[17 June 2014]
Canyon Passage, Jacques Tourneur’s first Technicolor movie, begins with a lovely yet dour postcard scene that becomes a tone poem: rain pouring over the muddy streets and wooden buildings of a 1856 Portland, Oregon, with three-masted ships in the background harbor as a lone horsebacked figure weaves his tiny way into the town.
Our soaking protagonist is Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews), who runs a transport business by mule (an appropriate symbol for his character) in the mining town of Jacksonville. His friend is banker George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), an untrustworthy gambler who’s pressing to marry Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward), although he’d prefer to run away with another man’s wife, the dark and stony Marta Lestrade (Rose Hobart), whose husband believes “the human race is a horrible mistake”. It’s clear that Lucy might be happier with Logan, but he’s set on an English rose named Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), who’s eyed from afar by yet another thwarted lover, Vane Blazier (Victor Cutler).
The fatal friendship between Logan and George is one of the most mysterious elements in this movie. Their glances seem always to be transacting their relationship through Lucy, with George twice daring Logan to see if he can “do better” at kissing her—which he does. In another movie—in fact, in a thousand others—this romantic rivalry would test and break their friendship until one man formally turned over the female property to the better man, but here it functions more to prove their friendship.
Ultimately, their relationship will end for reasons grounded in their very loyalty, as Logan explains that his desire to help George’s gambling debts is “something deeper than reason”. When Logan asks George why he broke his promise about gambling, the latter can only offer that he was tempted by “the devil with green eyes—envy. Envy of you, Logan.”
In theory, the film’s a western. In practice, it feels more like Americana, as founded on a subtle, incidental, expansive script by Ernest Pascal from Ernest Haycox’s novel. Not much happens for most of the movie except the image of a small community peopled by many figures who enter and exit the frame and the narrative in a complex web of relations, uttering philosophical remarks like “The illusion of peace is upon it” (George) and “A man can choose his own gods” (Logan). All this to-ing and fro-ing is shot by Edward Cronjager in Technicolor arrangements that show off Tourneur’s often stunning pictorialism. If we’re not staring at vistas of mountains, lakes, and forest, we’re luxuriating in interiors of many colors, tones, and textures.
Logan is defined several times as restless, and his problem is his resistance to becoming a part of the community. He doesn’t resist civil projects like building new homes, but he refuses to join the town’s self-governing rituals of violence and justice. He insists on giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, and ironically, this trust is always misplaced. He is directly or indirectly responsible for all the narrative’s problems, because everything he does or doesn’t do, every decision he makes, ultimately brings trouble on his head. He only spares his life (at great cost) by finally participating in communal catharsis and doing something he should have done before the movie started.
Among many simmering elements are issues with local Indians. In an early scene that plays like a visual haiku, a lone Indian with a rifle rides on horseback in a graceful swivel-shot through the forest. Uneasy rumours spread about recent killings, though Logan has his own theory about these. One homesteading woman (Dorothy Peterson) refers to the Indians as “rogue beasters” or “red beasters”.
Her husband, Ben Dance (Andy Devine), sums up the problem simply: “Well, it’s their land, and we’re on it, and they don’t forget it.” Now that he’s here, however, he intends to defend his home as his fort, and he reckons it’ll be all right “unless some medicine man stirs them up or some white cuss starts something.”
The latter is what happens, in the form of Honey Bragg (Ward Bond, arresting and terrifying), who’s been responsible for the murder of miners as blamed on Indians. He finally triggers the climactic rampage by killing an Indian girl after he comes upon the maidens swimming in bikinis and headbands. Meanwhile, the shirtless braves don’t look like they get out much. The Indians are the least authentic element in the movie, since they exist as a plot device: a natural force that sweeps equally over the just and the unjust, a whirlwind called up by Logan’s sticky principals.
The central act is the spoiled catharsis of Logan’s barroom brawl with Bragg, an event defined as required by the town. “The town won’t have it any other way,” says the local wise fool. Even the women look on with glee (peeking through the windows) at one of the most shockingly brutal fights of any Forties western, and Lucy demands to know why Logan didn’t kill him. Logan spits out that he’s sorry to deprive them of their fun. The town, as embodied by hardheaded spokesman Johnny Steel (Lloyd Bridges), wants the fight for a deeper reason than entertainment, however, and Logan’s refusal to bow to this collective primacy will reap the aforementioned whirlwind.
As harsh as the fight is, Tourneur looks away from half of it, paying as much attention to the onlookers. Tourneur and Pascal skip over all the story’s pivotal moments of violence, letting them happen offscreen or only at a great distance in contrast with the landscape. On one hand, this soothes the Production Code. On the other, it makes the violence all the more disturbing while serving Tourneur’s artistic instincts. The humans are contextualized by the forces shaping them as much as they try to shape those forces with their mining and their logging and their house-raising shindigs.
As local trader Hi Linnet (what rich names!), the always welcome Hoagy Carmichael rides through the proceedings on a mule while strumming Mandy, his mandolin, and singing songs like the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky”. He’s the troubador, fool, observer, and explainer, a three-way link between the main characters, the town’s chorus, and the viewer. You practically expect him to turn toward the camera and start narrating.
In his introduction to Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (1998), Martin Scorcese says Canyon Passage is very special to him, “one of the most mysterious and exquisite examples of the western genre ever made”. Fujiwara calls it “another of Tourneur’s neglected masterpieces and one of the greatest westerns”. Scorcese points out that the film has no plains or deserts, and Fujiwara that it conforms to none of the standard western models: revenge story, journey story, outlaw story, cavalry story, “nor primarily a story in which the hero tames the town or accomplishes some difficult feat”.
Rather, it’s about the underlying themes usually taken for granted in westerns: “the cohesion of the community; the conflict between its values and those of the individual; the defects of frontier justice; the psychological and social meaning of the westward trajectory”.
One of Fujiwara’s most valuable elements is research into records on production. In this case, he finds that illustrious producer Walter Wanger was initially bothered by the lack of closeups, which he felt were essential. Tourneur sent a telegram reading in part: “I disapprove of closeups except when I reach story points.” Fujiwara notes that he finally filmed the particular closeups Wanger demanded, but they’re not in the final film after all.
One mystery to me is why famous art director Alexander Golitzen has an associate producer credit on this highly visual movie. He received this credit on three of Wanger’s Technicolor productions of 1945-46, but Golitzen is also the credited art director on the other two films and not this one. What does it mean? Certainly this film is designed, indoors and out, to a magnificent and bountiful fare-thee-well.
Canyon Passage is one of four titles in Universal’s 2007 DVD set Classic Western Round-Up, Vol. 1. The same set was later reissued as a volume of 4 Movie Marathon: Western Collection in 2011.