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A great picture hiding in the vault at 20th Fox, 1941's Swamp Water has been overlooked and neglected by the critics. The first American film by Jean Renoir, the world-class French director pushed from his home country by WW2, this story of life on the periphery of the Okefenokee Swamp isn't a good "auteurist" fit with Renoir's highly individualistic French classics of the previous ten years. Viewers can be forgiven for thinking of John Ford while watching Swamp Water. The movie is about backwoods types trying to live decent lives. Not only does the subject matter sound like a natural for Ford, the movie is largely cast from the Ford stock company.
What director worshipers forget is the film's producer: Fox's production head Darryl F. Zanuck imposed his taste and judgment on much of the studio's output, including works by front-rank directors like Ford and Henry King. Director Renoir isn't simply a talent for hire here, as he specifically chose the rural subject and lobbied to film it in the wild. Swamp Water's sensitive direction of actors distinguishes it as the work of a great filmmaker.
Old tensions flare up in an Okefenokee-adjacent Georgia town when hunter Ben Ragan (Dana Andrews) defies his father Thursday (Walter Huston) and enters the forbidden swamp to find his lost dog, Trouble. Ben finds Trouble, but also the mysterious Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), a convicted murderer who has been living alone for almost five years. The two men bond after Ben helps to save Tom from the bite of a cottonmouth viper. The two become partners in setting traps, with Ben carrying their goods back to town to sell. But complications set in immediately. Thursday ejects Ben from his house for perceived disrespect. Ben's affections stray from his fickle girlfriend Mabel (Virginia Gilmore) to Tom's daughter Julie (Anne Baxter), who has been reduced to a ragged servant for the storekeeper. Meanwhile, the no-account Jesse Wick (John Carradine) attempts to rape Thursday's beloved Hannah (Mary Howard). Their marriage turns sour when Hannah refuses to identify her attacker, for fear that Thursday will kill him and be arrested. Ben observes the untrustworthy Dorson brothers Tim and Bud (Guinn Williams & Ward Bond) stealing pigs, but before he can turn them in, the jealous Mabel accuses him of hiding the notorious Tom Keefer in the swamp. The entire community turns against Ben, and there seems no way that he can regain their trust.
Swamp Water is a compelling story with a fine cast playing interesting characters. The author of the book source, Georgia-bred Vereen Bell, contributes dialogue authentic to the region, and the actors speak their lines like respectable people, not hillbillies. J. Peverell Marley's impressive location photography lends the swamp scenes a lyrical, haunting quality without mannered expressionist effects. 1 The locals all have workaday lives, and some problems develop naturally from the isolation of the community. With few romantic choices in the district, Jesse Wick contemplates seducing another man's wife. Mabel causes a lot of trouble in her effort to hold on to the most desirable man in town.
Almost every scene carries an emotional hook for the viewer. Tom Keefer has been in the wild so long, he feels like he's living on a faraway star -- his dream is to simply rejoin the world and do what everybody does: "live like folks." Ben dotes on his dog, but animals and brutality seem to go together. Men fear the snakes and the gators of the swamp. The helpless Julie is introduced as she tries to keep her employer from drowning an unwanted litter of kittens. Julie has few defenses when Mabel decides to give her a hard time. Old Thursday has difficulty expressing his affection for his son Ben. He can't think beyond his pride when Hannah declines to explain why a man was in the house when he was gone. Yet Thursday puts up a fierce defense when the town turns on his son.
We identify fully with the charismatic Ben, a nice guy who wants to get ahead and do right by those he loves. Determined to enter the swamp against Thurdsay's orders, Ben trembles under his father's anger yet does not back down. This is a relatively early role for Dana Andrews, and he's marvelous; it's possible that Renoir's direction was a big assist for him. Few leading men in American movies of the time would dare play a scene where an emotional altercation brings them to the brink of tears.
Swamp Water stages some good action in the murk of the Okefenokee, where clear water can hide a deadly reptile. For once the dangers seem real -- the Fox special effects department creates an alarmingly credible snakebite scene.
The stars play to support the ensemble, and not for themselves. Walter Huston is uncommonly subdued, and entirely convincing as a good, rough man with limitations. Virginia Gilmore plays a troublemaker so well that she was typed in that vein for a number of pictures, such as the next year's Orchestra Wives. John Carradine, Ward Bond, Russell Simpson, Joe Sawyer and Mae Marsh make the film seem like a John Ford reunion. Dana Andrews has a fight with Matt Willis, whose role as a werewolf in Columbia's wartime horror entry, Return of the Vampire would earn him a place in monster fame.
Twilight Time's DVD Blu-ray of Swamp Water is a beauty, with a clean HD transfer of an immaculate source element. Even under the rough conditions of the location, the technical work shows no compromise. The only thing I noticed was that Walter Brennan apparently did not go on location -- a man seen paddling a skiff is clearly a stand-in. On a standard-def DVD it may not be noticeable. It's a refreshing change of pace to see a beautifully crafted older studio film released in the Blu-ray format. Twilight Time's taste has so far coincided with my own in almost everything they release -- and with this disc they've introduced me to a great picture that eluded me back at UCLA.
The Isolated Music Score gives us a chance to assess the work of composer David Buttolph. Red River Valley gets a major workout here. The traditional tune is commonly associated with cowboys and The Grapes of Wrath. I suppose one of the few ways that Swamp Water could be improved is if it used some genuine local music.
Julie Kirgo's liner notes stress the interesting career turn that Swamp Water represents for the great Jean Renoir. Not only was he a refugee from Vichy France, his last movie The Rules of the Game had proved a terrible box office flop. We're also told that Swamp Water was remade just eleven years later as Lure of the Wilderness. Walter Brennan played the same role.
Author Vereen Bell had slowly worked his way into print through the Depression years, and Hollywood's purchase of his breakthrough novel Swamp Water had reportedly made him a local success story back in Georgia. The promising author wrote another novel but WW2 put an abrupt end to his career. A naval officer, he was killed in action in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Swamp Water Blu-ray rates:
1. Also by a "foreign guest director", 1988's Shy People by Andrei Konchalovsky conjures a truly eerie setting, a misty ghost realm in a Louisiana bayou. I think Warners controls this interesting, little-seen picture --- it really needs a disc release with its Tangerine Dream soundtrack in stereophonic sound.
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T'was Ever Thus.