May 13, 2019
Stars James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Julia Adams, Rock Hudson.
This second of the five revered James Stewart-Anthony Mann Westerns consistently gets high marks on rank-them-in-order lists, but leaving aside 1955’s perfectly respectable but unexceptional The Far Country (a ’54 release in England), you can shuffle your specific preferences in just about any order without anyone calling you crazy. I myself prefer Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur and The Man From Laramie — but on the other hand, ranking 1952’s Bend of the River fourth just doesn’t quite send the right signal. (For that matter, I could use an update viewing on Country if long-promised Blu-rays ever materialize.)
Certainly, River has the “elements”: two great lead actors playing characters who are alternately friendly and adversarial with each other; a supporting cast of young screen players who were getting early career breaks on the way to expanding their fan bases; older character actors (sub-category: Western) who are not anyone’s pretty faces; and excellent Technicolor locales once we get by a shoddy-looking set-bound exterior during some an early nocturnal combat between white settlers and Shoshones. The picture was largely filmed way, way up in the Mt. Hood area of Oregon, and it’s been said that Stewart regarded it as the most physically demanding role of his career.
For a star-director quintet that proved quite popular with the public yet was relegated to functional bread-and-butter status by critics, a lot of screen ink has been expended in subsequent years on the ways in which these movies toughened up Stewart’s screen image and played a little to that persona’s occasional neurotic dimension — as in what for me are the actor’s two greatest performances (earlier on in It’s a Wonderful Life and a bit later in Vertigo). In River, Stewart keeps his emotions remarkably in check amid all sorts of narrative mayhem but finally lets it out all out late in the game when co-star Arthur Kennedy (as Stewart’s erratic sidekick) reveals his true character, which we’ve seen hinted at from the beginning.
Which is to say that the two meet when Kennedy has a rope around his neck as one about to be lynched for horse thievery — a vigilante group-vs.-individual act to which Stewart responds negatively on general principles, resulting in the former’s unambiguous rescue. Subsequently riding together, the two soon become aware that they know each other by reputation — though this mutual rep is as former “raiders” from the Civil War era, which doesn’t go down too well in postwar society. As a result, the screenplay — by Red River’s Borden Chase from a Bill Gulick novel — somewhat enters future Budd Boetticher territory in that the good guy and the bad guy have more in common than they do with, in this case, wagon train settlers. Though Stewart is trying.
As my favorite character actor ever, Kennedy predictably delivers the standout supporting performance, but the movie also gives pretty good indication of the young contract players Universal-International was “pushing” in those days. Julie Adams (here still billed as Juli-a) is the young settler who takes an arrow in her shoulder, a la Joanne Dru in Red River, and seems as confused in her choice of men as Hope Hicks. There’s also Adams’ fellow “Creature” lust object Lori Nelson, in her screen debut as the closest thing to a bobbysoxer that the wagon train has to offer — plus Rock Hudson is a gambler named “Trey Wilson.” This said, and by virtue of being played by Rock, the guy looks nothing like the prematurely deceased comic actor from Raising Arizona and Bull Durham — though it was an appealing early role for the actor in terms of his seemingly effortless (which it wasn’t) screen magnetism. Hudson is mostly on hand to show off his professional gambler’s garb and to lend a hand during fatal shoot-outs — some of which take place in the formerly civilized Portland, which goes all crazy when someone discovers gold.
Also around — and Blu-ray commentator Toby Roan bios them all practically down to the number of times they hit the men’s room each day — are familiar Western types like Chubby Johnson, Harry Morgan, Royal Dano, Jack Lambert and Howard Petrie. Not so familiar by 1952, due to the already wincingly retro nature of his act, was Stepin Fetchit, who was making his first appearance in a Hollywood film (as opposed to a so-called “race picture” of the era) in about 20 years; he plays the 40-year companion here to boat captain Johnson, which means, I guess, that the two have managed to work out their relationship. Also among the settlers eventually faced with potential starvation (and with winter approaching) is Frances Bavier. As Bing didn’t sing on his Decca recording, other than in my imagination, it’s looking like “Twilight on the Trail” for Aunt Bea. If that is, Stewart and Kennedy (who’s beginning to make it clear that he may be in it for just himself), can’t get their bought-and-paid-for supplies back from money-hungry Petrie.
Ultimately, River lacks that final “oomph” that pushes it out of the high side of decent into something more, an assessment that applies to the print here as well. The movie was shot in three-strip Technicolor, so its genes are obviously tops, but it looks as if an older master was used here, which is a crucial decision when it comes to this kind of outing. Predictably, it’s stronger in the closeups, though if you went on location in the mountains, you would instead be indulging in long shots, right? Fortunately, the inherent visual material gives River certain advantages, something that’s doubly or even triply so in its choice of protagonists. Kennedy’s character is posted as one who’s smiley, easygoing and wry most of the time (as well as generally dependable in the clutch), and no one was ever better at putting this conflicted demeanor over than the actor U-I chose for the role. Kennedy came through in a similar kind of role in The Man From Laramie, too, which (from Twilight Time and in contrast) is one of the best Blu-ray presentations of a movie from this era that I’ve ever seen.