Dana Andrews goes looking for Trouble (with a capital “T”) and finds it deep in the Okefenokee in 1941′s Swamp Water, expat director Jean Renoir’s first American film and his only for Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox. When his appropriately-named hound goes missing in the 440-thousand acre swampland Ben (Andrews, looking uncharacteristically youthful in the second year of his career) makes up his mind to find him. What he tracks down instead is wrongly-convicted murderer Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), scrounging a living for himself in the Okefenokee five years after his escape from the law.
Though at first confrontational, Ben soon strikes up an unlikely alliance with Keefer, and takes to trapping in the Okefenokee as a means of supporting himself and Keefer’s daughter Julie (a wonderful, feral Anne Baxter), whom Ben takes to courting after falling out of favor with town belle Mabel (Virginia Gilmore, who would co-star with Andrews in the following year’s Berlin Correspondent). It isn’t long, however, before his attention to Julie and trapping success in the swamp lead the townspeople to suspect that Ben is in cahoots with the murderer-on-the-run, and when Ben fails to tell them of his whereabouts (after a bit of backwoods waterboarding) he finds himself ostracized by all but his kindly stepmother Mrs. Hannah (Mary Howard) and rough-edged father Thursday (Walter Huston).
Adapted by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) from Vereen Bell’s eponymous tale of small-town injustice, Swamp Water is ripe with studio influence (from the casting of Ford stock players like Brennan, John Carradine, and Russell Simpson to the post-production concoction of a conventionally happy Hollywood ending) yet manages, in spite of it all, to remain uniquely Renoir’s. The film is marked by his long, uninterrupted takes and fluid photographic direction (dual DP’s J. Peverell Marley, House of Wax, and Lucien Ballard, True Grit, lens the show beautifully), and his location shooting in the Okefenokee Swamp, limited by Zanuck to just a handful of crew and star Dana Andrews, takes on a fantastical and mythic quality. As the philosophical Keefer ruminates, “Living alone in this swamp is just like living on another star.” Indeed, Swamp Water presents its star location in a manner that’s appropriately other-worldly, rendering small and insignificant the human characters who dare wander among its ancient mangroves and treacherous peat bogs.
In line with its mythical presentation (its borders are grimly marked by a submerged cross topped with a human skull) the primordial landscape pulls double duty as both a purgatory for the unjustly hunted Tom Keefer and a hell for those ultimately discovered to have committed the murder for which he was convicted. When the real murderers show themselves, intent on stopping Ben and Keefer before they can share the truth with rotund Sheriff McKane (Friar Tuck himself, the great Eugene Pallette), the swamp rises as a formidable deliverer of cosmic justice, devouring one of the guilty men outright. The other, in a satisfying twist of fate, is condemned to troll its cottonmouth and gator-infested wilds forever with the knowledge that nothing but a hangman’s noose awaits them on the outside.
Beyond its central tale of cold injustice and righteous retribution, Swamp Water also offers its share of enduring human developments. Huston is as fantastic as ever as Thursday, evolving from a hard-hearted authority figure, determined to keep his head-strong (or as he says, “butt-headed”) son under his thumb, into a caring, understanding father when Ben is really put in harm’s way. The beautiful Anne Baxter blossoms as Julie, shedding the skin of a ragged social outcast with a moonlit dance both joyous and elegant, and made all the more so by contrast to the awkwardness that came before. Walter Brennan bolsters the fantastical undertone of the piece in rising from the sure-death of a cottonmouth bite, rendering Ben’s funeral arrangements blessedly unnecessary. Consequently, Ben’s eulogy (necessary or not) makes for one of the film’s most sincere and touching moments. “I ain’t gonna hold nothing against him, Lord, not even his trying to steal old Trouble. So if you want to go easy on him for killing Jim Collins it’ll be alright with me.”
Swamp Water has been released in numerous other territories on DVD, but this limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time (just 3,000 pressed, the norm for the label) marks its domestic premiere on digital video. There aren’t nearly enough of these classic Academy ratio black and white productions out in high definition for my tastes, but Twilight Time’s presentation of Swamp Water (sourced from the latest 20th Century Fox restoration of the film) can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them.
The worst that can be said for the film as presented here is that it sometimes shows its age (can it really be 71 years?), presenting with mostly frame-specific specs and scratches, but occasionally leaving a few more persistent vertical lines to contend with. That said, this is an absolutely beautiful transfer, with as fine a clarity of detail as can be expected of the production and pitch-perfect contrast throughout. There’s a fine layer of grain in evidence, and rendered well enough that it holds its own even at excessive magnification (with the image zoomed in 4-5x its native resolution). That one-of-a-kind 35mm allure is alive and well here, and makes for a tremendously satisfying viewing.
With just the 90 minute feature and its accompanying audio tracks to contend with Swamp Water only occupies a single layer BD-25, but this proves to be more than enough. The 1080p 1.33:1-framed image receives a healthy Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 29.4 Mbps, and the results are impossible to argue with. Encoding flaws, if any, are so negligible as to go unnoticed, and I suspect the image could be presented theatrically without issue. This is another reference level presentation from Twilight Time and 20th Century Fox, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.
Screenshots were captured as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.
Audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic, and while it doesn’t impress so much as the visuals of the film it sounds perfectly accurate to the original recording. Sound effects and dialogue are clear as a bell – the odd element out is, strangely enough, the score from David Buttolph, which presents with a notable warble at times. The disc’s only supplement, an isolated score track in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0, does not present with this issue, and sounds very good given the age of the recordings (pre-cue noise, like band members coughing and the cue number being read, has been delightfully retained in some cases). Unfortunately there are no subtitles, making it clear again that Sony are providing sub tracks for these Twilight Time discs while Fox are, for whatever reason, not.
Swamp Water is another fully-functional Blu-ray disc, complete with non-generic chapter stops (12 of them) and a pop-up menu accessible during feature playback. In terms of design this may be my favorite yet of Twilight Time’s releases, with a superb cover illustration that reflects the film’s indelible first shot. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes again prove indispensable. Several insightful quotes from Renoir himself are included, along with some lovely behind-the-scenes production stills of the director at work with his top-flight cast.
What can I say, I loved Swamp Water, from its ominous opening shot straight through to its somewhat dubious conclusion. Huston, Andrews, Baxter, and Brennan are each in top form, and Renoir’s touch is unmistakable. There’s very, very little to complain about with Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presentation, which ranks as one of my favorite classic film releases of the year thus far. Highly recommended!