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Canyon Passage

08 Sep

The western is a genre which, although it’s certainly not the only one, is sometimes accused of being overburdened by clichés.  This is understandable enough; genre pictures by definition have to feature elements that are immediately recognizable to viewers. Canyon Passage (1946) could be said to contain its fair share of these well-worn tropes (crooked financiers, restless wandering types, hostile natives) but part of what raises this film up among the best examples of the genre is the way they are handled. There’s an  air of authenticity about it all, and that filters through into some stock characters and situations, bestowing on them an originality that sets the whole production apart.

While I don’t have any statistics at hand to prove this one way or the other, I reckon it’s safe to say most westerns take place within a rough thirty year period beginning at the outbreak of the Civil War. Sure you’ll get examples set both before and after these dates, but they do appear to be slightly thinner on the ground. Canyon Passage tells a tale of Oregon in 1856, a time of growth and expansion before conflict engulfed the nation. Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) is one of those thrusting, entrepreneurial types, never satisfied with what he has and always on the lookout for new opportunities to add to his fortune. Still, he’s not a greedy or grasping man; his ambition is just an integral part of his character, a restless need to range further and in some ways a reflection of the pioneering spirit of his country. Stuart is a man who is going places in every sense: his business is booming, he’s respected within the community and he’s courting Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), a beautiful English settler. However, there’s almost always a fly in the ointment, two in this case. The biggest and ugliest comes in the shape of the brutish Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), a muscle-bound giant of a man and an amoral counterpoint to Stuart. A further source of anxiety is George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), the local banker and Stuart’s best friend. Camrose is a compulsive gambler, a dangerous trait in a financier in any circumstances but doubly worrying when he’s caught in a run of spectacularly bad luck. While Camrose attempts a precarious balancing act his fiancée, Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), is increasingly  attracted to Stuart. Granted none of this is making his life any easier, but it pales into relative insignificance in comparison to the physical threat represented by Bragg. The hulking bully is borderline obsessive in his rivalry with Stuart, further enraged and embittered by his knowledge that his foe had (and passed up) the opportunity to see him hang. Fueled by hate and frustration, Bragg gives in to his animal instincts and thus imperils not only Stuart but the whole community when his base behavior sparks off a tragic Indian uprising.

Adapted from a novel by prolific western author Ernest Haycox (Stagecoach, Union Pacific, Bugles in the Afternoon, Man in the Saddle etc) Canyon Passage was the first foray into the genre for director Jacques Tourneur. The versatile Frenchman took to westerns right from the beginning, crafting an intimate portrait of frontier society that comes close to the affectionate and mythic vision of John Ford. Cameraman Edward Cronjager captured some truly beautiful and breathtaking Technicolor images that Tourneur then directed with an expert touch. The sequence of the cabin raising is an ode to communal effort and gives a real sense of how inextricably linked the lives of these people were to those of their neighbours. Everything in the movie – the texture of the buildings, the condition of the streets, the language and attitudes of the characters – smacks of a realism that isn’t always present. However, the movie is more than a celebration of pioneering spirit and the social dynamic of the time. Above all, Tourneur was a master of atmosphere and an extraordinarily subtle, understated director. There is plenty of rousing action accompanying the narrative, and again the authentic feel comes across in the depiction of the violence. No doubt Tourneur’s experience working in Val Lewton’s horror unit at RKO shaped his approach to filming the more horrific scenes. There is very little explicit violence shown on screen, the director preferring to cut away or obscure the more visceral moments. Yet the effect, as was the case in those Lewton movies, is to force the viewer’s imagination to take over. In my opinion anyway, having to visualize the acts just off screen is more unsettling than seeing some unconvincing mock-up.

