If 1960’s Wild River is director Elia Kazan’s most successful film, it’s because this is the most successful example of how Kazan liked to contrast actors. The wrestling matches are the most exciting parts of his movies: Carroll Baker paddling her husband’s neck flab in Baby Doll, or James Dean throwing his brother at their mother in East of Eden, or Brando shoving the door in to get to Eva Marie Saint, say far more about characters’ relationships than the film’s overwritten scripts do. The best moments in Kazan’s films are inevitably full two-shots, bespeaking his theatrical training. Unlike the work of the great film stylists, we watch Kazan not for the shots but for the struggles in them. The acting style he favored doesn’t work in abstraction—the actors need something concrete to push against.
In River, he gets two performers that are as concrete as they come. Montgomery Clift plays a 1930s Tennessee Valley Authority rep who comes to a small town to buy out a family’s home so the TVA can build a dam. The family lives on an island that he has to row to, and as he’s pulling away after a visit, one of the group’s young women (Lee Remick) leaps onto his raft. He stares at her, amazed, and she explains hurriedly: She barely ever leaves, and she’s lonely.
Kazan contrasts performers to great effect. Remick was 25 and healthy, with a round, full face and deep, water-blue eyes. Clift was 40 and angular; he’d been in a car crash four years earlier that left his lips pressed tightly together after facial reconstruction, his eyes wide and nervous, looking traumatized (an effect Stanley Kramer would vulgarly exploit by casting Clift as a Holocaust victim in the following year’s Judgment at Nuremberg). The movie amazingly gives us none of the Clift character’s back story, yet we still sense that we know all there is to know about him. He’s young, business-minded and given to suit-wearing. “You’re a hard man to love,” the Remick character says.
She hopes he’ll take her away, he hopes she’ll marry him; as Arlene Croce wrote of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, he gives her class, she gives him sex. But River’s tension is dramatized as being between an open person and a closed person. We frequently see Remick staring ahead, leaning forward, her mouth open, while Clift stands back, a statue doing his best not to crumble (I can’t help but think of Clift’s real-life homosexuality helping his unease). Unlike in earlier Kazan films such as Gentlemen’s Agreement, where who was in the shot when seemed a matter of utility, here Kazan cuts back and forth between the pair early on, uniting them in the frame more frequently as the film progresses. A key image shows Remick resting her head on his shoulder. Her arms encircle his waist below the shot. His own arms are crossed, and his back is to her. His head is caught between his chest and his back, uncertain whether to look at her or look away. We sense that the people truly desire each other, and the conflict comes from their drawing toward each other despite their best attempts to pull away. Clift wants to stay uninvolved, above the locals’ troubles, but Remick brings him down to Earth, literally. When she wraps her arms around him in another scene, he surrenders to her by collapsing to the floor.
Throughout his directing career Kazan cast assertive supporting players as foils to his ambivalent leads. At times they could overwhelm his heroes, but here Clift and Remick’s needs, wants and fears are so well established that the convictions of Jo Van Fleet and Albert Salmi underline their struggles rather than distract from them. Wild River ends up being his most successful movie—better than Streetcar, or Waterfront, or Eden—largely because it’s the purest presentation of a situation he excelled at presenting: Two people who can only get what they want from each other.