River of No Return (1954)

Reckless, Roaring, Adventure of the Great Northwest Gold Rush Days!

An itinerant farmer and his young son help a heart-of-gold saloon singer search for her estranged husband

What are you chasing Calder?
After a stint in jail, Matt Calder is reunited with his son Mark and sets both of them up at a riverside lodge. One day he helps aid a couple who are struggling with their raft down the river. It turns out to be a dubious gambler named Harry Weston and his saloon singer girlfriend, Kay, whom both Matt and Mark have already been acquainted with. Turns out that Harry is in a rush to register his mining claim that he has just won, and sensing his journey will be considerably quicker and safer on horseback, steals, after a fight, Matt's rifle and horse. Agreeing to let Kay stay behind with the Calder's, Weston sets off. Once roused and ready to travel, Matt, aware that an Indian attack on their remote home is imminent, sets off in pursuit of Weston with the other two in tow, down the treacherous river.
River Of No Return, starring Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe and directed by Otto Preminger, this is the film neither of them gave a second thought to once the picture had wrapped. It was a much troubled production that saw Preminger and Monroe reach positive levels of hatred for each other, with Mitchum acting as go between for much of the time. Preminger was tackling his first film in the Western genre and clearly wanted to make it a mark of realism. A hard task master at the best of times, Preminger further distanced himself from his stars by demanding they do their own stunts, something that even the normally professional Mitchum found over the top. There's much more back story to the film, all of it creating a bad atmosphere on the shoot (Preminger even walking off the film before completion, leaving Jean Negulesco to wrap it up), be it jealous husbands, nuisance coaches or peril from injury, it's all here! All tid-bids available from various biographies or clickable internet resources. So the film, hated by the critics and makers alike, has to be a stinker then, surely?
Well some what surprisingly, no it isn't half bad. For sure the plot is simple in the extreme, and it's far from being a truly memorable Western offering. But it's IMDb rating of 6.5 is probably just about right. There is still much to like here. It's a gorgeous looking film for a start, yep there is some shonky studio work blending in with the location shoot, but Preminger and his cinematographer Joseph LaShelle really bring the wilderness rush on to the screen. Shot at both Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada, it's at once as beautiful as it is imposing, with Mitchum's ruggedness and Monroe's sensuality expertly framed within the landscapes. Some of the scenes alongside the Athabasca and Bow rivers are worth the viewing time alone, with the impact enriched by great work from the sound department (Bernard Freericks & Roger Heman). This a film that shows the need for the right location choices to utilise the Technicolor and CinemaScope enhancements available at the time.
The cast work well considering what little quality is in the script, though Rory Calhoun as Harry Weston is underused because it's obvious that 20th Century Fox were trying to get maximum mileage from its two leading stars. Mitchum, if truth be told, cake walks through the movie. Not asked to do a great deal, it none the less works because Matt Calder is more about a beefcake presence than any thespian leanings. Something that Mitchum, in his laid back laconic way, was perfect for. It's a shame that Monroe, post release of the film, was so vehemently against it (calling it a Z grade Western at one point) because it's a sweet and affecting turn from her. In what could have been a stereotypical and typecast role as Kay, Monroe puts a bit of humanist thought into her, even coping well in the surrogate mother/ big sister strand involving Tommy Rettig's (The Raid & The Last Wagon) young Mark. Monroe also gets to do four songs in the piece, "I'm Gonna File My Claim", "One Silver Dollar", "Down in the Meadow" and the delightful finale of "The River of No Return" (Marilyn radiant here).
Not remotely close to being the best work by all involved, but as much as they all seemingly hated it, it has too much going for it to ever be considered bad. Yeah, 6.5/10 sounds about right to me.

20th Century Fox by Otto Preminger, Jean Negulesco, Frank Fenton, Louis Lantz.
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Marilyn Monroe, Rory Calhoun, Tommy Rettig.

Genres: Action, Adventure, Drama, Music, Romance, Western

Keywords: gambling river small town saloon lover gold rush farm puma singer 19th century rapids


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