Friday, December 28, 2007

River of No Return

1954, US, directed by Otto Preminger

Marilyn Monroe makes a rare appearance in a western here, directed by Otto Preminger making his only outing in the genre; old hand Robert Mitchum is there to keep things on track (a good thing, since Monroe's unusual diction sometimes seems to belong to a different film). In plot terms, it's a fairly conventional tale, with Mitchum trying to escape a troubled - though not dishonorable - past in the Canadian Rockies, along with his young son, but getting himself dragged into someone else's tale of greed.

While the film succeeds admirably as entertainment - Mitchum's performance is particularly good - I can't help thinking that the auteurist case for the film has been perhaps a touch overstated. The narrative arc that conveys bitterly-won knowledge from father to son seems a typical Hollywood contrivance, while many of the individual incidents, are standard western fare (which is not to say that they aren't enjoyable, nor that they aren't stitched together with care).

By contrast, the director is more obviously present in the insistently mobile camerawork. The early scenes, in a gold miners' camp, are especially strong, and a sequence when the camera roams through the makeshift bar where Monroe performs is exquisitely choreographed. For all his tilting at moral convention elsewhere, though, the sexual politics here seem decidedly old school, particularly in the sequence where Mitchum first imposes himself on Monroe.

[Update: Via girish, I read Dan Sallitt's post on Henry Hathaway, and it seems to me that he's suggesting some of the same issues with auteurist evaluation of a filmmaker. It reinforces my sense that River of No Return may be a decent illustration of some aspects of Preminger's visual style without necessarily being a great primer on some of his thematic interests. I read somewhere that he made the film under contractual obligation, and wasn't that interested in the project, but I need to find a solid source for that speculation.]

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