I recently reviewed MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (2011), the Oscar nominated flick about Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) filming THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL (1957) with Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh.) Watching that movie and enjoying Michelle Williams’ performance as Marilyn Monroe, got me in the mood to watch a Marilyn Monroe film.
I decided to choose one I hadn’t seen before, and so I went with RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954), now available on Streaming Video. In RIVER OF NO RETURN, Monroe co-stars with Robert Mitchum, and I have to say, it’s one of the finest performances by Marilyn Monroe that I’ve seen, mostly because it was so refreshing. Monroe is not cast as a ditzy blonde but as a strong-willed feisty frontier woman, and she pulls it off nicely.
In RIVER OF NO RETURN, Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum), recently released from jail after serving time for murder, is reunited with his young son Mark (Tommy Rettig) at a gold rush town. Before returning home together, Mark asks to say goodbye to the woman who’d been looking out for him, a saloon hall singer named Kay Weston (Marilyn Monroe).
Later, at their farm, Matt and Mark are approached by Kay and her gambler husband Harry (Rory Calhoun). The couple is traveling by raft to the next town to register a mining claim Harry won in a poker game. When Matt refuses to give Harry his only horse and rifle, Harry steals them and leaves his wife Kay behind. Something tells me Harry isn’t winning any Husband of the Year Awards!
When Indians attack the farm, Matt, Mark, and Kay have no choice but to escape onto the river using Harry’s abandoned raft, and thus begins the excitement in this old-fashioned adventure yarn which pits Mitchum and Monroe against the natural elements of a raging river, a hungry mountain lion, vicious Indians, and ultimately, the weasel of a husband, Harry Weston.
RIVER OF NO RETURN is a fairly entertaining movie, standard western fare from the 1950s. The script by Frank Fenton, based on a story by Louis Lantz, isn’t anything special. The story of three people against a raging river is a good one, but compared to some of the classic westerns of the decade, it doesn’t measure up.
We don’t know a lot about Matt or Kay for one thing. We know that Matt seems to be a good guy, but he served time for shooting a man in the back, and his character is darkened by a jarring rape scene in which he attacks Kay. Thankfully for her, a hungry mountain lion comes along and Matt has to rush off to protect his son. After a scene like this, one has to ask, how good a guy can he be?
Yet, Monroe’s Kay falls for him anyway, setting the stage for a happy ending that comes as no surprise. This is 1950s cinema, after all.
Kay isn’t clearly defined either. She keeps telling Matt that if he only knew the truth about her husband Harry, he wouldn’t hate him so much for stealing his horse and rifle. But the only truth we continually see about Harry is that he’s a jerk and a weasel. I’m not sure what Kay is talking about. Is she a poor judge of character? All her other actions imply that she’s a pretty smart person.
RIVER OF NO RETURN showcases some colorful cinematography by Joseph LaShelle, with some breathtaking background shots of the mountains of the northwest. But the river scenes with Monroe and Mitchum on the raft were obviously shot in studio, and they look it.
The film was directed by Otto Preminger, a first-rate director, but RIVER OF NO RETURN is simply not on par with the classic westerns of the decade, films like THE SEARCHERS (1956) and HIGH NOON (1952).
But Marilyn Monroe is impressive, and by far, she’s the best part of the movie. She has such a screen presence. It’s difficult to take your eyes off her, and not just for the obvious reasons. She has a charisma here that is exhilarating.
While I certainly enjoyed Monroe in such films as SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959) and THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH (1955), in those movies she’s playing the role she will be forever identified with: the ditzy blonde. Here in RIVER OF NO RETURN, she’s not ditzy at all. I had a lot of fun watching Monroe act, realizing just how good she was, and really just sitting back and enjoying her performance. It’s easy to see based upon her performance in this movie that Monroe had a range that was rarely exploited. It makes her untimely death all the more tragic.
Robert Mitchum is also very good, understated as usual. I can’t say that this was one of his better roles however. Matt Calder is a weird character, unsavory at times, heroic at others. I found him kind of creepy, which I’m sure wasn’t the intention of the filmmakers.
And for you classic TV buffs, young Tommy Rettig who played the son, Mark, would go on to entertain TV audiences that same year as Jeff Miller on the LASSIE TV show. Rettig would play Jeff for three years, before being replaced by Jon Provost as Timmy Martin for the show’s next seven years.
RIVER OF NO RETURN is nothing spectacular. We’re not talking four star classic here. However, it’s a phenomenal showcase for Marilyn Monroe’s acting abilities, and for that, I enjoyed it immensely.
So, if you’re in the mood for a river trip, take a ride on that raft with Monroe and Mitchum on the RIVER OF NO RETURN. It’s an entertaining, colorful excursion, and hey, Monroe even sings.
Better yet, she acts.