24 April 2008

River of No Return

After watching The Colossus of Rhodes last week, I felt a hankerin’ to check out one of star Rory Calhoun’s Westerns from his halcyon days. He was a top B-Western actor during the 1950s in films like Apache Territory, Powder River, and the 1955 version of The Spoilers. However, B-Westerns are poorly represented on DVD, so the only Western I could find available for rent featuring Mr. Calhoun is River of No Return. However, this 1954 Western is not a B-movie at all, but a CinemaScope big picture from a major director, and Rory Calhoun has only a supporting part. He gets third billing, but vanishes during the whole middle stretch of the film.

However, it is a Western from the grand days of CinemaScope epics, has Otto Preminger at the helm (his only Western), and stars one of the great tough-guy actors, Robert Mitchum. His co-star is Norma Jean Baker, who was going under the acting name of Marilyn Monroe at the time… perhaps you’ve heard of her. She had just hit the big time with How to Marry a Millionaire (with Calhoun in a small part) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Although we associate MM with romantic comedies and musicals—and nude pin-ups—she acquits herself well here. Her jeans fits her a bit too stylishly for the frontier, but this is a glitz picture, not an Italian Western.

I’ve never had much appreciation for Preminger’s style, and because he was forced to do this film from a contractual obligation the malaise is frequently palpable. Here he ditches close-ups almost entirely. Most of River of No Return feels filmed at arm’s length. This works great for the scenery in Alberta in Jasper National Park, but not so well for the more intimate moments. Thankfully Mitchum and Monroe have some good chemistry, or these stops along the fearful whitewater trip would be a chore to get through.

And speaking of the whitewater, the action scenes split between some excellent stunt work along the river and awful rear-screen projection where you can sense the stage hands holding the buckets of water right off camera.

River of No Return gets bonus points for some sharp lines of the classic Hollywood mode. The best retort comes when Calhoun says he’s going to go over and have a talk with Mitchum, and then starts loading his gun. When Monroe asks him what the gun is for, he answers: “In case he’s hard of hearing.” Zing!

Note to studio’s home video divisions and all DVD manufacturers: Let’s get some more B-Westerns on disc!