Action/Adventure Drama Romance

Canyon Passage

Image result for canyon passage 1946

Between making bettered remembered films, Dana Andrews starred in an underappreciated 1946 frontier yarn made in glorious Technicolor by an extraordinarily unlikely director: Black and white film noir master Jacques Tourneur! The result is an entertaining, highly original (if blandly titled) Western: Canyon Passage.

The plot, set in mid-19th century Oregon, is not easy to summarize, which turns out to be one of the film’s virtues. Throughout there is a movie-length story thread concerning whether brave, restless entrepreneur Logan Stuart (Andrews) will marry a sweet, stay-at-home woman (Patricia Roc) or end up with the sassy, adventurous flame-haired beauty the audience knows is made for him (Susan Hayward) if only she were not engaged to his friend (Brian Donlevy). But there is much more to the film than that. It’s a slice of frontier life, told through different lenses. Indeed, the film’s highlight is an extended sequence of slight relevance to the love triangle storyline in which the pioneers raise a cabin for a newly married couple. The panoramic tale also includes subplots about the cruelty of “justice” in towns where no police or courts exist, the workings and risks of gold mining-based economic systems and how boredom leads small town dwellers to seek out destructive entertainments (e.g., egging on fistfights, engaging in compulsive gambling). Some critics found Canyon Passage too “plotty” but if you step back from the details and see it more as the story of a entire frontier community, it’s unified and not a bit overstuffed.

That style of storytelling is one sign that Tourneur clearly didn’t want to make a typical Western. Another is that the first closeup doesn’t occur until 15 minutes into the movie! Throughout the film, Tourneur keeps the camera at a distance from his stars (thereby driving producer Walter Wanger batty), which makes the audience think about the many characters in the town as a whole rather than just seeing them as background for the leads.

What makes Andrews’ commanding performance so enjoyable is the way he plays off three other talented actors. His flirty, forbidden jousting with Hayward has palpable electricity, his dedication to his flawed friend Donlevy is both inspiring and sad, and his conflict with a vicious local bully (Ward Bond) is gripping. Bond was a physical powerhouse, and his brutal character here is what Jud Fry would have been in Oklahoma! if he had regularly consumed steroids. The physical confrontation between Andrews and Bond, one of the film’s highlights, left both men bruised and in need of stitches (that’s an juicy detail in the engaging Carl Rollyson biography about Andrews that I recommended here). Other fine performances in the film are turned in by Andy Devine, Halliwell Hobbes and a then-unknown Lloyd Bridges. When such a large cast is uniformly good, you should credit the director, so hats off to Tourneur for his skill.

Whether you find this film to be outstanding or just pretty good may well turn on whether you are a fan of Hoagy Carmichael, who had an enormously successful and unique multi-decade career in Hollywood. He is primarily remembered for his music, but also acted in some movies in the 1940s and early 1950s including in the Andrews-anchored classic The Best Years of Our Lives (my favorite Carmichael role in is one of my recommendations, To Have and Have Not). Here he plays (what else?) a musically inclined shopkeeper and performs several original songs which he wrote for the movie, including Ole Buttermilk Sky and Silver Saddle. I think his music is pleasing in any event and also fits the movie particularly well, but see what you think.

British Horror/Suspense

Curse of the Demon

Director Jacques Tourneur didn’t make many movies and is largely forgotten today, but he has a cult following of which I am a part. He made horror films such as I Walked with a Zombie, film noirs such as Out of the Past, and films that exist somewhere in between, such as 1957’s suspenseful and scary Curse of the Demon.

The plot of the film pits hard-headed American psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) against sinister British cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (a deliciously malevolent yet courtly Niall McGinnis), who claims to have magical powers. Holden is investigating the mysterious death of a colleague who, like himself, was trying to debunk Karswell’s claims. Karswell tells him calmly that his colleague was destroyed by the curse of the demon, and that a similar curse has been placed on Holden and will end his life in just a few days. Holden at first laughs this threat off, but then begins to experience a series of unnerving events that cause him (and the audience) to becoming increasingly scared that the curse of the demon is real.

Night of the Demon ****½ | Wonders in the Dark

As detailed in Carl Rollyson’s first-rate biography of Dana Andrews (recommended here), this handsome, broad shouldered actor looked like he had decades of stardom ahead of him in the 1940s, but he developed a serious alcohol problem that drove his career southward before he finally got into stable recovery around 1970. In some of his scenes here, he looks a little shaky and pale and one wonders if that is acting or not, but in either case, it works perfectly as Dr. Holden begins to unravel psychologically. Peggy Cummins, who commanded the screen in another of my recommendations (Hell Drivers), is surprisingly bland here as Holden’s fellow investigator and love interest. Instead, the sparks come in the scenes between Andrews and McGinnis. Their debates about science versus superstition are among the highlights of this film (The photo above is from my favorite such scene, which Tourneur brilliantly set at a children’s party in which Karswell is wearing a clownish magician’s costume).

As you would expect for Tourneur, there are lots of noirish visual touches, including abundant shadows and deep focus shots of people walking alone down empty corridors and streets. It all works perfectly to maximize emotional tension in this classic chiller.

This film is sometimes entitled “Night of the Demon” and sometimes “Curse of the Demon” depending on whether you’ve got hold of a US or UK print. In any event, the thing to ensure is that you have the full 95 minute version and not one of the chopped up shorter prints that are around.

N.B. Spoiler Alert, stop reading here you haven’t seen the film. Tourneur was unhappy with how unambiguously the final version of the film makes clear that the demon was real. He wanted to show the demon either not at all or so quickly that the movie would not take a clear position on whether there was such a creature or whether it only existed in the minds of its victims (A conclusion echoed in Andrews’ final line in the film about how it’s better not to know whether there was such a creature). But Tourneur was overruled by the producers, who took control of the two demon scenes on the film. In the final scene, Tourneur had clearly set up the smoky, clacking train to be the cue that convinced Karswell that the demon was after him, and the (not bad for the time) demon effects are now superimposed on that. Note also in the first appearance of the demon, the demon is not necessary to the death that occurs, so again Tourneur had set up everything to keep the demon’s existence ambiguous. Whether it would have worked better Tourneur’s way is a matter for debate. I suspect it would have been a very good, hair-raising film either way.