Twentieth Century Fox released Elia Kazan’s “Wild River” (1960) on blu-ray this week and it looks fantastic. This post isn’t a review of the film or the measuring of the quality of the disc. And I won’t even give a plot synopsis. Rather, I just wanted to voice a few pointed thoughts I had while watching the film. It’s been awhile since I viewed a film starring Montgomery Clift. I’ve seen “The Heiress” (1949), “A Place In the Sun” (1951), “Indiscretion of an American Wife” (1953), “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and “The Misfits” (1961), to name a few. But I kept watching Clift (as Chuck) in the “Wild River”, admiring his extremely understated way of acting. It reminded me, slightly, of the feeling I used to get watching Gary Cooper. It’s a style that used to irritate me a little. It never turned me away from good films, but I kept wondering when the emotional bomb was going to drop, and it never really does. Clift’s voice is more Marlon Brando than the man that starred in “High Noon”. But his laid-back, purposeful repose in “Wild River” makes him fascinating to watch. Perhaps less is more.
It’s part of the apprehensiveness of his character, however Clift could have played it a different way. But it’s so effective. It works even better because of the way Lee Remick plays her character, Carol. It’s fair to say moments of Remick’s performance lean toward melodramatic art. But she’s within reason, using coy looks, slight heaves, and a touch of romance-novel cover rapture. But for the most part, she too plays the role in a quieter way than might have been done by another actress. She’s mesmerizing. Carol is calm and introspective, but she’s also nervy and wild, like a loose and fluttering power line sparking at the tip as it hits water. On the other hand, Clift plays his roll with a steady line of control and timidity. It’s like watching two kettles on a hot stove, waiting for the steaming whistle. It creates a sexual tension palpable enough there’s no need for a bedroom scene. Kazan could obviously feel this too because the “consummation scenes” amount to one closed door and one morning-after kiss blown from across the length of a river bed. This film very easily could have fallen into that all-too-easy anti-feminist role, where the 3-years-sexless and panting Carol falls into the arms of Chuck and begs for sex, marriage, and everlasting love — not necessarily in that order. Yes, the film does get there in the end, but not before screenwriter Paul Osborn gives Remick’s Carol the chance to say a number of lines that feel like something a real woman would say. Carol tells Chuck she has no interest in tying him down. Then Remick delivers a real beauty in one of the more touching scenes in the film. The couple have just driven back from town, feeling warm and smitten. Carol’s two young kids from a previous marriage (the husband died) are asleep in the back. Remick and Montgomery play the scene with a sexual tautness. (See poster still above.) Carol tells Chuck, “Let’s put the kids to bed.” And she repeats the line. The audience knows exactly what that means. Then she uses the power of her desire to finally get Chuck to say the things to her she’s always known he’s felt, but been unable to say. She asks him to say he can’t live without her and they tussle/kiss. She repeats the request, which is more like a come-on than anything else. He gives in because she’s irresistible. The role reversal of traditional relationship power-play is refreshing. And if you want even-handedness among the genders, look no further than two right hooks from an angry townie, who knocks out both Carol and Chuck, as a sign of the beginning of their equal and correlative future together. (… in sickness and in health, or if we’re both knocked unconscious.) On a serious note, it took two quality actors, acting often in contrasting styles to reach that intensity, and the car scene is a sight to behold.