Jacques Tourneur’s Technicolor Western: A Review Of ‘Canyon Passage’

by Rachel Bellwoar

It wouldn’t be the wilderness without mud, and it’s pouring during the opening credits of Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage. The first Western — and color picture —  from the director of Cat People and War-Gods of the Deep, Canyon Passage isn’t always realistic (see how unruffled Susan Hayward looks after riding on horseback for days) but it doesn’t glamourize the Old West or downplay how harsh frontier living can be.

It doesn’t make the romances easy to stomach either. Dana Andrews is Logan, a restless cowboy who’s both the brooding bad boy and the person the town can depend on in a jam. Sent to pick-up Lucy (Hayward) by her fiancé, George (Brian Donlevy), it’s clear there’s some history there, but it’s more like a fact than something undeniable based off their chemistry.
For all of the hints that Lucy and Logan are meant to be together, George and Lucy make more sense, but that could be because of Travis Banton‘s costumes, too. While Lucy never complains about having to rough it, she never dresses for the elements, and it makes her appear above the work, even when she does it.
Donlevy is fascinating as the unambitious snob, George. He’s unapologetic, and completely uninterested in changing. Why Logan is loyal to him is anyone’s guess, but George has every reason to see Logan as a threat. There’s even a scene where Logan calls him out for being a bad kisser, then proceeds to demonstrate the right way with Lucy. In most films this would be the point when George slugged him (even if he invited the kiss on himself), but this isn’t a serious love triangle and George lets it go.
Singer Hoagy Carmichael wrote four songs for the movie (including “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song). His character, Hi, is an enigmatic presence throughout the film; riding his donkey and always being around when something important happens. Even when he’s not there, his voice can usually be heard singing in the background.
Toby Roan provides the commentary track for Kino Lorber’s new Blu-Ray release. While his focus runs a little heavy on the actors and their backgrounds, he also touches on Tourneur’s choice to suggest violence rather than show it. Those suggestions are not the same across the movie, however, and that’s what makes this film so curious. At first, Tourneur cuts away before anything happens, leaving it uncertain whether an attack occurred or not. Then the Indian raids start and suddenly people are getting killed all over the place. Not every death is shown, but enough are, and what the film spares viewers in blood, it doesn’t spare them in shots of tomahawks being raised and lowered.
Usually being known in the movies gets you protected, but not in Canyon Passage. Many of the victims are familiar faces and it’s no easier to watch when they’re not. If some Westerns play on nostalgia, this film makes you glad not to have lived through the 19th century.
Written by Ernst Pascal, and based on a novel by Ernst Haycox, Canyon Passage is available on Blu-Ray from Kino Lorber.

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