I knew at the inception of this month of women in film, I would have to include Otto Preminger's River of No Return, not entirely because it possesses a heavy female narrative, but because it is ostensibly point zero for feminist theory, as some readers may know, this is the film Laura Mulvey used when initially arguing for the existence of "the male gaze" in cinema, wherein the viewers, assumed to be males are privileged with physically gratifying images of women being objectified on screen, in the case of this film, Mulvey believed that Marilyn Monroe, particularly in her parlor scenes, served as a point of objectification not only for men in the cinema, but for the males in the film as well, a sort of reaffirmation of misogyny and patriarchal power. As a self-proclaimed feminist film theorist I am all on board with Mulvey reading this possibility in a lot of film, yet it is a theory based almost entirely on the visual elements of cinema, which while important do not reflect the entirety of any piece of film, which also considers narrative and performance. River of No Return, in itself contests the possibility of Monroe being objectified by her performance alone and while I am not attempting to discredit Mulvey's interpretation I think that River of No Return is more empowering than once assumed and certainly stands as its own bit of cinematic brilliance. One would be hard-pressed to sit down and watch this film without becoming completely infatuated with all its magic and excitement. Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe play off of one another beautifully, not to mention both lend some incredible musical performances to a film that is considerably defiant of genre. I am constantly finding myself deeply challenged by claiming with any certainty a best bluray film, yet the Marilyn Monroe box set I obtained awhile back might well be the best decision, the raging river and spectacular sets, shot in Technicolor are beautiful to look at, only made all the more spectacular by costuming and Robert Mitchum's booming authoritativeness. River of No Return is a spectacular piece of cinema, which has a problematic place in the feminist film theory canon, but still manages to hold sway over viewers nearly sixty years later.
River of No Return focuses primarily on the experiences of Matt Calder (Robert Mitchum) who is attempting to set up a farm in the middle of a gold rush, an effort made worse by his doing so after recently being released from prison. He has made it to a particular encampment with the hopes of finding his son Mark (Tommy Rettig) whose survival seems to have been assured only due to serving as a beer runner. Once the two are reunited, Matt and his son run into Kay (Marilyn Monroe) who Mark has already met, but makes an instant impression on Matt, with her level-headedness and sense of good ethics. Yet, Kay is hopelessly infatuated with Harry Weston (Rory Calhoun) a big time gambler whose hopes of landing a huge gold claim result in his convincing Kay to join him on a raft trip to beat out everyone else to the gold. It is during this trip that they meet heavy waters, fortunately, their crash happens right next to Matt's farm, where he rescues them without even thinking twice. Kay is grateful, whereas Harry uses a moment of advantage to steal Matt's horses and continue in pursuit of his gold. Kay realizing the terrible act Harry has committed, decides to stay with Matt and Mark and await Harry's return. Staying at Matt's farm becomes impossible when Native American's attack the house, leading to Matt, Mark and Kay taking their own trip down the river on the raft, one filled with peril, more encounters with hostile natives and bounty hunters, not to mention the clear burgeoning affections between Matt and Kay, as well as Mark who deems them paternal figures. Eventually they make it to where Harry is staying and after a failed attempt to get Harry to make amends with Matt, he is shot in the street by Mark, who does so to protect his after. While the romance between Matt and Kay seems hopeless, a final moment of Matt returning to literally sweep Kay off her feet closes out the film.
So is the film problematic in its portrayal of gender, sure, but it is important to consider that the film was released in 1954 and exists, rather tenuously, within the Western genre, which rarely favors women. I would also dismiss this being a film entirely predicated upon the visual objectification of Marilyn Monroe's body. While this occurs, it is followed by verbal and performative rejections of such occurrences on the part of Monroe, who in recent years has become a surprising figure of empowerment in feminist and, more recently, queer theory. They suggest that, as a performer, Monroe actively sought to do more with the roles than she was given, either over performing them, as is the case with The Seven Year Itch as a sort of ironic dissonance, or navigating the space to assure her empowerment of the scene, as occurs within Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I would argue that this absolutely occurs within River of No Return, viewers are shown a Monroe who can stand her own against the towering Mitchum, as well as a woman capable of guiding with authority a very large raft, while simultaneously executing maternal roles without question. Even her desires to do right and detach herself from an exploitative relationship with Harry seem to suggest a direct contradiction to the objectification that Mulvey seems so intent on attaching to this film specifically. In a close reading of the bar scenes Monroe is a victim, yet in the context of a larger narrative she becomes empowered, especially once she rejects her own very real narrative exploitation. All this considered, I will say that the closing scenes between her an Mitchum certainly threaten to undermine this entire argument, but her blatant request that she obtain a loving relationship with Matt, seem to demand him picking her up and taking her to another place, as opposed to denying it outright.
Key Scene: The gaze portion is discussed for a reason, it is an absolutely powerful moment in cinema, even with the theory detached, one will get caught up in how mesmerizing it proves to be from beginning to end.
I know I demand a lot of films be purchased, but this time I strongly urge you to pick up the Monroe bluray box set with all of her key films, it is easily one of the best bluray upgrades I have made to date, if not for this cinematically sound and theoretically controversial film, then for every other great work in the set.