archive DVD-R of the film is presented in a remastered edition that looks quite good. Speckling is frequent, but no other damage makes much of an impression, and the transfer features excellent contrast and grayscale separation. The audio is a little more problematic, with harsh musical cues and occasional hissing on the track, but dialogue is clear enough. There are no extras.