A River Runs Over It

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Elia Kazan’s WILD RIVER  (1960)begins with a snippet of documentary so shockingly raw — a man describing how he lost all his children in a flood of the Tennessee River — that it seems indecent to tie it to a fictional drama, no matter how much time has passed between the original event and the movie’s date of production (certainly more than twenty years). But if we can forgive the ruthlessness, an important dramatic purpose is served — in the ensuing story, we might be inclined to favour the romantic, stubborn individualism standing in the face of “progress” — this moment hopefully makes its mark and reminds us that the dam which Montgomery Clift has come to clear the way for serves a vital human purpose.

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In his path is Jo Van Fleet (forty-five playing maybe eighty, and damned convincing — a good face, excellent, well-observed makeup, and a brilliant performance making particularly effective use of posture), who owns an island in the river which is due to be flooded. She’s lived there all her life and has no intention of moving. Kazan discovered, in making the picture, that despite his (shaky) liberal side, he had more sympathy with her than with Clift’s New Deal progressive, but the film he made strikes a perfect balance — between the two sides, and between the love story/human interest and the wider concerns.

Clift is also very good here, the best post-accident work I’ve seen from him, asides from JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG, which seems to use his disintegration rather than concealing it. And Lee Remick is astonishingly sexy — also a brilliant performance — the sexiness is part of that. “I’ve never found Clift sexy before, but he is here — why is that?” asked Fiona. “Reflected desire?” I suggested. She formed a question mark with her eyes (a neat trick). “She wants him so bad, so obviously, that it makes him seem desirable to you,” I suggested. The actor’s homosexuality is no obstacle — as Nick Ray said, “It doesn’t matter if an actor is heterosexual or homosexual, as long as they’re sexual.” Whatever sense memories Clift may be deploying to make us believe he craves Remick, they totally work.

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Everybody — even Scorsese, to an extent — focuses on Kazan’s work with actors, which is of course key, and remarkable, but I feel his visual panache is underappreciated. EAST OF EDEN has that expressionistic intensity, of course. This one manages to make autumn lush. Ellsworth Frederick’s Deluxe Color Cinemascope photography reminded me of Leon Shamroy (LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN) in its rich use of complimentary colours, notably orange and blue light for night and dusk scenes. Some of the scenic stuff, particularly the miniaturized version of the island when the river rises, are stunning not only as compositions but for their emotional impact in the story. Kazan seems sometimes to follow Welles’ principle — cut your most beautiful shots down until they flash by almost subliminally. The sense of visual richness this gives is tremendously impressive to the onlooker.

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After watching the film with Fiona, I realized my Spanish DVD was the wrong ratio, so I’ve now obtained a proper widescreen copy to run for my students — partly as an excuse for me to see it again.

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11 Responses to “A River Runs Over It”

  1. I’ve just looked through my ancient copy of Patricia Bosworth’s bio of Montgomery Clift. Wild River was a project very dear to Kazan. He described it as his ‘love affair with the New Deal’ – but was also concerned about the losses that come through progress and historical transformation.

    Clift was mostly dry through filming. He was also drawn to Remick’s solid, dependable character while at the same trying to extricate himself from the amorous attentions of his female on-set minder, who kept finding his vodka stash. Maybe all this bundled together explains the onscreen frisson?

  2. It’s a very lush film, there’s a sense of epic in the film, but carefully understated. You can bet that another film-maker would go overboard with a lot of booming landscape shots and the like. Kazan manages to suggest it in details, like that tiny raft that separates the island from the mainland.

    I personally didn’t find Jo van Fleet too sympathetic. I mean yeah she was commanding and worth your attention and in a way there’s this sense of loss that comes “under the general heading of progress” but the movie is essentially optimistic. Monty Clift is essentially a foreshadowing of James Stewart’s character in Liberty Valance but updated to the 30s. He’s the guy who brings the promise of the Republic to the South, and starts a mini-revolution by getting African-Americans to work and tussling with these racists. And along the way he marries inside it.

    I actually think Clift did well after the accident. I mean he’s also good in John Huston’s Freud, as the good doctor.

  3. His Freud is appealing, but it was torture for everyone concerned to get that out of him.

    Kazan says Clift stayed sober until the last day. He made a point of kicking the drama coach off set but was sure she was still manipulating MC behind the scenes. His main motivation in the casting was to use Clift’s weakness and Van Fleet’s strength, which was why casting a much younger actress was helpful. He always tried to use actors’ flaws rather than covering them up.

    I love how Clift never wins a fight, is pressured into every key decision, wins a victory but isn’t happy about it… the opposite of most Hollywood heroes in every way. But Remick seems like a powerful compensation!

  4. As I point out HERE Marguerite Duras was over the moon about Wild River. Jo Van Fleet’s character clearly reminded her of her own mother, but more important to her were Clift and Remick. They embody, in her flat-out hysterical fantasy, her romantic ideal of a gay man in an abject state turning to a straight woman for succor. This was what her relationship with groupie/ amenuensis Yann Andrea was all about. She interviewed Kazan for “Cahiers” specifically in order to discuss this. Kazan had no idea of what she was talking about — though he was flattered that the noted French writer so loved this box office failure that was dear to his heart. And he wasn’t about to “out” Monty even in death.

    Note: In some later theatrical bookings as a last-ditch effort the film was retitled The Woman and the Wild River. Still no sale.

  5. Lee Remick. Lee Remick! She was never better, never more beautiful. I saw this on screen a couple years ago, and it’s something to see.

  6. “Lee Remick” by Michael Smith.

  7. Monty Clift not winning a fight is important. He represents civilization, so he doesn’t have to win a fight, he’s changing their entire way of life and no amount of punches and beatings he undergoes will change that at all. He has the power of Roosevelt and the New Deal behind him.

  8. Kazan had made a big turn to the right since conceiving the movie, so he did everything he could to weaken Clift’s character — he cast a younger woman as an old one, he says deliberately because he knew she’d have the energy to eat Clift alive. “And she did!”

    Fox wanted to cast Marilyn Monroe in the Remick part — Kazan put his foot down. “Haven’t you READ it?”

  9. Well I don’t think Kazan was as right-wing as that. It was part of his whole shtick against liberal complacency that filtered in his post-rat phase. And Kazan was also a bit of an old fashioned macho guy so he might feel that Monty Clift was personally weak but the film itself and Clift likewise has his own strength and that comes of in the film.

  10. I find him admirable in it, so yes. That’s what I mean about the film’s perfect balance — Kazan undercuts his hero at every opportunity without stopping him from being a hero.

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