With strong source material and first class people operating behind the cameras, the final vital ingredient is the performers. Dana Andrews produced another of those deceptively quiet turns as Logan Stuart. Initially, you’d be forgiven for thinking this man was no more than a hard-nosed and pragmatic businessman. However, as the story progresses, Andrews, as he so often did, reveals new layers to the character. His early scenes with Patricia Roc hint at a tenderness of heart not apparent from his stoic visage, and this aspect is further developed as his relationship with Hayward grows. But really it’s his loyalty to Donlevy that proves how deep his humanity runs. Although Donlevy was of course a great heavy in countless movies, I wouldn’t actually class his George Camrose as a fully fledged villain. Despite some thoroughly reprehensible behavior, Donlevy brought a weakness and frailty to the role, a touch of corrupt romanticism if you like, which helps explain why Andrews stuck by him all the way. No, the real bad guy here comes courtesy of Ward Bond’s portrayal of the monstrous Honey Bragg. Bond did a fantastic job in capturing the physical power, the depravity and animal cunning of this figure. The two main female roles – those of Patricia Roc and Susan Hayward – are careful studies of contrasting women. Roc had the right kind of brittle gentility for an Englishwoman suddenly thrust into a new and dangerous world; her dazed and distant reaction to the aftermath of the Indian massacres struck just the right tone. Hayward, on the other hand, was feisty, tough and earthy – a true frontier gal. In supporting roles, there is some good work from Lloyd Bridges, Andy Devine, Onslow Stevens, and the wonderful Hoagy Carmichael.

Canyon Passage is a Universal film, and there are plenty of DVD editions on the market from a variety of territories. I have the version included in Universal’s Classic Western Round-Up Vol. 1 which was released a number of years ago. The film shares disc space with The Texas Rangers but I can’t say I was aware that the presentation suffered from any compression issues. For the most part, the image is very strong with the Technicolor cinematography looking frankly spectacular at times. There are no extra features whatsoever available on the disc, something I think is disappointing as the movie is most certainly deserving of a commentary track at the very least. Regardless of that, this movie remains among one of the very best westerns made in the 1940s. Jacques Tourneur would go on to make a number of high quality pictures in the genre, though I feel this represents him right at the top of his game. There’s a complexity and maturity to the characters and their interactions that help distinguish the movie. Not only would I recommend Canyon Passage to anyone with an interest in westerns, I would go so far as to say it’s essential viewing.

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35 Comments

Posted by on September 8, 2013 in 1940s, Dana Andrews, Jacques Tourneur, Westerns

 

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35 responses to “Canyon Passage

  1. Cavershamragu

    September 8, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Great review Colin and I certainly have always assumed that when we refer to a Western it usually means the period from the war and just before the turn of the century. Darn it though, this is another one I haven;t seen and I consider myself a real Tourneur fan. The role played by Donlevy is reminiscent perhaps of THE GLASS KEY – would that be fair? Either way, time for another trip to the DVD shop (sic)

     
    • Colin

      September 8, 2013 at 11:58 am

      Thanks Sergio. The film should be easy enough to find, there’s a UK disc available too.

      I suppose you could say that there are a few similarities to Donlevy’s part here and the role he played in The Glass Key. There was always an inherent toughness and brashness about the man – apparently that’s why Nigel Kneale objected to his casting as Quatermass – but he also had a capacity for displaying weakness. I think that latter aspect is more noticeable in this film than it was in The Glass Key, where his likeability and social clumsiness was contrasted with his corrupt practices.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        September 8, 2013 at 12:04 pm

        I think you’re right about Donleavy – he could play play likeable and flawed rogues (as in THE GREAT MCGINTY) and weak villains (THE BIG COMBO springs to mind) – look forward to getting this one. MAN FROM COLORADO arrived yesterday in fact so that’s next on the list :)

         
        • Colin

          September 8, 2013 at 1:24 pm

          Really hope you enjoy The Man from Colorado since my recommendation influenced you.

          BTW, this makes 3000 comments on this site!

           
          • Cavershamragu

            September 8, 2013 at 5:12 pm

            Congratulations on your first 3k Colin – many, many more to come I’m sure! Keep up the good work squire … :)

             
            • Colin

              September 8, 2013 at 5:22 pm

              Cheers – onwards and upwards!

