Out of the Vaults: Renoir’s “The River”, 1951

Meher Tatna 09/26/2020

When Martin Scorsese was nine-years-old, his father took him to see Jean Renoir’s film The River. He said later that it would turn out to be one of the formative film experiences of his life. In 2004, when the Criterion Collection released the DVD of the film, in an interview included on it, Scorsese said, “I would say this and The Red Shoes are the two most beautiful color films ever made.” It was Renoir’s first film shot in Technicolor; his nephew Claude Renoir was the lighting cameraman.

Scorsese describes the film best. He calls it “a film without a real story that is all about the rhythm of existence, the cycles of birth and death and regeneration, and the transitory beauty of the world.” 

Renoir, son of the painter Pierre Auguste Renoir, was unemployable in Hollywood when he read a review of Rumer Godden’s autobiographical novel, The River, set in India in which she spent her adolescenceFor two years he tried to get a film made based on it, and had almost given up when he met a Beverly Hills florist and real estate agent called Kenneth McEldowney who agreed to finance the movie by selling his home and his flower shops. McEldowney sent Renoir to Calcutta to scout locations, and Renoir fell in love with the country. In India, he met a young journalist, Satyajit Ray, with whom he became friendly. When Ray questioned the lack of lead Indian characters in the script, Renoir took that to heart. He and Godden rewrote the script, including a few Indians in the story.

However, money was tight and on top of that, no big Hollywood star would agree to spend five months in India for a pittance. The role was turned down by, among others, Marlon BrandoJames Mason, Sam Wanamaker, Glenn Ford, and Van Heflin. Renoir had to cast a number of unknown actors and amateurs in the film; it was the first and only film for Patricia Walters and Thomas E. Breen, two of the leads.

The story is the coming-of-age of a young girl growing up in India. Harriet (Walters) and her family live on the banks of the Ganges river. Her father (Esmond Knight) runs a jute mill, and she and her four sisters and young brother live an idyllic life as expatriates within a loving family. Their lives are upended when a neighbor’s cousin, an American veteran with a missing leg, played by Breen, comes to visit. Harriet and her older sister Valerie (Adrienne Corri), and the neighbor’s Anglo-Indian daughter, Melanie (played by Radha), all vie for Captain John’s affections, and the subsequent tensions, jealousies, and heartaches unfold against the backdrop of their adopted country and the languorous river that flows by marking the passage of time and the inevitability of change. Voiceover narration is as poetic in parts as the lushly photographed country.

Renoir’s money woes extended to lack of equipment. His shots are short as he didn’t use dollies. In one of the key scenes in the film, a dance number by Radha, he choreographed it with her moving back and forth in front of the camera so he could get closeups. Once in postproduction, he had to reconstruct the film in editing as the acting of some of the amateurs was not up to par, and reshoots were impossible. He compensated by using a number of vistas of India that he had filmed separately, and by happy accident, the country becomes a character in its own right, with scenes of the teeming bazaar with its stalls of colorful merchandise, the Diwali Festival of Lights, and the worship of the goddess Kali, the snake charmer and the monkey organ-grinder surrounded by the rapt villagers, and the army of workers carrying bales of jute to the mill, all adding visual delight to the film for a unique cinematic experience. The river itself is seen at different times of the day – the fisherman plying their boats in a colorful cacophony during the day to the shimmering water in the night scenes, particularly one in which a distraught Harriet steals a boat and sets off in it. The Technicolor processing alone took five months.

It is noteworthy that the long struggle going on in India at the time, with its fight for independence from the British Raj which was achieved in 1947, has no part in the story.

A couple of side notes. Breen, son of Joseph Breen, who led the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, and was chief censor of US films, was a real amputee who had served in the US Marine Corps in Guam in 1944. Knight, who plays the father, had lost an eye in real life in WWII, just as he has in the movie. Nora Swinburne, who plays the mother, was Knight’s real-life wife.

The River won the International Award at the Venice Film Festival in 1951. It is also on Scorsese’s top 10 list of his favorite films. Wes Anderson has said it influenced his decision to make The Darjeeling Limited in India in 2007 after Scorsese showed him the film.

The film was restored by the Academy Film Archive, in association with the BFI and Janus Films, with funding provided by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and Scorsese’s The Film Foundation. The restored version in all its Technicolor glory can currently be seen on HBO Max with a new title card acknowledging all the partners of the restoration at the start of the movie.

The film was restored from the 35mm nitrate three-strip original camera negatives and a 35mm IB Technicolor print lent to the project by Scorsese. From the restored track negative and the original three-strip negatives, a fully corrected answer print was made at Cinetech, a lab in Valencia, California, specializing in archival restoration. 35mm black-and-white fine-grain master positives (or separation masters) were then made from the three-strip negative, as well as a combined color interpositive. Finally, from the new black-and-white fine-grain masters, a recombined 35mm color internegative was created. The new internegative and restored track negative will be used to make all additional prints. 


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