Jean Renoir’s “Lost” Masterpiece (Part One)

*contains spoilers

The Woman on the Beach (1947) press ad

As many will already know, Orson Welles’ movie The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) was taken out of his hands by RKO studios and over an hour was hacked from it. What remains is still regarded a masterpiece. The same type of thing happened with Jean Renoir’s (1894-1979 heart attack) last American movie The Woman on the Beach (1947) when RKO ordered the original to be reshot. On this occasion Renoir stayed with the picture to the bitter end –and while the original film is “lost”, something else emerged.

Jean Renoir was the son of legendary French artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919 no info). His film Woman on the Beach was his last film to be made in America before he left during the HUAC witch-hunts for his Leftist sympathies.

He was already a legendary filmmaker before he came to America, with his French film The Rules of the Game (1939) regarded as one of the top 100 movies of all time which was made around the time of Germany’s occupation of France during World War II. Renoir left the country shortly after and settled in the US where he made five movies.

Mud (2012) trailer

The first of these movies was Swamp Water (1941) for 20th Century Fox, which has been compared to the Matthew McConaughey (1969-) film Mud (2012). He followed that one with This Land is Mine (1943), a “flag-waver” or World War II propaganda movie, about the French Resistance starring Charles Laughton as a meek school teacher who finds the true meaning of freedom as the Nazis rewrite history in the classroom under the Occupation.  It seems a bit preachy now but is still a powerful indictment of the Nazi regime.

Beulah Bondi as Granny

He followed this movie with The Southerner (1945), which is his favourite. It is about a farmer and his family who struggle to make a living on the land despite natural disaster and human indifference. It uses on location filming and features good performances including one from Beulah Bondi (1889-1981 complications from a fall, tripped over cat) as Granny. She is obviously the inspiration for Granny in The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71), something confirmed by the fact that the actress who played her in that series, Irene Ryan 1902-73 brain tumor), appears in Renoir’ last two American movies. Granny in The Southerner also has a fit about losing her “best blanket” which I’m sure is also the inspiration for Gene Wilder and his “blue blanket” in The Producers (1968).

Renoir’s fourth movie is another film set in France, Diary of a Chambermaid (1946) starring Paulette Goddard. It is probably the least of Renoir’s American movies but features some stunning studio sets and an interesting performance by Burgess Meredith (1907-97 melanoma) as a rock-throwing neighbor who is the bane of a wealthy landowner’s greenhouses.

Woman on the Beach, starring Joan Bennett (1910-90 heart failure), Robert Ryan (1909-73 lung cancer) and Charles Bickford (1891-1967 sepsis), is Renoir’s best film of his American sojourn next to The Southerner.

Bad girl Bennett

In it, Bennett plays a bad girl, a role she did very convincingly in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Ryan plays a war veteran with PTSD, who gets involved with Bennett, the younger wife of a blind painter played by Charles Bickford.

The film is set on the coast with Ryan’s character a Coast Guard officer, who has been released from active duty in the navy due to his PTSD.

It is interesting to note that Jean Renoir’s painter father was married to a younger woman and that he had a disability later in his life, which caused him to move to the coast.

The movie we see today is the result of a negative reaction to a screening of the movie long before the finished product was produced and I will go into the history of that later on. But let’s talk about the enduring finished product.

Ryan’s dream woman

The film opens with Scott (Ryan) having a nightmare. He seems to be having it about past events as a ship sinks violently and he is left walking on the ocean floor as bodies sink to the bottom and skeletons litter the sand and seaweed. There is a woman approaching him and then suddenly there is a door that bursts into flames. It’s a sex and violence nightmare, kind of like the relationship between Peggy (Bennett) and Tod (Bickford), which we see as the film unfolds.

Scott awakens violently. He is in bed in his room at the back of the coast guard office and one of the other officers comes and comforts him as they talk about it. He says there’s something about the ocean he can’t stand and that they had released him from the hospital, sound of body and mind: “But my head isn’t…let’s face it, I’m not well!

