Matt Calder, who lives on a remote farm with his young son Mark, helps two unexpected visitors who lose control of their raft on the nearby river. Harry Weston is a gambler by profession and he is racing to the nearest town to register a mining claim he has won in a poker game. His attractive wife Kay, a former saloon hall girl, is with him. When Calder refuses to let Weston have his only rifle and horse, he simply takes them leaving his wife behind. Unable to defend themselves against a likely Indian attack, Calder, his son and Kay Weston begin the treacherous journey down the river on the raft Weston left behind.
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In the mid-1950s Fox was infatuated with its new filmmaking technique, CinemaScope. CinemaScope used a different aspect ratio in order to make things on-screen larger and more breathtaking for audiences at a time when the studio system was falling apart and viewers were turning on their televisions rather than going to the movies.
Practitioners hated the new way of making movies. The camera was too big so close-ups were hard to shoot. Basically, CinemaScope’s greatest contribution to movies was in the way landscapes were filmed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in River of No Return (1954).
The movie was directed by Otto Preminger, a competent director. It started Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, two competent actors. The story itself is interesting at parts, but nothing special. This combined with CinemaScope causes the movie to be less than impressive.
One morning Kay and her fiancé, the gambler Harry, have to be saved by Mitchum on the river as the raft they are on struggles along in the current. Harry thanks Mitchum, but then pulls a gun on him and says he and Kay will have to take his horse as he needs to go downstream to a town to collect some money. Kay hates to see Mitchum and the boy get stuck up and she refuses to go with him. This does not matter to Harry however, he knocks Mitchum out and when Kay and the boy go to help him, he leaves.
To make matters worse when Mitchum wakes up and recovers a bit, Indians come and burn down the cabin. This forces the group onto the treacherous river, in an attempt to make it to town. From here it becomes a little like The African Queen, with Mitchum and Kay trying to feel each other’s motivations out. Eventually the two fall in love with each other, then they have a falling out and it is not until the end that they come together for a happy ending. Much like typical Westerns, Mitchum confronts the bad guy and he is killed, although this time the killing is done by the little boy. It is an interesting twist and reflects back to Mitchum’s earlier arrest for killing a man. The issue of his crime has been bothering Kay and the boy throughout their trip down river. With the final shot being fired the little boy is supposed to understand what motivated his father to kill another human being.
River of No Return is nothing new as far as story telling goes. It is also nothing new when it comes to how the movie is filled when looked at today. At the time it might have been revolutionary as some of the scenes on the river and in the forest or on the riverbank could have looked novel blown up so big on screen. This movie’s problem is that it does not know what it wants to be. Is it a drama? Is it a Western? Is it just a travelogue? Since the movie is so unfocused it struggles to keep the viewer’s attention.