River of No Return - 1954

River of No Return - Released April 30, 1954. Directed by Otto Preminger and Jean Negulesco

Otto Preminger is a genius film director (Anatomy of a Murder, Advise and Consent, Exodus, etc.) but that genius is not on display with River of No Return. The story gets bogged down with the problem that plagued too many other Monroe Hollywood vehicles: they try so hard to package their big star they neglect making the movie work as a film story in its own right.

None of that's Monroe's problem, she's here on the screen doing a perfectly good job as a saloon singer (she does several songs) named Kay Weston with a hard-luck affection for a worthless gambler (Rory Calhoun) who leaves her on the doorstep of Robert Mitchum's (as Matt Calder) cabin in the wilderness of the Rockies. Calder has a young son, and the gambler has ridden off with Calder's rifle and horse, leaving the trio of Kay-Calder-Calder Jr defenseless against local Indians and marauding bandits. Very quickly they're forced to escape by boarding a raft for a rapid escape as a war party appears and burns down the cabin and sends the raft off with a shower of arrows fired from the river bank. Calder is intent on catching up with the gambler who stole his horse and gun, and Kay wants to be reunited with the man.

Some scenes with Mitchum and Monroe look under-rehearsed and at times the actions we're watching onscreen are presented so perfunctorily it is as if the director was absent and the screenwriter (Frank Fenton) just couldn't come up with anything except the most obvious bits of dialogue to move the plot a little further along. Mitchum generally underplays as part of his style, but here he sometimes seems bored with his lines and Monroe at times seems lost. They both look fantastic and that certainly helps the movie, but cliches' abound, and when a good scene does come off, and finally it seems like the tale of the three fugitives traveling down river in wide screen CinemaScope Technicolor will finally take-off, a subsequent scene is slow and disorganized and the pacing is gone. (Supposably, Preminger walked off the movie at some point over conflicts with Monroe's acting coach, and some later scenes were directed by Jean Negulesco.)

Fenton's screenplay sometimes seems an ambitious effort to capture something realistic about wilderness living, and about human nature (certainly the parallel of Monroe's character with that of the gambler is a clever reading of opportunists misunderstanding one another's ethics); but a sudden shift in the tale where Calder appears to be attempting to rape the saloon singer (this gets interrupted) clashes harshly with the tone of the rest of the tale. There's no explanation given, aside from Calder's brief, mumbled apology later, that makes sense of the scene. It could be cut out of the movie and it wouldn't effect anything that comes afterward.

Further down the list of complaints, the story tells us several times that Calder is a farmer, but when we get a shot of his fields, they look overgrown or neglected. Are we supposed to take that as information about Calder's abilities with a plow, or is it just shoddy filmmaking?

The gorgeous scenery (cinematography by Joseph LaShelle) of the Rockies (Banff National Park, among other locations) and the river-scenery (Salmon River, Idaho) as the trio escape down river on a raft is first-rate, though the white-water rafting sections have quite obvious manikins aboard the raft as it pounds over rough water. The inserts of process-shot studio scenes sometimes detract from the spectacular location shooting, but like the rest of this uneven movie, sometimes they're very well done.

In a way, these deficiencies don't matter because the stars are that effective, just standing there, being photographed. Mitchum and Monroe are likeable, as is the younger Calder played by Tommy Rettig (the film did well in release, placing #11 overall in box office for 1954).

You can almost hear the voice of a 20th Century Fox executive saying "the early scenes with Monroe in a saloon girl outfit are great, why can't we have more of that?" So the story bends backward to put Monroe back on a stage in a tight outfit. Then Calder shows up at the end, with son in tow, and Calder and Kay settle matters so that we can have a happy ending. The three characters deserve it, if you excuse Calder's bizarre assault, and it's nice that the gambler has to finally face the music, so to speak. Even while picking apart the film for all it's foul balls, technical flaws and the writing gone wrong, all the same the film delivers greatly on it's two main reasons for being - Mitchum and Monroe.

Original Page September 2016

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