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Woman on the Beach (1947) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

tod scott peg renoir

Principal social themes: disabilities, spouse abuse, suicide/depression

RKO. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Joan Bennett, Robert Ryan, Charles Bickford, Nan Leslie, Walter Sande, Irene Ryan, Glenn Vernon, Frank Darien, Jay Norris. Written by Frank Davis and Jean Renoir based on the novel None So Blind by Mitchell Wilson. Cinematography by Leo Tover and Harry Wild. Edited by Roland Gross and Lyle Boyer. Music by Hans Eisler. Produced by Jack J. Gross. Directed by Jean Renoir. B&W. 73 minutes.

Overview

Woman on the Beach is a controversial film noir, an intense psychological drama about the world’s leading artist, recently blinded, who is obsessed with his condition and takes out his frustrations on his beautiful wife. A Coast Guard officer, recuperating from injuries suffered during the war, is drawn into their quiet conflict, and they become locked in an odd symbiotic relationship. This was the last American film by the French screen legend Jean Renoir. Critically panned when first released, the film later developed a cult following by many who consider it an existential masterpiece.

Synopsis

Lieutenant Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan) is assigned to a remote Coast Guard station (presumably in eastern Long Island) after being released from a military hospital. He is not fully recovered, however, suffering from both mental distress and recurring nightmares. He thinks he might be cured if he got married, but Eve, his fiancée, a local girl who runs a small shipbuilding business, is reticent when he suggests an immediate marriage. Scott thereafter ignores Eve (Nan Leslie), abandoning the idea of marriage. He tries to lose himself in his work, patrolling the local beaches on horseback. He meets a woman on the beach, Peg (Joan Bennett), who is gathering firewood. He helps her carry the wood back to her isolated cottage, where she lives with her husband, Tod Butler (Charles Bickford), considered to be the world’s most famous artist. He learns that Butler has become blind. Scott is perplexed by the painter, who seeks him out as a friend yet seems to ridicule him at the same time.

Scott becomes drawn to Peg, and they develop a relationship. She explains that her husband controls her, since it was she who was responsible for her husband’s condition, having injured him in a drunken fight. Scott is familiar with the rehabilitation of the blind, as he shared a hospital room with a sailor who had lost his sight. He starts to believe that Tod is faking his blindness. When Peg admits that she would leave Tod if he could see, Scott takes the artist on a dangerous excursion on a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean. He unexpectedly leaves Tod, suggesting he find his own way home. Scott expected this would force the artist to reveal that he still has sight. Instead, Tod falls over the cliff and is hurt. Scott rescues him, relieved that his wounds are only superficial. Oddly enough, Tod forgives him after he confesses that he was obsessed with the idea that Tod was not really blind.

The artist shows Scott his hidden treasure, a large closet filled with his paintings. Since his blindness, the value of his work has skyrocketed. Peg wants him to sell some of them so that they would not have to live in poverty, but Tod refuses and beats her when she pushes the point. Scott offers to take Tod deep-sea fishing, a desire the artist had previously expressed. Since it is a blustery day, Peg suspects that Scott intends to kill her husband, and she alerts the Coast Guard to watch out for their boat. At sea, Scott demands that Tod promises to release Peg or he will never return to shore. When Tod refuses, Scott tries to scuttle the boat, intending to kill them both, but they are rescued by the Coast Guard. When Tod returns home, he decides to burn his paintings. He sets them ablaze, setting fire to the cottage as well. Peg calls Scott, who arrives just in time to lead them to safety. Tod tells Scott that he had clung to his art as he had clung to Peg. He had to destroy the paintings to set both her and himself free. The artist then asks Peg for one last favor, to drive him to New York City. She embraces Tod and leads him away, as Scott watches the fire as it continues to burn.

Critique

As Jean Renoir recounted in his autobiography, he believed that the story of None so Blind , the original title of this film, would be simple, but found it became more and more complex as he wrote it and later directed it. In fact, the relationship of the three main characters, each disabled in their own way, is one of the most intricate ever portrayed on the screen. Tod Butler is filled with contradictions. On the one hand, he appears to have accepted his loss of sight extremely well and manages his daily activities so easily that most observers would think he is not blind. Woman on the Beach even explores the various degrees of blindness. Tod is supposed to be totally blind, without any ability to even detect light. At other times, he is in total denial. For example, he holds out a painting to Scott and describes all the details of the portrait, the brushwork, and so forth, but Scott has to eventually tell Tod that he is describing the wrong painting, that he is actually holding a still life. Tod is also suicidal, deliberately putting himself in situations where his life is in danger. He walks over the cliff instead of asking for Scott’s help. He encourages Scott to take him fishing, knowing that a storm is brewing. Tod has a complicated love/hate relationship with Peg, almost encouraging her to have affairs and then proving his dominance by cutting them off. Peg is handicapped by her sense of guilt over her husband’s blindness, and it is this that gives him his power over her. Scott is unbalanced due to shell shock. He lacks the ability to make any rational judgment, and both Tod and Peg seem to exploit this. In truth, he has become an unwitting pawn in their marriage struggle.

The film’s conclusion suggests that the destruction of the paintings has resolved their crisis (although selling the art would have been a far more lucrative way to resolve the problem). It is also interesting to note that the painting Tod most wanted to destroy was his portrait of Peg. This also seemed to be the painting that Peg most wanted to save. Since this film centered on art and a great painter, commentators have speculated whether this film contains any secret insight into the director’s own relationship with his father, the impressionist master, Pierre-Auguste Renoir. In his book, Jean Renoir’s comments are very circumspect about the entire project. Undoubtedly, Woman on the Beach contains some of the most harrowing depictions of disabilities, particularly the scene in which Scott leads Tod to the rocky bluff. The performances by the actors in this picture are hypnotic. Robert Ryan portrays Scott as both fragile and desperate, unable to come to terms with his condition. Knowing his handicap, the audience does not judge his actions in the same light as it would an ordinary screen protagonist. Joan Bennett handles her part with equal aplomb. At times she seems a figure from classical mythology, a siren leading other men to their doom. At other times, she is a confused waif, driven mad by her isolation and her inability to relate to her husband. Charles Bickford is both moving and enigmatic as Tod. Renoir instructed Bickford to regard his character as a man facing a vast and empty void. Could this concept by Renoir be regarded as a metaphor for any individual facing a major disability? In his autobiography, Renoir claimed that the point he was trying to make in Woman on the Beach might have been too obscure, but it was something that he felt that needed to be said. As for the audience, there is ample room for speculation about what this film may or may not reveal about Renoir’s attitude toward his own father.

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