               
              • Cavershamragu

                September 8, 2013 at 5:48 pm

                So no pressure then …

                 
                • Colin

                  September 8, 2013 at 5:57 pm

                  I can handle it…I think.

                   
  2. David Arrate

    September 8, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Great review, Colin. I thoroughly enjoyed this film both times I viewed it, about five years ago. Its atmosphere, colors and especially the locations were a huge inspiration while I was writing a Western short story.

    I look forward to revisiting this beauty in the immediate future, as I often think about it. Essential viewing for Western movie fans? Yep, I would definitely agree.

     
    • Colin

      September 8, 2013 at 4:21 pm

      Thanks David. I can certainly see how a film like this – the locations and atmosphere that you mention – could act as an inspiration. It just looks and feels so authentic.

      Has your short story been published? If so, where?

       
  3. jennifromrollamo

    September 8, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    I enjoyed your review and when you wrote that Jacques Tourneur directed this film I knew that it would now be a must see for me.

     
    • Colin

      September 8, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      Thanks Jenni. If you’re a fan of Tourneur or any of the stars, then I’m sure you’ll get a lot of enjoyment out of this movie.

       
  4. john k

    September 9, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    I know that we beg to differ on certain films Colin but here is one where we are in total
    agreement. One of Tourneur’s very best and such a beautiful film to look at.
    I know I have said a lot of this stuff over at Toby’s site but the Forties produced some of
    the finest Westerns ever made. It also heralded the birth of the Technicolor “Super-Western”
    of which CANYON PASSAGE was certainly one along with BUFFALO BILL, WESTERN UNION
    and others. The thing I really like about CANYON PASSAGE is that it’s a film that stands up
    to many repeated viewings, there is just so much going on in this picture.

     
    • Colin

      September 9, 2013 at 1:56 pm

      I don’t know John, I think we agree a fair bit of the time. I suppose sometimes we come at things from different angles but that’s both fun and a way to become aware of other perspectives.

      There is lots going on in the movie, but the plot never becomes muddled or loses focus. Instead we get a rich movie that clearly does reward repeated viewings.

       
  5. Blake Lucas

    September 10, 2013 at 7:41 pm

    Well, I agree with both you and John. And your piece evoked the movie beautifully, Colin.

    This is one of my favorite films, Western or otherwise–and one of my three favorite Tourneurs (and the other two are in other genres), which is saying a lot. It is so beautiful to look at, as you’ve both said, and also, Tourneur’s rich style, always so subtle as you’ve noted, constantly does the best for it. I love this movie so much that even though I have it in “Classic Western Round-Up Vol. 1″ I took the opportunity very recently to get out and see a 35 print projected–the only time I’ve seen it that way since first seeing it on a mid-50s reissue and it was a real treat. As you’ve both said, it stands up to repeated viewings. I’d say many repeated viewings–I know I will never be tired of it.

    I may have commented before that although the 1950s is the peak of the Western, I believe the maturity of the Western begins in 1946. Perhaps the aftermath of so profound an experience as the war had something to do with this, but there is a new depth and reflectiveness coming along in the familiar narratives and it’s most evident immediately in the treatment of the making of communities as here. Even the least of the Westerns I’ve seen from that year has been interesting to me, but most of the reason I consider it key comes down to two films, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE being the other one along with this. They are both among the greatest Westerns, and each has its own individuality though some interesting affinities too, which I’ve written about before.

    You used the space you gave this very well to get over the most important things. If you had been able to write more, I’d say special consideration might be given to (as you so well describe him) “…the wonderful Hoagy Carmichael.” Not only is his character interesting within the action–kind of a dispassionate observer but also one who is part of the community and relates to the others–but he manifests so much feeling in those great songs: “Ole Buttermilk Sky” wraps up the ending on a high note and always gets all the attention, but the other three are great too–“Rogue River Valley” “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” and “Silver Saddle.” The introductory shot of Hy/Carmichael is also the one of the town as he rides in on his donkey singing and playing “Rogue River Valley” in a wonderfully graceful and complex tracking shot, one of the emblematic moments of the Western for me–it’s really sublime.

     
    • Colin

      September 10, 2013 at 8:08 pm

      Thanks Blake. I guess I ought to have spent a bit more time on Carmichael’s part but you’ve made up for my omission, and said all that’s necessary more eloquently than I could have.

      Surely there’s no doubt that the western reached its peak in the 50s, yet it was those immediate post-war years that got it all moving in the right direction. Ford, Hawks, Wellman and Tourneur all produced major works in those years, visually and thematically rich films that signaled the maturity of the genre. I think those long years of war had a profound effect on the directors, actors, writers and technicians, and the changes in their perspectives are clearly visible in what they put on the screen.

       
      • Blake Lucas

        September 11, 2013 at 8:25 pm

        Your second paragraph is very well-said. In addition to the four directors you rightly name, I believe that Raoul Walsh belongs there too, especially for COLORADO TERRITORY and PURSUED. And I’d also support RAMROD (Andre de Toth) as a major Western of those years. I note that you have covered all of these in your blog. Of course, I know we’re just tapping the surface and could name plenty of other titles worth our appreciation.

        Meantime, I hate to be careless about a character’s name. That’s “Hi Linnet” (not “Hy”) that Hoagy Carmichael plays, according to a reliable source I just consulted. I might add here that in addition to Hoagy, Frank Skinner contributes a lot musically to CANYON PASSAGE. Skinner always seems to be an underrated film composer and deserves more credit than he has had for all his good work.

         
        • Colin

          September 11, 2013 at 8:42 pm

          Absolutely. Walsh, de Toth and others were instrumental in the movement or development we’ve been talking about here. The truth is the sheer number of talented people involved in helping the genre be all that it could is enough to make your head spin.

          That’s a worthwhile point about the composer too. Steiner, Tiomkin, Korngold et al are rightly lauded for their wonderful work, but people like Skinner, Paul Sawtell, David Raksin, George Duning, David Buttolph and Alex North wrote some fine scores yet it’s only occasionally that we see them mentioned.

           
  6. Andrew

    September 12, 2013 at 6:26 am

    I bought the same dvd collection Colin, and I was stunned by the movie. Both the sets and the characters had a realism that was missing in most Westerns. Donlevy gave one of his better performances as a good man whose strengths are overwhelmed by his weaknesses, in his case a gambling addiction. However, the standout scene for me was the fight between Dana Andrews and Ward Bond. Unlike most movies of the time, where the hero had to be a better fighter than the villain, regardless of size, Andrews uses everything in the bar to beat Bond to a bloody pulp. Great, great movie, and definitely essential viewing.

     
    • Colin

      September 12, 2013 at 7:51 am

      Andrew, obviously I agree with all you say, and the bar fight is brutally realistic stuff. The film gets the mix of ingredients right all the way through, offering something for almost everyone.

       
  7. john k

    September 12, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    I totally get Blake’s point of a “growing up” of the Western in the Post-War years.
    There are a few earlier films worth mentioning. Lang’s wonderful WESTERN UNION
    gives us a standout early Randolph Scott performance as the doomed outlaw who
    in the end does the right thing and is forced to kill his no good brother.
    Though this act costs him his life he at least redeems himself. The film is an interesting
    pointer to the more complex roles Scott would play later in his career.
    Interestingly when Wellman received the original version of BUFFALO BILL (1944)
    he thought it was the most amazing script that had ever passed his way.
    It portrayed Cody as a complete charlatan. Then Wellman realised that 1944 was not the
    right time to deconstruct an American legend. A more heroic version of Cody then appeared
    in the film. Altman later gave us an alternate version in the lamentable BUFFALO BILL AND
    THE INDIANS.
    WOMAN OF THE TOWN (1943) directed by George Archainbaud is most interesting
    possibly the most realistic Bat Masterson movie of them all. Sadly the film is scuppered by
    the fatal mis-casting of Albert Dekker in the lead role. Had Randolph Scott or Joel McCrea
    played Masterson (they both did in later films) the film would at the very least be a minor
    classic. I think we all agree that the Forties produced some great Westerns and blazed many
    trails that continued into the Fifties and beyond.

