Canyon Passage

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Western;
$24.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dana Andrews, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, Ward Bond, Hoagy Carmichael, Patricia Roc, Lloyd Bridges.

So it’s sometime in the mid-late 1960s, and one of the local TV stations was giving my adolescent self his first chance to see Canyon Passage, a Walter Wanger-Jacques Tourneur Western that sounds as if it has a lot going for it even beyond its status as a generously budgeted undertaking by Universal Pictures in 1946 — shortly before the merger that transformed the studio into Universal-International for close to 17 years. I notice that an unexpected curiosity in Passage’s fairly pressure-packed cast is brilliant songwriter, surprisingly engaging singer and sometimes actor Hoagy Carmichael, which inspires the broadcast’s host to ask during one of the commercial breaks (yes, kids, this is how they did it until the dawn of the 1980s), if anyone knows which Carmichael movie was the one where he sang the Oscar-nominated “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” which was among his best compositions.

That’s the setup. Later, my host came back sheepishly to admit that just as it said in the opening credits, Carmichael sang it in this one — though in a way, he could be forgiven. Here’s a song that ended up going No. 2 Billboard for Hoagy himself and No. 1 for Kay Kyser (a super-catchy rendition with future talk show host Mike Douglas as vocalist). Even so, the movie throws it away just before the end credits roll. I’m going through all this because it’s indicative of an impressively budgeted production that always seems to be a little “off,” though you can make a case that some may regard its idiosyncrasies as a plus. Plus, in addition, as noted, it has a lot of ‘A’-list components.

Set in pre-Civil War Oregon amid a settlement that’s pretty isolated even by Northwest standards of the day, Passage was, I think, only the second Technicolor Western Universal made following the previous year’s Frontier Gal. That one was no more ambitious than the usual Rod Cameron picture, but Passage had no lack of casting cred (note the actors listed up top here); Edward Cronjager (Heaven Can Wait, The Gang’s All Here and Desert Fury) behind the Technicolor camera; Ernest (Stagecoach) Haycox providing the original literary source; and director Tourneur taking his first stab at color in any genre between his black-and-white masterpieces of Cat People and Out of the Past. Of course, the visual component meant nothing on early ’60s TV showings because mass purchasing of color sets was a couple years off, and stations weren’t yet even running color prints. Thus, this Kino Lorber release makes for a fairly stunning visual experience, though you can’t tell at first because the opening shot is set of muddy streets during a monsoon.

Dana Andrews is the lead, from during that remarkable three-year run in which he also starred in Laura, State Fair, Otto Preminger’s Fallen Angel, A Walk in the Sun (if you like), The Best Years of Our Lives, Boomerang! and Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon. More interested in conquering the new frontier financially than getting serious about romance despite his definitely enjoying the company of women, he’s part of a situation that we don’t usually see in Westerns, at least as a major subplot: the inability of its protagonist to decide which comely lass in the territory (there’s more than one) he might want to wed, despite not exactly being awash in passion. The same is true of the women as well, which can sometimes threaten to induce viewer whiplash.

Andrews’ ostensible sweetheart is played by Patricia Roc, a major screen star in Britain seen here in her only Hollywood film, though she did reunite with Tourneur back home a few years later for the sleeper Circle of Danger, opposite Ray Milland. Though she and Andrews seem to have an “agreement” of some sort, he also has a repressed attraction to buddy Brian Donlevy’s semi-betrothed (Susan Hayward), who is much more obvious about a yen that’s more obviously reciprocated, though she mostly maintains decorum. Adding further complications are: a) a younger man in town who’s really crazy about Roc; and b) the fact that Donlevy is a very flawed and self-destructive character, albeit one of some sympathy. This is the kind of role underrated Donlevy knew how to play, though he could also do through villainy (Oscar-nominated for Beau Geste); comedy (The Great McGinty); military brass (Command Decision and playing Gen. Leslie Groves in The Beginning or the End) — all top an array of Westerns and sci-fi, some of it memorable. To say nothing of The Big Combo (now, there’s a movie).

