Never mind the grainy opening footage of flooded streets; the river is the tamest thing in Elia Kazan’s terminally neglected 1960 melodrama. That newsreel snippet sets up the social-issue background: Chuck Glover (Clift), New Deal idealogue from the Tennessee Valley Authority, is overseeing the much-needed building of a dam. But the minute he steps onto the condemned property of cantankerous matriarch Ella Garth (Van Fleet) and sees her widowed daughter-in-law (Remick), all bets on stark realism are off. Battle lines are drawn—tradition versus progress, individual rights versus government mandates, black versus white. But the movie is primarily concerned with one question: When will this handsome Fed and his hillbilly hottie explode from too much repressed lust?
Kazan’s films are better known for showcasing stratospheric Method-emoting over visual expressiveness, which makes Wild River’s gorgeous imagery a shock; the shots of scorched-earth backwoods and a barge drifting through the morning mist are the most lyrical scenes Gadge ever filmed. Clift’s awkwardness (he was in steady decline when he reported for duty) punctures the movie’s attempts at reaching Sirkian dizziness. Remick, however, was Kazan’s ace in the hole; known for allowing directors to subvert her girl-next-door demeanor, she’s finally given a role that calls for sexuality and chops, delivering wildly on both fronts.—David Fear
Opens Fri; Film Forum. Find showtimes
Watch the trailer