     
    • Colin

      September 12, 2013 at 3:01 pm

      All this ties in with a point that I find myself coming back to time and again, and one that certain critics seem to ignore: that the western didn’t really experience a revolution at any point. Instead there is a steady evolution, a progression and development of themes and ideas that stretches from the earliest pictures right through to the present. Personally, I really like observing this process, joining up the dots if you like.

       
    • Blake Lucas

      September 12, 2013 at 6:29 pm

      John, I like all three of the movies you mention, WOMAN OF THE TOWN definitely least as I agree it could have been a lot better, and WESTERN UNION most (I’m gradually going through Lang chronologically now and looking forward to getting back to this next year). BUFFALO BILL is a very interesting Buffalo Bill movie even without the character deconstructed–Wellman is generally a presence with his Westerns though WESTWARD THE WOMEN and YELLOW SKY are much the best of them for me.

      So, of course I don’t say the genre was suddenly transformed in 1946–instead, I’d say it began to fully blossom. Of many Westerns made before, STAGECOACH is most clearly the standout, but speaking of romantic biographies, I also rate THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON as great.

      But just to be clear, I agree with what Colin says very well and plainly you do too–genres evolve and there is always something good going on and films to like, even if we acknowledge there are peak periods. The Western is absorbing going back to the earliest silents and some of the themes and motifs we prize are intimated that early too. Any struggle I’ve had with my favorite genre comes well after the 50s, maybe beginning in the checkered late 60s and 70s, though there are great Westerns then too, if not nearly so many. But I will spare everyone a lecture on decadence in art.

       
      • Colin

        September 12, 2013 at 6:44 pm

        …but speaking of romantic biographies, I also rate THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON as great.

        It’s always a pleasure for me to see some love expressed for They Died with Their Boots On. It’s been a great favorite of mine for as long as I can remember, and I wrote enthusiastically about it here some years ago when I went through all of Errol Flynn’s westerns.

         
        • Blake Lucas

          September 12, 2013 at 8:08 pm

          I read it. A wonderful piece. Your view of it is pretty much the same as mine–I love it all but it really gets great in the second half out West for just the reasons you say. The Custer here is a complex figure, even if romanticized–there is a kind of demented gleam in his eye when he talks about glory. That makes him a really fascinating hero. And I’m really glad you mention the Flynn/De Havilland farewell scene–it’s tremendously affecting, beautifully played and beautifully directed by Walsh, which supports what you say about him being as good with intimate scenes and relationships as with action, something with which I most strongly agree.

          I’d like to say I agree this is Flynn’s best movie for me because it’s certainly great enough that it could be. But for me it’s second, edged by the next Walsh/Flynn GENTLEMAN JIM, a touch more individual and also more perfect though they are both wonderful movies. Errol Flynn was always acknowledged as someone who could carry the kind of roles he played but wasn’t considered that great an actor. That’s ridiculous! How easy is it to be believable and seem so real as those kinds of characters? Let alone so charming and charismatic. Yet he was all those things. One of the great movie actors it seems to me.

           
          • Colin

            September 12, 2013 at 8:29 pm

            That final scene with Flynn and De Havilland really is something special and packs quite a punch. I remember hearing, perhaps on one of the extras on the DVD, that there’s a theory both performers gave it a little extra, as though they knew it was to be their last film together. Either way it’s incredibly affecting and if it fails to move you, then you’ve got no heart. For anyone unfamiliar with that scene, I see someone has uploaded it to YouTube:

            I think Walsh’s status as a director has grown somewhat over the years, and rightly so, but Flynn still tends to be short changed. Like most any performer, there are some indifferent films among his credits but when the material was right, and his heart was fully in the work he was doing, Flynn could be genuinely great. In the same way I’m happy to hear you state your fondness for They Died with Their Boots On, I’m delighted to see you singing Flynn’s praises & sticking up for him.

