Monday, July 4, 2011

Movie Monday: River of No Return

For this week's Movie Monday its the Technicolor Big-Time Hollywood Western River of No Return!

I thought it was time to give the Giant-and-Usually-Killer-Animals bit a rest, so I went scouring around Netflix to look for something I hadn't seen and would be a change of pace.

So when I came across River of No Return, I was intrigued--I'd certainly heard of the movie, but had only known it was a Marilyn Monroe picture. Not being a particular fan of hers, I never gave the film much thought, but then I looked a little closer: it was in Technicolor--a plus. It co-starred Robert Mitchum--another plus. It was directed by...Otto Preminger?!? Okay, I had my movie!
The film opens with cowboy Matt Calder (Mitchum) atop a horse, headed to a tent city. Recently widowed and having been in jail for murder, he now wants to reclaim his son Mark (Tommy Rettig), left in the care of dance hall singer Kay (Monroe).

Right from the beginning, we see this film was clearly an "A" production: of course the stars, but Preminger fills some shots with dozens of extras, all scrambling around as the camera pans by:
Mark and his father are virtual strangers, but Matt promises him a good life back at their homestead.

Meanwhile, we see Kay's relationship with her fiance, a scraggly gambler named Harry (Rory Calhoun), is none-too-good: he's clearly a liar, and he hits up Kay for her hard-earned money to file the deed on a gold mine.
So far, this film doesn't feel much like an Otto Preminger movie; and my research told me that this was a picture forced upon him by a studio contract. Its not that its a bad film, by any means; its just a tad generic, especially coming from someone as idiosyncratic as Preminger.

But there are some scenes early on that have a weird, almost nasty feel: like when some creeps at the tent city pick on poor Mark by shooting at the buckets of water he's carrying, then laughing when he begins to get upset:
...of course, Mitchum shows up to paste the jerk one. Several, actually.

Matt takes his son on his way home, and they run into Kay and Harry who are on a flimsy raft, headed down river. Matt and Mark rescue them, only to have Harry steal Matt's gun and horse so he can get to Council City (where the deed has to be filed) by land!

When Indians show up to threaten the three of them, they hop on the raft to escape. During their trip, they start to learn more about one another, with Matt wondering why Kay would agree to marry such a creep like Harry. Kay points out that at least Harry never killed anyone.

There are some absolutely beautiful shots in this movie--with the mountains and sky, they look like classic Americana paintings:
...sure, this was filmed in Canada, but you get my point.

The back-projection effects of our trio heading down river are, well, pretty fake-looking, but they don't last all the long and they do the job:
Kay and Matt get to admire one another (including a sort-of attempted rape of Kay by Harry, which is really weird and off-putting), and Kay sees how brave Matt is when he rescues her from a mountain lion, some prospectors (who say Harry stole their claim), and some more Indians. At the same time, Mark learns to look up to his old man, learning that Matt did a kill a man, but it was in the defense of someone else.

They make their way to Council City, and Harry doesn't like being confronted by the allegation he stole the gold claim, and decides to shoot an un-armed Matt:
...but just as he's about to fire, a shot rings out: it's Mark, who was inspecting a rifle in a nearby store. Harry falls over, dead, in a well-executed (no pun intended), tense scene with a just a touch of bloody violence.

Later, just as Matt and Mark are planning to return home, Matt stops by the saloon where Kay is singing (with distinctly less enthusiasm then she had before), grabs her, and takes her with them. The End.

I couldn't help but feel a little underwhelmed by River of No Return; its certainly not a bad film by any means (and it really didn't deserve Monroe later calling it her worst film), its just a bit pro-forma considering the stars and the director. After this, Preminger went on to make edgy (for the time) films such as Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder, and Exodus. He bought out his studio contract, and pretty much never made a "for hire" movie again.

But Mitchum is his laid-back best here (indeed, he was busted for pot possession while making it; so I guess he was pretty relaxed), Monroe is very sexy, and the Technicolor vistas are beautiful. So while I wouldn't say rush out to see it, if you're experiencing a lazy Sunday and want to watch an exercise in old school Hollywood professionalism, you could do worse than River of No Return.


Wings1295 said...

I had never heard of this, so it's like you unearthed something new. Will have to check it out one day.

Michael Jones said...

These days, Canada is used as a front for any old American city. It's good to see it managed to do so oh so many years ago.
I need to rewatch Niagara to see if it's filmed from the American or US side.

rob! said...

Thanks for the comments guys!!

Robert M. Lindsey said...

I'll probably see this one, I love Mitchum and like Monroe. And I'm a big fan of lazy Sunday old-school Hollywood professionalism.

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