Canyon Passage (1946) proves another exception to the rule. This is an unjustly unheralded Western, though the qualities that make it so are subtle and easy to miss. Written by Ernest Pascal, adapting Ernest Haycox's novel and directed by Jacques Tourneur, it approaches its material with more depth, intelligence, and ambiguity than nearly all big-budget Westerns from this period, and has an authenticity rare in such pictures. It's really outstanding and deserves to be better-known.
In a gold-mining settlement in rural Oregon, in 1856, freight operator and general store owner Logan Stuart (Dana Andrews) has escorted Lucy Overmire (Susan Hayward) home from Portland to her family. He's attracted to Lucy, as well as a young English homesteader, Caroline Marsh (Patricia Roc), but Lucy's already engaged to Logan's best friend, assayer George Camrose (Brian Donlevy), who has been skimming gold dust from depositors to cover his gambling losses.
Logan, meanwhile, is himself in debt, forever trying to expand his business in the ever-expanding community, and also must contend with local psychopath Honey Bragg (Ward Bond, genuinely menacing). Bragg has it in for Logan, who believes Bragg has already murdered two miners.
Much of the film contrasts the hard-working, ambitious Logan with gambling addict George, who dreams of luxuries he can't afford, places he'll never visit. The crooked nightly card games cardsharp Jack Lestrade (Onslow Stevens) hosts send George spiraling deeper and deeper into debt, making him more and more desperate to cover his losses. Logan steps in to give him $2,000 to pay off his debts, money George immediately loses to Lestrade. And even though he's already engaged to Lucy, George can't help but long for Lestrade's wife, Marta (Rose Hobart), who rightly regard him as a three-time loser. Local troubadour Hi Linnet (Hoagy Carmichael) spots George stealing gold, while Indians, already unhappy by settlers encroaching upon their lands, are on the warpath after Bragg rapes and murders one of their women.
The above description does little to suggest just how good Canyon Passage is. For starters it doesn't look like the usual Western. The settlers live in a town built on a hillside - no backlot street here. Out of town, they wander dense forests full of brush and heavy shade rather than clean-cut picturesque valleys. It's still raw country with few well-worn trails; Logan's freight business relies on pack mules to brings supplies in as a stage would never make it. Portland, meanwhile, is introduced under the opening titles drenched in pissing rain, horses barely able to move down its mud-filled main street. It's the West deglamorized to McCabe & Mrs. Miller extremes, and anything but the usual ‘40s Technicolor Western.
If you watch a lot of Westerns, one can usually read precisely what direction the plot's moving by the end of the first reel. Not so here. The casting of Brian Donlevy, for instance, suggests he'll be playing the suave best friend-turned-ruthless-killer, but that's not really the case here. His gambling addiction is portrayed realistically, and (spoilers) even though he does eventually resort to murder, his character comes off as pitiful yet sympathetic, a loser trying to dig his way out of a hole unaware that he's only digging deeper and deeper. Dana Andrews's hero isn't perfect, holding his fellow townsfolk in contempt for their bloodthirsty interests in wanting to see Logan beat Bragg to a pulp. Yet by not killing the madman when he has the chance, Bragg's later actions only result in avoidable tragedy. Even lovable troubadour Hi Linnit is morally ambiguous, a real charmer singing and playing his mandolin but it's also his obsessive nosiness that seals George's fate. (Carmichael's songs are uniquely charming, a far cry from the usual Sons of the Pioneers-type song breaks. These are better integrated and his tunes awfully catchy.)
The movie continuously surprises. A big barroom brawl between Logan and Bragg plays out nothing like the usual Western. When Logan smashes a whiskey bottle over Bragg's head, the wound bleeds like mad. At this, Bragg becomes so disoriented that when he takes a full-on swing at Logan, he smashes his fist into a post, crushing his hand. And the movie eschews the kind of dreamy, lofty speeches about "the land" and the Manifest Destiny. Instead, Logan realistically argues with his clerk (Halliwell Hobbes) about his finances, and the wisdom of investing in 20 more pack mules.
The movie introduces many likeable characters, especially Ben Dance (Andy Devine), his wife (Dorothy Peterson) and their children (played by Devine's real-life kids), and young newlyweds for whom the town holds a day-long cabin-raising. Yet when the Indians attack the settlement they don't discriminate between likeable and unlikeable characters (even infants are murdered) or scalp victims in reverse-billing order. Indeed, the Indian raids are if not graphic then shockingly brutal nonetheless, among the most disturbing this side of The Searchers.
Thanks to Tourneur's fine direction, in spite of all the loss and tragedy Canyon Passage is hopeful. By the end the settlers have lost almost everything, including fathers, brothers, husbands and wives, but they're of sturdy stock and anything but materialistic. Surveying their burnt-out shops and homes, all they can do is shrug and determine to start again. That the movie makes it believable is one of its many strengths while turning these pioneers into real, if flawed, heroes.
Video & Audio
Licensed from Universal, Kino's Blu-ray of Canyon Passage sources what appears to be a composite negative. Colors are often vivid and the alignment is good throughout, but the film looks a bit brownish at times, with yellowish greens. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is strong for what it is. Optional English subtitles are included on this region "A" encoded.
Supplements are limited to a trailer and a new audio commentary by Toby Roan, which is fact-filled but at times feels like he's checking off credit lists down to the tiniest uncredited bit player. For those less familiar with this stuff, however, it's certainly packed with info.
A most welcome release and something of a revelation, Canyon Passage is one of the best Westerns of its kind and a DVD Talk Collectors Series recommendation.