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"You'll be seein' me. Every time you bed down for the night, you'll look back in the darkness and wonder if I'm there. And some night I will be. You'll be seein' me."
This dialogue, fiercely delivered by James Stewart, is more than just a dramatic high point of Bend of the River (1952). It represents a new, tough side of Stewart that audiences would come to know largely through the five westerns he made with director Anthony Mann between 1950 and 1955. (The other four are Winchester '73, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and The Man From Laramie.) Presenting a psychological intensity that was quite startling for their time, these films forced audiences to question their assumption that a western hero was all noble, all good, and vastly different from the villain. While Stewart's natural charm and aw-shucks warmth is on display here, his character is often portrayed as just this side of demented.
In Bend of the River, for instance, we are immediately shown that Stewart is a man with a hidden past, someone who was once strung up and almost hung. Eventually we find out that he was a Missouri border raider. In one shocking scene, Stewart is about to maniacally stab a man before a scream from Julia Adams stops him. And later, after his men have taken over his supply wagons and are about to leave him behind, Stewart delivers the quote above. Audiences had caught a glimmer of this side of Stewart, of course, in It's a Wonderful Life, and Alfred Hitchcock would take it to its extreme six years later in Vertigo, but it was a quality which served Mann's westerns especially well.
Jean-Luc Godard once said: "With Anthony Mann, one rediscovers the western, as one discovers arithmetic in an elementary math class." Mann's westerns, in other words, represent the genre stripped to a bare-bones, fundamental form - simple, but not simplistic. With his westerns, Bend of the River included, Mann was able to transfer the violent intensity of his 1940s films noirs (such as Raw Deal and Border Incident) to a genre with a new sort of landscape which afforded a cleaner style. The simplicity and clarity of these five western scripts makes Stewart's primal, complex characterizations all the more shocking and fascinating. And as usual for a Mann picture, there are many wordless sequences of purely visual storytelling, a quality that makes Anthony Mann one of the greatest yet least recognized American directors.
Bend of the River features Stewart as a guide leading a wagon train of homesteaders from Missouri to a new life in the Oregon Territory. When the settlers' promised winter supplies and cattle don't arrive from Portland, Stewart heads to town to find that a gold rush has created rampant corruption. With the help of Arthur Kennedy (and in a smaller role, Rock Hudson), Stewart battles to bring the needed supplies upriver and across a mountain, only to have to deal with a mutiny attempt along the way. The mutiny is one of several story devices that seem to be stolen outright from the plot of another famous western which ends with the word "River," but Bend of the River has enough originality, action, and intelligence to satisfy the most discriminating western fan. A wonderful supporting cast includes Jay C. Flippen as a patriarchal homesteader, a gorgeous Julia Adams as his daughter, Chubby Johnson as a riverboat captain, and Henry Morgan and Jack Lambert as thugs.
The cast and crew of Bend of the River spent several weeks on location in the Oregon wilderness, which Stewart enjoyed immensely according to his co-star Arthur Kennedy. In James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life by Lawrence J. Quirk (Applause), Kennedy "felt that Stewart, who, in 1951, found himself with new twin daughters in addition to two stepsons, relished the time away from home. Domesticity, children, and even the devoted ministrations of a loving wife, got on his nerves after a while, hence his joy in male company and the wilderness. "He did get hitched rather late in life," Kennedy said, "and while a wonderful husband and father, I think he missed the freedom he had had before. He seemed to me often tense, ready to cut loose, and his role in Bend of the River certainly gave him the range for that!"
Producer: Frank Clever, Aaron Rosenberg
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Borden Chase, based on the novel by William Gulick
Cinematography: Irving Glassberg
Music by Hans J. Salter
Film Editing: Russell F. Schoengarth
Art Direction: Bernard Herzbrun, Nathan Juran
Cast: James Stewart (Glyn McLyntock), Arthur Kennedy (Emerson Cole), Julie Adams (Laura Baile), Rock Hudson (Trey Wilson), Lori Nelson (Marjie Baile), Jay C. Flippen (Jeremy Baile), Harry Morgan (Shorty), Royal Dano (Long Tom), Stepin Fetchit (Adam).
C-92m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold