A Day at the Beach (1970)

A Day at the Beach

Film review by: Witney Seibold

Uncle Bernie (Mark Burns) is an alcoholic. Early in “A Day at the Beach,” he is seen sliming his way into his sister’s apartment using a curious combination of smooth-talking and degradation, and then, as soon as she leaves the room, beelining to her hidden liquor cabinet. He chugs a fistful of whiskey with the desperate savor of an addict. He offers to take his adorable, innocent niece Winnie (Beatrice Edney) on a trip to the beach. Everyone is suspicious of Bernie, as he seems to have a history of lying, cheating and stealing, and then relying on his charm and his belligerent air of affected intellectualism to weasel his way out of any hotspots. Only his niece loves him, and seems to be in a constant state of giving him the benefit of the doubt. Winnie is the moral center of Bernie’s universe. Everything else in his life is a statement of his death drive toward oblivion..

“A Day at the Beach,” written by Roman Polanski, and directed by Simon Hesera, is a gray, depressing combination of “The Lost Weekend,” John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, mixed up inside a hideously exaggerated freewheeling moral vacuum. Bernie is a lot like Ignatius J. Riley, in that his natural reaction to people is one of angered intellectual superiority; a pre-supposed sense that other people are teetering on the brink of offending him, and have only to commit the smallest imagined infraction to incur his wrath, and be deemed a plebeian.

Bernie takes Winnie to the beach, yes, and she seems to have a grand old time, even though it is pouring rain, and the beaches are largely deserted. Winnie even finds herself in several scary situations, but is happy to have Bernie come rescue her. Bernie, meanwhile, takes every opportunity to visit seaside pubs, belittle the staff, and demand copious amounts of beer. In one shop, he even runs into a flaming gay clerk (an uncredited Peter Sellers), and takes an opportunity to expose just how offensive he can be.

Is his offensive behavior and self-destructive alcoholism a natural, boorish reaction to the world? Or is it, perhaps, more calculating? Early in the film Bernie is beaten in the stomach by some angry mob types who demand some sort of tardy payment. His self-destructive behavior begins to skew towards to irreparable. He tries seducing a friend’s wife, and largely succeeds. He seems to have no problem burning bridges with his sister. By the film’s end, we begin to sense that Bernie is trying to actively commit suicide; that something has happened in his life that is so horrible, that he is going to drink himself to death in an orgy of finality. Perhaps, we suspect, this is his last hurrah. A day at the beach with the only person who doesn’t hate him, and an easy spiral into alcohol-induced stupor.


The last shot may give all the answers. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s a brilliant piece of filmmaking.

This is a strangely appealing and watchable film, despite the depressing content, and the alienatingly sour Bernie. The terminal velocity taken on by “A Day at the Beach” tends to sweep its audience along with it, despite the gray, drab fear. Burns’ performance is creative and brilliant in the way he rides the line between off-putting asshole, truly intelligent mind, and pathetic horror. It takes a powerful talent to get is to watch, and continue watching, someone with Bernie’s antisocial habits.

This is a rare film that I think I can recommend. Just be warned “A Day at the Beach” is hardly a picnic.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 1:29 pm  Comments (1)  

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