For all the down-to-earth portrayals that helped propel him to stardom, James Stewart could easily play hard-bitten and cynical characters, revealing a darker half to the persona that came to define him. Bend of the River – the second of eight films Stewart made with director Anthony Mann – played a big part in revealing that dark half and revealed a new dimension in the actor’s repertoire. Kino Lorber, through the Studio Classics line and their deal with Universal, has given the film it’s Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 4/5
Glyn McLyntock (James Stewart), hoping to leave his past as a border raider during the Civil War behind, is scouting for a group of settlers on a wagon train looking to settle down in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. Along the trail, he meets and rescues Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) from the hangman’s noose and the two forge a partnership; however, that bond is soon tested and broken when supplies meant for the settlement are instead held over for a group of miners aiming to strike it rich during a gold rush. When double crossing McLyntock, Cole made one huge and potentially fatal mistake: he let him live…
Bend of the River represents not only an important part of director Anthony Mann’s oeuvre, but a crucial part of the Western shifting away from the traditional “black hat vs. white hat” scenarios the genre employed prior to WWII. By making two of the main characters’ moral codes more ambiguous (McLyntock & Cole), we’re constantly left guessing as to what their motivations are as to who’s more able to hold back their dark side. Towering over both of them is the lovely use of location photography (by Irving Glassberg) of the Oregon Cascades, making locales like Mount Hood, the Willamette Valley and the Sandy River feel like characters unto themselves – the Portland scenes were shot on the studio backlot. The use and combination of these two helped to not only redefine the Western in the post-WWII era, but add a degree of realism that was mostly overlooked in the genre.
As McLyntock, James Stewart not only added to his impressive resume, but made another crucial step in building a different and a little darker on-screen persona from what we know from his past performances; that “darker half” of course would reach its apex in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Arthur Kennedy makes a memorable impression as the ally-turned-enemy Cole; the role would be a notable one in a distinguished career. Julie Adams (credited here as Julia) – just a couple years away from cult immortality as the object of affection for the Creature from the Black Lagoon – is a decent love interest caught between McLyntock and Cole; Rock Hudson has a memorable appearance as a gambler who becomes a key ally for McLyntock – the part helped to further Hudson’s career on the way to stardom. Other memorable appearances and familiar faces include Jay C. Flippen as the wagon train leader, Howard Petrie as the duplicitous supplies man, Chubby Johnson as the riverboat captain, Stepin Fetchit as his assistant, Harry Morgan, Jack Lambert, and Royal Dano as a couple of hired hands who turn on McLyntock, Lillian Randolph – better known to fans of the Tom and Jerry cartoons as the voice of Mammy Two-Shoes – in a brief appearance in the Portland sequence looking over a wounded Julie Adams, Frank Ferguson as an ill-fated Portland citizen, and Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee herself) as another member of the wagon train looking to settle down.
3D Rating: NA
Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1:37:1, Kino’s HD transfer of the movie is a decidedly mixed bag. On a positive note, film grain is largely organic and sturdy along with a strong color palette and fine details in much of the scenes. However, some scenes show signs of registration errors – like color bleeding – and some fading, which are noticeable and sometimes jarring; this could be the result of the condition of the film elements used for this transfer. There are also a fluctuation of age related artifacts like scratches, tears and dirt which are more noticeable in the problematic scenes I talked about. On a whole, the transfer is watchable, but certainly not what it should be for a three-strip Technicolor film of the era; a rare low point for the usually reliable Kino, although they can’t truly be faulted here.
The original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is strong and clear, along with the sound effects, with solid fidelity given to Hans J. Salter’s score (with additional music contributed by an uncredited Frank Skinner). Minimal instances of age-related problems are present, which makes this a very solid presentation and an improvement over the Universal DVD.
Special Features: 3/5
Commentary by film historian Toby Roan – Recorded for this release, Roan goes over the production history as well as the career backgrounds of several members of the cast and crew; on a whole, it’s very informative although there are more pauses towards the end of the track.
Original Theatrical Trailer (1:47)
Bonus KLSC Trailers – Man of the West, Broken Arrow, The Indian Fighter, The Kentuckian, & The Wonderful Country
As a whole, Bend of the River is an important film in the careers of both director Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Kino’s Blu-ray release is something of a mixed bag; while the transfer is problematic, it’s an improvement over the DVD and has a decent commentary track to supplement it. I would upgrade, but wait for a sale in order to pick it up.
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