A bittersweet tale of a free spirited life brought prematurely to an end leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa.
The Production: 3.5/5
A bittersweet tale of a free spirited life brought prematurely to an end leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa. With a first-rate cast of international stars and a four-time Oscar-winning writer-director dealing with the topics of Hollywood and the worldwide jet set with which he would have been well versed, The Barefoot Contessa is more condemnatory than celebratory, but this unique character study, restricted at the time by the strict Production Code guidelines, still manages to intrigue and even titillate with its colorful and sophisticated views on the personal and professional lives of the rich and famous.
Free spirited Spanish cantina dancer Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) is discovered by millionaire movie producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), public relations manager Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien), and writer-director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) and seems perfect for their next movie project, but while Maria goes along with their plans after building a trusting platonic relationship with Dawes, she doesn’t really care anything about fame or money. She’s looking for that true love that seems always just beyond her reach. Edwards’ dictatorial demeanor prevents any relationship developing with him, and his demands drive her into the clutches of an even richer South American jet setter Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) who enjoys having such a voluptuous creature as part of his entourage. But real true love doesn’t hit until she meets Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi), a courtly Italian who knows nothing of her Hollywood fame and sees in her a companion he could be proud of. But the count has a secret he’s guarding, and even with prodding from his sister Elenaora (Valentina Cortese), he doesn’t reveal it until after the wedding has taken place.
The Oscar-nominated story and screenplay for The Barefoot Contessa isn’t the first time writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz used the flashback technique with multiple narrators as his modus operandi: both of his Oscar-winning scripts for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve used variations on this approach to storytelling, and in the case of this movie, knowing from the first frames that the title character is dead when the picture opens casts something of a pall over the rest of the picture. From there, we waffle back and forth between three narrators: Bogart’s Harry Dawes, O’Brien’s Oscar Muldoon, and Brazzi’s Count Vincenzo while the wordy script also unfolds with much more attention to words and less to filming this Hollywood and European story in ways that would take some of the attention away from all of that talk (witty, biting, and revealing as it sometimes is). While Mankiewicz establishes early that Maria Vargas is a talented and sensual dancer, he withholds her actual dancing for quite a long period of time, focusing instead on the effect her moves have on her audiences. When we finally get to see Ava Gardner dancing in a gypsy camp more than halfway through the movie, it’s pleasing but not quite the rapturous terpsichore we were expecting. (Then again, there is much about the movie that promises more than it delivers.)
While the caged animal character of Maria Vargas is perfect for the panther-like seductiveness of Ava Gardner, she hasn’t been directed to be as carnal or exotic a creature as might have been appropriate for the role (nor does she make more than a token attempt at a Spanish accent). Still, her glamour and sex appeal still triumphs as the most sympathetic figure in the movie. Freed from playing the romantic lead, Humphrey Bogart is very effective as the concerned friend of the title character, always looking out for her best interests and offering a shoulder for her in her frequent times of trial by the other men in her life who, to a person, use and abuse her and constantly let her down. Edmond O’Brien’s Oscar-winning performance as the sycophantic public relations man allows him to be both loud and vulgar, concerned and surprised with an extended conversation on the telephone when he learns of a tragedy in Maria’s life that probably won him that Academy Award. Rossano Brazzi is a most effective courtly count though his decision not to share his secret with his bride before the wedding abruptly switches him from hero to villain in one neat shot. Marius Goring is a little more one note as the haughty millionaire of café society, and Warren Stevens is even more stereotyped as the unfeeling producer (modeled on Howard Hughes) who believes his money excuses him from even the barest of good manners.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in 1.85:1 (the liner notes erringly claim 1.78:1) and is offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. There are some Technicolor registration problems which occasionally cause the film to be a bit out of focus and look a little awry, and the coarser grain structure of the transfer sometimes causes the color to fluctuate a bit. The reds also occasionally bloom. Later in the movie, however, especially in scenes in darker settings, the stunning quality of Jack Cardiff’s cinematography comes through magnificently with black levels quite good and respectful of details in the shadows. There are the usual problems in MGM Blu-ray transfers with dust specks and some debris, and there is some slight blue flashing on the right side of the screen. The movie has been divided into 24 chapters.
The disc offers three completely different sound mixes in DTS-HD Master Audio: a 5.1 mix (the default) that gets a bit of play in the surrounds with some of the constant rain effects, a 3.0 Perspecta sound mix (my favorite) that offers more obvious directionalized dialogue and directional effects, and a 2.0 mono mix which is the least interesting of the three. In all, the dialogue is presented clearly and precisely and never clashing with Mario Nascimbene’s background score. No age-related artifacts pose a problem either.
Special Features: 3.5/5
Audio Commentary: film historians David Del Valle and Julie Kirgo have a gabby chat fest about the movie, honestly considering its flaws as well as its strong points. While there isn’t quite the serious analysis of the movie that it might deserve, the track that is here is a fun listen.
Isolated Score Track: presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono.
Stills Gallery: over fifty stills and behind-the-scenes shots for the movie which can be advanced manually.
Theatrical Trailer (1:52, HD)
MGM 90th Anniversary Trailer (2:06, HD)
Six-Page Booklet: contains some black and white film stills, original poster art on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s informative essay on the film.
A very watchable if slightly overlong dramatic saga of a woman’s frustrating search for love among the rich and famous, The Barefoot Contessa offers an excellent cast and outstanding production values nicely presented in this Blu-ray release from Twilight Time. There are only 3,000 copies of this Blu-ray available. Those interested in purchasing it should go to either www.twilighttimemovies.com or www.screenarchives.com to see if product is still in stock. Information about the movie can also be found via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies.