Canyon Passage - Jacques Tourneur's Passage from Darkness

A restless businessman always seeking new challenges, a feckless banker facing ruin, and two beautiful women torn between these two, plus the conflict between migrants and the indigenous peoples, could easily describe a tale of political turmoil! Instead these are the ingredients for one of the great Westerns, Canyon Passage, based on The Saturday Evening Post novel by Ernest Haycox.

Set in 1850s Oregon Territory, with horsepower and wagons the vehicles of business long before the iron horse or even the rickety stagecoach were to revolutionise transport, Jacques Tourneur portrays the life of the early settlers in the stunning scenery of Oregon, with a fast-paced feast of action and romance.

Jacques Tourneur, fresh from his success directing some of Val Lewton's stylish gothic horror films such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie was not the first choice to direct Canyon Passage. Robert Siodmark, Stuart Heisler and George Marshall were all in producer Walter Wanger's sights, before Tourneur was given his first Western and Technicolor film. Shooting began around Diamond Lake and Medford, Oregon in August 1945.

Much of the filming was new territory for Tourneur.  A second unit, unusual for Tourneur, directed by Charles Barton was employed, mainly for the house-raising, but was also for some action scenes. Tourneur said of this decision:  “I’ve always fought second units. Whenever I have any control at all I just don’t have them.”

Walter Wanger kept a close eye on production, concerned that the film would be brought in on budget, and became concerned about the lack of closeups:  “ … Looks very good with exception lack of closeups of leads which necessary to carry story. Without closeups Technicolor looks like scenic …” he wired Tourneur.  To cinematographer Edward Cronjager, he also wired: “Quality excellent however very worried about lack of closeups of leads as we are losing story points.”  Wanger expanded on these comments saying that more closeups were needed in Technicolor  than black and white so that characters and expressions don’t fade into the background, losing scenery and story points.

Tourneur replied: “Will have so many closeups of cast in studio interiors and street for seventy five percent of story so we will all be glad of relief of medium shots in the few exteriors we do have. Aside from that I disapprove of closeups except when I reach story points.”

After Tourneur made some concessions to Wanger, at least one of which, a scene with Dana Andrews and Ward Bond, ended up on the cutting room floor, filming progressed.

Much of Canyon Passage is told in Tourneur’s gothic  imagery.  Night scenes abound with wonderfully lit Technicolor photography by Cronjager.  Violence is Implied:  George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) marches menacingly to the river, about to drown a miner whose gold dust he has pilfered; The brutal Honey Bragg (Ward Bond) conveniently falls behind a log to be scalped by an Indian; a mound of straw conceals the killing of a young mother, trying to escape from Indians with her baby - a raised tomahawk-wielding hand says enough.

Perhaps because Canyon Passage does not conform to the format audiences had come to expect from the Western it has languished as one of Tourneur's neglected masterpieces. It is said that there are only a handful of plots in classical opera. The same could be said of the horse opera: a man seeking his father's murderer; seeking revenge for a wife murdered or taken by Indians; mistaken identity; conflict between cattle and sheep, water rights and incoming settlers. Canyon Passage has none of these but is a story of communities trying to establish themselves in a dangerous land where lawlessness is rife and justice takes the form of kangaroo courts.

Dana Andrews is Logan Stuart running a store and freight business in Jacksonville using trains of mules and is eager to see his name on the first stagecoaches when they arrive in the territory. Ostensibly in love with Patricia Roc's English rose, his thoughts seem never far away from Lucy Overmire, played by Susan Hayward. Lucy is planning to marry banker George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), who is dangerously addicted to gambling. Supporting his habit by dipping into gold dust which miners have entrusted to his bank, Donlevy plays a feckless, if amiable, character far removed from his usual heavy.

The settings of the film are caressed by the beautiful photography of one of Hollywood's finest, Edward Cronjager, and Frank Skinner's uplifting score. Hi Linnet (Hoagy Carmichael) wanders through the proceedings as a kind of musical anchor, with sage asides and four wonderful songs performed with Mandy, his mandolin.

Ever on the move, Logan Stuart, with the women he loves, rides off on another adventure, not-so-closely followed on his mule by Hi Linnet singing the film’s only Oscar nomination, Ole Buttermilk Sky. Trailing behind the cantering couple, Hi turns back as the film ends.

Will Logan Stuart … and you’ll have to watch the film to find out who the lucky girl is … achieve happiness and fulfilment? Well, let’s hope their journey like Jacques Tourneur’s first Western is a Passage from Darkness!

Canyon Passage is now available on Blu-ray.