The Barefoot Contessa Review

What she's got you couldn't spell, and what you've got you used to have !

That's a great line and it neatly sums up one of the key pleasures of Joseph L.Mankiewicz's The Barefoot Contessa, namely a bitchy wit that survives all the mediocre attempts at 'art' that attempt to sink it. It's a film which thinks its far more profound than it actually is and which takes itself so seriously that it's impossible to watch it with a straight face. However, what it becomes is one of the great camp classics of Hollywood, up there with Mommie Dearest and Duel In The Sun in the stratosphere, the chamber of the movie gods (or perhaps movie queens) where bad art becomes terrific trash.

Like Vincente Minnelli's The Bad And The Beautiful - a far superior study in the wicked ways of Hollywood - The Barefoot Contessa is told in jaundiced flashback by one of the guys who got fucked over on the way to the top. In this case, it's writer/director Harry Dawes (Bogart), recovering alcoholic and terminal cynic, who gives us insight into the life of three-film wonder Maria D'Amati, otherwise known as the Contessa Favrini and plain old Maria Vargas. Maria was a nightclub dancer in Spain who was picked for stardom by would-be movie mogul and financial wizard Howard Hugh... sorry, Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) and subsequently had a turbulent three year career at the top before dying in mysterious circumstances. On the way, she was associated not only with the multi-millionaire businessman but also with South American playboy Alberto Bravano (Goring) and Italian Count Torlato-Fevrini (Brazzo), but she could never become comfortable with her new life, part of her always remaining barefoot in Spain with the erotic heat of the dance. Shortly after Harry first meets her, she warns him that she will never change; as the title suggests, the metaphor for this is shoes, and she says, "I hate shoes... I feel afraid in shoes and I feel safe with my feet in the dirt." Maria goes from success to success but she can never find fulfilling love with a man, so she hangs on the arms of successful men hoping to find satisfaction but only gaining sexual pleasure from their servants - a conflict which will bring her to her ultimate fate.

At the beginning, Harry says "Life now and then behaves like it's seen too many bad movies", but what he actually means is that bad movies behave as if what they portray is real life when really they just peddle hysterical melodrama. I can think of many worse films than The Barefoot Contessa but not many which present trashy material with such po-faced seriousness. It's not telling us anything we haven't heard a million times before - fame screws you up - but it comes on as if it's revealing hallowed secrets. Harry is a bitter cynic but the film treats him as the only truthful man in the whole of Hollywood (and Europe come to think of it). He speaks entirely in epigrams as if he has a screenwriter on his shoulder, and he never says two words when fifty will do. For example, he can't just insult Edwards - a man in dire need of a smack in the mouth - without rambling on about how fake he is - "You won't admit something is possible between men and women besides the few, simple physiological relationships you know about". Who talks like this except characters in films written by Joseph L.Mankiewicz ? It's so obviously his style that Harry is less a character than the mouthpiece of a hacked-off director. This wasn't so bad when it was George Sanders performing the same function in All About Eve because Addison DeWitt was supposed to be a society wit, but Harry Dawes is just a good writer-director, not the second coming of Oscar Wilde. Nor is the wit as biting as it should be since its filtered through morbid self-pity and sentimentality. Harry has no role other than to be disillusioned of whatever tentative illusions he might have in the first place. He creates Maria - he is her fairy godfather, if we follow the constant allusions to Cinderella - and gives her the fairytale life she dreams of and only then does he realise that he loves her. With typical masochism, he even gives her away at her wedding to the Count. By this point, any viewer with any sense of the ridiculous will realise this is more akin to "Dynasty" than it is to The Red Shoes - the presence of Marius Goring and the DP Jack Cardiff are reminders of that far more subtle exercise in star making and destroying as well as the plot - and that if it works, it is only on the level of trashy soap opera.

The saving grace, however, is that it takes itself seriously that it is much more amusing than it would be if Mankiewicz were aware of how silly it all is. This is expensive, lavishly furbished trash, made with all the style of old Hollywood and given the final exquisite touch of Jack Cardiff's cinematographer. Cardiff, one of the greatest cinematographers of all time, revels in the locations, the glamour and, most of all, the opportunity to light Ava Gardner again after Albert Lewin's equally daft Pandora and The Flying Dutchman. She looks as utterly ravishing here as she ever did - and this helps blind you, at least for a while, to the fact that the character is a mass of free-spirity cliches that never for one moment cohere into anything halfway credible. Her performance is good enough but it's the way she looks that matters most in this film. The narrative line which she is required to follow is as fascinating for what it doesn't say as for what it does - let's just say that the one man she loves is deficient in one key department - and it ends in a manner which is probably meant to be operatic but smacks more of Lloyd Webber than Puccini.

