By 1954 Marilyn Monroe had officially entered her ‘difficult phase’. How much of Monroe’s struggles to remain professional were predicated on her own wilful stubbornness – and how many of her delays and absences from the set due to sudden illnesses and so on stemmed from the actress’s crippling inner demons and insecurities – is open for discussion. But by the time Otto Preminger agreed to direct River Of No Return, Monroe’s behaviour was the subject of much consternation. She did not make a move without advice from her acting coach, Natasha Lytess, who seemed hell bent on giving Monroe stage direction contrary to Preminger’s wishes, thereby irking the already irascible director to new extremes. The result – Preminger spent much of the early shoot doing damage control, and a good portion of the latter half absolutely despising and mismanaging Monroe’s already fragile ego.
River of No Return became a most unbearable experience for all concerned – a genuine shame since Preminger had approved of the casting of Monroe and co-star Robert Mitchum. But Preminger had not been the first choice to direct the film, and in truth, had very little interest in the project in the beginning. Gradually, he found something to inspire his artistic sentiment. But Mitchum came with his own caveat of vices – particularly his boozing, that occasionally got the better of him throughout the lengthy shoot.
It is one of Hollywood’s minor ironies that a movie supposedly set in the north western United States was mostly photographed inside Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks and Lake Louise. Location came with its own set of challenges – namely, inclement weather that delayed the shoot several times. Afterward, cast and crew were recalled to the Fox lot for interiors. Yet, despite all this turmoil, River of No Return emerges as a grand and mostly entertaining western frontier yarn. Frank Fenton’s screenplay moves the action along and keeps the narrative tight. Joseph LaShelle’s cinematography is truly stunning, particularly the ‘rapids’ sequence (a combination of location matte work and studio process tank SFX). And Cyril J. Mockridge evokes the haunted mystery of the rugged landscape with his introspective underscoring.
Our story begins among the ramshackle tents of a nomadic town circa 1875. This fragile existence is home for saloon singer, Kay (Marilyn Monroe) and her young charge, Mark Calder (Tommy Rettig). One afternoon Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) arrives in town; much to Kay’s surprise and a virtual stranger to his own son. Matt’s been serving time upstate for killing a man in self-defence – a crime he’s eager to keep hidden from young Mark. Befriending the boy, Matt tells Mark he is taking him back to his isolated cabin and farm deep in the wilderness. It’s a clean and honest life, and after some initial apprehensions Mark willingly leaves with Matt for parts unknown.
Meanwhile, Kay’s fiancée, disreputable gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) has returned to their tent with good news. It seems he’s managed to swindle a pair of dimwitted prospectors, Sam Benson (Douglas Spencer) and Dave Colby (Murvyn Vye) out of their claim in a poker game. But it is imperative that he reach Council City to file the deed to the mine before either Colby or Benson. Stealing off into the night, Kay and Harry make their way along the rugged terrain. Two unforeseen circumstances make their trek fortuitous; an attack by Indians and a brush with death in some vicious rapids.
Harry is devious and greedy, but entirely unprepared for the call of the wild. When their raft is nearly wrecked in the rapids near the Calder farm, Matt and Mark rescue Harry and Kay, providing them with a safe haven for the night. Harry offers to buy Matt’s rifle for protection. Unable to part with it for the sake of his own safety, Matt refuses Harry’s offer. But Harry will not be deterred. If Matt won’t sell him the rifle, he’ll unscrupulously take it just the same after everyone’s gone to bed, ditching Kay in the trade. After all, she’s slowing him down.
At dawn’s early light Matt awakens to the realization that he, Kay and Mark are at the mercy of the Indians. Making their escape down the escarpment to the river, Matt navigates the perilous rapids with Kay and Mark aboard. Kay attempts to discourage Matt from pursuing Harry, reasoning that their confrontation can only end in bloodshed. Matt questions Kay’s loyalty to a man who could leave her and a child utterly defenceless in the wilderness. But Kay challenges his accusations, saying that at least Harry is not a murderer. Mark overhears their conversation and becomes disillusioned about his father.
