Review: River of No Return (1954)

River of No Return (1954)

Directed by: Otto Preminger | 91 minutes | western, adventure | Actors: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Rory Calhoun, Tommy Rettig, Murvyn Vye, Douglas Spencer, Fred Aldrich, Claire Andre, Hal Baylor, Don Beddoe, Larry Chance, John Cliff, Edmund Cobb, John Doucette, Geneva Gray, Ed Hinton, Mitchell Kowall, Mitchell Lawrence, Jarma Lewis, Jack Mather, Ann McCrea, Harry Monty, Fay Morley, Paul Newlan, Barbara Nichols, Ralph Sanford, Jerome Schaeffer, Harry Seymour, Arthur Shields, John Veitch, Harry Wilson, Will Wright

The only western director Otto Preminger ever made was ‘River of No Return’ (1954). It was a job that required quite a bit of work. Preminger actually had no desire to make the film, but still had contractual obligations with 20th Century Fox. This was the last film he made in the service of a studio, after which the idiosyncratic director went his own way. An additional issue was the presence of Marilyn Monroe on set. The insecure actress was constantly surrounded by her insufferable acting coach Natasha Lytess, who tricked Preminger by making Monroe act in an affected, unnatural way. It was reportedly co-star Robert Mitchum who managed to keep the peace on set with his relaxed approach. If Lytess was annoying, the actor said he just gave her “a slap on the ass” and told her not to get involved. Apparently that was the way to get her in line, because Lytess no longer bothered them.

Marilyn Monroe plays the role of saloon singer Kay, who entertains hopeful and disillusioned prospectors with her music in ‘River of No Return’, set in the northwestern United States around 1875. In fact, she dreams of getting out of that life and she seems to have the chance to do so when her boyfriend Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) – albeit in an unfair way – has obtained a gold claim from gambling. Widowed Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) has recently been released from prison and is looking for his son Mark (Tommy Rettig), whom he eventually finds in Kay’s saloon. Matt and Mark head to Matt’s farm, but it isn’t long before they meet Kay again. The raft she and Harry take to Council City (the place where Harry can collect his gold) is jammed. Matt and Mark save them from certain drowning. But Harry is hardly grateful to them for that because soon a scuffle and he flees with Matt’s gun and horse. As the hostile Indian tribes quickly approach, Matt, Mark and Kay must make their escape as well. To Council City, to teach that ungrateful and unreliable Harry a lesson. The only option is with the raft, with which they have to bridge the raging river.

‘River of No Return’ is an adventurous western based on a story by Louis Lantz, which was adapted into a screenplay by Frank Fenton. Thanks to the work in the colorful CinemaScope and widescreen, the production, which was largely shot in the Canadian part of the Rocky Mountains, looks beautiful. As we are used to from Otto Preminger, the actors were required to do all their stunts themselves. That was no problem for the masculine Mitchum, but Monroe was willing to struggle sometimes. Unfortunately, the close-ups on the raft (recorded in the studio) clearly show the use of background projection, which gives an implausible image. In fact, the screenplay has little to offer and is only interesting in those scenes where it shows the struggle between man and nature. In some areas ‘River of No Return’ seems hopelessly dated, for example in its portrayal of the Indians. In this film, they are faceless enemies, who do not shy away from using violence to take the land from the whites, when in reality it was the whites who took the land from the Native Americans…

What works in the film’s favor is the special chemistry between the primeval male Mitchum and the primeval female Monroe. Where both their characters are little explored (not to mention any back story!), the actors at least show a decent dose of attraction on the surface. Monroe also shines in the four songs she can perform; never before had her voice sounded so clear and pure. Calhoun is solid, as he is in all his films and his television work. One who deserves a special mention is Tommy Rettig, who, as the young Mark, makes a substantial contribution to this film. Like so many child stars, Rettig’s life was not a bed of roses. After the great successes he celebrated at a young age (including in the series ‘Lassie’ and ‘River of No Return’, which despite its flaws was a big success in the US), it soon went downhill when he got older. became. Drugs and drink came into play and in 1996 Rettig died of cardiac arrest, then only 54. And so ‘River of No Return’ has another tragic star next to Monroe.

Fans of the classic western will turn their noses at ‘River of No Return’, because compared to the toppers from that genre, this film simply falls short on all fronts. What is that about? Not on the production because, apart from the gaudy background projection, it is very nicely put together. The actors also put their best foot forward. And even the songs are good! However, this film does not come out well and that is not only due to the fact that the script is dated. Is it sometimes a lack of inspiration on the part of director Otto Preminger, from whom you can expect better given his beautiful oeuvre? Or does the ever-coloured hair and dress Marilyn Monroe simply not fit into the wild and rugged nature of the Rocky Mountains…?

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