“In Hollywood, it is not easy to become a star.”
For my money (and probably yours), the best film of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s career is the dazzling All About Eve. Featuring riveting performances, scintillating dialogue and a juicy plot, the film ranks as one of the finest “behind the curtain” examinations of showbiz. A few years later, Mankiewicz would offer up another dose of entertainment industry melodrama in the form of The Barefoot Contessa (which shifted the focus from Broadway to Hollywood). While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of All About Eve (only the dialogue approaches that level of brilliance), it’s an interesting movie with an intriguing structure and a handful of terrific moments.
The elusive central figure of the tale is Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner, Seven Days in May), a beloved Spanish actress who died after making only three movies. All of those films were directed by Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), who discovered Maria in Madrid and helped bring her to stardom. Using extended flashbacks from Dawes, perpetually sweaty film producer Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) and the distinguished Count Vincenzo Torlato Favrini (Rossano Brazzi, Three Coins in the Fountain), the film slowly reveals the complicated story of Maria’s rise to fame, assorted romances and eventual tragic death.
The decision to present Maria’s life through the eyes of three different men is an interesting one, but it ultimately means that we end up gaining a greater understanding of the men than we do of her. There are too many scenes that feel as if they’re drifting into irrelevant territory, as elements that probably should have remained in the film’s peripheral vision too frequently take center stage due to the specific perspective we’re saddled with. Unfortunately, only Harry is interesting enough to command our attention no matter what he’s up to (O’Brien – despite winning an Academy Award for his energetic performance – is a bit one-dimensional, and Brazzi is flat-out wooden).
Still, Bogart’s work is so good – and his deadpan delivery of lines like, “I have a sixth sense that any witch in the world would give her left broomstick to have” is so pitch-perfect – that the film works pretty much any time he’s around. One can’t help but imagine that Mankiewicz saw a good deal of himself in Harry Dawes: a cynical, world-weary filmmmaker with a quick wit and an aversion to formulaic storytelling. With some regularity, Harry seems to be indirectly commenting on The Barefoot Contessa‘s atypical creative choices: “Life, every now and then, behaves as though it had seen too many bad movies, when everything fits too well – the beginning, the middle and the end – from fade-in to fade-out.” Fair enough, though there are moments when one wishes that some of this film’s assorted pieces fit together a little more neatly than they ultimately do.
For the most part, The Barefoot Contessa carries itself with a sort of smirking self-awareness. It knows that you know that it’s giving you an atypically candid look inside the seedy world of showbusiness, and tends to favor acidic sarcasm over sincerity. That’s part of what makes it so much fun to watch (particularly when Bogart and Gardner – who reportedly hated each other, but still generate superb chemistry – are sharing the screen), but it also creates a disconnect between the film’s overall tone and the weightiness of its climactic stretch. The final act of the film aims for something resembling operatic tragedy, and it just doesn’t quite land the way it ought to. Bogart hits some impressively mournful notes, but these scenes feel as if they’ve been imported from a different sort of movie. Additionally, while the dialogue often sings, Mankiewicz’s flat, uninspired staging gives stretches of the movie a visual blandness that weighs the whole thing down.
The Barefoot Contessa (Blu-ray) offers a somewhat frustrating 1080p/1.78:1 transfer. While individual moments look terrific, there are plenty of scenes that seem faded, blurry and dingy. It’s one of the more inconsistent transfers I’ve seen lately – colors will seem healthy and vibrant in one scene, and underwhelming in the next. It’s never terrible, but the best-looking bits make the bad ones even more distracting. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is much less problematic, offering a satisfying (if front-heavy) mix that blends the dialogue and lush score quite nicely. Supplements include an audio commentary with Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle, an isolated score track, a stills gallery and a trailer.
The Barefoot Contessa is frequently fun, almost always compelling and intermittently sublime, but never quite fulfills its potential. Worth checking out, particularly if you’re a fan of Bogart or snappy writing.