River of No Return (1954)
“Reckless, Roaring, Adventure of the Great Northwest Gold Rush Days!”
Director: Otto Preminger
Cast: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Rory Calhoun
Synopsis: The title river unites a farmer recently released from prison, his young son, and an ambitious saloon singer. In order to survive, each must be purged of anger, and each must learn to understand and care for the others.
River of No Return is more enjoyable than it probably has any right to be given the fact that it was a troubled shoot that neither the director or leading lady wanted to be working on, and that there’s a noticeable lack of sexual chemistry between Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. Monroe’s performance, heavily influenced by an overbearing coach against whom Preminger futilely objected, is spectacularly bad at times. Despite these drawbacks, the simple storyline somehow manages to overcome its predictability to deliver some solid entertainment.
Mitchum plays Matt Calder, who is united with his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) for the first time after serving time in prison for shooting a man in the back. Mark’s mother is dead, and while he’s been waiting for his dad to collect him from a makeshift camp for gold prospectors he’s come under the wing of showgirl Kay Weston (Monroe). Kay’s a sweet, accommodating girl who berates Matt on his parenting skills when they briefly meet, but she’s with the slick gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) who we can tell is an unreliable snake.
Although deep in Gold Rush country, Matt wants to lead a simple life and so he takes his son to the countryside, where he intends to farm the land. Joseph La Shelle’s widescreen cinematography beautifully captures the beauty of the vast landscapes (the film was shot in Banff National Park in Canada), and it’s just a shame that the studio had to spoil the effect by later having the leads filmed against an obvious back projection for many of the scenes on a raft. Anyway, Matt and his son don’t have long to admire the scenery before Kay and Harry come bobbing past on an out-of-control raft heading for the rapids. After Matt rescues them Harry underlines his bad guy credentials by whacking Matt over the head and stealing his horse and rifle, leaving him and Mark defenceless against increasingly restless Indians. Harry’s anxious to get to Council City to file a claim for a gold mine he won in a poker game but, angered by Harry’s callous behaviour, Kay elects to stay with Matt and wait for Harry’s return.
The arrival of a handful of Indians in war paint necessitates a hurried escape on the raft which marks the beginning of an arduous journey, during which Matt and Kay’s initially frosty relationship gradually begins to thaw. The stages through which their relationship pass are pretty much as you’d expect, apart from one scene in which Matt pretty much tries to rape Kay but is interrupted by the timely arrival of a mountain lion. But this being 1950s, the implication is that Matt wasn’t trying to have sexual intercourse with Kay against her will but was merely trying for a few deep and meaningful kisses with the forceful bearing of a typically husky male. Either way, the episode doesn’t stop Kay from promptly choosing to stay with Matt when a couple of prospectors offer to take her off his hands. Perhaps in the rugged West what Matt attempted qualifies as flirting…
Mitchum and Monroe make something of an odd couple, and they never really convince on the screen. In fact, Monroe and Calhoun are much more believable. Mitchum gives the usual reliably laconic performance, but Monroe insists on over-enunciating her lines and it looks so unnatural that it’s completely distracting. She looks gorgeous, though, and there’s something about her that appeals to a man’s protective instincts.
(Reviewed 26th June 2013)