Copper Canyon

Do the stars of a movie need to be what we think of as genre regulars for it to a success? Back in its heyday the western attracted just about every leading player in Hollywood, some of them slotting in with ease and a number actually going on to carve out a niche for themselves within the genre. Frequently, when less familiar western stars were cast they were backed up by co-stars who had already grown accustomed to riding the cinematic range. However, Copper Canyon (1950) seems to be on of those more unusual productions where none of the three headline stars would have had a background in westerns when the movie was made. So does it succeed? I suppose it does to some extent, although you do have to wonder how much the relative inexperience of the cast hurt it.

The setting is the years following the Civil War, when the process of national healing had only just begun and the wounds remained raw. The whole plot revolves around the struggles of former Confederate miners and obstacles they are confronted with as rivals seek to drive them out of business. These men are in need of a champion, someone capable of figuratively rallying the troops and protecting them. It’s with this aim in mind that a small delegation is sent to sound out Johnny Carter (Ray Milland), a former Rebel officer who has changed his name and, in an attempt to reinvent himself, has become a trick shot artist working the saloon circuit. It is only with the greatest reluctance that he allows himself to be drawn back into conflict with anyone. But once he does the allure of saloon boss Lisa Roselle (Hedy Lamarr) and the challenge of facing down corrupt lawman Lane Travis (Macdonald Carey) are enough to keep him interested.

Copper Canyon offers few surprises  in its scripting. The story is typical fare dealing with the oppression of the little guy by the powerful, and a hero who endeavors to tip the  balance a little in the former’s favor. While this is a solid enough premise, I tend to think a touch of ambiguity can elevate such a tale into much more interesting territory. However, that’s not really offered here and so we’re left with the uneasy reconstruction angle and, to a lesser degree, the gimmick of Milland’s sharpshooting to provide a more distinctive flavor – both of which are well enough employed yet I can’t say I regard either as very compelling. On the other hand, the pacing is reasonable and director John Farrow composes some nice shots, favoring plenty of titled low-angles in the interiors. What’s more cameraman Charles Lang lights the interiors to maximize the atmosphere and captures some fine views of the Sedona locations.

As I mentioned at the start, the stars hadn’t much of a western pedigree when Copper Canyon was made. Ray Milland had a strong body of work behind him at this point and had an Oscar to his name but, with the exception of California (1947) which was also made with Farrow, he had mostly straight drama and noir roles among his credits. While he would go on to other material in the genre, notably the superior A Man Alone (1955), he was still something of a novice at this point. In a similar vein, Macdonald Carey had only made Streets of Laredo (1949) prior to this but he too would make a number of other westerns in the following years. Hedy Lamarr isn’t a woman anyone would automatically associate with the west (although that running gag in Blazing Saddles might suggest otherwise) and Copper Canyon was, aside from a few television appearances, her only foray into frontier drama. All three acquit themselves well enough, though I do wonder how contemporary audiences would have viewed that lineup. In support we do get more typical faces like Harry Carey Jr and Frank Faylen. In addition, there are parts for Mona Freeman, Peggy Knudsen and, in a truly startling red wig, the imposing figure of Hope Emerson.

Copper Canyon was a Paramount production and was released on DVD in the US by the same company years ago. Even though the disc was a bare bones affair, the transfer is quite a good one, bright and colorful with only minor damage on show. It’s a fairly entertaining movie but hardly what could be termed essential. There’s competent work from all in front of and behind the camera yet it also has to be said that all either did or would do much more memorable stuff on screen. So, let’s say it’s okay but not something you need go out of your way to see.


22 thoughts on “Copper Canyon

  1. Colin
    A found this an average duster with Ray Milland being the weakest link. The man just cannot convince me he fits into a western. I like his work in other genres but he fails to impress in westerns. Carey comes out of the film far better if you ask me, and as you say Harry Carey Jr and the bit players all are fine. Nice fair review, Colin.


    • Milland had an extremely urbane air, a sophistication that was definitely a better fit in other genres. But it is actually used quite well here and blends with the nature of his character. And while he may never have become a natural in the western, he did grow into it more in subsequent roles.


  2. I quite enjoyed this one, especially as a fan of the work ofFers with screenwriter and hardboiled crime novelist Jonathan Latimer but hard to disagree with you on this – not anybody’s finest hour but soundly entertaining.


    • It is enjoyable and well made, just not all that remarkable, in my opinion. It’s certainly not disappointing and maybe I’m reacting more to the routine aspects, which isn’t a huge criticism when you come right down to it.
      And yes, Latimer has some terrific credits, especially in the noir field, and of course a whole raft of Perry Mason episodes.


  3. Cavershamragu
    You are quite right about the work of Jonathan Latimer. He pumped out some excellent stories and screenplays for various film noir and television. Just a couple weeks ago I took in an episode of HONG KONG from 1960 that was quite entertaining. It is a noir/adventure type series with Rod Taylor headlining. The episode was called THE JADE EMPRESS.


  4. Good review. Initially, I was quite hesitant with Ray Milland in the lead in a western! However, after viewing him in Copper Canyon favorably, I subsequently got hold of some of his other westerns i.e Bugles In The Afternoon and A Man Alone. They are quite entertaining, no doubt. Best regards.


    • A Man Alone is superb, in my opinion, and deserves lots of praise. I honestly feel it would be better regarded if there were a higher quality print/transfer available. Even so, it’s still a strong piece and recommended as it stands.


  5. I must admit I had forgotten about A MAN ALONE. I did like that one, and Milland was a fair hand at directing imo. I’ve seen several of the television episodes he did and they are all quite good. One in particular stands out, DEATH WATCH 1958 from the Hitchcock produced series, “Suspicion”. It is a nifty noir thriller starring Edmond O’Brien. I believe it is up on You-Tube.



    • I quite like what I’ve seen of him as a director. He also took the reins for a pretty good episode of Thriller called Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper from a Robert Bloch story.


  6. Knowing Ray Milland was born Reginald Truscott-Jones in Wales does not make him an any more convincing western lead in a way and yet he really hooked it in “A MAN ALONE”, I think, though I have read negative reviews of that film. However, I disagree and think it a fine piece of work.

    I watched “COPPER CANYON” only recently after a very long gap and I think Sergio hits the nail on the head – ‘not anybody’s finest hour but soundly entertaining’. Quite!

    Very happy to see you reviewing in your ‘comfort zone’ again, Colin. I always enjoy us riding the high country together!!


    • For me, there’s no question about the quality of A Man Alone, a great bit of work.
      It has been a while since I featured a western – I wanted to introduce a bit more variety and then I also have preview discs from Powerhouse/Indicator coming at me regularly now and I want to write those up when I can – look out for some 70s thriller action soon,and then some fantasy material! But westerns are far from forgotten, rest assured.


  7. Been a while since I’ve seen this one but I remember liking it in general despite the cast not being “my” western favorites. I have that DVD release here on the shelf and might have to have another look. Nice choice to write about.


    • Thanks, Mike. Yes, give it another go if it’s convenient as there are things to enjoy, even the unorthodox cast which performs better than might have been expected.


    • For one reason or another I’ve never been especially taken with Carey as an actor and usually approach anything he’s in with caution. However, I reckon he’s rather good in Copper Canyon and, if you already like him, then that’s another reason to give the movie a go.


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