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Canyon Passage

Canyon Passage(1946)

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On its surface, Jacques Tourneur's first western, Canyon Passage (1946), is a solid but conventional frontier drama of ambitious entrepreneurs, determined settlers, gamblers, gold miners and Indian tribes. But under the familiar trappings of cabin raisings, poker games, saloon brawls and frontier combat is a remarkably dense drama where the tensions between individual enterprise and communal good are often strained and the line between hero and villain is not a matter of black and white, but shades of gray.

Set in the Oregon territory in 1856, a time when the city of Portland is merely a growing boom town with streets so muddy they're more like creek beds, and adapted from the novel by Ernest Haycox (whose western fiction also became the basis for John Ford's Stagecoach [1939] and Cecil B. DeMille's Union Pacific [1939], among many other films), the story travels out of the "city" into a more untamed land, a small settlement in the inland mountains. Dana Andrews is Logan Stuart, who runs a thriving freight business with strings of pack mules and horses, the only conveyance through the passes and forest trails. After a business trip to Portland he escorts Lucy (Susan Hayward), the fiance of his best friend George (Brian Donlevy), through the beautiful but dangerous mountain trails back to Jacksonville. These three form a romantic triangle of sorts, but Tourneur avoids the emotional melodrama of friends-turned-rivals to offer a more measured portrait of friendship tangled up in jealousy and competition, and loyalty that trumps everything.

Canyon Passage isn't one of those simple little town laid out on the prairie around a main street with a grid, building out as the town grows but a rough-hewn collection of businesses and saloons in a community that looks literally hacked out of the wilderness. Surrounded by emerald green forests and dramatic mountains, this is different from the more conventional communities seen in frontier westerns up to now. Jacksonville is a beautiful little town striving for maturity but caught up in the growing pains of free enterprise and new settlements in a place without a marshal or a judge. Roughneck outliers (notably a brutal bully played by Ward Bond), mob justice, and the threat of an Indian uprising are the flip side of the frontier idealism of the new settlers and established families pulling together in the face of adversity.

Through it all rides Hi Linnet (Hoagy Carmichael), the laid-back proprietor of a small trading post and the town's troubadour who offers a wry commentary on the drama playing out. Though not exactly the town's conscience, he is a man to speak his mind and say his piece in every situation. And while he manages to miss all the heavy lifting in a cabin-raising for a young couple (which culminates in their wedding), Hi arrives in time to enjoy the banquet, lead the band and, when the celebration is invaded by the local tribe upset at yet another white settlement in their hunting grounds, defuse tensions with quick thinking. The film, quite unexpectedly, acknowledges the threat that the growing community of settlers poses to the original inhabitants of the land (as well as the threat they pose to the white settlers), and those tensions finally snap when Bond's backwoods thug sets off a war between them.

A lavish color film with a $2.6 million budget and a sturdy cast, Canyon Passage was a major production for producer Walter Wanger, a former independent producer now working for Universal. Along with Dana Andrews (fresh off The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946), Brian Donlevy and rising star Susan Hayward are such supporting players as Hoagy Carmichael (who also wrote and performed four songs for the film, including the Oscar®-nominated "Ole Buttermilk Sky") and John Ford favorites Ward Bond and Andy Devine.

Jacques Tourneur was not Wanger's first choice for director - Stuart Heisler and George Marshall, two western veterans, were both attached before Tourneur was signed. Canyon Passage was not only Tourneur's first western, it was his first color film and the biggest budget of his career up to that point. The son of respected French director Maurice Tourneur, Jacques apprenticed in Hollywood on short subjects and B-movies before making his name directing some of the moodiest and most stylish horror films of the forties - among them Cat People [1942] and I Walked with a Zombie [1943]. He made the most of this new opportunity, capturing stunning outdoor scenes during a month-long shoot on location around Diamond Lake and Medford, Oregon and putting the lush color, stunning forests and dynamic mountain backdrops on screen. The bucolic shots of homesteads on lazy rivers or overlooking green meadows are contrasted with shadowy forest scenes, where ambushes and hunting parties lurk amidst the wild majesty of the landscape. Tourneur suggests rather than shows the most brutal violence, but he reminds us of the cost of settlement in human terms when some of the most beloved members of the community are killed in the attacks.

Producer Wanger fought with Tourneur over the director's pictorial approach to the film, which emphasizes group shots and characters within the landscape, and repeatedly asked for more close-ups. It was a star vehicle, as far as Wanger was concerned, as well as a story of the settling of the west and the frontier spirit. Tourneur delivered a much more complex story about the tensions between individualism and communal good and the ambiguities of the heroes who settled the west, where personal loyalty at times collides with the communal good. It became Wanger's most successful post-war film, according to biographer Matthew Bernstein, but the frustrations of working within the studio system proved too great for the producer and he left Universal, bringing his new star, Susan Hayward, with him. Tourneur went back to RKO to direct one of the masterpieces of film noir and arguably the greatest film of his career: Out of the Past [1947]. Canyon Passage has too often been overlooked in the face of his defining horror classics and films noir. It remains one of his most interesting and satisfying films: complex, visually stunning and full of characters with rough edges and contradictions. No black hats and white hats in this western, just the colors of the new world.

Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Screenplay: Ernest Haycox (adapted from the Saturday Evening Post novel "Canyon Passage")
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Art Direction: John B. Goodman, Richard H. Riedel
Music: Frank Skinner (uncredited)
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Cast: Dana Andrews (Logan Stuart), Brian Donlevy (George Camrose), Susan Hayward (Lucy Overmire), Patricia Roc (Caroline Marsh), Ward Bond (Honey Bragg), Hoagy Carmichael (Hi Linnet), Fay Holden (Mrs. Overmire), Stanley Ridges (Jonas Overmire), Lloyd Bridges (Johnny Steele), Andy Devine (Ben Dance).
C-91m.

by Sean Axmaker

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