Jean Renoir (1894–1979) made six films during his American exile—all of them worthy projects—but the consensus is that The Southerner is the best. Swamp Water famously led to Renoir’s confrontation with Darryl F. Zanuck in which Renoir questioned whether Twentieth Century-Fox wasn’t taking undue credit with a name many centuries in advance of its actual behavioral status. With regard to Renoir’s attempts to recreate France in a Hollywood studio with This Land Is Mine and Diary of a Chambermaid, whatever their virtues, both films suffer from an inauthentic artificiality. Salute to France is a modest documentary, and his Joan Crawford film noir The Woman on the Beach seems especially incongruous, until one recalls the director’s work on La Chienne, La Nuit du carrefour, and La Bête humaine.
In The Southerner, Renoir returns to the river motif that is so central to much of his earlier work. This fluid imagery has become a metaphor for the director’s oeuvre. Andrew Sarris wrote, “Renoir’s career is a river of personal expression. The waters may vary here and there in turbulence and depth, but the flow of personality is consistently directed to its final outlet in the sea of life.” The potentiality of the river metaphor had been there since the very beginnings of his career. In La Fille de leau (1925), Catherine Hessling (Renoir’s first wife) is borne parentally by the waters to her destiny. In Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), Michel Simon is rescued from his suicide attempt, only to return to the river after he tires of the rigors of civilization, floating downstream to the freedom of hobo life. In Une Partie de campagne (A Day in the Country) (1936), the illicit lovers find an alcove on the river in which to exercise their passion. Then, as they must part and return to a dreary reality, nature cries for them in a torrential rain photographed by a boat moving rapidly back up the river. This would all culminate in 1950 with The River, Renoir’s breathtakingly beautiful “Indian” movie, filmed in color. Here, in these films, focusing on man finding his place in nature, marks a phase in the director’s career a bit removed from the scathing examination of society in much of his 1930s work. (Later, as we will see, a third phase focused on theater and artifice.)
In The Southerner, which was first shown 66 years ago this week, the river and nature turn murderous. Given the film’s location in the American south and its contemporary setting, it seems strangely linked to then-recent documentaries like Pare Lorentz’s The River, about the Tennessee Valley Authority (one of whose major purposes was to prevent the kind of flooding depicted in The Southerner), and The Land, made by Renoir’s American sponsor, Robert Flaherty. Fifteen years after The Southerner, Elia Kazan made Wild River, one of his best films, which deals with the New Deal’s efforts to persuade the South of the efficacy of the TVA. The film stars Montgomery Clift and the marvelous Kazan discovery Lee Remick. Kazan worshipped Renoir like a god, and there definitely seem to me to be links between Renoir’s film and Kazan’s. Jo Van Fleet’s intransigent grandmother in Wild River is close to an homage to Beulah Bondi in The Southerner, and both actresses specialize in playing women decades older than themselves. In any case, there is genuine irony in the fact that a Frenchman has trumped several American filmmakers in capturing a slice of rural Americana. Renoir was, in fact, nominated for an Oscar, and although he did return to Europe to make films, he lived the rest of his life in the California sunshine.