More Than Meets The Mogwai

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Choosing Gods: Jacques Tourneur's CANYON PASSAGE (1946)

Atmospheric shadows and stylings reminiscent of Tourneur's Val Lewton period abound.
One of the greatest strengths of CANYON PASSAGE, Jacques Tourneur’s superb first western, produced by Walter Wanger for Universal Pictures in 1946, and recently released as part of Universal’s 2-disc, four film set (and sillily titled) “Western Movie Round-Up, Volume One”, is the general sense of ease and gentility in which Tourneur bestows upon the proceedings, guiding the viewer into the narrative with sparse broad strokes of the familiar givens of the genre; I’m thinking mainly of the preemptive Native American attack at the close of the cabin-raising scene and how the feud between lead Dana Andrews and perennial tough-guy Ward Bond feels loosely cordial -- at least until their strong words and flying fists lead them into a sprawling barroom brawl. Here, violence almost seems incidental, until it forcibly erupts in the last act. But even then, the film digs its heels into a treatise about due process in the makeshift courtroom sequence, with Lloyd Bridges pontificating on why he thinks a central character is a duplicitous murderer.

The film’s not heavy on preachy sentiments, though it’s privy to wearing its enchanting heart on its sleeve, but early on, even before we’re introduced to banker Brian Donlevy and his fiancée, played by a simmering Susan Hayward, Dana Andrews utters to a store owner after finishing a business transaction (fittingly, the bespectacled man doesn’t hear him):

“A man can choose his own Gods, Cornelius. Which Gods do you choose?”


Andrews may just as well have been addressing any of the residents in Jacksonville, Oregon - circa 1856 – considering the degree of ambiguity presented in each and every minor character’s freedom of choice, with the usual frontier vices of liquor and gambling and gold mining laid front and center for the picking, or more commonly, for the double-dealing. These are the omnipresent choices with which they singularly devote their lives to.



Songwriter/performer Hoagy Carmichael ambles his way through the proceedings relatively unscathed, but there’s a touching scene between he and a Native American in the aforementioned cabin-raising scene, with the latter plucking and clinically studying Hoagy’s fiddle before ripping off the strings for presumably a more practical use; a small connection between two warring races, even if Hoagy’s feelings may be temporarily hurt. Perhaps baby steps into a better understanding of one another's culture?

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