SWAMP WATER (THE MAN WHO CAME BACK) (director: Jean Renoir; screenwriter: based on the novel by Vereen Bell/Dudley Nichols; cinematographer: J. Peverall Marley; editor: Walter Thompson; music: David Buttolph; cast: Walter Brennan (Tom Keefer), Dana Andrews (Ben Ragan), Walter Huston (Thursday Ragan), Anne Baxter (Julie Keefer), Virginia Gilmore (Mabel McKenzie), Mary Howard (Hannah Ragan), John Carradine (Jesse Wick), Eugene Pallette (Sheriff Jeb McKane), Ward Bond (Tim Dorson), Guinn Williams (Bud Dorson), Russell Simpson (Marty McCord), Joe Sawyer (Hardy Ragan), Matt Willis (Miles Tonkin); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Irving Pichel; 20th Century Fox; 1941)
“If Renoir was left alone from Zanuck’s heavy hand, this melodrama would have perhaps turned out to be an American classic.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
The first American film by acclaimed French filmmaker Jean Renoir (“The Grand Illusion”/”The Human Beast”/”Madame Bovary”)is shot in black and white and on location in Georgia’s Okefenokee swamp. At times it’s strikingly perceptive about the human condition and has beautiful tender moments that are moving, but sinks in the slime at times from its grim tale and that studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck interfered by re-writing a Hollywood happy ending with Irving Pichel directing. It’s based on Georgia author Vereen Bell’s breakthrough novel and is written byDudley Nichols. If Renoir was left alone from Zanuck’s heavy hand, this melodrama would have perhaps turned out to be an American classic.
The plotline has innocent fugitiveTom Keefer (Walter Brennan) convicted of the murder of the local deputy sheriff and sentenced to hang by the false testimony of three witnesses in his close-knit rural swamp border cracker community in Georgia. After fleeing from prison, Tom has been hiding out the last five years in the uninhabitable Okefenokee swamp–home to the cotton-mouth snake and alligator. Trapper Ben Ragan (Dana Andrews) is part of a search party looking for two missing trappers in the swamp, who are not found. When Ben’s hound dog, Trouble, runs off in the swamp, Ben, against the advice of his father Thursday (Walter Huston), returns alone to search for the beloved dog. Ben not only finds the dog but locates Tom Keefer, who proclaims his innocence but refuses to return because he doesn’t trust the town will give him a fair chance to prove it and refuses to let Ben return fearing he will turn him in. After a snake bite incident puts Tom off guard and Ben stays to help him get the poison out rather than escape, Tom shows Ben how to return to his home. They also work out a deal to be partners in selling pelts, which are collected after a few weeks trapping together. Tom reveals he has a daughter named Julie (Anne Baxter), who is being raised as a ward by the general store owner Marty McCord (Russell Simpson) and his wife. Tom wants Ben to give Julie half their profits and wants him to make sure she’s being raised right. Ben keeps his end of the bargain. But when Ben’s spiteful troublemaker old girlfriend Mabel McKenzie (Virginia Gilmore) gets in a jealous snit that Ben is no longer interested in her but in Julie, who has wild hair and wears rags and is treated shabbily by the McCords as if she were a slave, she tells Sheriff Jeb McKane (Eugene Pallette) the secret told to her in confidence that Ben met Tom in the swamp. The sheriff refuses to listen to Ben try to report that he witnessed the vile Dorson brothers (Guinn Williams and Ward Bond) stealing the reported missing hog, and then allows the violent boys to torture Ben by waterboarding him in the creek to get him to reveal where the fugitive is hiding. An angry Thursday comes by and stops the torture. When Ben learns that idler Jesse Wick (John Carradine) attempted to rape his stepmother Hannah (Mary Howard) and she refuses to tell hubby his identity fearing he will kill the attacker and be arrested, it suddenly dawns on Ben that Jesse was in cahoots with the Dorson brothers and gave false testimony at the trial to clear the brothers of the murder. Putting the pressure on Jesse, Ben gets him to confess in public that Tom is innocent.
Renoir gets the mood right, Dana Andrews is terrific as the nice guy learning on the fly how evil people can be and the many John Ford regulars help punch out a story that Renoir tries to give a European sensibility to instead of treating it like one of Ford’s action-packed Westerns.
Even though it is only one of Renoir’s lesser films, thanks to the interference by Zanuck, it still was one of Fox’s highest grossing films of 1941. But if you ever wondered or cared why so many Hollywood films suck, this film should give you a strong hint why.
REVIEWED ON 4/6/2012 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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