Tourneur on Top

My favorite film noir remains Out of the Past directed by Jacques Tourneur, a versatile artist behind the camera who was also responsible for the scary Cat People and Night of the Demon, high adventures (The Flame and the Arrow, Anne of the Indies), thought-provoking dramas (The Leopard Man, Stars in My Crown), and distinctive westerns (Wichita, Canyon Passage).

While most of Tourneur’s best films were atmospheric black-and-white pictures, the gorgeous scenery of Canyon Passage got the full color treatment it deserved. A good portion of the location shooting was done in the Medford and Diamond Lake area of Oregon. Those color films of the 1940s loved redheads like Rhonda Fleming so in Canyon Passage Susan Hayward’s radiant tresses got much exposure in both the outdoor and interior scenes and the camera also dwells on Patricia Roc’s auburn locks in one of her final scenes with Dana Andrews who plays hero Logan Stuart.

Tourneur’s penchant for pricking the imaginations of viewers (made famous in the long walk and pool sequences of Cat People) is present in Canyon Passage as he stages deaths of significant characters off-screen. George Camrose (Brian Donleavy), a banker who had been paying gambling debts by stealing gold dust entrusted to him, fears the worst when drunken depositor McIver returns to town one night and will be withdrawing his gold the next day. Twice the camera dwells on George with his face turned left toward McIver and friends as the audience studies how the only way out for the desperate banker fixes in his mind. The murder of McIver is not shown so there is a shadow of a doubt when George is found guilty by a kangaroo court. After Logan frees George from a makeshift jail and gives him a gun, the hunting down and killing of the escaped man is simply reported by Johnny (Lloyd Bridges) as he returns Logan’s gun.

Even the real villain of the film, Honey Bragg (Ward Bond), is not shown committing his most dastardly deed or dying horrendously as he deserved. After spotting an Indian girl swimming in the woods, all that is suggested is a slight smile of lust on his face and her terrified paddling away from his leer. His act of murdering (and possibly raping) the girl is given as the cause for the Indian uprising that results in the death of settlers and the burning of homes. The slaughter of women during this sequence is hidden behind wagons or hedges. When a handful of Indians finally corral Bragg and bring him down in the distance, his violent end is suggested when a brave victoriously raises an arm that presumably holds the scalp of the dead Bragg.

Hoagy Carmichael, who plays Hi Linnet, a nosy and colorful character who strums a mandolin and sings portions of four songs, offers a few stanzas of the Oscar-nominated best song “Ole Buttermilk Sky” at the end. “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” perhaps Carmichael’s best-known song after “Stardust,” became a standard in his repertoire when Hoagy visited radio shows like The Jack Benny Program and The Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy Show.

Out of the Past was Tourneur’s next film after Canyon Passage so a case could be made that the director was right at his peak in the post-war years.


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