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  Swamp Water Fugitive Among The Flora
Year: 1941
Director: Jean Renoir
Stars: Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews, Virginia Gilmore, John Carradine, Mary Howard, Eugene Pallette, Ward Bond, Guinn 'Big Boy' Williams, Russell Simpson, Joe Sawyer, Paul E. Burns, Dave Morris, Frank Austin, Matt Willis
Genre: Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan) is a murderer, everyone knows it, and have been trying to track him down in these isolated swamplands in Georgia for the past few years to no avail: he is simply too adept at giving his pursuers the slip. However, one day as a band of searchers reach the limits of the safe area - marked by a skull on a stick emerging from the river - one of their number, Ben (Dana Andrews), finds an overturned boat and what's left of a hat. Could Keefer have been eaten by an alligator? It's very possible, they are rife in this region, but when Ben's beloved pet dog hares off into the undergrowth, he fears he's seen the last of the animal.

Jean Renoir's story in Hollywood of his time, in this case the early nineteen-forties, is typical in some ways and different in others. As the Nazi threat in Europe led to France's occupation, he and many of his countrymen, many across the continent, in fact, were forced to flee their homes and end up abroad, and in the movie community Hollywood was littered with expats seeking work with the major studios. Renoir was one of those who could choose what he wanted thanks to a high reputation among the cineastes and critics, but he made the mistake of hitching his wagon to 20th Century Fox, whose leader Daryl F. Zanuck knew little about art.

Or not art as Renoir knew it, so when the Frenchman insisted the assignment Zanuck gave him, a tale of swamp folks and their various trials and tribulations, be shot on location to be as authentic as possible, the studio boss bristled. More than that, the two men got into huge arguments that drained the energies of both, and Renoir's laissez-faire attitude to schedules was not helping, leading to a film where it was surprising it was completed at all, albeit with the help of a different director, Irving Pichel, who patched up what he could. The results were released and... nobody won, it enjoyed cursory interest from the critics because of Renoir, but audiences were middling at best.

What remains is an interesting production as far as it goes, but nobody is going to point to Swamp Water and say, yes, this is the best of Renoir, it's one of his essentials to understand where he was coming from. Nevertheless, there are elements that indicate a keen grasp of the atmosphere of a backwoods community, and while there is a nagging feeling you are watching an ancestor of those seventies swamp thrillers where you would find Claudia Jennings in cut-off jeans racing around the lakes in a powerboat, at other times there's a hint of the almost dreamlike mood you imagine Renoir was hoping to evoke. Incidentally, the Jennings role here was taken by Anne Baxter, who Andrews' Ben is intrigued by.

She didn't wear cut-off jeans, mind you, but there's a lot of soap opera-style relationship heat from Andrews wanting to give Baxter's Julie a chance and his supposed girlfriend, the flighty and bitchy Mabel (Virginia Gilmore, who would go on to be better known as the first Mrs Yul Brynner). Meanwhile, Ben, an orphan, must prove himself in the eyes of adoptive father Walter Huston, a terrific star stuck in a stodgy role, and disappearing for long stretches of plot. Brennan, as this was rumbling away, was found by Ben when he is off looking for his dog, and makes it clear he was framed for the murder, leaving a light whodunit plot to digest as we wonder who the real villains are (not too difficult to spot, really). At best, Swamp Water was a curio, a blip in a distinguished directorial career that saw him helm a hick pic, but it was reasonably watchable even if you could tell there was a team pulling in different directions throughout its manufacture. Music by David Buttolph.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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