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This is a mining boom town, and Donlevy is kind of a banker of the miners’ gold holdings, shelling out crystal dust (same as money) to customers whenever they need it for day-to-day expenses or reveling. But because he’s in heavy gambling debt to the town’s professional gambler, Donlevy has started filching a little here in there from the bags left in his care, and you know that’s not going to have a happy ending. Meanwhile, we have Ward Bond playing the town’s utter slug — one so lacking in a single virtue that I sensed that Blu-ray commentator Toby Roan (who knows Westerns as well as anyone) couldn’t get over it. Yet Bond was such a great actor despite having the most odious politics in Hollywood that the character seems real and not a cartoon stereotype.

He and Andrews have longtime bad history, and the entire town (not just the local goons) keeping egging them on to settle things with a fist-fighting so they can place bets for pure entertainment — not unlike the way the Irish villagers do during the John Wayne-Victor McLaglen climax to John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The only one above all this is Carmichael’s town songbird on a mule; has there been a bigger market for them, he could have cornered the market on all Ichabod Crane parts. When the two adversaries finally do mix it up big-time, the result is one of the most brutal brawls I’ve ever seen in a vintage movie; Roan says that that both actors needed stitches at its conclusion, and I can believe it. The other major issue is attacking Indians (more often than, egged on by worthless whites), and Bond naturally has to be a major catalyst here as well.

According to Roan, Wanger and Tourneur had diametrically opposed ideas on the movie’s tone: producer Wanger wanted more emphasis on punched-up characters, while Tourneur (who won out) preferred distancing the story to make it more about the land and the era. Roan thinks Tourneur was right, but I don’t agree because that approach makes the picture just chilly enough to make it highly watchable but without that ultimate oomph that enables it to break from the historical pack.

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Not too many years later, Andrews’ heroic battle with alcohol started hurting the quality and certainly budgets of his pictures— intermittently at first and then permanently, though some cult movies remained here and there including his Tourneur reunion on Night of the Demon. By the time the actor reunited with Hayward on 1949 for My Foolish Heart, he still commanded top billing, but she’s the one who got an Oscar nomination (her second since Passage). Life comes at you fast in terms of Hollywood careers, something that’s never changed and still true today. For a while, at least, Andrews came pretty close to being a superstar.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Beau Brummell’ and ‘Canyon Passage’

 

Trapped

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Flicker Alley;
Drama;
$34.99 Blu-ray/DVD;
Not rated.
Stars Lloyd Bridges, Barbara Payton, John Hoyt.

For a tawdry, if seductively so, minor melodrama that director Richard Fleischer apparently didn’t even mention in his memoirs despite early-career finesse with noir, Trapped is full of what genre enthusiasts, at least, would count as curio compensations. At very least, for any academic who’s thinking of penning a thesis on Lloyd Bridges’ versatility or at least adaptability, this resourceful cheapie is from the actor’s early malevolent period that was and still is 20,000 fathoms away from “Sea Hunt,” the syndicated ’50s TV series in which Bridges spurred a lot more boomer males to don flipper footwear than Dustin Hoffman later did in The Graduate. And an even further distance away from Airplane!, though that’s something you can say about most movies.

Also for starters, it’s another in the delectable run of Eagle-Lion’s semi-documentary procedurals — all from the late ’40s, all touting the arduous crime-busting work of government agents and a film cycle generally more identified with Anthony Mann, who had a few more features on his resumé at the time than Fleischer but was roughly at the same point in his career. Both before and after, Fleischer made quite a B-noir name for himself ay RKO, though I never quite figured where the filmmakers’ girl-and-her-dog Banjo fit into the same-era equation.

