Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Classic Tuesdays: River of No Return (1954)

     Attempted rape is just another way of saying, "I love you..." Wait- what?
    The eponymous river of the film River of No Return refers not just to the main setting of the film’s action, but rather the innocence lost for young Mark Calder, as played by Tommy Rettig, who finds the confusion and disillusionment we all do when we hit those wavy years of adolescence, seeing everything - our parents, our friends, the world around us - with untrained eyes no longer belonging to a child, but not yet adult either.

    Mark’s dad Matt (like in the gospels, Mark follows Matthew) is played by Robert Mitchum, a man recently released from prison for killing a man years ago, preventing him from really knowing his son. He finds Mark at a tent city, basically an orphan after the passing of his mother, looking out for himself and receiving the occasional help from the camp’s saloon singer Kay, played by Marilyn Monroe. Kay is engaged to gambler Harry Weston (Rory Cochran), who has her convinced his money problems will finally be over as long as they travel downriver in a makeshift raft to file the deed on his gold claim. Both parties part for the time being, but it isn’t long before they come across each other again. A desperate Harry steals Matt’s only rifle and horse when his raft proves unlikely to make it into town on time, leaving Kay behind with Matt and his son, promising he’ll return in a few days and return Matt’s belongings.

    Of course, we wouldn’t have much of a movie if our three main leads sat around waiting for Harry to return, so sure enough, a band of Indians come strolling onto Matt’s property. Without his rifle or his horse, Matt is forced to take Mark and Kay on Harry’s raft, straight into the rapids of the dreaded river of no return…

    What follows covers both the blooming relationship between Matt and Kay and also the realization that his father is not who Mark thinks he is. Mark learns that his dad was jailed for shooting a man in the back, a revelation that hits the boy hard. It’s always a shock the moment you realize your parents are not the flawless super-beings you’ve seen them as previously, and Mark can’t grasp how his father could do such a thing. But the boy will learn why his father killed the man the way he did, as history repeats itself when the three of them finally catch up to Harry… But I won’t spoil that here. Needless to say, Mark’s journey is the most fascinating and emotionally true of the whole film, and young actor Tommy Rettig gives a fine performance, showing a talent beyond his years in capturing all of young Mark’s trials and doubts.

    Less successful is the forced “love” story between Matt and Kaye. Mitchum embodies the pure machismo the role needs - a role only Mitchum could play, just as at ease wrestling mountain lions as he is at fending off Indians whilst steering the raft through rushing rapids, and it’s clear from the beginning he has no time for Kay’s city-dwelling attitude. There’s not-so-subtle hints that Kay should fall for the “real man” that is Robert Mitchum and leave her two-timing fiance behind - a fine story arc, no doubt, but the film constantly puts the two together in the most awkward ways. Mitchum spends most of the movie annoyed by her, but - being that she’s Marilyn Monroe - he eventually warms up to the girl, their bickering culminating in a rather rape-y scene where Mitchum tackles Monroe to the ground - trying to force her to submit to his will until the moment she does, making an almost-rape scene even creepier by turning it into a romantic one. Different time, different gender-relations…

    Monroe herself hated the movie, often citing it as her worst role, but that probably had more to do with her strained relationship with director Otto Preminger. Although nothing terribly notable about it, she’s fine in the movie, bringing her usual grace and charm to the role of Kay; she also sings a few songs, to boot (although the title track had her dubbed over with another singer).  Preminger had never worked on a true Western before, his previous successes being dark film noirs, and had his hands full between Monroe and her overbearing acting coach and Mitchum’s excessive drinking. Preminger terminated his contract with 20th Century Fox after the film‘s completion, vowing to never be a studio employee again; spending the rest of his career helming taboo-breaking projects like The Man with the Golden Arm and Anatomy of a Murder. Which is probably where he should have been all along - although the vistas are sweeping and beautiful, Preminger was far too particular a director to be helming big Western epics. The film’s pace lags often between the shootouts and narrow escapes, and aside from Mark’s story, seems a little undercooked.

    Still, with two of classic Hollywood’s finest stars in their prime filmed against the beautiful scenery, River of No Return never fails to provide entertainment.

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