Jean Renoir, 1947
Starring: Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford
A Coast Guard officer, Scott, was injured during the war and has recovered, but suffers from nightmares and what would now be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. He is trying to get on with his life and is finishing out his time with the Coast Guard and is preparing to marry Eve, a lovely young woman who works at the shipyard. One night, he demands that he and Eve marry right away, but then changes his mind when he meets a mysterious woman collecting firewood on the beach. Peggy is the wife of a blind ex-painter, whom she cares for. Scott soon gets the idea that Tod, her husband, is not blind at all, and is trapping Peggy in an abusive relationship that she cannot escape — she was the one who accidentally blinded him during a night of drunken rage. Tod, determined to be Scott’s friend, begins to realize that his life is in danger.
Based on None So Blind, a novel by Mitchell Wilson, The Woman on the Beach is the only film noir by acclaimed French director Jean Renoir. He made a number of well-regarded films during his time as an expatriate in the U.S., including anti-Nazi film This Land is Mine (1943) with Charles Laughton, and realist drama The Southerner (1945). The Woman on the Beach (1947) was the last of these films and remains largely unknown or ignored thanks to some unfortunate studio interference during post-production. Scenes were trimmed down thanks to negative feedback from an early test audience, resulting in missing footage and a running time of roughly 70 minutes. About a third of the film was reshot, including key scenes between stars Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett. Because of this, a number of plot elements don’t really make sense, such as Scott’s obsession with Peggy and his dangerous insistence on proving that Tod is really not blind at all.
Despite its flaws, there is much about The Woman on the Beach to fall in love with. It is heavy on atmosphere and offers a moody, impressionistic approach to noir. The wonderful score from Hanns Eisler perfectly compliments the impressive, often surreal visuals, including the cold, gray beach heavy with foreboding, a shipwreck, overwhelming fog, the churning sea, and Ryan’s frenzied nightmares of dead soldiers, exploding ships, and skeletons on the beach.
The film does present a unique take on the tried and true noir plot of a love triangle. Joan Bennett, who played the other woman in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). The key difference is that in The Woman on the Beach, her marriage relationship is complex, almost Polanski-like, and it lays bare the obsession, possessiveness, and need Peggy and Tod feel for each other, as well as their hatred and resentment. Scott is an intruder on this relationship, bringing his mental illness and skewed view of Peggy and Tod’s relationship.
Tod is a unique character — both domineering and dependent, apparently capable of great artistic vision (it’s implied that he’s going on to take up a writing career after the events of the film) but utterly denied physical vision. He knows that Peggy is no good, as she says, and that she either wants to have an affair with Scott or is already having one. Despite this, Tod still loves her and stubbornly pursues a friendship with Scott to nearly self-destructive ends. It is disappointing that Tod’s paintings are never shown. This is often a staple of noir — portraits factor into Laura and The Unsuspected, among others — and this would be an interesting companion piece to Scarlet Street and Woman in the Window, where paintings of Joan Bennett are a key to the plot.
Available on DVD, The Woman on the Beach comes highly recommended despite its flaws. There are excellent performances from noir regulars Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett (this was among her last), and the gruff but likable Charles Bickford (The Virginian, Days of Wine and Roses). The film’s plot issues make it more oneiric and hallucinatory. It’s unclear why Scott feels a sudden passion for Peggy, but this is partly explained by his clear post-war psychosis and contrasted neatly with Scott’s relationship with the blonde, wholesome, and boring Nan Leslie. These inexplicable elements surprisingly make it a stronger film, certainly a more unusual one.