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As for Eagle-Lion’s brand of noir, you know the drill: We begin with a government insignia on screen, followed by an on-screen real-life official or stolid actor/narrator (usually Reed Hadley but sometimes, as here, a Hadley wannabe) who talks up government worker cooperation as a key to apprehending felonious slugs. In this case, it’s the Secret Service pursuing counterfeiters, often with the benefit of location shooting because Eagle-Lion lacked cavernous sound stages — something that turned out to be a then-and-now bonus when it captured locales that now exist in different form. Trapped, however, is the only one of this ilk to feature Barbara Payton, which certainly makes it unique on the casting level (noir follow-up Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, which teamed her memorably with the immediately post-White Heat James Cagney, was a much higher-profile Warner Bros. release).

Trapped was, in fact, Payton’s de facto screen debut, and despite the fact that she became the all-time poster child for how to deep-six your career in a blink with outlandish off-camera behavior, it shouldn’t be forgotten that she could really act and that the viewer’s eye (at least in 1949 and ’50, her presto/paput prime) automatically gravitated toward her whenever she entered a scene. I don’t think anyone was going to cast her in some new version of Vanity Fair, but in terms of film noir, she could play with the big kids. And in this case, she’s seen in cigarette-girl garb that almost looks tailored to her precise specifications — one that further helps attract an elderly nightclub patron who’s perceived to be a high roller (John Hoyt). All of this makes boyfriend Bridges jealous over the attraction.

But he’s also pragmatic. Bridges is just out of what Cagney used to term “the stir” — though the deal for his release has been predicated on his willingness to track down long unseen plates used to counterfeit money and to which he may still have access. We can’t tell at first whether Bridges is really going to go along with this all the way or eventually go rogue, but in any event, he thinks Hoyt’s green can give him what in a mining Western would be called a grubstake to operate. Unfortunately, the so-called associates with whom Bridges left the plates during his long visit to the Hotel Slammer aren’t what President Trump used to call “all the right people.” They operate like someone Tonya Harding’s husband might hire for a kneecap caper, except that they snivel too much.

Eventually, Bridges does go rogue, and there’s another surprise as well, which sets up a showcase for the actor to display a nasty side that pretty well defined his early screen career, something of which my childhood self was unaware of for a while. I remember as a kid watching him in “Sea Hunt” and then having my eyebrows raised by seeing how two-faced he was with hero Gary Cooper in High Noon the first time I saw it in 1959. This was quickly followed that same year by a viewing of Bridges’ truly psychotic turn in 1950’s Try and Get Me, a supremely powerful chunk of nastiness that the deservedly esteemed Alan Rode references a couple times on this Blu-ray’s commentary as culmination of Bridges’ persona in Trapped.

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His character here is definitely hot on the trigger, and there’s a convincing and not un-lengthy indoor fight scene involving Bridges that hasn’t too many edits and looks pretty close to the real deal. He’s a real presence here, and a lot of gas goes out of the picture when he basically disappears for filmmaking reasons that remain unclear. When the film showed on Turner Classic Movies a couple months ago, host Eddie (“Czar of Noir”) Muller could only speculate that Bridges might have caught a bad cold, an educated guess repeated by Rode here. Tightfisted Bryan Foy was Trapped’s producer, and he was just the kind of guy to barge on through with the cutting and pasting to make a bad-break vehicle “play” — somehow.

The mention of Muller and Rode (plus Flicker Alley as the Blu-ray distributor) is a tip-off that Trapped is the latest restored movie orphan by the dual godsends of their Film Noir foundation and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, which leads to one of the most important additional reasons the picture is of interest. I won’t say that the existing 16mm prints of the film were eyesores for the ages, but sometimes I wonder if they were responsible for my eventually needing cataract surgery. It was on the Foundation’s “wish list” without much hope of fulfillment until someone mentioned a pretty decent 35mm print that had been deposited at Harvard (presumably not in an archival Barbara Payton Collection). There are still blemishes to be seen, but the result is pretty stunning in before-and-after examples — the way that Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour was in Criterion’s release of it last year. The latter starred Tom Neal, and if you know your Neal-Payton movie history, well … that’s another story and one of mutual destruction.

