Swamp Water (1941)

22 07 2012

Jean Renoir’s first American production seems almost like a self-conscious attempt at a B-movie. I guess, it probably technically is one but the film, shot on location in Georgia with a group of actors who were nothing more than character performers at the time, feels like the perfect oddity. The photography itself, credited to Peverell Marley, feels bizarre enough when it’s being populated by actors like Ward Bond and Dana Andrews. The film’s closest companion would be Ford’s subversive and understandably rejected Tobacco Road but even that film only has hints of natural photography, where most of it’s charm comes from just the complete chaos. Renoir might have been too refined to make a truly lowbrow masterpiece, but the film does build upon his most famous cinematic landmarks, while still anticipating an entirely new direction.

Ben (Dana Andrews) happens upon a fugitive, played by Walter Brennan while hunting in the swamp. The two strike up something of a friendship, with the expectation that Ben will go back into town and provide for the fugitive. He falls in love with the fugitive’s daughter, Julie, while in the middle of an already stable relationship. The motivation becomes clearer for Ben: he wants to get the fugitive to come back into the town that ostracized him and intended to leave him for dead. While investigating the crime, it becomes more and more evident that the fugitive is innocent and that the town itself is hiding plenty of secrets.

The script, based on a novel by Vereen Bell, is the work of Dudley Nichols, a true Hollywood veteran. The content seems unmistakably American coming from his pen. The story builds upon the mob mind set (anticipating The Ox-Bow Incident two years later, also with Dana Andrews) of a town condemning an almost iconic criminal. Ward Bond leads this group, in a predictable albeit still solid performance. His character is obviously drawn with a very thick brush but that characterization contributes to the aforementioned “B-movie charm.” There is disturbing sequence early on in which a group of kittens are playing around in the town bar. Bond offers to get rid of them for money and then suggests throwing them in a bag and throwing them in the river. The act is suggested, but never seen carried out to it’s violent conclusion.

I suppose these little things seem just frustrating to some, since Hollywood’s treatment of even other human beings at this moment wasn’t exactly flattering, but it does contribute to this type of “backwoods” aesthetic, that I’ll again link with Tobacco Road. The character of Julie, Anne Baxter is one of her weirdest performances is compiled with the same feral / cave woman-like characteristics with Gene Tierney’s character in Ford’s film. The difference is that Baxter’s character becomes a Pygmalion construction for Dana Andrews. Meanwhile, Tierney’s performance in Tobacco Road is almost entirely peripheral. Her primitive nature is more of a set piece reinforcing the pathetic nature of the Lester family, while contributing to the odd vibes circling around that entire film.

Renoir does best Ford in one very important regard, and that is the visual one. It would be a long time until Hollywood would see an on-location film shot with the grace and style of a studio picture. Renoir’s expressionist visuals anticipate The Night of the Hunter by almost twenty years, and this film has none of the tacky artifice that is (intentionally?) floating around that movie. It might really be the star here in what is already a pretty excellent film. Perhaps the film’s narrative construction is lacking but again, there is something weirdly fascinating about it’s incompleteness. Ben’s attraction to Julie seems so forced it might be intentionally written with little to no regard of their relationship. The movie is not really about that, it’s more about how Renoir can squeeze something so visually powerful out of something that is weirdly fascinating at best and just silly at worst. It’s a wonderful movie, but lacks the resonance of Renoir’s most celebrated work.

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