We haven’t been to the beach yet this summer. It might be a bit late, since summer is now (officially) over, but that’s actually the best time to go. The weather is cooler, and the crowds have left, so you can go wading in privacy (that wonderful, sensual feeling of cool water lapping over bare feet and ankles). And the ocean has a hard, grey look, like smoked glass in motion, which is soothing to watch. The best beach weather is really in September.
We bring up the beach post-Labor Day because we’re looking at two beach movies here. No, not Annette and Frankie sunning and funning in wholesome Disney style. These are films about women on autumnal beaches. When summer has ended and time is passing. Autumn brings up time, time moving on, time lost. And the lonely women here are looking for that last chance, of love, connection, of something, that will give them an anchor. Perhaps the sadness of the autumn beach is that we become aware of what a beach really is: The end of the world. You don’t notice that in summer, when the place simply seethes with people, towels, sand buckets, and sand castles. But get there when the first chill hits the air and everyone’s left, and you’ll see what we mean. A beach is the last There before Not-There. Or maybe, Un-There. Step into the Ocean and you’re in unbounded space. There’s only above and below; you float without place markers, your body no longer weighted by gravity. Once you’re in the water, it’s you within the Vast Unknown. It’s why the ocean is the symbol of the unconscious. And of the Feminine—Woman is also (at least to the male mind) that place Out There, off the edge of the map.
So we’re looking, in two posts, at two films about the meaning of women on beaches: The Woman on the Beach (RKO, 1947) and Female on the Beach (Universal, 1955). Both films can be considered film noir, replete with such noir subjects as a bygone crime, an attempted murder, and haunted, damaged characters in thrall to the past. The second film, Female on the Beach, is the subject of our next post (we know our posts are long, but we don’t want them to be ridiculously long). The title of the first, The Woman on the Beach, sounds like the name you would give to a painting: A semi-abstract landscape, perhaps, a lone figure standing, her back to us, gazing at the waves. The Woman on the Beach does concern a painter, who’s married to the title character. Only she’s not a painting, she’s a flesh-and-blood woman. And she’s more than the painter’s wife, she’s his muse, critic, and caretaker. She’s also his chief obsession, especially since he can no longer see her—literally cannot see her at all, since he’s blind.
Wheeler Winston Dixon at the Noir of the Week blog notes that WOB is in essence a portrait of a marriage. The Butlers, Peg and Tod (Joan Bennett and Charles Bickford), live in a small beach house, isolated from their seaside community. That’s because Tod, a famous painter, is now blind and can no longer paint. The whole world, once vibrant with color (he describes an imagined beach sunset as “a perfect setting for an Oriental fairytale”), has now, he says, only “a dark, velvety look to me.” What we also learn is that Peg caused Tod’s blindness. During a drunken argument, as she recounts at one point, she hit Tod with broken glass and cut his eyes’ optic nerve. We were stunned, when we first saw the film, on hearing this. To actually blind someone—a painter, no less—goes well beyond symbolic meaning; it speaks of unimaginable violence. What kind of rage could make someone do that? There’s a hideous physicality to such an act; it’s like hamstringing a race horse. We also felt a queasy curiosity—just how, exactly, did she do the deed (Peg supplies no details, though she indicates it was accidental). Then we found ourselves thinking, wouldn’t this count as an assault? If so, then why isn’t she in prison for this?
The answer is that she is. Not an actual prison, but the metaphorical one of her continuing marriage to Tod. The couple lives like a pair of shipwrecked survivors on a raft, having to depend on each other while yet hating themselves and each other for it. Tod will never let Peg go, he declares; she’ll remain with him for life, like a conjoined twin. He keeps her his prisoner by his legal status (as her spouse), by his helplessness, by his knowledge of what she’s done, and by her knowledge of the enormity of it. This is Marriage as Hell—a hell as imagined by Dante; you can’t leave, but yet you’ve chosen to be there (no one gets into Hell by accident; it’s a willful decision on the sinner’s part). They both know they deserve each other. “We’re two of a kind,” says Tod, “that’s why we’re so right for each other.” There’s still a lingering affection between them; they can share a drink and reminisce about their shared past, though even their memories have an edge. “To me you’ll always be young and beautiful,” Tod tells Peg, “no one who can see can say that to you.” Noir marriages are hellish to begin with, but the Tod-Peg pairing particularly so. Blindness hasn’t cooled Tod down. In one scene he brutally slaps his wife when she (deliberately) misplaces one of his paintings. “I can scent you like an animal,” he snarls, “I can even smell your hate…it’s not much different from your love.” These are two people who will go down fighting.