Rode’s commentary partner is the luminous Julie Kirgo — a good pairing (let’s see more) and the source of the factoid that Trapped didn’t even make Fleischer’s autobiography, which I’ve had in galleys for decades now but have never read (she says it’s one of the best). Also included along with Flicker Alley’s typically high-grade packaging — the quality of paper used for photo and poster reproductions is gloss-Y — is an interview with son Mark Fleischer, who seems like a good guy, plus a production look-back featuring Muller and more. Throughout, we catch tantalizing glimpses of L.A. geography from a long-gone time, as in The Man Who Cheated Himself (which previously got Film Foundation treatment), Without Warning and Kiss Me Deadly, to name three.

After a rough period with HUAC where he semi-cooperated, and not happily, with the Blacklist, Bridges kept at it with steady employment, most of it in TV, and became a steady working-actor while not doing too badly in the father department. Hailing from Cloquet, Minn., the same town as Jessica Lange, Payton didn’t have the same caliber of JL’s career or anything close. It’s well known that she descended into boozing and even prostitution before dying at 39, but in an attempt to be at least a little upbeat here, there’s a definite amusement factor thinking about her showing up on the Paramount lot amid a fling with the serially unfaithful Bob Hope (double standard here?) and spurring one of the studio’s two biggest stars to put out frantic emergency word to bar her from the lot. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this led to Dolores Hope, an early grad of the Camille Cosby School of Public Denial, to build an extra wing at the mansion to supplement any others as places of primary residence. (“But I just wanna say …”)

Mike’s Picks: ‘Holiday’ and ‘Trapped’

Moonrise

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Criterion;
Drama;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dane Clark, Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore, Allyn Joslyn, Rex Ingram, Lloyd Bridges. 

Frank Borzage’s Moonrise marks a milestone of sorts, albeit one that’s beyond arcane, as the first movie from Republic Pictures to appear under the Criterion banner. Of course, Olive Films has its own deal with that long defunct studio’s quirkily lovable library, which is currently under control of Paramount — meaning that the John Ford Republics, Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar and Orson Welles’s Macbeth have already gone the high-def route, to name a few goodies that otherwise might have merited Criterion treatment. And yes, it’s true: Republic may have been the premier home of ‘B’-Westerns and the entire Vera Ralston oeuvre — and had it not been for that magnificently perched eagle that became its logo, Rod Cameron probably wouldn’t have had the career standing to land a gig recording those snicker-bait radio spots for 4-Way Cold Tablets that regaled my early adolescent self around 1960. But the studio raked in a lot of cash during World War II, and in the postwar period, it occasionally got ambitious.

Even though Borzage was only in his mid-50s in 1948, his glory days were behind him — though the days had been pretty glorious, to be sure. He’d won the first Oscar for direction (7th Heaven) and soon followed it with a second (Bad Girl, which now looks like a voting stretch). But even in the ’30s through 1940, he could claim the Gary Cooper-Helen Hayes A Farewell to Arms (whose rep has improved over the years), Man’s Castle, Little Man, What Now?, History Is Made at Night, Three Comrades and The Mortal Storm (hey, that’s a hell of a list). By post-1940, however, Borzage was basically working under a for-hire banner and on less impressive projects, and his first two Republics hadn’t made a ripple, though I’ve Always Loved You was ambitious (if stillborn), and the studio even sprung for three-strip Technicolor when shooting. (On Criterion’s bonus interview, Borzage biographer Herve Dumont says Loved You was Republic’s only release filmed in that process, though The Quiet Man not only was, but also got its year’s color Oscar — and Herbert Wilcox’s super-strange Laughing Anne was Technicolor as well).

