With extraordinary beauty, talent and grace, Spanish dancer Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) was born to be a star. Aided by American movie director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), she attains great success and fortune in Hollywood's land of dreams. But, though she gives her all for stardom, there is one thing Maria will never compromise her soul. No matter what the cost, The Barefoot Contessa will dance to no one's music but her own.
Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz famously and deliciously stuck it to Broadway's urbane egotists in his Oscar-winning 'All About Eve.' And four years later he hoped to do the same thing - with a sharper sword - to the heartless, depraved movie industry in 'The Barefoot Contessa.' But while rapier wit, elegant put-downs, and an underlying reverence for its skewered subject distinguishes 'Eve,' 'The Barefoot Contessa' wallows in the muck of interminable philosophizing and soul-searching. The colorful characters may eloquently express their feelings and ideas, but they never know when to shut up. The dialogue in 'Eve' is like a symphony - melodic, rhythmic, and perfectly pitched - but it's subdued and pretentious in 'The Barefoot Contessa.' Oh, Mankiewicz gets in plenty of digs (most of them delivered with deadpan dryness by his alter ego, Humphrey Bogart), but the flourish and bravado that make 'Eve' so exhilarating are sadly absent. The reason? The industry that so enthusiastically built Mankiewicz up just a few years before had brutally beaten him down, and the bitterness he felt pervades every frame of this joyless film.
Like its ravishing leading lady, Ava Gardner, 'The Barefoot Contessa' is beautiful and exotic, but it's also aloof and turgid, often plodding along without really going anywhere. Any movie that begins at a somber, rainy funeral and continually returns to it throughout its narrative will have trouble sustaining any buoyancy, and that's the challenge 'The Barefoot Contessa' faces. Frank Sinatra's song 'My Way' aptly describes the attitude of the tale's headstrong, uncompromising heroine who's determined to live her life on her own terms, and it similarly fits Mankiewicz's temperament during production. 'The Barefoot Contessa' was the writer-director's first independent film, and after years of kowtowing to studio edicts, Mankiewicz at last had total control. And like a kid in a candy shop with no supervision, he overindulges himself, and the result is a self-conscious, often pompous picture.
'The Barefoot Contessa' was filmed in Rome, and a European flavor and disdain for the stuffy international jet set fuel the movie. Much like 'All About Eve' and another incisive portrait of Hollywood, 'The Bad and the Beautiful,' the script employs multiple narrators who wistfully recall the striking young star Maria D'Amata (Gardner) while attending her funeral in the sculpture garden of the villa where she and her husband, Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), resided. But we soon learn Maria was not always an aristocrat. Born Maria Vargas, she weathered a humble and turbulent upbringing during the Spanish Civil War before becoming a celebrated flamenco dancer. While performing at a Madrid nightclub, she's "discovered" by a trio of Hollywood hotshots - writer-director (and recovering alcoholic) Harry Dawes (Bogart), megalomaniac producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), and sycophantic press agent Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien). More than simply "a new face," Maria is a free spirit who's leery of the constraints stardom would place upon her, yet anxious to escape her impoverished past. She reluctantly agrees to a screen test and soon, in true Cinderella fashion, becomes the toast of Hollywood.
Sadly, life is far from rosy for Maria, who flits from one unfulfilling relationship to another. Powerful, soft men want to possess her like a beautiful ornament to enhance their inflated yet insecure egos, but she prefers casual liaisons with common, macho guys who knock her off her pedestal and let her bare feet once again caress the earth. At last, however, Maria meets her Prince Charming. Count Vincenzo is a noble, charming man who upholds her honor and loves her dearly. But warning signs abound, a secret clouds the air, and soon it becomes apparent this particular Cinderella won't get the fairy tale ending she so desperately craves.
Taking a leaf from 'Sunset Boulevard' and riding a pervasive wave of social cynicism, movies began depicting the dark side of stardom in the 1950s, as well as the cold, immoral underbelly of the outwardly glamorous film industry. Mankiewicz would seem the ideal candidate to take on Tinseltown (he loved to brandish his talons), but does so here in too remote a manner. We expect him to go for Hollywood's jugular, but save for a few pointed zingers, he seems reticent to bite the hand that feeds him. Though he would later freely admit he based Kirk Edwards on Howard Hughes (a billionaire industrialist who gets into movies to stoke his ego and "get girls") and Maria Vargas on Rita Hayworth (a Spanish dancer who became the Love Goddess and weathered an unhappy marriage to a prince), Mankiewicz, for legal reasons, couldn't exploit the comparisons. So instead, he tiptoes around them and becomes too comfortable with the sound of his own pontificating voice. Consequently, a jaded air of ennui hangs over the movie. We keep waiting for something to happen (a party scene promises the same fireworks as Margo Channing's infamous bumpy night soirée, but fizzles), but after all the introspective speeches, tepid confrontations, and emotional hand-wringing, nothing really does.
As I've mentioned in other reviews, Mankiewicz is a far better writer than director. The talky nature of his screenplays demand more fluid camera movement and flamboyant technique, but he's either unwilling or unable to rise to the task. Though 'The Barefoot Contessa' boasts plenty of jaw-droppingly gorgeous close-ups of Gardner (cinematographer Jack Cardiff tries his best to hide Mankiewicz's deficiencies), even those welcome jolts aren't enough to jumpstart the film's engine. Mankiewicz obviously favors words over pictures; to him, the play really is the thing. In 'All About Eve,' that bias works. Here, it doesn't.
