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USA 1954
Directed by
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
128 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

Barefoot Contessa,The

Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s drawn-out morality play about Hollywood, fame and “the international set", a travelling circus of worn-out aristocracy, nouveau-riche money and beautiful people is a turgid  melodrama that has none of the dramatic fire of his classic 1950 backstage theatre exposé, All About Eve. The Barefoot Contessa fails on every count from its kitsch design values to the performances to the clunky multi-part narrative and is badly dated by its drop-jawed view of the lives of the famous and ultra-rich

Ava Gardner plays Maris Vargas, a gypsy-style dancer plucked  from a night club in Madrid and turned overnight into Hollywood starlet who eventually marries an Italian count (Rosanno Brazzi).  All this is told in flashback from her funeral by Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), the director who initially persuaded her to go to Hollywood, helmed her three movies and acted as her godfatherly (but entirely passive) counselor. Edmond O'Brien as a press agent who initially worked for the callous Hollywood Wall Street producer (Warren Stevens) who funded Maria’s rise, then the South American squillionaire Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring), who kept her has a few things to say, before we hear from the fatalistic Count.

Mankiewicz’s script is a big problem. The voice-over approach characteristically introduces a distanciation to any film and The Barefoot Contessa is considerably narrated. Then, although Bogart gets to do most of the talking when O'Brien takes over the task, he largely disappears. The film gets very murky then with the supposedly untameable Maria somehow becoming Bravano’s plaything before the Count steps in to save the day. Well almost, as in a bathetic turn he reveals to Maria that he is only “half a man” as a result of war wounds. Maria then goes off the rails with tragic consequences.

The characters are all two-dimensional types, with Bogart looking like an even more aged Phillip Marlowe and Gardner, although looking beautiful doing nothing to give Maria flesh and blood, despite her big build-up as her own woman at the start of the film as in Mankiewicz’s script she is virtually nothing more than an object of desire . Edmund O'Brien won a Best Supporting Oscar for his role as a perspiring flunky but it’s a one-note performance.

All up, The Barefoot Contessa never comes close to attaining the passion to which it pretends and is one of many 1950s films that were big on exotic locations, marquee casting and lavish production values but weak on character and story.




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