The Barefoot Contessa (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1954)
The Barefoot Contessa has never received an excess of unqualified praise and tends to be passed over for Mankiewicz’s 1950 film All About Eve (although Truffaut and the Cahiers crowd did consider Contessa a major film). Is there another Hollywood film of this era whose tone is so deeply infused with such weary cynicism? We have a Cinderella story that turns nasty bound up with the bleakest satire of Hollywood and the ‘international set’. We have Bogart, very near the end, at his most sardonic.
We begin in the rain at the funeral of the Contessa Maria Torlato-Favrini aka Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) in the Italian seaside town of Rapallo. Hollywood writer-director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) recalls her short career. We flashback three years to a nightclub in Madrid. The humourless movie mogul Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens) is on a talent search. Harry, just on the wagon and otherwise unemployable, is under contract and forced to travel around with Kirk’s entourage. They are a depressing lot. Harry tells us that Kirk’s sweaty-faced public relations man Oscar Muldoon (the wonderful Edmund O’Brien) does “many things, unrelated and not public at all.” Kirk’s mistress, a cynical blonde named Myrna (occupation: “she travelled”), wonders how to say “champagne” in Spanish. The quartet are there to investigate Maria, who is working as a dancer. But Maria is surprisingly inaccessible and shows little interest in a Hollywood career or Kirk’s millions. It is Harry’s trustworthiness that succeeds where Oscar’s obsequiousness fails. Maria agrees to make a screen test in Rome.
Everybody agrees she is a star-in-waiting. Out of decency (and as a kind of personal revenge) Harry engineers the situation so that Kirk is unable to take control of Maria. Her subsequent career is a Cinderella story, but she never succumbs to a Prince Charming, preferring affairs with the sort of men Harry describes as “mean and dirty”. During air raids in her childhood, you see, she would burrow her barefooted self in the dirt, and this earthiness has never left her. For some reason Harry is angry that she is “half in the dirt, half out” and cannot decide which world she wants to live in. It is never made very clear why Harry has such disgust for Maria’s “mean and dirty” men. It is not a matter of jealousy, and these men (flamenco guitarists, etc) are never once shown doing anything bad to her.
During a terrific though over-the-top Hollywood party scene, Kirk has an argument with the hedonistic South American millionaire Alberto Bravado (Marius Goring). It’s “Goliath against Goliath.” Bravano points out their only difference: Kirk is a hypocrite. “I waste my money with pleasure,” Bravano says, “but yours is just a waste.” Maria becomes the trophy in this clash of egos. She’s having none of this but (in a bit of a plot stretch) ultimately agrees to join Bravano’s Mediterranean yachting party to humiliate Kirk.
At this point in the film, Harry disappears and the narration is picked up by Oscar, who has defected to Bravano’s entourage. There is a segment attacking the ‘international set’, those fallen European aristocrats and American tycoons who congregate on the French Riviera every season, “the way an annual fungus gathers on a beautiful tree.” They’re a bored and boring bunch. What must be Mankiewicz’s own sardonic voice is channelled through Oscar’s narration but almost entirely without the mediation of Oscar’s character. Still, it’s all very witty: a deposed king is labelled a “pretender”, but it is observed that “in a world of pretence, a pretender is the best thing you can be.”
Maria is courted by the handsome and brooding Italian Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi). The Cinderella story is back on track. But still Maria yearns to slip off the glass slipper and get her feet dirty. She wants to dance with the peasants outside the castle at her wedding. She is told that would spoil their fun. “Difficult to believe living in this day and age,” she says. World-weary Harry is amused. “What makes you think we’re living in this day and age?”
But after the wedding the Count reveals a war wound has left him impotent (a Sun Also Rises touch). This is told with Hays Code ambiguity. Maria, hoping to solve her husband’s anguish over the impending end of his noble line, decides to fall pregnant to a mean and dirty servant. The Count murders her.
If The Barefoot Contessa is not a truly great film, it seems to be for the first ten minutes (the Madrid nightclub scene). But there is a definite obscurity in the relationship between the Harry and Maria characters. Despite Bogart and Gardner’s chemistry the scenes feel a little emasculated, as if Mankiewicz was not prepared to fully dramatize the relationship. They speak a private language.
For his characters Mankiewicz seems to have drawn on the lives of, among others, Rita Hayworth, Aly Kahn, Howard Hughes, and Porfirio Rubirosa. That anyway is the milieu. Fellini would pick up another side of it for La Dolce Vita (1960). According to Kenneth L. Geist’s biography Pictures Will Talk: The Life and Films of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (New York, Scribners, 1978), Howard Hughes’ threat of a libel suit forced the director to authorise last-minute changes to his film. TWA flew editor William Hornbeck all over the world to re-record bits of the narration. You can hear the shift in the quality of Bogart’s voice in some sections. Kirk Edwards was changed from a “Texas tycoon” to a “Wall Street lion”. Sequences were cut, including one of Kirk being chased out of the Roman villa in which he has imprisoned Maria (apparently based on a real incident involving Hughes and Gina Lollobrigida). These cuts probably damaged the film. I’d love to track down a copy of the original script. I hope those scenes someday emerge from a vault and are included as DVD extras.
The structure of Contessa resembles Citizen Kane – a postmortem account of a life through multiple viewpoints. That is not surprising because Joseph L.’s older brother was Kane screenwriter Herman J.. As far as I know it is the only screenplay by Joe Mankiewicz from his own source material, and was to have originally been a novel (a tantalising thought).
[Original review: 22 November 2001; Revised: 21 November 2007]