Peg’s explanation for her husband’s blindness is told to the film’s third important character, the traumatized war veteran Scott Burkett, played by noir stalwart Robert Ryan in his typically intense, broodingly neurotic style. (Question: Did Robert Ryan ever do a comedy?) Now a lieutenant in the Mounted Coast Guard, Scott suffers from nightmares of his war experience. The film opens on his dream, harrowing images of explosions, a torpedoed ship, bodies sinking in the deep, and a whirlpool recreating his ordeal. Yet the images are also weirdly erotic: A man’s body (looking very much like Scott) floats bonelessly in water, as if suspended in relaxed ecstasy; Scott walks weightlessly across the ocean floor (stepping over skeletons) towards a blonde woman clad in a diaphanous white dress, the fabric streaming from her slim body like tendrils of hair in a breeze.
The dream is both Eros and Thanatos, the pull towards and away from life. Its implications will played out throughout the film, as when Scott attempts to murder Tod in order to, as he sees it, free Peg from her death-like marriage. But that’s not a simple solution—murder is never simple. Executing it is like succeeding in business; you need to be pretty fixed on your goal to do it well (to say the least). And no one in WOB is fixed on or in anything; the main characters move through their onscreen lives as if treading water, or as if trapped in a dream, unable to place their feet on solid earth.
Watching WOB can be a dreamlike experience itself. It moves not by a carefully structured plot or character motive, but more by its images of sea, sand, and sunlight. The film does have a truncated, off-kilter feel (it runs barely 71 minutes), which is probably due to its being re-cut and re-shot in parts before general release; apparently a preview audience reacted badly and panicked RKO executives rushed to make changes (the film wasn’t a hit). But what artistry it has is due to its director, the great Jean Renoir, who made the film while in Hollywood exile after escaping the Nazis in France (it was his last American movie).
The experience of a Renoir movie is very much like the experience of the sea; there’s an ebb and flow, a constant sense of life happening even during stillness. Look at a film like La Grande Illusion, taking place in a World War I POW camp; it’s not about War, but about men in war. Unlike a classic Hollywood war film, in which the Cause For Which We Are Fighting is always the prime subject, Renoir focuses on how human beings survive, interact, and come to terms with each other and with living under war. His films are like that; they draw you into their characters and stories like a great composer draws you into his musical rhythm. And this rhythm comes across even in a lesser film like WOB, particularly in its location shots of the beach, permeated by images and sounds of the roaring surf and the random flights of birds. Renoir (who was the son of the great impressionist painter Pierre-August Renoir) and his cinematographers, Leo Tover and Harry Wild, also bring a painterly look to their film: Light spills onto waves like white paint over a dark surface; sunlight flickers on sand like gleaming insect wings; and deep black shadows are cut starkly into pale rock, as if with a knife.
It’s this natural rhythm of life that, for WOB’s characters, can no longer be sensed; Scott, waking from his nightmare, admits to a sympathetic colleague that “there’s something about this ocean I can’t stand.” When Scott later rides out, like young Lochinvar, to meet his fiancée (Nan Leslie), who has the symbolically fraught name of Eve, we see she’s the material counterpart to his dream woman. This Eve, however, isn’t floating dreamily towards him but is slicing a piece of wood with a rotary saw (she works in a shipwright’s shop). It’s an image as fraught as her name, associating her not with nature but with with machines and instruments that cause wounds.
Eve seems both savior and siren to Scott; he passionately proposes that they get married, like, tonight. We found ourselves issuing a mental warning to her: Grab him, sister, while he’s willing. However, Eve hesitates. She wants a “perfect” wedding, meaning in a church, with invited guests. Her reluctance cuts Scott loose. He leaves, distraught, riding slowly along the eerily empty and fog-bound beach, an objective correlative to his mood. Now he’s in a place without boundaries or markers, still and haunted, as if at the ocean bottom. And it’s at such a haunted site, by a wrecked ship beached in the sand like a dying animal, that he meets the brunette Peg, the eponymous title character. For Scott she’s his Dark Lady, the antithesis to Eve’s siren of light. Eros and Thanatos come together in her person; when Scott later on has a flashback to his nightmare, it’s Peg’s face that appears, amid explosive flames.
