Friday, March 9, 2012

75. THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)

Once again, Netflix makes it easy for me to fill a gap in my film education: writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's two-hour, ten-minute epic about the tragic rags-to-riches story of Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), a Spanish peasant dancer who achieves international fame as actress Maria D'Amata -- a character reportedly based, at least in its broadest strokes, on Rita Hayworth.

Set during her rainy funeral in Italy, Maria's story is told in interior monologue flashbacks by three different men -- her best friend Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), her publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien) and her husband the Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi). Though Gardner proves elsewhere in the film that she can dance, Mankiewicz doesn't show us the dance onstage in a Madrid nightspot that initially captures the imaginations of Dawes, Muldoon and the ice-blooded film producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), nor is any time spent depicting the three films Maria makes under Edwards' detested wing before his assumptions of ownership spitefully propel her onto the yacht of much-richer Italian producer Alberto Bravano (Marius Goering, in a black wig that makes him look like early Bryan Ferry). Their relationship sours quickly but she is rescued from its brink with almost mystical coincidence by the Count, with whom she falls in love and marries, though Fate once again conspires to conclude her Cinderella story on a note of tragedy.

Mankiewicz was one of those writers, like Rod Serling, enamored of his own voice, and the film might well have run thirty minutes shorter had anyone else written it. Everything else in this film -- including some of the period's top stars, Roman locations and the extraordinary sets available to Cinecittà,  and the splendid Technicolor photography of Jack Cardiff -- takes a back seat to its not-particularly-profound dialogue, much of which belabors an overly precious and unhelpful parallel to the Cinderella fable. Despite such incessant talk, one is never quite sure what the film's accumulation of world-weary characters share in common as concerns a prevailing theme; however, by the end of the film, THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA presents us with something rare in American films, especially those dating from this era -- namely, an affecting portrait of the friendship between a man and a woman, mutually devoted without being complicated by romance.

One unexpected insight from watching this picture: it strikes me that Warren Stevens' Kirk Edwards (was this name inspired by Kirk Douglas' mercenary producer in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL?) was the undoubted model for Jack Palance's producer Jerome Prokosh in Godard's CONTEMPT. Also, I happened to notice British actress Barbara Shelley working as an extra, standing in the background of the party scene where Stevens and Goering have their verbal duel. Her appearance isn't mentioned in her IMDb credits, but this would have been her second or third picture.

Viewed on Netflix. 

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