The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Once you start watching this movie you quickly see that it is a melodrama. Sometimes that is what you want to see, assuming you can see a good one, like 1952’s The Bad and the Beautiful. When it’s not a good one it can be very tedious, like 1946’s Duel in the Sun.

The Barefoot Contessa falls somewhere between the two. It has its moments and interesting aspects but overall it feels clunky and chunky and drags. It also feels as if someone had a bee up their behind about Hollywood and went on a rant. The Bad and the Beautiful is something like that too but it manages to be entertaining about it. In The Barefoot Contessa it feels more as if someone said, “Well, the movie kinda stinks anyway, so let’s go on a rant.”

The frustrating thing about it is there might have been an interesting movie here. It feels as if the movie had its genesis in a simple, if poorly considered, thought: let’s make a movie about how beautiful Ava Gardner is. From there, it floundered.

A self-centred wealthy man, now a producer, (Kirk Edwards) wants to make a movie and he wants to find a “new face” for it. Along with a too-eager-to-please publicity man (Edmond O’Brien) and a down-on-his-luck writer-director (Humphrey Bogart), they go to Madrid where they find Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner). Not only is she beautiful, she also has the enticing quality of being indifferent to the men and their money.

The producer now cares less about his movie than he does about getting Maria.

The director, on the other hand, is charmed by her indifference to wealth and power. Moreover, it turns out Maria has a natural acting ability and, as a screen test shows, cinematic charisma. From here, the movie is about the down-to-earth Maria charming the world while at the same time, in her personal life, living a soap opera.

Some of the dramatic turns the film takes are almost laughable in their clichéd nature. At the end, in particular, when things turn on Maria’s wedding night you can’t help but mutter, “Oh come on; they can’t be serious.”

I mentioned the movie was clunky and chunky. Strangely, that is one of the film’s interesting aspects – a failed effort at a Rashomon (1950) approach to telling the story. It wouldn’t surprise me if writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz had been influenced by it.

In referring to Rashomon I’m getting at the way The Barefoot Contessa tells its story: the life of Maria Vargas from the moment of being discovered by Hollywood to her death, recounted by several key people in her life, the main person being Harry Dawes (Bogie).

Unfortunately, the end result on screen is a clunkiness that communicates the movie’s episodic nature. There isn’t a sense of fluidity from one scene to another. It feels more like a car going uphill in a series of stops and starts.

Visually and dramatically, the movie is better suited as a stage play. There is very little physical movement by characters; there is a lot of dialogue and there are numerous speeches. It’s also over-burdened by a trying-too-hard attempt at significance with its use of symbols (like bare feet). It reminds my of another film Ava Gardner was in, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, another movie that suffers from its need to be important.

In Lee Server’s biography of Gardner, Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing, you read how the production of The Barefoot Contessa had its problems, not the least of which was Ava’s insecurity as an actress and Mankiewicz’s lack of directorial support. He even said he failed her.

So what we have is another movie like Pandora where there are the seeds of a good story that are lost and an actress, Ava Gardner, the director can’t or won’t direct. She’s used as decoration more than anything.

In The Barefoot Contessa you can’t help noticing how in almost every scene she is in, she is still and posed, as if for a portrait. There is only one scene I can think of where we actually see her moving. It is in the latter half of the film. Two characters are on a patio overlooking a beach. As they talk, on the beach below Ava as Maria is walking into the water to swim, running back from a wave, then running back into the water. She has no dialogue in this scene. It is only movement. It’s one of the few times anyone in the film moves and about the only time we really see Gardner portraying her character with naturalism. (There are scenes where she moves, such as dancing, but despite the movement the scenes are really posed stills.)

Finally, the film’s cinematographer was Jack Cardiff. (He also did Pandora and the Flying Dutchman.) Unfortunately, the DVD edition I have (MGM, released 2001) is a poor copy. It’s biggest problem is that the image is a bit washed out. The contrasts are lacking. No restorative work had been done to it. As a result, it’s hard to appreciate the work Cardiff did.

In the end, The Barefoot Contessa strikes me as poorly thought-through movie that was executed awkwardly. It’s frustrating because it was yet another movie that Ava Gardner starred in but the film couldn’t figure out what to do with her beyond have her pose.

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