It’s hard for me to hear the voiceover at the beginning of THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA and not feel like Sam Spade is gearing up to tell a story of dark deeds. After all, the movie begins at a burial, it’s raining, and Humphrey Bogart is narrating, so we are set up for a certain kind of movie, even if the details are not what they usually are.
This Bogie, instead of embroiled in the criminal underworld or political intrigue of film noir, is the amiable (if flinty) film director Harry Dawes, and this Bogie doesn’t run with hoodlums, but European royalty and Wall Street hot shots. Despite the change of social strata, THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA still articulates a rather noir-ish perspective: its characters are rarely motivated by anything less than greed or selfishness, and its narrators have no compunction about calling it that.
I’m making the movie sound pulpy and melodramatic, but the film, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, gives all this tabloid business some moral heft. When Harry first meets Maria (played by Ava Gardner), he has been tasked with recruiting her as a new Hollywood star. Though she’s just a dancer at an anonymous club in Madrid, she’s hardly cowed by a little Hollywood glitz, and when you listen to a huckster try to sell Maria on a grand new life, you feel bad for him. The complete lack of interest she displays would count as cruel if he weren’t such a schmuck. Later, even as she assents to be screen-tested, we can see that she does it for her own reasons (she wants to escape her mother; she’s genuinely interested in the craft of cinema) and not because she has any illusions about fame. In a lot of ways, Maria feels to me like a female analogue of Bogart, as both are tough enough to tell the truth about how grim things are, but both are soft enough to give a damn.
It’s important to establish that Maria is no fool, since the rest of the movie could easily be read as a chronicle of how men use her for their own interests without thinking for a minute of hers. First, Kirk Edwards, the Wall Street big wig, arranges to exploit her looks and presence for money, and uses her employment as a reason to treat her like property he can show off. He’s aided by his lackey, Oscar Muldoon (played by Edmond O’Brien, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for the role), a sadly unimaginative man whose core motivation is to be sure everyone comes off looking swell, and who has nary a notion of loyalty. Then, in turn, Maria allows playboy Alberto Bravano to spirit her away, out from under the thumb of Edwards.
At first, you might like Bravano, who is at least open and honest about his fecklessness. He knows he’s a bon vivant that contributes nothing to society, but fully claims the role in the name of truth. We quickly learn, however, that he too has his own designs for Maria, and like Edwards, he regards Maria more as a status symbol than as a person. Unlike Edwards, he doesn’t have direct financial exploitation in mind, but he wants her for another kind of currency, the glamour of having the most beautiful woman in the world on his arm. Oscar observes,
The important thing to Bravano was for people to think Maria was his girl, as long as he got credit for it. If Bravano had to choose between really having Maria, in secret, and not having her, but having the whole world think he did, he’d want it just the way it was.
(I submit that many people would in fact prefer the latter.)
Then, finally, there is the Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini, who enlists Maria as a player in a story he’s built for himself about the waning days of a proud lineage. He comes in the guise of a pure Romeo, and unlike the other men, he appears to be honorable and kind; the scene in which he steals Maria from Bravano is inspired and downright funny, although I’m not sure intentionally so. (The movie raises the question, What would the most genteel man in the world say to a fellow just before slapping him?) Yet ultimately the Count is just as indifferent to Maria’s desires as the others were, even if his agenda doesn’t become clear until late in the movie.
In my reading, then, Maria is not finally doomed by some flaw in her character, but just because that’s the way the world of 1954 and beyond so often is: Men pursue their own dreams, and chew up women in the process. Even whip-smart, capable women like Maria.
The only remaining question to my mind is why the movie is constructed in such a way that Maria herself is not truly the protagonist. We learn most of what we know about her through exposition and voiceover, and not from carefully following her from scene to scene. The narrators emphasize that they do not fully understand her or even know the whole story. This doesn’t seem necessary to the plot, and it’s easy to imagine another film framing the same story but through her perspective.
My best answer is that the film might be even more tragic for not being from her point of view. A movie that featured her at every turn and showed us the events through her eyes would have made us care more for Maria the individual than Maria the woman. As it is, the movie plays less as a film about her than as a recounting of her conditions and circumstances, making THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA more of a parable than a melodrama. When you focus on a single character, it’s easier to see her rainy gravesite as a single, limited tragedy. It’s so much worse and so much more noir to realize that she is only the most gorgeous example of a great number.