Barefoot Contessa, The (Blu-ray Review)6 Feb, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Marius Goring, Rossano Brazzi.
To me, The Barefoot Contessa has always marked the spot where Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s career started to lose a beat, though he was starting from a plateau that’s still way up there: consecutive writing and directing Oscars for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve in 1949 and 1950, for membership in one of the most exclusive of clubs. Eve, of course, dealt with the stage, where Mankiewicz was a droll outside observer. But with cinema-centered Contessa, he brought years of professional and family experience (older brother Herman wrote Citizen Kane, a resumé jump-starter if there ever was one). So if this almost illegally gorgeous saga about a Spanish dancer-turned-movie-star can be on the windy and lumpy side, it is a real insider’s movie — and I wonder if some of those who bat it around on the IMDb.com chat service have any knowledge of or perspective on where the industry was in 1954. This one’s pretty much on the mark.
The backdrop here is a ’50s runaway film production, the collapse of the studio system and the struggle for once successful filmmakers to flourish away from studio assistance and protection (Michael Curtiz and later Vincente Minnelli, to name two, could not). Inevitable side issues were all those attendant hangers-on from the Riviera jet set (the less charitable would call them Euro-trash) that Contessa admirer Federico Fellini would later take on in La Dolce Vita. Ava Gardner, then on her way to off-screen splits-ville with husband Frank Sinatra, plays a Madrid-bred dancer plucked half-unwillingly from her home-base nightspot by a wealthy vulgarian who’s taking a dive into movie production (Warren Stevens channeling Howard Hughes and, in terms of crude bluster, another generation’s Donald Trump). This consummate creep buys a little respectability by employing a slightly down-on-his luck filmmaker (Humphrey Bogart, who had only four more movies and one live TV drama to go) as his Gardner persuader. The latter two become platonic buddies, which is somewhat ironic because the two leads didn’t get along too well on the set.
In some ways, matter of fact, it’s remarkable that the picture plays as well as it does, given the production turmoil. Bogart was reportedly churlish on the set (just as he’d been on previous film Sabrina) — perhaps because doctors had to be telling him by this time that chronic smoking was about to do him in. The actor and wife Lauren Bacall were also good friends with Sinatra and couldn’t have been too happy that Gardner’s attraction to bullfighters was beginning on this shooting location. Onetime actress Rose Stradner, married to Mankiewicz and suffering from depression, was in especially bad straits and would later commit suicide. Gardner didn’t feel that Mankiewicz was giving her any directorial help — an accusation he later conceded with strong regret. And censors of the day wouldn’t allow the movie to articulate a major homosexuality-motivated plot point (this was five years before Mankiewicz himself made the groundbreaking Suddenly, Last Summer), which now, more than ever, undermines the last quarter of the story.
Given all this, both Bogart and Gardner give affecting performances — while, as a sweaty press agent, Edmond O’Brien took advantage of what had to be a Cobb-Malden-Steiger On the Waterfront split in the supporting actor voting to take home an Oscar. (If you’ve ever wondered how Jack Carson missed a nomination for A Star Is Born, it’s likely that the academy thought one badgered press agent in the same voting year was enough). As the count who makes Gardner a countess and then ruins her life, Rosanno Brazzi is once again something of a stiff, though let it be said that a) his role is impossible; and b) Twilight Time commentator Julie Kirgo, who’s kinetically teamed here with the always ticklishly irreverent David Del Valle, does make a case for the actor in Three Coins in the Fountain and Summertime that gave me pause.
All-time King of Technicolor Jack Cardiff shot Contessa, just as he had Albert Lewin’s 1951’s delectable oddball Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, the other film that most captures underrated Gardner in ethereal mode (and this from an actress whose most surprising stock in trade was being down-to-earth in that Mogambo kind of way). In terms of visual mastering, I’m almost at a loss when it comes to judging this Blu-ray. Maybe 70% of it will do a knock-off job on your socks, particularly when it comes to the interiors that take our breaths during immaculately designed party scenes — as well as certain glamour shots of Gardner (sub-categories “negligee” and “swimsuit”). But there are major registration problems with other sequences that will hit you in the face and almost make you think you’re looking at one of those old 3D comic books without the cardboard glasses. These, unsurprisingly, are more apparent on a large screen (I watched the movie on a 75-inch Samsung) than smaller one (I listened to the commentary on a 32-incher). As a result, this not infrequent bounty for the eyes has to be classified as a tradeoff despite additionally boasting a first-rate commentary — though, truth to tell, I did come out of my viewing liking Contessa the most I ever have amid three or four viewings since the late 1960s, when I first saw it. But you almost never see this kind of glitch on a Twilight Time release.
An added virtue is a stills gallery from Del Valle’s personal archive — where, on-set tension or not, Bogart and Gardner can be seen smiling (though perhaps significantly, not at each other). We also see that the trademark Mankiewicz pipe wasn’t an affectation he utilized for just for image-enhancing still photos or artists’ caricatures. He must be puffing on one in more than half of these photos — something he should have done to abet heavier rumination before later electing to take on Julius, Mark, Eddie, Dick and Liz in Cleopatra, from which his career never fully recovered.