Canyon Passage starts out strange. Dana Andrews shows up in 1850s Portland (Oregon) and, after some character establishing, fends off someone breaking into his room. It got me thinking later if the unseen event leading up to the intruder is actually the film’s dramatic vehicle, the event setting off the action. Because Canyon Passage is an odd narrative. The film’s presented, in its first act, as an unfolding exploration of the characters’ situations. Andrews and Susan Hayward introduce the viewer to the film’s setting, to the lives and hardships of the supporting cast.
But Canyon Passage keeps an even tone throughout, never hinting at its action-oriented conclusion. Most of it is straight drama as Andrews romances Patricia Roc to the dismay of both Victor Cutler and Hayward. Hayward’s engaged to Andrews’s best friend, played by Brian Donlevy, however. Those last two sentences suggest Canyon Passage is something of a soap opera, but it isn’t at all. The attraction between Hayward and Andrews is gradually and gently developed; the film’s focus is far more on the friendship between Andrews and Donlevy.
I’d forgotten Jacques Tourneur directed Canyon Passage until the opening titles, and given his noir-heavy 1940s filmography, it seemed like an odd fit. But the complicated friendship between Donlevy and Andrews–Andrews’s feelings of responsibility, Donlevy’s resentment at Andrews having to be the response one due to his success–is really at the film’s center. Sort of.
The problem with identifying Passage‘s central focus is how little it has of one. Just like I was trying to identify narrative features, I was also trying to figure out some kind of rule for the film’s scenes–as in, who has to be in the scene for it to be a scene. Andrews disappears for a little while once his romance with Roc is established, with Donlevy and his gambling addiction taking over (the consideration given to Donlevy’s character, who’s basically just weak-willed, is incredibly sensitive and also sets Passage apart). But there’s little rhyme and reason to who gets a scene and who doesn’t–it’s probably something as simple as the source novel focusing on more of the supporting cast and adapting their salient scenes, but the film suggests it isn’t. It suggests a certain lyricism to its unfolding events.
The acting is all spectacular. Andrews plays the conflicted leading man better than anyone and his muted attraction to Hayward, present but clouded from their first scene, is fantastic. Hayward’s great too, with her reciprocal attraction being more of a complicated narrative development. Donlevy’s best scenes are probably when he’s on his own (Donlevy’s always seems more a leading man, even when he’s not the protagonist)–but his scenes with Andrews are singular. The supporting cast–Andy Devine, Hoagy Carmichael and Lloyd Bridges, in particular–are excellent. As the villain, Ward Bond is terrifying. Bond plays him with a mix of evil and stupidity–the stupidity making the evil even more scary.
Tourneur’s direction is great–only during the big travel scene in the first act does the editing get choppy, otherwise Tourneur’s got lots of good coverage. The film shot on location in Oregon and it shows (though Crater Lake isn’t as close to Jacksonville as the film suggests). Edward Cronjager’s Technicolor cinematography is beautiful.
And it doesn’t hurt Carmichael contributes some songs either.
The film starts solid, but just gets better and better. It’s great.