“River of No Return” (1954) is an adventurous western/musical film directed by Otto Preminger. Set in the Northwestern United States during the late 1800’s, the film follows Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum), a new homesteader trying to find a place for himself in the every changing landscape of America. Years before, Matt was sent to prison for killing a man, and he hasn’t seen his son, Mark (Tommy Rettig), since infancy. Now, Matt’s wife has died and the young Mark has come out west to help Matt with their homestead. Matt travels to a local town to meet Mark, who arrived earlier and has been staying with the local dance hall girl, Kay (Marilyn Monroe). Matt thanks Kay for her kindness and promises Mark a bright future, living and working on their land together.
Kay’s gambling fiance, Harry (Rory Calhoun), shows up with a deed to a gold claim that he says was won in a poker game. He tells her they must leave immediately, and travel by raft to Council City (there are no extra horses in town) in order to file their claim. Kay suspects something is wrong due to his urgency, but agrees to go along anyway.
During their journey Kay and Harry find themselves over-matched by the fast-moving river, but luckily Matt and Mark witness them struggling and help pull the raft to shore. Harry offers Matt money for his only horse and gun so that he can get to Council City faster, but Matt has seen Indians watching his homestead and refuses to be left stranded with his son. When Matt won’t accommodate him, Harry takes matters into his own hands by knocking Matt out and stealing what he wants. Kay refuses to leave them alone, so Harry abandons her as well.
Right after Harry leaves, Matt wakes up and sees the Indians heading down the mountain. To escape their attack, Matt, Mark and Kay re-board the raft, leaving the homestead to be destroyed by the Indians. Floating down river, the unlikely trio encounters several struggles, including the rapid-filled water, more Indians, wild animals, and even a pair of men looking to find Harry and take back their deed. The biggest struggle, at least for Matt and Kay, is having to overcome their initial distaste for each other and stop fighting the undeniable spark between themselves.
“River of No Return” is by no means a perfect movie, but it is a fun one- particularly for those who enjoy Marilyn Monroe. Her acting is not at its best, but she still lights up the screen with charm and personality. The musical numbers are particularly great, some because of her, and some because of the costumes designed by one of Marilyn’s regular designers, Travilla. (The costumes might very well be the highlight of the film.) This is one of those movies that separates the Marilyn Monroe neigh-sayers from the fans. If you don’t like her normally then you will probably say that her performance lacks acting talent. On the other hand, if you enjoy her as an actress (as I do) then this film is made almost expressly for you (and me). She looks the part of a saloon gal with her breathy singing and skimpy, provocative clothes. Kay wants to be a better person, but has already given up hope for herself, resigning to forever being attached to no-good gamblers and drunks. Whatever someone might think about her (including Matt), she thinks even less of herself. One can’t help but see the unfortunate comparisons between Kay as a character and Monroe as an actress.
Mitchum seems a bit stale in his role, which doesn’t offer much anyway. His best characters are the darker ones, and Matt doesn’t come close to resembling any of those. Rory Calhoun is easily forgettable as the villain, but young Tommy Rettig, on the other hand, really brings a much-needed, emotional quality to the movie. All the characters seem to be in bad situations, but young Mark is the only one who didn’t make the choices that have brought him this far.
Much of “River of No Return” was shot on location, its breathtaking scenery and expansive landscapes helping to enhance every other aspect as well. The river scenes, however, suffer from too many long distance shots (to hide the faces of the stunt-workers), combined with the close-ups that were obviously (and I mean obviously in a painful way) done on a stage with some water splashing around. Instead of the white water scenes becoming the heart of the film, giving the audience thrill after thrill, they make it embarrassing and laughable.
Otto Preminger had his plate full on this shoot. Mitchum struggled with his drinking, Marilyn with her acting coach, the inclement weather conditions, and of course studio pressure to do things their way. As always, Preminger rose to the challenge and managed to pull everything together, creating a film that can still be enjoyed, despite all of its faults. He also came in ahead of schedule and under-budget, which is a huge accomplishment in itself. Always a professional, it seems there is nothing that Preminger couldn’t handle.