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Wild River (Blu-ray Review)

11 Feb, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$14.98 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick, Jo Van Fleet.

The least seen of Elia Kazan’s great films had never, until its inclusion on a Fox-Kazan box set in 2010, received a home-market release, though at least the otherwise hapless Fox Movie Channel has given it a steady showcase over the years. As a just-turned-13, I was enthralled by it during the same summer-of-’60 week I saw a couple other of the year’s underappreciated pleasures (Vincente Minnelli’s take on Broadway’s Bells Are Ringing and Budd Boetticher’s series capper with Randolph Scott: Comanche Station). But River was and is special due to its subject matter (not just the Depression-TVA but also its overriding theme about the cruel tradeoffs that sometimes come with technological progress); a Montgomery Clift performance both intelligent and appealing that just keeps getting better with the years; a Lee Remick performance that is probably her career high (I believe she referred to this as the favorite of her films); and a Jo Van Fleet performance that, to my mind, should have had the supporting actress Oscar that went to Shirley Jones for Elmer Gantry. Incredibly, Van Fleet didn’t even get a nomination — though she had, of course, taken the same award five years earlier for absolutely nailing a small role as James Dean’s brothel-madam mother in Kazan’s East of Eden (which, like River, also had a most satisfying script by Paul Osborn). 

Clift’s mission for the Tennessee Valley Authority is to get Van Fleet’s 80-year-old matriarch (the actress was 45 when she took the role) to cease being the only holdout to selling her family land so that the area can be flooded to make way for a TVA dam that will bring electricity to the region. Americans applaud this spirit, as Clift’s character notes — but the old lady is going to have to sell and move to a substitute home the government will provide if it can find one with the picket fence Clift demands. Gradually helping her face reality is widowed-at-19 granddaughter Remick, whose minimal formal education can’t camouflage her innate emotional intelligence — a virtue that gets a workout when she has to convince this sometimes guarded Northern male that she would make him a good wife.

The local color here ranks with the screen’s best (the mayor cuts hair on the side; the undertaker runs the furniture store), and Kazan, whose later movies always got major boosts from their musical scores, gets a honey of a sparse one out of Kenyon Hopkins. Ellsworth Fredericks’ lovely Scope location photography gets the expected Blu-ray boost over the DVD version, and yes, that’s Bruce Dern as a gas station hooligan (one of many in the town) — his first screen appearance. Critic Richard Schickel, whose jaw-dropping vocal disdain for Robert Altman has lost him big-time points with many in recent years, is an obvious choice for the commentary here, having written extensively on Kazan in the past. This release definitely fills a crater, in that Wild River was one of the greatest U.S. releases never given its home format due.

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