The Grim Outdoors: River of No Return (1954)

In the numerous attempts to capitalize on the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s tragic death, 20th Century Fox has made the most welcome one, releasing impeccably restored editions of seven of her films in the “Forever Marilyn” Blu-Ray box set. Also available individually, these discs are a striking reminder that Monroe was not simply a mass-produced fetish toy, but an idiosyncratic artist who keenly played off of, and frequently subverted, the dumb-blonde characters she was saddled with. It includes Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How To Marry A Millionaire, River of No Return, There’s No Business Like Show Business, The Seven Year Itch, Some Like It Hot and The Misfits. While Gentlemen Prefer Blondes remains an ebulliently entertaining treatise on female friendship, the revelation for me was Otto Preminger’s River of No Return (1954), a rather melancholy Western (with the saddest theme song in history), in which she plays her woman of questionable virtue with a daring opacity, causing Darryl Zanuck to demand re-shoots to clarify her character’s motivations.

River of No Return was originally conceived by screenwriter Louis Lantz as a Western remake of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. It concerns a man, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) whose horse and gun are stolen by gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun). Unable to work on or defend his farm, Calder and his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) search the dangerous countryside for the thief. As Chris Fujiwara reports in his meticulously researched critical biography of Preminger, The World And Its Double, Lettig’s treatment was heavily revised by Frank Fenton, brought in by young Fox producer Stanley Rubin. They fleshed out Calder’s backstory, making him an ex-con recently released from prison on a murder charge. Weston was also given a saloon singer fiancee, Kay, to be played by Monroe. After the theft, Kay is embarrassed by Weston’s actions and stays behind with Matt and Mark,  but her ultimate loyalties are left ambiguously undefined.

Fox executive Darryl Zanuck intended the film to be a garish spectacle that would show off Monroe and the new CinemaScope process, writing in a memo that he wanted it to “stand an audience on its ear.” Otto Preminger did not entirely deliver the thrills Zanuck sought, so Jean Negulesco was brought on to film reshoots, including the sexually suggestive scenes in which Mitchum massages, and later violently wrestles with, Monroe.

Preminger was brought late into the production, after the screenplay and much of the cast were finalized. Used to being producer/director on his films, and having just finished The Moon Is Blue, doing work for hire was a new and fraught experience for him. It was also the first film that he shot in CinemaScope, which he adapted to with a remarkable ease. Working with cinematographer Joseph La Shelle, Preminger composed images for the widescreen frame, which was perfect for capturing the horizontal lines of the pseudonymous river (shot in Alberta, Canada). He also instinctively understood that the wider frame was inimical to quick pans and editing, so he often uses depth to stage multiple actions in one shot. At the time Andre Bazin wrote that River of No Return was an exemplar of CinemaScope filmmaking, that it was one of the first films in which “the format really added something important to the mise en scene.”

This can be seen to an offhandedly brilliant effect in an early shot where Mitchum is strolling through a gold rush town, interrogating a priest about the whereabouts of his son, whom he is picking up. The priest laments that he came West as a missionary to convert Native Americans, but that he thinks white folk need him more now. Gold fever has corrupted his town. In the background Preminger presents nature as another force luring people into the muck. There is a carriage fording the river behind Mitchum, loaded up with women. It gets stuck in the mud,  and one of the ladies tumbles into the water before it reaches shore. This is a comic variation on the dangers the river will later present to Calder and to Kay. Background is comedy, foreground is tragedy.

As easily as Preminger adapted to CinemaScope, the same can’t be said regarding his relationship with Marilyn Monroe, who brought along her very vocal acting coach Natasha Lytess. Fujiwara details Preminger’s growing irritation with Lytess’ constant interruptions, until he finally banned her from the set. She would later return due to Zanuck’s intervention. But regardless of the tension off the set, Monroe is teasingly enigmatic in the film, emphasizing Kay as a performer. She appears warm toward Mark, but there is a coldness in her tone that implies it could be an act, as she is still sworn to marry Weston. She is the perfect foil for Mitchum’s brooding introvert – who repeatedly tells Kay and his son that they are likely to die on their journey. They are like two stubborn mules who kick each other enough until they realize they both like it.

Zanuck did not approve of the ambiguous nature of Kay and Calder’s motivations, writing in a memo that “our picture is inarticulate. We have got to stop guessing about these relationships. Once and for all, we want to lay it on the line so there can be no doubt or confusion as to what our people mean and how they feel.” Three new scenes were shot, including the two sexually suggestive ones previously mentioned, and another with Monroe and Rory Calhoun that would clarify their intent to marry.

Regardless of these additions, Preminger’s film remains intriguingly opaque, the characters’ moral reversals seemingly coming with the wind more than from some inner will. In the glorious CinemaScope landscapes, it is the world that seems to determine the action, and not the other way around, as Calder and Kay are tossed to and fro along the riverbank. It is even the river that provides the most famous symbolic moment in the film – when Kay’s suitcase escapes in the water as Weston carries her to the shore, and onto Calder’s farm. Her final ties to civilization are carried away by the current, and Mitchum’s (gun and horse) are forcibly removed by Weston. They are forced to find a new life, re-shaped and re-directed by the river’s ceaseless flow.

