The Barefoot Contessa – 1954

Barefoot Contessa PosterMy Review

—A Good Film with a Few Hiccups—

Your Bogie Film Fix:

2.5 Bogie out of 5 Bogies!

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

The Lowdown

A millionaire playboy (Warren Stevens) hires a has-been film director (Bogart) to find a fresh new face (Ava Gardner) from Spain and put her in a film. Thus begins a real life fairytale in which the young actress skyrockets to enormous fame and many different loves, but cannot leave her past behind.

What I Thought

Whatever faults you might find with this film, the opening nightclub scene was directed to perfection by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Especially considering that the real magic occurs before Bogart and his two cohorts even enter the room. We are set up wonderfully to witness not the star of the show – Ava Gardner playing Maria Vargas – but the effect that this woman has on everyone who comes into contact with her.

Maria, we are told, is a dancing phenomenon. But we’re not here to watch Maria. We’re here to watch the crowd as they watch Maria. The camera jumps around the room to show smitten couples, a heartsick busboy, love-struck young men, love-struck old men, and broken hearted romances as they all watch with rapt attention as Maria dances. Not once do we ever see Maria dance. Was Gardner even dancing? Of course not! She didn’t have to. I have no idea what Director Mankiewicz was having his crowd watch, but I whole heartedly believed that they were watching the most entrancing and entertaining thing that they’d ever seen.

There’s a really good heart and soul lying somewhere underneath the surface of this film. It’s the story of a woman who gets to live out a series of fairytale dreams, only to have them fall apart one after the other. All the while, a distanced Hollywood movie director (Bogart) watches from the sidelines, fully aware that fairytales only exist in show biz, and worried that eventually this little princess that he’s befriended is going to wind up without a happy ending.

It’s a great concept, and for quite a few scenes in the film Director Mankiewicz is able to pull off moments of compelling relationships, beautifully orchestrated shots of some of Hollywood’s most beautiful people, and some decent tension as Bogart does his best to shepherd Gardner’s naïve Spanish dancer to a better life than what we all know is probably in store at the end.

So why did I have a hard time emotionally investing with the end of the film?

It’s a little too long, sure. Gardner’s three rich suitors are all written more as two-dimensional plot points than fully developed characters. And perhaps my biggest hang up – I think the script was a little lopsided. This was the second that time I’d seen the film, and maybe I need one more viewing to really make up my mind, but I thought the “contessa” side of Maria was far more convincing than the “peasant gypsy” part of her that we were led to believe she couldn’t leave behind.

I think the main crux of my problem was the fact that we spent too much time with Maria’s affluent lifestyle and too little time with the private affairs she had with the gardeners and busboys that she was really in love with. Maybe getting rid of one of the wealthy rich men, and instead using that time to explore a relationship with the gypsy dancer from the camp dancing scene would have helped? I don’t know.

Regardless, this is a very watchable film, and while it might not be a must see for Bogart fans, there’s plenty to enjoy with the film’s talented cast and great direction.

The Bogart Factor

Bogart plays down-on-his-luck movie director Harry Dawes. Much like the recently reviewed Stand-In, Bogart plays the one character in the entire film that seems to be detached enough from reality that he can see the whole picture. While the rest of the world spins wildly around him, Dawes calmly walks through its midst, observing and occasionally pulling some strings to try and get fate to swing in the right direction.

In a rare turn, Bogart isn’t the romantic lead – he’s the father figure. He even goes so far as to refer to himself as more of a godfather to Maria, and the role suits him very well. Perhaps his most well developed “nice guy” role that I’ve seen so far, his affection and caring for Ava Gardner’s wounded Spanish dancer seems authentic and powerful.

All that being said – even though I love it when Bogart plays detached, I kind of wish we’d seen him emotionally break a little bit at the graveyard in the final scene. A tear? A nose wipe with a handkerchief?

It’s a subtle performance for sure, and perhaps my favorite moment comes when Bogart quietly counsels Edmond O’Brien at a party to finally make a stand against his boss. Bogart could play the puppet master beautifully, wasting no extra words or emotion to do his job well.

The Cast

Ava Gardner plays the dancer-turned-movie-star Maria Vargas. I’m a little ashamed to admit that I’ve never been a huge fan of Gardner’s work, but I really liked her here. While I wasn’t completely sold that she was a simple Spanish girl from the wrong side of the tracks, it is fun to read that Gardner really did prefer to go barefoot through life, and the part does seem to be made for someone of her beauty and poise. When we finally see her dance in the gypsy camp, I was sold that this was a woman that other women wanted to be, and men wanted to be with.

Edmond O’Brien plays Oscar Muldoon, the fast talking “yes man” to whoever happens to be the wealthiest person in the room. Just charming enough to counter balance his own sleaziness, I thought O’Brien was so much fun in this film. I tend to find that a millionaire’s lackey usually becomes so tiresome and annoying in a film that I can’t stand them taking up even one more frame – but O’Brien captured exactly what must make those types of people appealing to the wealthy. He’s just smart enough, and just flattering enough, to make the greed that we all feel inside seem acceptable. Plus, O’Brien gets some of the very best one-liners during his portion of the film’s narration. I really want to check out more of his filmography.

Warren Stevens plays Kirk Edwards, the millionaire playboy who’s willing to throw cash around left and right in order to make a movie. He’s handsome, cocky, and authoritative enough that he leaves us both offended and in awe at the same time. He doesn’t deserve Maria! (And it’s very satisfying when he gets his comeuppance as she’s stolen away!) Out of all three of Maria’s suitors, I think he was the most fun to watch, especially his fall from grace when both his woman and his lapdog leave him during the big party scene.

Marius Goring plays Alberto Bravano, the wealthy South American that steals Maria away from Kirk Edwards. The film’s true antagonist, Goring does well in the role despite the fact that he’s the most underwritten of Maria’s three rich boyfriends.

Rossano Brazzi plays Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini, the final love for Maria in the film, and the man with whom she finally has a chance to find happiness. Out of all three of Maria’s rich suitors, Brazzi gets the best opportunity to develop his character and give some real meat to Maria’s faux-fairytale story. I liked Brazzi quite a bit, and while I thought that his turn at the end was a little too abrupt, I will hold that more against the script than the actor.

Classic Bogie Moment

Funeral. Trench coat. Rain. Detached sadness. Boom.

Untitled

These shots easily make the entire film worth it.

The Bottom Line

Good in many parts, but not great, I’ll give this one a watch any time it comes on TV.

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3 thoughts on “The Barefoot Contessa – 1954

  1. Great review!

    We’re linking to your article for Academy Monday at SeminalCinemaOutfit.com

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Pingback: Academy Monday – Watch: ‘The Barefoot Contessa’ (Joseph Mankiewicz, 1954) | Seminal Cinema Outfit

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