BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE RIVER’S EDGE

By • Mar 12th, 2010 •

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Somehow I never got around to reviewing THE RIVER’S EDGE when it was originally released on DVD in 2006 as part of the 20th Century-Fox Studio Classics, a budget series of older films with impeccable transfers and lots of extra material, including generally fantastic commentaries, that Fox has phased out in the past year with the general collapse of the DVD market. Recently, I watched THE RIVER’S EDGE again, and I’m even more impressed than I was before, so much so that I felt the need to write about this wonderful if utterly obscure film, and urge all of you to track down a copy.

Until 2006, I hadn’t seen THE RIVER’S EDGE since the long ago and far away of a misbegotten youth spent in the dark. I recall watching a rather pink and green print at the somewhat innocent age of 17 in the slightly aromatic ambience of the Variety Photoplays at 13th Street. As the admission was 45 cents before noon, I used to skip high school and take the subway downtown. That was before the house changed its policy to porn, and posted a hand written sign in the box office: “Patrons must defecate in rest rooms, not the aisles.” Naturally, the word defecate was misspelled.

For my money, THE RIVER’S EDGE is one of the lost masterpieces of the 1950’s. Imagine a Road Runner cartoon crossed with an obsessively noirish yet strangely CinemaScoped thriller, featuring actors popping off the edges of the frame like ping-pong speakers in a stereo demonstration record, and you’ll have some idea of the wacky sensibility at work here. Unlike later practitioners, such as the Cohen Brothers, though, Alan Dwan’s off-kilter visuals reinforce the feeling of danger and suspense in a manner that is decidedly un-ironic even while being self-consciously cinematic. In director Allan Dwan’s late films, there’s a sense of a world out of whack, underlining the outsized emotions of the often hysterical plot. Yet this is our world, and we recognize ourselves in it. The story is the thing, and the characters are given the freedom to follow their destiny to the bitter end.

A doom-laden menage-a-trois crossed with a violent chase picture, THE RIVER’S EDGE is set in the rugged mountains and desert of New Mexico. Even the characters’ names evoke a world of almost primal emotions. Ray Midland plays Nardo Denning, a slick con man who first appears driving a tail-finned Caddy the color of a strawberry daiquiri. Milland’s performance, sophisticated yet brutal, is similar to his embodiment of sinister sang-froid in Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, although his white Panama hat and safari-styled jacket seem left over from a Maria Montez-John Hall Technicolored jungle epic. On the other hand, Ben Cameron, a rancher and mountain guide who wears faded denim, is tailor made to Anthony Quinn’s salt of the earth persona. The use of natural light at dusk and dawn is especially stunning, creating a visual correlative to the emotional struggle among the characters.

Debra Paget, under contract to 20th Century-Fox at the time, plays Ben’s wife Meg. Paget usually was cast in exotic parts like the Native American princess in BROKEN ARROW or Lilia of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Here her hair is dyed red, and she wears shorts that leave nothing to the imagination. Alan Dwan, who at that point had over 100 films to his credit, including many of Douglas Fairbanks’ best vehicles, such as ROBIN HOOD and A MODERN MUSKETEER (now available on a box set from Flicker Alley), treats her body almost architecturally, showing as much of her pale skin as was permissible. Dwan was mostly known as a comedy director and technical innovator in the silent era, having designed the first tracking and crane shots in cinema. Still, Meg is far from a typical femme fatale. In fact, she’s the most sympathetic character, and we’re encouraged to identify with her.

It’s clear from her point of view shots in the opening that Meg cares for Ben, but dealing with scorpions and the rigors of ranch living are proving too much for her. She is about to leave on her own when Denning appears, carrying a million stolen dollars in a silvery attache case. Meg, who was romantically involved with Denning years before, takes off with him towards Mexico. There is a particularly brutal murder of a border cop, and Meg’s bloody dress is shown in close-up against a yellow parched field and a deliriously blue sky, like a surreal fashion parody of a Dali painting. (This sequence is supposed to take place at night, but the color contrast is still very effective.) They have no choice but to ask Ben for help. Leading them into the slippery slopes of the Rio Grande, Ben hopes to defeat Denning and win both Meg and the money, while evading the cops who are waiting at the border. As filmed by Dwan, especially in his use of widescreen compositions, the boundary towards which his characters are escaping is not so much a physical place as an existential destination.