            And yes, Gentleman Jim is another example of Flynn and Walsh producing something memorable and great. The scene near the end where Ward Bond (as John L Sullivan) hands over his belt to Flynn is quite remarkable.

             
  8. john k

    September 12, 2013 at 1:42 pm

    Hi Blake,
    I saw your comments on Laura’s blog re FLIGHT NURSE but as I can only access
    that site via Google Chrome I thought I would pass on my comments here, hope Colin
    is OK with this. I have no idea where FLIGHT NURSE came from, no logos no Netflix sign- off
    but the p.q. is very good. At any rate my contact sourced it from the States.
    I enjoyed thew film very much; it’s more about relationships than being a combat film.
    There is a very heavy subtext of warning us about the evils of Communism, but I see
    this as typical of some films of that era.
    I also enjoyed your comments regarding Pine-Thomas films. It’s interesting because I watched
    CRASHOUT the other night directed by Pine-Thomas “house” director Lewis R Foster.
    (CRASHOUT is not a Pine-Thomas film BTW)
    I always thought Foster’s Westerns were pretty slack but like many directors; give them a Noir
    and they shine. CRASHOUT is top notch, I thought. I also thought Foster’s CAPTAIN CHINA
    a sort of maritime Noir was the very best of all the films Foster made for Pine-Thomas.
    I will be back on Google Chrome tomorrow so poor Colin will not have to put up with more of
    my nonsense!

     
  9. Jeff Flugel

    September 15, 2013 at 1:31 am

    Way late to comment on this one, Colin, but you did a terrific write-up here, and have convinced me to move this film (I also have that Classic Westerns Round-Up set) way up in my “too watch” queue. I’m especially intrigued to see Ward Bond in an out-and-out nasty villain role. I can imagine he’d be great in it…for all his bluster and rough edges in real life, he seemed able to convey quite a varied range of character types on screen. Looking forward to this one, I’ve never heard a bad word said about it, frankly, and it’s high time I caught up with it. And my gosh, doens’t Susan Hayward look young here!

     
    • Colin

      September 15, 2013 at 9:59 am

      Seeing as you have a copy of the movie I heartily recommend you bump it up the queue.

      Bond was incredibly versatile – I remember reviewing the new biography a while back and it just hammered home not only the sheer number of movies he made, but also the range of parts he played. He makes a fantastic villain in this movie, and comes across as genuinely menacing and dangerous.

       
  10. muriel

    October 8, 2013 at 1:00 am

    Brian Donlevy was very versatile and this is one of his best performances. “Corrupt romantic” is a great description. I always watch a movie if it has Donlevy – or Andrews – so this was a double treat.

     
    • Colin

      October 8, 2013 at 7:49 am

      Yes, I can watch Donlevy in almost anything too, he never disappoints me.

       
  11. Chris

    May 5, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    Having just watched it again recently the things I do agree with are the stunning photography and the great look of the village. It’s hard for me to recall a little place that looks this unique. Ward Bond is terrific in his role. He is bigger than everyone. He is nastier than everyone. He knows it. This does bring some trouble to town.

    The rest of it doesn’t rise to the level for me that it does for most of you. I am clearly in the minority. I love “Stars In Your Crown” as Tourneur works go but I guess I was looking for more tension between Andrews and Donlevy. Even the “girl trouble” doesn’t bring too much tension.

    One thing about a fight that happened between Bond and Andrews was at one point Bond looked like lost his eyesight. He looks in the wrong direction when Andrews is talking to him and even, if I recall, mistakes a post for Andrews. Nothing is made of it. Dig a little deeper and maybe there is something more to Bond. Then again, maybe not. It just struck me odd.

    It’s a good film but I’ll be a few steps behind the rest of you on my personal fondness for it.

     
    • Colin

      May 5, 2014 at 6:48 pm

      Chris, as far as I’m concerned, that’s OK. We can’t all respond in the same way to the same movies all the time. I appreciate your taking the time to not only watch the movie but also to articulate what did and didn’t work for you.
      Anyway, we’re in complete agreement on the effectiveness of Bond in this one.

       

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