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.