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River of No Return (1954) began as an idea of writer Louis Lantz, who proposed an Old West variation on Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948), with the hero now a farmer who loses his horse (and also his gun). As in De Sica's film, the stakes are raised by the hero's responsibility for the care of his young son. Assigned to produce the film for 20th Century-Fox, Stanley Rubin developed the script, first with Lantz, then with Frank Fenton, in late 1952 and early 1953.
20th Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck saw in the story an opportunity to exploit two of the studio's newest and biggest assets: CinemaScope and Marilyn Monroe. The star was cast as a dance-hall singer who befriends the hero (Robert Mitchum) and his son (Tommy Rettig) and sets off with them on a perilous journey in pursuit of the gambler (Rory Calhoun) who has stolen their horse and gun. Over Rubin's objections, Zanuck assigned Otto Preminger to direct the film. Preminger then had an expensive contract that obliged the studio to pay him whether he was working on a film or not, so it was in Zanuck's interest to keep him occupied.
River of No Return started shooting on location in Alberta in July 1953. Monroe insisted on bringing along her acting coach, Natasha Lytess, and deferred to her for guidance on her performance. According to Preminger, Lytess urged Monroe to drop her characteristic "soft, slurred voice" and "enunciate every syllable distinctly. Marilyn didn't question Natasha's judgment. She rehearsed her lines with such grave ar-tic-yew-lay-shun that her violent lip movements made it impossible to photograph her.... I pleaded with her to relax and speak naturally but she paid no attention." Enraged on finding that Lytess was also trying to influence child actor Tommy Rettig, Preminger barred Lytess from the set. Monroe appealed to Zanuck, who overruled the director and permitted Lytess to return. Preminger made no attempt to conceal his displeasure at having his authority undermined. From then on, he usually conveyed his directions to Monroe through either Robert Mitchum or assistant director Paul Helmick.
On August 19, Monroe suffered a leg injury during the shooting of a raft scene. When she resumed work, she was sporting crutches and a walking cast. Realizing that the crew's sympathies were all with the actress, Preminger welcomed her back to the set "with a great display of European manners" (in the words of Shelley Winters, who visited the set). For the rest of the production, Preminger and Monroe were on more cordial terms, though her continual problems with dialogue irritated him. "Some of it had to be done in short takes because she couldn't remember her lines," the director later recalled. "I didn't want to spend my entire life in Canada."
Despite this remark, Preminger indulged his penchant for long takes throughout River of No Return. It was his first film in CinemaScope, a format he mastered immediately, exploiting its ability to stage scenes in a fluid, gradually unfolding manner. In River of No Return, CinemaScope enables Preminger to keep characters and settings in a dynamic but coherent relationship over extended duration. He uses the wide screen to emphasize the distance between people in the composition as a meaningful element and to stress the horizontality of the river (which plays a co-starring role in the film) and the solitude of the human protagonists in space. Though many critics would come to regard Preminger as one of the great CinemaScope stylists, he claimed to be indifferent to the shape of the screen. "What counts isn't the frame, it's what you put in it," he said.
Preminger did not finish River of No Return. Viewing the director's rough cut, Zanuck demanded additional footage. "Our picture is inarticulate," he complained. "We have got to stop guessing about these relationships. Once and for all, we want to lay it on the line so there can be no doubt or confusion as to what our people mean and how they feel." Several new scenes were written and filmed, including two moments of physical contact between the two stars: an attempted rape and a scene in which Mitchum gives Monroe a massage. Preminger was by then conveniently out of town, so Jean Negulesco, with whom Monroe had had a happy working relationship on How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), was assigned to shoot the new scenes.
Based on a story that Preminger did not select or develop, made from a script that had been largely written by the time he was assigned to the film, starring an actress he disliked, and, finally, partly reshot by another director, River of No Return clearly can't be considered a Preminger work in the same right as his independent productions or even most of his previous films for Fox. Yet the visual grace and the warm, slightly melancholy tone of River of No Return prove that Preminger's ability to control a film through direction depends neither on his prior control over the script, nor on his also functioning as producer.
Producer: Stanley Rubin
Director: Otto Preminger
Screenplay: Frank Fenton, based on a story by Louis Lantz
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Film Editing: Louis Loeffler
Art Direction: Addison Hehr, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Matt), Marilyn Monroe (Kay), Tommy Rettig (Mark), Rory Calhoun (Weston), Murvyn Vye (Colby), Douglas Spencer (Benson).
by Chris Fujiwara