The Woman on the Beach ★★★

25 Films x 8 Decades: 1940s

One of a handful of American films directed by Jean Renoir in the 1940s, The Woman on the Beach opens quite impressively. As he lays in bed, Coast Guardsman Scott Burnett (Robert Ryan) lays asleep. As he does, he begins to have nightmares around an attack in war with dreamy visions of terror and of his fiance Eve (Nan Leslie). The images are superimposed upon one another and on Scott’s sleeping body, drifting across the screen. Revealing the demons that plague Scott’s existence, the scene introduces the strongest element of The Woman on the Beach: mental health. Scott’s desire to have his problems recognized and legitimized by those he is around guides him. Unfortunately, it leads him right into the arms of Peggy Butler (Joan Bennett) who is married to blind painter Tod Butler (Charles Bickford).

From where he begins to where he ends up after 71 minutes, Scott’s life goes through quite the rollercoaster ride. He swings from desperately wanting to marry Eve to being willing to kill to have Peggy, all because she understands and shares his ailment. Unfortunately, this is where The Woman on the Beach falters a bit. The sudden turn from Eve to Peggy is tough to buy, considering Scott’s clear devotion and affection for Eve at the beginning. She never even does anything bad, nor does she ever downplay his symptoms. Her big crime is wondering if it is not better to get married after he leaves the service than right away. From there, he runs into Peggy’s arms once she starts telling her life story as the constant caretaker of a blind, angry ex-painter. Robert Ryan and Joan Bennett may click just fine, but the writing feels too rushed in getting them together. This is crucial as the second wears on with Scott willing to go further-and-further to secure Peggy’s hand, all while it is hard to understand why he is doing all of this when he has Eve standing right there. He is simply too erratic in his decision making without the necessary to build up to have it make sense.

This quick build-up is really emblematic of the film as a whole with even the film’s finale coming rather suddenly. It perhaps offers some interesting character development for Tod, but given the history of Peggy’s character and their relationship, it similarly makes little sense. As the film did come out in 1947, one has to allow some room for the obvious moralizing of the finale but it makes little sense in context. Whether it is the development of the marriage or Tod’s relationship to his former career as a painter, the finale is disappointingly pedestrian. Worse, as the film progresses, it largely abandons the compelling mental health issue that guides Scott. It is used extensively in the beginning but aside from one, brief (but great) nightmare sequence in the latter half of the film, the narrative moves beyond this side. It is perhaps the most distinctive element of The Woman on the Beach, so it is disappointing to see it be cast aside.

Nonetheless, aside from these issues, The Woman on the Beach is an engrossing noir. Joan Bennett is an alluring femme fatale, excelling in a scene where she welcomes being called a “tramp”. Her skill in reeling in Scott and her conflict in whether she wants to him to kill Tod or not prove incredibly captivating, while being well performed by Bennett. She does a great job as the temptress, but keeps that human center as one can see her remorse over what happened to Todd but one can also see the danger she is in when he becomes violent. She is never an outright good person, but she is a tragic figure who has been pushed to moral extremes. Bennett expertly taps into this and draws it out.

From the second Peggy is introduced, she is easily the best character with Renoir using her environment to characterize her. First seeing her in the fog as she sits by a shipwreck, Scott eventually strikes up a conversation with her. Dressed down and seeming to come out of nowhere in the foggy nights, Peggy is not flashy but she is mysterious. She seems to have a distant nature to her, something that makes Scott openly ask whether or not she is a ghost. It is a terrific introduction, one that adds to the mystifying and often conflicted ideals of the character. It is also emblematic of much of the film with Renoir feeding off of the environment to create tension. The rocky cliffs or the choppy waters in the climax both prove crucial in building tension, putting characters in great environmental peril while they battle with one another psychologically or even physically. The latter is especially impressive with the wind blowing and the seas kicking up while Tod and Scott battle for the right to be with Peggy.

This is emblematic of the film’s overall tension, tapping into the darkness lurking within all of these characters as they battle one another. In spite of the narrative issues, The Woman on the Beach never ceases to be a captivating battle. Bennett is not the only one who does quite well with Robert Ryan delivering a typically strong performance as a broken man. The dark shadows that Renoir and DPs Leo Tover and Harry J. Wild drape him as he sleeps highlight this, while Ryan exudes this dark quality. He is seeking anything that will instill normalcy in his life, helping to escape the prison of his mind. In the same vein, Tod Butler is seeking the same as he wants everything to be where he left it when he was blinded years ago. As with Ryan, Charles Bickford does a strong job in capturing the conflicted and divided nature of Tod. Both men seem to live in the past, seeking a future that will help draw them out (or keep them there and, thus, safe) which is what brings them into conflict. They see Peggy as the only one who gets them, all while she initially seems interested in escaping this prison in between broken men. The way in which the film slacks on progressing Scott’s issues or delivers a “homely” finale for the Butler’s may be underwhelming, but the build-up on both fronts and emotional tension that is created proves quite thrilling.

The Woman on the Beach is definitely an odd spot to begin my exploration of Jean Renoir but it did star Joan Bennett, so it all evens out in the end. It is certainly not a masterpiece, but it is an interesting film with a lot to love about it even if it is flawed enough to make it only an average work. I am intrigued to continue exploring Renoir in more successful films, but The Woman on the Beach is an interesting blend of noir, melodrama, and some psychological drama that helps it stand out a bit.