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DVD Review: THE RIVER’S EDGE (1957)

Allan Dwan made over 400 movies during a fifty-year period.  When he started directing, there was no such thing as an American feature film:  movies lasted 20 minutes, tops.  He was making movies before Chaplin.  Dwan’s debut behind the camera came only a few months after the East Coast-based movie industry had relocated to a new Los Angeles suburb called Hollywood.

Dwan was in his seventies when he made THE RIVER’S EDGE, a brutal mid-century suspense film that had all the accoutrements of the TV-vs-Movies era:  shot in widescreen CinemaScope with color by DeLuxe, on a modest budget, starring both classic actors on the wane and upcoming fresh faces, a pop song tie-in over the credits, sex and violence, and enough shots done outside the studio to feed audiences’ desire to see movies filmed “on location.”  (Films of the studio era didn’t focus on First Weekend Grosses, but instead released a movie and let audience word-of-mouth do the rest over time.  The one buzzword passed among movie consumers that packed the theatres in the 1940s was Technicolor:  something so novel that no one would pass it up.  In the 1950s, the big buzz was “filmed on location.”)

Although this is a fifties movie, the plot motivators and character archetypes are pure forties film noir:  the professional criminal (here played by Ray Milland), the good/bad girl (Debra Paget), and the savvy guy who holds down a plot-turning job (usually a detective in noir, but in this case a mountain guide on the Mexico border, played by Anthony Quinn).  THE RIVER’S EDGE was filmed in 1957, at the peak of Brando-mania, so Quinn gets to create a character built on basic hunkiness and vulnerability, and carries it off beautifully.

Quinn acts Brando-style in THE RIVER'S EDGE

Quinn acts Brando-style in THE RIVER'S EDGE

But even more bravura than Quinn’s star turn is the art direction.  20th Century-Fox, the film’s distributor, had already explored the Gothic possibilities of Southwest decor in LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN, but here the sets are 1950s Southwest Suburban Moderne, with flashes of aquamarine and candy apple red introduced for dramatic effect.

Art director VanNest Polglase (Citizen Kane / Gilda / Bringing Up Baby) builds tight color schemes in a Crayola palette where all elements ping off each other.  (For example, tying together 3 plot points, Debra Paget takes a bubble bath in a room with Play-Doh green tiles while a woman with the same color green in her dress dances downstairs behind Ray Milland, and Anthony Quinn pulls up outside with the same tone of green in the paint job of his pickup.)

As a movie pioneer, Dwan helped develop Image Displacement (employing the fact that the human eye can only focus on one point in the picture plane at a time) that creates “invisible” cuts in narrative film.

Working within the (then) newly-engineered letterbox format, Dwan nails his hyperreal compositions and gives the viewer maximum punch.  A great experience.

Doug / PoMoJoan

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1 Comment to “DVD Review: THE RIVER’S EDGE (1957)”

  1. […] Paget into guiding him safely through the New Mexican desert and across the border. It’s colorful, tightly paced, and packed with action, capped by an ironic ending that sticks in your […]

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