The spirit of their camaraderie broken, Matt grows remote and commanding toward Kay and Mark. Kay finds him boorish to say the least. However, after Matt narrowly rescues Kay from a wild mountain lion attack she reassesses both his bravery and his commitment in seeing them all safely to Council City. Gradually, the wounded bond between father and son begins to heal. But more important, Kay has begun to harbour genuine affections for Matt. Benson and Colby catch up to the group and another confrontation ensues. After yet another Indian attack, Matt, Kay and Mark arrive in Council City a little worse for the wear but in one piece nevertheless. Matt confronts Harry, who never expected to see any of them ever again. Cocky as ever, Harry casual shoots Matt in the street. Realizing why his father killed another man and went to prison, Mark takes up arms and guns down Harry to avenge his father.
Rushing to Matt’s aid, Mark discovers that the wound is superficial. Matt is patched up by the local doctor and taken to recover. A while later Matt arrives at the saloon in Council City where Kay has found work as a bawdy chanteuse. Realizing that he has fallen in love with her too, Matt interrupts her performance and carries her off, the two destined to return to Matt’s farm with Mark.
River of No Return is an effortless enough western ditty that is easy on the intellect as well as the eye. Does it live up to Otto Preminger’s pedigree as a film maker? Arguably, no: being just a tad too benign and simplistic in its narrative to be considered among the director’s more introspective masterworks. What the film is – is entertaining – and with the expansive vistas luminously photographed to their best advantage, and the voluminous Marilyn Monroe effortlessly cooing, cavorting and caressing the Cinemascope canvass, there’s much to ogle and appreciate even when the story becomes mired in its slightly maudlin romantic clichés.
We won’t mention Rory Calhoun’s lugubrious turn as the villain, except to say that he’s no match for Robert Mitchum’s laconic tough guy charm. We tend to forget how much mileage Mitchum could get from that lumbering he-man persona. It never changes – much - whether he’s playing a flawed noir antihero (Out of the Past) or gallant G.I. gone to seed and utterly conflicted over his feelings toward a missionary nun (Heaven Knows Mr. Allison). But it’s Mitchum – a pre-packaged entity as rough and tumble as a bucket of nails. Even silent, when he appears on the screen, it’s enough to have the other men in the frame take one step back while women instantly turn to fawning mush.
But Monroe’s Kay doesn’t quite go to pieces over Mitchum’s Matt Calder – at least not for a long while - and that’s a refreshing twist in their romance. He has to work hard to win her heart and it’s the effort in the exercise that steams up a few frames here and there. But the film isn’t really about Kay and Matt’s stormy and conflicted romantic sparring. It isn’t even about the unbreakable bond between father and son. In the final analysis, River of No Return is all about showcasing its assets – the lush scenery and Monroe, made ruggedly glamorous in her form-fitted blue jeans and low cut cotton blouse. If anything then, the film is an exercise in the relevancy of star power and how, at least during the golden age of Hollywood, it frequently managed to mask - even eclipse - the shortcomings of a very pedestrian tale.
Absolutely don’t care for Fox’s Blu-ray transfer. The image has been excessively scrubbed with DNR, resulting in a waxy look that has been artificially softened. We lose film grain in the process and a lot of fine detail. The night scenes suffer the most, because they’re dark and softly focused. Colours lean toward a blue/gray and brownish/orangey contrast that I am fairly certain was not a part of the original theatrical release. What happened here, I’m not sure – unless Fox has chosen the quick and dirty route once again; bumping up tired old 720p DVD digital elements to 1080p without a rescanning of the actual film elements (which, frankly, I wouldn’t put past Fox).
I really felt cheated watching River of No Return this way. One digital anomaly we do lose from DVD to Blu-ray is the excessive edge effects that were glaringly obvious. Still, the visuals are unspectacular. The audio is a 5.1 DTS of the original 4.0 stems – much appreciated and fairly impressive given the limitations of audio recording back then. Fox gives us absolutely nothing in the way of extras, just like their old DVD. The more I think about it, the more I suspect this image has been harvested from tired old digital files. Bad idea, Fox. Time to go to the drawing board again!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)