When first met, Peg has a surface similarity to Eve; she’s also clad in masculine attire and is handling wood when Scott arrives, gathering it off the beach. He picks up a decaying jacket hung on the wrecked ship’s porthole and warns her not to take the wood because it belongs there. “If you’re so afraid of ghosts, Lieutenant,” Peg asks insinuatingly, “what about that jacket you’re holding?” The dialogue between the pair is portentous, over-determined in its exposition: He announces the need to “know yourself”; she advises him that “when the ghosts get too insistent, you have to get rid of them.” Yet it’s clear Peg has gotten to Scott’s core; “We’re pretty much alike,” he tells her, “you’re the first one who seems to know what I feel.” Unlike the emotionally transparent and vulnerable Eve, who’s devastated by Scott’s absence, Peg is more calculating; she seems to simultaneously offer and withhold herself. Sending Scott away at the end of a dinner party, she tells him she can’t see him again, adding, “It’s been good to know you.” Her voice here is a throb of passion, her eyes desperate, soft, and aching. It’s the classic femme fatale come-on: Every fiber of her cries out that she needs him, can only be happy in his big, strong arms. And, of course, he obliges, wrapping her in a rib-crushing embrace. He’s hooked now, and there’s no going back.
As Bennett plays her, though, Peg is more complex than the conventional noir fatale. She’s not out to destroy men for money or power, she seems unsure of what she wants. And she’s conflicted about her feelings for her husband, declaring to Scott that she hates him, and yet recalling, with a strange, nostalgic fondness, their past together. Bennett was one of the great 1940s fatales, yet she didn’t play her fatal dames with the mask-like imperturbability of a Stanwyck, Greer, or Trevor. Her face is always alive, changeable; watch her in Scarlet Street as her tramp hungers outright for Dan Duryea’s lewdly zoot-suited pimp; she’s an open pit of desire. Bennett has an odd, suggestive moment in WOB, describing her life with Tod before his blindness as “a strange state of excitement, always off balance, high-pitched, tense”—her eyes become dark and sad, her face yearns as if trying to hold onto something, as if memory were an object that could be grasped in one’s hand.
What Peg longs for from her earlier life is not clear. Perhaps it was the excitement of Tod’s fame and talent (she remarks that he would “approach his canvas like a prizefighter”). She’s also been unfaithful to her husband at other times (with Eve’s brother, no less), for which she’s unapologetic when Scott confronts her, mocking his stiff, pompous outrage—“Oh for heaven’s sake, Scott, what of it? You’re not my husband!” Her eyes here are hard, glinting; she’s seen something of life that he hasn’t. When you’re as trapped as Peg is, you don’t feel you have to make excuses. It’s the only way to give yourself the illusion of freedom.
Still, the most memorable eyes in the film belong to Bickford’s Tod. They have a crazy tilt to them; they always seem straining to see. Tod also has a disturbing way of looking at things. He’ll turn and address a speaker directly or follow a gesture with his eyes across his line of vision. When Scott lights Peg’s cigarette, for example, her face and his hand meet in front of Tod’s face, and he moves his head and eyes across space as though to observe the motion. (In one scene Tod shaves standing in front of a mirror, and his reflection doesn’t appear in the glass; it’s as if the mirror uncannily reflects Tod’s point of view.) Scott is convinced that Tod is faking his blindness, but it’s a suspicion that Tod seems to want to arouse. When Scott asks the time, Tod immediately raises his arm to display a timepiece on his wrist. (“Why do you wear a watch?”, an unnerved Scott shouts.)
