The first of director Jean Renoir’s five American films made in the 1940s, Swamp Water is, inevitably, quite a step down from his previous movie, the magnificent French classic The Rules of the Game (1939). However, it is still very much worth a look. The main problem with this Fox production is that it’s mired in a phony-sounding backwoodsy speech, about as convincing as the hillbilly dialogue in Tobacco Road (1941). Then there’s the ”folksy” musical score, which is consistently awful, plus the use of “Red River Valley” which evokes unfortunate comparison with the far more authentic-feeling Grapes of Wrath (1940). And most of the acting can be accused of trying much too hard.
And yet the film is visually exciting in its eerie atmosphere and tangible textures, superbly photographed in black and white by Peverell Marley. Locations and studio-bound settings are artfully interwoven. Beyond Renoir’s masterful visual control over this swampy Georgia, the chief reason to catch this movie is to marvel at Walter Brennan’s performance. He’s top-billed, though his role is a supporting one. Never better, Brennan is every bit as fine as in his two other great performances of the decade, in The Westerner (1940), for which he received his third supporting-actor Oscar, and in My Darling Clementine (1946). He’s astonishing here as a man who, wrongly convicted of murder, has escaped his guilty verdict and been hiding out in the Okefenokee Swamp. For five years he has been living like an animal, a kind of swamp king who has mastered every challenge to his survival. Young Dana Andrews (in the main role) happens upon him when searching for his “losted” dog. The men form a bond, becoming partners in an animal-hide racket, with Andrews also keeping an eye on Brennan’s daughter, Anne Baxter, who has been living a pre-ball Cinderella existence as a servant girl. Walter Huston plays Andrews’ harsh father, while John Carradine desires Huston’s young wife.
Huston and Andrews, two favorites of mine, are both disappointing here, both uncharacteristically prone to overacting. But Baxter is surprisingly plausible as a country girl, both fresh and feisty, and just one year away from her lovely work in The Magnificent Ambersons. But the film’s dramatic force comes from Brennan. It cannot have been easy to be so credible as someone who has been living outside of society for so long. With an unblinking concentration, this versatile character actor has rarely seemed so strong and fearless, so sly and crafty, and so fueled by a tightly coiled rage. Is this character even capable of returning to civilization, or is he now unfit for anything but the wild? His eventual transition out of bitterness and pessimism is touching in its subtlety, especially in a film with so much ”acting” in capital letters.
In spite of the artificial writing and performances, and the melodramatic plot turns, Renoir sustains a strong narrative pull and a perfect pace. As a Frenchman, he probably couldn’t hear the clunkiness in the dialogue, or the overdone accents, but there’s no mistaking his gifts as a visual artist, immersing us in his mesmerizing swamp world, with its compelling human denizen. Despite the flaws, you never doubt that you’re in the hands of a master moviemaker. And then there’s Brennan, usually a lovable old codger but this time scaring you with an unexpected intensity, a fierce and utterly complete absorption, both externally and internally, into a dark world.