Swamp Water (Blu-ray Review)19 Mar, 2012 By: Mike Clark
Available at ScreenArchives.com
Stars Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, Anne Baxter.
To even launch the first of five films making up the uneven but at times unjustly shrugged-off collection of Jean Renoir’s American work, this greatest of French directors (at least up to the New Wave — and arguably beyond it) didn’t just have to flee the Vichy threat in his homeland. There were also those cinematically tone-deaf critics who’d been indifferent or worse to what has long since been a regular show-up on five-greatest lists: 1939’s The Rules of the Game. Upon landing, a filmmaker renowned in part for his pastoral sensibilities found himself in the middle of that rural American milieu in which 20th Century-Fox productions often excelled (think John Ford and, on a lesser plane, Henry King).
But this picture feels different from many of these other backwoods Foxes for reasons that have always eluded me — until I read Julie Kirgo’s notes on another crisp Twilight Time release from the Fox library. To my surprise, this was a rare case where the studio sent a crew to the story’s real setting — Georgia’s Okefenokee swamp — though before we extrapolate too much from this, the location shooting was brief, and Dana Andrews was the only actor who went along with the ride. But symbolically, it must have been enough: Even the studio footage doesn’t particularly have that studio look — a personal reaction spurred by (again) having just seen The Buccaneer (’58 version), where the stage-bound footage does everything it can to sink the a predominantly outdoor narrative.
The Southerner (1945) is the one Hollywood Renoir that has an unambiguously sturdy reputation, but I’ve always liked Swamp Water, too, from the time I first saw it (in sixth grade, year 1959). Due to the fact that Renoir’s Hollywood quintet were all divided between Fox, RKO and independently produced projects for United Artists (the other three films were This Land Is Mine, The Diary of a Chambermaid and The Woman on the Beach), it was possible for an enterprising kid to see them early on because all three of those respective pre-1949 packages had been sold to television by the late ‘50s.
Water’s story hook always got to me: a guy, falsely accused of murder, forced to live off the land (better make that muck) because the local law is too intimidated by water moccasins and other elements to pursue him all that vigorously. When I first saw the picture, it was a little over a year before my imagination got further captured by the similarly themed "Everglades," still one of my favorite Kingston Trio recordings. In the latter case, however, there wasn’t anything like the Dana Andrews character: a burgeoning trapper who wanders into the hiding place looking for his runaway dog, only to discover something else.
Watching all the marvelous black-and-white gradations here on a fabulous print, I had one reaction identical to a take-away from half-a-century ago: Walter Brennan (as the fugitive) looks almost svelte — at least for one who, by 1959, was familiar for his limping gait on both TV’s The Real McCoys and for his instantly immortal role as “Stumpy” in ‘59’s Rio Bravo. The buckskin or whatever it is he’s wearing also looks pretty sharp given its presumed gaminess quotient after years on the run — just as his daughter back in country-store civilization (Anne Baxter) seems to be always sporting seductively fluffy hair. All this was before Brennan somehow hit No. 5 on the Billboard charts with Old Rivers in 1961, sparking my imagination to picture a hoard of A&R men surrounding him around a table in the Liberty Records offices to say, “You may not know it Walt – but you’re ‘today.’”
In any event, I think Swamp Water is even moodier than I had remembered, particularly with its catchy subplot in which Andrews’ relatively young stepmother (Mary Howard, wed to “pa” Walter Huston) isn’t exactly playing around but at least thinking about and even enjoying her constant pursuit by local guitar-strummer John Carradine (Carradine for Huston, is she nuts?). There’s also a spurned-woman revenge twist involving Virginia Gilmore (the future real-life Mrs. Yul Brynner and possessor of one of those oversized blonde mouths I dug from the puberty get-go). There’s never much doubt about the identity of at least one guilty party, once we see Ward Bond show up as one of the local rednecks, particularly if you’ve seen him play a similar role in John Ford’s sublime Young Mr. Lincoln (which has gotten equally sublime Criterion treatment, happy to say).
Studio chief Darryl Zanuck didn’t like Renoir’s original ending and had actor/director Irving Pichel shoot a new one, which has probably contributed to Water’s rep as a something of a problem picture. I think you can see here where Renoir would have preferred to wrap up, due to a comment Brennan’s character makes a couple minutes before the final shot. Renoir’s ending would have been better, but even the one here isn’t terrible — and despite all we’ve said here, the movie ended up being a box office hit. So much so that just eleven years later, Fox remade it in Technicolor as Lure of the Wilderness — with (incredibly) Brennan in the same role opposite Jeffrey Hunter and Jean Peters (a pretty good lure of the wilderness herself). It’s decent, but I don’t think Hunter is as good as Andrews playing a non-wimp who is nonetheless pushed around by a lot of people. I wouldn’t be surprised if the latter’s conveyed vulnerability had something to do with Zanuck having him play one of the lynching victims so beautifully a couple years later in The Ox-Bow Incident.