The door in the dream could be seen as a symbol of doors shutting off the secret self, between innocence and guilt as well as the doors of perception. When Scott later shuts the door of his room in the morning he ends any talk further of his mental state.

Then he goes to meet Eve (Nan Leslie, 1926-2000 pneumonia) who is the woman in his dream. She is a good and practical girl, who is waiting to marry Scott and works with her hands in a boatyard. Eve is very tender with Scott but Scott isn’t a naturally tender man. But there is no doubt he is a “real” man but in a way he is unworldly and shut off. He wants to marry Eve that very evening as if a sexual release with their marriage will cure him. She demures.

Collecting firewood

The timeframe of Woman on the Beach is strange and almost dreamlike. We don’t really know how much time passes… Anyway we think that foggy morning, Scott astride his horse, which is another sexual symbol, this time of virility, comes across Peggy (Bennett), who is collecting firewood around the wreck of a ship.

“I wouldn’t use that wood…” he says superstitiously. Wood of course is the word used in pornography as slang for an erection. So it’s also sexually symbolic: like a disembodied erection between them, latent, not yet penetrating, or on fire.

She says he looked at the ship as if it was something out of a bad dream and that he looked at her as if she were a ghost. The film does have a something “ghostly” about it as the three main characters are haunted by their past one way or another.

They discuss his fear of ghosts and fear in general, which leads to Scott’s temper flaring…his sexual passion… but he recovers.

“The hard thing is to know your self,” he says, defusing the sexual tension.

He likes her and she takes him home as he carries the firewood.

She sits in front of the fire at home with the wood and says: “When the ghosts get too insistent you have to let them go… you find a kind of peace… you don’t care anymore.” Like resting after achieving orgasm.

She guesses correctly that he was torpedoed, and that could be seen as symbolic of penetration and fracturing of the ego and the continued broken feeling from that –something that Scott feels, along with his sexual passion.

“We’re pretty much alike…You’re the first who seems to know how I feel,” says Scott. There is no romance between Scott and Peggy. It is pure animal instinct despite a lack of visible emotion except for flashes of anger. Although Scott is reaching out Peggy then loses her temper, saying it’s all “ridiculous” and that he should leave. It’s all sexual frustration and Scott prepares to depart through the door. Leaving the firewood as it is just beginning to burn.

A waking nightmare

Peggy’s husband Tod enters through the door and turns out his is blind. Peggy retreats into the role of wife as she introduces Scott and she says it would be nice to see him again as there is never a living soul around for weeks. Again, there is that ghostly feeling. It’s like this couple live in some sort of limbo, a ghostly world in their isolated cottage near the shoreline. Tod says he should come around again as there’s always a drink handy.

Tod, however, has sized Scott up and thinks he is probably tall, dark and handsome, but an intellectual lightweight – no artist.

“You’ve always admired virility… I can’t paint anymore, but I can still talk”, says Tod, hinting at his impotence not only as an artist but also as a man.

We learn, as the movie progresses, that drinking alcohol played, and continues to play, a big part in the relationship between Tod and Peggy. Theirs is a tempestuous one, where one emotionally stormy evening the passions erupted with the alcohol and Peggy threw a glass at Tod severing the optic nerve. There is also hidden behind a closet door a number of paintings by Tod that are worth a small fortune due to his blindness and inability to paint. It’s a grand total of his impotence in the studio and in the bedroom due to Tod’s advanced age and alcohol consumption.

One stormy night and again the time passes dreamlike, Tod turns up at the coast guard office. In this climate “one can expect anything” and suggests he come over and play chess. He says it is because Scott has made such an impression on Peggy that he has made the invitation. It is almost as if he is expecting a sort of sexual surrogacy to happen between them.

The dialogue in The Woman on the Beach is full of pauses with many sentences bookended by silences. Again it is all as if in a dream.

