Jacques Tourneur is one of those filmmakers who was perhaps wasted by ‘Studio Hollywood’. He made some excellent films and some less good ones but nearly all show an understanding of techniques, a real imagination and a great feel for composing and choreographing scenes. Nightfall is a shortish feature (78 mins) adapted from a David Goodis novel by Stirling Silliphant. That’s a good starting point. Goodis was a noir novelist, arguably as well-known in France as the US, perhaps even more so with adaptations by Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960) as well as René Clement and Jean-Jacques Beineix. Silliphant was a prolific writer for TV and cinema from the 1950s until the 1980s, mainly for ‘tough guy’ action narratives. Nightfall was the first of his film scripts and the casting adds to the feel of the film which would sit well with some of his 1970s scripts. Aldo Ray is a distinctive figure and he is matched by Brian Keith as the lead villain, although Rudy Bond as the almost psychotic ‘Red’ eclipses Keith at times. The surprise for me was Anne Bancroft who had been appearing in films and TV for five years already, but this is the first role of hers that I’ve noticed and she is very good, even if underused in what is primarily a male action picture.
The set-up is classic film noir with Jim Vanning (Aldo Ray) introduced to us as a man perusing newspapers on a street corner in Los Angeles. It’s one of those long newsstands with papers from every major city in the US. When the cashier turns on the overhead lights as dusk approaches, the sudden brightness seems to really disturb Jim. A man asks him for a light and starts up a conversation before heading off to catch a bus. Jim goes into a bar-diner on the corner and meets a young woman, Marie (Bancroft). She wheedles $5 out of him and then they have a drink and he buys her dinner. In a parallel cut we see the man who caught the bus arrive home to meet his wife. Does he know Jim? Outside the bar Jim and Marie part and immediately two men bundle Jim into a car. Who are they? Was Marie set up to trap him? What has Jim done? It’s a brilliant start to a narrative and in a short while we’ll get a flashback that reveals the incident in which the wholly innocent Jim found himself caught up in the kind of story that only a noir writer could devise.
Without describing the plot outline in detail, I’ll just point out that Jim was on an innocent trip to the hills in winter when he became involved with a pair of violent men. Fortunately Jim escaped and by chance discovered the men had left a briefcase of money. Jim hid the money and went into hiding. But now he has been found by both the two violent men and the third man – an investigator tracking the stolen money. The narrative is clearly going to return to the hills and it will become a matter of who gets there first and finds the hidden money. We know Marie must be involved further because she is a leading player. Other than that it’s all up for grabs.
There has been some discussion about the film as to the noir label. I’m certainly not a purist in these matters. The night-time opening sequence certainly suggests noir. The sequences in the snow in the hills might seem less so but there are certainly precedents in, for example, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1949) in which a ‘disturbed’ cop (Robert Ryan) and an angry father (Ward Bond) hunt for a young man across the snowy hills. There are also some parallels with Tourneur’s own classic noir, Out of the Past (1947) – including a scene where two urban heavies turn up in the peaceful mountain community where Jeff (Robert Mitchum) is trying to escape his past. And in turn we wonder if Marie will prove to be a femme fatale like Jane Greer’s Kathy in Out of the Past. Paranoia (and terror) can be represented in snowy and sunny landscapes just as it can in dark urban streets.
Jeff has been in the forces but he makes his living as a commercial artist which is an interesting idea for an actor as physically distinct as Aldo Ray. (Ray was best known for military roles.) Similarly, Ms Bancroft is a respectable fashion model and one of the film’s showpiece sequences is a fashion show in the open terrace of a famous LA department store watched by the two heavies and an anxious Jim Vanning. This sequence feels ‘modern’ – in fact the whole film seems to have moved on from the earlier noir world – though the slight story doesn’t have the complexity of some of the major 1950s noirs. But what it does have is the suspense and paranoia. Another reference might be Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953) – two men on a fishing trip who inadvertently give a lift to a serial killer. There is also something of the same realist feel of Lupino’s films shot around LA. Overall the film is lean and mean. The closing sequence has been controversial and I won’t spoil it but the reference here might be a ‘looking forward’ to crime thrillers which bring city violence into the agrarian community like the later films North by Northwest (1959) with its crop duster plane chasing Cary Grant and Prime Cut (1972) with its chase featuring a combined harvester. Other films which have some of the same flavour include Kiss Me Deadly (1955) – Ray has a similar presence to Ralph Meeker and Anne Bancroft even looks a little similar to maxine Cooper who played Mike Hammer’s secretary Velda. Nightfall features some excellent camerawork by Columbia house lensman Burnett Guffey who was well versed in noirish crime thrillers (e.g. Human Desire 1954 and the Ida Lupino-produced Private Hell 36 (1954)). I enjoyed the film very much and would recommend it. Anne Bancroft is a revelation and Aldo Ray’s casting works for me. Nightfall can easily be found online but I watched the Blu-ray from Arrow in the UK which includes analysis by Philip Kemp and other contributors less familiar to me, but each offers something extra on a film that deserves to be re-discovered. I hope to feature more of Jacques Tourneur’s work on the blog, so watch this space.
Here’s the scene where Jim meets Marie for the first time.
