One-Way River

SHOW THEM NO MERCY! was originally going to be directed by Otto Preminger and star Wallace Beery, until Beery announced that he refused to be directed by anyone whose name he couldn’t pronounce.

RIVER OF NO RETURN was Preminger’s first Cinemascope film and a biggish hole in my Preminger viewing. Watching it on the Toshiba, I wished I’d been to see it restored in Bologna — the widescreen scenic images have a fantastic grandeur even on DVD, and on a big screen must be overwhelming.

Anyway, it’s a good film: Preminger’s long take sensibility is immediately a good match for ‘Scope, and he does a lot of impressive work with tricky elements like rafts, horses, etc. How many suitcases did they have to send downriver for this famous shot?

There’s a horrible scene, though, where Robert Mitchum’s character tries to straight-up rape Marilyn Monroe’s. He’s interrupted by a cougar attack, and then by two guys who show up and think about killing him, and what with one thing and another the incident is never referred to again. There are more moments when they seem on the verge of discussing it, but it turns out this was merely projection on our part.

As always with Otto-related questions, the answer is to be found in Chris Fujiwara’s critical study The World and Its Double. When Preminger finished shooting, Fox boss Darryl Zanuck was dissatisfied with the film, which he felt was unnecessarily cryptic about its characters’ goals, relationships, motives. He insisted on adding three scenes.

(His ally in the dumbing-down is the soundtrack, which helpfully embarks on Calhoun’s theme tune whenever anyone discusses him. Elsewhere it’s stirring and atmospheric, and Cyric Mockridge and an uncredited Leigh Harline are apparently responsible.)One was a conversation between Monroe and Rory Calhoun near the start, which explains why they’re together. Unfortunately, this information had already been covered extensively by later dialogue from Monroe to Mitchum, so screenwriter Frank Fenton (OUT OF THE PAST) ends up shoving paraphrases into the actors’ mouths, rendering the later scenes dangerously repetitive. (He gets away with it only because Monroe justifying her relationship in the words Calhoun has previously used is new material as far as her dealings with Mitchum is concerned.)

Another was a scene where Mitchum massages Monroe after a particularly exhausting stint on the rapids (the process photography on the raft is the film’s weakest point other than the following scene: the POV shots going downstream are terribly grainy and I’m guessing the background plates were shot “flat” in 1:1.33, because they’re grainy, everything seems too big, like our heroes have sailed into Land of the Giants, and there’s a lot of Anamorphic-mumpsy rubberwalling, as the scenery bends, as if trying to wrap itself around the leads (and who could blame it?).The third scene is Mitchum’s sudden, out-of-character attack on Monroe. These three bits were directed by Jean Negulescu. So, you see, Monroe and Mitchum couldn’t discuss the matter afterwards because the footage wasn’t shot.

Going by Zanuck’s comments, the massage and the attempted rape were both inserted to make the characters’ relationship clearer. But they don’t really do that, at least for a non-rapey modern audience. I suppose the massage scene could be there to suggest sexual attraction, but although it works as a sexy treat for the audience, it’s presented in the story as a practical answer to Monroe being freezing cold and exhausted.

And Mitchum pouncing on Monroe… this seems to be Zanuck’s idea of showing that he’s attracted to her. I suppose the character point is that he doesn’t respect her, regards her as a good-time girl who will submit to a rough embrace, and when she doesn’t, he just carries on because he can’t figure that out. But it’s rubbish. Mitchum isn’t dumb or brutish anywhere else in the movie. And they never mention it again.I don’t know of any evidence that the scene ignited any controversy at the time. For me, it hurts the movie’s ending quite a bit: Mitchum takes Monroe away from her saloon-singing life, slinging her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. This is already a bit too caveman for us modern folks. But Monroe ditching her sparkly shoes shows that she is a fully consenting partner in this change of lifestyle. The filmmakers were balancing out the audience appeal of Mitchum’s he-man stuff with the requirement that the leading lady have a mind of her own.

Zanuck’s raunchy intrusion upsets that quite badly. Monroe is now being carried off by a man who previously tried to force her into sex (while his young son, and, as it turns out, a cougar, were mere yards away). We’ll probably make some allowance since after all it’s Mitchum (and he’s not in Max Cady mode… rivers seem to bring out the worst in him, though), but damage is certainly done.

(I would quite like to see a director’s cut of this offered, perhaps as a bonus on a Blu-ray. (I think you always need to keep the original around to illustrate the historical record: THIS is what audiences saw upon release…)

 

7 Responses to “One-Way River”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    What’s fascinating is that Mitchum knew Monroe in real life years before he became a star. He was a close friend of Marilyn’s first husband Jim Dougherty and liked her quite a lot. A shame that Preminger and Zanuck had him treat her with such off-hand brutishness cause that was not their real relationship at all.

  2. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Interestingly Marilyn’s musical numbers in RONR were very popular with drag performers. The late, great ad sorely missed Candy Darling did a sensational rendition of “I’m Going To File My Claim” in her act.

  3. Otto reported that Mitchum was a lot better at getting Monroe to give an unforced performance than her supposed drama coach. So she vacillates between the strange, unrealistic over-enunciation and a much more natural, winning style. Mostly she’s good, thanks to Mitch.

  4. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    River of No Return got a lot of commentary, including from Andre Bazin, about its use of long takes. One scene where they are arguing and he throws stuff off-screen, and the camera slowly follows him as the scope in the background shows the stuff he had thrown floating in the background, is especially lovely.

    I think it’s one of Marilyn’s best performances, but hampered by those three scenes you mention and the weak ending which strikes me as a classic “fake-happy” ending (even more so with Negulesco-Zanuck’s additions). It’s a very unusual and poignant movie, and has that sense of adult-ness that was Otto Preminger’s specialty. In a way Nicholas Ray was dealing with the same theme in the story of Johnny Logan and Vienna in his western, but that was more successful.

    Still it’s essential Otto, and essential Marilyn.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    Was Beery supposed to be in the Cesar Romero role in SHOW THRM NO MERCY? Difficult to imagine.

  6. I suppose so… it would certainly have been a different picture. Since Beery often played mugs with a heart of gold, maybe he’d have tried for more sympathy, whereas Romero is somewhat ambivalent in that regard.

  7. Chris F talks about how the suitcase sails out of frame and then gets picked up again. Otto does lots of difficult stuff with the raft, and the first shot is remarkable if you think about it: Mitch chops down a tree, advances into medium shot, walks off, the camera panning after him, and ending on a landscape view which he exits. Totally unrepeatable due to the tree action, and Mitch has to hit a couple of marks with the operating following him. Of course they could rehearse everything without the tree toppling, but still…

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