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***)

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