A woman died here last night, she had apparently called the police in some distress and then taken a tumble through the barrier on the balcony of her beach house while she had been entertaining guests, three neighbours who made themselves scarce when she expired on the rocks below. Except this house didn't actually belong to her, it belonged to Lynn Markham (Joan Crawford) whose late husband left it to her; as a recent widow, she wants to move in and start life anew, yet when she is being shown around the place by the local estate agent Amy Rawlinson (Jan Sterling) there is no mention made of the tragedy until Lynn notices the broken barrier and sees the cops on the beach...
Just what is going on in this supposed sunny idyll? Like a lot of Hollywood movies from this decade, the nineteen-fifties, the desire to depict the darker side of a life which to all intents and purposes had returned to normal, even prosperity, after the living hell of the previous decade's first half, proved too great a draw, and if ever there was a leading lady designed to suffer in luxurious surroundings it was Joan Crawford. She had done very well in the immediately post-war years, her big comeback Mildred Pierce offering her a new lease of career life which by this point was just on the verge of waning once more. She wasn't quite at the William Castle stage yet, but working with producer Albert Zugsmtih wasn't far off.
By the early sixties she had her last respectable hit with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? which was the reason she found Castle's brand of schockers such an easy fit thereafter, but in Female on the Beach she had one foot in the lurid efforts to come and the other in her glamorous turmoil phase which had been so popular for her. Here she was a potential victim of whoever it was who knocked the previous tenant of that home off the balcony, if indeed there had been anyone there at all, but the script's finger points not so subtly at the area's resident hunky gigolo Drummond Hall, who has a curious arrangement with two con artists who fleeced the deceased in return for what we assume are sexual favours from Drummy - and the implication is he was not above assisting the older couple either.
That couple were played by a very effete Cecil Kellaway, presumably getting his own back after The Postman Always Rings Twice, and future Gilligan's Island star Natalie Schafer, a memorable depiction of a rather sick relationship which Drummy would be better off out of. He was played by the unmistakably prematurely grey, athletically-built fifties heartthrob Jeff Chandler who retains a cult status to this day, partly thanks to his too-early death, but mostly thanks to his vividly masculine persona, which made him a perfect match for Crawford with her, er, rather manly in her demeanour which suggested she wasn't anyone you would want to mess with. Therefore watching her snarling out aggressively jaded lines of dialogue meant one thing to her fans: camp classic.
There are few who appreciate Female on the Beach through its sincere attempts at melodrama, though there must be some, as more often than not the aficionados of Crawford and Chandler relish the chance to watch them clash and spark off one another while their characters actually wish to do nothing but leap between the sheets. Situations such as that have been the fuel for soap operas for what seems like aeons, but to understand how a couple of real pros did it, you could do a lot worse than this, and it had the bonus of being a thriller too as we were asked to consider who had really offed the victim. Drummy claims to hate women to an extent, and he has a mysterious scar: did he go too far? How about Charles Drake as the beach cop, why is he always hanging around, is he trying to cover something up? Or was it that parasitic pair who were neighbours, working in tandem to keep their ill-gotten gains? When we do find out the truth, it makes a whole lot of sense if you were familiar with Joan's typical role, both on and offscreen, all the more reason to enjoy this overheated nonsense.