An atmospheric Western, almost a noir. Whilst watching it, I asked myself ‘is it still possible to watch Westerns today’? Here, ‘Indians’ are treated with more sympathy than usual. Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), with his lack of ethics and rampant desires, is the real villain of the piece. But we still see the natives as barbaric, anonymous, and vengefully mowing down beautiful blonde women with adorable babies. If one can put that to the side, and the film is unusual in giving the natives cause — this is a retaliation — or abstract it into symbolism that can stand for something else, Canyon Passage offers deep pleasures of composition and lighting, a world where the sublime natural beauty of Oregon’s mountains, forests and rivers is at the same time a shadowy backdrop to all-too human failings: doubt, desire, greed, want, weakness. Dana Andrews, looking like a sourer version of Mel Gibson in his youth, plays the hero, Logan Stuart. Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) is who he ends up with. Brian Donlevy plays George Camrose, the genial but morally weak friend who keeps getting the hero in trouble. I’d never seen Hoagy Carmichael in colour before and he looks unusually handsome warbling his tunes. A very blond Lloyd Bridges is surprisingly lithe and sexy as a moral anchor of dubious reliability. Patricia Roc is Susan Haward’s rival for Dana’s affections. They all play a game of ‘want vs should’ in beautiful world so wild and densely forested that even the light that manages to seep through is itself the source of a shadows. It’s a world filled with danger, death, and in which moral dilemmas get played out in turn by each of the protagonists in ways that shape their fate. ‘. This can now be seen in a glisteningly gorgeous print on MUBI.
In an incisive introduction to Chris Fujiwarara´s excellent Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall (London: McFarlane and Compnay, 1998), Martin Scorcese writes,
Tourneur was an artist of atmospheres. For many directors, an atmosphere is something that is ‘established´, setting the stage for the action to follow. For Tourneur it is the movie, and each of his films boasts a distinctive atmosphere, with a profound sensitivity to light and shadows, and a very unusual relationship between characters and environment — the way people move through space in Tourneur movies, the way they simply handle objects, is always special, different from other films….Canyon Passage (is) an example of the short-lived but very interesting sub-genre of the ´noir western´and a picture that´s very special to me. It´s one of the most mysterious and exquisite examples of the the western genre ever made. When you think of ´westerns´you immediately picture the plains or the desert , vast spaces that stretch on and for miles. But this film, Tourneur´s first in color, is set in a small town in the mountains of Oregon, and it is lush, green, muted, and rainy (one of the first scenes in the movie shows the cramped main street of Portland turned into a muddy bog by a downpour). Even the open spaces in this movie are just small clearings. If you study Canyon Passage carefully you´ll see that Tourneur constantly composes diagonally into small spaces, showing people walking up or down inclines, and it gives you the feeling that this is a real settler´s town….There are some beautiful set pieces in Canyon Passage like the Indian attack and the barnraising, but the overall tone is so carefully controlled that every small variation or nuance has an impact. That´s what makes Tourneur´s films so unsettling, this strange undercurrent that runs through every scene but that somehow enhances the dramatic impact of the whole film.