Robert Ryan is Scott, a Coast Guard officer, semi-engaged to Eve (Nan Leslie), but he quickly falls deep for Peggy (Joan Bennett), who’s inconveniently married to blind artist Tod (Charles Bickford). ‘Blind artist’ would seem to be an absolute contradiction in terms; but it’s more accurate to say Tod is a retired artist. Robert Ryan’s character–as in some of his other film noir roles–has survived the war, but not without trauma.
The love triangle has, well, a lot of angles. Is Tod really blind? The accident that messed him up was Peggy’s fault; so is Tod playing on her guilt (as the helpless manipulative husband)? Scott wants to rescue her, so to speak; if he can convince Peggy that her husband is faking his blindness–then it’s lights out for Tod.
We see Scott’s very nightmarish war time sequence of his ship getting sunk, and Eve appearing, like a sea nymph on the ocean floor. Then we Scott finds Peggy on the beach–next to, guess what–a wartime ship ruin. But, he comes back to the boatyard, and Eve. “Do you want to get married?” he asks, and he means tonight. Yes, but, no, she kind of dithers. I don’t see why.
Scouting out the wrecked boat again–there’s Peggy; she talks him into helping her home with some stuff. “We’re pretty much alike, aren’t we?” he notes, but based on what? Talk about pieces of rudders, torpedoes, and ghosts. What of her ghosts? (Also, according to his nightmares, his ship was sunk by a mine, not a torpedo.)
Tod comes ambling in. He seems desperate to have visitors; Scott’s a “nice young fellow.” Peggy wants Tod to sell his paintings so they can go places, and just enjoy life. Can’t argue with his point, though, in that there’s nothing for him to ‘see’ if they travel. He gets over to Scott’s base, and wants him to visit with them. Nice domestic scene, for the most part. Tod is touchy talking about his work; he has a sort of haggard look. Interestingly, his eyes follow the light; but Peggy says that doesn’t matter because his optic nerves are cut. She admits to her part in causing his accident.
“Do you love him?” asks Scott; “Love him? I hate him.” He breaks a date with Eve to hang out with the unhappy couple, but Peggy gives him gets a goodnight kiss. Back at the base, though, Eve now says she’s ready to marry him…she’s picked out a dress. Now he’s wary “It’s silly for me to even think of getting married” because of his post-traumatic stress; “you think I’m sick.”
What’s changed is him getting to know Peggy. The two beach combers make-out the next day. Guess who wanders in on them? The pseudo (?) blind husband. At this point, Scott comes up with a cunning gambit: if he can ‘prove’ Tod isn’t blind, then Peggy will know he’s a fraud, and leave him.
Well, if tumbling off a cliff is Tod’s way of faking it, it’s pretty convincing. In fact, he should be very dead, or at least paralyzed. Back at the Wernecke’s, he quizes the Mrs. Wernecke (Irene Ryan) about Peggy and an old flame, Bill (coincidentally, Eve’s late brother). Peggy tells him that it’s none of his business, but confesses that she’s a “tramp” (ok, but what happened to Bill?). Nicely, Scott tells Tod that he set him up with the cliff deal. Strangely, Tod’s not at all upset.
But when Scott leaves, Tod has no trouble ‘blindly’ throttling Peggy. Time for a replay of Scott’s nightmare, with the variation that he sees Peggy at the end, and not Eve. That means that it’s also time for a boat-wreck rendezvous, accompanied by overly-dramatic music. For a few moments, everything is more or less ok back with the unhappy couple, but Peggy’s still needling Tod about selling the paintings. He correctly intuits that Scott has designs on his wife. Still, Tod reminisces with her, she’s “so beautiful outside, so rotten inside.” Well, so much for the harmonious interlude.
Speaking of the devil, Scott shows up to take Tod fishing. This time, it’s Peggy who has a premonition–is Scott going to eighty-six his rival? She calls the Chief, who tells her there’s no boats available. So, the guys are out in a tiny launch, in choppy waters. With a harpoon, Scott intends to sink the boat; but blind-man’s bluff notwithstanding, Tod turns the tables on him, and it’s Scott who is overboard first. Thanks to Peggy’s alert, they’re both rescued.
Party time! What? A planned going-away thing for Scott, as he’s being discharged. Weirdly, Tod blames Peggy for the boat debacle, not Scott. “murderess little sneak!” she is. Peggy calls Scott, another emergency. This time, it’s their house burning down. That’s one way for Tod to drive up the price of his paintings. “Why, Tod?” asks Scott; Tod: “Now I’m free…Peggy’s free.” Peggy’s supposed to take him to New York, so he can start over, or something. I guess these destructive deeds imply that Tod isn’t blind.
Woman On The Beach is “arty, pretentious, upsetting” according to TCM’s Eddie Muller, quoting contemporary critics. To which I’ll add, disappointing. The premise is very good, the plot is dirt-simple. Ryan and Leslie give solid, convincing performances. In fact, it seems nutty that Scott will junk Eve for Peggy. Although the movie has a dark tone, Scott is hardly a noir-style hood or criminal type; so I just can’t see that Peggy’s sultriness does so much for him. Maybe he feels that Eve is too good for what he perceives to be his damaged-goods self.
Both guys have self-destructive tendencies. But Scott seems to just flip a switch when he meets Peggy. Tod’s even more of an enigma. The central plot point of his blindness is never really determined. While he spends the entire movie with a scowl on his face, and he’s outright abusive towards Peggy, he never gives up on his ‘friendship’ with Scott. That’s guy has tried to kill him twice, not to mention take his wife away. I’m surprised Scott didn’t burn Tod’s house down into the bargain.
And, granted that Tod’s all about giving his friends the benefit of the benefit of the doubt, wouldn’t the Chief nevertheless follow up on the boating ‘accident?’ After all, he figured out that there was something fishy about that ‘fishing’ trip, and sent out the rescue boat. I fully expected Scott’s party to end up with him going away to prison for attempted murder.
Even the music didn’t help; it just crashed into scenes that were already played for dramatic intensity. This is a psychological thriller that’s strangely subdued, a film noir with darkness (attempted murder) that lifts like a morning fog, and a mystery (what happened to Bill, and what about Tod’s accident?) with no clues. And a romance with some warmth (Eve), but no resolution.
Well, Farmermouse was tootling up and down the surf looking for seashells, so he gives Woman On The Beach five abandoned boats. 5/10