ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The Barefoot Contessa (1954) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
Recollections of a movie goddess
This account of a fictional Spanish dancer turned Hollywood star named Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) takes place in flashback from the day of her funeral, where various attendees recollect their experiences in her company. The first and main narrator is an alcoholic film director named Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), who casts his mind back to his first encounter - watching her dancing in a Madrid bar while he sits with movie mogul Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) and a “sweaty-faced” publicist named Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien). Kirk is so impressed with her that he asks a member of the waitstaff to bring her to them so that he can persuade her to star in his productions. However, the waiter declines, stating outright that Maria refuses to sit with anyone at the bar.
Since Kirk is not one who takes rejection easily, he presses both Oscar and Harry to go to her dressing room and persuade her themselves. However, just as Harry manages to make some headway by using his charming Bogartian cynicism, she dashes out the back exit. With that, Kirk tells Harry that he won’t be able to fly back to Hollywood without her accompanying him. Our protagonist manages to track this reluctant protégé back to her family home and he eventually persuades her to come with him.
As her career blossoms, she attracts a number of powerful male suitors. However, the resultant cycle of jealousy between the men coupled with her own ambivalent feelings towards the supposed high life (in her own words, she prefers to walk barefoot as she likes the feel of the dirt beneath her feet) ultimately leads to tragedy.
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Some great talent but not enough drama
The Barefoot Contessa is a film which doesn’t really add up to the sum of its impressive parts. It was written and directed by multiple Oscar winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It was shot by Jack Cardiff, a man widely regarded as one of the finest cinematographers to have ever lived. It features one of American cinema’s greatest icons, Humphrey Bogart, just three years before his untimely death from esophageal cancer. It also stars Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien, two more highly-regarded talents from Hollywood’s golden era.
It’s not that they don’t do some great work here. There’s a truly poetic sense of cynicism to the dialogue. Bogart plays his usual haggard, world-weary self. Gardner brings a larger-than-life charm to her role which makes you fully believe why any man would want her for their own - in one way or another. O’Brien won an Oscar for his role as a fast-talking and clearly long-suffering subject to petulant and arrogant movie producer Kirk. Cardiff’s images make truly vivid use of colour and shading, most memorably during the darkly atmospheric climax.
Despite all of this, however, the end results are less entertaining than they should have been. The main problem is that most of the real drama is referred to rather than actually shown. For example, there’s one sequence (presented via a narrated montage) where Maria briefly leaves her new home to fly back to Spain to testify in court on behalf of her father, who has murdered her mother. Not only does the incident itself remain unseen to the viewer (it is merely mentioned in dialogue) but neither the parents nor their relationship with their daughter are established beyond one brief early scene involving them shouting at each other in (non-subtitled) Spanish. While there are also hints of an affair that she becomes embroiled in behind the back of one of one of her lovers, they remain as just that - hints. While Maria’s talents as both a dancer and a movie star are constantly talked about, one of her two dancing sequences takes place largely off-screen (really!) and we never see her on a film set even once throughout the whole runtime.
While the lion’s share of the narration takes place from Bogart’s character’s point of view, a sizeable chunk later on is told from the POV of one of Maria’s great love, Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (played by Italian actor Rossano Brazzi). However, this shift in narration falls flat because Brazzi is rather dull and his delivery of English-language dialogue is flat, especially in comparison to Bogart.
The Barefoot Contessa is a well-intentioned look at how fame and fortune can be as much of a curse as a blessing. However, what might have worked better in the 1950s seems overly talky and distant today. It’s possible that the infamous Hays Code had a hand in its muted nature. Nowadays, the Amy Winehouse documentary Amy (2015) tackles similar subject matter in a far more frank and involving fashion.
Runtime: 128 mins
Dir: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Script: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Edmond O'Brien, Marius Goring, Valentina Cortese, Rossano Brazzi, Elizabeth Sellars, Warren Stevens
I received the DVD version for review purposes. The colour grading veers a little too heavily towards the pink, marring an otherwise beautiful restoration of Jack Cardiff’s visuals in all of their dreamlike Technicolor majesty.
Film scholars David Del Valle and Julie Kirgo discuss a production which writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz termed “a bitter Cinderella story”. Their commentary adds a lot of value to a film which may otherwise go over the heads of many modern viewers.
We learn that the central character of Maria Vargas, while bearing some uncanny similarities to Ava Gardner who played her, was actually based on Rita Hayworth. There are also parallels with Gina Lollobrigida, who was groomed for Hollywood stardom by Howard Hughes (who is represented here via the overbearing movie mogul character of Kirk Edwards). Interestingly, the Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini was originally supposed to have been revealed to be a homosexual. However, this subject matter was so taboo in 1950s America that Mankiewicz was forced to alter it. Del Valle admits that it would have made for a stronger film if this detail was left intact.
The extras also include a trailer and an enclosed booklet.
This one’s more for fans of the classic talent involved here than it is for the casual viewer. Despite the sheer beauty of both actress Ava Gardner and the cinematography of Jack Cardiff, the storytelling lacks the necessary emotional impact.