The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa – 1954

Director – Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Starring – Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, and Edmond O’Brien

When two names as big as Humphrey Bogart, and Eva Gardner team up and share the screen, sparks are bound to fly.  The passion, romance, and sizzling chemistry of the couple is what legends are crafted upon, and careers are made of.  That is, unless, the two major stars in question aren’t sharing an onscreen romance.  Instead they are featured in a somewhat sweet, sprawling story of a platonic relationship that centers on trust, mutual respect and admiration.

Apparently this is veiled retelling of the life (or some of it anyway) of Rita Hayworth.  The story, is laid out in a series of flashbacks, starting in the present with Harry Dawes (Bogart) at the funeral of his friend Maria Vargas (Gardner).  Each flashback occurs in a linear manner, with occasional breaks back to the present with Dawes summing up, and pontificating a bit on the somewhat carefree nature of Vargas, and her unconventional method of approaching the grander ideas of love, success, and happiness.

Once she is “discovered” by the megalomaniacal Kirk Edwards, a  nazi-rich studio executive who makes  a business of buying people as carelessly as others buy things, it is precisely this unique approach of Maria’s that both infuriates and captivates him.  Throughout her life, Maria manages to attract men that are lured in by her charms only to try to re-direct, manipulate, and ultimately control her.  As a result her romantic life is as tragic and sordid as a tabloid newspaper.  Even her director, and best friend, Dawes, will occasionally put in his two cents about how she should live her life, never-mind the fact that he just might be right.

Barefoot Contessa is a strange film.  Strange, primarily for two reasons as far as I can see.  Firstly, it’s a little unique to have two of the biggest stars in Hollywood as leads in a movie where there is no romantic relationship shared between them.  I would assume they would want the on-screen chemistry provided by the actors to work together towards some ideal relationship outcome.  I guess, since all of Vargas’ romances seem to be rather imperfect and selfish in their motivation, a star with such a personable image as Bogart wouldn’t want to associate with one of those characters, and instead would choose the noble, caring, father-figure instead.

Secondly, this film was one of the most gritty and grimy I’ve ever seen come out of the Hollywood Studio system.  The Technicolor made everyone (especially in the opening scenes) seem awfully sweaty, grimy, and a little devious.  The blue tones seemed to have been drained out, while the red and greens  were pumped up far beyond the normal range.  Perhaps this was a conscious decision, in which case I’m interested in knowing why.  If it wasn’t a choice made specifically to enhance the storytelling, however, then it certainly begs a little explaining.

It’s difficult to use the device of fractured storytelling well.  With so many famous examples of how cool and effective it can be, (Citizen Kane, Pulp Fiction, etc.) the device is bound to get over-used, and lose some of its lustre.  Add to that, a change of point of view from character to character, and you have the definite possibility of a mess on your hands.  Luckily for the audience, The Barefoot Contessa avoids the pitfalls associated with such a high concept, and benefits from this storytelling method.

The shift in point of view happens twice in the film, between the characters Dawes, Oscar Muldoon a slimy producer and PR man played very well by Edmond O’Brien, and the Count Vincenzo Toriato-Favrini, a wealthy but damaged bit of Mediterranean royalty played by Rossano Brazzi.  Each in turn takes their turn reminiscing about Vargas, and their relationships with her, documenting her rise to fame, and her fall from grace.

Each of these performances is very strong, with Gardner’s Vargas being the weakest of the bunch.  While she does a passable job at portraying the object of these men’s affection, the heavy lifting in terms of exposition and believability is done by those characters who narrate her life.  O’Brien and Warren Stevens as Kirk Edwards were particularly good as the men simply interested in buying and selling her as a commodity.  As is always the case, Bogart’s skill as an actor seems effortless, making all of his scenes terribly easy to watch.

While it’s not as good as classics like Casablanca, The Big Sleep, or Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Barefoot Contessa is certainly worth the dedication of time and attention.  It may not be the strongest Bogart movie that I’ve ever seen, but it is certainly the strongest example of a Gardner movie I have seen thus far.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“You couldn’t tell me before we got married that you don’t have a dick?!” – Ashley

White Heat (1949)

White Heat – 1949

Director – Raoul Walsh

Starring – James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, and Edmond O’Brien

The title of this film, White Heat, clearly comes from the boxed up frustration and rage capable of the late great James Cagney.  The character, Cody Jarrett, is a hot-headed gangster with some not so subtle mother issues.  Rounding out the cast of a 1000 dysfunctions is his wife, Verna, ready to cross him the moment he goes away, his right hand man, Big Ed, itching to step in and take his place, and his mother, Ma Jarrett, more than willing to accept and encourage his dependence on her.  Together, these characters set up the conditions for a dramatic explosion of volatility and emotion, and explode they do.

Feeling the heat for the robbery we see him commit at the start of the film, Jarrett confesses to a lesser crime alibi that he had set up beforehand.  Sent up to prison in Illinois, the federales plant a man on the inside in an effort to gain Jarrett’s trust.  While on the inside, Cody’s gang is strong-armed, and his wife is swept off her feet by, who else, Big Ed.  Without giving away too much of the story, things continue to fall apart from there.

Cagney’s performance matches perfectly with my pre-conceived image of him from the few film clips that I’ve seen, and through his performance in Angels With Dirty Faces.  Since White Heat and Angels are among some of his most popular and well-known films, unfortunately, that means that his characters don’t seem like carefully crafted creations so much as they seem like him just playing himself.  Whether or not Cagney possessed any similarity to the Cody Jarrett character, I’m not sure, but I had the distinct impression that he wasn’t really acting so much as talking.  Now I may be completely wrong on that point, lord knows I was completely wrong about my preconceptions of Humphrey Bogart, but that is yet to be discovered.

Each other character is overshadowed by Cagney’s performance, and while each probably fulfilled their roles quite adequately, none were stand outs.  Despite this fact, the story was still a very quick paced, enjoyable yarn about a self-destructing gangster.  The inevitability of Jarrett’s disintegration was never in question, the drama lay in watching how he would flame out (if you have seen this film already…pun intended.  If you haven’t seen the film…you’ll get it when you do).  Just remember when life is snapping at your heels, and it seems like everyone is after you, it never hurts to yell out “Top of the world, Ma!”