The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

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Joseph L. Mankiewicz directs Ava Gardner, Humphrey Bogart and Edmond O’Brien in this fictional biopic about the life and loves of fictional Spanish sex symbol Maria Vargas.

A really fascinating one this. A stodgy tragic melodrama that should only be notable for a bit of retirement age Bogie and a never ending parade of beautiful gowns for Ava… but it is a very strange production. Nearly ever scene has a character lingering in the mid shot who is broken and despondent about life. As we obsess over the sad life of the eponymous contessa, we also fleetingly glimpse a used up starlet who knows her place, a poor boy obsessed with glamour, a mute father, a penniless member of the European gentry. It is also shockingly frank about sex and manipulation with all the better sketched suitors in Gardner’s orbit neutered, self serving fiends. Not massively dissimilar in tone to the superior Sweet Smell of Success but where as that classic fed off its intentional bleak, misanthropic vibe, this one wants to hide its pessimistic underbelly in lace and silk and bouquets and fast cars and cocktail soirées. A superficial fantasy for housewives suppresses a luxury nightmare for the observant, sensitive human.

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