By Brian Lafferty
August 24, 2011 (San Diego) – The first five minutes of The Woman on the Beach are ominous, spellbinding and foreboding. Hanns Eisler’s booming and menacing score accompany the opening credits. The frame is backdropped with shots of the alluring beach and its forceful, foamy, and frothy tide. It’s a simple sequence of shots, but they’re chilling.
Following that is the best scene in the film. Coast Guard Officer Scott, played by Robert Ryan, has a nightmare in which he sees his ship sinking after it crashes into a land mine. Director Jean Renoir superimposes shots of a whirlpool, ship pieces, and drowning men sinking down into the abyss.
Then Scott finds himself standing at the bottom of the ocean, the sunken ship in the background. Renoir superimposes over this scene a shot of shimmering water. Scott espies a blonde with angelic beauty. He walks towards her, stepping over a skeleton. She walks over to him. Renoir intercuts between them using dissolves for a surreal, dreamlike effect. As they get close, another explosion occurs, rocking him out of his nightmare.
The opening credits and the dream sequence promise a lot of thrills and suspense. If only the remaining 66 minutes could have been just as thrilling and suspenseful. That’s what happens when you put the best sequences at the beginning.
The Woman on the Beach is Jean Renoir’s attempt at a film noir. Scott becomes engaged to Eve (Nan Leslie), but breaks it off when he’s attracted to Peggy (Joan Bennett). Peggy is married to Tod (Charles Bickford), a former painter who is blind after Peggy injured him in a squabble. Scott believes the bitter Tod is faking it, so he takes him towards the cliff to see if he really is blind…
Renoir was renowned for his long takes and masterful camera movement long before Max Ophuls, Martin Scorsese, and Paul Thomas Anderson added it to their artistic repertoires. This time his camera is mostly stationary and the editing is of the traditional invisible Hollywood variety. The black and white photography is crisp and contains the familiar low-key lighting and harsh shadows seen in many a film noir. However, the film could have been photographed by anybody.
Fortunately not all is lost, thanks largely to Charles Bickford. Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan get first and second billing, respectively, but Bickford is the one who makes the film work. Every conversation and every action is a chess match. How much does he really know about Scott and Peggy’s affair? Is he really blind? Most of the time, he likes to toy with his wife, Scott, and even us.
Then there’s the “test.” A cold feeling awaits those who watch Scott lead Tod towards the edge of the cliff. Then the room gets icier when Tod loses his cane and falls over the cliff. The sequence is excruciatingly long. Renoir enjoys making us sit in painful agony as this horrible event unfolds before our eyes. The scene’s long length also reveals Tod’s extreme vulnerability, as seen through his terrified expression and frantic body language.
The Woman on the Beach is a must for Jean Renoir enthusiasts. For everyone else, it depends on how much you’re willing to forgive the movie’s inability to match the first five minutes.
The Woman on the Beach is only available through manufacture-on-demand from the Warner Archive Collection. You can order it here.