Spanning close to a half-million acres in all, plenty of the folks who wander into the Okefenokee Swamp don't walk out afterwards. That don't bother Ben (Dana Andrews) none; when his trusty dog Trouble tears off into the swamp in the dead of night, Ben chases right after him, never minding all those warnings about how easy it is to get lost in the 'fenoke. He finds his dog, all right...in the waiting arms of Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), a grizzled old man who's spent a lifetime hiding in the swamp after being accused of murder. Tom insists those charges are baseless, but he doesn't have any way to prove it, not that it'd matter all that much in rural Georgia where justice isn't always meted out in a court of law. Anyway, at first, Tom thinks he's met his maker, but once a few heated scuffles are out of the way, it turns out he's met his business partner. The two of them start trapping together, with Ben selling the skins in town and squirreling away a little of that money for Julie (Anne Baxter), the now-teenaged daughter that Tom had to leave behind. 'Course, if the townsfolk clue into the secret of Ben's success, both he and Tom are gonna get caught in their crosshairs...
The screenplays that Fox first foisted upon Renoir were littered with European backdrops, and I can't help but smirk at Renoir's rejection of those in favor of a story that...well, you can't get a whole lot further away from the Montmartre than some sleepy little backwater burg in Georgia. Swamp Water plays to Renoir's strengths better than one might expect, however. The film is less interested in action and the mechanics of the plot, placing its emphasis instead on its moody, menacing atmosphere and on its morally gray cast of characters. Swamp Water excels on both
Swamp Water unfolds at a very deliberate pace, immersing viewers in this world...giving them the opportunity to really get to know these characters, the amiable and abhorrent alike. That was a constant source of criticism in reviews of the film seventy years ago, but I see that as one of Swamp Water's greatest strengths. Starting with that unnerving opening shot of a skull-capped, makeshift crucifix in the swamp, the moody atmosphere that's immediately established in Swamp Water never fades away. Those who have lived around the swamp their entire lives still look at it with fear and awe, and that comes through in the film brilliantly. Though Swamp Water does deliver its share of fistfights, shootouts, and deadly swamp critters, they're not at all the focal point. Those moments are made so much more intense because of the attention paid to characterization...because of the strength of the performances. The sleepy Georgia town pictured in Swamp Water is populated by characters played by Walter Huston, Dana Andrews, Walter Brennan, John Carradine, Ward Bond, Eugene Pallette, Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, and a very young Anne Baxter, among a great many others, and there's not a weak turn in the lot. The Southernness of it all is exaggerated to near-cartoonish proportions, of course, but it still works astonishingly well. Many of the townsfolk are as hostile and unforgiving as the swamp they live near, and the dark, brutal edge of Swamp Water remains gleamingly sharp more than seven decades later.
The studio system was not at all a comfortable fit for Renoir, and Swamp Water is ultimately not the film he set out
This 1080p24 presentation of Swamp Water stands on the brink of perfection. The high definition image is richly detailed and startlingly crisp throughout. Contrast remains unwaveringly robust, bolstered by substantial black levels. More than anything, Swamp Water is just so wonderfully filmic, free of heavy-handed noise reduction, artificial sharpening, or any of the usual nuisances. Scratches and assorted wear are infrequently visible, and I never found them to be the least bit distracting in motion. I'm honestly left without any complaints or concerns whatsoever; a tremendous effort all around.
Swamp Water arrives on a single-layer Blu-ray disc at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1.
Swamp Water's monaural origins are preserved on this 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. Frequency response is expectedly limited, and mild hiss and noise are lurking in the background. Swamp Water's dialogue, the bulk of its sound effects, and the score all emerge reasonably well. It's a perfectly serviceable soundtrack, very much in keeping with my expectations.
The only other audio option is an isolated score. Of the five Twilight Time Blu-ray releases in my collection, this is the only one not to offer any subtitle streams, not even captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Swamp Water also comes packaged with another in a series of terrific essays by Julie Kirgo.
The Final Word
Swamp Water may not rank among Jean Renoir's greatest films, yet I couldn't be more thrilled to see that Twilight Time has rescued it from obscurity for this breathtakingly gorgeous high definition release. It's intriguing see how Renoir's distinctively European sensibilities collide with the Hollywood studio system, resulting in a dark, daring, and intensely atmospheric Southern Gothic melodrama. For admirers of Renoir's who have already picked up Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game in high definition, the director's first American endeavour should prove to be well-worth seeking out on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.