The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

River of No Return

I've written before about my general dislike for movies from the 1950s, but as I watched 1954's River of No Return I couldn't come up with a thing to write about. The cast, the director, the premise, the setting, all sounded positive and at least worth giving it a try.  All those things mentioned were worthwhile too, but like so many 50s westerns this oater lacked any heart, any reason for us as viewers getting really involved in it.  Good in a lot of ways, above average in some others, but overall just a boring western.

Because the movie didn't leave much of an impression on me as a whole, I debated just ending the review there with that first paragraph.  But then I'd feel bad for not giving it a fair shake if nothing else so here goes.  Like so many other 50s westerns, 'River' tries to dazzle the viewer with the spectacle of what's going on in the story from the widescreen filmmaking to the Cinemascope camerawork to the breathtaking locations.  Try and keep up with that, Television!  But that's where it stops.  Characters aren't that interesting, the premise is promising but never goes anywhere, and in the end lands with a clunk despite the talent involved.

Working a small farm amidst a raging gold rush, farmer Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) sends for his son, Mark (Tommy Rettig) when he discovers his estranged wife has passed away.  Everything goes smoothly as the two Calder men cut out a new life for themselves in the wilderness.  One day though, Matt saves a runaway raft on the river, rescuing a gambler named Weston (Rory Calhoun) and his fiancee, Kay (Marilyn Monroe), from almost certain death. Weston has to file a gold claim and steals Matt's horse and rifle, leaving the trio on their own with no protection.  Matt sets out after the gambler with Mark and Kay in tow, navigating the treacherous river in hopes of catching up to the man who shanghaied them.

I can't say I intentionally avoided this flick over the years, but I never actively sought it out either.  But reading through filmographies lately, I stumbled upon it again and saw Mitchum and Monroe's names and then director Otto Preminger too and finally caved and gave it a try. I didn't hate it, and I didn't love it.  It's one of those instantly forgettable movies that has some positives going for it but never amounts to anything bigger and better.  The filming locations in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada are drop-dead gorgeous and Preminger knows it, shooting the green mountains like they're leading up to heaven.  The location shooting is one of the high points of the movie, but I struggle to recommend a movie based solely on how it looks.

Mitchum is one of my favorites, and even in schlock movies usually makes the most he can out of the badness.  His Matt Carlen is a typically Mitchum western hero, stout, strong, and honest as a man who says few words and doesn't like to be pushed.  It's not his best work, but he was always very watchable and doesn't disappoint here.  At the height of her popularity, Monroe never looked better and also shows she was more than just a ditzy blonde.  The girl could act and even gets a chance to sing -- 5 chances actually -- to show off her voice.  Mitchum and Monroe have some chemistry together, but a forced love scene late puts a damper on any fireworks that might have been possible.  Calhoun as always is a worthy villain, slimy and backstabbing to the end, and Rettig handles himself well, avoiding any annoying child actor comparisons.

Filming a story that requires the cast to navigate down a dangerous river puts Preminger in an awkward spot right from the start.  A studio isn't going to allow big names like Mitchum and Monroe to go anywhere near river rapids so you're forced to improvise.  We do get certain shots of them on an actual river in some ridiculously calm water.  But then when the raft reaches rapids, we get the super-imposed shots of Mitchum/Monroe/Rettig in a studio on a "raft" with the green screen nature shots behind them.  I don't know an alternative other than to not use any close-ups, but then I'd complain about that too.  Sorry, Mr. Preminger, looks like you were fighting a losing, can't win battle.  Damn studios and their worries.

Little else to add here.  Mitchum solid, Monroe shows she can act and looks good doing it, and Banff National Park is gorgeous.  An unexciting western that does little to distinguish itself from the pack, and even at just 90 minutes feels like a half hour or so could have been edited cleanly.

River of No Return <---trailer (1954): **/****

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