After giving the world such classics as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, director Jean Renoir was forced from his native France and found himself in the United States where his first directorial effort was Swamp Water. This 1941 melodrama found him working with Hollywood’s rich selection of character actors and polished assembly-line production methods just as expertly as he had done with the actors and facilities in his native land. The result is an entertaining homespun yarn of injustice made right and good prevailing over evil, maybe not as sophisticated for 20th Century Fox as the previous year’s The Grapes of Wrath or as dark as the soon-to-be-classic The Ox-Bow Incident but nevertheless enjoyable and wonderfully atmospheric.
Swamp Water (Blu-ray)
Directed by Jean Renoir
Studio: Twilight Time (Fox)
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 90 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: February 14, 2012
Review Date: February 25, 2012
When his dog Trouble runs blunderingly into the treacherous Okefenokee Swamp, Ben Ragan (Dana Andrews) goes in after him despite strict warnings from his demanding father Thursday (Walter Huston) who’s worried that he’ll never make it out. Deep inside the swamp, he meets up with fugitive Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan) who’s been hiding there from sheriff Jeb McKane (Eugene Pallette) for years but won’t leave because his young daughter Julie (Anne Baxter) is still in the village, and he can’t bear leaving her. Tom protests his innocence, and he and Ben become business partners using Tom’s intimate knowledge of the swamp to trap many fur-bearing animals with Ben’s agreement to put aside Tom’s share of the money for Julie. But the townsfolk are suspicious about Ben’s unbelievable success at trapping in the perilous swamplands, and when Ben lets slip to girl friend Mabel (Virginia Gilmore) that he may be getting help in the swamp, her jealous babblings get everyone worked up to find the escaped Tom and bring him to justice.
Because the characters are a simple folk whose ideas of right and wrong are etched firmly in shades of black and white, their hot and cold behavior to neighbors they believe are in the wrong are sometimes a bit difficult to understand and appreciate. Dudley Nichols’ script does well by at least a few of the characters who come around to looking at the world with a few more shades of gray, but the emotions on display here are very extreme at opposite ends of the reaction spectrum. But the simplicity of the behavior doesn’t prevent director Jean Renoir from doing a masterful job at creating a setting and a mood that are very powerful indeed. The early swamp scenes are eerily and forebodingly magnetic (scraggly limbs jump out from nowhere and watch out for that scene with the cottonmouth that is guaranteed to make you jump), and the camerawork by Peverell Marley is simply breathtaking throughout. Renoir also captures the moody spirit of the place with its dances and coon hunts and slugfests when egos get damaged, and a scene where a character is practically drowned to get him to talk is unsparing in its focus, as upsetting as scene with a lynch mob in a western and equally as deadly.
Some of the Georgia accents don’t come as effortlessly to a few of the actors as they do to others. Dana Andrews has a terrific role as Ben Ragan, and his performance reeks of earnestness and genuine kindness. As his father, Walter Huston’s power is somewhat wasted in a curmudgeonly, hard-headed part, but a bit of tenderness with his son at a climactic moment wins all hearts. The young Anne Baxter makes a striking impression as the uneducated but kindhearted Julie, by far the best of the female performances in the movie. Both Virginia Gilmore as Ben’s one-time girl Mabel and Mary Howard as Thursday’s wife Hannah struggle with the accent and with fairly clichéd characters, especially Gilmore’s Mabel whose flirty ways end her romance with Ben causing her to wickedly reveal intimate secrets. As usual, Walter Brennan steals all his scenes as the feisty, determined Tom Keefer. Having won three Oscars already for his previous work, his Tom is a controlled, impressive performance, and the actor scores another triumph (though his Oscar nomination for 1941 went for his work in Sergeant York rather than for this film). Also strong in a sterling cast of supporting character actors are Ward Bond and Guinn Williams as the lawless Dorson Brothers, John Carradine as the man who holds the key to Tom’s potential freedom, Eugene Pallette as the wishy-washy sheriff, and Russell Simpson as the general store proprietor.
The film has been framed at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. This is one gorgeous transfer with razor sharp image quality and with a grayscale that’s second to none through the depth of its blacks and the clarity of its whites. Contrast is perfectly realized for a monumentally crisp and inviting picture. Only a couple of scratches and some dust flecks prevent this from being a reference quality transfer. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 sound mix has a fair amount of noise. Every effort has seemingly been made to attenuate the crackle and hiss and pops, but in quieter moments, they are still noticeable. The dialogue in the upper reaches of volume takes on a slightly shrill, steely quality that’s a trifle unpleasant on the ear. But David Buttolph’s music score sounds very nice and never overpowers the dialogue.
The disc offers an isolated score track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 that sounds well recorded and makes for pleasant listening.
The enclosed six page booklet offers a nice sampling of black and white stills, reissue poster art for the movie on the back cover, and film historian Julie Kirgo’s celebratory essay on the film.
4/5 (not an average)
As part of Twilight Time’s limited availability program, only 3,000 copies of Swamp Water are available. Those interested in experiencing this possibly unknown melodrama featuring iconic director Jean Renoir’s first effort at American filmmaking and a top notch cast of terrific character actors should hop to www.screenarchives.com to see if copies are still available. They're also available via Facebook at www.facebook.com/twilighttimemovies .