The headline is referencing the past, not the present, for A DAY AT THE BEACH, a film that Roman Polanski scripted and co-produced with his partner Gene Gutowski for their short-lived production company, Cadre Films, in 1969 finally surfaced on DVD in 2007 via Odeon Entertainment’s “The Best of British Collection” series in the U.K. and then in the U.S. in 2008, courtesy of Code Red, which specializes in re-releasing cult and lesser known genre films like Rituals (1977) and Group Marriage (1973). For more than thirty five years, the film was considered lost after being shelved by Paramount following an unsuccessful limited release in Europe. But a serviceable print was discovered and preserved and any self-professed fan of Polanski’s films will want to check it out if they haven’t already. It may not be “the lost Roman Polanski masterpiece” that the Code Red DVD cover promises but it is much more than a curiosity piece and quite compelling if you are in the mood for a bitter, bleak and harrowing character study.
The narrative is fashioned as a Long-Day’s-Journey-Into-Night for the main protagonist, Bernie (Mark Burns), an alcoholic wastrel who is on the verge of a full-blown flameout. Early in the film when Bernie shows up at the apartment of his ex-wife Melissa (Fiona Lewis) to take their daughter Winnie (Beatrice Edney) on an outing to the beach, he has already started drinking and it’s just the beginning of what could be a final self-destructive binge. It quickly becomes apparent that Winnie thinks her father is really her uncle, a misconception reinforced by her mother. But Bernie doesn’t seem to mind the charade as long as he’s paid for his servitude (to spend on booze). So off they go to the beach on a cold, miserable rainy day with no resistance from Winnie’s mom. The dysfunctional tone is set and Bernie and Winnie’s non-idyllic getaway becomes a series of episodic encounters with various strangers and friends at the beach as Bernie gets progressively blotto, often leaving his daughter in harm’s way.
Along the way he encounters an intrigued café owner and her daughter (Eva Dahlbeck & Sisse Reingaard), an irate beach chair attendant (Jack MacGowran), a gay couple who run a seaside tourist shop (Peter Sellers & Graham Stark), a successful writer friend (Maurice Roeves) accompanied by his wife (Joanna Dunham) and child, all of whom are subjected to his mooching, verbal abuse and faux-literary pontificating. In real life, few, if any people, would put up with such an infuriating, obnoxious bore but, as a film subject, Bernie is a spectacular car wreck in motion and you can’t tear your eyes away. Unlike Geoffrey Firmin, Albert Finney’s equally self-destructive alcoholic in John Huston’s film adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1984), Bernie doesn’t engage the viewer’s compassion or sympathy; we may see moments of vulnerability and suffering but he remains unlikable, particularly in his irresponsible and selfish behavior toward his daughter. At least Finney’s Geoffrey in Under the Volcano was once a highly respected and successful British consul and we can still see remnants of his essential goodness. But we can only imagine what sort of man Bernie used to be – possibly a promising writer at one point. Who knows? The challenge is to find the humanity is this wretched creature – an impossible task for some and one reason several film reviewers (and even Polanski himself) have dismissed the film as a failure. The negative criticism tended to focus on what many consider an alienating lead performance by Mark Burns, the uneven direction (it was Simon Hesera’s sole dramatic feature) and the original source material, a novel by Dutch author Heere Heeresman which is considered virtually unfilmable by some. That didn’t deter Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh (who was assassinated by a Muslim extremist in 2004) from making his own screen adaptation of Heeresman’s novel in 1984 under the title Een dagje naar het strand.
Despite the naysayers, admirers of Polanski’s work will find much to admire in A DAY AT THE BEACH for the film is full of the psychological overtones, disturbing visual detail, macabre humor and sense of paranoia present in all of Polanski’s work. One detects a slightly perverse streak in the depiction of the adolescent Winnie, a polio victim who wears a leg brace that emits a mechanical squeaking sound as she scampers around. Several encounters, particularly the argument between Bernie and the beach attendant over the rental of a deck chair, have a Theater-of-the-Absurd quality that bear comparison to some of Polanski’s early experimental shorts such as Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958) and Mammals (1962). The eccentric gay couple in the gift shop are representative of the types of outsiders and social renegades who have inhabited most of Polanski’s films from the sexually ambiguous married couple in Cul-de-Sac (1966) to Count von Krolock’s homosexual son in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) to the Castevets, the satanic neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). A DAY AT THE BEACH also shares similarities to Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) with its mounting sense of anxiety and helplessness that results in the complete mental collapse of the protagonist. Curiously enough, many of the major biographies and critical studies of Polanski’s work omit any mention of A DAY AT THE BEACH. Even if he did not direct it, the film deserves some attention for his involvement as screenwriter and producer but I have noticed that, in general, Polanski’s solo work as a scenarist is rarely noted in biographies of the director. This explains why you rarely read or hear about his work on Jean Leon’s Aimez-vous les femmes (A Taste for Women, 1964), a black comedy about a cannibal cult operating out of a vegetarian restaurant, Jean-Daniel Simon’s La fille d’en face (The Girl Across the Way, 1968) or Gerard Brach’s Le bateau sur l’herbe (The Boat on the Grass, 1971). But even if A DAY AT THE BEACH has been out of circulation or unavailable for viewing for decades, it has never been a secret. Made in the wake of Rosemary’s Baby while Polanski was also considering a film about Paganini and one about the infamous Donner Party, he devotes almost two paragraphs to the project in his autobiography, stating, “For want of anything better to do, I began writing A Day at the Beach, a screenplay based on a short story by the Dutch writer Heere Heresma and conceived as a low-budget picture within the scope of Cadre Films…This was to be Simon Hesera’s first directorial attempt and Paramount were dragging their feet over financing it. Charlie Bluhdorn and Bob Evans were in London on business, so Gene Gutowski decided to make a final pitch. I flew over for a working lunch with them at Gene’s apartment. Peter Sellers, who had agreed to play an unpaid cameo part, was also invited as, of course, was Simon. Between them, Peter and Simon so mesmerized Bluhdorn with their clowning that he’d have signed anything. Paramount had some funds in Denmark it wanted to invest, so Simon flew to Copenhagen to line things up for shooting there.”