But if technical prowess is Mankiewicz's directorial Achilles heel, then working with actors is his strong suit. Mankiewicz knew how to coax nuanced portrayals out of even the most wooden performers, and under his tutelage many actors received Academy Award nominations. Edmond O'Brien took home the prize for Best Supporting Actor for his blunt and blustery turn as Maria's sweaty, obsequious press agent. (O'Brien's award is especially notable as it's the only time an actor won an Oscar for playing a character named Oscar.) His manic phone call scene is one of the film's high points, and he creates good chemistry with Bogart, whose real-life cynicism, sardonic humor, and gruffness Mankiewicz brilliantly exploits. Though he's more of an observer than a participant in the action, Harry Dawes sets and maintains the movie's tone, and Bogart, in one of his best later portrayals brings both a world-weary languor and quiet sincerity to the role.
Audiences of the day rued the lack of on-screen romance between Gardner and Bogart (Harry is Maria's mentor and confidante, and their relationship is strictly platonic), but no love was lost between the two stars off screen. Bogart had little patience for Gardner's inexperience and insecurity, and had trouble relating to her. Even Mankiewicz admits he let Gardner down by not directing her more vigorously. Yet despite being largely ignored, Gardner is still a mesmerizing presence, exuding mystery, inner turmoil, staggering glamour, and an irrepressible feline sexuality. Her performance may lack appropriate fire and occasionally seem flat, but she either holds her own or dominates every scene in which she appears. Like Maria, Gardner became a bona fide sensation after the release of this film, and many of the images of her in 'The Barefoot Contessa' remain iconic.
Any 'All About Eve' fan will tell you 'The Barefoot Contessa' bears a striking resemblance in spirit and structure to Mankiewicz's masterpiece. (In a blatant nod, Mankiewicz puts the name Lloyd Richards - a character from 'Eve' - on a marquee with Maria D'Amata.) But its dreary nature, leisurely pacing, and frustrating sterility prevent 'The Barefoot Contessa' from scaling the same lofty heights. At times, it's a beautiful, involving film. At times, it launches some blistering salvos at the movie industry. And at times, Ava Gardner takes our collective breath away. Sadly, all these positive components never quite coalesce, and 'The Barefoot Contessa' ends up a well-meaning yet enigmatic misfire. Fastening the seat belts for a bumpy night isn't necessary, but a little caffeine might help.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Barefoot Contessa' arrives on Blu-ray in a limited to 3,000 edition packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet featuring an essay by film historian Julie Kirgo, a few sepia-tinted scene stills (why not use full-color photos?), and a reproduction of the movie's poster art is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. (A DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0 Perspecta track and a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track are also included.) Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Independent vintage films never quite receive the TLC they deserve with regard to preservation, so it's not surprising some issues exist with 'The Barefoot Contessa' transfer. Like its seductive female star, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering from Twilight Time often dazzles the senses, but some notable hiccups detract somewhat from the viewing experience. Though some scenes sport a crystal clarity and burst with lush, vibrant color and perfectly pitched contrast, others look faded and worn. Grain levels fluctuate, ranging from heavy to almost imperceptible. Yes, the image exudes a palpable film-like feel, but too much texture often weighs it down, and mild but noticeable speckling also occasionally afflicts the picture. On the plus side, the luscious Technicolor cinematography of Jack Cardiff, who so impeccably photographed such memorable Powell & Pressburger classics as 'Black Narcissus' and 'The Red Shoes,' is consistently breathtaking, especially when Gardner is in the frame. Eye-popping hues, intense blacks, and crisp whites are all pleasing, but flesh tones often err toward the ruddy side, which doesn't flatter Bogart at all. Excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, background details are easy to discern, and sharp close-ups showcase Gardner's devastating glamour, the omnipresent sweat on O'Brien's cheeks, and all the creases in Bogart's weathered face. It's just too bad source material problems plague this fine-looking film, which hopefully will one day receive the full-scale restoration it so richly deserves.
Back in the 1950s, as motion picture sound technology began to evolve, a stereo simulation process called Perspecta gained some favor for a few years. Perspecta took monaural audio elements, such as isolated bits of dialogue and effects, and fed them into a right or left channel to achieve a semblance of stereo. Though the default audio track on 'The Barefoot Contessa' is a remastered DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, the Perspecta influence can be heard throughout and succeeds in lending the film a more contemporary feel. Noticeable stereo separation across the front speakers, limited mostly to dialogue, adds dimension and depth to the audio, and subtle atmospherics bleed gently into the rears. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of the music score without any hint of distortion, and all the conversations are clear and easy to comprehend. No age-related hiss, pops, or crackles intrude either.
In addition to the 5.1 mix, the original Perspecta track, presented here in DTS-HD Master Audio 3.0, is also included on the disc, as well as a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track.
Just a couple of extras are included on the disc.
Though not as deliciously biting or captivating as his masterful 'All About Eve,' Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 'The Barefoot Contessa' remains a fascinating yet flawed film that exposes the tawdry underbelly of the movie industry and vacuous frivolity of its depraved international set. The talky script and static direction work against the cynical story of a ravishing beauty's rise to stardom and the personal travails that lead to her tragic demise, but the magnetism of a ravishing Ava Gardner at the height of her allure and solid performances from Humphrey Bogart and Oscar-winner Edmond O'Brien add some sparkle to a subdued film. The video transfer isn't as pristine as one might hope (though Ava's close-ups are stunning), but strong audio and a couple of interesting supplements help distinguish Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation. As a whole, 'The Barefoot Contessa' may not meet expectations, but several striking individual elements make this noble, artistic misfire worth a look.