Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe star in this fairly standard western drama, written by Frank Fenton and directed by the legendary Otto Preminger. While there was no breaking of the mold here, the movie still managed to be highly enjoyable with its stars in fine form. As stories go, Preminger had a hard time dealing with the two leads, but in the end, what ended up on the big screen was either professionalism or careful editing and you would never know that either one of them, Monroe or Mitchum, were not at their best. As it is, River of No Return is not the greatest western to ever come out, but it is extremely well made and you cannot go wrong in watching this one with all of the talent involved, especially once the opening theme song starts by the great Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Mitchum plays Matt, recently released from jail, trying to get his farm going and having to look after his son after the wife he was separated from has died. So it is that he meets Monroe who stars as Kay, a lounge singer and her husband Harry, played by Rory Calhoun. After Harry steals Matt’s gun and horse, Matt, his son Mark and Kay are forced to flee upon a raft down a river that is more than dangerous from a group of Native Americans that are intent on killing them. Suffice it to say, drama and action follow them throughout their trip.
No matter how many times you see Robert Mitchum in a film, he always has a casual, easy-going demeanor. He could be the good guy or the bad guy, he could be on the end of a gun or the man holding the gun, he could even be dying or doing the killing and he almost always seems like he has little care in the world when doing so. It is a part of his charm and why he was such a good actor. Even though it might sound one-dimensional, the man took whatever role was given to him and made it his own so that it suited his style and that is exactly what he did here. If it had been Jimmy Stewart or John Wayne for instance, it would have been a completely different film and the character of Matt far different than what we got. The same can be said of Marilyn Monroe who could play a strong woman like she did here, but with a bit of timidness behind the exterior shell. Monroe was a good actress when she was able to prove it and she often played one of two roles, the kind as evidenced in this feature or the dumb blonde who is secretly smarter than she appears. Here, Monroe was good and her character proved to be a match for Mitchum’s in every way; feisty, capable and just as smart. Balancing them out would be child actor Tommy Rettig as the conscious of the film, the reason why Matt would do what he does and the device which would bring Kay closer to Matt. Watching the three converse and how they would act around each other was just as compelling as the action that took place in the movie.
On top of the talent and the great direction by Preminger, it features some really breathtaking cinematography by Joseph LaShelle. The river, the mountains and the countryside are big and bold and are as much a character in this picture as any of the actors. The only downside to any of this is the special effects which are used during a segment when the trio are on the river. You can plainly tell that they are in a water tank in a studio as film footage rolls past behind them. It is momentary and a little silly to look at, but out of all the good in this film, it is a minor thing. Made famous for starring Marilyn Monroe more than anything else, not that Mitchum was a slouch either, River of No Return is a solid western-drama that may not rewrite the book, but never fails to entertain.