One of the pleasures of studio-era filmmaking is the weird combinations execs sometimes threw together in a picture. Think about adding together German director Otto Preminger, renowned for his mastery of long takes and thoughtful camerawork, Robert Mitchum, smoldering star of many a back alley noir, the wild, picturesque landscape of Canada, and, oh yeah, Marilyn Monroe. River of No Return is a real movie that was made and exists. What’s more, it is actually an okay Western, Monroe’s saloon gal is surprisingly not the most problematic thing on two legs, and Preminger utilizes his locations and Cinemascope to grand, sometimes cacophonous effect. The film has problems round every bend and often lags, but as a drinking movie? River of No Return is pretty refreshing.
The story is as plain and generic as a stubb’rn plow-horse. Farmer Matt Calder (Mitchum) travels to a mining camp to retrieve his estranged son, Mark (Tommy Rettig), after the death of the boy’s mother. Lucky Mark spent the day becoming pals with the local tentpole singer, Kay (Monroe). Later when she and her shifty gambler boyfriend (Rory Calhoun) try to cash in on an even shiftier gold claim, they encounter both Calder boys, a Indian war party, and some badly rear-projected rapids. Shenanigans, and musical numbers, naturally ensue.
Released in 1954, River of No Return came in the fevered summer of Marilyn Monroe’s stardom, and at least in regard to the musical interludes and her big-sisterly interaction with Tommy Rettig, the Blonde Bombshell turns in a solid performance. If you like Monroe in her classic movies, you’ll still like her here. Her persona translates to the Western Heart of Gold Whore trope almost effortlessly, although the improbability of her guitar surviving the foaming white death that she, Rettig, and Mitchum navigate is about on par with the improbability of tough girl ‘tude the story asks her to project. The biggest rival for your eyeballs’ attention is the landscape itself, much of it shot on location in Canada’s pristine, majestic national parks. The opening sequence, as the camera follows Mitchum riding parallel to the river of the title, features the kind of gorgeous color that would fit into Planet Earth. The expanse suits Preminger’s directorial style, as he often chooses to let action play out in his wide, breathtaking natural arenas. You have the room to stretch out and observe.
Probably the best scene in the film observes this principal in much meaner surroundings. The mining camp sequence itself is impeccably staged and covered in fluid camera moves, including Monroe’s opening number. The result is a riot of color, buckets of beer, and cocksure gunplay: in short, a lot of fun. Mitchum, stoic in a ten gallon hat in lieu of a fedora, proves a competent Western hero, the kind of man to fight a mountain lion with his bare hands and shoot a brave off a cliff whilst moving down whitewater, and do so with as much credibility as you’d expect from those kinds of High-Ho adventures. Mitchum and Monroe also take it in turns to the film’s theme song, setting the mood at the start and later offering a little, bittersweet catharsis at the end. Both that opening through the mining camp scene and the final coda, Monroe’s last number and Mitchum’s wordless response it to, are fitting bookmarks – the classy kind with bronze griffins or globes or something. There’s great film in River of No Return.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves though, because River of No Return is by no means a great film. For one thing, the CinemaScope process and especially the rear-projection of the treacherous rapids Kay and the Calders raft do not cope well with video transfer or Netflix refresh rates. This is by no means the film’s fault, or a unique problem. But it is certainly not a movie for those with dated FX as a pet peeve. Preminger’s observational focus betrays him a little in terms of the river-running scenes as well. The raft itself is a cobbled-together batch of Lincoln logs; so pulling back to show us huge vertical drops, jutting rocks, and big water batting around this little bath toy is a strain on suspension of disbelief. It hurts, too, that when Preminger does go in close on the raft’s occupants in trouble, the editing is choppy verging on incoherent, and not in a cool, Christopher Nolan’s-rhythmically-stabbing-you-with-action way.
Still, the action is a secondary complaint when faced with the story. Matt Calder is intensely problematic as a protagonist, not the least because he often looks too weathered and dour for Monroe’s default sunny, love-me demeanor. The twist to why Calder was absent from his son’s life isn’t so hard to swallow. But where his sanctimonious streak came from or why, in the course of their journey down the river, he abandons an almost Biblical serenity for wrenching Monroe behind some bushes and trying less to kiss her and more to pound her face in with his face, for another 180 as he gently massages the warmth back into her feet after some cold rapids, for leaving Monroe high and dry in town to inexplicably going back for her…it’s questionable, and completely dictated by the whims of the screenplay.
A thin story and poorly-aged effects wouldn’t be nearly as damning as they are in River of No Return if the film rolled along at a clip. Instead it meanders and stagnates between set pieces, feeling more than its 91 minute run time. The shoot was troubled, in large part by Monroe’s acting coach/pet harpy Natasha Lytess, and Preminger left for Europe before any reshoots or editing, so the final result isn’t a case of swinging and missing. Perhaps a case of burning the pasta sauce. Regardless of the reasons, River of No Return is an uneven film. Like many a blockbuster, though, its issues failed to affect the movie’s initial box office, and its subsequent drinkability threshold is still as high as a Canadian pine.
Highly generic, with a few truly fascinating sequences, and lots of pretty shots of mountains and Monroe, River of No Return bobs along the shallows more than it dares the raging rapids. However, for fans of Marilyn, Westerns, or drinking to old Hollywood, it’s certainly worth a watch.
Take a Drink: for each of Monroe’s songs. Extra bonus drink where it’s very obvious she’s being dubbed.
Take a Drink: every time Robert Mitchum punches someone new.
Take a Drink: whenever the rapids are unbelievably huge or badly projected (so: when there are rapids).
Take a Drink: whenever the Indians show up without any motivations being given to them.
Do a Shot: when Monroe drops her pumps.