After the Nazis invaded France in 1940, director Jean Renoir fled to the U.S. where he found some refuge making studio pictures for Fox, United Artists, and eventually RKO, but one senses things didn’t work out so smoothly for Renoir, being replaced on the Deana Durbin programmer The Amazing Mrs. Holiday (1943) and the reshoots on Swamp Water (1941) by producer Irving Pichel (namely, a happy ending mandated by studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck).
Whether it was a language or cultural barrier, working in an industrial town steeped in commercialism, or simply being told what to do by producers with strict budget and time limits, Renoir’s American period is rather intriguing – certainly in seeing what aspects of his style and thematic fixations appear in otherwise straight genre entries (or rather, how well he managed to transcend genre clichés).
Swamp Water, Renoir’s first film after being forced to leave Italy and abandon work on The Story of Tosca (1941), is a small picture that’s filled with rich themes, including man living in impossible / highly inconvenient environments (the croc / bug / snake infested Okefenokee Swamp); steeped revenge that drives a man to a feral, self-preservation mode; and how an offence can turn an insular community against one man, or the vestiges of his family.
The basic story has trapper Ben (Dana Andrews) chasing after his dog Trouble in the swamplands, only to be conked on the head and wakeup strapped to a tree the next morning, while a scruffy old man cooks some food over a fire. Tom rightly guesses his captor is Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), wanted for murder and convicted by a jury, and although Tom has no immediate desire to kill Ben, he sure won’t show him the way out.
Ben eventually convinces Tom he’s on his side, using his captor’s longing to see daughter Julie (scruffy-lookin’ Anne Baxter) as a means to escape, and the two strike up a deal where money from their pelts will be divided between Ben and Julie – allowing the absent father to care for a daughter forced to work slave hours at the local general store.
Two fellow trappers grow suspicious of Ben’s amazing luck in trapping Grade A rodents, and they suspect he’s got an accomplice. When Ben’s bitchy girlfriend Mabel (Virginia Gilmore) lets loose a secret confession, the town mounts a manhunt. Woven into this social disorder is Ben’s fractured relationship with father Thursday (Walter Huston), and stepmom Hannah (Mary Howard), a lass not much older than Tom, it seems, and still the eye of sleazy guitarist / stalker Jesse (John Carradine) who’s intent on mounting some sexual impropriety whenever Hannah’s home alone.
Dudley Nichols’ adaptation of Vereen Bell’s novel is filled with taut, sometimes rich country folk dialogue, but a repeat viewing reveals little lines that become cruelly ironic for a few characters, particularly the scummy pair responsible for setting up Tom for murder. There’s a terrifying quicksand drowning where Renoir just focuses on the character’s utter terror as he realizes he’s going to ignominiously drown in mud within seconds, and a horrifying dunking session where the two thugs tie up Ben and proceed to drown him into submission and reveal Tom’s whereabouts. Renoir similar goes for raw emotion, and the sequence resembles a witch test, where people watch the cruelty with little emotion.
If Ben and Julie are the saintly, squeaky clean characters in the drama, the rest of the town is comprised of moral grey matter – an unusual coloration of town folks that are traditionally divided into white and black. Ben’s father isn’t a saint, and one never doubts Tom would be comfortable cutting Ben’s throat if he suspected any treachery. (In the film’s ending, he forces Ben to make a dangerous choice that could easily have ended his life.)
The general store owner soon shuns Ben when he learns of Ben’s dealings with Tom, and Sheriff Jeb McKane (perpetually gravelly Eugene Palette) keeps the peace and supervises (from a distance) Ben’s tortuous dunking session. The most revolting character is perhaps Ben’s initial love interest, Mabel, who seems to relish tormenting him with empty promises of attention, and is delighted to send the town on a witch hunt for Ben when she feels slighted.
The film’s secondary character is the actual Georgian swamp itself, which Renoir exploits in all of its humid, carnivorous glory. The wilderness suffocates those who enter its regions, and after seeing the deep concern in Ben’s eyes whenever he travels in by boat, audiences are put on edge every time he steps into the water. (In one surprising shot, a croc actually passes close to Andrews.)
Only one joint in the film is wrong, and one suspects material was snipped, or the script didn’t plan for the awkward transition after the film had been assembled: after a tense scene where Ben seems to realize he’s trapped in the swamp with a potentially crazy man who won’t show him the way out, the next scene has him suddenly coming home all sunn-faced, with a pack of pelts draped over his shoulder, and for a lengthy moment audiences were likely possessed with a big “huh?” given the prior scene inferred in no way that Ben had much of an escape plan, let alone firm standing with Tom.
David Buttolph’s score is an effective blend of orchestra and folk, with just the right dose of dissonance to infer nothing is placid in the small town – a discrete nudge to audiences that Swamp Water isn’t going to be filled with the usual genre clichés.
According to Julie Kirgo’s excellent liner notes, while Renoir may not have been content with having to give editing control to Zanuck, he did appreciate the latter’s own brilliance in knowing how to craft a tightly-paced film. Swamp Water really moves well amid all the secondary and tertiary conflicts, and the film was one of the studio’s top grossing films that year – undoubtedly a major plus for Renoir who would parlay that success into other assignments at rival studios.
Renoir may not have worked again for Fox, but he maximized the resources he was given, and was blessed with the studio’s top pick of character actors. Part of the joy in seeing these classic films comes from the familiar faces of stock actors who in rare occasions may have been given secondary roles, but managed to fill out generally banal archetypes. (Palette, for example has just a handful of scenes, but he’s no less memorable than his turn playing Friar Tuck in The Adventures of Robin Hood.)
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray makes use of a crisp HD transfer, and yes, while there is lots of inherent grain, it looks gorgeous, giving the beautiful black & white cinematography a coarseness evocative of rustic life, if not the swamp’s own penetration into the film stock. Buttolph’s score is also available on an isolated music track, and features greater monophonic fidelity than the film’s mixed optical soundtrack.
Renoir would later use Nichols to write the anti-Nazi drama This Land is Mine [M] (1943) where he directed a few pictures for RKO, and revisit poor southern folks in the drama The Southerner [M] (1945), and the more mystical fascination of exotic waterfront culture in the blazing Technicolor production of The River (1951). Fox remake Swamp Water in 1952 as Lure of the Wilderness [M], with Brennan virtually replaying his original role (!), albeit rebranded as “Jim Tyler.” At least they stuck with the same flowing syllables.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan