Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Producers: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardener, Edmond O’Brien
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 130 mins
As a lover of words, I’ve always been a sucker for an eloquent, witty screenplay and remain in awe of great screenwriters such as Paddy Chayefsky, Ben Hecht, Aaron Sorkin and Preston Sturges; writers who play with language rather than just try and recreate conversations with an efficient but unromantic realism. In this respect, the work of underrated screenwriter and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz was always going to appeal to me. Mankiewicz was a big name during his career but his work, with the exception of the mighty All About Eve, seems to have somewhat fallen out of critical favour in a latter day era where the poetry of the spoken word rarely emerges as brazenly as it did in his once revered screenplays. But as in love with Mankiewicz’s use of language as I undoubtedly am, I’m not so blinded by word-love as to miss the shortcomings that his verbose scripts often contain. His divisive 1954 epic The Barefoot Contessa, clearly envisaged as an opulent masterpiece, has everything I love about Mankiewicz’s work but also occasionally operates with a clumsiness that can derail its narrative just as the story requires us to be the most engaged.
The Barefoot Contessa begins at the funeral of Hollywood star Maria Vargas (Ava Gardener). The camera moves through the small, rain-soaked congregation to pick out screenwriter and director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), who begins to narrate the story of how he first met Maria and introduced her to the megalomaniacal, emotionally-stunted business tycoon Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), setting in motion her rise to stardom. The narrative is then picked up by another funeral attendee, the morally-ambiguous publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) who details Maria’s switching of allegiances from Kirk to Latin American playboy Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring). When she finds Alberto even more abusive than Kirk, her honour is defended by Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi) with whom she falls in love. But, as Vincenzo takes up the narration, fate has one last cruel blow to deal Maria.
One of The Barefoot Contessa’s major strengths is its structure, the decision to switch between multiple narrators offering fresh angles on a potentially shallow story. The voiceover narration allows Mankiewicz to work his magic, filling his characters’ mouths with dialogue that flows like music and is filled with quotable lines. However, Mankiewicz is sometimes a little too generous with the lengthy oratories he gives to certain characters. Although he creates vivid characters in Harry and Oscar, they occasionally lapse into sounding like each other; that is to say, sounding like Mankiewicz. When he keeps a tighter hold on the reins however, The Barefoot Contessa’s two best narrators are skilfully differentiated. The performances of Bogart and O’Brien in these roles are also exceptional. Bogart is wonderfully wearied by the pretensions of his industry but also charmingly warm and wise. His friendship with Maria is the film’s most realistic and moving relationship and Mankiewicz shrewdly keeps sex out of it completely. Though Harry can appreciate that Maria is a beautiful woman, he is completely in love with his script-girl wife Jerry (a witty Elizabeth Sellars). Bogart seems to enjoy playing a character who manages to be both the film’s lead while also remaining largely superfluous to the plot. O’Brien’s sweaty, insincere Oscar shares this sidelines viewpoint and the shift from Bogart’s narration to O’Brien’s works superbly, keeping the focus on Maria but perceived through a different set of values and opinions. O’Brien’s performance won him the Oscar (an Oscar for Oscar!) and his scenes are some of the strongest in the film.
The Barefoot Contessa’s major weakness comes with the arrival of Brazzi as the third narrator. Unlike the more interesting narrators that precede him, Brazzi’s Count is central to the action as Maria’s first great love. As the film shifts towards romance, it is unbalanced by a queasy, soft-focus style that is not really Mankiewicz’s strength from either a writing or directorial point of view. It could perhaps have worked were the Count a more interesting character but Brazzi makes him a chiselled, neurotic bore. After many scenes of lumpen melodrama, it’s a major relief when Bogart returns to the story but by this time the third act problems have set in too thoroughly to come back from. Instead, Mankiewicz pushes forward with a tragic denouement which feels both forced and rushed. Perhaps the main problem with this third act is that it brings us too close to Maria. Up until this part she has been viewed only through the eyes of men and this seems to be partially the point. But when Gardener becomes a more central figure in the later scenes, her mystique reveals itself to be the result of an underwritten emptiness and, with this fact exposed, the interest in the character is hard to rekindle.
With its combined aesthetic-fetishisation of and moral disgust at the hedonistic lifestyles of socialites, royalty and Hollywood stars, The Barefoot Contessa attempts to have its cake and eat it. But the cake is a stodgy proposition which, nevertheless, ultimately leaves one unsatisfied once it has been consumed. Having said that, it is often delicious as well. If the story doesn’t quite come together, there is plenty of cherishable dialogue, finely-honed performances and guiltily-pleasurable glamour to help wash down the indigestible pomp. Consequently, The Barefoot Contessa is a film I revisit surprisingly often and I eagerly grabbed Eureka’s new dual-format release of the film as another opportunity to return to its world. It may ultimately fall apart under the weight of its own ambition but watching it crumble is a fascinating experience nonetheless. The critics’ inability down the years to agree on whether it is sincere or silly, epic or tawdry, intelligent or misguided, is down to the fact that it is all of these things and, in some strange way, that is quite the achievement.
The Barefoot Contessa is released on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD by Eureka on 12 March 2018. Special features are as follows:
– 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray
– Optional 5.1 and uncompressed LPCM dual mono soundtracks
– Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
– Audio commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle
– Original theatrical trailer
– A collector s booklet featuring a new essay by Glenn Kenny; and rare archival material.