Friday 26 October 2012

Movie Review: River Of No Return (1954)

River Of No Return overcomes a forgettable plot thanks to stunning natural scenery and a vibrantly grounded Marilyn Monroe performance. The action is worse than routine and the conflicts fully contrived, but the story fades into the background against the massive mountains and roaring rivers, and Monroe's spirited tussle with frontier survival.

Mild mannered farmer Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum), who has just finished serving a prison sentence, reunites with his ten-year-old son Mark (Tommy Rettig) at a sprawling rough-and-tumble tent city supporting the latest gold rush. Kay (Monroe) is providing the sultry singing entertainment in the saloon tent, but she is convinced by the conniving Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) to join him on a dangerous raft journey to Council City, where Harry wants to file a gold claim he won in a poker game.

Along the way they float by Matt's cabin, and Harry's evil tendencies take over: he steals Matt's horse and rifle, knocks him out and rides away. With violent Indians threatening to overrun the farm, Matt, Mark and Kay take to the raft and make their escape, with Matt bent on revenge against Harry, Kay hoping to prevent further violence, and Mark about to learn about the figurative and literal difficult waters that adults need to navigate.

River Of No Return is one of Monroe's less celebrated but perhaps most pragmatic roles. Despite an apparently strained relationship with director Otto Preminger, Monroe delivers a performance that is at once down-to-earth, physical and alluring. Whether entertaining gold prospectors in a ramshackle tent or navigating down the river, she projects a combination of resolve and resignation to fate, and her song numbers are staged with panache and performed with commitment.

With Mitchum doing just enough to step above sleepwalking through the movie, and a clumsy story tripping over itself to place characters on a raft, Monroe has little to compete with other than the scenery. And the Canadian vistas are spectacular, with the areas around Jasper and Banff providing a dramatic backdrop to the river journey. Filming in CinemaScope, Preminger realizes that his landscape is much more impressive than the plebian script by Frank Fenton. Along with cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, Preminger fills the screen with nature's grandeur, often reducing the characters to specks on a raft, all the better to conceal the faces of the stunt doubles risking the spray.

River Of No Return comprehensively shoots itself in the foot on a couple of occasions. The treatment of the Indians as both mindlessly vicious and plain stupid is difficult to digest, while Matt's attack and clumsy attempted rape of Kay is out of character for him and implausibly dismissed by her.

But at least there is genuine warmth in the performance of Tommy Rettig as Mark, and the young boy not only becomes central to the story with his journey into the world of manhood, but also develops palpable rapport with both Monroe and Mitchum. Rory Calhoun's villain insists on digging ever deeper until he solidly strikes his comeuppance.

With a star shining in the rough and gorgeous scenery dominating with overwhelming presence, River Of No Return floats past the jagged rocks and makes it to shore, a bit wet but otherwise functional.

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