Thursday, February 17, 2011

Noir City Northwest: The Woman on the Beach (1947)/Beware, My Lovely (1952)

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Robert Ryan is one of the actors most closely associated with noir. His uncanny ability to play rage and sorrow simultaneously, each feeding the other to create an electric mood of danger, made him a natural in movies about the dark side of life. Night six of the festival showcased two of his lesser-known performances in a pair of rare titles.

The same year that Ryan played the murderous bigot in Crossfire – the movie that netted him his only Oscar nomination and led to his being typecast as a brute – he appeared in The Woman on the Beach, one of the few American films directed by French master Jean Renoir. A test screening proved so disastrous that Renoir mercilessly hacked almost 30 minutes out of it. What remains is both haunting and haunted, often nonsensical but frequently fascinating.

Ryan plays a Coast Guard officer still recovering from wartime trauma. The opening nightmare sequence is astonishing: Ryan falls through the water, surrounded by the silhouettes of battleships, then walks across the ocean floor over the bodies of dead men toward a bewitching siren. What follows may seem prosaic in comparison but is every bit as bizarre, as Ryan is drawn into the dynamic between a once-famous painter, now blind (Charles Bickford) and his wife, muse and prisoner (Joan Bennett). Bickford is wonderful, playing notes of Zen hostility. And Renoir makes excellent use of a shipwreck as both location and metaphor. His elliptical approach to character and Ryan’s readily accessible pain could have worked in perfect concert, but in the wake of the editing the film never establishes a rhythm. It’s the celluloid equivalent of the phantom limb theory. Watching it, you’re constantly aware of what’s missing.

By contrast Beware, My Lovely is crude but undeniably effective. It’s a straight suspense piece, a two-hander that allows Ryan to go head-to-head with fellow noir stalwart Ida Lupino. She’s the war widow who hires itinerant handyman Ryan for the day, unaware of why he’s constantly on the move. Soon she’ll be trapped in her home just as he’s trapped by his erratic impulses. You’ve seen the story before – Rosemarie referred to it as “claptrap,” and she liked it more than me – but this rendition works thanks to the leads. Lupino fleshes out frustrated decency, while Ryan does extraordinary things with his eyes as slights register and thoughts fade. You’re on the edge of your seat wondering what he’ll remember and what he’ll forget.

One more night, Seattle. Come on down to SIFF Cinema. As usual, Eddie Muller has saved the best for last.