River of No Return (1954)
Directed by Otto Preminger (and Jean Negulesco, uncredited)
Produced by Stanley Rubin
Screenplay by Frank Fenton from a story by Louis Lantz
Cinematography by Joseph LaShelle
Edited by Louis R. Loeffler
Music by Cyril J. Mockridge
20th Century Fox
Last year I picked up The Robert Mitchum Film Collection from a Fox Connect Black Friday sale for the absolutely insane price of $3.98. That’s right, a 10-movie set that retails for $48.98. It must’ve been a mistake, but I jumped on it and was charged $3.98.
I’m just now getting around to watching them, starting with the first film in the collection, River of No Return (1954) directed by Otto Preminger, a film whose Frank Fenton screenplay is based on a short story by Louis Lantz, who based his story on the 1948 Italian neorealist classic film Bicycle Thieves. River of No Return is similar to the Vittorio De Sica film only in that a farmer named Matt Calder (Mitchum) struggles to care for his son after his horse has been stolen. Aside from that, there’s very little to connect the two films.
As the film opens, Matt rides into a mining town after serving a prison sentence for shooting one man who was threatening another. Now free, Matt is looking for Mark (Tommy Rettig, below left), the 10-year-old son he’s never met. Mark was abandoned after the death of his mother and has lived among the miners and entertainers, especially a saloon singer named Kay (Marilyn Monroe, above). Kay looks out for the kid when she can, but she’s just biding her time until her gambler boyfriend Harry (Rory Calhoun, second picture below) can win enough money to take the two of them away from the mining life.
Matt finds Mark, tells him that he’s come for him, and promises him a better life. Mark is suspicious, but Matt tells his son – with some strange use of biblical order – that Mark follows Matthew; it says so right there in the Bible.
Matt and Mark build a home in the wilderness overlooking a nearby river. One day, Matt looks to discover a raft in danger of crashing on the rocks. Who’s on that raft but Kay and Harry, on their way to strike it rich to register a mining claim Harry won in a poker game. Matt rescues the couple, but things turn sour when Harry steals the only available means of transportation: Matt’s horse.
I’ve told you enough – possibly too much – about the plot, which is fairly straight-forward. The elements that make River of No Return interesting push right up against what makes the film routine, ordinary, and sometimes laughable, yet I’m not entirely certain which side wins. It’s a film that, when you get right down to it, isn’t really that good, but I can’t help liking it. Maybe it’s Mitchum, maybe it’s Monroe. I’m just not sure.
The film’s problems? The story is typical, uneven, and in places downright slow-moving. The Indians appear only as a plot device; there’s no reason for them to show up at any particular time or place other than they’re reading a script that says “Ride up here and look menacing.”
The musical numbers aren’t great, but even worse is Monroe’s guitar faking. Oh, the chord fingerings themselves are accurate, but she gets at least three different chord sounds from each guitar fingering. (I’m not even sure Hendrix could’ve figured out how to do that.) Plus it’s Gloria Wood’s voice we’re hearing, not Monroe’s, but that’s still forgivable.
What’s also forgivable is the rear-projection footage of Mitchum, Monroe and Rettig rafting the river (although this shot is one of the better ones). This is one of my pet peeves with people who laugh at films from this era and earlier. You certainly can laugh at the technology of the time, compared to the present, but you shouldn’t. Not a person who went to see this movie in theaters in 1954 didn’t know these shots were faked. But like Monroe’s guitar faking/playing (which is a problem that could’ve and should’ve been fixed), audiences accepted the limits of the technology of the time. Even though we’re seeing the film over 60 years later with 21st century eyes, we should remember that Preminger, his crew, and the technology didn’t have that luxury. (Although just a few close shots of people on the raft would’ve lent the film a bit more credibility.) End of rant.
Yet for a film that had so much going against it, it turned out remarkably well.
First of all, both Monroe and Preminger were under contractual obligation to make the film. Monroe’s acting coach Natasha Lytess was a constant presence (some would say nuisance), Mitchum was frequently drunk, and the shoot was often plagued by rain. In fact, Preminger wasn’t even present for reshoots or editing, having left for Europe to make another film.
And while Mitchum and Monroe don’t really have great chemistry together, they both come out looking better than they have any right to. (It’s a pity they never worked together again.) The real stars of the film turned out to be Technicolor, Cinemascope, the scenery, and Monroe, not necessarily in that order. Even Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review wasn’t sure whether the best feature of the film was the scenery or Monroe. Both are visually impressive.
The DVD transfer comes across as acceptable, but certainly nothing to write home about. I would actually love to see the Blu-ray edition and may just pick it up one of these days. River of No Return is one of those guilty pleasures that I’d like to revisit every few years. Yet the film really doesn’t deserve the term “guilty” pleasure. While it’s nowhere near the best work Mitchum, Monroe or Preminger would do, it’s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.