Today marks the dual birthday of two men who gave the The Barefoot Contessa (1954) her breathtaking screen life and tragic death. Arriving in theaters 64 years ago this month, The Barefoot Contessa has abundant attributes: an A-List cast led by Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Oscar® winner Edmond O’Brien, Marius Goring and Valentina Cortese; a trenchant script about cutthroat Hollywood manipulation and acutely observant direction – both in the masterful hands of Joseph L. Mankiewicz; and a tantalizing mosaic of exotic European jet-set locales. But perhaps one of its more potent glories is the work of the man behind the camera: Technicolor® master Jack Cardiff (1914-2009), born 104 years ago today, whose sensually evocative cinematography (which moviegoers had already experienced via Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), The African Queen (1951) and another stunning Gardner showcase, 1951’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman) gives this story of the making of a screen goddess such an embracing and tactile luster that The Chicago Reader’s Drew Hunt considered The Barefoot Contessa “the first film one should watch if interested in American ’50s Technicolor. If the story can be described as contrived and often painfully obvious, Cardiff's nuanced and elegant cinematography balances everything out. The film was largely shot in Italy, and the location photography is some of Cardiff's most striking,” with Ronald Bergan of The Guardian adding that Cardiff capably “captured the sunny, hedonistic essence of the Spanish, Italian and French Riviera locations.”
But, as burnished by Cardiff’s lovingly focused lens, the intensity of the passions of Gardner’s earthy Maria Vargas, coupled with the desires of the manipulating men who encircle her, foreshadow a dark reckoning, which comes in the form of the aristocrat she marries, Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini, incarnated in only his second English-language film by fellow birthday celebrant Rossano Brazzi (1916-1994), born 102 years ago today. The Count, outwardly dashing and protective, harbors a deeply troubling secret about his family history and his personal manhood, which he reveals on their wedding night, leading to sexual subterfuge, a jealous outburst and a shocking outcome. Brazzi’s thwarted Continental lover here is in stark contradictory contrast to the openhearted romantic he memorably incarnated in the film released just a few months prior, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), and another to follow seven months hence, Summertime (1955). It’s ironic that two filmmaking favorites responsible for the beauty and the beastliness enfolding The Barefoot Contessa share a birthday, and their alternately loving and lethal contributions stoke the enduring power of this intoxicating classic on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.