Maybe the idea of an Otto Preminger movie starring Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe put my expectations too high the first time I watched 1954's River of No Return. I find I like it a lot more now--those beautiful location shots in Calgary, Robert Mitchum's performance, Marilyn Monroe's beauty, and the story about necessity and relative morality. It doesn't compare well with Bicycle Thieves, the Italian Neorealist film that influenced it, but it's not bad.
As much as I love Robert Mitchum, and as much as I love him in this movie, he's a key part of what makes Bicycle Thieves the better film. Even though Lamberto Maggiorani wasn't a professional actor, the anxiety that naturally came through his stony face established the pain and desperation as he was forced to make increasingly bad moral choices while his son looked on. Mitchum's version, Matt Calder, always seems cool and satisfied with his own choices, something Mitchum's natural, gentle melancholy makes great to watch but which makes for a less interesting film.
Instead of a father and son whose bicycle is stolen, upon which their livelihood depends, Robert Mitchum and Tommy Rettig play a father and son whose horse and rifle are stolen. They're farmers in harsh, if gorgeous, territory and Matt astutely observes they'll never survive without the horse to plough the fields and without the rifle to protect them from Indians. The 1950s into the 60s had several westerns that began to cast Native Americans in a more sympathetic light; this wasn't one them. But the threat they present to the protagonists is certainly credible.
Marilyn Monroe plays Kay, a dance hall performer who'd befriended Rettig's character, Mark, while Matt was in prison. I don't think Monroe was a bad actress--she gives one of the greatest performances of all time in The Misfits--but in River of No Return she was the victim of bad advice from an elocution coach. The coach infuriated Preminger but Monroe insisted she remain with her on set. An insistence on perfectly enunciating every single word results in a stilted performance as different from her strikingly natural turn in The Misfits as could be. Her musical numbers aren't bad, though, and, of course, she's always easy on the eyes, even if her hair and makeup really aren't appropriate for the scenario.
It's her boyfriend, Weston (Rory Calhoun), who steals Matt and Mark's horse and rifle after Mark helped the couple when they were on a raft, caught in the rapids of the nearby river. He leaves her with them when she refuses to abandon Mark but the moral dialogue of the film mainly consists of Kay defending Weston as a desperate victim of circumstances who needs forgiveness more than punishment. In this, the film almost seems to be a rebuke of Bicycle Thieves, seemingly saying that it's only a foolish, soft-hearted woman who forgives a horse thief. Matters are complicated a little when we find out why Matt was in prison and, like the son in Bicycle Thieves, Mark is forced to assess his father's worth. But Matt, for the most part, never does anything really questionable--his crime was killing a man in defence of another--and Mitchum's performance is perfectly appropriate for the screenplay.
The only really challenging scene is when Matt starts roughly embracing Kay, forcing her to the ground as she struggles, though this follows from a dialogue in which she offered her body in exchange for Weston's life. Later it's implied Matt was trying to make a point, that Kay really didn't understand what she was offering, but the violence of the scene is by no means normal in a 50s Western. Maybe this was the point where Preminger and screenwriter Fenton wanted to show Matt doing something truly wrong but the motivations come across as too muddled.
But it's a beautiful film. The locations are great and I loved the raft scenes created without process shots, where you can actually see the actors or the stunt people are on a raft in the river, even if the rapids aren't quite as rapid as they need to be to imply peril.