The Woman on the Beach is ripe with subject matter that feels akin to Jean Renoir as much as any Hollywood picture possibly could be. Since the beach, in his specific case, initially evokes not the California coasts but the shores that might have so easily cropped up in the paintings of his renowned father Auguste Renoir. Marrying that preconception with the domain of beguiling femme fatales makes it all the more disconcerting.
But this is also a story of what it is to be an artist and you can see Renoir using the materials at his disposal to grapple with such themes which were no doubt ruminating in his own mind.
Like any director of irrefutable substance, Renoir was probably aspiring to do far more with the medium than his American backers would have preferred and that could explain why his movie was cut down from an unspecified length into the version we now have.
It’s true that the film is yet another collision of worlds with a tortured American tough guy like Robert Ryan paired with a French master of composition and commentary like Renoir. But far from being a mere incomprehensible jumble, the results are still revelatory if not quite flawless.
The opening underwater dreamscape proves to be an entrancing interlude as it plays out in Robert Ryan’s subconscious, brought to us by a self-imposed exile like Renoir no doubt with obstacles of his own to do battle with.
If we want to try and be standard in our appraisal of the picture by providing the cadence of the plot, it’s about a Coast Guard officer (Robert Ryan) stationed on the West Coast who is taken with a woman (Joan Bennett) he comes across when she is picking up firewood on the beach.
There’s an almost uncanny lucidity to how she pinpoints his deepest fears in their initial encounter and they come to the conclusion that they’re pretty much alike. How Peggy Butler can be so sure is slightly beyond the point. Certainly, it doesn’t make sense in rational terms.
Here again, we are met with the bewitching gaze of Joan Bennett that first came to my attention in a portrait found within a dream of a film called Woman in the Window (1944). She’s undoubtedly one of the underrated noir sirens out there because she was one of the preeminent talents in casting a spell of enchantment to entangle her male companions. Ryan falters much like Edward G. Robinson did previously, twice over.
Charles Bickford gives a performance of equal import as the blind artist Tod Butler, a man who is as attached to his work — a passion that he can no longer realize — as much as he is to his wife. They want to get rid of him in one moment and they think he’s faking his frailty in another but all these preoccupations fall by the wayside.
Thus, The Woman on the Beach cannot be branded as a pure film-noir but instead a vein of those crime pictures grafted with Renoir’s own sensibilities. Even if the studio knew in part what they were getting, it still makes sense that they were not completely satisfied.
It looks to be one of those sordid love triangles that were always a mainstay of film noir but, again even in its short running time with footage lopped off, it works beyond that and despite Hollywood’s best efforts (whether intentionally or not), Renoir’s going to have a voice.
To a degree, it’s possible to see some sort of progression from Le Bete Humaine (1938) in its stylized atmospherics highlighted by billowing smoke, psychological duress, and oh yes, an alluring gal playing opposite Jean Gabin in Simone Simon.
Aside from the luminescent Bennett, a few other ideas leave a lasting impression whether it’s the turmoil of an artist caught in the throes of obsession or the dreams that overtake a man plagued by post-traumatic stress. This picture has more to offer than you might expect.
It brings to mind John Huston’s Red Badge of Courage (1951) another cannibalized picture that in its present form is about two-thirds of a minor masterpiece. There’s still an exceptional spirit and resonance to what was leftover. It can only lead us to imagine what might have been on both accounts.
This would prove to be Renoir’s last film in the States before he washed his hands of the whole industry and returned to his native land to continue the creation of high-regarded works like he had never left. True, this is a picture that is often neglected but that’s simply because there are other works of great repute. That does not speak entirely to the detriment of The Woman on the Beach.