River of No Return is nearly worthwhile for its opening visuals alone. There stands the vestige of American manhood: Robert Mitchum — unmistakably himself — felling a tree. He pulls off his hat, wipes his brow, and we get a gorgeous lingering look at his backyard. God’s majesty as far as the eye can see. Absolutely breathtaking stuff.
After the credits roll, he enters a much livelier environment. It feels a bit like a choreographed dance as his horse trots through the hubbub of the newly erected tent town bitten by the gold bug. At the hitching posts, he has a momentary encounter with a padre, the religious man came for the Indians but having a look around, he notes he might need to stay in the hell-hole for the sake of the white men.
It’s in such a seedy world Matt Calder (Mitchum) goes hunting for the son he doesn’t know. He finds him soon enough, shielding the young boy (Tommy Rettig) from some drunken bullies. The only question remains, where is Marilyn Monroe? She’s set up in one of the many tents as a bright and sultry nightclub singer, who cuts through the otherwise scuzzy world around her with a voice and a guitar. Her silver dollar song catches the eye of Calder, but their real connection is little Mark. She’s been keeping an eye on him and doesn’t take kindly to the father’s malfeasance.
If this were the only interaction, we wouldn’t have a movie. Because they are on divergent paths. Matt and Mark look to build up a life for themselves in a cabin, living off the land earning an honest day’s wage far away from the lottery-style debauchery of the gold mines.
Meanwhile, Kay’s man, an unreliable big-stakes gambler (Rory Calhoun) has a promising claim to track down. He, no doubt, won it off some unsuspecting sucker. Whether it was legitimate or not remains to be seen. They plan to go by riverboat to the distant territory; he wasn’t counting on the perilous waters. Instead, he forcibly takes Calder’s horse and gun as a bit of a “loan.” His scruples (or lack thereof) are all too clear.
The local Indians make their presence known through drums and smoke emanating up from the mountains. They also conveniently force the next move. With no horse and no gun, Calder goes with his boy and Kay (who stayed behind out of sympathy) aboard the raft. It is the river already warned against for its many perils. But in their present circumstances, they now have no recourse but to take it.
It’s hardly The African Queen. It’s not even Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (both directed by Huston). The movie falters in its most expositionally-heavy scenes. Is this the fault of Monroe for not masking the lines better or the script for laying it on too thick? I’m not sure.
It’s also a bit of nausea-inducing sequence, even as the interior studio shots with water splashing look immediately tacky. They take away from the import of any long shots actually out on the choppy rapids. Nor are they as interesting as Preminger’s staging of the previous town or the vast landscapes away from the river. In such moments, he exhibits an attuned eye for the width of Cinemascope all but undermined by these talky static shots inside a studio.
However, Mitchum and Monroe do manage a mild distaste for one another, playing quite well, especially when they’re stranded out in the forest with little prospect of survival. But perhaps, most telling of all, you see Monroe’s ability with children.
There’s a quality to her that while partially maternal almost tacitly understands their innocence and vulnerability. Wanting to keep the naivete precious and maintained in a world that can often be so very uncaring. You might hazard a guess similar qualities might be found in her.
Adulation might be aimed at Mitchum’s meaningful interactions with his son as well for altogether different reasons. He says it straight and honest and doesn’t pander when the questions come his way. There is a certain amount of buy-in when you see him give his son the unadorned truth as he sees it.
In one candid encounter, he tries to articulate how men make laws to live by. And when you break them, there must be some form of justice, some consequence. But we might go a step further. Laws of this nature — deep, universal human laws — are almost innate in us. He wants to help his son understand his rationale. It remains a work in progress.
The perceptive son is continually probing him with candid questions in order to understand the inconsistencies of the world around him, whether it is his father’s own past or their plan to catch the man who stole from them.
It enters its most uncomfortable territory when Mitchum all but assaults his co-star in the forest. What’s more, apart from being totally disconcerting, as a more callous observation, it simply does not fit the continuity of the scenes around it. The only true purpose seems to be shock value; not providing any amount of exposition or even logical progressions of character. That makes it even more flagrant.
Purportedly this was one of a handful of scenes commissioned by Daryl Zanuck and shot by Jean Negulesco after primary photography, to make the relationship more clearly defined. To a modern viewer, it undermines everything our actors have managed thus far.
Fortuitously, a cougar comes along and poses a more suitable threat, making it easy to forget what has just come to pass. Then, a pair of conveniently placed prospectors arrive and one happens to be a dandy shot with a rifle in close quarters.
Meanwhile, the Indians exert their force on the story once again in a portrayal that is a lame use of them and frankly, a shoddy excuse for storytelling on top of the inherently trivial portrayal. In other words, they are only a mechanism for storytelling, and it does not even manage a gripping outcome.
The revenge narrative gets its inevitable ending in a town. Not unlike the boy (Ron Howard) in The Shootist, Mark gains a new understanding of violence and a renewed appreciation for his father.
Surveying the results, River of No Return is saddled with flaws, though its star power and intermittently marvelous imagery, courtesy of Otto Preminger, serve as a decent distraction. Mitchum and Monroe aficionados might well find themselves treated to an average piece of entertainment. Take from it what you will.