CANYON PASSAGE—-superior Oregon-set western did fairly well in 1946, then settled into the memory trough: welcome rediscovery sees it getting long-overdue appreciation. Known for his touch at setting enveloping mood and atmosphere in a variety of genres, director Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, Out Of The Past, Night Of The Demon) brings his palette outdoors and into Technicolor. With a well-crafted story, a fine cast and a rich, beautiful look, he and his crew deliver an ace hand, a winner that improves with each viewing.
1856, the Oregon Territory. ‘Logan Stuart’ (Dana Andrews) hopes to extend his freight line from his prospering store in the rough-hewn community of Jacksonville. He safely brings ‘Lucy Overmire’ (Susan Hayward) through the woods from Portland’s sea of mud to her fiancee, his best friend ‘George Camrose’ (Brian Donlevy). Though Logan and Lucy have an obvious attraction to each other, she’s committed to George and Logan’s engaged to another. Relationships are strained, as George is too weak to resist his gambling habit and a continually troublesome local bully sets off a disastrous conflict with the regions Indians.
Adapted by Ernest Pascal from the novel by the prolific western scribe Ernest Haycox, the script allows for deeper than usual shades to the characters mix of motivations and desires, strengths and weaknesses; this extends to the many secondary characters as well. Along with careful detailing in sets and costumes, the restrained acting and sensitive staging from Tourneur makes for a vivid tapestry of period, place and personalities.
Cinematographer Edward Cronjager was set to task on location, doing a splendid job capturing the lush and enveloping woods and cool lakes of Oregon, a welcome contrast to the usual wide open plains and parched deserts associated with the genre. Andrews level-headed hero is played in just the right low key, Donlevy likewise convincing as someone who can’t best his impulses, and fast-rising Hayward, 28, is ebullient but not over-much: the actress would later chew scenery to smithereens, but she keeps it in check here. Besides the three stars, also noteworthy in support are Hoagy Carmichael, as ‘Hi Linnet’, a laid-back amateur philosopher/minstrel, and Ward Bond, as the vicious ‘Honey Bragg’–he and Andrews have a bloody fight that’s startlingly brutal for the day. The action scenes with the rampaging area tribe are likewise unsparing. Drama, suspense, romance, humor, community, tragedy: the story packs it all in to 92 minutes, but it never feels forced. Veteran Oregonians will enjoy the scenery along with getting some smiles over how local geography gets arranged to suit the moviemakers rather than maps.
BRAGG: “What do you have against me?” LOGAN: “You ought to know.” BRAGG: “You’re talking in riddles, Logan. What’s in your mind?” LOGAN: “A picture of tree – with you swingin’ from it.”
Carmichael’s airy git-along song “Ole Buttermilk Sky” ranked an Oscar nomination. Produced by Walter Wanger for $2,624,000, box office results came in at $4,264,000, 37th place among the crop from 1946. *
With good work from Andy Devine (and his two young sons!), Patricia Roc (popular in Britain, this was her only American film), Lloyd Bridges (in his troublemaker stage), Rose Hobart, Fay Holden, Stanley Ridges, Halliwell Hobbes, Onslow Stevens, Ray Teal, Peter Whitney, Frank Ferguson.
* Americana on screen that year—The Best Years Of Our Lives (also with Andrews and Carmichael), Duel In The Sun, The Jolson Story, The Yearling, Song Of The South, The Harvey Girls, Smoky, It’s A Wonderful Life, My Darling Clementine, The Virginian.