Jean Renoir’s last Hollywood film, The Woman on the Beach, which is based on Mitchell Wilson’s 1945 novel None So Blind, is one of the oddest and most intriguing American films I’ve seen from the ’40s.
On paper, the plot sounds like a perfect vehicle for RKO star Joan Bennett, who was coming off the success of two wonderful noirs that she made with Fritz Lang, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Like both of those films, Bennett’s character in The Woman on the Beach is a seductive and alluring woman who may not be what she seems. And paintings — a major theme of both The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street — figure prominently in The Woman on the Beach.
But the similarities end there. The Woman on the Beach is a film that confounds expectations. It’s sometimes surreal, sometimes suspenseful, and never went in the direction I was expecting. Some of this could be due to studio interference. After a disastrous advance screening in Santa Barbara, the studio forced Renoir to reshoot and recut the film. The final cut is just 71 minutes long. There are numerous plot strands that seem to be left dangling by the end of the film. But overall, it’s still well-made and involving enough for me to recommend it.
Lt. Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan) is a haunted man. He’s sound of body, but he’s plagued by nightmares of the wreck he survived while serving in the Pacific. One of his nightmares opens the film, and it’s a brilliant and surreal juxtaposition of watery peace and fiery, swirling violence.
Scott is grinding through his last week at the U.S. Coast Guard Mounted Patrol Station. (He’s terrified of the ocean, so it makes sense that he’s serving in a Coast Guard station with no ships, just horses.) He’s engaged to be married to a pretty local girl named Eve (Nan Leslie), but as soon as Scott meets the dark and mysterious Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett) while she’s gathering driftwood on the beach, any film noir aficionado can tell you that things aren’t going to go the way Scott and Eve have been planning them.
Peggy instinctively understands Scott’s loneliness and fear. She invites him home to meet her husband, the blind painter Tod Butler (Charles Bickford). Bickford’s performance is masterful, and a key to the success of the film. At first I thought that Bickford was really bad at playing a blind man. He moves about effortlessly, seems to know where everything is, and it frequently seems as if he is making eye contact with the other characters. But it’s hard to tell for certain.
And sure enough, his blindness is called into question before too long. Peggy reveals to Scott that she severed Tod’s optic nerves during a drunken argument, but that sometimes she suspects he has just been feigning blindness ever since. Scott can’t believe that a man whose whole life was devoted to art would just give it up out of spite. Peggy tells Scott that he doesn’t know her husband.
In an unguarded moment when Peggy and Tod are alone, we hear them lay out their entire relationship in a classic exchange: Tod looks at her and says, “So beautiful outside, so rotten inside.” Peggy responds, “You’re no angel,” and Tod says, “No, I guess we’re two of a kind. That’s why we’re so right for each other.”
Scott is drawn into Peggy and Tod’s bitter little world, and begins secretly making love to Peggy while having increasingly tense get-togethers with Tod. In one remarkable scene, Scott walks Tod closer and closer to a cliff edge, trying to make him give himself away and reveal that he can really see.
The presence of Scott’s fiancée Eve seems almost like an afterthought, especially during the second half of the picture, and the way the story ends isn’t completely satisfying. But these are minor quibbles. The Woman on the Beach is a beautifully made film with very interesting performances from its three leads.