Moment #3 Barefoot Contessa is a movie about movies. It was written and directed by Joseph Manciewicz, who had a long and successful Hollywood career, and stars Humphrey Bogart as a writer-director working for a business magnate who has decided to go into moves, and Ava Gardner as Maria Vargas, a Spanish dancer who becomes the “face” of those movies. The film is told in flashback from her funeral, although we don’t know how or why she dies until the end of the film.
There are some curiosities; the flashback sequences are narrated consecutively by Bogart, by the magnate’s PR flack Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), by Gardner’s husband, and finally by Bogart himself. Some scenes replay from the different perspectives of these protagonists. As in Casablanca and Gilda, we don’t see the female star until quite a long way in (about 12 minutes), although the second scene of the film watches the audience as she dances unseen on camera. And, as in Gilda, we hear plenty about her before she appears. The film is also interesting because Bogart doesn’t play the romantic lead. His relationship with Maria Vargas is strictly platonic, more a protector and a confidante.
Along the way, Mankiewicz gives us a unsympathetic picture of the rich at play, especially in the voice-overs, and the relationship between wealth and poverty, though for my money the Cinderella metaphor was laid on with a trowel. I also hoped that the argument about the meaning of the Faust story, which plays out in the long early scene in a Madrid nightclub, might be more woven into the screenplay, but I was disappointed.
At the start of the film, magnate, PR guy and Bogart have gone to a Madrid club to watch Maria dance. They’ve missed her, and eventually manage to persuade her to come to their table to talk to them. It doesn’t go well, Maria leaves, and Bogart is despatched to find her. It’s worth noting how poor Spain was in 1954, still making a slow recovery from the Civil War.
The moment: the scene where Bogart arrives at Maria Vargas’ house (a tenement flat) to ask her to come to Rome for a screen test. Bogart doesn’t go in, and we watch the scene in one continuous shot through the door looking into a cramped front room; her mother denying that she’s here at all, her brother saying she is, her father sitting in the corner of the room, the radio blaring, Maria herself arriving in the room, and a furious argument breaking out between the four of them, mostly in Spanish with subtitles.
MOTHER (in Spanish, to BROTHER): What does he want with Maria? (Beat) Miguel, the radio!
BROTHER: Maria is going to America, to be a star.
MOTHER: I won’t let her. I’ve worked my fingers to the bone all my life, Now it’s her turn. Miguel, the radio!
BROTHER (to BOGART, in English): You don’t understand my nother. Is liar.
MOTHER (to MIGUEL, in Spanish): I won’t tell you again!
BROTHER (to MOTHER, in Spanish): Since she was a child, you made her dance for men and kept the money. Now she’ll keep it for herself.
BOGART (in English): Why don’t you fight this out later, I haven’t got much time… Every minute counts.
MOTHER (walking across the room to the husband, in Spanish): You deaf? I told you to turn down the radio. (And she turns it off)
Maria appears from the back room.
MARIA (still in Spanish): He can play the radio as loud as he wants. (And she turns it on again).
MOTHER: You won’t go to America.
MARIA: I’ll go where I please.
And she sashays across the room towards the door and towards Bogart, touching her brother’s scheek affectionately as she passes him and closing the door behing her.
MARIA (in English): I think we can talk better outside.
The door immediately reopens, and he mother appears in the doorway:
MOTHER (in Spanish): Over my dead body!
MARIA (in Spanish): One more word, and I’ll go even if I don’t want to. Whether you live or die.
It’s a fabulous scene, and the blaring Spanish music on the radio makes it seem even more intense, as does the single two minute take. I suspect the use of subtitles was unusual in a 1954 big budget film, but the scene, and the use of Spanish, manages to convey in an instant the cultural gap, the claustrophobia of her family, the poverty that she’s escaping from, and also a milieu that in different ways she returns to throughout the rest of the film, most notably in the sequence where her husband-to-be, an Italian count, sees her for the first time.
One other curiosity. Bogart doesn’t trust the business magnate he’s working for, so he surrepitiously invites three other big-noise producers to watch the screening of Maria’s first screen test. Their names:ack, Mr Brown, and Mr Blue. Now, I wonder where I’ve heard that before?