Polanski’s involvement with A DAY AT THE BEACH is also substantiated by Ed Sikov in Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers and the author makes this curious comment about the production: “In an apparent attempt to make the film even more raw than its subject matter destined it to be, Hessera cast an unknown and inexperienced actor, Mark Burns, in the lead.” Burns was certainly not an inexperienced actor or unknown in the entertainment industry at the time, even if he wasn’t a household name. He started with bit parts in Sink the Bismarck! and Tunes of Glory in 1960, appeared in numerous TV series throughout the sixties and landed major supporting roles in Tony Richardson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968), Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Adventures of Gerald (1970), Christopher Miles’ The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970) and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). Perhaps Sikov’s comment was colored by Polanski’s poor opinion of the film: “It’s not good…The problem is, I’m afraid, the director, and also insufficient funds. But the main problem is the actor. You can’t watch a man playing a drunk for one and a half hours unless he’s a really great actor and has some charisma. That guy had none. Other than that, I mean, the film…If there had been a great performance….The film is done well enough to work. What didn’t work was the casting. Simon was not a director, and, let’s face it, we were a little bit cavalier.”
Of the numerous biographies on the controversial director, Barbara Leaming’s Polanski (first published in 1982) is one of the few to acknowledge the existence of A DAY AT THE BEACH. Ivan Butler’s The Cinema of Roman Polanski also makes a brief reference to it. And then there is John Parker’s biography on Polanski which gives a completely contradictory and erroneous account of the project, stating that the movie was a collaboration between producer Gene Gutowski and “Polanski’s former collaborator Jerzy Skolimowski…Gutowski was interested in producing a new screenplay by Skolimowski called A Day at the Beach. He signed Peter Sellers to star and they all went off to Rome to make the picture. Sadly for Skolimowski, the partnership with Gutowski did not bring him the same fortune and recognition as had his collaboration with Polanski. They failed to sell their movie to a distributor and it was never released.” I suspect that Parker was actually referring to Skolimowski’s The Adventures of Gerald (aka Brigadier Gerard) which was co-produced by Gutowski and filmed in Italy, outside Rome. But Peter Sellers was not the star or even it it; the lead was played by Peter McEnery.
There are other popular misconceptions floating around about A DAY AT THE BEACH. Some writers have stated that Polanski was the original director of the film and replaced by Simon Hesera while others insist Polanski was in the process of editing the picture when he received the news that his wife Sharon Tate and three friends had been murdered in Los Angeles and flew home immediately to deal with the tragedy. Neither claim is valid if you accept Polanski’s recounting of the events in his autobiography. What we do know is that Polanski was already working on a film treatment for The Day of the Dolphin, which he also planned to direct for Paramount, at the time of his departure from London to Los Angeles (The Day of the Dolphin would eventually be taken over by director Mike Nichols and released by Avco Embassy). A DAY AT THE BEACH stands as a strange, mostly forgotten segue from Rosemary’s Baby to Polanski’s next fully realized venture, MacBeth (1971).
Yes, the story is a true downer and probably not for anyone who expects only instant gratification from movies. But I have to disagree with Polanski’s harsh critique of the lead actor’s performance (Mark Burns died in 2007 and reputedly was a recovering alcoholic in real life). If anything, Burns’ portrayal of Bernie is probably too real and naked in its emotional evisceration for some. There is no redemption for this sad sack loser and A DAY AT THE BEACH doesn’t deviate from its relentless descent into darkness. Sometimes you need a tough-love movie like this to cleanse the cinema palate.
But even without Burn’s commanding, wraithlike presence, A DAY AT THE BEACH is worth seeing for other reasons such as the wintry, atmospheric cinematography by Gilbert Taylor (A Hard Day’s Night, Frenzy, Star Wars) that chills you to the bone; child actress Beatrice Edney’s spontaneous, remarkable and completely unaffected performance as the resilient Winnie; and a host of memorable cameos by such distinguished players as Peter Sellers (clearly having fun with a character credited as A. Queen), Eva Dahlbeck (leading lady of such Ingmar Bergman classics as A Lesson in Love, Dreams and Smiles of a Summer Night), Jack MacGowran (famous for his stage roles in the plays of Samuel Beckett and other Polanski films) and Fiona Lewis, whose elegant, sexy presence and wicked sense of humor has added a touch of class to genre films like Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), Stunts (1977), Strange Behavior (1981) and Strange Invaders (1983). I have never quite forgiven Brian De Palma for designing such a grisly, special effects death for her in The Fury though I have read in interviews that Fiona had great fun making that telekinetic gorefest. She is completely deglamorized in A DAY AT THE BEACH and offers further proof that her talents have been underused and wasted in minor parts.
Other Links of Interest: