When Jean Renoir’s first movie in America, Swamp Water, was made at 20th Century Fox, Renoir was told off in memos during production by studio head Daryl F Zanuck (1902-79 pneumonia). He accused the director of using too many dolly shots and taking alternate takes of the same scene. He was worrying too much about “background and atmosphere” which Zanuck thought was “not important”.
He was taking twice as much time as necessary.
It didn’t matter to Zanuck that Renoir could barely speak English at the time. But Renoir already had a reputation in France for not being economical.
In a letter to screenwriter Dudley Nichols (1895-1960 cancer), who wrote Swamp Water, Renoir wrote: “I’m afraid you will be disappointed in Swamp Water. I ask you not to judge my work in America in this film, which will be Mr Zanuck’s and not mine”.
While Renoir considered The Southerner as his most personal, and that is probably true, he disowned the others as distant and not integrated in comparison. Still, The Woman on the Beach sets itself apart. It is like a strapping mare, stripped of fat, revealing sinew and muscle. Itself like some sort of nude painting. As Tod’s character says, a painting or a woman either grabs you or it doesn’t.
Renoir’s autobiography described The Woman on the Beach as “the sort of avante-garde film that would be at home back in the early 1920s, somewhere between Nosferatu (1922) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari” (1920).
And this is true of the finished product, a kind of abstract in terms of expression of its sexuality and ideas for the period, while those movies were new in the 1920s for their ideas and expressionism.
Despite the expression of sexuality in The Woman on the Beach, Renoir thought the movie: “Too obscure to please the general public”.
Which it was, reflected by the reviews in America at the time and still today as respected mainstream critic Leonard Maltin (1950-) calls the film “laughable”.
When you compare the sleepwalking performances in Dr Caligari to some of the moments in The Woman on the Beach there is a similar dream-like effect.
As for the characters, we feel for Ryan’s mentally ill character and his attempts to cope, as we also feel for Bickford’s “impotent” painter who is trying the best he can to fill the void in his life left by blindness and complicated by alcohol.
Further in terms of movie’s abstraction beyond the script, the film is made in black and white and similarly the characters have no color themselves. Even the landscapes and the beach itself are barren, like the characters themselves.
“In my previous films,” wrote Renoir. “I had tried to depict the bonds of the individual to his/her environment.
In The Woman on the Beach there is no bondage, only to a kind of limbo, like the waves crashing on the shore, it is between two worlds, just as Scott’s dream is between sleep and being awake. Renoir said it is a study of person’s whose whole idea is to “close the door” on life. They shut out the past and do not live a full existence as a result. They are all damaged people trying to cope in the world but living it in disconnection and often suffering alone. When these damaged people get together they only have sex and fight. Scott’s character is easily led into the other world of the worldly woman and he is ill prepared for it.
Renoir’s letters at the time said he was happy with the film when it was finished in July 1946. But on 2 August after negative audience reaction after a single screening – one third to half of the movie was reshot – all to improve the film’s chance at the box office. So a year later the second version of the movie was released on 8 June 1947. The original version is a lost movie. But this may not have been a bad thing…
According to RKO production files there was a third version of The Woman on the Beach, an “In-between” version.
But it is the final “compromised” version I consider Renoir’s best American movie. From the original script we get a glimpse of what might have been. What might have been “lost” is the movie we have today.
With Peggy’s smiling face fading into a door that erupts into flames, the key moment in the movie, we see Scott’s character hypnotised by Peggy’s sexuality and his mental illness becomes more than just a nightmare it has taken over his life… the two are linked by the image. Who knows if such a moment was in the original movie, it is such a brief moment.
RKO bought the rights to the novel None So Blind by Mitchell Wilson (1914-73 no info) in June 1944. Wilson, incidentally, was a very popular novelist in the Soviet Union during The Cold War. A year later Wilson submitted a draft, which was finished by a screenwriter named Michael Hogan (1893-1977 no info) at what appears to be the end of his career.
After it was given the all clear by the Production Code as not sordid or dirty, it was Joan Bennett, fresh from her success in The Woman in the Window, who insisted that Renoir direct. Val Lewton (1904-51 heart attack) was originally in charge of production, which would explain the film’s short running time of just over seventy minutes. It might have opened a new chapter in Lewton’s career but senior management changes and Lewton’s poor health contributed to him no longer being involved in the project. His low-budget horrors in general ran around seventy minutes or less.
Lewton wanted Bennett to use director Lewis Allen (1905-2000 natural causes) and also suggested Jacques Tourneur (1904-77 undisclosed), Robert Wise (1914-2005 heart failure) and Fred Zinnemann (1907-97 heart attack) – anyone but Renoir. But Bennett insisted and Renoir got the job.
But as Renoir became more involved with the script and saw it change, he wondered, as he did when he worked for Zanuck, that the end product would be a producer’s movie product.
