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December 26, 2018

Female on the Beach

female on the beach french poster.jpg

Joseph Pevney - 1955
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

First, this film should not be confused with the similarly titled Woman on the Beach by Jean Renoir or Hong Sang-soo.

My own interest in seeing this film was sparked by this examination of Douglas Sirk's career at Universal-International, as it was known at the time time of production. Joseph Pevney is one of the contract directors discussed in some detail, and Female on the Beach has several elements that mark it as the identifiable product of its studio, most obviously in terms of genre, melodrama, with an older female star with one of the studio's top male stars. Additionally, the film was produced by Albert Zugsmith, his first at U-I, with a three year run that included Douglas Sirk's two best films, Written on the Wind and Tarnished Angels, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and ending with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil.

The lurid aspects are consistent with Zugsmith's other productions. The film might be described as a battle between Joan Crawford's legs, always her best feature, seen in short shorts, versus Jeff Chandler's bare chest. Being a studio film made when the production code was still very much in effect requires paying attention to some of the euphemisms as well as what is suggested, but never stated outright. There is also the matter of accepting that 49 year old Crawford's character was what she calls a former "specialty dancer". Jeff Chandler's prematurely gray hair does him no favors in the part of the gigolo next door. Most of the film takes place at Crawford's beach house, itself a example of mid-century architecture, with the appropriate accessories.

The film begins with a middle-aged woman shouting for someone named "Drummy", drunk, seen staggering to the beach side balcony, only to break the wooden railing and fall to her death. Was it suicide or murder? The film's theatrical origins a visible with the assortment of characters that walk in and out of the house, including a manipulative real estate agent played by Jan Sterling, a cop (Charles Drake) who appears out of the shadows, and the older couple next door, the Sorensons, (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer), who are revealed to be less lovable than at first appearance. Drummy is the nickname for Drummond Hall, the man with a history of seducing older, wealthy women. And Hall is not only in business for himself, but is expected to financially assist his, er, patrons.

Joseph Pevney was no visual stylist, but he does make the most of the frequently arch dialogue. One nicely done moment is a shot of Joan Crawford taking a phone call from Chandler. She does not want to seem desperate for him, and has held out on contacting him after their last fight. Pevney holds the camera at a medium shot from the waist up, as we see Crawford pick up the phone, and watch her face soften from anger to a look of schoolgirl glee as she makes a date with Chandler. While the trading of insults is entertaining, there is oddness in the formality where Crawford's character is mostly addressed as Mrs. Markham, while Sterling is Mrs. Rawlinson. Some contemporary viewers may have trouble with films of this era, where there was sometimes little distinction between romance and rape. Even when the dialogue skirts around the subject of sexual companionship for money, there's nothing subtle when the Sorensons introduce their new, um, protege, named Roddy. An early scene, with Chandler as a passenger in Sterling's speedboat, anticipates a similar scene with Rock Hudson as the passenger while Dorothy Malone recklessly drives her sports car in Written on the Wind, produced by Albert Zugsmith the following year

The blu-ray source appears to have been a pristine print. This is especially noticeable with the solid, pitch black sky in several nighttime scenes. There are two commentary tracks as well. Kat Ellinger discusses some of the production, how Crawford chose Chandler over Tony Curtis to be her leading man, and the marketing of the film. There are a couple small historical errors, but the one most glaring is in disregarding that Jeff Chandler's stardom was well established following his Oscar nominated performance in Broken Arrow in 1950. What has worked against Chandler in retrospect is that most of his films are either forgotten or simply forgettable. The second commentary, by historian David Del Valle with director David DeCoteau, is aimed more for the Joan Crawford fan, with some discussion of the production of Female on the Beach, but mostly anecdotes about Crawford, Chandler and other cast members. David and David also bluntly explain plot points that are slyly hinted at in the screenplay. There is no mistaking Female on the Beach for an overlooked classic. It's enough that it is a consistently entertaining, and well made, potboiler.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 26, 2018 08:36 AM