It was fun to see this film on the big screen at the Castro earlier in the week, where the real star of the film (Charles Lang’s photography) can be seen bringing it into the realm of film noir. In fact, Lang’s work and the heavy use of noir plot devices push FEMALE ON THE BEACH to a 5/10, or exactly 100 points out of 200, smack dab on the “dividing line" according to the noir-o-meter.
We’ll run through the elements quickly to keep you “in practice”…
Homme fatale/femme fatale or “peril-inducing” character: 4/15
Jeff Chandler’s character is named “Drummy,” not a promising appellation for an homme fatale. The film is very cagey about who might be responsible for the lifeless body (Judith Evelyn) we encounter in the first couple of minutes, and as a result it builds very little tension for this element.
Morally ambiguous protagonist(s): 4/5
“Morally murky” might be a better term for it. Much of this is played for comedy in the second act, when the couple who are “stage-managing” Drummy (Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schafer) are verbally routed by Joan Crawford.
Alienated protagonist: 2/5
Joan has an ax to grind, and she starts out as a pretty serious ice queen. But the level of “alienation” is low…mostly confined to Chandler’s intermittent sense of shame about being a gigolo.
A dupe or a fall guy: 0/5
Violence with respect to character development/interaction: 4/10
We have almost exclusively emotional violence in FOTB, a slow-boiling war of words, manifested in a sequence of over-righteously indignant scenes from Crawford. The film begins with its most graphically violent image and builds all its remaining action around the mystery of what it was all about, keeping the “violence” in the low-wattage range.
Characters trapped by past events: 7/10
Chandler’s character explains his past life several times, and it qualifies as what we might call a “line of least resistance” type of personal entrapment. He also has some past issues with Jan Sterling’s real estate agent, which (eventually) reveals her back story. Thus this element is relatively strong, but much more yoked to the needs of the plot than something more organically placed into the character interactions.
Degree of character triangulation: 6/10
Most of these are implicit in the developing narrative, and don’t tend to drive any of the scenes. But it’s strong enough that we sense a tug of war that eventually clarifies into our envisioning one specific triangular situation that explains the film’s violent opening.
Character element score: 27/60 (4.5 out of 10)
The characters are somewhat noir-ish, but (as a certain wag once said...) not necessarily so.
Black and white cinematography: 10/10
And quite nicely done, by the highly estimable Charles Lang (the third consecutive Crawford film he lensed in the mid-50s). Lang’s noirs earlier in the 50s aren’t too shabby: THE BIG HEAT (1953) and SUDDEN FEAR (1952).
Low angle shooting/expressionistic techniques: 2/5
A little here and there.
A sense of fatalism (either spoken or visual): 8/20
Strong at the outset, with the death of Evelyn’s character, but it quickly dissipates into “moral repartee” which loosens us from any sense of danger or peril or “lack of control over the universe.”
Use of extreme mise-en-scene (claustrophobic/barren): 6/10
Moody, cramped indoor shots dominate, but not to the point where we are overwhelmed by their presence. Even the shots on Chandler’s boat are cramped…
Use of mise-en-scene to portray alienation: 2/5
Primarily in the way Chandler is photographed, odd angles that tend to diminish him…also Lang does some evocative work in the flashback sequences where the events in the Chandler-Evelyn affair are recounted.
Odd camera angles or other visual effects/sequences: 3/5
There seems to be a good bit of foreshortening in the lens work, and Lang (or Pevney) favored using two-shots with movement, probably to keep the audience from getting too lulled by the somewhat-too-frequent moral lecture scenes where Crawford gets to do some “MGM acting.”
Mise-en-scene element score: 31/55 (5.6 out of 10)
An urban setting: 0/10
Exotic/remote/barren location setting: 5/5
Clearly a studio film, but shot to emphasize its beach (“exotic”) setting.
Nightclub/theatre/gambling setting: 0/5
Setting element score: 5/20 (2.5 out of 10)
Overall visual element score: 36/75 (4.8 out of 10)
Again, noir-ish…not quite over the line, though the mise-en-scene is clearly copping from noir visual conventions.
Convoluted story line: 4/5
Robert Hill and Richard Alan Simmons do a good job of re-energizing the story via the placement of the flashback near the center of the film. For our purposes, the term “convolution” has to do with how much the film makes us conscious of the plot, and this one definitely makes itself evident.
Use of flashbacks: 5/10
In the past I might have made this 10/10, but it seems to make more sense to grade on a curve due to length, placement and intensity of the flashback sequences. This one is pivotal to the story, but doesn’t result in any sudden dramatic shift or crescendo…so I’m giving it 5/10.
A murder or heist at the center of the story: 5/5
A mysterious death, for those who haven’t yet watched and don’t want to necessarily know what exactly happened.
A betrayal or a double cross: 5/5
The question here is how essential to the action the betrayal is. We have to work with the fact that Chandler has betrayed Evelyn, even if it is at the behest of Kellaway and Schafer; regardless of what the actual circumstances regarding Evelyn’s death turn out to be, his actions caused pain and suffering. Therefore it’s a full score despite its peripheral visibility in the actual on-screen action.
Story told from the perspective of the criminals: 0/5
Crawford is a kind of “investigating moralizer” and she is central to how the action is defined; what the audience finds out about Chandler’s actions and his relationship with Kellaway/Schafer ahead of her "investigations" is not detailed enough to constitute “storytelling” on their part. The "goofy grifters" remain peripheral to the on-screen action throughout the film.
False accusation or fear of same: 5/5
As Crawford begins to suspect foul play in Evelyn’s death, she shifts suspicion (and, in keeping with her character) moral judgment onto Chandler. That becomes palpable in the film’s third act.
Sexual relationships with respect to plot development: 9/10
Three women and one hunk…’nuff said.
Plot element score: 33/45 (7.3 out of 10)
Clearly the characters are thrust into a noir situation by the way the writers have constructed the story…
A spoken narrative: 0/5
Hard-boiled dialogue/repartee: 2/5
Crawford has a very tart tongue here and she spreads it around in many of her exchanges with most of those with whom she interacts.
Degree of bleakness of denouement: 2/10
Sadly, wrapped up neat as a bow. You’d kind of like to see a sequel where Crawford and Chandler are off somewhere on their boat and face a truly wrenching test of their love, but that never happened.
Screenwriting element score: 4/20 (2.0 out of 10)
So the “overlay” elements for the story were mostly ignored by the writers, who used plot devices to inject noir into the narrative.
Overall plot/screenwriting element score: 37/65 (5.6 out of 10)
“Melo” score: 168 (average noir: 110)
Definitely a 50s melo-noir with little or no use of the psychological components from 40s melo. Moralizing replaces psychoanalysis, which does seem on the mark for the mid-50s time frame.
As noted, Lang is really the star of this one, though Joan’s wardrobe (which must have been half the production budget…) is a close second.