Written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz, a director, producer, and promoter discover a beautiful dancer in Madrid who becomes a movie star; but her personal life is unfulfilled.
Director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) attends the funeral of the contessa Maria in Italy. He recalls meeting Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner) in Madrid with the public relations counselor Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) and producer Kirk Edwards (Warren Stevens), who slaps a woman for saying he would bribe God. Edwards tells Harry he must obey his orders, or he will cancel the production. Harry goes to her dressing-room to get Maria, who knows who he is. She goes to their table, and Oscar tells her they want to give her a screen test. Oscar says she is gone. Edwards leaves Harry behind to bring Maria to Rome.
Harry asks her family for her. Maria comes out and says her mother does not want her to go to America. She asks Harry if he would help her to be a good actress. He advises her not to go to Rome. He says he has been married three times but now has a woman named Jerry. She likes to be barefoot and goes with Harry.
Harry says her test was great, and he invited three European directors. Harry tells Edwards that Maria will not sign a contract with him. Harry says she will make one picture for him.
Oscar says her funeral was poorly attended. Oscar welcomes her to her premiere, and Harry is with Jerry (Elizabeth Sellars). Harry learns that Maria’s father killed her mother. Edwards says they will keep it from being known. Harry calls from California, and Oscar learns that Maria knows and that she is on her way to Madrid. Oscar, Harry, and Jerry attend the popular trial. Oscar says how damaging to herself was Maria’s testimony. Her father got off on self-defense.
Harry says that two years later Edwards fell at a party in Maria’s house. Rich Alberto Bravano (Marius Goring) is there, and Oscar warns him that his reputation could be ruined. Drunk Shirley asks Maria which man will go with her. Maria talks privately to Harry, and he tells her that the man she likes is mean and dirty. Harry asks Oscar if he has booked Bravano. Shirley tells them that Edwards and Bravano are challenging each other. Bravano asks Maria to go with him, and Edwards tells her not go with him. This causes her to change her mind and go with Bravano. Oscar refuses to obey Edwards, who fires him. Bravano asks Oscar to go with him too, and he does. Edwards tells Harry that she will not make another picture. Edwards asks Myrna (Mari Aldon) to leave with him.
Oscar says Bravano attended the funeral but never got close to Maria. On the yacht Oscar says nobody got Maria, the most desirable. Oscar says Bravano had a cocoon of happy people. At a casino Maria is smiling, but Bravano calls her a thief and a curse. He refuses to let her leave, but Count Torlato-Favrini (Rossano Brazzi) slaps him and leaves with Maria. Oscar says he never saw Maria again.
The Count tells how he drove to France, and in a gypsy camp he sees Maria dancing. In a casino he sees her again, throwing money from Bravano to her brother outside. Bravano says she is a curse and that she cannot love or be loved. The Count says she left with him without question. He does not know who she is, but he persuades her to go with him to Italy. He shows her family portraits and takes her on his yacht. His sister Eleanor (Valentina Cortese) is a widow and says Maria is in love with him. He wants to marry Maria and says she will be the last contessa. Eleanor says he is selfish, but he says he is lonely.
Harry says he read about the marriage and goes to see her. They are glad to see each other, and she says she is sure. She says he only kisses her hand. He says they are more than a fairy tale. Harry meets the Count, and Maria poses for a statue. Harry gives the bride away to the Count in a small chapel. In the palace Harry and Maria discuss that more fans are celebrating outside. The Count advises her not to go out there. Harry warns the Count that Maria is in a fairy tale and is vulnerable. Harry tells her it will not be easy and leaves.
Maria comes to see Harry in his hotel room on a rainy night. She takes a drink and cries. She describes her wedding night. The Count embraces her in the bedroom, and they say they love each other. He says they have to wake up from their dream and hands her a paper about his medical condition after an explosion in the war. He says he loves her and walks out. She cries. Harry asks her how long she could stand it. She says she will make the Count happy. She says she will have a baby, and she is going to tell the Count tonight. She drives off, and Harry follows her to the palace. He bangs on a door, and the Count carries her body, saying she is dead and so is the man. The Count asks Harry what she told him. The Count says she said nothing to him, and he calls the police.
At the funeral the Count goes with the police.
This drama is told from three men’s points of view about a mysterious woman who remains as unattainable as the statue at her funeral. A wealthy producer and businessman are satirized for their controlling other people without experiencing real love. The director has a good relationship and can be a friend and artistic partner to Maria, but he cannot save her from her unusual fate. Ironically, this film foreshadows the decision of Grace Kelly to give up starring roles to marry a European prince. As Harry said, “Life, every now and then, behaves as though it had seen too many bad movies.” Movies mirror life, and sometimes life mirrors movies.