The surface appeal of The Barefoot Contessa is obvious: Ava Gardner at her most glamorous as the rags-to-riches star Maria Vargas alongside Humphrey Bogart at his most acerbic yet tender as filmmaker Harry Dawes; the flood of quotable quotes in the dialogue (“It’s never too late to develop character”); and the intriguing allusions to real-life celebrities, including Rita Hayward and Howard Hughes.
But there is much more going on . . .
The film owes much to Citizen Kane (1941), especially the mosaic structure which offers various points of view on a character – ultimately affirming only that person’s inscrutability.
From the initial “springboard” situation of Maria’s funeral, eight flashbacks proceed from four narrators. Long before Pulp Fiction (1994), director Joseph L Mankiewicz contrives a sequence which shows Maria’s transition from Bravano (Marius Goring) to Vincenzo (Rossano Brazzi) from two viewpoints.
Even more intricate is the film’s journey through three social worlds – Hollywood show business, the French leisure set, and Italian aristocracy – that register as uncanny variations on each other, each one enclosed, decadent, and dying.
Significantly, this suite of decay echoes the presentation of the theatre world in Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic All About Eve.
While his films are sometimes justly criticised as stagey and word-bound, the richness and coherence of The Barefoot Contessa come from its metaphor of theatrical spectacle.
Mankiewicz’s signature touch is the “frieze” where the plot stops and a narrator fills us in on the character and background of each ‘player’ at a table.
Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini
J. Montague Brown
Joseph L Mankiewicz