The Woman on the Beach (1947)

The Woman on the Beach (1947), by Jean Renoir, and starring Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan and Charles Bickford, is a fascinating character study, as well as an appropriately twisted dream-noir, telling of an abusive love triangle, acted out by the sea.

Robert Ryan plays Lieutenant Burnett of the Mounted Coast Guard, and as the film commences, we are launched straight into his nightmares. 

Although it is not made entirely clear what is going on, it is highly likely what is presented is another film noir rendering of what we now know as PTSD. 

Burnett, we witness, has recurring nightmares involving a maritime tragedy. He sees himself immersed in an eerie landscape surrounded by a shipwreck and walking over skeletons at the bottom of the sea while a ghostly blonde woman beckons him. 

C'est noir par la mer!

As Burnett walks towards this ghostly woman, the tension increases, and when they finally meet, then boom! He awakens into an explosion of emotion.

Strange as this is, the story becomes stranger still when he sets out for his day job, which involves patrolling the coast on his black horse.

There on the coast he encounters Joan Bennett, the eponymous woman on the beach, a melancholic and lonely character collecting wood for her meagre fire. And he immediately becomes attracted.

The amazing sub-sea noir sequence which opens The Woman on the Beach (1947). Only in film noir and in the 1940s could we find this powerful combination; a man in a dangerous situation is drawn to a fantasy woman, certainly leading to even more peril. In this unique expression of sub-sea noir, the situation is so perilous that the man is already presumably dead - - killed on a warship we can assume. Yet still he drifts towards sex, unable to control his impulse in the face of fate.

Back on dry land, magical Joan Bennett played this role several times; the almost unwitting subject of a man's fantasy and obsession.

Picking apart the dream, it looks like Robert Ryan's character was on a ship which was sunk by a mine in the war, and to complicate matters, the mysterious woman that he falls for on the beach hangs out in the wreck of a similarly torpedoed ship, which sits weirdly on the sands.

Robert Ryan faces weirdness on the sands

All is not well of course, and in full film noir form, he has fallen for the wrong femme, and it turns out that Bennett's character is married to a complex and abusive painter called Tod, previously one of America's most famous artists. Having gone blind, the artist has retreated with his wife to live a lonely life by the dunes, although as we begin to see, it is a savage and controlling relationship, which is ultimately dominated by a mutual hatred.

Immersed into this domestic tragedy, Robert Ryan's character falls straight in love with the abused victim, even going so far as to dump his fiancée Eve without a further thought; proving Joan Bennett's chops once more, as the most subtle of femmes fatales.

The Woman on the Beach by a fireplace. Joan Bennett as seductress victim in The Woman on the Beach (1947)

The relationship, it turns out, is in some respects mutually abusive. It reminds one a little of the couple in Polanski's Bitter Moon (1992); to the innocent stranger about to be drawn into their abusive hellscape, the couple appear fascinating and there remain questions as to why the wife of such a couple, young and beautiful, should remain as carer for the husband, older, abusive and controlling. 

Or strike that. How about the likeness to the set up in Storm Fear (1955), in which an older grump of an artist  - - in that case it's Dan Duryea and he's a writer holed up in the back of a snowy beyond  - - as opposed to a sandy and windy beyond  - - with his young attractive wife.

A curious trope to find in the medium of classic film noir, but an exciting and just one. And here in 1947, it is enmeshed in full-on post-war confusion.

Charles Bickford in The Woman on the Beach; blind yet all-seeing?

It is revealed in The Woman on the Beach that the reasons for this set-up are complex. As alcoholics, the artist and his wife have had a troubled relationship, and Joan Bennett's Peggy even announces that it was she who cut the optic nerve herself. The more this relationship is observed, the starker it becomes and the more violence we witness. 

One of the more tense and creepy aspects of the film concerns the artist's blindness, and the moral 'blindness' that inflicts Robert Ryan's hapless coastguard character as he becomes involved. What is gripping about this, is that Ryan comes to believe quite quickly that the artist Tod is in fact faking his blindness, and earlier on the film, it appears that the main story is going to be the uncovering of this suspected fraud. 

Love in a sandy wreck - - maritime fantasy with Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan in classic film noir The Woman on the Beach (1947)

This becomes fascinating to watch because as viewers we expect to find out that the hero is in fact right, and that the artist is blind. However, in an attempt to prove that Charles Bickford as famous artist Tod is blind, Robert Ryan leads him to the edge of a cliff, assuming he will then back off and reveal the fraud.

The opposite occurs and the artist tumbles down to lie apparently dead on the sands. The upshot of this, aside from the blind artist only receiving a few bruises is stranger still. When Robert Ryan confesses that this was his plan, he is instantly forgiven by the artist, who uses the opportunity to suggest that the incident might in fact make them firmer friends yet.

And here we find ourselves like the protagonist, deep within the dreamscape, up to his neck in nightmares, and unbale to move anywhere but down. 