So Scott goes to have dinner at Peggy and Tod’s place and afterwards, while Scott doesn’t drink, he smokes and he passes one to Peggy in front of Tod’s face. Another phallic symbol, as if carrying on in front of him, and the two men talk of “deep sea fishing”, an alternative for a “wank” for real men. Tod is a man’s man as he used to have a lot of fishing friends.

Carrying on in front of Bickford

Scott questions Tod’s masculinity due to his blindness/impotence. Scott actually thinks that Tod isn’t blind – that he isn’t “real”. But Peggy reassures Scott that Tod was a true hell-raiser with her who could be “unbelievably fierce or brutal” or “too tender”. Despite the latent passion Scott holds, he is still an innocent, someone whose violent emotions live in his head and in his past war experience and PTSD. He would never hit a woman, or never has, despite his passionate temper, but it is a violent passion about to be ignited.

When she explains about the “accident”, we know she stays with him for their sexual history, for the guilt and because of Tod’s genius, all symbolised by the paintings in the closet. Peggy clutches another phallic symbol of a rod as she explains.

Eve turns up at the office, having missed him the previous evening, following their proposal in the boatyard following the nightmare. Scott tells her they shouldn’t get married because of his PTSD/mental illness. They are distant as he says that people don’t understand and just call him “sick”.

Bennett’s secret place

The next day “ghostly” footsteps left on the shore lead Scott to Peggy, where she is sitting inside the wreck. She says it’s her secret place where she goes to be alone and she agrees they are “something alike”… It is then that they burst into a passionate kiss to the swelling music of Hanns Eisler (1898-1962). Eisler also fled the Nazi’s like Renoir and was persecuted in America and blacklisted under McCarthyism. They both left the United States at the same time in 1948.

Peggy says she’s no good and that they shouldn’t kiss/have sex… Meanwhile Tod turns up outside the wreck holding his cane (another phallic symbol) and fondles Scott’s horse. It’s as if Tod is aware of Scott’s sexual tryst with Peggy and that he approves of Scott as the sexual substitute because he wanders away again leaving the couple alone to ponder further. Peggy says he really is an: “Insanely possessive man.”

But Scott wants to prove that Tod isn’t really blind and Peggy agrees she will leave with him if Scott can prove it. He turns up at the cottage and is invited into the front door and in the background is the closed door to Tod’s workroom and within the closet door with the paintings inside. Scott invites him for a walk along the cliffs and as Tod hides the front door key, he says: “Now you know all our secrets, but I guess they’re safe with you”.

To prove Tod isn’t blind, Scott callously leaves him near the cliff edge to find his own way back home. As Scott watches from a distance in horror, Tod falls off the cliff. Before he falls, he drops his cane, showing his total impotence. Fortunately for Scott he isn’t killed or too badly injured.

I Walked With A Zombie (1943) trailer

Back at the cottage and the front door and the bedroom door is open. He checks in on Tod and leaves. Peggy still wants Scott as she stares pensively, and perhaps manipulatively after him. There is more silence.

Meanwhile there is gossip among the community about behind closed doors and her collecting firewood with other men. Peggy, while they are at one of the neighbor’s places, says to Scott that yes, she is, say it: I’m a tramp”. Or “no good” as the movie poster proclaimed! Peggy doesn’t care about any gossip but it means something to Scott, especially when it involves himself and his mental state at the end of the movie.

It doesn’t end the relationship and Scott visits Tod, where finally Tod opens the closet door and shows Scott the paintings, including one of which is supposedly a nude of Peggy.  But it’s the wrong painting, the nude is gone and Peggy has been interfering with them. Tod loses his temper, as the nude is “the best thing I have ever done”.  When Scott leaves, he hears audible slaps from the street. No wonder she blinded him!

What is behind the door?

