There's a funeral taking place in the pouring rain for the Contessa, the former movie star Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner), and the men in her life gather around the tomb and remember her as the priest conducts the service. One of those men is Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart), a director and screenwriter who used to work with her; indeed, he practically discovered her, as he recalls the first time they met, in a Spanish nightclub where she was going down a storm with the patrons with every performance. Dawes was there with two industry men, Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O'Brien) and the millionaire producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), but even so, Maria was reluctant to meet...
Director-writer-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was having a very good decade in the nineteen-fifties, just off the back of the likes of All About Eve and his acclaimed Julius Caesar, when he received a more mixed response to this than he would have liked. He had been in the motion picture business for long enough to know what was involved, how personalities could clash, and how the baser instincts could rule the heads of those who were pulling the strings, and here he planned to expose all that in a way that it had to be pointed out The Bad and the Beautiful had been a great success doing the previous year or two. Apparently aware of this, he expanded his script to take in the rich.
The rich in general, that was, be they tycoon film producers like a certain Howard Hughes, or European aristocrats who coveted the glamour the movies were representing, and in a sense supplanting, away from their centuries-long stranglehold on the attraction of wealth. Mankiewicz was inspired by the stories he saw around him, so rather blatantly based his script on the lives of such personalities as Hughes, who was not happy at all, and Rita Hayworth, whose reaction went unrecorded - there was even a degree of Gardner's biography in there too, presumably calculated to heighten the audience's prurient interest in her private life now she was splitting with Frank Sinatra.
Although we don't find out what has happened to Maria and why she died until the final few minutes of the film, you may he suspicious that she was talked to death, since Mankiewicz loved to hear his characters chat more than anything, therefore every scene contains a multitude of exchanges as everyone picked apart the others' flaws and desperately tried to claw back some self-respect from a world that was undercutting them at every turn. Bogart was a past master at that sort of material, and though he was beginning to look tired, that suited the world-weary, "Now I've seen everything" demeanour of Dawes, though it had to be said if you were looking for the performer cinematographer Jack Cardiff's camera truly loved, it had to be Gardner, positively luminous throughout.
Neither of those two stars won many plaudits, however, and in fact it was O'Brien who secured an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for one of his most typical, if not necessarily his best, performances, though he was popular around Hollywood so it may have been a partly sentimental vote that won him the statuette. He handled the acres of dialogue as well as anyone (his telephone scene, essentially a monologue, was very well put across), but if Mankiewicz had been hoping to register a statement on the milieu he was living through every day, what he actually ended up with was barely one step away from a Harold Robbins or Sidney Sheldon novel of the kind that would be blockbusting beach reads over the next few decades. As long as you were attuned to what was essentially a trashy account of the filthy rich that took it upon itself to aim for philosophy and class and miss, and assuming you could take the absurd twist at the end that the production was not able to make clear thanks to the censorship rules of the day, then there was plenty of moonshine to indulge yourself with here. Music by Mario Nascimbene.
[Eureka's Blu-ray looks far better than the previous DVD, and has a commentary, a trailer and a booklet as extras.]