In the circumstances, Humphrey Bogart salvages what dignity he can in a role which is as stale as last week's bread. His career went very strange indeed after his triumph as Fred C.Dobbs in the essential The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre as he tried to stretch his range, with frequently embarrassing results. He looks rather dislocated throughout and although he delivers the witticisms well, he doesn't get enough of a handle on the character to make himself comfortable in the role. Again, like Maria, Harry is more a collection of cliches and attitudes than a character. Mankiewicz's tendency to extreme verbosity wasn't such a problem in All About Eve because he had Bette Davis at her most incandescent and totally at home in the central role. Here, the stars are at the mercy of the dialogue, so it's no surprise that it's the supporting actor Edmund O'Brien who steals every scene he's in. O'Brien was never a great star but, like Martin Balsam, he provided forty years of solid character playing with the occasional leading role - notably in the marvellous DOA - to show his versatility. He's at his very best here, playing the quintessential bastard of a press agent, Oscar Muldoon, whose loyalties change with the wind and whose chronic sweat problem reflects his essential sliminess. O'Brien walked off with a well deserved Oscar for this part and it's his constant patting of his forehead with a handkerchief that you will probably remember most vividly. Other actors do some nice work as well, notably the Powell and Pressberger favourite Marius Goring, and even the terminally bland Rossano Brazzi is more bearable than usual - although it would take an actor infinitely more talented than him to carry off that impossible final scene. A few interesting faces in the background too - a particular surprise to see a very young Bill Fraser, that British TV favourite of the sixties and seventies who achieved his greatest fame amongst cult TV fans for being the man to kick K9 in Doctor Who.

Although I have distinct reservations about recommending a film as daft as The Barefoot Contessa to anyone, if you really love movies then you will have a grand time watching it. For one thing, movies about making movies are always good fun because you can try and spot the inside references and relish the bitchiness of a director looking at his peers and finding them wanting. Again, this isn't as much sheer fun in that department as The Bad and The Beautiful because Minnelli had Kirk Douglas playing such a total shit that he might as well have worn a black mask and pretended to be Jack Palance. But Mankiewicz's verbose wit is worth listening to - even though it has about as much connection to real life as "Teletubbies" - and his caricatures are always amusing to watch. In a word, it's camp - real life turned up to 11 with all the bad things exaggerated to the point of hysteria - and if you like camp then you'll like The Barefoot Contessa. As a final sample of the demented pleasures of the film, try this unprovoked tirade from Bravano's sister: "Nobility - the kind that continues just because it continues to exist - is becoming extinct. The world has become a changed place and, like the dinosaurs, we can no longer function in it. Perhaps that's why I'm incapable of having a child. It also looks absolutely ravishing, thanks to Mr Cardiff - a man who should get a knighthood for his services to cinema. But if you're unwise enough to take it as high art - as some critics have done - then you are likely to be disappointed.

The Disc

MGM have released The Barefoot Contessa on a bare-bones disc with only the trailer for company. The transfer isn't too bad and it's worth a look if you can get it for a reasonable price.

Any consideration of the picture quality needs to bear in mind that the film was deliberately shot in particularly soft-focus, with the lighting on Ava Gardner being particularly luxuriant. The image on DVD, therefore, looks rather softer than would be the case with many more recent films and it is supposed to. Given this, the picture quality is actually pretty good. It's not up there with some of Warner Brother's brilliant transfers of fifties movies - see North By Northwest and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof for example - but it is pleasing. There is a lack of fine detail in places, even given the lighting style, and the colours are not as rich as they should be, but artifacting is not the problem it is on some other recent MGM releases and there isn't too much grain on show. The main problem is the abundance of print damage, resulting in white speckling throughout and suggesting that restoration is required. The film is presented in the correct fullscreen ratio.

The soundtrack is the original Mono mix. As is usually the case, this is fine without being particularly notable. The dialogue - the most important element in this kind of film - is clear and crisp. The music is occasionally intrusive and a little distorted at the top end.

The only extra is the original theatrical trailer. This is a delightful period piece, promising to show us THE PRIVATE LIFE OF THE WORLD'S MOST BEAUTIFUL ANIMAL ! and assuring us that "It will shock you, provoke you and excite you as no motion picture ever has". Personally, I'm still waiting.

There are sixteen chapters and static menus.

This is not the great movie that it sets out to be but it is enjoyable as high grade camp and Ava Gardner at her most beautiful is always worth a look. The disc is nothing special but the technical quality is above average.

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Last updated: 09/06/2018 05:45:50

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