This disturbs Scott to the point whereupon his return to base his dreams spill into wide-awake hallucination. This time with the flaming door he sees Peggy’s face. Now how is that for symbolism of not seeing the nude behind the door!? Rather than take a sedative and have a lie down, waves crash on the rocks and music surges as Scott goes to the wreck, central to his hallucinations and finds Peggy waiting. She says the loaded line: “I knew you’d come!”. He replies: “I knew you’d be here.” The ensuing kiss is clipped in the movie, but we all know they went for it, as it is pure flaming passion! And Scott is about to lose his innocence in more ways than one.

Later at home, Peggy pleads with Tod to sell the paintings, as it would save them both. She kisses Tod and he wonders if she is thinking of Scott. She reminisces about champagne parties in front of the fireplace with Tod. A lot of wood was used over the years! He calls her “so beautiful outside, so rotten inside”. Flatterer! At least he admits they are two of a kind. Whereas Scott can’t share his secret self as it is one of illicit sex with a manipulative woman and a personal madness forever linked to it. Nobody, except Freud, wants to hear or understand that! Not in a small town in the 1940s!! They call him sick. Even today many of us would have trouble explaining some of our sexual dreams…

Kicking back at home

Anyway Tod says Scott is “good and straight” and “that’s why he’s dangerous.”

This is when Scott asks Todd to go “deep sea fishing” as a storm brews. Scott is in some sort of trance, as is Peggy half of the time. As they leave, Peggy is almost hypnotised or temporarily blinded by what she knows is madness that may lead to murder.

On board the small boat, a tempest has raised itself along with the tempers of the two men. Scott, angry at Tod’s violence toward Peggy, finally has no fear of the ocean and loses his head totally in the showdown, putting a hole in the boat with a boathook, just as if he is reliving the torpedoed ship of his nightmare. They grip the disembodied boathook/penis as their tempers flare passionately at the height of the squall spilling over dangerously along with the boat. I guess there’s a bit of homo-erotica to be found in men brawling. It all comes down to the boathook/penis between them!

All seems lost for both of them until Eve turns up afterwards in a small boat and saves them both. Ever dependable, straight as an arrow Eve turns her back on Scott once they are ashore.

The Woman on the Beach poster

For the moment, to the community, Scott’s madness at sea remains unknown, but he decides to leave town before the gossip at the local town dance spreads. He is leaving in disgrace – in his own mind. A common occurrence among the mentally ill who live transient lives as a result, often running away from the problem rather than face it within themselves.

Tod and Peggy argue: “What does he know about loving a woman like you?! Nothing!”

Eve enters the door of the coast guard office to say goodbye and says: “I finally realised you’re sick”.

But Scott has faced his demons and pronounces himself “just ridiculous” rather than sick… She may not have made up her mind as she spins around to show off her dress for the dance… It’s unresolved as the phone rings and it’s Peggy in a state. Scott realises he has to face her one last time… Tod has gone mad too, setting fire to the paintings and the cottage, all the symbols of his impotence. His obsession is, once and for all, consumed by the flames, and so is Scott’s for Peggy as he realises that she still wants Tod. Tod, who saves only the typewriter, asks her to take him to New York where she can leave him, but she won’t as they are two of a kind. Their blind emotions for one another unleashed under the blinding influence of alcohol may continue with undying love and devotion. If that’s what you call it! Oh the life of bohemians!!

Scott walks off into the darkness, maybe to Eve, maybe to a life alone of rootlessness. I hope he and Eve make it and that Scott finds a cure in facing and sorting his demons.

Bennett at the end

Just before Tod and Peggy walk away from the flaming cottage and the music swells, you can see Peggy mouth the word: “Please.”

The wooden cottage burns as the waves hit the rocks.

Thank you Jean Renoir, you just made a masterpiece.

How Renoir came to make this masterpiece through the “lost” original movie I will get to in part two. Thanks to a well researched article in Film History in 1999 by Janet Bergstrom.

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