The film’s original working title at this stage was Desirable Woman. The script was changed further although it still had “a thematic understanding of Mr Renoir’s idea”. But as Renoir wrote home to Europe, he thought the end product wouldn’t be “my film” which was “very painful”.
This, however, differs to Renoir’s attitude upon the film wrapping on 5 July 1946, when he said: “I have rarely been so happy, as I was during this production. I was really left to my own devices… even if it won’t be perfect”.
The novel and earlier versions differed in that Tod was “hysterically” blind and could realise that Peggy was having two affairs, one with Tod’s doctor. Peggy also schemed to steal Tod’s paintings and run off with the doctor. In the version that exists, the doctor is old and fat and the look Bennett gives when she leaves the room when Tod is injured shows amusement at the very thought. The Production Code office refused this version because the adultery goes unpunished. Also omitted were the passionate kisses between Scott and Peggy but in the end we still get the idea that their relationship is sexual and highly charged. Peggy’s nude painting is also left out, but we also get the idea of the end product, subliminal though it is.
What is left is basically a love triangle and a crime of passion which concentrates all the sexual tension together.
Apparently the original version had secondary characters that were more filled out, something hinted at with the visit to the neighbor’s house and the town dance in the finished film. The preview audience saw an opening scene with Eve and Scott existing happily in the community, a discussion of how the boat Scott was on was sunk and there were names put to the men who died.
Renoir was mixing the music for The Woman on the Beach when he heard about the fateful preview. It apparently happened at Santa Barbara on 2 August 1946 and the results were “catastrophic” as Renoir told his son Alain. Renoir was preparing for his next Hollywood movie, a version of Madame Bovary.
Six weeks later, a re-edited “in-between” version was prepared to make the original version “less confusing”. Even legendary director John Huston (1906-87 emphysema) was consulted and he suggested they drop Scott’s mental illness. According to Mark Robson, this second version of the movie was “too confusing and choppy”.
Frank Davis (1897-1984 undisclosed) came on board to re-write the script and help an exhausted Renoir. They worked well together, as shows in the final product. It was a comeback for Davis after the death of his wife and success of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). After their work together on the script, the third version of the movie was shot, consisting mainly of scenes between Bennett and Ryan plus the replacement of Nan Leslie over Virginia Huston (1925-81 cancer) in the role of Eve.
It really was an endless nightmare for Renoir, kind of like the waking nightmares of Scott in the movie. Yet he stuck with it to the end and fortunately wasn’t removed from the film altogether like Orson Welles was for the end product of The Magnificent Ambersons. Renoir must have had a compliant personality when it came to getting along with management, even though it was his last film at RKO and the United States. Someone certainly had faith in him as an artist as well as himself because he believed in this project right to the very end.
The entire movie of The Woman on the Beach is like a dream and some of the people in it live in a sexual dream – punctuated by Scott’s moments of nightmare. Nothing really happens, as in a real dream at times, and even what is said is minimal. When Scott first awakens in the movie, the dream dissolving, we are still entering another dream within a dream. For Scott it will be a nightmare that will engulf his waking moments but will eventually lead to an understanding of himself as a sufferer of PTSD and as a man.
Even with the music swelling after the lovers meet at the ship and make love, it is as though it is the ocean as it swells on the beach on the shoreline, not quite land and not quite the sea.
And even the scene when Scott suffers psychosis on the boat in the storm is made all the more disturbing as it is a moment of pure madness rather than a plan to murder Tod, which the Production Code wouldn’t allow.
Renoir distilled the ideas and made his potion far more potent. Even its tale of impotence is potent.
Scott has fallen victim to the world and those around him, even Peggy uses sex to manipulate him, all because of his naturally simple and passive nature and confusion due to his PTSD/mental illness. A lot of people are taken advantage of in real life because of this, often tragically. Scott’s life as a part of the “normal” community is put in jeopardy as an example.
At first when Peggy and Scott talk in front of the fireplace, there is no fire/sex, instead they talk about ghosts and loneliness, thoughts that obsess them both as much as sex.
Apparently Renoir wanted the dreamlike quality and praised the sound engineer for capturing the range of Bennett’s voice in particular, as she had lowered the pitch of her voice for the performance. It too is sexier as a result.
Despite no sex on the screen, except for a couple of kisses, it is all right there in latent view in The Woman on the Beach.
Reviewers simply dismissed it at the time and I have even read a recent review calling it “oddball”. The characters in the film may be odd but they are very human, more human than many characters portrayed in movies at the time.
In France, however, the film became a cult almost immediately.
Renoir slowly compromising on the original movie produced a movie where its sexual ideas reach some sort of saturation point, where everything is integral to the story. Renoir’s original dream maybe “lost” but what he created in this dreamlike film evokes and instead found some kind of real movie magic.