Alan Dwan, who got his start in 1911 under D.W. Griffith, had a creative renaissance during the 50’s working for producer Benedict Bogeaus. The stories are pure pulp, but Dwan obviously found them a marvelous opportunity, particularly after being confined to directing Vera Hubra Ralston vehicles at Republic. (Vera Hubra Ralston was a Czech figure skater with a cheery sensibility but almost no acting ability, who was married to Republic studio head Herbert Yates.) Strictly bottom of the bill, these titles are in themselves a kind of tone poem: SILVER LODE, SLIGHTLY SCARLET, THE WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED, CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA. There is a puckish, not to mention visually splendiferous sensibility at work here, which must have surprised the original audience of these films. (CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, in fact, is the title on the marquee of the local Bijou that Michael J. Fox sees when he travels to the 1950’s in BACK TO THE FUTURE.)

THE RIVER’S EDGE is the best of the bunch, not only for its brilliant use of landscape and an adroit script that goes against genre conventions, but also for a more lavish budget than usual. Produced at 20th Century-Fox, it was still made for about a third less than the typical studio film of the 1950’s. Although described as a Western on the DVD case, this is more of a Southwestern noir, taking as its theme the chorus of the song from Fritz Lang’s RANCHO NOTORIOUS: “Hate, Murder and Revenge!”

The yearning for a once virginal earth, particularly alongside escalating violence, is for me, as much as dark shadows or femme fatales, a basic aspect of film noir. In a world in which the frontier has dwindled to the point of existing only within ourselves as a cultural memory, that sense of possibility has been transformed into character. This makes the personal obsessions that weave through innumerable thrillers of the 1940’s & 50’s perfectly reasonable.

I love the way Dwan moves the camera. It’s a natural extension of the human eye, similar to how D. W. Griffith sets Lilian Gish among rustling leaves. Yet there’s also a feeling of abstraction and self-consciousness, like Anna Karina’s knowing wink toward the audience in Godard’s A WOMAN IS A WOMAN. One could even say that Dwan’s direction is the missing link between True Heart Susie (Griffith) and Angela Recamier (Godard).

By this time, Dwan had developed an almost subliminal style. Placing actors in the frame based on their evolving relationships, he would then repeat these positions adding deft, comedic touches and subtle changes in editing. The effect is of combining an almost Victorian simplicity with a sophisticated sense of visual design and character analysis. This visual paradox has to do with CinemaScope, I think, allied with Dwan’s story sense and comic sensibility. His solution to all that empty space is to place actors and objects in ironic counterpoint on opposite sides of the frame. Since there was no budget for sets, the majority of THE RIVER’S EDGE was shot on location. That must have had a liberating effect on Dwan, whose use of overcast skies and craggy peaks are as spare and articulate as a sentence by Hemingway.

The final ten minutes uses the towering infinity of the Rio Grande river basin, lined with treacherous rocks and steeply engorged trees, as its climax. Here, the tongue-in-cheek visual style takes on tragic overtones, until nature becomes a force oblivious to any human presence. Even on a twenty-inch screen, it is overwhelmingly impressive. This strange and beautiful film constantly undermines our expectations, yet never loses sight of its own overriding humanity.

This has been an obscure title, and the folks at Fox Video are to be commended for presenting the film in such an impeccable manner. There is a beautifully restored and almost flawless anamorphic widescreen transfer. That’s not an easy task where 1950’s Deluxe Color is concerned; it’s clear from the slightly subdued hues and occasional touch of grain that the original negative had seriously faded. Three sound tracks are included; I prefer the original mono, which is robust and resonant. A fascinating commentary track by James Ursini and Alain Silver full of information and insight is included as well.

Highly recommended

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