Plot: What’s it about?
Hollywood is a great topic for dramatic films. Whether it is Sunset Boulevard, The Player, L.A. Confidential or numerous other films, Hollywood is perfect to write about. There are so many people’s dreams that seem to die in that city that screenwriters have tried their best to send fair warnings for decades. I was pleased to see another film that entered that pantheon the other day. The film was the 1954 Humphrey Bogart helmed The Barefoot Contessa.
From the beginning of the film, we know that the central female character, Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner,) has died. Humphrey Bogart’s character, director Harry Dawes, stands in the rain at the cemetery where she has come to rest. He begins to tell the melancholy tale of how she was found in a bar in Spain and recruited for a film by the extremely ruthless and wealthy Kirk Edwards (based somewhat upon Howard Hughes.) Harry convinces Maria to come to Los Angeles and become a star and she is successful. Then the movie shifts from Harry’s perspective to another member of the funeral party, Oscar Muldoon, a PR hype man who remembers when Maria was in a public relations nightmare with her family. He then recounts the events that led up to her death, involving a couple romances.
As much of the plot that I seem to have given away in the paragraph above, I have intentionally tried to not give away any crucial plot points aside from what was necessary to describe the film. The Barefoot Contessa is a tried and true dramatic film. The melancholic nature of the film manages to keep the film from feeling too manipulative. The dialogue by Joseph Mankiewicz is pretty snappy whenever delivered by Bogart and only ever dips into melodrama during some of Ava Gardner’s soliloquys. I enjoyed the cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff, but people should know going in that the coloring of the film will look somewhat like David Lean’s Summertime. This is to say that despite restorative efforts, the chemical process used to produce color for films at that time will look somewhat unnatural. It doesn’t stop the film from looking very inviting to the eye.
Humphrey Bogart is fantastic as you would probably expect. The pacing of the film is consistent and continues right along from the opening frames towards the explanation of her demise. Ava Gardner is enjoyable as Maria. The supporting cast all turn in excellent performances. One aspect that I really enjoyed was the shifting perspectives from character to character. This technique really works for the film and is a narrative device that I wish was employed more often. Despite the bleakness of the subject matter, I really enjoyed the film. Fans of dramatic films should check this one out.
Video: How’s it look?
Twilight Time is working with a new transfer of the film using an MPEG 4 AVC codec of a new 2K restoration. I mentioned this in my earlier review, but people expecting the results of the Blu-Ray format to miraculously change this film’s color scheme may be disappointed. The techniques that they were using at that time for color videography were still in their infancy. That does not mean that the film is unappealing to look at. It’s color scheme is actually pretty visually, it just is not incredibly lifelike. The techniques of the time it was filmed lead to a little bit of softness. If you have seen David Lean’s Summertime, this film has a very similar look and feel. I honestly think that this was the best that they could do to restore the film, but this pales in c parison to films that came out just a few years later like the beautiful The Man From Laramie.
Audio: How’s it sound?
Twilight Time have gone above and beyond to provide fans of the film with numerous options. They have provide the film in 5.1, 3.0, and 2.0. I opted for the DTS-HD 5.1 track and was co skate toy pleased with the sound of the film. The benefit of the 5.1 track is that the dialogue still remains a front heavy affair, but the beautifully composed score by Mario Nascimbene really opens up in the surrounding speakers. I was consistently pleased with the audio department and can not imagine any reason to stray from that mix.
Supplements: What are the extras?
- Theatrical Trailer
- Isolated Score Track
- Audio Commentary with Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle – this is another great commentary track with Julie Kirgo discussing the film with film historian David Del Valle. Both are very knowledgeable and have lots of insight into the creation of the film and the numerous personalities on screen.
- Stills Gallery from the David Del Valle Archive
The Bottom Line
The Barefoot Contessa is great, if somewhat bleak, drama. Humphrey Bogart is incredible, and it is fun to watch Ava Gardner on the screen. The writing and direction by Joseph Mankiewicz are solid and the cinematography by Jack Cardiff is excellent. The only bad thing is that this movie is not going to absolutely pop on Blu-Ray. I have no doubt that this is the best the film has ever looked, but anybody used to watching color films from any later than 1955 will be a little taken aback. The supplemental commentary by Julie Kirgo and David Del Valle is very enjoyable.