As Imogen Smith writes in her excellent study of non-urban noir, In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, Tod is “creepy.” He’s aware of his wife’s attraction to Scott (“you always admire virility,” he says to her snidely), yet he goes out of his way to cultivate Scott’s friendship, even popping up at the Coast Guard office during a rainstorm to demand that Scott take him home. Like Peg and Scott, Tod seems suspended, between a desire for companionship and a need to assert masculine challenge. He’s in a line with other older, powerful, damaged men of noir, such as George Macready in Gilda or Everett Sloane in The Lady From Shanghai, who maintain control over beautiful women but cannot satisfy them. And they all extend an ambivalent friendship to virile young men. It’s the noir equivalent of Oedipus Rex, with the ominously stylized mise-en-scène standing in for Tiresias’ warnings of disaster. Nothing good can come out of this relationship.
You can read another mythic reference into the embittered Tod, that of a beachcombing Fisher King, whose display of his wounds blasts the landscape around him. In one sense, the symbolic dead terrain is embodied in the rocky cliffs that hem the shoreline where Tod lives, their granite topography echoed in Bickford’s old and craggy countenance. (Bickford always looked old and craggy. He’s like C. Aubrey Smith, you just can’t picture him as young.) And the wasteland is also, of course, Tod’s marriage. Bickford gives Tod the tense, uneasy amiability of a feral dog; it can turn nasty in an eyeblink. “So beautiful outside,” he says to Peg when sharing a quiet drink with her, ”so rotten inside.” That line jolts us every time we watch that scene. It’s an ugly, vicious thing to say, but Bickford says it with such a calm rage. Bickford had an odd talent for portraying that kind of matter-of-fact anger. You can see it in his retired cop in Fallen Angel, methodically beating up a murder suspect as if it were as routine as paperwork (he’s done it so many times, he doesn’t have to work himself up to it). Even his nice characters betray the same kind of composed fury (as when he slams his drunken daughter into the shower in Days of Wine and Roses).
Bickford seems to have been difficult to get along with. In a famous incident with William Wyler during the making of Hell’s Heroes (a film we discussed in our Wyler Blogathon post), the actor mulishly refused to do a key scene a certain way, and Wyler was forced to shoot around him (Wyler hired Bickford again for The Big Country and again the two fought). Whatever demons may have bedeviled Bickford, they work for him in WOB. Along with that Mount Rushmore face, he brings out an elemental wrath in his blind artist, raging against the loss of light, of all that his life had once meant. You sense that Tod must be clawing at his darkness; it comes out in his treatment of Peg, who’s put him where he is, but who’s all he’s got left. He’s like that beached, rotting ship; all the ocean’s around him, and he’s stuck in one place.
All the main characters in WOB seem similarly trapped. Renoir had said that he wanted to show how they’re not connected to anything but instead “close the door on the absolutely concrete phenomenon which we call life.” Characters are shown trapped and alone within their own spaces: Peg likes to hide inside the wrecked ship for privacy, but its torn netting encloses her like a cage. Renoir’s camera also chops up the space around his people, isolated them and cutting them off from each other and from the landscape. He often frames and segregates characters within windows and doorways (such as a startling bit when Tod is framed in the porthole of the wrecked ship), or separates them by cutting between individuals during group scenes. One effect of this atomization of space is to demonstrate the shifting alliances between the main trio, such as the scene when Tod is showing Scott his paintings. The camera first shows Scott and Tod in one shot, then cuts to Peg, confined in a separate shot. Since Peg is here the subject of Tod’s discussion with Scott—he wants to show the latter his portrait of her—her isolation is telling.
What the camera never does show us, the audience, however, are Tod’s paintings. Ironically, that puts us in Tod’s sightless position. We have to imagine their greatness, the way a blind person must imagine the world. At the climax, Tod actually burns his paintings (ending the film with fire instead of water); he claims that’s the only way he’ll be freed from the past. As firelight streaks the darkness, the camera again breaks up space, with Peg and Tod exiting together in one shot and Scott exiting by himself in another. If that’s meant to be a happy ending, it’s certainly a muted one. The characters walk towards darkness, away from the (painter’s) light. There seems to be nowhere they can go, except to a place where we can’t see them.
Part two of our article on Beached Women, Washed-Up Men will continue in our next post, where we will discuss Joan Crawford in—Female on the Beach!
BONUS CLIP: Here’s the initial nightmare sequence from The Woman on the Beach (click on the black square to watch on YouTube):