There was a lot riding on the project, as Renoir’s earlier Hollywood films hadn’t done that well by commercial standards. Though he had struggled within the confines of the studio system, he enjoyed being in Hollywood and wanted to stay, so he was determined to make a successful movie. The story had a lot of potential. Here’s Richard Brody’s description: “A Second World War veteran (Robert Ryan) who suffers from post-traumatic stress, including nightmares of a torpedoed and sinking ship and his own near-drowning, works as a Coast Guard officer in a small seaside community. In his lonely waterfront wanderings, he meets, amid ruins, a glossy and brooding woman (Joan Bennett). There’s an instant erotic spark between them, and she invites him to her cottage. There, he meets her husband (Charles Bickford), a formerly well-regarded painter who is now blind—and who possessively brings the young man into the household for company. But the brewing romance between the youngsters (not to spoil the plot) is troubled by an ugly element of backstory between husband and wife.”
Renoir got along well with Joan Bennett, who spoke fluent French, and enjoyed working on the film. He felt happy with the results. But in September 1946, the movie was given a preview at the University of Santa Barbra, and the crowd hated it. Evidently, Renoir hadn’t followed the conventions of the mystery genre to their liking. There’s conflicting information now about what happened next, whether studio bosses ordered extensive changes or Renoir himself was responsible. In a later interview with Francois Truffaut, he claimed, “I was the first to advise cut and changes.” Obviously, his previous experiences with producer Daryl Zanuck and Renoir’s own desire to succeed may have prompted him to revise the film in a way he thought would please the studio. In any case, he wound up re-shooting between one-third and one-half of the film and completely re-editing it. Nothing helped. It failed miserably at the box office and received harsh criticism when it was finally released a year later. Unfortunately, there is no known copy of his original version, nor any surviving footage of that attempt. So we are left to wonder what might have been.
Even in its “mutilated” form, the film still has fans. Some, like French director Jacques Rivette, consider it a masterpiece. And Brody calls it one of his favorite films. For him, The Woman on the Beach “has a dreadful, oneiric allure that bursts with a dark brilliance into an emotional and artistic apocalypse. It’s one of the great endings, one that foreshadows, remarkably, that of another noir classic, ‘Kiss Me Deadly,’ directed by Robert Aldrich, who was Renoir’s assistant director.” I thought it had some fascinating moments and some potential in the plot. The fact that the husband in this tense triangle is a famous painter is certainly interesting, considering Renoir’s own background. The acting is very good throughout, and some of the moody photography in the abandoned ship along the beach is wonderful. But the writing itself, at least in this version, feels clunky and somewhat predictable, despite whatever Freudian allusions may be offered. It’s worth watching, primarily because it’s Renoir. But it doesn’t come anywhere near his great masterpieces, or even excellent work like The River, which would turn out to be his next project and helped re-establish his reputation after his difficult Hollywood sojourn.
I’ll let Renoir have the last word on The Woman on the Beach:
“Although I don’t regret my American films, I know for a fact they don’t even come close to any ideal I have for my work . . . they represent seven years of unrealized works and unrealized hopes. And seven years of deceptions too . . .”