The Woman on the Beach, 1947, 71 mins, Cable TV (Classic Movies)
Oh, this was rough. Its another example of a film with decent talent that has an interesting premise -basically a love triangle with a kink (one of the characters is disabled) that would resurface in, for instance, Roman Polanski’s far superior Bitter Moon decades later – but this film simply does not work. At all. Its completely broken. I don’t know if its failures lie within its screenplay or later studio interference, but as it was based upon an original novel – and one would think a novel would be sufficiently thought-out to function under the scrutiny of readers- I rather suspect interreference or problems during the shoot scuppered the film.
So anyway, I’d never heard of this film before, but it caught my eye as it stars my recent ‘discovery’ Joan Bennett (The Reckless Moment, Scarlett Street) and growing favourite Robert Ryan (too many noir/recent films to mention, but lets go with House of Bamboo and Crossfire), two actors who promise much but are each severely compromised here. I’ve watched Bennett as a mother struggling to save her daughter and as a beautiful duplicitous temptress, but here she’s Peggy, an attractive but surprisingly bland woman, a frustrated wife in a toxic marriage almost accidentally starting an affair with Scott (Robert Ryan) who stumbles upon her lingering by a beached shipwreck while he is riding on the beach.
Scott is a navy lieutenant awaiting an imminent discharge, suffering from PTSD having survived the sinking of a ship struck by a mine, presumably during the war. The film opens with an arresting, partly-animated visual effects sequence which visualises a recurring nightmare of the sinking, only in the dream he too sinks to the ocean floor where he is called to a beautiful siren, to his doom. This sequence seems to promise a tale of nightmare and obsession (after Scott meets Peggy we have to suppose that the nightmare is a portent of what is to come- that the siren is Peggy and her temptation is his real-life doom). But this is certainly no Vertigo– we don’t ‘see’ any further recurring nightmares suggesting further haunted, sleepless nights and increasing mental instability on Scott’s part. In fact, this may be the main failing of the film- it doesn’t focus upon Scott and his breakdown, or elaborate upon the idea that he may be grasping after Peggy because of his haunting dream-siren. How much more interesting it would have been, had the siren of his dreams been first visualised as his fiancé Eve (Nan Leslie) and then, after meeting Peggy, in later dreams visualised as Peggy (Joan Bennett certainly accomplished playing the deadly temptress from other roles). But we don’t ‘see’ any further nightmares and Scott then waking up, screaming, as we do in that beginning.
Because of this, Robert Ryan suffers the worse of the two stars: Scott is a horribly under-written character who alienates viewers from the start when he cruelly breaks up from his fiancé Eve, who we clearly see is a beautiful, honest and sweet young woman who is the right girl for him: as far as we are concerned Scott is a heel and opportunist preferring an affair with a no-good, married woman, horribly undermining his status as nominal ‘hero’ of the film.
Peggy’s blind husband Tod (Charles Bickford) was once a successful artist and the two of them socialites enjoying fame and wealth in New York, but following an accident that struck him blind, his artistic career was over and they have moved to a life of remote anonymity in a beach-house. Its a little vague in the film, but the accident was Peggy’s fault and she is staying with Tod from guilt. I suppose she was a bubbly good-time girl attracted to Tod by his fame and wealth, but now resents him for her enforced life of loneliness and isolation. Tod, meanwhile, plays the pleasant loving husband in front of Scott but is a controlling figure who blames Peggy for his plight and wants to emotionally punish her, but this is underplayed or not the preferred focus of the film. Here again though is part of the problem of this film for me; it doesn’t seem to know where the focus should lie – Scott? Peggy? Tod? – and instead spreads itself too far. Tod seems to know of, and indirectly encourage, Scott’s affair with Peggy but to what end isn’t clear, and Scott’s moves to murder Tod so that he can have Peggy, without portraying his recurring nightmares and gradual mental breakdown, leaves him seeming all the more an unlikeable protagonist and utter heel. Its a shame, because Ryan’s natural intensity would often later result in him being typecast as a villain, but here it would have helped make his Scott a fascinating and convincing ‘broken’ hero who could have been as complex as the oddly similarly-named Scottie of Vertigo. Incidentally, while I love James Stewart in that film, I suddenly have the inclination that Robert Ryan would have been fantastic as Scottie in Hitchcock’s film: its fun to imagine it.
The Woman on the Beach is quite a slog to get through, and all the effort is betrayed by a totally nonsensical ending which sums up the broken nature of the film (or to be generous, maybe the broken nature of the film mirrors the broken characters within it?). Its a horrible, horrible ending which makes no narrative sense, construed to somehow give all three characters a happy ending which is utterly unconvincing and arguably undeserved. Its one of those endings where against all sense the title card ‘The End’ is placed over the closing image and you think ‘wtf?’ as if there is a missing reel somewhere. I suppose the one positive is that this film isn’t much more than an hour long, but all the same, I did come out of this thinking I’d just lost an hour or so that I wanted back, and desperately regretted watching it when I could have watched something else. I mean, I have the Blu-ray of The Third Man just sitting just an arms length from the Blu-ray player, and I watched this rubbish instead…