Directed by Otto Preminger
April 30, 1954
A farmer and his son along with a singer must traverse the titular river and learn to trust each other in order to survive.
In 1875 we have absentee father Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) trying to reconnect with his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) in the rugged Old West after the mother’s death. After wandering through a ramshackle tent boomtown, Matt finds his son in a tent saloon hanging out with dance hall singer Kay (Marilyn Monroe). Nothing too much there but after they leave we do get the set up for what will get the ball rolling in the story. Kay is in love with local gambler Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) who has depending on who you talk to won or stolen a claim for what appears to be a rather profitable gold strike.
The action begins shortly after Matt and his son save the couple who, unable to get a horse, have decided to use a boat to go to Council City to file the deed in case the man he got it from decides to do file first. Weston robs the father and son of their horse and their gun shortly before an Indian attack and they are forced to flee on the river with Kay who has stayed behind to tend to the wounded Matt or get slaughtered.
I found River of No Return rather enjoyable and just a good story. It was simple and to the point. At about 90 minutes there was not too much extra. Otto Preminger delivered a stripped-down character focused film here. This film really has three main characters in Matt, Mark, and Kay with some minor supporting characters breezing in and out rather quickly. Otto Preminger kept the narrative rather trimmed down with the focus being on survival and a growing attraction between Matt and Kay.
River of No Return is less a Western and more of a man versus nature film with Western elements like attacking Indians sprinkled in. They must survive the river and what it throws at them in order to reach the city to which the gambler is heading. Our hero, Matt, while no stranger to firearms is quickly stripped of his gun and forced to rely on his wits rather than brute force to make it through.
Normally the addition of a cute kid would slow down the action but not here. Mark is an interesting character and provides for some growth for Matt as he must learn to be an actual father as well as a path for Kay and Matt to begin to Bond. Matt has only been out of prison a short time having shot a man while defending another. Mark is not overly cute or unnecessarily precocious.
I draw issue with the scene where Matt and Kay wrestle just before they passionately kiss and the mountain lion shows up that is eventually killed by the two people searching for Weston. It just felt kind of, well, rapey. The trope of two people fighting before passionately kissing has been used time and again in film and is not bothersome to me in general but here it felt like he was going to rape her. I thought we were going to get a serious plot turn for the dark. That is what I was left with while watching it and then they kissed passionately. Other than that scene the film is beautifully shot and fantastically acted.
There was plenty of behind-the-scenes drama during production. Monroe was joined on set by her acting coach Natasha Lytess. Lytess reportedly gave direction to Monroe contrary to that of Preminger which caused friction between the two. Mitchum was regularly drunk. Shocker! The only person that did not upset the director was Tommy Rettig who played Mark who impressed Preminger with his professionalism. Fun fact: this was one of the first films to use blood squibs which are pretty common now.
River of No Return is a satisfying story with good performances and a few enjoyable musical numbers performed by Marilyn Monroe. It is an enjoyable story. I say watch it!