The oddly-titled Canyon Passage is currently available online via MUBI UK. I chose to watch it, intrigued by a Technicolor Western from 1946. I’d never heard of the title before but with Jacques Tourneur at the helm and a starry cast it looked like a good bet. It was indeed entertaining and also intriguing in suggesting inspirations for later films. The title is odd because ‘canyon’ makes me think of the dry South West and this story is set in the much wetter North West, specifically inland from Portland, Oregon in the 1850s. (‘Canyon’, Wikipedia tells me, simply means a ravine or gorge and could be in the Rockies.) It’s still an odd title though since it says very little about the film’s narrative.
Logan (Dana Andrews) is a store-owner and muleteer who services the mining settlements in the interior. His aim is to control the passage of people and goods in the region. However, he appears to be caught up in two love triangles. The most important of the two involves Lucy (Susan Hayward) and Logan’s close friend George Camrose (Brian Donlevy) who is a gold agent with an unfortunate gambling addiction. With Lucy likely to marry George, Logan is encouraged to court a young visiting English woman (Patricia Roc) – but she’s also attracted to Logan’s employee, Vane. This might be enough plot for a romance, but Canyon Passage also features a rogue character, ‘Honey’ Bragg (a very aggressive Ward Bond) who targets Logan. Though the settlement of Jacksonville appears well-established, it is still subject to attacks by the local Native Americans who are enraged by some of the actions of the settlers. The cast list also includes three other names familiar to me. The singer Hoagy Carmichael wanders through many scenes in Jacksonville, commenting on events with an appropriate song and making crucial plot interventions. Lloyd Bridges plays the unofficial leader of the local miners and Andy Devine is a settler who has established a staging post – a stopping place on Logan’s trading route. He is also hosting the English woman.
Tourneur manages to pack an enormous amount of plot into 91 minutes. He does this deftly and makes use of superb location footage of the Cascades and his cinematographer, the veteran Edward Cronjager often uses long shots to frame groups rather than close-ups to feature the stars. The complex plot points at different moments to distinct sub-genres of the Western. Canyon Passage is a ‘frontier Western’ located before the Civil War when the frontier is still being contested by Native Americans. It’s a ‘settlement Western’ with time spent on the building of the settlement and an extensive ‘raising’ of a new homestead sequence in which the whole community builds a house for a couple about to be married. It’s also a ‘mining Western’/’mountain Western’ focusing on the potential stories of gold prospecting, saloon bars and gambling. Most of all, this is a narrative in which friendships are tested and harsh decisions related to community and survival have to be made. Overall, it seems to me that this is impressive story-telling.
Canyon Passage was adapted from a novel by Ernest Haycox originally serialised in The Saturday Evening Post in 1945. Haycox was an extremely prolific and popular writer who was born in Portland. He wrote both short stories and novels and two different serial novels appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s at the same time in 1943. Haycox has been credited in helping to raise the status of Western stories and two of his stories were adapted for John Ford’s Stagecoach and Cecil B De Mille’s Union Pacific (both 1939). Canyon Passage was a Walter Wanger production with a large budget of $2.6 million. Wanger was a major figure in Studio Hollywood becoming a leading producer, sometimes independent but also working under contract at various studios. Susan Hayward was the star he contracted and she would become an award-winning actor in Wanger’s later ‘social issue’ films. Canyon Passage was made at Universal, one of the two ‘mini-majors’ not well-known for larger budgets or for Technicolor at this point. The studio had a long-term relationship with the Rank Organisation in the UK (Rank was actually a bigger studio than Universal in 1946 and had owned a 25% stake in the company since 1936). This explains why Patricia Roc is ‘introduced’ in Canyon Passage as part of a deal to bring US stars to the UK. Roc would have had some US recognition because of the furore surrounding The Wicked Lady (1945) which was ‘unrated’ for US distribution. Her part in Canyon Passage is relatively small and she looks out of place (which is reasonable as the character is meant to be English) – largely ‘ornamental’ and no match for Susan Hayward’s vivacity. As a Rank loanee she joined Margaret Lockwood and later Phyllis Calvert who also made trips to Hollywood.
Dana Andrews was reaching the high point of his stardom in 1946 (the year of Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives – which also featured Hoagy Carmichael). His status had been established by Preminger’s Laura in 1944. I hadn’t thought of Andrews as a Western star but in fact he had several supporting roles in Westerns in the early 1940s. In Canyon Passage he is a strong, confident figure who exudes authority and strength of character and his relationship with Donlevy’s character is believable.
Canyon Passage was by all accounts a successful and popular picture, although the high production budget meant it wasn’t particularly profitable. What struck me most was how much it made me think of later films. I wonder if it influenced Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971)? The use of the setting, the songs that seem to comment on the narrative and the English woman – a far more successful import in the form of Julie Christie. I was also intrigued when I realised that ‘Logan’ is also the name of the Sterling Hayden character in Johnny Guitar (1954) and that ‘McIver’ is the name of a miner who is murdered in Canyon Passage and turns up again as the name of Ward Bond’s blustering character in Johnny Guitar. Several commentators have suggested that perhaps Peter Weir was familiar with the house-raising scene when he made Witness (1982). These scenes are impressive and the log cabins and stone fireplaces made me think of Ford’s The Searchers (1956) as well as his earlier Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). The presence of Andy Devine and Ward Bond also invokes Ford.
I enjoyed Canyon Passage and it confirmed for me the skills and artistic vision of Jacques Tourneur. This was his first Western and first film in colour. A year later he made Out of the Past, often cited as the peak of film noir and one of my favourite films. The clip below from the film’s premiere in Portland gives a flavour of the Hollywood publicity machine in 1946.
A Blu-ray of the film was released in the UK (Region B) by the Scottish company Panamint in 2016: