***/**** Image A Sound B- Extras C
starring Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Anne Baxter, Dana Andrews
screenplay by Dudley Nichols, based on the novel by Vereen Bell
directed by Jean Renoir
by Walter Chaw Jean Renoir's Swamp Water stands out as an example of how an artist's genius can assert itself even when his product has been taken away from him, re-edited and in some places reshot. Renoir's insistence on actually shooting on location in Georgia's Okefenokee, declared a Federal Wildlife Refuge by FDR in 1937, resulted in a grassroots movement lobbying Darryl Zanuck to hold the premiere locally. It was an artistic choice Godard would later say "revolutionized Hollywood." I'm not sure what Okefenokee residents must have thought of the picture, one that is equal parts offensive cornpone melodrama and haunted, gravid Romanticism. There's an indelible, hard-to-quantify melancholy to the film that's at odds with its boilerplate narrative; it feels like a Joseph Conrad, even if it reads like a Vereen Bell. It's an interesting case study, too, because it might never have happened were Renoir's masterpiece The Rules of the Game not savaged by critics and audiences in his native France, where it would go on to be radically recut, twice-banned, and destroyed in a bombing raid. I like this story, because I think Americans get a bad rap for not recognizing the fruit of their creativity. I like it even more because the French get a lot of credit for being the ones who do.
Swamp Water is flawed Renoir (fatally flawed, in fact, by Zanuck's tacked-on happy ending, directed by Zanuck lapdog Irving Pichel), but in it you see the quietness, the pacific stillness that will be the organizing principle of Renoir's awe-inspiring The River. You can sense Renoir's core sadness here, even with the wall-to-wall intrusion of David Buttolph's better-for-noir score. The early scenes, especially, of interloper Ben (Dana Andrews) poling his way on a flat-bottom skiff into the swamp to look for his dog "Trouble," feel as essentially American as Tom & Huck rafting down the Mississippi, and as laden with the unknown and unknowable. It's in the swamp that Ben comes across Tom (Walter Brennan--the whole supporting cast is like a John Ford traveling company), an outlaw accused of a murder he didn't commit who's living on the lam in the Okefenokee. Ben strikes a deal with Tom after Tom is mysteriously-resurrected following a snakebite (a reference to shakers and holy rollers?): He'll bring the spoils of Tom's trapping back to the world, share the profits, and keep his secret. Things get complicated as Ben falls in love with Tom's strange, feral daughter Julie (Anne Baxter) and the townsfolk start to wonder how Ben suddenly became an expert trapper.
Details: I love how Julie is introduced as sub-vocal--hissing, biting, filthy. (It doesn't hurt that I kind of have a crush on Anne Baxter as it is.) I love how Ben is welcomed into a swamp by a cross jutting out of the water with a skull mounted on its beam, then welcomed into society at a church square dance where the parishioners are using a cross as a coat rack. Images parallel and echo themselves throughout like this, and the way the slants and broken angles of the swamp contrast the right angles of the town recalls the juxtaposition of Kansas's sad geometry against the rounded spirals of Oz. In a scene where the town's men torture Ben to suss out Tom's whereabouts, I was reminded of Elia Kazan's Wild River and that film's establishment of a hero who, towards the end, moans that he'd like to win just one fight. Note the way Renoir splits the screen to show both the hero entering a barn and someone up in the attic alerted to his presence, or the way he places Ben and Julie on opposite sides of a door much like Budd Boetticher puts Randolph Scott and Gail Russell on top of each other with a stagecoach floor between them. You can tell where the reshoots start--when the Fox lot steps in for the Okefenokee, and everything gets too bright, and it all becomes something like a Tarzan serial. You can tell, because the last shot of the film is a dog reaction shot. Renoir never worked for Zanuck again; although Swamp Water was one of the top-grossing films of the year, he was bitter about it and should be. But there's enough left of his in the film to be a fascination for the student of his work. And if you have a crush on Anne Baxter, even better.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Twilight Time ushers Swamp Water to Blu-ray in a stunning release limited to 3000 copies. The 1.33:1, 1080p transfer justifies the bon mot I like to drop now and then that "black and white was never black and white." Every shade of grey is represented here with beautiful depth and clarity--the image is so crisp that it'd make a preacher cry. The reflections on the water and the way every leaf on every drowned log occupies its own space free of haloing and fuzziness is a marvel. When Ben hacks down moss from the bark of an old Cypress, you can practically see every hair of it. Wow. The monophonic 1.0 DTS-HD MA track is fine but studio-bound--the revolution in movie sound had yet to come. For its age and limitations, the dialogue is clear, and there's little hiss or unseemly rattle. A shame the score is the most dated thing about the audio, as it does tend to dominate. Shame, too, that the option to isolate Buttolph's music is the only extra on the disc, though the keepcase includes a fine 4-page essay by historian Julie Kirgo, Twilight Time's resident liner-notes author. It's a wonderful introduction to the picture, one that made me wish she'd been asked to contribute a commentary track to a film that, once forgotten, is forever in danger of being forgotten again.