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Bend Of The River
cast: James Stewart, Rock Hudson, Arthur Kennedy, Julie Adams, and Lori Nelson

director: Anthony Mann

90 minutes (PG) 1952
Universal DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Bend Of The River is the second collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart, after the auspicious debut of Winchester '73. In between, Mann had quickly made two other genre pieces, including the pessimistic and little seen Devil's Doorway (1950) with Robert Taylor, and the still underrated The Furies (1950), with Barbara Stanwyck. Both these intermediate projects showed the director expanding his range. Devil's Doorway showed a radical and unusually downbeat view of the Indian settlement question, while the expressionistic use of monochrome photography in The Furies was striking. Bend Of The River is slightly more conventional, but still excellent.

Now back in the saddle with his favourite director, Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, a man with a past, who is engaged on leading a group of farmers up river to start up a new life. En route he interrupts the lynching of Emerson Cole (a splendid Arthur Kennedy) a man also with a violent history, and the two soon enter into an uneasy friendship. Between them they help overcome trouble with raiding Shoshones, and the wagon train reaches Newport, buying supplies before progressing onto the settlement. After a couple of months food runs low, and McLyntock is obliged to return to Portland where gold fever is now rampant, to secure the livelihood of his friends...

At the heart of Bend Of The River is a simple question, one that reverberates throughout much of Mann's work. What is it that makes a man go bad? And once turned, can he be brought back to the straight and narrow? In the more proscriptive Winchester '73, there is never any doubt as to the answer: we are given two brothers, one firmly bad, and one good. By its close Bend Of The River offers a subtler interpretation of men, even if Jeremy Baile, the wagon train party leader also thinks human behaviour can never be changed: "When an apple is rotten there's nothing to do but throw it away." In this light, men are still as predictable, and almost as open to inspection, as the much-needed supplies waiting to be loaded onto Captain Mello's riverboat River Queen.

Understandably McLyntock has a different view: "There's a bit of a difference between apples and men." He is working through his own redemption - a fierce process that goes some way to explaining his moral rigidity and purpose. But the reformed ex-Missouri raider represents only one side of the moral equation; the corruption of erstwhile friend Emerson Cole, whose early genial camaraderie is gradually replaced by greed and murder, another. The 'middle way' - as such - is represented by gambler Trey Wilson (Rock Hudson), doubtfully acquiescing to Cole's increasingly violent actions, until the end. Like McLyntock's three shirts: "one off, one on, and one in the wash," men are viewed in their different aspects. And, like the one shirt McLyntock holds up with a hole where the heart should be (singed by the Indian attack), after the right events it is just as possible to see 'right through' a man to the truth.

Much of the middle action of Bend Of The River occurs in Portland. Reflecting the scheme just described (and interestingly suggestive of the similar dichotomy between Bedford Falls/Potterville in It's A Wonderful Life, which also starred Stewart) Portland reveals two aspects of itself by turn. When McLyntock and the settlers arrive, the town is open handed and welcoming, a pleasant place to live, the newcomers promised "a real Oregon welcome." When the hero returns, to recover much needed supplies a month or two later, the greed for gold has transformed the citizenry. This is particularly true of Hendricks, owner of the River Queen and the Portland Palace Saloon, whose rapid change anticipates that of Cole. Our views of Portland's formerly pleasant streets, last seen in sunshine, are entirely at night - and it gives up a dark, confused place, the inhabitants trapped inside their own weakness - a description made visually manifest by McLyntock's first view of Laura, newly installed within the bars of the casino teller's cage. (It is she who is shortly taken in by Cole's surface charm, before affixing herself to McLyntock at the end.) As Baile earlier observes, when "men... come in to kill and steal (it) changes things." As to what has exactly happened to the town they thought they knew, McLyntock replies, "I don't know, but I don't like it." Significantly, exactly the same words will be used later of Cole, this time by Trey, as the former friend slides into moral dissolution.

Happily enjoying trail biscuits and discussing his laundry arrangements at the start of the film, McLyntock soon assumes many of the characteristics of the archetypal Mann hero: wronged, driven, and out for vengeance. Cast adrift from the supply train by Cole and his cohorts, he hovers on the boundaries, hindering their progress towards the gold camp (itself a symbolic source for much of what has overcome Portland) until he in turn can confront his persecutors. The film's depiction of the wagon drive, both here and at the start of the film, is very convincing, as Mann's characteristic use of landscape and framing creates a picturesque vision, which has both a documentary feel and an immediacy that is exciting and satisfying. Unlike his first film with Stewart, Bend Of The River is in colour and the vivid DVD transfer is entirely successful. The actor himself is on top form, making entirely credible a man still with the scars of a hanging around his neck, struggling to make his way in a world where lasting words of thanks, the bond between honest people, should be worth more thousands in gold.

If the film in not in the very forefront of Mann's oeuvre it is primarily because it slips occasionally back into period conventionality; for instance modern audiences will find the 'yes massur' antics of Stepin Fetchit as Adam, the First Mate on River Queen a distraction, while none of the women have the depth that informed Shelly Winters' character in Winchester '73. Promoted from his short appearance in Winchester, Hudson's role is relatively undeveloped, his lack of self-expression arguably a weakness in a plot which places him so precisely between two opposites. Fortunately, Kennedy's performance as the dangerous Cole has enough complexity to balance out much of this shortcoming. Despite the overall original excellence of Borden Chase's script (he wrote regularly for Mann) genre watchers will remember from Hawks' masterly Red River (1948) the scene where the heroes hunt and kill raiding Indians who communicate by imitating bird calls. The writer obviously thought that such a good idea was too good not to use again, and it is done just as effectively here.

The DVD offers little more than a chaptered presentation of the film, in correct Academy ratio, which can nevertheless still be strongly recommended.
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