Dream-noir is a brilliantly deep and intelligent sub-genre within the film noir style; in so many ways, so many of the best film noirs replicate dreams as only the cinema of the Golden Age could. There is something about the captive audience, locked in the dark, with their consciousness on the silver and shadows of the black and white era. 

It is as if at this time, most especially in the 1940s, the medium of film came as close as it has ever being to mimicking the dream-states of the viewers. The threats and unobtainable goals, the unpredictability and the sense of danger; the presentation of that which the viewers may have most desired and most feared; all collaborate to lower the audience into the psychological depths that are best expressed in film noir.

Tod: Peggy, did it ever occur to you that to me you'll always be young and beautiful? No matter how old you grow - I'll always remember you as you were the last day I saw you - young, beautiful, bright, exciting. No one who can see can say that to you. - - Peg, you're so beautiful... so beautiful outside, so rotten inside.

Peggy: You're no angel.

Tod: No. I guess we're two of a kind.  

Once more, film noir overturns the motif of the domestic family relationship, and focuses it into a locus for pain, hurt and abuse. The marriage is a prison, from which nobody can escape, and for those that are drawn too close, or think they can help the situation, there awaits only peril.

In one climactic scene, Coastguard Burnett attempts to drown both Tod, the artist, and himself during a boat outing with him that started as a fishing trip. By trying to pierce the bottom of the boat, it's apparent that Burnett has put himself in danger as well, since he would be swimming helplessly in the stormy seas had he been successful at this attempt. This scene illustrates the degree of his desperation, and in fact his madness.

The madness is the real story here, bringing us back to the two focal points; the family and the post traumatic stress of World War Two. Both men are of course eventually rescued by the Coast Guard, and Eve, the Lieutenant's former fiancée and a part of the rescue team, and the woman he should have perhaps been with all along, echoes the metaphysical connection to the woman of his undersea nightmare.

It perhaps takes a French filmmaker to pull this off with full aplomb, and yet that European sensibility is only partially evident, as the final version of the movie took many cuts to make.

The story goes that  Charles Koerner, the RKO chief of staff, promised carte blanche to Renoir, and even helped craft the story to Renoir's vision of the film. Renoir chose Val Lewton as producer, however Lewton left soon after shooting began, in effect leaving Renoir as his own producer. 

Renoir's freedom was productive and the shooting went so well that Renoir and the cast were even able to improvise on set, although soon after, Koerner died. Whereas he had balanced his business acumen with an appreciation for the artistry of movie making, the new executives were baffled by Renoir's film. 

A consumer preview of the movie was held, attended by high school and college students who weren't interested in the movie's dark themes; and so after this catastrophic preview, Renoir spent the next six months reediting the film, even reshooting several sections, a distressing process. 

There is an unfair focus on the lives of the two men of the story, for it is a tale about their nightmares. The artist Tod and the lifeguard Scott both begin the story with unexamined trauma and devoted female partners. The infidelity and violence, the flames and fury lead the two men out of this mess, and as the film concludes, so does their trauma, and at least one of the couples reunites.

However, the stiff posture and stiff verbal delivery which Robert Ryan acts out in every movie is laced with feeling, as if he is constantly wound up too tight. It's perfect of course for film noir, and for a film noir hero  tormented by violent dreams and uncertainty in his lonely life.

Joan Bennett plays a different kind of femme fatale who isn't quite manipulating Ryan without his knowing, but has a sinister look and tone to her voice that should of course be off-putting to any wandering male. She hates her husband, not because of his blindness, but because he's cruel to her. So it naturally occurs to both Ryan and Bennett in different ways that the blind husband might be dispensable, even if neither is quite prepared for murder.

Nan Leslie as the innocent fiancée in The Woman on the Beach (1947) 

Charles Bickford as the husband is given an earthy,  admirable quality that is quite at odds with how he treats Bennett. And the fourth leading character, the sweet woman who is slowly seeing Ryan slip out of her future, is that one symbol of straight forward simplicity and honesty; that to which our all American couples are supposed to aspire.

The Woman on the Beach can still be considered a success; although it was Jean Renoir's last Hollywood film, and saw him return to France, the US film industry was not ever going to allow him to attempt an experimental psychological portrait, if that is what he had planned.

From today's perspective the results as a muddle, but ideally The Woman on the Beach should be viewed as a run of the mill dream-noir, infused with depth where many lesser directors would not be able to find any at all. The dream noir is a type of narrative, and here confined to the cinema, expresses the qualities of the experience of the cinema house itself.

This is perhaps something lost in the mediums by which we still view the films of 1947. The most overstated of psychological expressions of the day are found in film noir, and at their farthest fetch in dream noir. 

In dream noir the players' parts are clear, and so maybe our own, if we can immerse ourselves; the good woman, the bad woman, the strong man, the blind man, the captain, the villain, the rogue, the rookie, the thug, the sap, the traumatised and the imprisoned; there are so many noir types, and in a good solid example of the medium, all of them, or at least a good many, may appear.

In the end the artwork burns and as this is a noir de Renoir, there must be a message there too.

Visit The Woman on the Beach (1947)

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