Borzage was one of the screen’s great romantics (possibly even the romantic), which may help explain why third-outing Moonrise in 1948 wasn’t popular at the time nor even particularly well received, despite having film noir trappings at a time when noir was in its heyday. The picture certainly isn’t soft-boiled but might leave some liquid residue if you dropped it on the floor — a lousy metaphor, actually, because I do like a lot of it, even if I can’t quite go all the way. Its opening, though, is superb, as a condemned prisoner is led to his execution — setting up his son for a life of preordained doom, much of it in his mind. Dane Clark, who’d been a back-bench John Garfield at mutual studio Warner Bros., has the role — just as Clark was coming off the best role and movie of his career playing a not dissimilar character in Jean Negulesco’s underappreciated Deep Valley opposite one of Ida Lupino’s very best performances.

Clark’s tortured Moonrise protagonist may be bringing some of his problems on himself — but still, it’s a marshy rural community, and his adolescent peers don’t let him forget his heritage when they’re growing up. Worst of his tormentors is the banker’s son (Lloyd Bridges), who’s quickly dispatched to that great country club in the sky after a brutal fight with his less privileged lifelong adversary. At this point, Clark becomes a fugitive of sorts despite still hanging around town, always looking over his shoulder. The woman who has attracted both men is an essentially innocent schoolteacher, though one who rather surprisingly manages to keep her job despite repeatedly being caught in compromising situations, or at least ones that look that way. Gail Russell plays her, and the tragic actress’s haunted demeanor makes the movie for me. As one of the disc’s two bonus interviewees notes (longtime film historian Peter Cowie is the other one, appearing with Dumont), you can’t watch melancholy Moonrise without thinking of Russell’s fate: severe alcoholism brought on by grinding it out in a profession that she basically didn’t like on her way to death at 36).

Borzage is great at emotional milieu, and this is quite the mood piece — despite, or possibly because, the entire film was shot on a set. Per his preference, this helped the director control the light — note that Charles Lang had gotten the cinematography Oscar for A Farewell to Arms —and I have to say that it’s a thrill seeing what a 1948 Republic can look like when its bountiful shadows rate 4K Criterion treatment. The cinematographer was John D. Russell, not to be confused with actor John Russell (later of TV’s “Lawman”), who appeared in a slew of Republics. John D. is best known for his work on “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and for having shot the only Hitchcock feature from Strangers on a Train through Marnie not photographed by Robert Burks (Psycho) because Hitch wanted that much more twisted variation on The Accidental Tourist to have a rawer and less studied look. Or, to put it another way — given that Psycho’s cosmetics suggest the sickest ’50s TV show ever — Russell could turn in quality work on a speedy schedule and modest budgets, which was the Republic way.

Allyn Joslyn plays what must be the kindliest Southern sheriff ever seen on screen, a nice turn by an actor who never got his due (think of his role here, as the prig in Lubitsch’s magnificent Heaven Can Wait and in the amusing ‘B’ “Thin Man” knockoffs at Columbia with Evelyn Keyes). Rex Ingram, long sprung from the genie’s bottle in The Thief of Bagdad, has one of the meatiest roles for a black actor from the era — a shack-dweller who offers the burg’s wisest sage advice, though I have to say that the screenplay pours it on here, and you half-fear that Ingram will suddenly break into “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” (And if I read it right, he also seems to be excusing sexual aggression or worse against an unwilling party). Even Ethel Barrymore has a scene late in the picture, as Clark kin.

The ending is too rose-colored for my taste — like it or not, this was the Borzage way — but I’m still with most of the rest, thanks primarily to Russell (Gail), the photographic mood and resonant individual shots. I first saw Moonrise in either ’70 or ’71 when I was in NYU’s Graduate School of Cinema — courtesy of William K. Everson’s personal print (he was an admirer of the film, as was Andrew Sarris, if you read The American Cinema). Whatever else one can say, there’s a hallucinatory image here during a rainy auto trip after a group outing at a (dirt) roadhouse — one that has remained vividly with me for five decades and one that still delivers the creepy goods. Real Carnival of Souls stuff, I’d say, just speaking off the top of my head — but in any event, it’s not one you get everyday.

Mike’s Picks: ‘No Down Payment’ and ‘Moonrise’