18 January 2011

River of No Return

River of No Return a Fun Western Romp
By Kristin Battestella

Some westerns are better than others are, but that by no means suggests the 1954 classic River of No Return is a dog of a picture.  With exceptional scenery, fun talent, and a little bit of preposterous, this yarn still offers plenty of entertainment today.

Fresh out of prison, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) finds his young son Mark (Tommy Rettig), who has been taken in by saloon singer Kay (Marilyn Monroe) amid the Northwestern gold rush.  Matt hopes to return to the quiet outdoor life with Mark, and Kay sets out toward Council City with her fiancé Harry (Rory Calhoun) to record a gold claim he ‘won’ in a poker game. When Kay and Harry’s raft is caught on the rough river rapids, Matt rescues them.  Unfortunately, in return Harry steals Matt’s horse and rifle and leaves Kay as he rides on with his claim.  Despite dangerous rapids and angry Indians, Matt, Mark, and Kay brave the River of No Return with vengeance on their minds.

Though popular back in the day, River of No Return and director Otto Preminger (Laura, Anatomy of a Murder) had their fair share of off screen notorious.  Everything from Monroe’s apparent injuries and acting coaches to Preminger’s grumbling over contractual issues and his divided set made life difficult for Frank Fenton’s (The Wings of Eagles) screenplay from Louis Lantz’ story. It’s not all bad- the direction is fine and there’s plenty of potential in the story.  However, some of the dialogue is a little hokey, a little too matinee western for what turns out to be such serious stuff.  Instead of being super heavy and gritty, River of No Return falls prey to the stilted action when it didn’t have to do so.  Naturally, things are stereotypical on the Indian angles- complete with booming drums at every appearance.  Again, instead of being a realistic and heavy portrayal, they only serve the action purely for action’s sake. Even if you are looking for some of that old-fashioned western kind of hokey, River of No Return had a lot more potential. Despite this apparent unevenness, enough still holds together for a thrilling yarn. 

You have to admit, no matter how infamous the movie, there’s something pimpin’ about Robert Mitchum.  The bad boy star of Cape Fear, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, The Story of G.I. Joe, and Night of the Hunter (I’ll stop!) broods even when he’s carrying a soft spot here.  We believe rough and tumble Mitchum as the ex-con Matthew- and not because of his own real life brushes with the law. Mitchum adds dimension and stature as the regretful dad trying to pick up the pieces with his son.  The tender dynamic alone is enough to keep us watching- until things get really saucy, that is. Yeah, yeah, a nice dad trying to teach a ten year old some hard lessons learned- yet we know it’s only a matter of time before Matt gets rough and juicy with Kay.  Some of River of No Return drags or seems a little too back and forth between the soft character scenes and rip-roaring action, but it’s not Mitchum’s fault.  Regardless of how outlandish things get, his layered presence won’t let you look away.  

River of No ReturnWell, her hair is kind of weird here, but my goodness what a waist on Marilyn Monroe! Scarlett O’Hara can have her 18 inches!  The bebustled corsets and tiny, racy red, green, and gold frocks make the iconic screen goddess seem a little out of place in such a rugged western, but some good old jeans add a little more realism to Monroe’s look. Even back then, it was all about the eye candy, wasn’t it?  Some of the low cut costuming and rough come-ons might have been a little risqué for the time, but MM fans will love this attempt at something different.  Monroe’s musical material is not the type we expect per Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or There’s No Business Like Show Business, and there isn’t even that much of it.  The renditions, however, are good, with Monroe again proving she can vary it up.  While it looks like she had some practice with it, I don’t think Monroe is really playing the guitar. But, I don’t think her singing was dubbed. If you see enough of her movies, you recognize her speaking and singing range. Kay sounds like Marilyn! However, I actually wonder why they fell back on some musical numbers here.  Although it’s refreshing to just have folks singing ditties and strumming guitar rather than blissful singing cowboy musical westerns, River of No Return needed more drama, not music flair.  We presume Kay to be the bad girl, but she has a care for little Mark and always gets involved with the wrong men.  Despite some weak dialogue and doubts about the music, really what’s not to love?

 We don’t see him very often in River of No Return, but what we do see of Rory Calhoun (How to Marry a Millionaire) is so slim and shady it’s juicy.  He has a lot to trump against Mitchum, but his crooked gambler in the slick suit is love to hate worthy.  What guy leaves Marilyn Monroe, honestly? Likewise, Tommy Retting (Lassie) is a lot of fun.  Somehow, this pint-sized streetwise charmer strikes a tender balance between the big stars.  Perhaps it’s again a little hokey, but also so cute how Mark needs and wants a dad, yet calls him by his first name. We want this unusual father-son pair to have the nice life- and if a rough around the edges lady like Kay can complete them, all the better.  Maybe it’s obvious that this is how River of No Return will end up, but it’s certainly fun in getting there.

I must confess, when I think of this movie, I think of two things. On one hand, the Canadian visuals are very, very sweet- the mountains of Jasper Park and the glorious riverside forestry are downright breathtaking.  It’s like those old nature Disney videos that used to relax you and put you to sleep in those darkened science classrooms! The natural photography here is exceptional, end of story.  However, the up-close action and rapid rafting is obvious film trickery, to say the least.  It’s like when you see those looped backgrounds behind the cars while the actors mime over the steering wheel- but on a splashy raft in an onset tank.  We shouldn’t be so surprised thanks to our current love of over the top blue screen work, but yes, they did it back then, too.  Of course, the tricks aren’t as bad as they could be-the blend of the two shots is actually fairly seamless, without any super obvious cut and splice outlines.  The mountain lion scenes also seem corny in the fifties film styling, as does the scoring and old-fashioned opening song.  But all that’s to be expected. Besides, isn’t the point of River of No Return all the visuals- those mountains and Miss Monroe- in all their Cinemascope glory?

River of No ReturnFans of classics and good old school westerns can watch River of No Return again and again.  Rough Mitchum lovers and Marilyn Monroe connoisseurs can also complete their collections with several DVD editions- from the affordable to the Monroe box set.  Online options, rentals, and streaming opportunities also ensure plenty of viewings for years to come.  Of course, that sweet river is not on blu-ray yet, but I digress.


ElBaerta said...

We just watched this on AMC's 24 hour Marilyn Monroe marathon. Really enjoyed it.
Good review. Well try

Kristin Snouffer said...

Glad you liked it, El! Thanks for stopping by to comment!