Once this review is done, Judge Daryl Loomis is gonna wrestle him a bull gator.
Most people's a whole lot better than we think they are. But some men are a whole lot worse.
What did director Jean Renoir do to follow up his classic film, The Rules of the Game? The same thing every self-respecting European director fleeing the Nazis around 1940 did, he came to America and got caught up in Hollywood's studio system. Typically, the studios couldn't figure out or didn't care about how to utilize his talent and handed him the same scripts as anyone else. Renoir was able to work with the system, though, and churned out a few really good films during his time in the states. His first film for 20th Century Fox, Swamp Water doesn't bear the mark of greatness of his earlier work, but is a solid entry in Renoir's body of work that has finally received a decent home theater release in the US.
Facts of the Case
While trapping in the Okefenokee Swamp, Ben's (Dana Andrews, Daisy Kenyon) dog, Trouble, disappears into the bog. When the pooch doesn't emerge from the swamp, Ben goes against his family's wishes and returns to find his friend. As everyone guessed, he gets lost in the weeds and gets knocked out. He awakes to find Trouble, both his dog and in the fact that he has been tied to a tree by Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan, Sergeant York) who, accused of a murder he didn't commit, escaped into the wilderness to avoid hanging and has lived here feral for years. Slowly, they start to trust each other and, since Tom knows the swamp so well, they eventually begin trapping together. The money Ben brings back to town, though, draws the suspicion of the town. If they find out about his help, not only will his gravy train get derailed, it also threatens Tom's trust and his burgeoning relationship with Julie (Anne Baxter, All About Eve), the daughter that Tom left behind.
Swamp Water is much more a Hollywood film than a Jean Renoir film, but it's interesting to see what he was able to do inside the constraints of the studio system and production code. It's darker and a little more morally conflicted than many films of the period. Renoir clearly establishes the dangers of the swamp in an opening shot that features a cross made of sticks, crowned by a skull and jutting out of the water, laying a blanket of almost certain doom over the film from the start.
As the story opens, seemingly the entire male population of the town has gone together into the swamp to find a pair of trappers who never returned. Between this extreme group protection and the fear the people expect when Ben says he's going in by himself, it doesn't take long to see how plainly terrified they are of their surroundings. Like with Tom Keefer, whose escape into the swamp was as much a death sentence in their eyes as a hanging, entering Okefenokee alone leads to an assured demise. The people don't talk about it outwardly, but they are deeply afraid of their surroundings as the residents of The Village (but without a stupid twist!) and show it in all their actions.
Dana Andrews is fantastic as Ben, especially for such an early role. He shows his leading man chops as a strong individualist in standing up for himself after drawing the anger of the townspeople and his family, but also as a romantic lead in his dueling romances with Anne Baxter, who is equally good in a much smaller part, and with Virginia Gilmore (Berlin Correspondent), whose portrayal of romantic rival Mabel is a lot meaner and more sexual than I have come to expect from this era of Hollywood.
The real draw of Swamp Water, though, is the smorgasbord of character actors Renoir offers. Brennan is a lot of fun as Tom Keefer, but classic western actors will love seeing the performances from Walter Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as Ben's dad, John Carradine (Johnny Guitar) and Ward Bond (The Searchers) as a couple of angry thugs, and Eugene Pallette (Mantrap) as the froggy, bowling ball-ish sheriff recognizable from tons of old movies in this same role. There are so many that none of that carry huge parts, but they work together really well to create the tapestry of strange characters for the story.
Unfortunately, Renoir didn't regard the movie as much, especially considering that he didn't direct the ending. That was done by producer Irving Pichel (The Most Dangerous Game) and, though there's a clear tone and style change in the finale, it still works with what Renoir put together. The film saw success at the box office, but hasn't received much notice since then, and that's too bad. It's a stylish film with a lot of style and great performances that I'll gladly recommend.
The Blu-ray, through Fox's limited edition Twilight Time series, is good, if not great. The 1.33:1/1080p image looks much better than it ever has, with a crisp clear transfer and solid detail. The contrast between the deep black levels and bright whites is outstanding with a sharpness I didn't expect that still maintained a realistic grain structure. It isn't without its problems, though. There is some damage in the source material and there are a few digital errors scattered around, but given its age and relative obscurity, it's hard to complain too loudly. The sound is better than expected, as well, with a strong and very clean mono mix. David Buttolph's excellent score comes through nicely and combines well with the dialog, which is perfectly audible at all times. The only extras on the disc are an isolated score track, which is a very good listen, and an interesting liner notes essay by Julie Kirgo. It's not much, but it's more than the Twilight Time discs normally have, so I'm happy.
Swamp Water might not be the first Renoir film someone reaches for when showing off the skills of the director, but in its simple story of a trapper, a fugitive, and a weird little southern town, Renoir digs below the surface to get at the existential heart. With such a host of classic character actors working within such a dark and menacing environment, how could you not want to see this movie?
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