Is Joseph L. Mankiewicz, as a writer/director, worth all the slots on the list that have been given to him? That’s the question that ran through my head after watching The Barefoot Contessa, an all-around good film that was content to be merely that, and it was thus that the question went through my mind. On paper, it would seem to be a sure thing for the list; along with its writer/director, there’s Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner in the lead roles, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t smile upon seeing cinematographer Jack Cardiff’s name in the opening credits. Maybe that was all that was needed, to make the list; its credentials. It’s still a good film, mind you, but there’s nothing “must see” about this.
Bogart is Harry Dawes, a writer/director on the downslope of his career, who is essentially forced to find work with a high-falutin’ business tycoon turned movie producer Kirk Edwards. The pair head to Spain specifically to scout Maria Vargas (Gardner), a Spanish dancer, and through Harry’s charm and the connection that is established between Dawes and Vargas, she accepts and is flown to L.A. From there, the film is a sometimes-tumultuous recounting of her life as a star, hopping from would-be suitor to suitor, all told in flashback at her come-too-soon funeral. The film confused me a little ways through it, as it ends up not having one narrator, but three; Bogart, Edmond O’Brien’s Oscar-winning role as Oscar Muldoon the publicist, and Maria’s eventual husband, Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini, who each tell a section of the film and the story of the titular character. Bogart’s Dawes is the core character in Maria’s life, and it was nice to see the film embrace their relationship without trying to make it into a “relationship”; the two are platonic friends, and remain so through the whole film. Cardiff’s cinematography was an interesting choice, given what I’ve seen from him in the past; full of pastel colors and an ever-present dour mood and lighting set that seemed to underpin the unhappiness that Maria’s life seemed to be filled with. I will also point out the other major selling point of the film; the script. Mankiewicz knows how to write a hell of a screenplay; it’s snappy, witty, and more than just being smart, it is smart enough to know when to dial it down instead of flaunting its intelligence and potentially turning away some thinner-skinned audience members. That, however, is pretty much all there is to this one; for the most part, it’s not a story you haven’t seen before, and the film doesn’t really break new ground in any way.
As much as I did appreciate this one and what it was able to do, it just felt like one too many Joseph Mankiewicz films on the list for me. Plus, the last third of the film tended to drag a bit, which didn’t help my final impression of it. It was good, with some nice cinematography and a great script, but that’s really all I can say about it. It’s up to you whether you want to see this one or not; I’m certainly not going to hamstring you into watching it if you really don’t want to. The latest edition opted to remove one Mankiewicz film to make room for the new entries. Frankly, I would’ve been fine if they’d opted to remove one more, especially if it meant adding a film that really did deserve to be here that hadn’t made it yet. Oh well; I still liked this one, though.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10