0 Response The Grim Outdoors: River of No Return (1954)
Posted By Juana Maria : August 14, 2012 11:03 am

I have seen this film serval times on AMCtv. I know TCM plays it from time to time too. TCM included it the films of Marilyn Monroe on the day set aside for her in the “Summer Under the Stars”. I can’t say this is my favorite Westerns because it isn’t! Mitchum is Mitchum so no complaints there,but MM turns alomost any movie she in into a burlesque show! I know she had better acting talents than are to be found in this film! Watch her in “Don’t Bother to Knock” with Richard Widmark for a much better acting job! That movie gave me chills! “River of No Return” isn’t impossible to watch,no,it just isn’t a masterpiece either in my opinion. Go ahead and watch it though,don’t let me discourage you. Thanks for the article,I’m sorry I’m not more positive about this film. That’s life I guess.

Posted By Kingrat : August 14, 2012 12:51 pm

I think Natasha Lytess’ bad influence on Marilyn Monroe shows in Monroe’s performance. Notice how she over-articulates the words (this was what Lytess wanted) and how every line reading sounds like a line reading. As her director from DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK, Ralph Thomas, said in an interview, she never listened to anyone except those who did her harm.

For me this is way below Preminger’s best work, though fun in a not too demanding way. Mitchum seems to be on cruise control, too.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 14, 2012 5:30 pm

Am so glad others are writing seriously about MM’s movies and that you selected this one.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 14, 2012 5:48 pm

Susan Doll: I’m always glad to see what you write! And yes,I had intended to write seriously about Marilyn’s work. I was trying to explain what I find fault with is how the actors were directed or how the script was written. I don’t think the fault is really with the actors,except Mitchum was never really thrilled with the idea of being an actor. He had negative opinions about it,maybe it was “manly” enough for his hunter/fisher personality! No other actor can ever truly compare with Mitchum,not even his sons! Somehow they just never seemed as tough! Susan,you know all about what I mean when I try to explain Mitchum,don’t you?

Posted By idlemendacity : August 14, 2012 6:18 pm

Even if River of No Return is a paint-by-numbers movie I still think it’s an enjoyable one. I think Preminger was highly overrated but almost anything with Mitchum is watchable and Marilyn, as always, looked gorgeous. I think the camera may have loved her more than any other film star.

I wish Mitchum and Monroe had made more movies together – they had very good chemistry (Mitchum knew Marilyn back when she was “Norma Jean”, no?). I read that after Clark Gable’s death Mitchum regretted turning down The Misfits because if Mitch had done the part Gable might still have lived.

As for the holes in the characterization, that’s part of the film’s appeal I think. We’re not entirely sure what side Marilyn’s character is supposed to be on or what Mitchum’s character really feels for her if anything. Watching it again I think an ending where Mitchum and his son return to their farm and Marilyn ends up singing the title song in the saloon (not knowing if she’s singing having lost the Calhoun character or the Mitchum character) would have been quite as good, if not better (certainly more realistic) than the happy ending we got.

In terms of Marilyn, just to piggy back on what other have said, I think Kingrat is right when about Marilyn never listening to anyone except those who did her harm. Did any other film star (well maybe except George Raft) have WORSE taste than MM in who she associated herself with and listened to? It made her career (and life) worse than better.

And I agree with Juana Maria, I much prefer the early Marilyn before the mannerisms and the image set in. I don’t think The Misfits is as wonderful as some think, her role in Some Like it Hot is more of a caricature of herself and the less said about Let’s Make Love the better. I also don’t think if Something’s Got To Give had been completed it would have made her career any better and the other films she had lined/up suggested (some of which were taken by Shirley MacLaine) were basically still variations of the late 50s Marilyn theme – Irma La Douce, What a Way to Go, The Stripper, Goodbye, Charlie. But if you look at some of the early Marilyn films like Monkey Business, or Clash by Night or Don’t Bother to Knock (even in bit parts like O’Henry’s Full House where plays a streetwalker opposite Charles Laughton and uses her real voice), even going back to 1948′s Girls of the Chorus, you can see an actress with magnetism and charisma and great comic timing, who just needed some training (ala Miss Caswell in All About Eve). I think Marilyn Monroe could have become a much better actress if she HADN’T become “Marilyn Monroe” the star.

Posted By robbushblog : August 14, 2012 8:10 pm

I’ve enjoyed this movie over the years for two reasons. 1. Mitchum and Marilyn working together. 2. Marilyn is so hot in the movie. She radiates and glows in several scenes in this movie.

I’ll take one poster of that picture of her standing with the guitar, please.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 16, 2012 2:39 pm

Idlemendacity: I always enjoy being agreed with! Your points are inline with mine! Thank you!

Robushblog:You have a thing for Marilyn Monroe like Susan Doll has a thing for Bob Mitchum! I have asked you before what you thought makes a woman pretty. Apparently all it takes is having a full figure! Hmph! Like them shapely don’t you?

Posted By robbushblog : August 16, 2012 8:38 pm

I like all kinds, Juana.

Posted By Jenni : August 19, 2012 7:30 pm

I recently read in an article that Mitchum regretted not taking the role in The Misfits because he and Monroe worked well together in TRONR, and that he would listen to her woes and give her advice. He believed that if he had done TM with her, he possibly would have once again listened and helped her, and she may not have died too soon. I haven’t seen TRONR and despite the reviews, I want to see it for Rory Calhoun! He could give Robert Mitchum a run for his money, so to speak.

Posted By Daniel : August 22, 2012 7:17 am

I never knew that Darryl Zanuck demanded re-shoots to clarify her character’s motivations. Glad to see that this was done, because the movie would have been rather bland without those scenes. I suppose nowadays the evil film industry would have just crammed some archive footage in there instead, which is sad to think about :(

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