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.
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.
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.
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.