Canyon Passage on TCM

Jacques Tourneur’s Canyon Passage is one of the most interesting and underappreciated westerns about the frontier, the settling of the west and the communal spirit embodied in the western genre. It plays on TCM as part of the Cult Movies line-up for July and you’ll why it fits the bill: the tension between personal loyalty and the communal good and the contrast between the peaceful beauty and the savage violence of the wilderness defines the film. I write about it for the Turner Classic Movies website here.

Dana Andrews and Ward Bond: detente is about to end

On its surface, Jacques Tourneur’s first western, Canyon Passage (1946), is a solid but conventional frontier drama of ambitious entrepreneurs, determined settlers, gamblers, gold miners and Indian tribes. But under the familiar trappings of cabin raisings, poker games, saloon brawls and frontier combat is a remarkably dense drama where the tensions between individual enterprise and communal good are often strained and the line between hero and villain is not a matter of black and white, but shades of gray.

Canyon Passage isn’t one of those simple little towns laid out on the prairie around a main street with a grid, building out as the town grows, but a rough-hewn collection of businesses and saloons in a community that looks literally hacked out of the wilderness. Surrounded by emerald green forests and dramatic mountains, this is different from the more conventional communities seen in frontier westerns up to now. Jacksonville is a beautiful little town striving for maturity but caught up in the growing pains of free enterprise and new settlements in a place without a marshal or a judge. Roughneck outliers (notably a brutal bully played by Ward Bond), mob justice, and the threat of an Indian uprising are the flip side of the frontier idealism of the new settlers and established families pulling together in the face of adversity.

Read the entire feature here. Plays on Tuesday, July 20 on TCM. Also available on DVD as part of the four-film set Classic Western Round-up Vol. 1 (which also includes The Lawless Breed, The Texas Rangers and Kansas Raiders).

Classics and Curiosities from Volume 5 of The Film Noir Classic Collection

The Film Noir Classic Collection: Volume 5 (Warner)

The most famous artifacts that we have retroactively branded as film noir, from the iconic (The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity) to the cult (Gun Crazy, Kiss Me Deadly) to the rediscovered oddities and minor classics (Murder By Contract, Blast of Silence) have largely arrived on DVD but the joys of exploring this unique cinematic slice of American cinema in the shadows is discovering nuggets of lesser-known films and their own attitudes and shades of gray. This set of eight films features one bona-fide classic of the genre and one minor masterpiece of noir mood and doom.

Richard Kiley stands up to the Phenix City rackets

Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955) is one of the most hard-hitting crime films of its era, a ripped-from-the-headlines drama of a town (Phenix City, Alabama, located near an army base to serve of less savory needs of our men in uniform—booze, girls and gambling) run by the rackets, inspired by real-life events and directed in a semi-documentary style with a tabloid punch. In fact it opens with real documentary reporting (by Clete Roberts) in an arch, overlong prologue that seems designed more to justify the violence to the censors than prepare audiences for the film to follow, but it serves its purpose in reminding us that the stakes are not just movieland stories but a real community under the thumb of the rackets. To further the identification, Karlson shot the film on location in the town and included locals as extras and bit players in the cast.

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